Friday, 9 October 2009

We were debating language teaching

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?


Tony said...

Over the past couple of months, there was a discussion flying back and forth in the HE supplement of 'The Australian' (and, knowing that particular supplement, it's likely to be raging for a good while yet...). The crux of the matter was language learning and whether there was any point in mass Asian language education in Australia, with some writers arguing that it should be left to an elite.

As always in such cases, both sides made strong arguments, but (as someone who has been closely involved with learning and teaching languages since my first French lesson in secondary school) simply ignoring foreign languages is ignorant and counter-productive. Studying languages teaches you far more than the language itself (and I'm not talking about the cultural side): languages help you to think clearly, to categorise, to infer, to think outside the box. Even if the student never uses the language outside the classroom, the skills used will be applicable in other fields.

As to which languages should be taught, well that's another discussion entirely...

catdownunder said...

Which is surely why we should be teaching the actual language and not playing around the edges?
Yes, I had a letter in the HE section on that topic!

Rachel Fenton said...

I thought I understood nothing of French at school but something soaked in - enough to tempt me to France for a holiday at least!

I cannot think of anything more ludicrous than not allowing deaf children to sign - would we then make the rest of society annunciate their words clearly and not mumble and mutter to make lip reading easier?

I have a deaf uncle - his deafness was the result of brain trauma from an accident. He was in his thirties when he lost his hearing. He is now in his sixties and has never learnt to sign. He cannot understand what people are saying to him and spends most of his time watching television with subtitles. He is a highly literate man lost in a world with only vibrations and human fish.

Tony said...

I think that is more a failure of methodology than a fault of the idea itself. Culture is an essential part of language teaching (at times, mainly for motivational reasons), and it's the role of the teacher to integrate it into a well-designed syllabus, whether it be geared towards mastery of grammatical functions or production of authentic text types. Of course, that's easier in my setting, with motivated, full-time adult learners, than in a school scenario where most of the kids would rather be anywhere else...

catdownunder said...

I hope your uncle can at least read fingerspelling Rachel! Learning sign language at his age would have required a huge effort. It is a language in its own right after all.
Tony, yes of course culture is part of language learning but it cannot replace grammar, syntax and vocabulary - which is what far too many teachers seem to believe.