Tag Archives: Language

Language in Schools

I find myself with time to write, which either means I haven’t been doing enough physical activity or I have settled into some sort of routine. I suspect a bit of both, and likely the role of additional confounding variables. Time to write is also time to think, and I’ve been thinking a lot about language.

As I try to learn German, which first became a project back in January, I have found that my other languages are disappearing. I can understand most of what I read in French (my phone is in French and it’s still easier for me to read food labels and assembly instructions in French rather than German when the option presents itself) but I can’t think in French at all. I can’t find words, construct ideas, form sentences. I can read or listen and understand, but I can’t communicate.

The situation with Hebrew is worse. I started learning Hebrew in kindergarten and kept it up through high school, but never had an intuitive grasp on the language. Unfortunately, we were taught Hebrew in English. (I’ve been learning German in German and that has made a huge difference.) Very recently, for example, I met an Israeli man on a tour of Munich. He tried speaking to me in Hebrew and again, I couldn’t respond. I knew what I wanted to say in German, but that was the best I could do. Instead, we spoke English.

It is equal parts fascinating and frustrating.

This has me thinking about how we use language in international schools, and I have made different observations here than in both Malaysia and Singapore.

In Malaysia, English was the lingua franca for my students, all of whom spoke some degree of English and learned Mandarin and Malay in school. With few exceptions, they spoke Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil at home, and/or previously attended schools that functioned in any of the four languages. English is the default for mixed groups in Malaysia, certainly by educated people, and so it was at school. No questions asked.

It surprises a lot of people to learn that Singapore functions first and foremost in English. English is the language of schools, business, and government. There are special programs that operate in Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay, but otherwise these are language and literature classes within English schools. Many Singaporeans, however, do not speak English at home. There is a generational difference in Singapore between Mandarin speakers and speakers of other Chinese languages, notably Hokkien, and everybody else. The majority of the population is of Chinese descent and one can get by in that community without using English. It also helps that anything provided by the government, including the public transportation system, is available in all four languages.

Since my students in Singapore came from around 75 countries, English was their common language, as well. Danau Tanu’s wonderful book on international schools addresses the ways in which students group themselves by facility with language, and this could not have been more obvious in the environment of my school. Without getting into the social politics here, there was a clear divide between those comfortable in English and those who were not. That Singapore itself lives in English meant that obviously school would, too, with obvious exceptions among specific groups.

It is different in a small town in Germany where life outside of school is only in German. With merely a handful of exceptions, my students are German and that is the language they speak among themselves. I’ve been told of only one teacher who insists upon the use of English during her literature classes. My students are kind enough to switch to English when they want me to understand their discussions, at which point I can provide feedback. It’s also a great way for me to get to know them. Otherwise, my eavesdropping is limited to the little German I can understand.

I have thought a lot about this: Do I require students to share, collaborate, and discuss amongst themselves in English so I can be part of this element of the learning process? Or do I provide an opportunity for them to clarify, explain, and understand in the language that is clearly more comfortable for many of them? (I should say here, all of them have excellent academic fluency in English, whether they believe it or not.)

By contrast, in Singapore there were always a group or two of students who did not speak English while working in small groups. And I never asked them to switch to English because I recognized how difficult, tiring, and intimidating it was to be in their position. One difference is that in Singapore, I was working with much larger classes and I couldn’t possibly be part of every small-group task. Here, the class sizes are such that I could be. So who would benefit from a shift in the social norms of the classroom?

It’s a confronting question because it means I need to think about my role as an educator. Who am I in a classroom, and what does it mean to support the young people that I work with? They know something significant that I cannot currently access, and that is not a place I have been in before. Making decisions in this environment requires different considerations, and I find myself taking both sides of the argument.

At the moment, my goal is to learn German. At this point, while I understand some of what my students say, I better understand body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and typical teenage behaviour. Importantly, though, learning German will give me entry to the culture that I am living in. I am lucky to have found a group of German friends through climbing and while all of them speak better English than I speak German, they are happy and patient when I try, and quick to point out simple errors. And so I do try, though I’m a lot quieter than I might otherwise be, and I get lost in loud places where people talk extremely quickly with grammatical constructions that don’t appear in textbooks. I’ve learned to ask for help, but someone usually translates into my ear before I need to. Body language. Facial expressions. Sometimes it’s just important to be there.

As for my students, I enjoy working with them regardless of language. I have a different appreciation for what it means to really live in another language than I did before moving here, and greater admiration for young people whose experiences put them at crossroads. After a lifetime of learning a language in school, it’s a joy to finally use it not because I want to, but because I need to.

Learn a language and you’ll avoid a war. – Arabic proverb

Happy

The limits of my language means the limits of my world. – Ludwig Wittgenstein

I am usually lukewarm about the word “happy”, or at least how it’s used in much of the Western world. There was always something about it that bothered me and I didn’t quite know what it was until I read Lisa Feldman Barrett’s highly informative and very engaging book, How Emotions Are Made. She explained that “happy” in Western parlance is “happy happy joy joy” as in, no worries and all is perfect. In the Eastern world, however, the goal is to be content and equanimous rather than happy.

The different cultural perspectives on the emotion “happy”, as well as many others, have helped me a great deal. In one of the courses that I teach, Theory of Knowledge, we have a unit on knowledge and language in which we address the role that language plays in knowledge creation. A really useful activity is to ask students about terminology – anything from slang and colloquialism to idioms and full translations in other languages – that they cannot quite translate into English. It’s enlightening to see how much of what we “know” is contained in our ability to express it. And if our language lacks an idea, can we still know it? Compelling questions.

For example, if you asked me what I was looking for in a partner, I’d rattle off a series of adjectives, two of which are in Yiddish**. Some people would hear this and nod approvingly and others would lose interest as I started looking for the corresponding descriptions in English to convey the meaning. But if I didn’t have these words, would I be as conscious of looking for these attributes?

Even without knowing other languages, anyone who has gone outside of their hometown has likely experienced a moment of confusion when asking for something that goes by a different name elsewhere. “Soda” vs. “pop” for example. In university, a dinnertime game in the first few weeks was “What do you call . . . ” in which we learned different regional colloquialism for such words. For travellers, a similar hostel game is “What does this animal say?”, which I last played around a fire in a freezing family home in northern Vietnam.

Gezellig is a Dutch word that I think should exist in more languages because then perhaps the concept would exist, as per Wittgenstein. I first learned this word from Feldman Barrett’s book and then heard it while talking with a bartender in Amsterdam. This word means cozy and nice, and also refers to time spent with friends. A concept in Singlish is kampong spirit. Kampong is the Malay word for a rural village, so kampong spirit refers to the helpful attitudes people in a certain place exhibit towards each other, whether friends or strangers. I’ve heard my climbing gym described as having a kampong feel, and I do believe it does.

Regardless of the term that best fits, I know how I felt during my family’s Passover seder today. I joined the Saturday evening seder on Sunday morning here in Singapore, which brought together my immediate family and grandparents with some friends and some of their families. I experienced the gamut of emotions over several hours and I was glad to notice and label them. It helps me think. I was also glad (another emotion? different? how?) to be there with everyone. Passover last year was right about the time when Covid took a turn for the worse here and we’re in a very different place this year. I am thankful for that. And without Covid, we would not have had this seder together and I am filled with golden bubbles that we did.


**heymish – used to describe a person (or place) with a cozy, comfortable, non-pretentious attitude or vibe
mensch – used to describe a truly honourable, decent person

Coney Island, Singapore – April 2020

Language Learning

After finishing my Master’s degree, I took a short break from being a student. I started my Master’s program the day after my undergrad graduation and it was nice to have a little time in which I wasn’t working on assignments. But it was not long before I realized I missed being in school. I have always enjoyed learning and, for the most part, being in classes. So I enrolled in an Italian language night course at our local community college. I’d taken a semester of Italian my first semester at university but wasn’t able to continue. (And unfortunately, the community college course became a daytime course after the first semester and again, I wasn’t able to continue.) It was such a nice way to spend one evening per week. I enjoyed the professor, the classes, and the way Italian sang in my ears and danced on my tongue. I enjoyed making connections to French, playing with words, and learning the idioms that teach us about cultures. I recently came across my notes and written exercises tucked into the textbook that has followed me across the ocean.

I’m now trying to learn a new language without taking a course and I can definitely see a difference. On the one hand, with the aid of two online programs and a number of websites, I can go through lessons quite quickly and review at my own pace. But on the other hand, my speaking practice is non-existent and one cannot learn a language by reading alone.

That being said, I’m having so much fun. I genuinely look forward to the time in the evenings when I review vocabulary, work on grammar exercises, and take notes on verb conjugations. It’s fun to try out new words and sounds and to realize that my face has never quite moved in that way. And I am excited when I notice a pattern that I hadn’t quite recognized before. I’m learning!

And that’s the thing – learning is fun. When we’re engaged in the things that are meaningful to us, we are learning and this is fun. Much of this is aligned with how I think about education and school, but that is a post for another time.

To be honest, there’s a lot that I don’t like about technology, a lot that I think technology has done to damage who we are and how we interact with one another. I watched The Social Dilemma over the weekend and it corroborated much of what I already know from reading and my experience teaching teenagers, but it led me to immediately turn off notifications to the two social networking sites where I have profiles. Technology is a tool and a resource, and I’d rather be the one using it than allowing it to use me. But technology also provides us with easy access to resources that would be too distant or too expensive for many people otherwise, and I am grateful for this. I would not be able to learn the rudiments of a language on my own and from the comfort of my apartment without technology.

I don’t know how well I’m actually learning this new language, but my brain is doing something rather than nothing. I’m thinking, working, and trying something new, and this alone means it is time well spent.