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[Xmca-l] Re: Request for advice

Helena, Andy:

Halliday remarks that we all have to learn scientific concepts in another
language, even monolinguals. So for example in everyday language we talk
about how much our children have grown, and if we want to speak
metaphorically, the metaphors are pretty concrete. I remember my mother in
law referring to my growing niece as a bamboo shoot, by which she meant to
indicate simultaneously her narrow girth as well as her growth rate. But
the whole idea of growith as a classifiable, modifiable, qualifiable
thing--much less expressions like "an increase in the fracture growth rate
which is direclty proportional to the force exerted on the material"--would
have been a foreign concept to my niece, even expressed in her own
language, Chinese, and that well into her middle school education.

I think we all feel that the language of Shakespeare is slightly foreign,
and most of us need a translator for Chaucer; all of us do for Beowulf. The
reason isn't just the foreign vocabulary; even with Chaucer, the vocabulary
is not that foreign, and when you get used to the spellings, it's a little
like hearing somebody speak Australian rather than hearing somebody speak a
foreign language (sorry, Andy--foreigness has to start somewhere!). s
foreign to my niece. It isn't even the strange wordings beginning with
"y-". It's to do with the different ways of construing meanings--some of
which (e.g. Clinton's "grow our economy") are only a few decades old.

So Halliday makes the key point, in an address to African educational
linguists, that choosing a language for higher instruction is really a
matter of choosing between foreign languages. Of course, other things being
equal, your own language is best, and in an abstract sense other things are
equal, because, as Halliday puts it, every single language is the best
language on earth from the standpoint of its user. But concretely other
things are NOT equal. When we translate Vygotsky into Korean, we sometimes
end up using KOREAN expressions that don't make sense to Koreans until we
translate them into English.

So the NEXT best thing to your own language is one from your area. The
example Halliday gives is that Swahili is related to Kikuyu and unrelated
to Luo, but nevertheless even Luo speakers will find it much easier to
learn to read and write in Swahili than in English, simply because
the linguistic functions of Kikuyu and Swahili evolved in an environment
that is similar to that of Luo and dissimilar to that of English.

The obvious choice for Vietnamese education? Chinese, of course. Chinese is
an excellent language for scientific discourse, and far more teachable to
children than English. So for example in English very few fish end in the
word "fish", and very very few vegetables end with the word "vegetable"--in
Chinese, the name of every fish says "fish" (yu) and the name of every
vegetable says "vegetable" or "melon", so the child is handed a
hierarchical system of concepts on a plate. The principle is exactly the
same when the time comes for the child to learn about gases and subatomic
particles and machines.

But suppose, for whatever reason, Vietnamese don't WANT to learn Chinese?
Suppose they just, out of sheer historical perversity, wish to learn the
language of their penultimate invaders (that is, English) rather than that
of  their most recent ones? I am not really so sure it's perversity. I have
certainly benefited from learning Chinese and Korean. Of course, the
benefits were at first immediate, tangible, and highly material: they often
had to do with getting food and finding a toilet. But yesterday I found
myself analyzing some data for an eleven month old child using the
prosodics of Chinese syllables--and reflecting how impossible this would be
to analyze using the kind of "distinctive features" analysis worked out for
Western languages, whose phonological descriptions are obsessed with vowels
and consonants (vowels and consonants which are entirely unnecessary for
describing Chinese lexis, just as tones are largely unnecessary for
describing English words).

None of which really answers Helena's question. When my wife began teaching
"Everyday Conversation in English" at a Chinese university, the class size
was around four hundred (and some of the students were older than she
was). She asked about method, and they handed her a bullhorn. I don't know
if there really is any other "method" for teaching English speech to
classes that size. But I guess I would say that if you have to do it, you
might start by changing the name of the class from "Everyday Conversation
in English" to "Scientific Concepts in English and Chinese".

(And now you can hook ME offstage, Helena!)

David Kellogg
Macquarie University

On Sun, Jan 3, 2016 at 10:10 AM, Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net> wrote:

> Is it possible, do you think, Helena, to convince them to draw a line
> between on the one hand, the lectures and text books, which are formal and
> maybe be prepared in advance, and on the other hand tutorials, which apart
> from being essential to the education provided by top-line universities are
> informal and conversational? Perhaps to allow mixing languages in the
> tutorials so that the concepts delivered in lectures and books can be
> *grasped*.
> Andy
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> *Andy Blunden*
> http://home.pacific.net.au/~andy/
> On 3/01/2016 11:42 AM, Helena Worthen wrote:
>> Hello,
>> I am presently working at Ton Duc Thang University in Vietnam. English is
>> all the rage.
>> In an effort to become one of the "Top 100" universities in the world by
>> 2037, TDTU has adopted a new curriculum, which will be taught in English.
>> This plan results in many top-down practices that make me heartsick, such
>> as trolling the internet to identify classes taught at Top 100 universities
>> (according to a certain list) that post syllabi that can be replicated and
>> textbooks that can be bought, reduced to power points and then used to
>> teach a class, in English by professors whose English may be good for
>> reading or writing but is not ready for conversation.
>> The plan is coming from the top administration. The students are used to
>> working hard and getting over what I see as impossible obstacles (class
>> size 70 or more, no private office hours for consultation, no books --
>> unless you can borrow the teacher's copy and run to the copy shop). It's
>> the teachers, who take their work seriously, who are caught in the middle.
>> So I have been asked to make a presentation to the faculty about teaching
>> methods. First time around, they asked me to describe teaching at Top 100
>> universities, meaning specifically US "top" places like Harvard, Cornell,
>> Berkeley, Stanford. Since I actually have direct experience of these
>> institutions for various reasons, I set to it and wrote about the working
>> conditions for tenured faculty at elite institutions, the ups and downs of
>> it.  This was not the presentation they wanted (low course load, small
>> class size, big libraries, etc) so now I've been asked to be more concrete
>> and talk about methods.
>> I think I have to say something very clear about the problems of teaching
>> in English when your English is not great.
>> Let me emphasize that the teachers (lecturers, they are called; they
>> mostly have MAs, not PhDs, are untenured and young -- in their 30s or early
>> 40s at most) are serious about doing their jobs. yes, they are getting
>> pressure from above and have been threatened with being replaced if they
>> don't rise to the occasion. But they are also very serious about doing the
>> right thing for their students. Getting an education in English is a door
>> to the global world and they know it.
>> I want to say that an English-only approach will oversimplify the
>> concepts that they are hoping to transmit (share). Some concepts are
>> incommensurate across languages and will require elaboration in the home
>> language. This is probably true of whole registers of discipline-specific
>> concepts, right?
>> I am pretty sure that people on this list have experience with this. Can
>> someone help me say this succinctly and clearly? I will probably only be
>> able to devote a short paragraph to this in my actual presentation lest
>> they hook me off the stage.
>> Thanks in advance,
>> Helena
>> Helena Worthen
>> helenaworthen@gmail.com
>> Vietnam blog: helenaworthen.wordpress.com