The Development of Meaning, by Joan Tough, is an investigation into children's use of language and its implications for their learning at home and at school. The study is essentially an enquiry into educational disadvantage. The basis of Dr Tough's research was a close study of the language used by selected groups of children from the age of three (when it would be known whether the child was to have nursery education or not).
Social-class differences in children's speech and language have attracted a lot of attention in recent years, and a variety of theories have been put forward to explain and describe them. Some have claimed that lower-class, or working-class children possess a language which is deficient or limited by comparison with middle-class children; in an extreme version of this hypothesis it has been claimed that these children have virtually no language at all, and that we have to teach it to them from scratch.
In recent years it has become a matter of orthodoxy that language programmes are necessary for children from poor homes and children from minority groups. One of the most influential of all programmes for pre-school children has been the one devised by Carl Bereiter and Siegfriend Engelmann (Bereiter and Engelmann, 1966; Bereiter, Engelmann, Osborn and Reidford, 1966). It was put into effect in what was called an "academic pre-school".
There are a number of children in New Zealand who, during their pre-school years regularly use a language other than English. They use it at home with their parents, and at play with their siblings and with many of their friends. When these children enter school at the age of five, they must use as a language for playing, for learning and for finding their way about their new school, a language in which they are both less familiar and less proficient than are their peers who are native speakers of English. Moreover English is for them a second best.
Is bilingualism a handicap? The literature on the effects of bilingualism on the intelligence, linguistic proficiency, and mental health of bilingual individuals is vast, complex and contradictory. The perusal of almost any random collection of articles, treatises, and opinions on the topic would lead most lay readers to the conclusion that the question as to whether bilingualism is a handicap has much in common with that as to whoso had taken the Pobble's toes: nobody knew, and nobody knows.
The value of speaking with a regional accent is something which is subject to fashion: today, an accent tends to be valued as a mark of individuality in an increasingly mono-cultural and stereotyped world, and it is no longer the goal of an 'educated' person to 'get rid of his accent as quickly and decently as possible. Certainly we have come a long way from the time when Arnold Wall, writing about New Zealand English in the 1930s, had to remind himself that 'young students whose speech left much to be desired (nonetheless) died gloriously on Gallipoli'.
A.R. Luria, the great Soviet psychologist, died recently. Lurra and other members of the Moscow school of psychology developed a theory about the relationship between speech and behaviour which has been remarkably influential. Not everyone agrees with the Moscow school, of course, but Reg Marsh, a Professor of Education at Victoria University, is one of those who thinks that their ideas offer helpful explanations not usually provided by other perhaps more conventional treatments of the relationship between speech and behaviour.
There are pitfalls when immigrant and minority language students are given psychological tests. Educators in many countries are becoming aware of them. In Canada, for example, most of the school boards in Metropolitan Toronto delay the administration of formal diagnostic tests and group tests of ability and achievement until students have been in Canada for at least two years. The reasons are given in this report.
In Christchurch the number of Pacific Island children is small, they live in every area of the city, from 'working class industrial' to 'middle-class suburban', and most are New Zealand-born Samoans. The families rarely shift and their children rarely change schools, at least between the ages of five and eight. Under such conditions it seems likely that any differences between their spoken English and that of native-English-speaking children will highlight difficulties, and might even provide some clues to the reasons for the difficulties.