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Date: Sat, 15 Jan 2005 21:59:42 +1000 From: Louisa Willoughby Subject: Maintaining a Minority Language: A Case Study of Hispanic Teenagers
AUTHORS: Gibbons, John; Ramirez, Elizabeth Grace TITLE: Maintaining a Minority Language SUBTITLE: A Case Study of Hispanic Teenagers SERIES: Multilingual Matters PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters YEAR: 2004
In this important study, Gibbons and Ramirez survey 106 Hispanic teenagers living in Sydney in order to investigate what factors lead to second generation immigrants developing high level proficiency in their parents' language. As such it asks three main questions: what constitutes high level proficiency in Spanish (and how can we measure it), to what degree do Spanish-speaking teens in Sydney appear to have acquired this proficiency, and what social and institutional factors appear to correlate with high level proficiency? These questions make "Maintaining a Minority Language" a book for language testers and educators as much as for those working on language maintenance and shift, and one which gives valuable insights to both fields. Importantly too, authors take seriously the question of what can be done to aid the acquisition of Spanish, and particular higher level Spanish, in a minority context and provides numerous practical suggestions for parents, educators and policy makers to help promote language maintenance among the second and subsequent generations.
The volume consists of eight chapters, including an introduction and conclusion. The first brief chapter introduces the study, giving an overview of why solid biliteracy plays an important role in language maintenance before outlining the sampling procedure and basic demographics of Gibbons and Ramirez sample.
Chapter two "Language Proficiency" discusses the issue of academic language proficiency in much more depth. The chapter begins by outlining the features of academic English in some detail, and then compares them to academic Spanish by means of a close analysis of texts from Hispanic and English school text books aimed at both primary and secondary students. This close analysis of textbooks not only demonstrate ways in which conventions of academic Spanish differ from those of academic English (particularly the different roles nominalisation plays in the two languages) but also explores the way academic language varies between the more junior and senior textbooks. This understanding of basic and more advanced features of academic Spanish is then used to guide the development of the cloze tests discussed in more detail in Chapter three.
Chapter three "Measuring Proficiency" essentially outlines the methodology used in this study. As Gibbons and Ramirez developed a unique methodology for this project, involving C-tests, an oral proficiency test based on informal conversation and cloze texts based on texts from age- appropriate Hispanic school texts, the section should be of great interest to those working in the areas of language testing and assessment. A particular strength of this methodology is that the C-test and cloze tests were also administered to a group of similarly-aged Spanish native speakers in Santiago, allowing results from the Sydney tests group to be discussed in terms of age-appropriate development, rather than simply in terms of grammaticality. The section also provides a very basic overview of results, illustrating the differences in scores from students in Sydney and those in Santiago, as well as outlining correlations between the different measures – such as the correlation between high scores for appropriate accent in the oral test, and strong performance on the C test.
The first half of Chapter four, "The societal", focuses on the wider environment, outlining the status and demographic of Spanish in Australia before moving on to a more detailed analysis of the place of Spanish in education and the media in Sydney. The second half of the chapter looks specifically at the role of societal variables in determining interviewees scores on the proficiency tests, specifically addressing the influence of age, sex, parental education and parental occupation. The Santiago sample is also analysed in terms of parental occupation and education. Perhaps surprisingly, the authors find no significant correlation between language proficiency and measures of Socio-Economic Status (SES) in the Sydney, concluding that in the minority context contact with other speakers or media in the ethnic language become the crucial variables and far outweigh the effect of classic sociological variables such as gender or parental occupation.
Chapter five "Interpersonal Contact" explores the effect of social networks on participants' Spanish language proficiency scores. The chapter begins with an overview of the application of social network theory to linguistic research and introduces Milroy's (1980) methods for measuring the strength of network ties between people. Following Milroy (1980) and Li (1994), the authors distinguish between 'strong', 'weak' and 'passive' network ties. Strong ties involve regular and meaningful social contact, whereas weak ties develop between acquaintances, and passive ties are formed between emotionally close but geographically distant friends and relatives. The bulk of this chapter concentrates on the role of strong network ties in promoting Spanish proficiency, by examining the degree participants speak Spanish with a range of relatives and close friends, and charting the correlations between using Spanish with certain people and scores on the various proficiency tests. In particular it found that speaking Spanish with the mother correlates strongly with high scores for correct use of idiom in the oral test, while speaking Spanish with the mother, an older sibling or a cousin correlated reasonably well with high scores on all aspects of the oral test and the C test, but do not have a predictable impact on the cloze test results. The role of weak and passive network ties in promoting Spanish proficiency is also examined, however only weak correlations are found, leading the authors to conclude that it only strong network ties exert real influence on language proficiency.
Chapter six "Education, Media Use and Literacy" focuses on the degree to which participants engage in Spanish educational and media opportunities in Sydney, and the influence this engagement has on higher level Spanish proficiency. As part of this analysis, the authors first consider what constitutes biliteracy, and the degree to which literacy skills are transferable from one language to another. Discussion of education finds that attendance at Sydney's Spanish Saturday schools can improve scores on basic literacy, oral proficiency and the C-test, however the Saturday schools do not appear to give children the skills needed to score well on the higher proficiency level cloze tests. Engagement with Spanish media – including books, newspapers, CDs and the internet – in contrast produced positive outcomes across almost all testing areas, suggesting consuming ethnic media may be one of the most valuable things a family can do to support language maintenance.
Chapter seven "Attitudes and Beliefs" explores participants perceptions about Spanish (and English where appropriate) across areas such as emotional attachment ('Spanish is a beautiful language'), utility ('Spanish is useful for gaining employment in Sydney') and vitality ('In Sydney most people want Spanish to be kept alive'). In line with earlier research, Gibbons and Ramirez find a correlation between language proficiency and ethnic pride, utility and status of the ethnic language, but in addition to this cannon they find resistance to the international hegemony of English plays a significant role in boosting language proficiency scores.
The book ends with a short conclusion, which both reflects on the methodology used in the study and provides numerous practical suggestions to support language based on the Gibbons and Ramirez's findings.
"Maintaining a Minority Language" is an exceptionally well written book that will no doubt prove interesting to those interested in language testing and language maintenance alike. By eschewing self-reported proficiency in favour of detailed and specialised language testing Gibbons and Ramirez take the road less trodden in language maintenance studies, but the work they put into designing their testing regime is certainly worth it in the richness of the data these tests generate. "Maintaining a Minority Language" thus provides much-needed 'objective' data (insofar as any test results can be deemed truly 'objective') in a field where conclusions have often had to rely on the self-assessment of individuals, with all the vagaries and inconsistencies that these entail. This is not to say that Gibbons and Ramirez's methodology cannot or should not be critiqued, however since the authors reflect on their methodology, its problems and room for improvements throughout the book such criticism in the context of a review would be unfair. "Maintaining a Minority Language" makes clear its status as an experiment with a new methodology, and the book will hopefully spawn more research further refining Gibbons and Ramirez methods and adding to our understanding of the relationship between social networks, education and media consumption and ethnic language proficiency.
In conclusion Gibbons and Ramirez provide a landmark study, which complements existing work on the Sydney Spanish Community (such as Clyne and Kipp 1999) and gives important insights not only for those working within the community but also for scholars of language maintenance and shift and language testing as well.
Clyne, Michael and Sandra Kipp. 1999. "Pluricentric languages in an immigrant context: Spanish, Arabic and Chinese". Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Li, Wei.1994. "Three Generations, Two languages, One Family: language choice and language shift in a Chinese community in Britain". Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Milroy, Lesley. 1980. Language and Social Networks. Oxford: Blackwell.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Louisa Willoughby is a PhD student with the Language and Society at Monash University, Clayton. Her doctoral research focuses on the relationship between language and cultural maintenance and identity construction among the teenage children of immigrants to Australia looking specifically at the role of the secondary school experience in promoting language maintenance and shift.
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