Many people like to tell me that the Lao language is easy, whereas English is difficult. I don’t know how they can compare since one is their mother tongue and the other a foreign language. If they’re simply saying that a foreign language is harder to learn than one’s first language, of course I agree.
Hidden in this assertion is the fact that many people in Laos are learning Lao as a second language if not a foreign language. Many ethnic minority children don’t use Lao until they start school and learning to read and write in Lao can’t be that easy. Nobody has ever told me directly that they have trouble with Lao. It’s probably a source of shame. Those who are proficiently bilingual are ones who have spent time in the cities and are not representative of what is happening in the countryside.
It may seem like hair splitting to make the distinction, but if these rural ethnic minority students are classified as learners of a foreign, not second language, there would be more sympathy. A second language by definition is a national or official language used in a country so it means that once you leave your door, you have the chance to learn by immersion. You will be expected to speak that language and it will be everywhere.
Lao is the national and official language, but in a remote ethnic village, you can walk out your door and never know it. Most villages don’t have street signs, billboards or even shop signs not to mention books and newspapers. Many villages can source radio and TV in their own local language or if they have a taste for TV dramas, will more often tune into Thai than Lao. Daily life can be conducted without Lao.
People learn second languages out of necessity, but study foreign languages because they are language nerds, hobbyists or frequent fliers. A foreign language is harder to learn because there is less language contact on a daily basis, but for this very reason, those interested in learning are willing to spend money for it. It’s not only big business, but academic studies and international organizations rally around the cause. When paying customers go to foreign language schools, they can expect to get properly trained in articulation, grammar and cultural norms. Bilingual teachers act as bridges or at least the texts are translated into a customer’s first language.
Second language learners rarely get these services. There are the assumptions that once immersed, students will simply learn how to swim. Unfortunately, learning Lao as a foreign language hasn’t emerged as a big cause. I’ve never seen a book, “Learning Lao for ethnic minorities” or seen Lao language learning programs on TV. Language acquisition is just supposed to happen on its own or through immersion in the schools and it ends up being either sink or swim. I’ve seen how many elementary school students learn to swim. They follow the crowd when they don’t understand. They lip sync when they’re not confident and share answers when they don’t have any clues themselves. If these swimming techniques work, many can complete school, but when they’re required to truly be able to read and write, they sink.
Much of what has been learned about teaching English as a foreign language can be used for helping speakers of ethnic minority languages when they learn Lao. The biggest shift is to question the premise that students will learn naturally through immersion. Can’t we find a way to help them read and write? It’s worth a try. We could see more students swimming.
After a long day, it’s nice to sit in a coffee shop and get good service. A smile, a cup well positioned on the saucer and a well-wiped table. The attention to detail is what can make or break an experience. In contrast, I’ve had teatime ruined by surly service that doesn’t have a clue as to what a customer wants. I once asked for the table to be wiped of crumbs before my order was put on the table and the waitress brushed them off with a random receipt. In the end, I had to go to the kitchen to get a towel.
The purpose is not to just rag about bad service, but to remind us how difficult and important good customer service is. After all, the golden rule is that the customer is always right. This is not just based on the principle that a person who pays is always correct, but that the essence of service is to put another person’s needs before one’s own. Couldn’t this be applied to the idea of good teaching?
Of course, a good teacher serving their students cannot mean that the student is always right. The job of the teacher is to direct the student when they are wrong. On the other hand, the student should have the right to be wrong without the fear of punishment or humiliation. The student has the right to be ignorant since admitting that is the first step to getting educated. The student has the right to receive good teaching service. That should be the bottom line. They’re usually paying for it.
I always sigh when I talk to students so desperate to get an education. More than often, they feel an education is the ability to speak English and they complain that they can’t do so because they don’t have the money to study in a private school. Why can’t they learn it at school? They’re usually enrolled in a large institution that already has an English program, but they’re not being served. What would we do if we bought a cup of coffee that never came? Or for that matter cold coffee in a chipped cup or one with grounds in it or one from discarded beans?
People working in the service industry might sometimes wonder why they have to always smile for so little in return. People opening doors might feel more like doormats. Those in customer service have to be trained to endure abuse. In that respect, teachers with the right heart are by far better off. The gratitude and love from students is often beautifully expressed.
When I was teaching in a university, teenagers would ask for advice. Many times the problems were personal and complicated so I would just assure them that they should believe in themselves and do what they think is best. With this kind of advice, things would often just work out on their own and students would gush appreciation for my advice.
The returns of good customer service are especially strong when a teacher is truly sincere. It is not be a popularity contest, but one teacher complained that his students never contacted him after they graduated. He obviously didn’t leave much of an impression on them. Then, there are teachers with devoted students who pay them visits and remember them well into adulthood. It’s not because they’ve told their students they are always right, but they’ve communicated to them through their service that that student is special and deserving of the best. A good teacher who goes the extra mile for their students will enjoy the gracious adoration of extended families, children and grandchildren if they live that long. It lasts longer than a cup of coffee.
I am surprised to see that Jane Goodall is still alive and writing. I remember this famous British primatologist from the 60s when she made groundbreaking discoveries about animal behavior. She observed wild chimpanzees teasing termites out of holes with modified twigs. With that insight, she broke our complacent beliefs that only humans make tools. Though a bit humbled, we still convince ourselves that we are rather clever.
These days we have some mighty fancy tools. Like chimpanzees, we have opposable thumbs and this comes in handy when swiping or texting. Chimpanzees have hands made for swinging through trees. Our thumbs have evolved to Instagram our swinging. We cannot do without, but we’re not so sure these days if we’re using a tool or a toy. Nor are we so sure that our inventiveness is born from necessity. Maybe we are simply programmed now to manufacture more needs.
We should relent and admit that most of our waking life is about manufacturing, be it commodities or consent. Throughout the world, we agree that a good education means a good career track, which means an early advantage over one’s neighbor. One score higher, one school better, one rank higher in a chain of command. All this effort is to be a slightly bigger cog so that we can turn smaller cogs in this big mean machine. Information is power, or so they say, so it’s easy to continue stoking the engines in our educational institutions. It’s not that hard. Cogs usually move in one direction and for one purpose.
If we look into our crystal balls, we can see a future turned inside out. What if manufacturing doesn’t require an assembly line anymore? What if there is no need for mass production or mass marketing? What if we care less about a brand? If this were to happen, the chapter of industrial revolution would close. More startling is that it could all happen with a little desktop printer.
At present, 3D printers are too slow to take the place of assembly lines, but costs of the printers themselves have come way down. A cottage industry 3D business will cut costs in design, labor, management, advertising, distribution and just about every other cog that makes an assembly line run. No more indentured labor. No more sweatshops. The competitive edge will not come from something made faster, cheaper or smaller. In the way that a recipe has no monopoly over who cooks and eats it, competition will only be for the better design and the more creative idea. In this new world, what will be the strongest tool?
If we don’t quite get it yet, we’ll say the strongest tool is the computer. Or some will have a case for saying it’s the gun, but without a doubt the most powerful tool is the brain itself. Granted, it depends on how it’s used; as an obedient grey lump or as a creator of things never conceived of before. Institutions can’t treat our brains like magnetic tape anymore, cannot keep the gates or dictate who is smart or not. Hammering at our brains, we’ve been holding the wrong end. The new education must help us move from cogs to creativity, from consumers to creators.
Information is power, but almost everyone has access now. If creativity is the true power, how can we cultivate it? If Jane Goodall can live another twenty years, maybe she can figure it out. We know that primates use tools, but how do we develop our brains to invent, and can it happen in a school?
The other day, I witnessed something that was unprecedented in my many years in Laos. It was a historic moment. I am still awe-struck. A whole elementary school started on time. All the teachers were present and teaching at the moment the clock struck 2. They were not asking the students for the day of the week, not writing it on the board, not asking what the lesson was for the day and not looking in their books to think about what to teach. They were up and teaching.
The students should have been as awe-struck as I was, but rather than dazed, they were engaged, responsive, sitting with backs straight and acting like model students. How long had they been waiting for this day? How starved were they to have a teacher earnestly spend time with them? I was not only amazed with the teacher, but amazed at how normal this was for the students. Despite everything acting to the contrary, these students knew, understood and recognized what a normal classroom should look and feel like, almost as if it was an unalienable right granted at birth.
Maybe it was because I was watching, but the teacher continued full steam with all-out enthusiasm throughout the full two hours. If she was acting, she was doing a masterful job because her eyes were bright as she showed delight in the students’ responses. She carefully reviewed to make sure every student understood. It was a beautiful sight. She was confident and appeared in all ways to enjoy what she was doing.
Some report that this dramatic change in behavior was because of a big important meeting with teachers about improving their practice. Some say that they saw how the successful teachers were being awarded with bonuses and pay raises. It was also reported that someone would be coming the next week to observe and review their abilities so this day was their dress rehearsal. The thing is, it all appeared so normal, I hope it’s not a monstrous dream to wish it to happen every day of the week and every week of the school year.
It should happen every day, because momentum brings about significant progress. The students begin to trust the teacher and they begin to trust their own abilities. They see a consistency and logical progression in their studies and they start to look forward to the next day. When school is on their minds, they go home every day and review their lessons. Teachers can pride themselves in their students’ progress. Schools get credit. Things move upwards.
Most dramatic pipe dreams burst at the seams all too early, but we can look at two reasonable targets for teachers. One is for them to be present in the classroom for every minute allotted as class time. The second is to be engaged with the students in any form throughout that time. This discounts writing on the board for 20 minutes, waiting for students to copy it all down in their notebooks, answering phones and stepping outside for a bite or a smoke. Without the common time killing tricks, the teacher will be so bored with themselves that they’ll start lesson planning and thinking how to use the time. They might have fun.
I suspect teachers, in their boredom, are tying their own hands behind their backs. Yes, their job is to follow the schedule, finish the book and submit the reports, but nobody is forbidding them from innovating a bit, creating a good lesson plan or trying something a little different. In fact, they are being begged to do so for the sake of education and the children. It’s another unfortunately unprecedented world record, but in all my time spent in schools in this country, I have yet to see a teacher do something that I could honestly describe as innovative.
I’m still rooting for Laos. I think this country should set records. It should shine beyond all odds and make neighboring heads turn. Laos deserves this.