The other day I was boarding a Lao Airlines flight to Vientiane and the attendant greeted me with a nice, “Good morning teacher.” I was a bit stunned, wondering if someone was just playing a little trick on me. Who was she? It’s hard to recognize someone with so much makeup on, but then it came back to me and I could remember the student who sat up straight at her desk with eyes wide open.
It must have been a good eight years ago. With thousands of students taught within that span of time, I’m surprised I could remember. She liked to sit mid-way back on the right side of the room, squeezed elbow-to-elbow on a bench with her best friends who were quicker at learning English, but silly in their underperformance and underestimation of their own futures.
It’s not hard to remember those times because they were not easy by any means. They were close to nightmarish. For some reason, I was volunteering at a private school and had taken over one class. Looking up and out through the windows, I could see the mountains on the horizon, but looking down, I’d see crumpled paper, sunflower seed shells and half-chewed sugarcane spit directly onto the floor. A clean room is a clean start, but we never were able to start the day like that.
The students were typical teenagers who had perfected the art of slouching through life, be it their posture, their socializing or their study habits. I couldn’t comprehend why they treated their education so casually to the point that I would question myself why I thought it was all so important.
When enough buttons were touched, I’d break out into a lecture in broken Lao. “This is your chance! Don’t waste it now because you might not have this chance again and then where will that leave you?” Really, graduating with a certificate but with no skills would not get them anywhere. How could they be so impervious to this message? Why did they act like everything was just a joke?
Amidst this sea of impertinence was one young woman who sat on the right side of the room. She would look at me intently as I ranted. She was probably using all her facilities to understand my Lao, but she needed even more effort to ignore the depths of apathy in her classmates. She was parting her own red sea and that was no small effort considering the frivolous froth that was foaming all around her.
After my own foaming at the mouth, I’d calm down and with tedious predictability, we would return to where we had started. Same dirty room. Same insolence. I wondered every day if we were going forward or sliding backwards. I had always hoped, but never imagined that something could become airborne.
When I got off the plane, we said goodbye. I was happy to see how proud and confident she looked and I felt satisfied that she had remembered me. I think I had done my part, not by singling her out as teacher’s pet, not buying her way out with a scholarship or throwing her a laptop as if it were a lifesaver. I think I helped by simply sticking to my stubborn and foolish belief that a student needs to know and believe in what they can do.
There are so many stories of unpolished gems that could shine with the right intervention. Certainly, a bit of money in the right place goes a long way, but I like these other rags to riches tales. They’re about the moment that a young person discovers who they are and believe in what they can do. They place a dream of any dimension within their sights and then take flight.
Just in case we are concerned that English might not continue to dominate the world in the future, we can assure ourselves with the numbers. Yes, English is still counted as the third most common native language in the world after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. It is still the official language of the European Union, ASEAN and the United Nations. It’s historically considered to be the first global lingua franca, the premier language of colonial powers and the so-called required language of communications, science and information technology.
Maybe it’s one infographic designed by Nextweb in 2010 that got people so anxious. “Chinese will be the dominant language on the Internet,” it claimed. People raised doubts about the statistics, the relevancy and the accuracy, but it is the raw and unedited threads on message boards that show how many Anglophones react without critical consideration. In the end, they reveal the reason why Mandarin Chinese might very well dominate the world in the future.
A common reaction found on the boards shows a belief in the permanence of the status quo. “English is the international business and government language. Has been that way for a few hundred years and will probably remain so for the next few hundred.” Categorically resisting the idea of change, this argument is not convincing to climatologists, hedge fund managers, fashion designers and Buddhists as well as everyone else who knows that change is here to stay.
Then there are comments about how difficult the language is to learn. “So… would you rather learn a language with over 6,000 letters and different phonetics or opt for the 26 letter alphabet???” The problem is that we usually don’t have a choice. It’s not the individual that decides a lingua franca as if one were choosing the easier elective among school courses. It’s the critical mass or the power of politics, economics and the military that determine what we have to speak.
Then, there are comments that reveal linguistic xenophobia. “Written Chinese is so backward even ancient Egyptian was superior.” And the opposite of fear is superiority. “I have read that with China slowly becoming the dominant economic force that those in the west should learn Chinese. That is 100% folly, it is the other way around.” It is folly to think it’s simply an either/or matter. Yes, the Chinese are already learning English at a fast pace, not because they’ll drop their only language, but because they know it’s in the their best interest to know both.
In Southeast Asia, Singapore’s economic success is often attributed to the ease of doing international business in English, but having forecast the future, Singapore’s language policy has already succeeded in streamlining the use of regional dialects into a unified Mandarin Chinese by inaugurating the Speak Mandarin Campaign as far back as 1979. It is now the second most commonly spoken language after English in Singapore and many people are functional in both. Two is better than one if not three or four. Young people in Luang Prang know this, judging by the number of students who are already studying Mandarin Chinese.
The sad thing about these blog floggers is the way they talk about a winner language that takes all without understanding the power and possibility of being bi-tri-quadrilingual. Some forsaken writers show us that they can hardly write in one language. “i think what you are thinking of is the fact that chineese is spoken by the most people that is simply because there is so many people in china they are not however relatively spread out and the ones that are, usually speak the language of the country they live in.”
There will be no superior language. There will only be the superiority of the fluent polyglot. Learn English. And then some.
Timothy Doner is from New York. At age 16, he spoke Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Italian, Persian, Swahili, Indonesian, Hindi, Ojibwe, Pashto, Turkish, Hausa, Kurdish, Yiddish, Dutch, Croatian, German, French, Latin, Mandarin and yes, English. And that was when he was 16 so we don’t know how many more languages he has learned since then. How is this possible? Should we dismiss him as a freak? Is his ability innate or learned? The answer would mean a lot for the rest of us language learners. If he knows something we don’t know, we should find out what it is. If he’s got something special that we don’t have, we should just give up.
We know more about the mapping of our brains through neuroscience using technology that images and records the size and activity of specific parts of our brain. It’s also possible to isolate the functions of particular brain parts by inspecting what happens when they are damaged, but thankfully, this is research methodology used only when that occasion arises. How much is this research helping us to understand if second language learning is more nature or more nurture?
Timothy Doner claims to be mostly self-taught, using flash cards, iPhone applications and in the case of Hindi, Bollywood movies. There is nothing revolutionary about his methods, but he says he has been treated with suspicion. If he learned modern Hebrew after his bar mitzvah and then tackled Arabic, he must certainly be some kind of spy. Where neurobiology can’t explain his motives or methods, he makes the statement himself. “I’m normal. I’m not a nerd. I’m not obsessive. I found my niche. It’s a way of coping with stress.”
His rise to fame came when he started recording and uploading his multilingual abilities, first inspired by Richard Simcott who recorded himself speaking 16 languages in succession. With the help of YouTube and social networking, polyglots emerged from the woodwork, creating what Michael Erard, author of “Bable No More,” describes as a “neural tribe of people joined, not by a common language but by a restless linguistic promiscuity.” Now, these people understand that they are not alone. Someone blogs, “I find it refreshing that I’m not the only one with this kind of aptitude with languages.”
Looking through the online reactions of polyglots and wannabe poloyglots, there is some evidence that supports the thought that some people just have that special “language gene.” One writer admits, “I don’t know how it is that this has happened. Surely, it is the way my brain is wired.” Another writer claims his brain is programmed for a specific language. “My wife speaks Tagalog, but I have had no luck learning more than a dozen words, but give me Italian and it seems to fill me like an empty tank.”
In contrast, there are many cases being made for nurture being stronger than nature. Most polyglots do not see themselves as some sort of genius. Timothy says, “It’s a matter of enthusiasm and effort more than a neurological talent.” Another person describes the experience. “I have an almost burning desire to relate to other people, which broadens my linguistic horizons. The classroom and the textbook had the opposite effect.” And elsewhere, “Innate ability is not going to magically let you absorb vocabulary and idioms.” When school is out, Timothy spends 15 hours a day studying. He teaches himself the basics of a language in two or three weeks.
The amount that these people learn is enormous but nobody is saying that it’s effortless. “As many smart people find out to their disappointment, foreign language ability is 5 percent smarts, 95 percent hard, boring rote memorization and practical use in a native environment.” Refuting the theory of a critical age of learning second languages, one comments, “I don’t believe that age is such an important factor in learning languages. An older person who puts in the same number of hours as a younger person can make the same amount of progress.”
We have to remember that these comments and claims are not coming from teachers, Second Language Acquisition academics or neurobiologists. They are coming from the polyglots themselves. “I am left-handed and artistic, but I am offended by the thought that testosterone and the autistic spectrum inform my intellectual capacity.” We are warned that, “You must be self-taught, because if you put yourself in the hands of a teacher, he or she will teach you what HE wants you to learn.” And for learning methodology, “Yes… dating sites! I use my high school French to Skype with sexy French and Canadian men all the time. It’s good practice.”
It is humbling to consider that our abilities are not limited to what our brains can or cannot do, but by the limits of how we use them. To find out what is possible before telling ourselves what is impossible is good practice.
Recent literacy rates for Laos give reason to be optimistic. There has been steady and significant improvement over the past years. The CIA world Factbook for 2013 puts literacy, defined as those who can read and write aged over 15, at 72.7% (male: 82.5%, female: 63.2%). The question is what level of reading ability makes someone literate. If the long-term goal is to create a productive human resource base, literacy must go far beyond the level of reading a signboard or being able to write one’s name.
Literacy is one indicator of economic development and acts as a benchmark for MDC (More developed Country) status. The UK, Germany, France, Japan, Italy, Canada, Spain, South Korea and the US all have reported literacy rates of 97% or above showing a strong correlation between literacy and development index ranking. At the same time, literacy is but one factor in overall economic health considering that the 98% literacy rate of Greece hasn’t been a protection against economic woes.
Strangely enough, there is the case of a weak correlation between literacy and reading scores even within one country. Literacy rates for the US are reported at 99%, but at the same time a 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) places 67% of US 4th graders below proficiency in reading. Do these numbers tell us that almost everyone in the US can read, but simply cannot read well?
The dramatic discrepancy in numbers could come from varying definitions of literacy and reading. The CIA world Factbook, which is commonly sourced for comparative literacy rates throughout the world, admits that there is no universal definition and standard for literacy, but uses the common definition of, “The ability to read and write at a specified age.” Should we conclude then that 33% of US students are proficient when they are in the 4th grade and then by the “specified age” jump to 99%?
The 99% appears to be an internal number. As quoted from the CIA Factbook homepage, “Detailing the standards that individual countries use to assess the ability to read and write is beyond the scope of the Factbook.” I’m sure everyone wants to be in the 99% club. Is it that PISA and NAEP scores are simply more rigorous and therefore more revealing?
In another study, Renaissance Learning, Inc. (2011) evaluated the level of reading material of high school students. It surveyed 2.6 million students in grades 1-12 from 24,465 schools in 50 states to find out what they are reading and to what level. Complexity of the text was determined through objective measures of sentence/word length, and frequency of difficult words. The results are that the average high school student in the US is reading material of a 5th grade level, certainly not at the level needed for academia or for employment.
We could feel more assured if these results were telling us that the 99% represents the percentage of people who are able to decode text (read) but no necessarily use their reading skills to acquire productive levels of knowledge (literacy). Is it simply the difference between those who have a driver’s license and those who actually drive? Sadly, there are indications that among the 99% who have licenses, many simply do not have the ability to drive. They were never taught how to.
These claims were made by Rudolph Flesch in his book, “Why Johnny Can’t Read” (1955) and by Diane McGuiness in, “Why Our Children Can’t Read” (1999). Both make a simple point. The ability to read does not come naturally like speaking or walking. It must be taught. Both criticize the popularity of the whole language approach at the expense of phonics. The result is that some kids do learn to read, but those without a more phonemic understanding of the alphabet cannot. Just because some can swim doesn’t mean that the rest should be left to drown.
Opposing camps will surely continue to argue about numbers and results. Nice numbers justify and bad numbers vilify. Amidst all the numbers and discussion, Flesch and McGuiness say they’ve found the target. They say simply that we’re not teaching kids how to read.