Evidence Based Policy? Cunning Linguist

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

Phillip Davis, a Tory MP in Bradford (seen here defending Andy Coulson) has recently come under fire for suggesting low literacy rates among children in the constituency are caused or exacerbated by local libraries making books available in Urdu. Davis believes that children need a strong command of English before starting school, and having books available in Urdu through libraries was damaging educational attainment. Davis further contended that promoting Urdu would damage the integration of members of the Urdu community and would damage their attempts at integration in later life.

Ignoring for a minute that literacy is the ability to read and write, and generally not considered language specific (in which case perhaps Davis has inadvertently exposed a weakness in how we measure and determine literacy, in that it really measures competence in English, ignoring literacy in other languages), and also ignoring that in the specific library that Davis found the literature that so affronted them there is a childrens stock of 11,000, of which 20 are in Urdu (thats 0.18% of the libraries stock!), is there any justification for Davis claims?

To my mind, the argument that having books available in Urdu damages integration does not hold water. The fact that there are a tiny number of Urdu books available for children and many, many more in English would suggest to me that this would encourage children to want to read English materials (as they would soon run out of other books to read). Furthermore, it strikes me that libraries offer a relatively neutral focal point for people of different communities to interact and mingle; they are  places where community activities and the like are advertised and accessible. They are also on occasion places where literacy programs and the like can be advertised and provided. My contention is that, far from damaging integration, having Urdu books in libraries could potentially encourage and promote it.

Unfortunately, I can source no research on this area, so I must admit the above is purely conjecture on my part, and you wouldn’t be good skeptics if you didn’t apply critical thinking, reason and evidence to my arguments with the equal veracity you would to Davis’ claims. However, there is some evidence on the effects of bilingualism in learning English, literacy and overall intelligence– some that even deals specifically with bilingual speakers of Urdu and English.

In general, bilingual literacy can make children appear slower at learning languages in the early years, but overall, bilingual children overtake their peers in terms of linguistic abilities and other general cognitive abilities. Research has shown that knowledge of one language can facilitate learning of another, and there are general benefits that arise from cross-linguistic transfer of phonemic awareness (Lekin et al 2010). Bilingualism has also been associated with facilitating the innovative capacity — the ability to extract novel and unique ideas (Kharkhurin 2009).

More specifically, when learning Urdu and English, there are benefits related to reading regular words and non-words compared to monolinguals. While there can be issues when bilingual children experience more difficulty in reading irregular English words (Alison et al 2009), these issues do not appear to be terribly damaging to a bilingual child in learning both English and Urdu.

It seems highly unlikely, given the above, that Davis’ solution of removing Urdu books would be an effective way to improve the integration and literacy of the Urdu speaking community in Bradford. I do wonder if we can expect to see Davis indulging in some ill advised and ignorant pontificating on the detrimental effects of learning Welsh or Gaelic alongside English on integration and literacy?  Then again, perhaps that doesn’t fall under the purview of an MP who is waging a “one man war on political correctness” that includes not understanding why blacking up is offensive


Gabriele, Alison; Troseth, Erika; Martohardjono, Gita; Otheguy, Ricardo; Emergent literacy skills in bilingual children: Evidence for the role of L1 syntactic comprehension. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, Vol 12(5), Sep, 2009. pp. 533-547.

Kharkhurin, Anatoliy V. The role of bilingualism in creative performance on divergent thinking and invented alien creatures tests.; The Journal of Creative Behavior, Vol 43(1), 2009. pp. 59-71.

General and specific benefits of bi-literate bilingualism: A Russian–Hebrew study of beginning literacy. Gabriele, Alison; Troseth, Erika; Martohardjono, Gita; Otheguy, Ricardo; International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, Vol 12(5), Sep, 2009. pp. 533-547.