Saturday, August 3, 2013

Is it only English that delivers?

Here is a thought provoking talk by a seasoned English teacher who taught for three decades in Asia!

In her talk, long time English teacher Patricia Ryan asks a provocative question: Is the world's focus on English preventing the spread of great ideas in other languages? (For instance: what if Einstein had to pass the TOEFL?) It's a passionate defence of translating and sharing ideas. 

The transcript if you are patient enough!

Well actually, I hope for a while longer yet. I have been living and teaching in the Gulf for over 30 years. (Applause) And in that time, I have seen a lot of changes. Now that statisticis quite shocking. And I want to talk to you today about language loss and the globalization of English. I want to tell you about my friend who was teaching English to adults in Abu Dhabi. And one fine day, she decided to take them into the garden to teach them some nature vocabulary. But it was she who ended up learning all the Arabic words for the local plants, as well as their uses -- medicinal uses, cosmetics, cooking, herbal. How did those students get all that knowledge? Of course, from their grandparents and even their great-grandparents. It's not necessary to tell you how important it is to be able to communicateacross generations.
But sadly, today, languages are dying at an unprecedented rate. A language dies every 14 days. Now, at the same time, English is the undisputed global language. Could there be a connection? Well I don't know. But I do know that I've seen a lot of changes. When I first came out to the Gulf, I came to Kuwait in the days when it was still a hardship post.Actually, not that long ago. That is a little bit too early. But nevertheless, I was recruited by the British Council, along with about 25 other teachers. And we were the first non-Muslimsto teach in the state schools there in Kuwait. We were brought to teach English because the government wanted to modernize the country and to empower the citizens through education. And of course, the U.K. benefited from some of that lovely oil wealth.
Now can it be right to reject a student on linguistic ability alone? Perhaps you have a computer scientist who's a genius. Would he need the same language as a lawyer, for example? Well, I don't think so. We English teachers reject them all the time. We put a stop sign, and we stop them in their tracks. They can't pursue their dream any longer, 'til they get English. Now let me put it this way: if I met a monolingual Dutch speaker who had the cure for cancer, would I stop him from entering my British University? I don't think so.But indeed, that is exactly what we do. We English teachers are the gatekeepers. And you have to satisfy us first that your English is good enough. Now it can be dangerous to give too much power to a narrow segment of society. Maybe the barrier would be too universal.
Okay. "But," I hear you say, "what about the research? It's all in English." So the books are in English, the journals are done in English, but that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It feeds the English requirement. And so it goes on. I ask you, what happened to translation? If you think about the Islamic Golden Age, there was lots of translation then. They translated from Latin and Greek into Arabic, into Persian, and then it was translated on into the Germanic languages of Europe and the Romance languages. And so light shone upon the Dark Ages of Europe. Now don't get me wrong; I am not against teaching English, all you English teachers out there. I love it that we have a global language. We need one today more than ever. But I am against using it as a barrier. Do we really want to end up with 600 languagesand the main one being English, or Chinese? We need more than that. Where do we draw the line? This system equates intelligence with a knowledge of English, which is quite arbitrary.

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