I’d been in Thailand for more than five years and was still struggling with the language when I had a conversation with a young man in a crisp white shirt. I’d overheard him speaking in Thai and he sounded fluent. I brought this up and he furrowed his brows, expressing his concern that he hadn’t learned enough in the two months he’d been there.
It may be the best kept secret, but the most successful language learning program around might very well be run out of Utah. The Missionary Training Center (MTC) has been in operation since the 1920s and one online explanation modestly states that they simply learned along the way on how to train quickly and efficiently in any language in the world. We might not really know how they do it short of becoming a member, but somebody has thought of this and has written a book, “Second Language Acquisition Abroad: The LDS Missionary Experience (Studies in Bilingualism), edited by Lynn Hansen.
Relying only on a book review does not reveal many secrets and the review itself does complain that only one chapter out of eleven tells us how they really teach and learn, but it’s clear that they’re not channeling special help from above. There is no mention of messianic motivation other than the pressure of being thrown into a new country, not as a tourist but with a message to communicate. When it gets down to it, the method they claim that works is something we already know, but not always disciplined enough to follow. In short:
Be dedicated and diligent – Learning a language takes time and effort. Don’t stop improving language skills just because people start to understand what you’re trying to say.
Take responsibility – Make clear goals on why you want to learn a language. When you have a clear purpose, you have a clear idea what is most essential for you to know. The purpose essentially is to communicate.
Find chances to communicate - Maybe this is where missionaries have the advantage because they will always be interacting with people from a wide range of backgrounds. Don’t be shy about asking for help.
Make a plan – People often overlook the importance of being self-directed in learning a language. Don’t depend only on class time. Make goals and stay on track.
Choose your tools – There are lots of resources that you can find or make including dictionaries, books, websites, your own cards, notebooks, etc. Find what works best for you.
Memorize words and phrases – That’s what language is about. Keep looking for new words and ways to use them. The same goes for grammar and sentence patterns.
Listen actively – Listen and imitate. Listen for words and structures you’ve learned, but find out how people actually use them. This is especially important for idiomatic use.
Learn through culture – Language is culture and the more you understand the culture, the more you will understand the language.
This is a rather long list, but it worth knowing that even with the best program and the best results, there is no magic elixir. Language learning requires self-direction and self-discipline and for us, that’s either good new or bad news.
At one school, students are especially skilled at drawing so it was curious to find that they are ashamed about their work. They cover their sketches with their hands when I come around to look. I guess they they’re not supposed to be drawing in their notebooks. Drawing is doodling and doodling is a defilement of what should be precise replications of what’s on the board.
The reason why there’s so much drawing in this school is because students cannot read and write Lao. The teachers don’t speak their first language and don’t know what to do. With all the time that’s supposed to be filled every day, an easy out is to doodle. It’s a great way to make the hours pass by. When there is some assignment to be done, time can be stretched by drawing every line with draftsmanship precision. The idea is to doodle and dawdle.
There’s not much value in dawdling but much could be said for doodling. Doodling is dismissed as absent-minded scribbling, but could also be considered the tire tracks of someone learning to drive or the true traces of a pure stream of consciousness. Doodling can be understood as a protest against analytic and linear tyranny. When the brain wants to develop, it needs to explore, not just replicate.
Children have no problem doodling. You can find evidence in notebooks, chalked walls, etchings in the dirt and unsupervised chalkboards. When asked to draw, however, students often freeze. That’s when many start saying, “I can’t draw. I don’t know how.” Somewhere along the line, they’ve been taught to believe it, one effective method being to scold a child for scribbling.
Scribbling is famous throughout art history from cave drawings to Cy Twombly to Keith Haring. Jackson Pollock didn’t stop with a crayon but went for buckets of paint. The last thing imaginable in a Lao curriculum is a grade school tutorial on modern art, but that’s too bad since every inscrutable attempt to learn seems to head in that direction anyway. Looking at modern art could very well strike a private chord in developing brains.
I showed examples to young adults. One woman liked a Dan Flavin neon installation more than a Rothko color field though she understood they were both about the same thing. Most laughed at Duchamp’s bicycle, but one person was puzzled and wanted to know what it was for. I didn’t want to ruin her curiosity by giving an answer, but did say that artists try to get us to see things in ways we usually don’t and sometimes that takes turning things upside down.
Learning a new language is a form of doodling though most students are afraid to say anything other than a straight line. That’s why the serious learner is more interested in asking questions about grammar than engaging in a playful linguistic way. I remember one student’s turning point when she just started making jokes with the 10 words that she knew. She sounded like she had gone crazy, but that’s precisely how she saw the light.
Learning a language is fun because the mistakes we make are hilarious, that is when we are allowed to work in a doodle mode. When the teacher is holding a stick and we’re afraid to make a mistake, it’s not fun at all and you can just see the synapses fading. That’s when dawdling starts. They’re not the same things. Observe and you will see.
When you’ve been here long enough, you can listen to how people talk and figure out where they’ve learned their English. If someone uses “like” a lot, they may have worked at a guesthouse and have been talking with young backpackers. Monks have a particular patter, characterized by questions asked in a series of expressionless order. Many men who have been both a monk and a guesthouse attendant often become guides and the unpunctuated patter and casual confidence of their pasts can be identified. They often sound like a tape recorder. Ask a question and the closest related monologue will start.
Of course, there are dozens of good excellent guides out there, but I am targeting them because of their comfortable position on the hierarchy of desired jobs. They are revered because they can own guesthouses, drive vans and look cool with foreigners. They are admired because they look like they’re communicating in English. If their crown is left uncontested, the bar will never be raised.
On one occasion, I was impressed with the abilities of a secondary school student and felt he was full of promise. I asked the, “What do you wanna be when you grow up?” question and was surprised that his highest aspirations were to be a soldier or a guide. Maybe that’s not that different from children in developed countries who aspire to be a professional athlete or a singer. There aren’t many role models to choose from. Nonetheless, I begged him to reconsider, only later to understood that being poor and connected, it could be unrealistic for him to aim to be a doctor.
In another case, I met a student who had worked his way up through the highest cadres of academic performance. More aware of his choices, said he wanted to work in a private company and make money. That’s a very sensible plan though I have to admit I was hoping he was going to say something like, “I want to use my talents to give something back to society.” Reality check for me.
Maybe the hard realities of life here is that most students don’t have the luxury to have dreamlike futures. In contrast, A LinkedIn survey of developed countries confirmed that 70 % of the respondents feel that taking pleasure in their work is the highest priority. 8% said that helping others is important. The average Lao is probably most concerned about job security, a pension and health insurance. That narrows the choices way down.
Can’t being a teacher be a good compromise? Working for the state will give them security and benefits. Pay raises will wipe away that era when people would say, “If you want to be a teacher, it’s better to raise pigs.” In fact, there has already been a dramatic increase in applications for teaching colleges and there is the hope that all those empty rural classrooms will be filled.
The next step is to produce good teachers. Not just good teachers, but excellent teachers. Will students some day dream about being a teacher, a profession in which they will gain personal satisfaction and pleasure? Can helping others become a priority? We’re hoping that once the status of teaching is higher than raising pigs again, our teachers will have chosen their professions for the right reasons.
We need to remember that real learning happens in the brain, not necessarily in an institution. Schools have walls, but the brain has no limits. A school is a social construction while our master organ is a work of nature. If this spongy pink mass is likened to a verdant cornucopia of thoughts and ideas, schools determine how we cook it. The problem is that developed education systems can either offer the best in exquisite culinary mastery or can be as cold as canned soup. Some will even argue that cold canned soup is good because it can be eaten during power shortages and can be mass-produced in the millions.
Selling canned soup requires factories, production lines, management and distribution systems and sophisticated advertising. A good cook on the other hand can be found anywhere. The most talented by far is the one who can whip up a feast with just a handful of bamboo shoots and a wood fire. I’d like to see that happen in the country schools of Laos. A shack will do. The students will come if the teacher can inspire. Their desire to learn is natural. They’re too young to give lip service to the merits of schools degrees or to even justify education as an exit from poverty. They haven’t pegged their future dreams as a waiter or a guide. There is something else that compels them to learn.
In the countryside, they don’t get much intellectual stimulation. There is nothing really to read and the wider world on the news doesn’t make much sense. But yes, they will jump up and down in delight if they learn how to spell a word correctly. They’ll recite English phrases like they’re nursery rhymes or fun songs. Once students experience learning with their own brain, they say they don’t want to stop. They want to continue the lesson even though it’s already been two hours without a break. Students visit us early in the morning and late at night and if I ask them to get a notebook and pencil, they’ll run home and be back in a flash. Learning is exciting for them.
They don’t know how to make excuses yet. They’re not telling us they can only learn if they have their own tablet or ask for funds for a library. Learning is not about external objects, but about the fizzy feeling inside the brain as it shifts into gear. What I believe they’re inspired by is the sincerity of a devoted teacher. They know a teacher’s intentions and express their gratitude with small but meaningful gestures like a bag of hot sticky rice in the morning.
Teachers don’t want to teach here in this remote village. It’s inconvenient, it’s dusty and there are no food choices. Maybe they haven’t seen the star studded sky at night. You wouldn’t suspect such a dramatic show since mornings are shrouded in mist, but at night, the dome above becomes a live planetarium where giant constellations swing in tremendous arcs.
People in this remote village see the universe above their heads every night and understand that it’s just a bit of gravity that keeps them glued to their mountaintop as the earth continues to spin.
If we could just make education work here. Keep students rooted to where they are; where they can refer to the starry night above them if they need to be reminded that the universe is within their reach. I want to track these students and these schools. I want to prove some day with hard numbers that their performance can be stellar and not outdone by anyone else.