Cutting foreign language opportunities in school and downplaying the importance of proficiency in a foreign language greatly diminishes America’s ability to operate in the modern, fast-paced, globalized world.

I think I have said before that the world is shrinking as people move around.  Today rather than town to town they move country to country and not necessarily to the nearest country to themselves it can often be at the opposite side of the world. This news article discusses one persons feeling about this and the role that languages play in communication.

The statements below can apply to the UK and similar countries as well as the USA

It has been a source of pride and a political point for many that English is the “official” language of the United States and those who come to our borders should learn the language. But as a country that wants to continue to be a world leader, we will need to be very serious about pushing our students to be proficient if not fluent in at least two languages.

It is not un-American to be bilingual and it is not a sign of defeat to have bilingual signs. If anything, it makes us stronger as a nation. After neglecting this issue for generations, it is time to turn our educational system around and place learning a foreign language as one of the most important aspects of an education. Learning a foreign language in the United States needs to move out of the “elective” realm and into the realm of “core subject.

To become truly global citizens then language has to have a place in school curriculums and current discussion should be looking at the sort and types of languages that should be supported in schools.  For me the choice is easy support everyone who arrives with a language other than English to keep their previous languages and learn English. For all learners learn at least one language although from my experience the nearer languages are together the better for the learner to realise that each is not something totally new but  connect with each other.

I was lucky in school to learn French, German and Latin which I loved.  The Latin was great because it helped me understand English more. Recently I have done a lot of work in Italian, with an Italian translator, and can immediately see the benefits of learning both languages together and I think it would make learning a  langauge less scary. We should look globally at the languages most needed by global citizens and then find a way of supporting this via school curriculums.

As Adam Hogue says quite succinctly

America is in constant transition. With higher populations of minority groups becoming more dominant in the American landscape, we as a country should be a land of many national languages, not just one. Schools should be moving towards bilingual education in all subjects and students should be able to pursue an education in a variety of languages. Language has the power to change the perception of a person as well as a nation. This should not be forgotten as America continues to define our place in the global landscape.

As I study Hanguel, I am really trying to make up for lost time. I want to pick up a second language with more proficiency than I have in French, a language in which I can only rattle off a few verbs. It is up to the Millennial generation to place foreign language as the centerpiece of American education in the 21st century. Making that change will change other countries’ perception of America and l make America a better place to conduct business and study. Whether it be Mandarin, Vietnamese, French, Spanish,

Hanguel or Indonesian; a foreign language is key in our rapidly globalizing world.

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.

Addative or Subtractive bilingualism … which is the best?

I wasnt going to post anymore today but then a conversation within my cross stitch group really made me think. In this blog I have tried to pull together all the positive aspects for bilingual learning on a global scale so that by sharing we can make better judgements as teachers and parents, but I am reminded by this that no amount of research, adult discussion or policy making actually means anything if we do not consider the children at the heart of the changes we would like to see.

The thread of this discussion is by adults from around the globe with an interest in cross stitching, usually just patterns and ideas are shared but occasionally a  discussion starts on something general like the recent hurricane, that leads to a discussion about something else and this one led to the weather and crops around the world. I now know it isn’t just the UK that has had crop failure, all over the world farmers are suffering its not just newspaper and business hype to get more profit.  Even my local garden and craft show has suffered with a  decrease in entries because of our unusual weather conditions this summer.

This discussion then led to language somehow and as many people in this group live in different parts of the world to where were raised, so communication has become an important skill they have needed to develop. Discussion then led to bilingualism as these parents are trying to improve their children’s language diet within their children’s education to improve on the educational experience that they received.

Here is a small bit of genuine conversation.  I will keep the people anonymous because I think this could be any two parents anywhere in the world.

The start of the conversation

Adult 1

I never had roots, and I don’t miss them.  I do consider Texas my home, and we plan to retire there someday twenty years down the road.  The foreign service (diplomatic corps) gives me the opportunity to live in a country and truly learn about it despite the bubble.  As for what I do when not stitching – I teach temari making to locals, I am very involved in a local charity group, and I go out with friends…….  What’s funny is that out in the villages, they have outhouses and high speed wifi internet.  It’s a difference of ease and cost of putting in the infrastructure.We took a three day trip to Odessa, Ukraine last week.  It’s a three hour drive from here, and the one time I saw a village with more than one store and no wells, I remarked that that village had money.  The difference when we crossed the border to the Ukraine was pretty stark. People in the villages grow their own food and mainly live on potatoes and cabbage.  Even here in the city, if you have a yard, it’s covered in a fruit and vegetable garden, not grass.  Canning is not optional; it’s a way of life.  Homemade flour, wine, vodka, and pickled vegetables are the norm.   So are raising chickens and pigs.  When I would go out to the countryside in Uruguay, I thought a lot of it was poor.  It is very rich compared to here.  I am so thankful to have been born American. As for the languages I know – I learned German in high school and college, picked up French while living there, and learned Spanish in Uruguay.  Now, it’s Romanian and Russian.  I didn’t learn Albanian in Kosovo: too many speak English there.> > Anyway, that’s what Moldova’s like

and then it progressed until it reached this…..

adult 1

Much easier for children to learn many languages. They seem to absorb information much better than adults. My mom was teaching us german. When I started school, I knew both english and german. Then my blockhead of a teacher had a conferance with my mom. Told mom she was “confusing” us by using 2 languages. Mom regrets listening to the teacher and wishes she would have kept us with both german and english. I think it would have been interesting to know german. I really don’t have the patience anymore.

Adult 2 response

My grand daughter was told the same when she was trying to teach her daughter two languages.  My grand daughter spent most of her school holidays here in France and as a child just listened to the language.  When she was in senior school and had the option to learn French she took it and gained a very high mark.  She wanted Connie, her daughter to learn French as well as English so she spoke to Connie in French and her partner spoke to her in English. Connie was learning well but was not very talkative for her age so my grand daughter was told that that was because she was confused with the two languages.  I don’t think that is true as there are now many mixed language couples who speak to their children in their native language and the children respond without any difficulty

As you say it is a shame that your Mum was told the same.

and on speaking other languages in the real world

adult 1

I found the little time I was in France, that some of them know English but will not speak it to you to help out or anything.  Not sure why but that’s how it was when I was there.

response from adult 2

that is due to the french government. They want “purity of language”. They are being quite thawarted by computer language as they are trying to come up with french terms/words to use. Taken them several years to come up with just a few words. While many french people can write english, they do not like to speak in public. Canada is also different. While you have french and english speaking Ontario, Quebec is quite the opposite. In Quebec, they will even mix up your restaurant order, just to let you know of their dislike. Have been on the receiving end of that one!

And the debate goes on, but clearly as adults and particularly those brought up around languages they seem to see the benefits much quicker than minolinguans.