Saturday, January 15, 2011

Language as a Life Skill

I recently heard a discussion about teaching young children from underprivileged backgrounds life skills. The project took children of kindergarten age and over, and taught them martial arts, chess, and music. These subjects taught the children the life skills of self-discipline, logic, and creativity, and vastly improved their self-esteem.

This is admirable, but I would like to propose another additional and important subject to teach life skills to children: language. For a very long time, language has been undervalued as a subject and as a way of thinking. People who understand language and use it correctly have a clarity of thought that semi-literate people lack. Proper use of language gives a precision and accuracy to expression and thought, and opens up the entire written-word culture of that language to the user.

Since the 1960s, many countries have been neglecting the teaching of languages, influenced by an ideology whereby "children learn their own language naturally and don't need to be corrected or taught". I believe this policy has been shown to be a disaster. What is needed now is a movement to improve the teaching of languages. We need teachers who can understand and explain the grammar and syntax of a language, and make the rules and exceptions part of the children's way of thinking from an early age. Language teachers with a passion for language and its importance can change the way language is taught and perceived.

Children who learn grammar and syntax properly will, for example, differentiate between the subject and the object of a sentence, thus knowing (in English) when to use "and I" and when to use "and me". Properly-taught Israeli children will know when to use masculine and feminine numbers and adjectives to agree with the masculine and feminine nouns in Hebrew.

Of course, the level of language-use is a strong social identifier, so using language correctly would separate underprivileged children from their social group more clearly than their skills in martial arts, chess, or music, but that is the whole point. If they are to become the first people in their family to attend university and have a white-collar career, they need to be considered and consider themselves part of educated society, and they could also serve as role models to others in their communities.

I also strongly support learning a second language as early as possible. Being able to speak, think, and read in more than one language gives the brain an elasticity that mono-linguals probably lack. A second language provides the user with another culture to explore. I am always impressed by people from certain European countries, such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and Luxembourg, many of whom become fluent in three languages by the end of high school. Imagine a world where everyone spoke several languages fluently!

I would like to call on language professionals and language lovers everywhere to consider how to promote the serious teaching of languages in all countries, in order to raise standards everywhere.