Semilinguals or limited bilinguals The issue of bilinguals who appear to have

Semilinguals or limited bilinguals the issue of

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Semilinguals, or limited bilinguals The issue of bilinguals who appear to have limited level of proficiency in both first and second language has dominated some discussions on the issue of degree of bilingualism. The term semilingualism was first used by Hansegard (1968, cited in Baker 2006: 9) to refer to Finnish minority students in Sweden who lack proficiency in both their languages. Hansegard described semilingualism in terms of deficit in six language competences: Size of vocabulary Correctness of language Unconscious processing of language (automatism) Language creation (neologization) Mastery of the functions of language (e.g. emotive, cognitive) Meanings and imagery According to these parameters, a semilingual is both quantitatively and qualitatively deficient in comparison to monolinguals, and semilingualism has been blamed for the low academic achievement of minority children. Over the years, the term has accumulated pejorative connotations and researchers who invoked the use of this concept have been widely rebutted (cf. Baetens-Beardsmore 1982, Edelsky et al. 1983, Genesee 1984, Spolsky 1984, Baker 2006) for ignoring the socio-political concerns
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implicit in the existence of semilinguals. These authors argued that semilingualism is rooted in an environment which is not conducive to ongoing bilingualism, where the speakers were socially, politically and economically disadvantaged. Therefore, semilingualism is a situation which is engineered by the environment and not a consequence of bilingualism since a monolingual in the same environment would have faced the same degree of struggle in their academic endeavours. Researchers who highlight the correlation of semilingualism to poor academic achievement without carefully separating the symptoms from the cause only serve to perpetuate the negative stereotype of minority children. Equally critical is how this perception translates into educational policies and curriculum for minority children, Though the term semilingualism is not fashionable anymore, the idea of low achieving bilinguals who are linguistically competent neither in the first language nor in the second language is still discussed, albeit under a different label. Cummins (1994) acknowledges that labeling someone as a ‘semilingual’ is highly negative and may be detrimental to children’s learning, and proposes an alternative label ‘limited bilingu alism’ to describe the same condition. More recently, MacSwan (2000) criticized further the concept of semilingualism and limited bilingualism. Questioning Cummins’ position on defining school -based literacy and academic skills as a component of general language proficiency, MacSwan examined all the evidence put forth for the case of semilingualism and concluded that semilingualism is more of a function of social economic status (SES) than of language background. In general, MacSwan cautioned against hasty use of
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labels which do more harm than good for those language learners who are already socially disadvantaged. Baker (2006:10) sums it up well:
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