What languages should we teach our children?

(File pix) We may learn Korean for business purposes or love of the culture.

IF we had to teach our children how to survive in an uncertain future, how would we do it? Four big challenges threaten our current world order: climate change, globalisation, migration and digitalisation. Many people wonder what skills and knowledge future generations will need to live and thrive in a radically changing world. What do we need to teach our children?

The task is to create a curriculum for our collective survival as humankind. I will argue here that learning languages must be part of it: not a “nice to have” but an essential life skill. So how will language competence be taught in a curriculum of collective survival?

First, we will strip out what is unnecessary. For instance, we will not teach grammar for its own sake, or archaic forms of the language.

Second, we will treat literature, culture and narrative separately. Not because they are unimportant but because they will play such a crucial role that they must be treated as a subject in their own right. Compared to the task of helping students acquire linguistic competence, teaching the rules and dynamics of meaning-making and interpretation requires a distinctly different approach.

Third, we will focus on the essentials: on helping young people develop a high degree of competence in all four language skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. They must be able to read and understand complex and lengthy pieces of text at speed and in depth.

They must be able to produce sophisticated and effective pieces of writing in all four major text types: argumentative, discursive, descriptive and narrative. And they must be able to participate in oral communication with a high degree of fluency, subtlety and ease.

In the curriculum of collective survival, language competence will also mean to be competent in more than one language. The benefits of bilingualism are well-documented, and our children will need them.

On a socio-economic level, bilingual individuals have access to a much wider range of opportunities for collaboration, from business deals and power plays to marriage proposals.

On a cognitive level, constantly working the brain by switching between languages has training effects similar to building muscle in a gym. It enhances the executive function, which means bilingual individuals can better focus their attention and have greater problem-solving abilities. And it improves both episodic and semantic memory, i.e. the ability to remember events, feelings and activities as well as facts, concepts, and algorithms.

On a cultural level, bilingual individuals have the crucial ability to see things from more than one perspective. Their increased meta linguistic awareness and multiple cultural frames of reference train them to process seemingly contradictory thoughts simultaneously, to live with ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty.

How then should we advise young people on their language choices within a curriculum of collective survival? In my view, we should encourage every child to become competent in at least three languages.

First, children need to know the national language of their place of citizenship. It is simple: you should be able to speak the official language of the nation-state whose passport you hold. Or at least one of them.

Then, they need to know the lingua franca of the modern world, which is English. For better or worse, English has become the common language of the new trans-national empire that spans the globe, and our children need to be fluent in it.

Things get a bit more complicated when it comes to the third language choice. I see four main options that can make sense for individuals in different contexts. I call them tribal, civilisational, neighbourly and transactional or passionate.

Tribal is the language of belonging, the tongue and dialect of one’s community of origin.

Civilisational means to study the language of one of the world’s major civilisations, often connecting to ancient wisdom and long strands of cultural evolution.

Neighbourly is the ability to converse with people across the border in their own language.

And transactional or passionate would be a language choice guided by a special interest.

For example, an engineer in Zurich, Switzerland, would have grown up with the melodious tones of the Swiss German dialect spoken in his ancestral valley (“tribal”), learned to read and write standard German in primary school (“national”), be expected to at least understand his French and Italian speaking counterparts in neighbouring cantons and countries (both “neighbourly” and “national”), and use English to keep up to date in his industry and negotiate deals with global business partners.

A Tibetan monk in Kathmandu, Nepal, would speak Nepali as the language of citizenship, study modern and classical Tibetan as his tribal and civilisational language, be able to converse in Hindi with the Indian neighbours, and use English to guide his foreign students and keep up with his family in the global diaspora.

A businesswoman in Jakarta, Indonesia, would speak Bahasa Indonesia as her language of citizenship. She might remember some Hokkien from her parents and some Sundanese from her childhood friends (both “tribal”). Later she is perhaps sent to study Mandarin as her civilisational orientation, but now she takes lessons in Korean, ostensibly for business purposes (although she knows she will mostly speak English there anyway) but really because of her love of K-pop (“transactional/passionate”).

My point is: all of these can be valid choices.

What we need to do in our curriculum of collective survival is encourage children to learn at least three languages, give them a framework of language study that will enable them to make sensible and meaningful decisions, and then help them develop their language skills to very high levels of functional competence.

By Ben Schmidt.

Read more @ https://www.nst.com.my/education/2018/11/430960/what-languages-should-we-teach-our-children

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