Friday, February 12, 2016

Are Multilingual Perspectives a Thing?

One of my students this term is from Africa. I was talking with her during a break one day, and I learned that she speaks at least four languages: French, her "mother tongue", the language of the town in which she grew up, and English. There may have been a fifth, but if so, I've forgotten.

She is not that out of the ordinary. Most of my students of the past year can speak at least two languages, not including English. If not languages, then at least two dialects of the same language. It seems the norm.

I wonder what this does to a person's perspective of the world. More than that, I wonder what it does to those culture's perspectives on the world and even their own communities. I wonder whether there has been research into whether or not there are measurable thought pattern trends in both multilingual individuals and multilingual societies. If there are measurable trends, I wonder what they might be.

Can anyone suggest any reading?

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Do you see segregation in this photo? I do.

Photo by woodleywonderworks, used under Creative Commons license.

"The most segregated hour of the week is on Sunday morning."

Have you heard this? I have. I suppose the meaning is that people tend to go to church with people of their same backgrounds, be it a national background, a racial background, or what have you. Given that I go to a Chinese church with few non-Chinese, it's obviously not any empty sentiment.

Nevertheless, I don't think it's true. That is, it may be true in the racial or ethnic sense, but that's not the only kind of segregation. In fact, segregation happens anytime we force others to be separated from people who are different from themselves. When we think of the biases that exist, we think of sexism, racism, classism, and a few others. Too often, however, we ignore age.

In my opinion the most segregated time of the week is Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 3:00 (or thereabouts). We call it elementary school, middle school, and high school. We call it 1st grade, 2nd grade, etc. Here we force children, for many hours every day, to be with other children of approximately the same age, give or take a few months. We enforce this segregation as if kids have nothing to learn from those older than themselves or younger than themselves, as if they have no skills to develop by interacting with students who are older or younger than themselves. And this despite the fact that children have primarily interacted in mixed-age groups throughout history, pretty much up until this Prussian experiment we call the public school system.

We force upon our children an unnatural division as if all students of a given age are supposed to hit the same milestones at exactly the same time, as if they can't be inspired by those older than themselves, as if the can't learn empathy and compassion and capacity to nurture others by being with those younger than themselves. What's the most segregated place in America? The public schools. It always has been. Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka legally destroyed institutionally approved segregation of schools by race. I fear it's merely wishful thinking to image a similar ruling based on age.

There are many kinds of bias and discrimination. There are many ways that we, as humans, segregate ourselves. In almost every case, these discriminations and segregations bring about primarily negative results. It's time we rethink what we think we know about public education. It's time to reevaluate how we segregate children from one another. In a world where young people are increasingly only amongst peers, 24 hours a day (thank you, social media),  it's time to rethink and recognize the value of students mixing with those of a variety of ages.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Word of the Year: "They"!

If you hadn't noticed, the American Dialect Society released their annual Word of the Year on January 8th. This year's winner was the singular "they".

I'm excited about this. The singular pronoun "he" used to refer to a single person of any gender has been out of favor for a long time. It belongs to a more gender biased era. Since then, writers and speakers alike have had to employ the clunky "he or she" pronoun pair or try to do things like alternate masculine and feminine pronouns. Too much mental gymnastics. Oh the perils of a language without a non-gendered third person pronoun appropriate for humans! Enter singular "they".

Singular "they" has long been used in common speech to refer to a single person when gender is either unknown or unspecified. Prescriptivist grammarians, however, have long stuck up their noses at the use of singular "they" in any form, but especially in writing. I know I have often simply advised students to use plural subjects as often possible, thereby avoiding both the wrath of overly prescriptive readers or hearers and the awkward "he or she" constructions. Could that time be coming to and end?

Will the American Dialect Society making singular "they" the Word of the Year suddenly lead to a widespread shift in opinion about singular "they". Absolutely not. Language change (and acceptance thereof) doesn't happen that quickly. The prescriptivist tradition will continue to maintain the status quo for the foreseeable future and perhaps beyond. Nevertheless, I can at least hope that this might accelerate the shift so that we can all enjoy the wonders of singular "they" in all areas of life.