September 2001 — Volume 5, Number 2
Language Diversity and Education
David Corson (2001)
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers
Pp. xi + 221
ISBN 0-8058-3449-4 (pbk, alk. paper)
In light of a heightened awareness and concern for minorities in the US education system, we cannot ignore the opportunities and responsibilities of teachers to address the issue of diversity in the classroom. This is certainly the case at the university where I work. University officials have made a concerted effort lately to address problems related to the social tags placed on certain minority groups and languages. However, this is not the case across the board.
David Corson, in his textbook –Language Diversity and Education raises this issue for all educators and future linguists to consider. He develops his theoretical argument on the basis of Foucault’s portrayal of himself as “a person unwittingly identified with many competing orthodoxies at the same time” (p.1). Corson peers into the many factors affecting language development as well as the perception of various languages and dialects (of English) from the standpoint of the curious and critical observer. He points out the reality of how the American education system has a long way to go in addressing the real needs presented by students from diverse language backgrounds. Ultimately, he seeks to present guidelines for new and seasoned teachers alike to follow in meeting their future and present students’ needs.
Language Diversity and Education is designed to be used by those studying some form of linguistics (with a social emphasis) and/or education. The focus is primarily on research related to the social contexts in which language is used. He begins with two chapters that explain how language diversity research has transformed from the concept of positivism, which “argued that society could be studied using ideas similar to those that the natural sciences used” (p.2) to a more interpretive approach to analyzing language within social and cultural boundaries. The interpretive approach used by Corson claims that our assumptions of what language is and how it develops are only that, assumptions that can be overturned, leading to yet “another interpretation of a text” (p.5). He concludes his discussion of language theory with three suggestions for how these ideas can be applied to educational policy. First, he states that children should have the right to learn in a language similar to what is spoken in their homes. Second, if the first principle can’t be met, their first language/dialect should be valued as being an equal but different language or dialect. Third, they should be given the opportunity to learn their first language to the highest level of proficiency possible (p.32). [-1-]
The third through sixth chapters discuss how language theory can be applied to the practice of education. These four chapters deal with “different cultural discourse norms, standard and non-standard varieties, bilingual and . . . ESL education, and gendered discourse norms” (ix). Corson discusses how these factors influence the ways teachers teach students of diversity. He also notes that the ways in which students from diverse backgrounds are treated often leads to marginalization based on language, ethnicity, or gender. Each chapter includes a brief definition of what each factor is, a discussion of how each factor plays out in the context of education, suggestions for how one might address the issue in his/her own situation, and discussion questions/statements for individual or group inquiry.
In the seventh chapter, Corson returns to a discussion of research methods and the theories involved in researching language diversity in educational settings. In discussing possible research methods, he notes the importance of applied linguistics and sociolinguistics as well as the realities of human interaction as a basis for the information provided in chapters 3-6. However, just as he does throughout the text, Corson adds the disclaimer that these theories are not adequate in and of themselves. They are limited in their ability to fully explain what goes on in a diverse classroom, as he has defined it; however, they are a start. He notes, “These two theories of knowledge hardly exhaust the range of epistemologies available to applied linguists, and also to sociolinguists” (p.191). He then moves to a discussion of other research ideologies and methods relevant to the study of educational diversity, ending the chapter with a discussion of four research studies that correspond with the factors discussed in chapters 3-6.
Corson has provided a thorough analysis of the difficulties faced in meeting the diverse needs of students in the multicultural, multigendered, and multidialectical classroom. His analysis of the various theories, as they relate to language diversity, is thoughtful and clear; however, he doesn’t dwell so much on the theoretical that he forgets to enlighten the reader on the reality of the students affected by diversity in the classroom. With this reality in mind, he analyzes real-life educational scenarios to call the reader to action and further research. He notes a study by Scollon and Scollon (1981, 1984) in which they discovered that schools that teach students of Athabaskan cultures often focus so much on academic literacy that they forget about discourse literacy within the students’ culture (p.49). However, this is not the only culture affected by this type of educational approach/policy, and Corson notes this many times throughout the text.
In addition to being rich in background information and examples, Corson’s style of writing is easily accessible, especially given that the target audience is graduate students in education or linguistics, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, etc.. The final chapter gives realistic examples of what kinds of research have been and still can be done to enhance a classroom teacher’s ability to meet his or her students’ needs. In fact, Corson actively encourages educators to engage in this type of research. He states, “A priority for new approaches to language diversity research is to seek out the views and interests of those whose language, lives, and social arrangements provide the focus of any study undertaken” (p.220). In order to understand where to go with further research, it is imperative that we understand what researchers have already done, and that is exactly what Corson has provided for the reader of this book. Corson doesn’t claim that all of the answers have been found, he simply accounts for where we are at now, presents options for the future, and calls readers to action. Most importantly, however, he accomplishes his task by writing to his audience rather than at his audience; he doesn’t point fingers, he simply gives a sense of direction to a complex educational task.
David R. Martin
Washington State University
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