Language, Learning and Cultural Positioning

Also read this article by Paul Waldman for Thursday’s class.

When I was in training to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, we spent six hours or more, six days a week for twelve weeks, in language immersion. We were not allowed to speak English, only French, the national language of the country of Togo in West Africa, where we were trainingĀ  and where we were to spend the next two years. An explicit part of our preparation was measured by a language exam; if we did not pass, we would be shipped back to the U.S.

Yesterday, I read about Chinese students in a biostatistics program at Duke University being warned not to speak Chinese “in the student lounge and study areas.” Loud protest resulted in an apology from the university andĀ  in Megan Neely, the author of the warning and the professor who headed the program, stepping down from that position (though she remains at Duke). The protesters, I think, were right. As a professor at City Tech, one of the most linguistically diverse colleges in the world, I understand that the desire of education should be not to repress language but to add to it.

How, then, do I justify my continued support of the type of immersion program I experienced in Togo? Neely was acting on “immersion” assumptions, after all, thinking she was providing the best advice for her students. Why, then, do I think what she did was wrong?

Part of the problem is simply procedural. The Duke students had not gone into the program thinking that language acquisition was part of it. I am sure all of them would like to improve their English (heck, I still want to improve mine), but they can choose on their own how and when to do that.

Another part of Peace Corps training was in motorcycle riding, safety and maintenance (we would be using small motorcycles daily in our work). This was done in English, the need for clear communication in instruction in something that could be quite dangerous superseding, for two hours each day, the need to speak French. Our trainers understood that there were different goals to different parts of our training and had designed the whole with that in mind.

Neely, unfortunately, was conflating two goals and, furthermore, was doing it in the middle of the program, not as a part of the design. An English-languageĀ  biomedicalĀ  program for non-native speakers of English could conceivably be designed, but this wasn’t it.

Another problem was the assumption of an either/or. That is useful in an explicitly “immersion” process,Ā  but it is meant to fall away, even there. Language use isn’t simply one or another; it is best seen as both. “Immersion” is a tool, not a goal.

My suspicion, also, is that the professors who complained to Neely (and perhaps Neely herself) were concerned and suspicious when they could not understand their students. Perhaps they thought the students were talking about them. My advice to the teachers would be simply to relax and stick to their teaching, to adding to student knowledge rather than trying to limit them.

In your English composition classes here at City Tech, you are expected to be working on your English, no matter what language (or languages) you grew up speaking. But that does not mean you should repress your knowledge of other languages or stop using them. You can even incorporate phrases into you English papers (as long as you clarify, in English, what they mean–for those of us who don’t speak that language). You can make your own language (or languages) andĀ  your culture parts of the base for your learning, even if you are learning in another language environment. You will, I am certain, come out stronger than someone whose learning has been compartmentalized.


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