A very prejudiced viewpoint

I was just reading a review of Rosetta Stone by a teacher of Spanish and Chinese. The language she chose to study via Rosetta Stone was Mohawk.

As I read her review, I couldn’t help but recall the comments I’ve heard over the years as various language teachers encountered non-traditional or LCTL. It seemed they were frantically reaching for us as we drifted out onto the open ocean in a dinghy. Even major European languages are sometimes treated as exotic creatures – Portuguese, Norwegian. Really, if it’s not Latin, English, Ancient Greek, Spanish, Italian, French, or German, we hear some language teachers react almost with dismay.

So as I read this review, I thought what the reactions might be to finding out she knows Chinese. Then, add to that that she is trying Mohawk! I wonder if some of these teachers even know that such a language as Mohawk exists. Moreover, what do they think such a language might be like?

My thoughts here are obviously trending toward depicting a hermetic world where one attaches oneself to a particular language and identifies with it to the exclusion of others. Obviously, this would be a rare person but the tendency of language teachers to be relatively unaware of the structures and external history of other languages is also obvious.

My thoughts then go to the effect of that on how they view language teaching. As a teacher of French, for example, one masters a body of esoteric knowledge – a young person from inner America learning French and reading books written in it. How far off am I really in describing the life of many fl teachers in areas of the country deprived of a cosmopolitan flavor? The internet and availability of fairly easy travel makes the isolation less intense for the individual, but the return to the cocoon must have some effect on the teacher.

The snarkiest comments come from Bob Peckham who teaches French in Tennessee. He’s a hoot in describing the backwater attitudes of many of his constituents. Often when we talk about these attitudes, we are accused of snobbism, elitism, etc. What we are doing is describing reality. If you are reading this in 2010, note that I live in Arizona, the winner of Bill Maher’s stupidest state contest. But I live here and so do many very with-it type folk, but we have a large contingent, a controlling contingent of people in the state who simply believe that black helicopters are banking in on us from China and will take our daughters to give to Fu Manchu warlords as sex toys. It’s like that Sandra Bullock movie, Miss Congeniality, where she plays an FBI agent diving for a gun only to be told, “This is Texas; everyone has a gun.” True.

So teaching a furrin’ tongue to people who think Jesus spoke English isn’t easy. That’s what makes us treasure the rare kid who sidles up to us after class to ask about the language, the culture, the country. It might cause us to lose heart about the other kids. But the truth is those other kids can get excited about learning a foreign language. Their grandpas may be looking for black helicopters but they love going to Mexico and learning the language and the culture.

What I am saying here is that people are complicated and teaching them isn’t easy. Those conditions, including the conditions under which teachers get educated in a fl, are not conducive to the free flexibility required to meet our students where they are, where their culture has left them. But you wouldn’t give up on kids in Guatemala trying to learn English just because they bring few academic skills with them. You keep at it. Same here.

The teacher, no matter how isolated, who remains excited about language, delves deeper into her own language, learns about other languages and cultures, has something to offer the children besides worksheets and tests.

In order to buck up those teachers facing a wall of ignorance and indifference, even hostility, I would like to engage in a three-pronged attack (note military metaphor).

First, I will continue the definitions.
Second, I will annotate each of the bullet points in my Linguistics/Humanities comparison, giving the source of my comments (observations, experiences, readings, comments heard and overheard, etc.).
Third, I will provide quotes from other works illustrating all sorts of things pertinent to fl teaching, starting with observations by Leonard Bloomfield, the father of American linguistics, writing in 1932 in his book Language, the foundation work of American linguistics.

I will continue to blog on other issues and will at times “cross-blog”, i.e. put an item in two different categories. But this new category will be termed Two Views of Language and will be an attempt to account for the divisions in our profession.

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