We were trying to teach this 5th grade class Lao, but since it’s not their mother tongue, they were having trouble with classifiers such as, “one desk” as opposed to “one student”. A student stood up and protested, “Teacher, let’s study English. It’s easier.” They’re not particularly resistant to learning Lao. They know the importance, but it’s just not that easy.
What’s going to happen to these students? Soon, they’ll be trying to progress to secondary school and are not likely to succeed if they don’t know Lao well. What happens after that? How important is language for landing the good jobs and the best positions? Obviously, people in any country are at a disadvantage if they don’t speak the official language, but what are the problems when speaking a dialect?
In many ways, Laos is quite liberal about the use of local dialects. No standard is enforced with iron rule throughout the country. TV is not widespread enough to establish a standard in people’s ears, radio is localized and surely Vientiane and Luang Prabang would tussle over which should be considered official. In fact, one prominent Lao linguist told me that the essence of Lao is in the way people can communicate over regional differences. A busload of people from different provinces is likely to end up in merriment with the variations and consequent misunderstandings used for good-natured joking. The acceptance of different speech forms can be understood as an acceptance of language diversity and is not a bad thing.
A dialect can be identified by the consistencies found in a certain region or community of people. They are linguistically rule-governed in a way that only the talented can imitate, but I rarely hear Lao people use language variations to typify or stereotype people of a certain region. Maybe the sharpness of a Champasak dialect can be misunderstood as an angry outburst, but I have not heard southern people typified as hot-blooded or short-tempered.
I can’t really say if accents identifying ethnic minorities are used for typecasting or stereotyping. I know people are able to identify certain patterns and variations, but I have never heard it mimicked or used in a ching-chong derogatory way. One reason could be that in such a rich soup of language diversity, it is just another way of speaking. On the other hand, without a standard, people might not be able to identify when something is correct or incorrect. Are students who are clearly making mistakes being let off the hook from teachers who are not confident in identifying them?
I suspect that students who are learning Lao as a second language are not adopting a distinctly different speech pattern in their community because in many villages, they don’t use Lao at all. They are only using Lao in the classroom and rather than develop their own dialect, their speech is ad hoc for classroom use. I have found variations even within one classroom.
In this case, rather than dialect or variation, we might just have to call them mistakes. Without understanding the standard or even having a chance to deviate from one, students are confused by the writing and pronunciation system. They can’t read much less write and that’s where we see students hit the wall. That’s when students say, “Teacher, let’s study English. It’s easier.”
In the 6th grade, my school experimented with a new model of education. Walls were taken down, rooms carpeted and sofas arranged for study corners. We didn’t have lockers or desks, just trays that we carried around. The idea was to do away with classrooms, bells, and the study of independent and unrelated subjects.
Some may have dismissed the experiment as another 60’s leftover. I’m not sure if the walls were put up again, but I never heard of this integrated learning program in later years. I’m not sure if anyone really understood why the schools were without walls and why integrated learning would help us learn. Teachers most likely shrugged their shoulders and went back to their old own ways.
Forty years later, I can still remember the lessons. Even as a12 year-old, I understood that studying about Herring Gulls was a lesson on animal behavior, chimpanzees were about tool making and Eskimos were about cultural adaptation. This integrated program asked us to think about what makes us human and distinct from animals. In those days, videos were considered cutting edge and though they pale in comparison to what we have now, they were sufficient to make us young guinea pigs excited about participating in something new.
If the experiment faded at my school in the 70s, it appears that the idea hasn’t been completely forgotten. In Dhamapur Village, a district of Maharashtra, India, a school without walls has been founded by Dr. Srinath Kalbat, a scientist turned educationist. The school is operated on an, “organic learning process run by the students, for the students.” The idea is simple. Students learn by doing things in real life. “We believe that working with your hands is what teaches you best.”
Now, jump to Sweden where Vittra Telefonplan in Stockholm is a school with spaces designed for individual exploration as well as collaborative sharing. Walls are not necessary. “The differentiated spaces allow the children to learn on their own terms, creating different types of learning scenarios. In that way, the design lets the school unfold its potential.”
In the US, School Without Walls (SWW) on the George Washington University campus is a public magnet high school. It uses integrated, interactive and experiential learning with a humanities approach. Collaboration is among students, staff, families, business partners and the community with the city used as a classroom. To graduate, students must do community service, participate in an internship and complete a senior project that involves research, a presentation and the design of a tangible product. The school is ranked in the top 100 public high schools.
A school without walls that is truest to its name is of course web based. Resources online can work seamlessly into public curricula while allowing for individual paced learning, project based inquiry and collaborative creation. Learning is naturally integrated since nothing has really disintegrated.
For so long, walls are what have defined a school, but now we are ready to accept that they are not always necessary, be it physically or metaphorically. Taking down the walls in the 70s experiment were precursors to something that could not be imagined at that time. It was a very prescient step outside the box, or more accurately, outside the walls.
Despite the fact that a conference should be fun, many are weighed down by the words that make people look smart. But maybe I'm the only one who thinks this way. After all, "Transmutational cognition in verbal attributes among pre-verbal speakers" was equally well attended.
I wanted a crowd and was happy when the room filled. That's because the more the merrier with momosign. I love to see grown adults with advanced degrees practically leap out of their chairs when drilled with gestures. We did finger spelling for ABC and there was a triumphant swell when we reached Z.
I also noticed two participants, perhaps more used to discussing transmutational cognition who looked alarmed. If they had more compatriots, they could have protested. "Why are we doing this?" But they were surrounded by enthusiastic adults shouting out A B C.
We took pictures and packed up. One participant said, "Thank you for waking us up."
Some people speak a handful of languages while most say with a sigh, “I just don’t have the knack for it.” We figure the multilingual were either born speaking various languages or are extremely clever, but rarely do we immediately assume they’ve had great teachers. The predominance of successful language learners who say they are self-taught only confirms our suspicions that the good schools, great teachers and grand methods just aren’t out there.
It’s not feasible to survey the millions and zillions of language learning institutions to make sure, but I will be the first to suspect that students who emerge fluent are far fewer than the number of those who enroll. Though millions of dollars are spent for teaching services, the onus is usually laid on the student. “You aren’t disciplined enough. You aren’t studying enough. You just don’t have the knack.” Even in a consumer driven market, it’s hard to return with, “Your methods don’t work. I want my money back.”
In Japan, there was actually a school called, “Mickey Mouse Language School.” I wanted my money back because the quality of the teachers lived up to the name, but I needed a visa and being enrolled in a school was the way to get one. I was also intent on learning Japanese so I persevered by filling an entire notebook with sentence examples. When I showed the teacher, she looked extremely uncomfortable if not bewildered. She was either offended that I didn’t offer cash on the spot for the extra work or was confused because she had never imagined a student doing something like this. I think I was the Mickey in this case.
I paid good money too for Thai lessons, but ended up blacklisting teachers one-by-one until I figured it’d be better to just pack up and chat in Thai on a beach somewhere. I would have to ask teachers to drill me and then ask them to drill me in random order. One teacher talked about her sick cat for half an hour while priding herself on her advanced techniques as a teacher. I tried to be polite, but I ended up blacklisted as “severe”.
I do have a few good examples. I met a Lao-American who had studied Lao at the university level and I hired her for help immediately. In just a few weeks, she could sort out the long and the short vowels for me, clean up some muddled consonants and help make some sense of the tones. She could diagnose, prescribe and cure and I could see the difference right away. Lao people who were saying, “huh?” all the time were actually starting to understand me.
Another memorable teacher was through a private language exchange in Kunming. We consented to be severe with each other and would speed drill each other with long phrases, English for him, Mandarin for me. He had specific goals for learning English and I hope he reached them. For me, I found I could enjoy a recent trip in Taiwan despite the fact that our language exchange happened more than 15 years ago. Something worked and I didn’t forget.
There’s got to be sites out there that collect the miserable stories of people trying to learn a second language while losing good money over it. Or better yet, somebody please set up a site that collects all the success stories; all the good schools, the great teachers and methods that work.
In the fifteen years that I worked in Japan, I was late only once. To be late was unthinkable and the ultimate transgression in business. The one time it happened, I was off by an hour for a big dinner. Everyone had waited as they watched their meals go cold. Nobody had dared to start and I was horrified on arrival. This was material for nightmares.
Recently in the US, I was meeting an elderly Lao couple. They had been in America for more than 30 years. I was ready to declare them completely Americanized if they were to come on time. Granted, traffic is a good excuse for being late, but arriving nonchalantly a full hour later confirmed for me that they were still true to their upbringing.
Not to make cultural judgments, but I often wonder how development can happen without a more precise sense of time. In most cases, business is run by the minute, not the hour and without deadlines of some sort, plans can easily derail or simply be forgotten. Communication and coordination needs a common clock to run.
Cultures of course are not monolithic. Behavioral norms seem set in stone, but we should also look at the exceptions. Before we know it, a tiny ink spot changes the overall hue and we quickly call this the new normal. I’ve had the pleasure of working with a local team that is not only the exception in my experience, but is also exceptional.
The team members don’t just come on time in the morning, they are early. One in particular says she hates weekends because she can hardly wait until work starts again on Monday. She loves the office. This is a team of teacher trainers and they have the schools and students in their hearts. That’s why they’re able to set their own deadlines and make things happen. They tackle knotty problems using their power of observation and innovation. I am flattered that they can see and understand things now that I cannot. Yes, they still need guidance and need face-to-face communication, but they respond because they want to learn. While technically being trainers, they are students in the best sense.
I can testify to their sincerity and dedication because of what happened one day. In an attempt to go beyond the generic teleprompter response, I asked them to explain what their motivation was. Why try to improve education?
As each took their turn to tell their story, they choked up and broke down in a cathartic disclosure of all the opportunities that had passed them by. In a family of ten, an older brother went to school at the expense of a younger female sibling. One woman’s father was paralyzed and nearly comatose so she couldn’t give herself permission to use family money for school. Someone else talked about being slapped for the wrong answer or humiliated by wealthy classmates. They had been robbed of opportunity, but now have been given a chance. They have the chance to make it better for the next generation of students.
I assured them that they had come home. They had found their safe harbor and that if they were committed to work and learn and keep the vision in their hearts, they could do phenomenal things for education. This is a new culture that can be cultivated to grow.