English: The Language of Extremistan

In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book “The Black Swan” he talks about two very different worlds – Mediocristan and Extremistan.  We like to think that we live in Mediocristan where people are rational, where the future is predictable, where Gaussian bell curves can be used to plot out a safe and predictable future.  This is the world as we would like it to be, and where experts in a myriad of well-paid jobs, such as in the world of economics make their fortunes reading the tea leaves with their arcane financial instruments.  Unfortunately for us, however, we crave the knowable future – we pay good money to experts to tell us what the future holds t but as Taleb says in his book – an expert’s predictions about the future are no better on average than a cab driver’s.  The unknowable is terrifying, so we will happily plonk our life savings into that one sure thing because doing something is better than doing nothing.  Right?

Some numbers plainly belong in Mediocristan – we know that a person cannot be over 8 feet tall and we can safely predict that there won’t be any 8 feet tall people in the near future, certainly not 9 feet tall people.  But a lot of numbers belong in Extremistan – 20 years ago it was probably inconceivable that one person could have a personal wealth of billions of dollars (more than the wealth of some countries).  But whose to say that in 20 years time we might not have trillionaires buying up property in London?  Equally there may be a world revolution where all the wealth in the world is redistributed (a humanist’s dream).  Who knows?

This is also a world in which English is spoken by over half the population, a language which originated in a small wet island off the coast of Europe – English is a black swan – it is the language of Extremistan.  Those of us who work in the ELT industry are the fortunate benefactors of this black swan – it could as easily have been Spanish or Chinese that dominated the globe (and how many Latin teachers do you know?).  Those of us who teach children should beware of forecasting English as the future language of the world.

Millions of children around the world are currently being forced to learn an alien language and their parents (and politicians) are investing massive amounts of money in English language education policies, because it is currently the language of the world.  But let’s stop a minute and think about the forecasts they are making. They are supposing that in 10, 15, 20 years time the world will still be speaking English, hence the need to train kids to speak English.  But why pour all this money into kids now to see  it squandered in the future?  Why not spend it on the people who need it now?  Governments are currently falling over themselves to teach their 3 year olds to speak English – to what purpose?  Do 3 year olds need to speak English now?  Of course not, they are betting on an uncertain future where English will continue to expand (and they might be right) and that in 20 years time their country will be competing with other countries in an English speaking world.  But we don’t live in Mediocristan.  We cannot know the future.  We live in Extremistan.

We are also making a massive assumption about the language learning abilities of our children.  I’ve been to plenty of seminars and lectures telling me that children have elastic minds, that they are like sponges.  But I don’t subscribe to this idea of  “blank slate” style education.  I don’t think it’s reasonable or efficient to treat all children the same and assume that all children can or should learn languages, especially one specific language.  Asian culture is particularly susceptible to this blank slate way of thinking.  They hope that cram schools will stuff their children’s brains full of English which will be stored away until it is needed in a scary futuristic world where everybody is hyper- competitive and speaks only English – no parent wants their child to be left behind. And who fuels this fear? Anybody who makes money out of teaching children English has a vested interest in this fallacy, so don’t expect to hear your local hagwon owner telling you that they’re just a glorified baby sitter any time soon.

We now know that brains aren’t empty vessels and not all brains are equal (if you don’t believe me I advise you to read some of Steven Pinker’s work) – some brains respond well to mathematics, some are artistic,some are particularly sensitive to language and some are, lets face it, more cut out for cleaning toilets, beating panels or teaching P.E.  Not all brains are built to sit (or run) through hour long lessons with a jolly English teacher and a story book.

When I moved from teaching to training  I spent 4 years observing English being taught in state schools in Korea.  I’ve sat at the back of over 100 lessons watching young children being taught English in Elementary, Middle and High Schools.  Some of those lessons were inspiring, some of them truly dreadful, but in all of them there were kids who simply didn’t want to study English.  I could read it in their body language (slumped over the desk), I could see it in their inactivity and i could hear it in their obstinate determination to talk to each other in own language.  The absurdity of watching a big Korean person telling lots of small Korean people to talk to each other in a funny foreign language,  was at times, overwhelming –  I helped where I could, with better classroom management, with more interesting activities, etc.  I hope that those kids enjoy their student-centred lessons a bit more, but I won’t lose sleep worrying about whether they’re learning English more effectively.

I’d like to end this post with a positive – I don’t have the same feeling of powerlessness when I teach or watch classes of adults.  I see people whose brains have developed cognitively and who can process a second language.  I see people who can make a conscious choice about what they learn, who are learning English for a reason they understand.  I can see the results of their learning, but I can also tell an adult to stop wasting his time, that he will never learn English.  I prefer a “just in time” approach to teaching and learning rather than a “just in case” approach, because it’s more practical and less wasteful, because I’m sceptical about the future.  

Remember – we live in Extremistan, where anything is possible and the future is unknowable – let’s invest in the here and now rather than put all our eggs in one future basket.  Lets teach the adults and let the children play, while they can.

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