Friday, November 19, 2010

Thinking in your first language

This was supposed to be a post about cheating, and ghost-writing academic articles. However, Lisbeth connected it to educational language politics, and that started this. Read at your own peril - it's all about language and education from somebody who only knows half of it.

When ever I spend a lot of time away from Norway, my language suffers. Three - four weeks into a long stay in an English language country, and I forget all language. I am unable to formulate thoughts and ideas, numbed by the constant translation that takes place in my head, even if I do think in the language I speak. I am suffering a version of this here in Denmark, not as harsh, but more subtle and exhausting, as the constant translations in my head are concerned with subtle details. The only cure is to immerse myself, for a while, in Norwegian, to soak up the words, the music of the dialects, the structure of the sentences. I need to find the voice of my original thoughts in order to find a voice at all.

When I had this experience the first time, I never connected it to the language conflicts which gave birth to nynorsk - new Norwegian - or the political struggle for first language classes for non-Norwegian-speakers in school. But then I discovered a pattern: How not hearing or speaking my own language exhausts me, numbs me and slows me down. It doesn't replace one language with another, it takes away all languages, and I struggle in my search for words.

I guess you are now not surprised the to learn that no, I don't think there should be a lingua franca which all academics should use, from school-children up to professors. I also don't think we should force all students to write all their work in for instance English, just because it will make it easier for an American scholar to read their papers.

This doesn't mean I think we should stop communicating. I am truely grateful that I can talk to Italians, Portuguese, Koreans, Turkish, French and Finns without me having to learn 6 more languages. I'd love to, but I'd need some serious state grants to support the learning period. What I mean is that in order to be able to use our energy on thinking, language needs to take the back seat. We shouldn't insist that our students constantly struggle with words when what we want them to struggle with to be ideas, concepts, theories, hypothesis and arguments. It is enough, really. After all, if they, like me, were born to a social strata where higher education was a far away dream, not an everyday chore, then learning to be an academic is a whole new language in itself.

I would like to see two directions for language in education. First, I would like to see the language education in general strenghtened, and with it culture and literature. People who speak more than one language fluently are more empathic, think quicker, assimilate knowledge faster and in general appear to have more flexible minds. So that's a resounding yes for more emphasis on languages. However, I'd like education to contain more than two languages. We should learn to speak and regularly be encouraged to practice 3 or four languages. Why? Because if we can listen to how another person speaks in their own language, we will meet them as very different persons.

When we study, we should be allowed to learn in our own language, learn to have discourse within our own culture. With a base in the mother tongue, we should then challenge others, stretching ourselves in order to learn not only mastery of another academic tradition of discourse, but also respect for it, for the difficulties others need to overcome in order to communicate with us. It is hard to be a foreign student. It is hard to be an academic from a small country, forced to publish and cooperate internationally. But we should focus on the benefits to be had by learning not just one or two languages, so we can get by, but several: opening the world to us in a very different way.

If internationalisation is to get anywhere, we need to teach how to communicate. Even today, that means in more than one language - but it also means honouring our own while we do it.

1 comment:

Klepsacovic said...

"I also don't think we should force all students to write all their work in for instance English, just because it will make it easier for an American scholar to read their papers."

Having read a bit of writing by people who did not grow up speaking English, I can testify that it isn't very easy to read and understand. As you say it wouldn't be easy to write either. So there's not much more flow of information than there would be if I just couldn't read it. It's useless to press people into writing a language that does not express their thoughts.

I don't mind English being the dominant language, but it should not be the only language.