Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What Is the Goal of Language Teaching?

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, made a painful point in a 2004 lecture. The lecture is on the topic of theological education. In context, what he says about language acquisition is only a passing remark to help clarify how he would identify someone educated theologically. Yet it is an unfortunate fact for language teachers the world over, even the proverbial elephant in the room, I would argue:
We might say it would be very strange to learn a language without learning how to speak it – although that is as you all know the way many of us learn languages.
Williams' point is that in any type of education (musical, language, theological) has some practical goal, as it would be odd and rather purposeless to complete a course of study "in the absence of any acquisition of a skill – any capacity to do something in a particular way."

So why do so many students finish one, two, three, four (or more!) semesters of language study without the ability to speak the language? Why did you?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Read What You Want to Read, for Fun

You're not designed for a steady diet of literary masterpieces any more than you would eat a seven-course French meal every day.
So said Alan Jacobs in an interview in Christianity Today that I just read. The interview is about reading and his new book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction that sounds like a great read.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Even the French Are Awesome

We recently established here at Langue or Parole? that the French language is awesome. It was not my intent to argue for the awesomeness of France or the French people, given that the French language extends for beyond the Hexagon. Yet according to a recent book excerpt in the Wall Street Journal, French parents (and by extension can't we assume pretty much all French people?) rock.

Yes, this totally ignores many social problems in France. But there were two salient points to this article for me (as a parent).

1. We parents do not need to feel pressure to be constantly "present" with one's child (e.g., it's okay for my son to play alone sometimes; I don't have to be constantly entertaining him).
2. We parents should have definite, clear rules and parameters, but within those we should give a lot more liberty.

These two boil down to the "French" approach to parenting, distinct from the "American" approach (whatever those are): don't stress over every little thing. Will your children survive if you don't use a fence at the top of your stairs? Yes. What if you don't cover all of the electrical outlets in the house? Yes. Will they develop into normal human beings if we don't take them to weekly music and sports lessons from the age of 3? Yes. What we should really be concerned about (and here is where my agreement comes in as a Christian) is their development in regard to patience, self-control, and respect for authority.

Thus, even the French people are awesome.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Another Word on English as a Global Language

I do not have a problem with a person not becoming fluent in a second language. I do think language is an essential part of any curriculum, regardless of grade level.

I do not "have it out" for Americans, however. There is a funny joke about Americans that people often share with me* and of which I certainly appreciate the humor. (Though I have no statistics, from my personal experience I think I can say that you could insert many, maybe any, other nationalities in the joke for American and it would still be funny.)

And yet, I am not all chagrined (even as a multilingual and language teacher) that a majority of Americans (quickly shrinking due to demographic shifts) do not speak a second language. To be quite honest, millions of Americans (and many others around the world) have no use for bilingualism.

*What is a trilingual? Someone who speaks three languages. What is a bilingual? Someone who speaks two languages. What is a monolingual? American!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A New Way to Read

There is a kind of reading that can be called "preliminary reading" or "partial reading":

Given that one does not have the time to read everything he or she would like to read, and that many books are not worth reading in their entirety, and that from time to time one finds books that he or she did not intend to read but that seduce and distract him or her from his or her reading plan, I came up with a new method of reading that involves reading only the first sentence of each paragraph in some books.

This is not really a new method. I actually thought of trying it when I overheard someone else talking about a (history) professor of his that does that.

There are exceptions, of course, books to which one could not effectively apply this method. It would not work for reading a novel, for example. But for many academic books, whether history or science or theology or linguistics, this type of reading could very well highlight most of the important ideas while saving gobs of time by not getting lost in the details that one is going to forget later anyway. I think that reading is not complete but it highlights the main ideas can serve very well.

What do you think? Have you ever read a book this way? How else do you recommend a slow reader like me (in spite of a speed reading course) read more in less time?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Un nuevo método de leer

Hay un tipo de lectura que se puede llamar "lectura preliminar":

Puesto que uno no tiene el tiempo para leer todo lo que quisiera, y que muchos libros no merecen una lectura completa, y que por lo menos yo encuentro de vez en cuando con libros que yo no tenía la intención de leer pero que me seducen y que me distraen del plan de lectura, decidí de tratar de leer sólo la primera frase de cada párrafo en algunos libros.

Hay excepciones, por supuesto. Este método no funciona con la lectura de una novela. Sin embargo, para los libros académicos, me parece que una lectura no completa pero que destaca las ideas principales puede servir muy bien. Se pierde mucho, es cierto, pero creo que también podría tener una visión general de muchos libros más, siguiendo este método de "lectura preliminar" o "lectura parcial."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Une nouvelle méthode de lecture

Il y a une sorte de lecture que j'appelle "lecture préliminaire" :

Etant donné que je n'ai pas le temps de lire tout ce que je voudrais, et que beaucoup de livres ne mérite pas ma lecture complète, et que je tombe par hasard sur des livres que je n'avais aucune intention de lire mais qui me séduisent et distraient de mon plan de lecture, j'ai décidé d'essayer de lire seulement la première phrase de chaque paragraphe.

Il y a bien sûr des exceptions. Cette méthode de lecture ne marcherait pas avec un roman. Mais pour les livres académiques, il me semble que je pourrai me débrouiller bien. On en perd beaucoup, c'est vrai, mais je crois qu'on pourrait aussi avoir une vue d'ensemble de beaucoup plus de livres en suivant une telle méthode de "lecture préliminaire" ou "lecture partiale."

Saturday, February 4, 2012

English Not Quite So Important?

Melanie Ho was mentioned in yesterday's post regarding the New York Times' Room for Debate forum. Her rejoinder to Lawrence Summers' doubting of the importance of language learning had the most shocking anecdote, and thus merits a separate post.

She says, "I asked a friend of mine from mainland China [...] if she would be interested in helping me with my Chinese, and in return I would teach her English. She said she would help me, but replied that she had no interest in learning English. If someone wanted to speak with her, she said, they could learn Chinese" (emphasis added).

You don't like that? A lot of Americans have said the same of their language. So who is culturally myopic and educationally shortsighted?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Learn Another Language, After All

Getting back to the post about Lawrence Summers' essay on changes in U.S. higher education, the short discussion Summers had on the need for learning other languages was included in the New York Times' Room for Debate forum.

Obviously, I disagree with Summers' statement that "English's emergence as the global language [...] make[s] it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue us universally worthwhile." My reasons coincide with Summers' six interlocutors: 1) you actually do need other languages because 2) English really is not as global as we think; and besides, 3) there are many intangible but huge benefits to foreign language learning.

Here are a few choice quotes from the responses to Summers:
  • Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, a globally successful monolingual, says of her experience, "Few starting out today could succeed as I did speaking only English." (practical)
  • Anthony Jackson says, "While English remains the most-used language on the Internet, [...] Chinese is catching up quickly, along with many other languages." (necessary)
  • Michael Erard, author of a recent book study on hyperpolyglottery, says, "[Studying another language is] always a worthwhile investment, in both economic and cognitive terms, even if the value isn't immediately calculable." (advantageous)
  • Melanie Ho says, "The process of learning to communicate in a foreign language often forces us to learn how to listen." Also, "Although English is common around the world, it is far from universal." (cultural & personal)
  • Marcelo M. Suárez Orozco has the best long quotation: "Learning a foreign language is about a way of being in the world, not about getting the next deal done. It telecasts respect for one’s interlocutor and cognitive curiosity even as it nourishes the brain’s jewel in the crown, its executive function. Indeed, neuroscience is beginning to show that the brains of bilinguals may have advantages in what will matter most in the global era: managing complexity, rational planning and meta-cognition." (cognitive)
  • Finally, in Clayton Lewis' words, "Let’s recognize what the Chinese, Brazilians and Germans have learned: that knowing two or more languages is an advantage, not a burden."

Thursday, February 2, 2012

La Chandeleur

Hans Holbein
Luc 2:34-35

Siméon les bénit, et dit à Marie, sa mère : Voici, cet enfant est destiné à amener la chute et le relèvement de plusieurs en Israël, et à devenir un signe qui provoquera la contradiction, et à toi-même une épée te transpercera l'âme, afin que les pensées de beaucoup de coeurs soient dévoilées.