Why teach languages in schools?

I stumbled upon a survey currently conducted by an Australian online journal debating social and political issues of interest. The May 08 topic for discussion is “What’s the point of language teaching?”

Is it just economic, or are the biggest benefits intrinsic? What languages should be taught, how should we determine priorities? And what about “dead” and invented languages like Latin and Esperanto?

I figured we should canvass some opinions here and get some debate going. Hopefully I can get Tina to include this in the monthly Te Waka Reo newsletter.

p/s: Thanks to all those people who have joined up on the International Languages Week group on Facebook. Good to see the level of interest in languages.

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The laid-back life of the English speaker

Business trip to Asia? Of course, they’ll have someone there who speaks English. Holiday in Europe? Well, they all learn English at school, don’t they? And all the signs will be in English. And even if they don’t want to speak English, at least they’ll understand… I say, does anyone here speak English?

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Business trip to Asia? Of course, they’ll have someone there who speaks English. Holiday in Europe? Well, they all learn English at school, don’t they? And all the signs will be in English. And even if they don’t want to speak English, at least they’ll understand… I say, does anyone here speak English?

This must be the way we think. How else could we explain the fact that 85-90% of people living in New Zealand can communicate in one or more of our official languages, but nothing else? Also, if you look more closely at the census results for 2006, you can reasonably assume that a high proportion of those who do speak a foreign language do so because they brought it with them as migrants; not many Kiwis will have learnt Hindi or Hungarian at school.

It would be interesting to know how many native-born New Zealanders or Anglo-Saxon migrants have some mastery of another tongue. The number is likely to be pretty low, and incredibly low compared to figures for non-English-speaking OECD countries.

Nor are things likely to change in the near future. In 2006, only 23% of students taking NCEA at Level Three included a foreign language in their options. In most developed countries, that figure would be 100%; in fact, you wouldn’t be able to secure university entry without a satisfactory result in a foreign language.

New Zealanders are not alone in their lethargy. People are pretty much the same in the other English-speaking countries. The UK has invested vast amounts of money in foreign language teaching over the decades, but the result is still a largely monolingual society.

It’s not hard to see why English speakers are linguistically lazy. The reality is that many of the assumptions we make about other people’s ability to speak English are often correct. Yes, someone here probably does speak English. And even if we do make an effort, their English usually seems so much better than our French or Japanese or whatever that you wonder why you bother. English is the language of travel, of the Internet, of business meetings, in short, the international language.

So why worry? There are many reasons, perhaps three main ones.

The first is simply one of equity. English has become the international language through a combination of historical circumstances, not because it is inherently easier than other languages, still less because it is in some way better than the others. Learning another language is not an easy business, and the people we meet at home or abroad who have mastered English did not do so overnight. In many cases, they will have devoted hundreds of hours of study, and possibly large amounts of money, to get where they are. Isn’t it just a little arrogant, then, simply to expect that they should have done this? And while we take their efforts for granted, we think we’re doing well and deserving of praise if we’ve learnt to say “bonjour”!

The second reason is economic. All other things being equal, will the Chinese trader prefer to negotiate with the monolingual Anglophone or the foreigner who has made the effort to speak the language and become familiar with the culture? Which of the two has the better understanding of the way things work in China? Who gets the deal?

The third reason is cultural. Learning a foreign language opens up a new way of thinking. Languages are not just different words for the same ideas; in many cases, they encapsulate new ideas, or new ways of looking at old ones. Language is a key component of culture, and an appreciation of different cultures is fundamental to understanding the world we live in. You also realise that the way we express concepts in English is just one of many possible ways. In fact, you really begin to understand your own language only when you start comparing it with others.

If learning a language helps you to learn more from other countries, maybe we should look at how others approach the learning of languages.

In most European countries, for example, school students not only have to take a language, they also have to achieve a certain standard in that language. If they don’t, they can’t proceed to the next class. The idea of doing a language for a few years and then dropping it if you don’t like it is quite alien. Interestingly, the aim is not to produce a huge number of graduates in foreign languages – they simply wouldn’t get jobs. Instead, mastery of another language is regarded as a standard adjunct to other skills. At university, you may study law or computing or physics: your foreign language skills were acquired at school, and are largely taken for granted.

Clearly, in a country like New Zealand, our circumstances are not entirely the same as those, say, of Sweden. First of all, we can’t identify one language that we absolutely must learn: we might study Japanese only to end up working for a company that does business exclusively in China. Then we can’t pretend that we depend for our very survival on mastery of another language – much of the world is learning English, and that fact is unlikely to change.

But that does not mean that New Zealanders should continue to be largely monolingual.

First of all, there is a strong case for as many school students as possible to have an experience of learning a foreign language. Every one of them will interact with many people who have learnt English as a second language, probably on a daily basis. They need to understand what it’s like to learn another language, and should also have enough understanding of their own language to help the people they are speaking to.

On the other hand, there is little point in requiring all school students in English-speaking countries to take a language throughout their school careers. This has been tried, for example, in the UK, and the results were hardly an unqualified success. At lower levels, learning a language can be fun. However, it’s pretty hard to sustain the fun for years if there is no real obligation to achieve. And there probably comes a point when you also need to apply mental discipline: you have to work hard to fit things together and to exercise powers of memory to learn the vocabulary. This is a very valuable exercise, but realistically it is not for everyone.

What we really need to do is to look at ways of encouraging language study up to university entrance, and at raising the levels of achievement. The idea of a German doctor not being able to speak English is quite odd. Why don’t Kiwi doctors speak German? Or Japanese, or Arabic? We don’t know which language people are going to need later on, but once you have mastered one, you will find it much easier to learn another, even if it is unrelated. In essence, you acquire a feel for language, and that is what we need to be teaching.

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Are women really better at learning a language?

A recent article in Scientific American outlined results from a study showing that girls completing a linguistic abilities task showed greater activity in brain areas implicated specifically in language encoding, which decipher information abstractly. Boys, on the other hand, showed a lot of activity in regions tied to visual and auditory functions.

The implications are numerous. It appears that boys need to be taught language both visually (with a textbook) and orally (through a lecture) to get a full grasp of the subject, whereas a girl may be able to pick up the concepts by either method.

At Euroasia, I’ve observed over the years that we consistently have more girls (OK, women) than boys in our classes. On average, women make up about 60%-70% of our client base, and it’s not surprising to see all-female classes at times. I think there are a number of reasons why this is the case. Perhaps language learning is simply more appealing to women. Others would say that girls like the romance associated with learning a second language. It seems like now we have some more compelling biological reasons behind this phenomenon.

However, it has also been interesting to observe the guys who come along for language classes. I’m unsure if it’s PC to say so, but it also appears that the guys who tend to want to learn a second language (in spite of being supposedly biologically inferior in this respect) are more sophisticated, confident, urbane and adventurous. If guys are indeed behind the proverbial eight-ball, perhaps those who choose to learn a language need these qualities in order to succeed. Either that or simply because they wish to be in the presence of beautiful, intelligent women. And I would add that there’s certainly nothing wrong with that!

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50 million learning a foreign language in China

I’m amazed to find out that China has nearly 50 million people who are currently learning foreign languages. According to a Chinese Ministry of Education official, 900 colleges offer an English major, and of those, more than 600 can confer a bachelor’s degree and more than 200 can confer master’s degrees.

There are more than 800,000 students majoring in English in China annually!

By contrast, New Zealand produces approximately 21,000 graduates per year across all disciplines, of which approximately 2,000 were classed as “humanities” graduates. I imagine languages, history, geography etc would all fall under this category. As it stands, New Zealand is one of the most monolingual countries in the world. I don’t see this changing any time soon. Perhaps some people reading this article would be thinking why bother with learning a language if everyone is learning English as a second language. Here are some reasons:

1. It seems a little unfair that we expect other people to devote so much time, money and energy to learning English so that they can communicate with us if we’re not prepared to make any effort at all.
After all, it’s just a matter of luck that we were born to speak English and not one of the 6,000 or so other languages in the world.

2. We in New Zealand are reliant upon links with other countries for our prosperity, and the majority of our trade now is with non-English speaking countries. Why should our international partners be keen
to trade with us if we make no serious attempt to understand their languages and their cultures?

3. When you travel in a country without a knowledge of the language, in some ways you only scratch the surface; only when you know the language do you realise how much you would otherwise be missing.

4. If you have never learnt another language, you have missed out on a key experience which millions of other people have had: understanding the ways in which languages can differ, realising that the way your language conveys meaning is not necessarily the “right” way, just one way among dozens of possible ways.

5. If you have never looked at another language, it is doubtful that you can ever really understand your own.

Well, if you’ve always wanted to learn a language, it’s not to late to join Euroasia for the April 08 intake.

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Why a blog on language and culture?

We have been thinking about sharing some of our thoughts for a while. It recently dawned on me that we have access to a community of over 2000 New Zealanders, who have completed a course with us sometime over the past 5 years. Our team members have unique perspectives as migrants and educators in New Zealand. Unfortunately, often our perspectives are not heard, so why not share some of our thoughts here? And maybe provoke some debate along the way?

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