Do we teach langauge to pass exams or experience the culture, thinking and values?

Just had to reblog this in its entirety from i talk you talk…langauges. It sums up the experience of so many children and adults and why some adults feel they are no good at languages whereas what they are is no good at passing exams which are structured so formulaically that if you get the wrong word then you are wrong.

I have emboldened the most interesting sentences that describe this really well, and italicised my ideas or experiences.

Linguistic hospitality – its predicament is that of a correspondence without complete adhesion. (Paul Ricoeur – On Translation, Bayard 2004) pp 19-20

Yesterday, a fourteen year old, (who I have been teaching privately since she was two), showed me her English test results from school. One of her answers had been marked wrong, and she didn’t know why.

The task was to translate into English, a letter from a student telling her friend about her trip to the US.

At the end of the letter, my student summed up the trip with:

“It was a wonderful experience.”

This was marked wrong by the teacher.

According to the teacher, the correct (and only) answer was:

“I had a happy experience.”

My student’s sentence was, in my opinion, more natural, however as it did not match the “correct” translation in the answer key, or the teacher’s expectations, it was marked wrong.

I understand why the teacher did this, and why this is pretty standard throughout English education here. Not all teachers are of the level where they can discern if a sentence is natural (or even correct), and having so many things to do and so little time to do them in, they will go by the answer key, as if they were marking arithmetic tests.

It goes without saying, such education results in stilted, unnatural sounding English, and a belief that there is a correspondence with complete adhesion, a perfect translation, (the literal, direct one of course), and that any deviation is “wrong”. You don’t have to look very far to see that this belief is alive and well in many areas of society.

However, I think it goes deeper than that.

It ignores the whole cultural context behind the languages in question. By encouraging a language to be twisted, contorted and made to fit the confines of another and its cultural context, irrespective of what lies at its core, it fails to acknowledge differences in thinking, culture, communication and values.

It also deprives students of the opportunity to learn about their own culture and values. It is by understanding the Other that we come to understand ourselves.

I don’t think we come to an understanding by hammering the Other into a mould or model of ourselves, (or into the language components that contain our thoughts and perspectives, and so by default contain “us”).

In the words of Paul Ricoeur:

“Just as in the act of telling a story, we can translate differently, without hope of filling the gap between equivalence and total adequacy. Linguistic hospitality then, where the pleasure of dwelling in the other’s language is balanced by the pleasure of receiving the foreign word at home, in one’s own welcoming house.” (On Translation 2006 Routledge pg 10)

So basically, no two languages are reducible to a mathematical-like equation. We cannot have a perfect copy of one in another. Each language carries its cultural context in its words and expressions.

Should children be taught language as if it were a mechanical subject, or even as something which can be stripped of its context and hammered into one’s own, until it becomes a satisfactory “mini-me”, subsumed in one’s own context? Should they be taught that what they have produced in this manner is correct?  Not only correct, but the only answer? The only mode of expression? The only translation?

Fair enough, the teachers have to work in the confines of an education system which is designed to test knowledge and nothing more, but perhaps explaining to the children that there are many ways of expressing the same thought, even in their own native language, would help them see that nothing is set in stone. Ideas can be explained in other ways, often in the pursuit of clarity, even within one language.

I often have to point out to adult students who look at me suspiciously when I translate something that does not use the words or structure they expected, that even in their own language, there are numerous ways to express the same idea or thought. Perhaps their suspicion stems from the kind of education which upholds one and only one answerSo many people complain that it isn’t exactly the same and I feel that this is due to their lack of understanding and almost being scared of languages so they feel uncomfortable with the unknown whereas knowing un,eine = one then they can trust the system. The same is said of machine translations, we try to counteract the feeling of fear by telling people that its about communication no exact translation. Those who take this on board find a more natural way of communication with parents and learners in our experience. 

Ricoeur again:

“It is texts, not sentences, not words, that our texts try to translate…The work of the translator does not move from the word to the sentence, to the text, to the cultural group, but conversely: absorbing vast interpretations of the spirit of a culture, the translator comes down again from the text, to the sentence and to the word.” (On Translation pg 32)

So perhaps, foreign language education shouldn’t consist of translation activities at the word level from the junior high school age. Doing so, at such an elementary level, where students often lack the grammatical and lexical tools and cultural competency to perform translation from text down to word level, can perhaps only result in it becoming a mechanical process from word to text, and with no deviation from the standard answer in an answer key. Particularly so, if the whole purpose of this education is not communication or cultural understanding, but to pass tests which only allow for one correct answer.

So what about those students, who, like the girl I teach, have been learning English for communicative purposes for most of their lives and so have developed a sense for the language within its own cultural context? Or returnees who grew up in English-speaking countries and understand the language better than the teacher? Must they really have that sense they have developed eroded? Must they force their English into the patterns of an unrelated context? What should my student do from now on? Conform? Rebel? – – Yes, what should they do? or what should we do,we who are aware of the problem? It is in our hands.

All I could say to her yesterday, was that this is the way it is, conform on your tests, but understand that is what you are doing, conforming, and speak with me as you always have. What else could I say? Just explain the difference between real communication and tests and their love of language will pull them through, as an adult as they go into the real world as a truly global citizen, maybe they will be the person that helps change the world’s perception of language and take away the fear so that more can experience the cultural, thinking and values of other places and languages.

Nomination for Inspiring Blogger Award

Today I have been nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award.

Thanks very much to for this.  I am learning a lot about Japan and am able to support my readers who want to learn Japanese.

Seven things about me: I love

  1. The beach
  2. Sunsets
  3. Flip flops
  4. Beach hut
  5. Cross stitch and quilting
  6. Olde fashioned flowers sweet peas and lily of the valley
  7. Small pink and yellow roses

The blogs I nominate are very small because I have only just started:

  1.       all about teaching and learning languages
  2.            multilingualism for stable and prosperous societies
  3.  one shall at a time
  4.  learning traditional chinese characters
  5.  sharing my vision of the world
  6. beach treasures and treasure beaches
Very inspirational Blogger