Once upon a time, there was a rabbit and a turtle. The rabbit had long legs and was made for running. The turtle, on the other hand, had short and stubby legs and it took days if not months to cross a field. Slow living, however, meant a long life. Despite their differences, they lived peacefully together in a small forest.
But only to some extent. Actually, they shared the last bench in the back of the classroom and were dismissed as failures by their classmates. As the class buffoons, they thought they were funny and didn’t realize they were objects of ridicule. Somehow, the rabbit could pass on its wily ability to talk out of tight corners and the turtle was able to hide all the test notes in its thick shell.
Maybe for the very reason that they always got such miserable scores, they were constantly bickering about who was better, searching for faults in each other and priding themselves over any tiny advantage. It was rather silly that they should be competing for the bottom rung of the ladder when they had no intention to climb it. It was a race for the bottom.
Though it was perfectly senseless, the rabbit one day challenged the turtle to a footrace. Everyone knew that the rabbit would win, but out of pride, the turtle couldn’t admit it and accepted the challenge. The goal was sufficiently far enough to take some time to reach and could serve as a slightly interesting diversion for the other students.
After much strutting and boasting, the rabbit took off at a good trot, but once out of sight headed for the nearest corner plot of juicy carrots to forage and nap. The turtle, on the other hand, set out at a steady pace, determined to finish the story as it had always been told. Unfortunately for both of them, the day was freakishly hot and as they ran neck and neck for the finish line, they both collapsed from heat exhaustion.
They didn’t drop dead on the spot, but some opportunistic vultures quickly spotted them and finished them off. The rabbit was skinned not for its meat but to be sewn into a luxurious fur coat and sold to someone who could afford it. The shell of the turtle was made into designer buttons and the meat was consumed in a restaurant serving endangered species at spectacular prices.
Their schoolmates were shocked and appalled at what they had seen before their very eyes, but had already deceived themselves in thinking that they were better off. Actually, they were competing for the second rung from the bottom without realizing the ladder never had much to do with real abilities. The only tragedy of the sudden death of the rabbit and turtle was the quickness at which they were replaced by others who thought that winning the wrong race made them somehow better.
The moral of the story is, “Don’t run too fast when it’s hot.”
In the past, when I got questions about grammar, I would check if it was just part of a wrong approach. I didn’t think it was that important, but now I’ve reformed my ways. When people ask questions about grammar, it’s another indication that they’re lost on a road with no signs.
The reason is because though grammar seems to have been fed as an unenecessary vitamins, most students are simply searching for nutrients. I was surprised to understand that most students have little knowledge of grammar for their own language and have learned only because it’s been covered in their English classes. Many might even think that grammar is an English thing and has nothing to do about Lao.
It only confirms the point for if most students think grammar is essential for understanding English, it explains why many cannot write in Lao. Without an understanding of word function and order, it would be very difficult to write. Granted, it’s never hard to simply copy. It would be very hard to compose and writing is a primary way to build higher level constructions of thought and logic.
So English is dropped from the sky as an important tool and almost like cargo worship, it gains more value that it’s worth. I say so because knowledge of terms is not enough to be able to make something useful. If a doctor only knew the names of internal organs without knowing their functions, they wouldn’t be able to cure many people. In the same way, students may have memorized what a conjunctive clause is, but it’s not going to help them to write correctly. Worst is if they’re a teacher and simply use the word to test the next generation.
Thus, in an experiment with Lao since more students are already dealing with the language at the level of a sentence, I had instructors identify the verb. The tricky part is to identify a verb without calling it a verb so we just call it a very important word in a sentence.
With students, they say, “In the sentence I just read, the important word is ….” So if, “Ms, Bua Kham raises vegetables in her yard so that she can sell them and make some extra money.” The important word (the main verb) is “raise” and the teacher can ask, “Who raises? She raises what? Where does she raise them? Why does she raise them? When she sells them, what can she get? Does she get a lot? Right, just a big of extra money.” Excellent.
The point is to reconstruct a sentence with the main verb acting as the fulcrum as it should do. There are other ways to do this exercise, but by reconstructing a sentence part by part, students start to understand structure. It’s not difficult, but apparently hasn’t been done. The only catch is that this works best first with the Lao language so, gasp, it would mean helping students to understand their first language before learning a second language rather than in reverse.
It is a very unique situation that things might very well be learned backwards, but then this is only the thoughts of one person. Who really knows what works? In another experiment, I was surprised that students could a repeat an English sentence better when heard backwards. Sadly, I suspect it is because it’s easier to start with the word you’ve just heard and it works best when you don’t know the meaning. Who really knows?
In the past, I was mildly irritated to get questions about grammar because I assumed they were from some misguided homework assignment, but now I recognize these requests as a plea from students who are justifiably looking for a road sign in their meandering search for meaning. Though grammar is fed to students as a forced vitamin regime, most students are simply searching for basic nutrients.
I am surprised to understand that most students have little grammatical understanding of their own language and are familiar with the notion only because it’s been covered in their English classes. Many might think that grammar is an English thing and has nothing to do with Lao.
As I understand it, grammar is not taught in Lao language classes. There is very little sign of it in the elementary texts. This explains why so many are not confident in writing Lao. It is commonly thought that if you can speak a language, you can write it, but without an understanding of word function and order, it is very difficult to construct a proper sentence, much the less compose a complex, yet logical argument. Granted, it’s always been easy to copy, but that doesn’t constitute an ability to write.
So when students attach themselves to grammar, it is a kind of cargo worship that has gained added value for the wrong reasons. Most learn grammatical terms without knowing what they’re for, yet pride themselves that they know the number of verb conjugations. Terms without functions are dangerous in the way we wouldn’t want to be treated by a doctor who knew the names of internal organs, but had no idea of how they function.
In experiments, I’ve found it possible to teach word order and function without using the grammatical terms. We point out the verb by calling it the “important” word. Using the verb as the gravitational center of a sentence, questions can help students to understand how orbiting words are related. For example if the sentence is, “Ms, Bua Kham raises vegetables in her yard so that she can sell them and make some extra money.” The teacher focuses on the verb “raise” and asks, “Who raises? She raises what? Where does she raise them? Why does she raise them? When she sells them, what can she get? Does she get a lot? Right, just a bit of extra money.” The verb connects the who, what, where, why and when and even gives sense to subordinate and conjunctive clauses, though such terms can be kept as a secret until they’re understood.
Teaching both form and function creates a biosphere of meaning. Meaning can take root and the brain is happy to use both sides. Research has shown that when one side of the brain is damaged, patients might know the function of the hammer without knowing the name. When the other side is decommissioned, the patient looks at a hammer, knows what it’s called and has no idea what it’s for. We need to understand both form and function.
Asking questions for comprehension in this way is easier done for Lao language lessons, considering the level of most English students. It’s not a bad idea to ask students to understand their first language before tackling the second. At present, most are doing it in reverse.
There are many things that can help us make progress. Sliding backwards is not one. We need the will and the way and then we can get us up that hill.
It had been around five years since I left Luang Prabang, so upon coming back, I was moved by the kind hearts of so many young people who remembered me. In restaurants, guesthouses and tourist offices, people greet me by name and remind me that I once taught them. I don’t remember everyone’s names, but some graciously tell me, “I know teachers can’t remember every student they’ve taught, but I remember you.” What makes my day is to hear them speak in rather fluent English and I feel assured that efforts do bear fruit.
I ask where I taught them since there were so many places. Next, I ask if I yelled at them. I remember those moments of exasperation when I would implore that they try to understand the difference between learning, and just sitting at their heavy desks waiting for a certificate. Some students would listen carefully, not because I was getting red in the face, but because they understood. “Do this for your future,” I’d say. “Look down the road, not just down at your feet. It’s worth the effort.” I remember one young woman who would sit straight in her seat and listen intently. It was as if nobody had ever told her these things before.
I ran into her years later in the airport. She greeted me gracefully with a Lao greeting and told me she was now a flight attendant. I’m sure it was a personal triumph for her and I couldn’t have been more pleased.
So much is at stake for these young people. For many, it’s not just about their future, but about their entire family’s future. I’m impressed with the generosity they express to their extended families. Many are the primary breadwinners and are sending much of their paychecks back home. I know of someone who skips lunch so that the money saved can feed his family. Another is drawing his own blood for transfusions for his sick mother. There are devotional efforts that would put many developed country children to shame. The stakes are high.
And for those very reasons, I still fret at the lack of educational opportunities for these young people. In my absence, schools have risen and fallen and some have folded. They still follow the old formula of using the same books and the same techniques. People stick to the cautious recipe they know best and don’t dare to add bananas to the pancake no matter how plain they may be. Consumers don’t complain because they’ve never tasted anything better.
It’s really a small town and a small world when people are content with what they’ve got simply because they’ve never ventured beyond the nearest hill. Actually, many have literally crossed enormous mountains to seek out an education in Luang Prabang, but that journey pretty much ends at what becomes the center of their universe. Build another guesthouse, buy a van, and deposit suitcases of cash in the bank. Life is good.
What kind of education will it take to prepare young people for the future? Not just the future of bigger hotels and more tourists but a future in which globalization is sniffing and scratching at the door. What kind of education can help young people see what’s around the corner rather than what’s at or under their feet? What kind of education can help us all?