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 :(

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