What is the future of language teaching? How do you feel about bilingual education? What is your own experience of learning a language?
A couple of weeks ago, I went to a talk by Professor Richard Johnstone on modern language teaching. Incidentally I had a discussion with someone on some scholars’ concern on English becoming the lingua franca and how as teachers, we could be acting as agents of some kind of language colonisation by the English speaking organisations we represent on the premises that a large proportion of learners aspire to acquiring a ‘native accent’. For argument’s sake, I’d say that is a pretty narrow and somewhat western centric view. Given the intimate link between language and culture, it is definitely conceivable that it might be on some policymakers’ hidden agenda to ‘spread one’s value’ on learners of their languages. But how can one claim that would necessarily be the result? As language teachers, we should know that what is taught almost never ever corresponds exactly to what is learnt. I would say that the current tide, as it stands, is a win-win situation for both parties in terms of the teaching of English or other languages in a national curriculum. It is precisely in times like this, worsening domestic economic situations and increasing globalisation, that a complex identity and wider worldview can only benefit the individuals who are given the chance to develop and explore it. The further we look outside, the further we can probe into our inner identity, the more we can get to know ourselves. Definition invariably involves some kind of comparison and contrast. Through that process, we become more aware of who we really are.
My own position is that while I acknowledge the danger on the learners’ desire on acquiring a native-like pronunciation, English’s role remains that of a tool between speakers of different languages. It reinforces the identity of the speaker, enabling the same person to confidently express themselves as a person or as a representative of their own origins in an arbitrary language, much like we do in mathematics.
There is also another reason why many learners might want to acquire a native like pronunciation. Let’s take a tonal language like Cantonese as an example, ‘native’ pronunciation is almost the only way to be understood. It would make a very lazy learner to know enough Cantonese and yet speak like a foreigner unless that is intentional. One becomes almost completely incomprehensible if the tone is slightly off. For speakers of languages like this, accuracy directly correlates with intelligibility. On that basis, it is not too much for a language learner to wish sounding ‘native’. Of course, the complexity for English lies on what counts for ‘native’?
As a product of a bilingual education in my early years, I certainly feel that my identity is reinforced and has become more complex than otherwise. I had experienced both bilingual education and total immersion. I cannot speak for others but personally, it has opened up my world exponentially. It has fuelled my desires to see the world in completely different lights. I still remember the day when I was walking alone on a street in North Wales and someone in the car passing by called out some racial comment. I was hurt that day. But then, I thought to myself, hang on a minute, I came thousands of miles away, able to understand what you said, living there, studying alongside students who were born and bred there, that was a pretty remarkable achievement. Why should I get angry? I should be feeling sorry for how ignorant that person was. He knew nothing about me or my culture, yet I was living and breathing the life under their sky, which I have since made my own, I felt powerful. I knew that from that day, everything I did will make me a person more worthwhile than if I had just stayed in the country I was born. I was grateful for the opportunity my parents had given me. I was sent to see the world much earlier than they could have ever done themselves. All I needed to do was to be a sponge, take up and absorb as much as I could and be a better person.
I certainly feel that learning a new language as an adult is quite a different matter but as a child growing up, another language means another avenue to explore one’s, still malleable, identity. Of course, to many, it can empower as much as it can confuse us. Borrowing a metaphor from a Buddhist idea, this ‘key’ opens the door to both heaven and to hell. How we use the ‘key’ is up to us. As educators, this is our responsibility to guide our learners to use it wisely and to let them appreciate the power it has.