last night. Our friend Polly turned up. Polly is a nun - not your nun-in-a-habit sort of nun at all but a down-to-earth former teacher of the deaf. That is how I happen to know her. Polly is fluent in sign language. I have barely enough sign language for emergencies. Dad has none at all.
Polly and I both believe in the importance of sign language. We are not of "the deaf must learn to lip read and use English and never ever sign" school.
I used to do weekend volunteer work in a residential nursery school for profoundly deaf children. When I was interviewed for the position - and they were so desperate for staff they would have taken anyone without a record for violence or paedophilia - I was told by the Superintendent's wife I must never sign to the children. Fortunately she did not ask me to give an undertaking I would not. I would not have been able to keep it. As soon as she had sailed off importantly to do whatever important things the wives of Superintendent's do the woman in charge of the residence said to me, "And what will you do if a child does this?" She signed "drink" and I said, "Give them a drink of water." "Good. I'll work with you." We got on extremely well. She was quietly teaching the children to sign. Of course it was undermining the new philosophy of only lip-reading but she knew that these children were headed for the real world of the deaf where sign language is a real, live language. They would need it.
We need other languages too. There is an ongoing argument in Australia about language teaching. Australian schools do not have a good record with language teaching. If we are honest we have an appalling record. It has become even worse since the introduction of compulsory Asian languages in some schools. Most kids tend to drop languages like Chinese and Japanese as quickly as they can. They are simply seen as too difficult. Progress is slow and, by the end of the compulsory period, most students cannot even remember enough to exchange more than a polite greeting. I can do that without having been taught. So can several other people I know.
We would do better teaching children the languages already used in the community, most of the Western and Middle European languages, Turkish, Levantine Arabic and - with a growing number of African immigrants - even Swahili or Amharic would have more relevance. Among Asian languages Vietnamese is likely to be the most useful in Australia. Our Prime Minister speaks (bad) Mandarin and believes in Asian languages - but not Vietnamese. He says we need speakers of Asian languages to do business with Asia. We do not. They will appreciate it if someone takes the trouble to learn enough to be polite but they expect to do business in English.
But, we cannot even get other language teaching right. We currently waste language teaching time. We pretend that teaching children about the food and culture of the country is also learning the language. We get them to dress up in the national costume, learn a song or two and find the country on a map of the world. This all comes under the heading of language learning. It has nothing to do with vocabular, grammar, syntax. pronunciation or literature. One of the local children has spent six years of junior schooling learning "Italian". He was poking around in my bookshelves yesterday before Polly arrived. He came across a children's book I own which is written in Italian. He did not recognise it as Italian. When I explained that it was he looked at me in disbelief. I tried to get him to pick out some words I felt sure he would know. I am still not sure he really believed me. "Can you talk Italian?" he asked. I asked him, "Parlo Italianio?" He shrugged.
I wonder whether we would be better off teaching more people to sign - or perhaps we need to take language teaching seriously?