Saturday, March 29, 2008

  • All Chinese to us [ABC Radio National The National Interest recording - 2nd item]
    Australia has its first Mandarin-speaking prime minister - it's hardly surprising, therefore, that the new government wants to boost the number of students with a foreign language. But have we missed the boat? Is Australia now so far behind that our exporters are already facing a skills bottleneck? Can we crack the Chinese market if we don't have enough Australian sinophones ready to hit the ground running? If the debate's sounding familiar, it could be because our language crisis was first highlighted almost 20 years ago. What can be done? How do we fire up linguistic excitement in potential students?
  • Friday, March 28, 2008

    Voices Of The World

    Voices Of The World - television documentary on SBS Television in Australia
    7.30 pm 4 April 2008

    How many languages are there in the world? There could be as many as 10,000 languages or as few as 4,000 languages. Whatever the number, half of those languages are likely to disappear within the next hundred years. Filmed across the globe in countries as diverse as Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Denmark, Egypt, Greenland, Iran, Mozambique, Nepal, Spain and Vietnam, Voices of the World offers a profound vision of a world where languages and cultures are disappearing. Every time a language is lost, one vision of the world disappears. Languages encode and encapsulate the culture of a people and this includes their music, their poetry, their songs and their stories. Language defines who we are. When a language disappears humanity itself is diminished. (From Denmark, in English, Danish, Arabic, and Mlabri, English subtitles) (Documentary) PG CC

    Some interesting history of the Voices of the World Project can be found at and taught me that it is an initiative of UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador for Languages Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, based on an original idea by Janus Billeskov Jansen. She was 4th president of Iceland, and a tireless worker for education, human rights and women's rights. H. E. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir gave an address for the first International Mother Language Day celebration in 2006. Mrs Finnbogadóttir qualified languages as “humanity’s most precious and fragile treasures.”

    Thursday, March 27, 2008

    Another interesting support site for the 2008 IYL
    This site has a multitude of links to IYL information.

    Don Osborn also alerted me to the Australian portal set up by our friends at ACSSO

    and the Facebook Group
    which is aiming for 10 000 members during the year (1500 when I joined on 27 March 2008)

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008

    Articles on Languages in the media

    Four articles in the Australian media about Languages. Something's brewing.

    Primary school pupils 'need extra language' by Lucy Hood, February 25, 2008 Adelaide Advertiser
    Minding our language by John Töns - 12 March 2008 on National Online Opinion Forum
    Big Neighbour Fading From Our Radar by David T. Hill The Australian 12 March 2008
    Language skills push for schools by Farrah Tomazin The Age 24 March 2008
    'Lost in translation' means same in any language The Age 25 March 2008
    'Stop Minding Your Language Matthew Absolom in The Australian 2 April 2008
    All Chinese to us [Radio National The National Interest recording - second item] ... our language crisis was first highlighted almost 20 years ago. What can be done? How do we fire up linguistic excitement in potential students?
    Learning a language is not just words Matthew Davies April 28, 2008 The Age newspaper
    Let's send a message to the world … in their languages, John Hajek and Yvette Slaughter, The Age, May 5, 2008
    Learning languages in Australia - too much like hard work? by Fiona Mueller. A 2003 article that has lost none of its relevance.

    Sunday, March 23, 2008

    Match language skills to booming markets

    Match language skills to booming markets [pdf]

    English is not enough for students in this multilingual environment, writes Professor David Hill of the Asia Reseach Centre, Murdoch University

    The UN Year of Languages is featured in this article from 11 Feb. 2008 along with many other cogent arguments for reversing the decline in languages education.

    Thursday, March 20, 2008

    The Lazy Prisoner

    Plato worried that writing would make people lazy. They would not rely on their memory to rally cogent argument and participate in quality rhetoric. He was right.

    Every time my eyes fall on any piece of text, I am attracted to read it. Bill boards, car stickers, road signs, advertising on trucks and overpasses, book covers, T-shirts, my grocery docket, whatever. Brought up in a literate society, addicted to reading, this means my mind is occupied for some life time on the messages the writers of those signs want me to attend to. Isn't this mind control?

    Commercial television advertisements come at you in every mode: moving visuals, shouting spruikers, the message also rammed home by key words in bold colour print that leap out at us. If nothing else, they want that jingle and that brand name fixed in my mind. They want some more of my life time as well. They want me to walk into their shop, choose among their goods, get out that credit card and buy. I take pride in being a resister.

    Language is the medium in which we live much of our lives. It is almost the DNA of the “cultured” human mind. Our first language becomes the map on which we record, categorise and manipulate our perceptions of reality and our thinking. As we acquire our language, so we give up the flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity we were born with. Wittgenstein famously declared that the limits of our language are the limits of our thinking. Our first language and our first culture are our mental home and also our prison. We feel comfortable in there. It is so well fused in my brain, I can get messages and send messages with ease. The laziest person in the world can.

    This is why it is incredibly important – if we really believe in freedom, that much abused word – that we liberate ourselves from the parochialism that our first language/culture instills. Every language in the world comes with its inbuilt biases about what is normal, acceptable, natural and what is not. Human beings get their sense of belonging and security from being tribal. What my tribe eats, says, believes, the way it brings up its kids, worships, dances, produces and trades goods and services, all this is my culture and all this gets into my head as I grow up as “normal”, even though there is phenomenal variety inside every culture.

    Diversity is a fact of nature. It is perhaps a principle of life: diversity means a better chance of survival. Human societies, however, often convince themselves that uniformity and conformity are the best option for survival. This nearly always benefits those with power at the top. They maintain considerable freedom. Everyone else should behave as dictated.

    Perhaps if your tribe is being attacked by another, and survival is on the line, military discipline is essential. No time for debate or regard for individual opinion or freedom (which may be why some powerful people seem to love war.) At any other time, a culture and society that exists “for the people” should encourage diversity of opinion, behaviour, worship. Innovation and invention arise from experimentation. They do not arise from perpetual maintenance of the existing order. Happiness arises from both belonging and the freedom to express and act on one’s particular intentions.

    It is clear that language is a massively powerful form of control because it sits at the very seat of human consciousness. The conscious mind is – as said above – made up in large part of our language (but also of emotions, moods, outside physical influences and internal ones such as hormones and hereditary neuronal dispositions). If I am told from the time I am born that there is one universal God, I will believe that. In a polytheistic culture, my mind and my thoughts and my words will be shaped by that culture of beliefs, songs, poems, rituals, stories, conversations, sayings and metaphors. Whatever society we are born into, that culture will no doubt have many supportive and beautiful aspects and almost always structures of power, belief and language that constrain or outright oppress the unfortunate.

    How can one be conscious of oppression, lack of freedom, or possibilities, if one’s value system or one’s very vocabulary does not contain words like “individual” or “aspiration” or “democracy”, sexism, or equivalents? We may think this applies only to traditional or backward-looking societies. That very thought shows our imprisonment. How can Westerners liberate themselves from the disastrous mistakes of colonialism, industrialization and consumer capitalism which threaten the planet if the minds of their citizens are so forcefully moulded and daily reinforced to believe that their civilization is superior and always right and destined to prevail?[1]

    The flip side of languages is that they are infinitely flexible. They were made and re-made and are re-fashioned on a daily basis to mediate the infinite experience of human beings and perhaps the almost infinite creativity of human minds. Language bore the thoughts of gloomy old Wittgenstein. It mediated the genius of Einstein. It mediates the furious scream of the unhappy infant, the last words of the dying, the prayers of billions of people giving thanks or asking for consolation or expressing resignation. Language expresses the mystic musing of Emily Dickinson and the bawdy mysticism of Omar Khayyam.

    Language may be a prison but we can climb out of prisons, we can tear them down and rebuild other things with those materials in their stead. We may even come to recognize that the bars are made of rubber, or bamboo, or thin air. Buddhists seek awareness of reality beyond words through a long apprenticeship in meditation.

    We can all recognize that the screaming television advertisement, the weasel politician, the boring teacher, the badgering spouse, the comedian, the signboard and the computer screen, all are trying to communicate – which, in many senses, is trying to control. They are trying to plant messages in our minds. [2] They try to have us think as they think, or at least about what they think.

    There is one method to escape the prison of our native language. Learn another. It is such as simple escape route that many people cannot consider it. It’s like saying to a lifer in prison: “There’s the gate. Walk out through it.” If he has been inside his hated cell, the dining hall and the exercise yard so long, he will actually fear that open gate. Because beyond lies frightening freedom and the requirement to process so much unaccustomed new experience, and deal with consequences for decisions and fend for himself.

    Learning a foreign language – even in a structured and safe manner – starts to make us see that our native language and way of expressing, seeing and being are not the only ones. [3] In fact, there are beauty and genius in other languages, their songs, their poems, their novels and their daily sayings and thoughts and funny ways. There will be things (and people) that repel and things that delight, as in our own culture. And, at some stage, early or late, you will find yourself looking back at your first language and culture and thinking: “That’s stupid.” And, “That’s beautiful.”

    You could think critical thoughts of your own language/culture by watching a provocative film, reading a great novel or history book in your first language. Or studying sociology or anthropology at university. Must we learn another language to be liberated from parochialism?

    YES. How can we claim to look truly at our own culture and lives and language unless in some way we stand outside them. We need points of comparison. It’s like a married couple who influence each other over some years and only later look back on the person they were and the family they grew out of. Despite lingering loyalties, nostalgia and love, we will acknowledge that all was not perfect in the family we grew up in (nor the one we have created). Life experience means we change: all experience, painful and pleasurable, makes us who we are.

    Deep language experience means we change in the seat of consciousness. Or we can. Not all do. Some learn another language as they learn to use a set of tools. They get a job done with it and stay – doggedly, comfortably perhaps – their old selves. At least they have the opportunity.

    Pity the poor person who will not allow themselves to walk out the prison gate. In many parts of the world, infants are walking in and out of many gates and language worlds on a daily basis, even inside the family. Most Indonesians, even the least educated in the formal sense, speak at least one local language, more if they have mixed parentage or live on a border zone between language groups, and the national language. And English if they can afford the lessons. As is the case in many countries. This is a power that all human beings have: to learn a first language (complex, marvelous, useful, established, ever evolving), and then another, and another. This ability brings great power of understanding. It is something democratically bestowed by our birth as human beings.

    The most affluent English speaking countries in the world have the worst record at learning other languages. We like our comfy mental, linguistic and cultural padded cells. We have open gates in front of our eyes and most of us cannot be bothered to walk through. Too much like hard work. Why bother when everyone seems to be walking this-a-way? They can learn all about us. We do not need to exert ourselves to learn about them.

    What does that tell us about ourselves? What would Plato think?

    These comments from a former student.
    [1] Citizens of modern democracies in the 21st century all have the ability – if not always the upbringing – to do as Robert Kennedy claimed: "I look at things that are and I ask why? I look at things that never were and ask why not?" (Learning From Einstein's Creativity By Ron White;read=460 )

    [2] I recognise as a teacher that this is what I do, but not what I want to do. You have to be pretty diligent to remain unbiased in order not to push your philosophies onto the students, especially when some of them are important to you. Is this morally legitimate? How can we encourage free thought in other ways besides second language instruction?

    [3] Is it just the language or its link with a foreign culture, a different way of life? Indeed, can one be learnt without the other? How much of a view do you have if you stay within the comfort of your usual surrounds? How much is learnt out of the comfort zone, learning to survive under different circumstances, understanding what it is like on the receiving end, to be different? How do we learn to empathise and understand another point of view? Are we generalizing??

    See an inspiring page on the experience of language learning written by this writer in 2006. "Completely new worlds" 8 October 2006 Maybe good to share with students if you are a language teacher?

    Saturday, March 15, 2008

    IYL on Wikipedia

    I had a look at Wikipedia's entry for International Year of Languages. Not a lot as yet. One link was to the World Network for Linguistic Diversity. It's humbling to see that they divide the world up into Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, North America and then they go on to International Days. Australia does not "get a guernsey". We usually console ourselves that if international publications list "Asia and the Pacific", well of course that includes us! I'm used to being left off the map coming from Tasmania but it is a healthy reminder to Australians that many of the hubs of world power and influence - even the UN and Wikipedia!!! - does rate us worth a mention. I wonder if we should therefore (a) get the sulks (b) give praise and hope they just buy our minerals and leave our old growth forests alone or (c) actually make a huge effort to reach out to the rest of the world.

    I should report that we get a prominent note under Regional events and activities. 15-16 May 2008: Open Road Conference - Multilingualism and the Information Society, Melbourne, Australia. But that's it. Nothing else goin' on?

    Actually, Francesco Ricatti at USC found this going on. "Perhaps you can find of some interest the magazine of USyd's school of languages and cultures. In this number for instance there are interesting articles about China and Indonesia, plus a comment on 2008 Unesco year of languages. There's also
  • a cluster of language and linguistics conferences in Sydney in July
  • the ACSSO online languages newsletter, Volume Two Number Three: 13 March 2008 in celebration of the International Year of
    Languages 2008 (their whole ongoing website LANGUAGES EDUCATION IN AUSTRALIA is all the more welcome in that this comes from the national parent body);
  • Leslie Harbon, President Elect of the Australian Federation of Modern Languages Teachers Associations sent round a NEWS IN BRIEF with a great round-up of the Eight National Strategic Projects, the key elements in the implementation of the National Statement and Plan for Language Education, all progressing towards completion.

    The funding, implementation and hopefully real world effects of those projects are themselves a celebration of languages but not the public-attention-getting sort of celebration I think the UN had in mind.
    This is more than just festivity and advertising: the attitudes of the public influence the motivation of every student to learn languages, or not. The attitudes of the public also make politicians sit up and listen. Sometimes truly public-minded politicians are brave enough to lead (e-duc-ate) public opinion, not just manipulate for short-term benefit.
    Please post here on this blog if you know of good International Year of Languages (IYL) events.
  • Sunday, March 9, 2008

    A Bit of Nonsense

    “I said it in Hebrew—I said it in Dutch—
    I said it in German and Greek:
    But I wholly forgot (and it vexes me much)
    That English is what you speak!”

    The Hunting of the Snark
    An Agony in Eight Fits
    Lewis Carroll

    Saturday, March 8, 2008

    There are millions of people, whose profession or personal commitment leads them to work hard to teach, learn, care about, use and preserve languages. There are also serious conflicts over languages, even tragedies on small and large scale, and petty Pint sized tempests. There are individuals like Irishman Colm teaching in Estonia with his passionate dedication to preservation of Irish Gaelic. There are professors like David Little at Trinity College Dublin helping language teachers towards truly effective language teaching methods. There are untold millions of teachers in schools around the world who attempt to encourage, enthuse and cajole their students in the enterprise of learning a second language in a formal school setting. Often they succeed and too often we fail. There are untold numbers of policy makers, interest groups, bureaucrats and citizens who want to influence governments to do something about disappointing language study outcomes. There are parents like Prof. Michael Clyne in Australia who gave his daughter the gift of German as a "father tongue" while her mother gave her English as a mother tongue (see Lingua Franca 16 Feb 2008 - Mother tongue, father tongue).

    The United Nations has declared 2008 the International Year of Languages. UNESCO is trying to promote the idea that "Languages Matter" with your help. Why? How?

    • You can write a letter to the newspapers putting your particular angle, proposal or success story about languages. A joke, a human interest story, an image might help it get published. Send a copy to every politician you can think of (email if you like), those on side like Australian PM Rudd and those not on side. Set up your own blog, website, wiki, e-group celebrating language champions (Aussie list coming soon and more writing ideas soon.)
    • Organise or join a celebration event, series of talks, performances or debate, competition for best story or art work in your community, local school, library, association, club or organisation. More public event ideas and links soon - with your help!.
    • A group of concerned Australian educators is organising a series of online audio-seminars for April to December 2008. A schedule will appear here soon. The venue will be a University of the Sunshine Coast Adobe Connect Meeting Room and all seminars wil be archived.

    Some links can be found at our Sunshine Coast Languages Newsletter. Your feedback is welcome. Salut salam shalom!