Thursday, 3 April 2014

Should schools teach languages - or Language?

Were I to be raising children afresh, the question of which languages (other than Polish and English) should they learn next would be a difficult one. Parents in England, speaking only English, have a tough task. But anywhere in the non-English speaking world, the choice is clear - it must be English, the de facto lingua franca of Planet Earth.

The withering away of foreign language teaching in the UK on the basis that "Wherever I go today, Johnny Foreigner speaks reasonable English" is leading to a dangerously lazy insularity. But it's true - which language gives students the best return on the time they spent learning it? German? "Germans all speak English". French? "A spent force." Japanese? "A good idea 30 years ago." Mandarin? "Too complicated". So the default setting becomes "no foreign languages at all".

I offer a proposal for Britain's schools - radical and daring - which would at least prevent Brits from being dull monoglots and cultural hegemonists.

Children from first year primary right through to GCSE and 'A' Level should learn but one subject - Language. This course should offer, over the course of 14 years, a thorough overview of the major linguistic groups spoken on this planet, explaining alphabets - Roman, Arabic, Cyrillic, Hebrew - Far Eastern logograms; the main Indo-European linguistic groups, grammar, syntax, morphology; tone.

In other words - what language is, what languages have in common (doing words, naming words, describing words), what makes languages different (vocabulary, word order, inflections), and how we write in those languages.

Over 14 years, seven years in primary school, seven years in secondary school, the pupil will have become familiar with the script and the sound of Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese and Swahili as well as being able to tell German from Dutch, Russian from Ukrainian, Czech from Slovak, Serbian from Croatian, Korean from Vietnamese and Portuguese from Spanish.

Learning basic phrases of use in travel or business - ordering a taxi over the phone or asking directions to the train station - in many languages, rather than being able to read Flaubert or Nietzsche in the original, is more useful in today's globalised economy.

Rather than choosing one or two languages in great depth (which very few pupils do), the emphasis should be on appreciating the diversity of human language and being equipped with a basic tool kit that gives a broad understanding of the building blocks of verbal and written communication.

This would give the edge to the English-speaking world; the rest of the planet's population would be busily learning English, while native speakers of English could all get to grips with the concept of Language from and early age. They'd never master any foreign language fully, but at least they would not find themselves fish out of water wherever they went, able to decypher a menu in Greek, recognise the Thai for 'fire escape' or say 'good morning' in Welsh.

I'd be very interested to know what you, dear reader, think of my proposal.

This time last year:
More moaning about Karczunkowska's pavement deficit

This time two years ago:
Architectural detail from Edinburgh

This time three years ago:
Spring explodes in Jeziorki
(+18C! Today it's around zero and snowing!)

This time four years ago:
Along the way for Warsaw's southern bypass

This time five years ago:
Quintessential Warsaw vista

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki on Google Earth

This time seven years ago:
Okęcie airport, our near neighbour


Bob said...


Michael Dembinski said...

Bob - my point exactly.

After 14 years of learning Language at school, the high school graduate should be able to see the alphabet, know it's written from left to right, and identify it as a Georgian verb.

საუკეთესო რა თქმა უნდა!

Marcin said...

"Germans all speak English" Sorry, but it's not truth. Two years ago, returning back from Denmark with my family, we have looked for a camping pool at the superb of Berlin, nearby of the Berlin Ring. And at the local restaurant, I've tried to gather an info about that pool location. I've tried to communicate in English and "spoke" with some people (some waiters and guests - mainly young bodies.) Believe me, but none have spoken English. Finally, they've instructed me, how to get up to that pool, by drawing it on a sheet of paper. In Denmark, even a bus-driver is sufficiently fluent in English.

Anonymous said...

To be quite honest, while the idea does have some merit, it almost certainly couldn't work the way you propose.

First practical hurdle: finding people capable of teaching such a class. The fact is most linguists are completely ignorant of any languages outside of their immediate area of interest. Very, and I mean very few European linguists could decipher anything in Thai, much less be familiar with Mandarin tones or Hebrew syntax. Many would not even recognize the Georgian alphabet above. The reason is, these things are simply not taught. No university I know of offers a course in comparative linguistics encompassing all writing systems and all language families. I would even go so far as to guess that there are more amateur enthusiasts capable of teaching such a class than people with formal training. Even then, we're talking a small handful of people, certainly fewer than one per school.

My second objection stems from the first one. If you consider that even most trained professionals lack the curiosity to acquire a truly broad knowledge of the phenomenon of human language, what are the odds that schoolchildren, who depressingly often have a tenuous grasp on even their own language, will be interested in or capable of handling such a bewildering variety of information?

Thirdly, and I think most importantly, you cannot form a world-wise, cosmopolitan new generation by teaching how different languages work any more than you can turn someone into a cinephile by explaining the difference between AVI and MPEG. Being able to tell Arabic from Persian is pretty pointless if you know nothing about the historic, artistic, geographic, political, culinary and other differences between those people.

From personal experience, I know that sharing a plate of exotic food or watching a good foreign comedy with your class leaves a far more lasting and positive impression on young minds than the most erudite lecture could ever hope for.

Finally (whew!), despite my passion for linguistics, if I had any power at all to turn things upside down in education, I would probably begin by introducing mandatory economics for all, and no later than in fifth grade...

Anyway, kudos to you, Sir, for thinking out of the box! It's a shame any such original thought quickly withers and dies in anyone who gets sucked into the giant machine of state-sponsored education... :-(

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Marcin -

Germans all speaking English - this is a common conception in the UK, evidently, as you observe, not correct. It reminds me of the story in the Daily Telegraph many years ago (before the UK joined the EEC) of a German trawler captain arrested by the Royal Navy for fishing in UK territorial waters. Brought before a Newcastle magistrate, he claimed to speak no English. The magistrate asked the public gallery whether anyone could speak German. "Oh, aye," answered one Geordie. The magistrate instructed him to ask the captain was his name was. "Vot ist yor neim?" shouted the Geordie, for which he was fined ten shillings.

Anonymous said...

Linguistic groupings could be covered in a couple of lessons of a ancient history course.

A wallchart spotters' guide to alphabets (and syllabaries) should be compulsory in every child's bedroom

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Anon 1:

Very good points. Where to find teachers? As you say, more amateur enthusiasts out there than professional teachers. Teaching teachers to teach Language would be a priority. Selecting ones with a broad range of interests and aptitudes would be difficult, but were the subject to be made compulsory in all schools from age 4+ to 18, and properly funded (an investment in future foreign trade), I'm sure recruits could be found.

History and culture (in potted form please) could be taught alongside grammar, alphabet etc as part of a broad Languages course.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Anon 2:

Wallchart - what a brilliant idea! I'm sure it would sell several hundred thousand copies across the English-speaking world!

Anyone fancy a stab at a first draft? :)

Liz said...

Congratulations on putting forward a truly original and fascinating idea. I'm afraid that the points made by Anonymous (especially the third one) are pretty convincing, but I'm sure I'll be mulling this one over for a while yet.

Taking into account the great variety of languages spoken in British schools, "language days" could perhaps be held involving, for instance, parents and others who could teach something about their own languages (and cultures)and answer questions.

P.S. Do you happen to know of any comprehensive Polish etymological dictionary other than that by Krystyna Długosz-Kuczabowa?

Anonymous said...

World map of Alphabets, syllabaries and logographies

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Liz - sadly, I don't know any - in fact of not heard of Ms Długosz-Kuczabowska's book - will look out for it, thanks!

Language days - yes indeed - the UK's ethnic diversity should be turned into a much greater educational asset than it is at present...

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Anonymous

BRILLIANT! With a bit of work (turning squiggles into sounds), this could be the basis of an excellent educational wallchart!

AndrzejK said...

In the region of Spisz all the youngsters who live in Slovakian learn Polish whilst in Krynica Zdrój you are hard pressed to find anyone with a working knowledge on English never mind Slovakian.

The Slovaks have worked out that as the bulk of the skiing to be had is on their side of the Tatry then Polish tourists need to be made to feel at home.

And we Poles assume that everyone should speak Polish. After 24 years in Poland I am still amazed by the general inability of youngsters to comminucate in English (though I guess that the "yoof" of today are hard pressed to communicate in any spoken language preferring to text international abreviations such as txs or lol (lots of laughs apparently).

Paddy said...

I've been looking for a Polish etymological dictionary. Will check that out!

I have to agree with Anonymous - let's teach children basic economics or rather personal finances! We are raising entire generations who don't know how to budget and don't even care. I count myself as a lazy member of that group sometimes! Sadly I see Poles increasingly living beyond their means with hire purchase furniture and cards :/

pavolk said...

I think we should try to give British kids both! Teach them the structure of language, but also give them the pleasure and satisfaction of getting to know one or two foreign languages very well. My nine-year-old nephew is currently learning Mandarin in state primary school!