During breaks of coconut jellies and Nescafe, I'd make small talk with participants, mostly teachers and administrators from throughout the country. "So what is your situation with English education? What are the challenges?"
I guess I've been around for a while because a few would respond, "I think you already know." Well, if they already knew momosign, they certainly didn't look bored. My favorite memories are of elegantly dressed women of high position have fun doing the "chicken" sign.
In typical Lao fashion, enthusiasm isn't shown so much with critical questions and analysis as with requests for photos. We ran overtime.
To rule or not to rule
Most teachers at some point have felt that second language learning is an upward battle. It’s hard because it’s not natural. Why should our brains be interested in learning something that we already know? Why go to the bother of learning something complicated (second language) that we already can do without thinking (first language)? Searching for ways to get students to respond, we think about rewards and punishments. We set down the rules.
It makes sense because language itself is rule driven. Without rules, we could not acquire a language. Without a system of mutually agreed meaning and sounds, we would not have a language. Chomsky taught us that our brains are programmed to recognize meaningful patterns and understand it as grammar. By virtue of our neurology, we have the innate ability to collect and sort so that the particulates of a language fall into grooves in the way acid etches a motherboard. Anything else will be washed away, unrecognized as language.
Our brains sort the social grammars that we operate under as well. Without effort, we “know” what is appropriate to say in what situation and in what company. We are all very multilingual and can code switch our social languages depending on if we’re asking for a raise or reprimanding a subordinate. Again, we can communicate our most nuanced messages because we know the rules. Of course, everyone has the free will to run a red, but that’s only possible because of the stoplight.
Since rules so effectively help humans to be competent in speaking and socializing, it’s a fair reaction for teachers to set down rules for classroom behavior. Certainly, it’s easier to teach if students are standing or sitting or wearing the same clothes. We’re trying to deliver information uniformly to a large population, so doesn’t it help if that population is as uniform as possible? Probably not when it comes to language learning. The universal grammar that Chomsky is talking about is not about policing proper language, it’s about how the brain works.
If the brain selects what it thinks is useful, is it useful for teachers to pre-select what we think the brain wants? Are we that confident? If a whale eats mostly plankton, are we going to feed it with microscopic spoons or just let the whale swim? When food is pre-chewed and pre-digested before serving it on the plate, it’s unrecognizable and unpalatable.
Teaching personal pronouns with charts is an example of pre-digested grammar. It’s tasteless and leaves little to love even if it is essential for speaking correctly. Is that why most students fail the fill-in-the-pronoun test? In contrast, I’ve seen how eight year-olds never make the mistake of, “I love you. You love I” when learned through actions. After one correction, they hear the mistake and think it’s hilarious, as if they have mysteriously understood the relationships of giver and receiver, lover and loved. When something sounds right in opposition to something that sounds funny, we’ve deepened our Chomsky brain grooves, even as a second language.
For teachers, teaching a second language is still a challenge though we shouldn’t call it a futile battle. It’s only futile when we enforce rules for the sake of enforcing rules. If some day we are clever enough, we can figure out how the brain can do most of the work for us.
Teaching quality, lack of resources, weak infrastructures, exhaustion of will, problems so perennial that we should make them into calendars. What if we decided we don’t need to teach and learn English anymore? How simple would life be?
The world of Star Trek is just around the corner with hand-held simultaneous translation devices. Ahead of the game is the Jibbigo application, which promises speech recognition of 40,000 words for ten languages in a smartphone app. Potentially, we could save ourselves thousands of hours of language learning and quickly be multilingual with a battery charge. Gone will be TESOL departments, private language schools and the memorizing of archaic idioms for tests. There will be a tremendous sigh of relief from the masses.
There is no need to emphasize how convenient this will be. Think of how productive we will be when we have time to spend studying something else? How interconnected will commerce be when we don’t get lost in translation? What cross-cultural romances will bloom when misunderstandings are wiped away?
What will change of course is the very way we communicate and we will have to think again how valuable that is. Is our communication clumsy and crude in a way that aliens laugh at us, or is our bumbling attempt at communicating the very essence of what makes us human? Would we really want multilingual romances to depend on headsets and special goggles from which love in translated into subtitles? First of all, how is it even possible?
Japan’s NTT DoCoMo and Microsoft have developed prototypes, so rather than speculative science fiction, we can get information on how the technology works. Microsoft’s model uses virtual neurons to replicate what the human brain does. Neural networks weigh the value of information collaboratively, not that different from what Wikipedia does. The next fairly inscrutable thing to understand is that these neural networks are in layers through which information is sifted through, also apparently consistent with the way the brain works. Microsoft does this with nine layers. The bottom one is for processing sound and the higher levels sort information to determine the most likely intended meaning.
For Google’s model, the rough edges are sanded down by crowdsourcing. Samples from smartphones are used to compare and select the most likely solution. In this way, the strongest skeptic may be proven wrong as technology finds ways to handle nuance, humor, sarcasm, contextual and cultural references, dialects, accents, slang and just about any other tool we use to communicate as language loving beings. Even for lovers, audio will most likely be able to replicate individual voiceprints, inflections, intonation and everything else needed to not only be understood but to be felt.
So at the end of the day, if there are no more Luddites in the room, what can be the case to reject this technology? One might be that it will make our brains lazy if our layers of neural networks lack exercise. We might evolve out of legs too if we don’t use them anymore. Another might be that we will miss the fun of miscommunication. We won’t return home from foreign lands with amusing stories about taxi drivers and banana sellers, basically those delightful experiences when we find we can communicate through our own ingenuity, humor and magnanimity. Let’s wholeheartedly enjoy our fumbling, bu
Education is a gamble. Parents spend so much money on a future that’s not guaranteed. They pay for the books, the fees and the uniforms. Then in the end, what happens if the kid is a slacker and comes back home with an open mouth to be fed? Maybe that’s why it’s better to have a dozen children. One of them has to come out OK.
Education is a gamble, but the odds are still better than playing the lottery. Even so, the appeal of hitting it big keeps people spending their precious money on a ticket of chance. Sometimes the numbers come in a dream or are etched in tree bark or found at the bottom of teacup. There are enough stories of people rescued from rags and flung into riches to keep people hoping. I wish there were more stories about people who have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.
When the winnings are so big, people are not afraid of debt. There are stories of people cashing in their future meals, confident that hitting the jackpot will cover their debt. In some countries, vendors hand out tickets on credit and are willing to collect when the booty comes in. They’re counting on someone hitting the lucky number. Otherwise, they too are out of luck and have to swallow their losses. That seems pretty risky to me.
I don’t want to be Puritan about this pursuit because some people have fun. What is life without a few risks? It’s a diversion from drudgery and gives people a glimmer of hope. Actually, I’ve been corrected on this thought. No, it’s not fun and no, it doesn’t offer a real hope. If anything, it confirms the big game in life that only a few hit it big. It’s more about privilege than chance and every ticket bought reinforces the belief that success is only a lucky break. Can education break this cycle?
Education is a gamble, but the odds are much better. It’s supposed to teach us that nothing is free. Success comes from hard work, not from chance or the cycles of karmic birth. Unfortunately, not all education is so pure. Education can institutionalize us back into those very same cycles of purgatory.
The numbers on a lottery start to blur with the figures on tests and grades. The chance of winning a bit of money starts to feel like the luck of getting into a good school. The debt credited to a diploma and future job starts to look like the way people spend anticipated money long before it is delivered by some providence.
Some countries are faced with the problem of graduates not paying back their student loans. The government has already bet on a chance by giving out low interest loans with the assumption that graduates will be able to pay them back. Some don’t return the money. Hoping they can slip through the cracks, some believe the system won’t catch them and many can’t catch good paying jobs or find employment at all.
Many people think education is a gamble because the cash is not immediate. Who would buy a lottery ticket if the results didn’t come out until ten years later? We’d forget to even check. For me, investing in education brings golden returns. Almost every day I’m greeted by someone I’ve taught in the past. They remember me and tell me how far they’ve come in life. They’re proof that the odds can be beat and that everyone has a chance.
There is no spring in Laos though in balance to the seemingly eternal summer, there is a winter. Get out your woollen hats and gloves. Use earmuffs and mufflers to protect your ears and mouth. When that hard wind blows, it’s time to hunker down and hibernate.
Plants don’t have sweaters so they react in protective ways like dropping their leaves. Evident by their rings, trees have cycles of growth and retrenchment with bursts of creative energy in spring and a hardened bark in winter. It’s natural for their development to leap forward, then freeze into dormancy for a period of time.
Animals have legs or wings so they have the ability to flee the cold. When things get inhospitable, they pack up in search of more fertile grounds. Some animals stick it out by slowing down their metabolism to hibernate. Either way, nature knows when the environment is not conducive for basic functions so they either give it up or cool down the blood.
Us humans in contrast, like to defy nature and find ways to survive under any circumstances, no matter how intolerable. As creatures of habit, we’re also able do deceive ourselves and find comfort in the familiar. Spurts of growth and development don’t happen seasonally so we take for granted the master cycle beginning with the exponential growth as an embryo, the significant change as an adolescent and the slow replacements of cells at a senior age. One spring is not going to change our lives or so we think. Our development does not depend on it.
Cold makes it hard for young people who want to learn, especially for those in the mountains. Fingers will freeze when we try to write and it’s better to keep lips sealed since they’ll chap if we speak. It reminds me of my college year in Connecticut when trying to save money, our student household did without fuel. We typed our papers in our sleeping bags but our fingers still threatened to stick to the keys. We wanted to just wait until spring, but that would not have been possible.
The cold made us fearful, just thinking of an icy shower. I’m sure many people in the countryside can relate to this. Just the thought makes one want to hide. The cold made us immobile and we used more energy to shiver than to take any significant action. It was seasonal procrastination with the wish for our problems to simply disappear, but of course nothing just disappears.
Lao people in general are hardier and more patient. They can wait it out without complaining. If it doesn’t get warmer tomorrow, it will in a few weeks or months. But almost as if warmth is assumed, spring is hardly given a calendar day. As if it happens overnight, it’s suddenly uncomfortably hot as we wonder if spring was just a label or a metaphor. We learn that there is shivering and sweating and nothing in between.
Or maybe a youthful spring is something that keeps the insides of young people warm enough to sit by the light of a lamp and read from a book in prayer for the future. A hope for a non-existent spring can keep one going for yet another day.
It’s cold in mountaintops of Sam Neua, Phongsali and Xieng Khouang. For all of you struggling to keep your candle lit, please stay warm and in good health. Stick to your books and hone your mind. If you persevere, you will see the day in which your efforts will bloom without restraint.