Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reading and writing as a second language

A study on reading annd writing Arabic has implications for teaching reading to some American kids.

Modern Arabs speak various dialects of modern Arabic that can be unintelligible to each other, and their spoken language works in Arab brains just as spoken English works in English-speaking brains.

Written Arabic (Modern Standard Arabic), is the same in every Arab country and is what is taught in every Arabic school (except the madrassas that teach classical Arabic, to read the Koran in). It is different from any of the dialects of spoken Arabic.

Arabic speakers have a  harder time learning to read than speakers of other languages. It turns out that written Arabic is handled in their brains as a second language, whereas standard English speakers handle written and spoken English as different representations of the same language. It's like growing up speaking Spanish or African American English and learning to read using books written in standard English or French at the same time you're learning standard English or French. You're better off learning to read in your own language and then transferring that skill to the new language.

Possible next steps would be to do the same test with American inner city kids having a hard time learning to read, to see if their brains treat written standard English as a second langugage; and test speakers of other languages who have been taught to read in English at different ages, to see when brains in that situation start treating writing as a second language.

The suggestion of the researchers is that kids should start learning to read standard Arabic earlier, when their brains are still able to really learn a second language.

One public policy implication for us is that if we want these kids to be able to read well enough to go to college and hold a good job, we'd better start teaching them to speak standard English real early, so when they learn to read, they learn it as a first language. I guess that's the role of Early Head Start, Head Start, and State Preschool, teaching poor kids the second language of standard English while they're young enough to get good at it. It's a national issue, and we need national funding to address it.

I realize teaching kids standard English from the beginning risks some of them losing their home language. So be it. I don't miss knowing Gaelic or German a bit.

But kids who speak only or mostly Spanish and are the right developmental stage to learn to read should learn to read in Spanish first, and then transfer that skill to reading English. And kids who are fluent in African American English should learn to read in that language. (The Oakland school board had it right and then backed down. I don't have a link to it, but Nature Magazine published an article about the controversy at the time, excorating the language purists and supporting Ebonics.)

Another way the Arabs could deal with their problem would be for speakers of each Arabic dialect to start writing their language as it is spoken. It would make learning to read easier, but it would separate the Arab world into language groups more distinct than they are now. It would be like starting to write French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish instead of Latin. Maybe that's why so few Europeans could read in the Middle Ages; talking was in French or Spanish, and writing was in Latin. The issues are:
  • How much do they want to pretend they have a single Arab identity?
  • Is being able to read something written by an Arab from another country worth the problem learning to read  your own newspapers?
I guess that's up to them.

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