Saturday, August 29, 2015

All languages are created equal. Some are more equal than others?

I grew up in a Tamil household, in a predominantly Tamil speaking state.  In addition to Tamil being the "mother tongue," as they say in the old country, for the first few years I formally learnt the Tamil language in school.  To use the new country's lingo, Tamil was my second language at school because, like here, English was the language of instruction.  And then from the middle school on, Sanskrit was the second language and Hindi was the third language.

All those worked out well for me.  Knowing Tamil, I read quite a few novels and short stories in the language.  Many of those novels were often in an historic context, which then made me long for the good old days of the glorious Tamil past of the Sangam literature.  Sanskrit gave me a taste of the rich history and literature that was also tied to the religion in which I grew up.

Much later in life, as an adult living in the United States, I attempted to learn Spanish.  It was an epic fail, as much as my attempt to learn German did not work out back in India.

Language is not merely about the language.  It is a portal into a culture that is different from the one in which we breathe a completely different language.  Through the language we get to know a people's history, their values, their ways of thinking about all things trivial and profound.  Thus, even a word like maidan then shows how wonderfully interconnected we are.  We can even chuckle at how an ambassador's name could make a difference enough for a country to reject him.

We get an idea of those differences--and similarities too--between people when we read translated works of literature.  All those Russian novels that I have read were not in the Russian language, of course, but were in English and I can only imagine how much more enriching it would be if I could have read them in the original.

If we truly want to understand our fellow humans, which is a critical piece of understanding the human condition and our own existence, then the more languages we know the better off we will be. Thus, if we want to understand China or the Middle East, then I would think that we would be encouraging more of our students to learn Chinese (even if it means excluding Cantonese!) and Arabic.

Let us suppose you are in agreement with me until now.  (And I hope you are; if not, we are in deep trouble!)  Then, you will be shocked at this news from last spring:
At least four states -- including Washington, home of Microsoft Corp. -- have either passed or considered measures that would delight high school students who have trouble rolling their r's. Rather than taking Spanish to satisfy their foreign language requirement, they could take a computer language.
Chris Reykdal, a Washington state legislator, said many  students are more passionate about learning code than conjugating verbs.
Pause. Think about it.  Is learning a computer language the same as learning a language that humans use to communicate in a different part of the world?  Are you happy with this development?  I hope you are not; else, we are in deep trouble!

You need not have kept up with my rants about the deterioration in education in order to figure out what the rationale is, right?
Proponents say such an approach will help students get jobs and businesses compete internationally.
Yep, who cares about understanding fellow humans.  Who cares whether or not children develop an understanding of how to deal with differences.  As long as they can learn how to communicate with machines and earn money in the process!

A couple of days ago, a friend from the old school days had posted on his Facebook wall this news item about a survey in the island that is increasingly irrelevant in the world:
Six out of ten parents said they want their primary school age children to learn the coding language over French. And 75% of primary school children said they would rather learn how to programme a robot than learn a modern foreign language.
It is not merely an American madness but a global mania!

That news item there included the following image:

What is so special about this image?  Perhaps the editors did not realize the irony in using such an image to promote teaching a computer language.  The way the numbers keep scrolling down the screen is the motif in The Matrix --it was not a movie that favored a future world of smart computers with humans as the slaves ;)


I suppose if  all we want is for children to interact with machines and not with people, and if we want to design machines that can soon learn to think for themselves, then we should certainly get rid of teaching human languages in schools.  Perhaps soon there will even be a campaign to make Emoji a language!  It is one mad, mad, mad world out there :(


Ramesh said...

In agreement all the way through (so we are not in trouble !)

Learning a language is a fundamental skill that we all need to acquire. In today's world it is an absolute necessity. In any field of work, you need to interact globally, and when you do, English alone won't work. So even from a purely job point of view it is a necessary skill - I often say to survive in the business world you have to speak English, Spanish and Mandarin. Of course, its not just about the job - for all the reasons you mention.

Anybody who thinks learning a computer language is an alternative to learning a human language ought to have his head examined. You need to learn both- isn't that obvious.

Sriram Khé said...

It is madness, my friend. Madness, I say! ;)

I am so relieved that we are not in trouble ... hehehe ;)

Anne in Salem said...

Oh, Gentlemen, we are in trouble, for I disagree with you both. (Has that happened before???) I agree completely that computer languages are not the same as foreign, human languages. I disagree with the necessity to learn a foreign language. Ideally, yes, I agree with you. Every child should learn about other countries in the world. That education will help the adult in business and in being a better citizen of the country and the world and, undoubtedly, more understanding of differences between people and therefore more accepting of all people.

In reality, how many people (I speak of Americans only) need a foreign language in business? A farmer might need Spanish if he has an immigrant labor force, but the conversational Spanish he learned in high school will be worthless in this setting. Fashion designers may need to learn French or Italian, but neither of you mentions those languages as necessary. Upper-level executives at multi-national corporations would undoubtedly benefit from knowledge of a foreign language and culture or three. But I would venture to guess that 75% of Americans gain nothing of lasting value by being forced to learn a foreign language in middle or high school. By the second year out of class, 99% is forgotten, and that part of the brain has atrophied.

We are an extremely myopic, provincial, self-centered people. If it doesn't affect us directly, who cares? "If we truly want to understand our fellow humans, which is a critical piece of understanding the human condition and our own existence" You regularly lament those who don't ponder these issues, but such thinkers are a very small minority. Reality is that programming is a more valuable and effective use of a class period for most Americans than foreign language.

Sriram Khé said...

Anne, perhaps consistent with your nothing-but-business-all-the-time political philosophy, you evaluate language learning only in terms of the immediate and personal $$$ returns on the investment of time and effort. If that were the logic, then you could also get rid of trigonometry, physics, biology, chemistry, poetry, and a lot more because most Americans do not use them ever in their lives once they are done with the exams and "99% is forgotten." Hey, how many remember the Second Law of Thermodynamics even a year after the exams are done!
Which then reduces education--even at the middle school and high school levels--to what?

Anne in Salem said...

Looks like I should not comment late at night as my comments were not clearly written. I agree completely with the benefits of learning many subjects whether they are used in one's future vocation or not. More knowledge, more understanding makes everyone more interesting and better citizens, which I attempted to convey in my first paragraph.

My comments were in reply to comparing the value of learning computer language versus human foreign language, which I thought was the focus of the post. I do not see a tragedy in a student learning programming rather than Spanish if her interest is computers, coding, robotics, etc. Both have benefits for the student, just different benefits. My son studied both. One class killed his desire to learn; one motivates him to learn outside of class and go to college. One favored rote memorization; one requires creativity and collaborative problem-solving. He took the Spanish class to meet college entrance requirements. If programming satisfied that requirement, I would not have forced him to take Spanish. He gained nothing short-term, and I question whether he gained anything for his future, either personally or financially. Forcing a student to take a class they abhor when there is an alternative will never be beneficial.

I think you also overestimate the amount of history and culture taught in foreign language classes today.

Sriram Khé said...

Your comments are more evidence that we need a broader, society-level, discussion of what exactly we want students to learn in school and why.

I have always believed that neither students nor their parents are ever given a clear sense of what is expected from a curriculum. Right from the high school on, students put up with classes they hate, while wishing they were doing something else. For your son it was Spanish, for somebody else it is math, and for another it is ... They are led to believe that education is about jumping through the hoops, clearing the hurdles, and whatever other metaphor one prefers.

If this is all that we get out of the $$$ that we taxpayers invest, the $$$ that the parents invest, the time that students, parents, and teachers invest, then there are far fewer things in life that can come even remotely close to such wasteful spending.

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