Sunday, April 3, 2011

Why Dora the Explorer Can Change Your Kids' Future... also known as: Economic Speculation on Bilingual Education

Mmm rainy days... good for soup (unavailable), sleep (too much coffee earlier), and nerdy reading (Google scholar, anyone!!!).

So, topic for today:  The economic benefits of bilingual education to both the majority and the minority.... condensed by yours truly and perhaps worth pondering.

KAAPOW...Bet you weren't expecting THAT, huh!!!

Original article found here, off the Social Science Research Network.

Here we go:

Imagine for a moment that our dear old Oklahoma is locked in deadly political combat over the latest controversial educational bill:  unilingual schools or bilingual schools.  And yes, you're right, it's between English and Spanish.

While no one really wants to admit it, there is a bit of a brouhaha attached to officializing Spanish, though of course the business advantage of speaking it is readily recognized.

So you have the die-hard English speakers on one side, many of whom feel legitimizing Spanish would legitimize a whole lot more than crossing language borders, and  the moderates are sagely in the middle... but where does the minority stand?  And where SHOULD the others stand?  Economically speaking, of course.

(Obviously, a bilingual campaign is financially impossible both for the state and for most individuals...  and yes, this is a major factor cited by the article... play along.)

All sides are aware, of course, that the numbers of the majority and minority languages are not important in influencing this decision.  For example, in the late 1700s a fragmented France voted unilingual to unify a country in which less that 5% of the population spoke actual French... and it worked.  However, both sides also know that Finland voted to go bilingual with Finish-Swedish in 1917, and even today Swedish has not diminished despite a demographic shift, a situation which gave rise to this article.

Nevertheless, it's the majority who will, in fact, decide this outcome (the majority's language is not a predictor of the outcome though).

Now then, to wade through a whole lot of symbols I don't pretend to understand, here's what happens:

1.  The majority - English speakers - go for the money.  As the majority, they are, at heart, most interested in their future prosperity.  We love our money.

2. They realize that, if they decide to continue with unilingual schools, they will continue to be ahead in the world.  Why?  They already speak the language, and they are also improving their own skills / productivity every day they go to school.

3.  HOWEVER.  The most entrepreneurial of them see even more opportunity on the other side.  When they graduate, they will enter a market comprised of... surprise!  Other English speakers!  And it will be a jolly good market at that.  But that's a bit limited, don't you think?  What if they could also communicate and do business with the minority - Spanish speakers?  Wouldn't that maximize your opportunity and therefore your profits?  Now then, what is the easiest way to begin that process?

"For language spread, schools have long since been the major formal (organized) mechanisms involved" 
(Fishman 1977, qtd. 2).

That's right.  By maximizing your communication abilities, you maximize your opportunity for productivity.  And we Americans value productivity above most other -ities.

So the wise majority holder will choose bilingual education.  

But what about the MINORITY?  It's a bit revolutionary to ask what do they want, isn't it?

1.  If they choose unilingual education, the article speculates, they, too, will go to school and learn both the language of the majority as well as the skills necessary to succeed.  What does this do for their economic opportunities?  It increases them.  Very smart, Charlie.  Even the unskilled worker has a larger fish tank.

2.  However, they will eventually lose most of their mother tongue, if not in the first generation, then in the second or the third.  Think for a moment, what does THIS do to their economic opportunities?  Decreases it.

(Side note:  occasionally the majority may favor this position, because the minorities inability to communicate effectively with their own people locks them into business with the majority instead.)

3.  So the obvious answer is, once again, bilingual education.  (Unless, of course, it is prohibitively expensive, in which case neither side would benefit much at all, and the minority is ambivalent.)

Now then, as a word of disclaimer:

First, I am no economist, and the deltas and thetas and derivatives I looked over this afternoon held me at the mercy of the narrating text.  If you would like to peruse the article and offer an alternative interpretation or nuance, please do so; I would welcome the intellectual stimulation.

Second, though largely up to the individual's choice to attend school (a detail I should have mentioned above), most of this is largely taken from a collective, utilitarian point of view.  Cool, but not always the best... hence the problems with public education in general.  Right.

Third, well, at this point I have no idea what three is... something about devil's advocate, no doubt.  If you think of it, let me know.  Thanks.

ONE FINAL THOUGHT...  maybe Dora the Explorer is not such a political travesty after all.  Economically speaking, she's probably the best thing that's happened to your child since Mr. Rogers.


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