Vol. 6. No. 3 — December 2002
Language as Cultural Practice: Mexicanos en el Norte
Sandra R. Schecter & Robert Bayley (2002)
Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
$24.50 U.S. Also available in cloth, $55.00 U.S.
This book presents an ethnographic study of Mexican-background families living in California and Texas. To illustrate the complexity and diversity of being bilingual, the authors indicate the need to consider the social identities of speakers–including their gender, ethnicity, and racial and class backgrounds as well as the context in which they are going to learn and use their languages. They show that language choices and patterns of use in sociocultural and sociohistorical contexts is a dynamic, and fluid process. They clearly show in their case studies that as our lives change the dominant language may change also. The authors convincingly explain that these changes are accompanied by strong emotions that deserve to be considered.
Schecter and Bayley address the important relationship between familial patterns of language use and the development of bilingualism and biliteracy among language-minority children. They compare patterns of meaning suggested by the use of Spanish and English in different speech and literacy activities, as well as by the importance ascribed by families and societal institutions to the maintenance and use of the two languages.
The authors’ main agenda is to look at the depth of the relationship between the family language environment and bilingual development in places where both the minority and the dominant languages would be used (Spanish and English). They chose the San Francisco Bay Area and San Antonio because these cities have a large number of immigrants living there and also because families are located along a broad socioeconomic spectrum that is representative of the demographics of Latinos in the United States.
Their study involved 40 Mexican-background families, 20 from California and 20 from Texas. The families had a wide variety of social and economic backgrounds, occupations, and resident neighborhoods. Each family had at least one parent with a Mexican background and at least one child (fourth, fifth, or sixth grade level) as the main focus of the study. There were a total of at least four recorded interviews with each family, two with the parents, two with the child of study, and sibling interviews if possible. English and Spanish writing samples and oral narratives of the child were obtained, when available. [-1-]
Out of the 40 families, 8 families were selected as intensive case studies. The families’ profile ranged from rural families in south Texas to upper middle class professional families in northern California, and also included families with monolingual Spanish parents and families that spoke primarily English. During these intensive studies, at least 12 home observations were recorded.
Authors cover many important areas of bilingualism. For the language and cultural identification chapter, the authors look at the symbolic importance to the families of both English and Spanish, the cultural transmission that occurred, the role of schooling “. . . in supporting family members’ idealized social constructs,” and the patterns of meaning, both in speech and literary performances of the families (p. 52). In relation to maintenance of the Spanish language, the authors evaluate the strategies used by the families in rural, urban, and suburban areas. The topics covered include language revival, Spanish only in the home, the co-existence of Spanish in the home and learning to read and write Spanish in school, and maintaining Spanish without native-speaking adults present. In a chapter on the narrative production across the bilingual continuum, the authors look at the relationship between language maintenance and the development of literacy in both the native and foreign languages.
In their investigation of “doing school at home,” the authors focus on parent-child and sibling-sibling school-related interactions, such as helping with homework. They show that the families adapted the school agenda for Spanish maintenance and use academic literacy as a home and school language or as an inaccessible language. The authors look at language socialization that includes the diachronic and synchronic perspectives, as well as the definition and role of culture. In the final chapter the authors give some structure to the diverse and complex language practices of Mexican-American families. They summarize their findings in relation to the complex issue of language socialization, language maintenance, literacy development, and schooling, and eventually present the implications of their findings for language educators, policy makers, and other advocates for linguistic-minority learners. Finally they finish up the chapter by addressing language norms and the debate on bilingualism and give suggestions for its reformulation. Schecter and Bayley encourage all of us to become activists in fighting narrow definitions of bilingualism that ignore a diversity of practices and exclude the views of those most directly affected.
Educators will find this book extremely useful because it looks at the developmental and social aspects of bilingualism. It gives educators detailed information on language usage in Mexican-American families’ homes. The information in this book can help an educator understand his or her students and the student’s family better. The educator can begin to understand the importance of both English and Spanish to parents and children in Mexican-American homes. An educator can learn about the students’ daily struggles with language and education and the way Mexican-American families feel about Spanish that is offered to their children in school to help maintain their children’s Spanish. The educator can begin to understand the use and acceptance of code-switching in families. Finally, the educator can learn about the reasons that families and children may want to maintain their native language, such as the ability to keep in touch with family in Mexico or family that does not understand English, to communicate with non-English speaking friends and the community they live in, and even to succeed in the business world more effectively.
Overall, this book greatly enhances our understanding of bilingual development in the family and the dynamics of bilingual communities, shows diversity within Mexican families in the United States, provides evidence to correct the common misconception that maintenance of Spanish interferes with the acquisition of English, and finally shows the complex dynamics of language socialization. The book will be of use for researchers in linguistics and education, educators, and those interested in language socialization and learning.
Editor’s note: For more information, see: https://www.erlbaum.com/shop/tek9.asp?pg=products&specific=0-8058-3533-4
Texas A&M University, College of Education
Dept. of Teaching, Learning, and Culture
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