March 21, 2016

The Construction of Tongues

Education has become a buzzword that is repeatedly said for two opposing reasons: one, to emphasize its significance and two, to banish it to obsolescence. Some groups throw it around as if it were a hot potato that nobody can hold for more than a few seconds, while others cradle it the way a protective mother would cradle her newborn baby. The word “education” has sparked a conflict of interest between those who want to defend its importance and those who can no longer tolerate its failure. And like most conflicts, the ones who suffer most are those caught in the crossfire: the students.

As a contributor to the fringes of the established education system, I feel lucky to have the opportunity to observe the situation from a relatively safe distance. This situation that I speak of has unfortunately not changed much since my school years: students’ general indifference to the subjects they learn, parents’ under or over-involvement in their children’s academic pursuits, teachers’ reluctance to explore or prohibition from expanding on existing material. Almost everyone is stuck in his or her role regardless of how well s/he is able to play it. It is not only unfair, but also ridiculous to congratulate those who have fulfilled the requirements when the standard of education itself is unclear. Both conformity and rebellion lose their meaning.

Despite the stasis, however, I have noticed one notable change: the role of language. All of a sudden, one language—usually the mother tongue—is not enough. In addition to the demands of parents, teachers and society, students now have to deal with the increasingly unreasonable call for mastering a second or even third language. Acquiring the ability to speak a language other than one’s own is certainly not a bad thing, but when not possessing sufficient command of another is seen as a flaw, a series of serious problems may arise.

In my experience working as an English trainer and private tutor, I have talked to a lot of parents who think that their children are somehow left behind or just not good enough for their grade level. Considering the status of English as an international bridge language, or lingua franca, I understand such concerns. However, as I have already mentioned in the previous paragraph, when English—or any foreign language for that matter—is seen as a sheer necessity rather than an additional skill that can help to enrich one’s understanding of the world, it becomes just another boring school subject that is measured in terms of test scores. This is especially true when one learns a new language in a country where it is not spoken in daily life. There is no sense of urgency, even if catching up to “global standards” seems like the most urgent thing for children and teenagers growing up in this challenging era.

Yet this is exactly the problem. Are these “global standards” realistic and relevant to everyone? Language is a means of survival. Anyone who has studied, worked or lived abroad would tell you that, but survival is not the sole purpose of learning a language, and you do not have to extract yourself from your home country in order to realize this. It is important to look beyond language’s grammatical structures, vocabulary and variety of sounds. Because within every language is an abundance of knowledge that can never be exhausted.  How can you study a new language properly if you do not see your own as an equally vital part of Language (with a capital “L,” or what prominent thinkers in the past have referred to as “the totality of language”)? By treating language as a purely utilitarian element of academic or professional life—or worse, as a symbol of collective identity—we are taking one of humanity’s greatest achievements for granted.

Having said that, I am impelled to repeat this question: Are the “global standards” realistic and relevant to everyone? Well, no. While some aspire to survive on the global stage or at least be ready to do so, others do not or for whatever reason, cannot. But the more important question is this: Should access to a second language (or the general study of language) only be reserved for those who want to and can go abroad? No, it should not. But in order for the study of language to break out of its completely functional orientation on the one hand, and its socio-economic exclusiveness on the other, the way language is taught and discussed in all levels of primary, secondary, and even higher educational institutions, have to be completely restructured.

To turn language into yet another battlefield for counter-productive competition will only complicate the already worrying state of the education system and the concept of education itself. There is more to be done than putting extra effort into acquiring linguistic skills. We are polishing the wrong side of the coin. In fact, we are not even polishing it—we are licking it. Are we, without realizing it, urging children to construct more tongues so that they can do the same daunting task more efficiently?