Hans Rosling was a passionate Swedish doctor, researcher, public health advocate, and a top TED Talk presenter. He became famous for his innovative presentations on human development statistics, and he partnered with his son and daughter-in-law to make his data presentation tools available to everyone on his website gapminder.org. If you’re a teacher and you haven’t browsed Dollar Street then you are missing a valuable opportunity to educate yourself and your students about the varying quality of life around the world and the incredible improvements to human development over the last few hundred years.
Rosling died this year at the end of a battle with pancreatic cancer, but he was able to complete what might be his most important legacy: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We‘re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You. Every teacher and student in the world should read this accessible, hopeful, and eye-opening book about the ways the world IS getting better, despite the often misguided views of those living in the wealthiest quartile. The central point of his book is that our views of the world and progress must be governed by data. It’s only with clear data that we are able to measure, plan, and even celebrate our progress. And the data are worth celebrating, even if we still have a long ways to go.
I bring up Hans Rosling, partly because I found his work very inspiring, but also because of an insightful remark about language that he made towards the end of Factfulness. He wrote:
I think it will not be long before businesses care more about fact mistakes than they do about speling miskates (sic), and will want to ensure their employees and clients are updating their worldview on a regular basis.
I wholeheartedly agree with Rosling. This view could help all teachers, and in particular English language teachers, to reflect on the bigger picture of the purposes of education. Language is a tool, a vehicle of expression, a method of sharing meaning. Unfortunately, language is often improperly associated with status, class, and other structures of inequality. People are often judged by the languages they speak, or the way they speak those languages. This helps to explain some of the motivation for parents to acquire English.
But when the majority of students in internationals schools around the world do not speak English as their first language, we need to be more cautious about what our goals are. Are we really aiming to provide an international education? Or do we mean an English medium education? Does that difference matter? Unfortunately, I think there is a subtle hierarchy across international schools where adjectives are quietly inserted to modify what we mean by international: “Oh, that’s not a real international school!” when what we really mean is, “The English levels there are not very high.”
Many parents of students in international schools are prepared, even enthusiastically, to equip their children with English at the expense of first language literacy or even competence in a first language. This does not mean we take away choice from parents, or that we should deny parents what they feel is in the best interests of their children. But as international educators we need to be careful about tying international education, even implicitly, to particular conceptions of English proficiency.
It may still be the case that a native or native-like English speaker has an advantage over others in many fields. But within business, as Rosling points out, this ability may no may no longer be a rationale advantage.
As educators, we must strive to help our students learn English as fluently and accurately as possible, but we should be careful about seeing English as an end in itself. It’s also the data driven thing to do, too. With the increase of Spanish globally and the ongoing rise of China, there are now other languages that can offer a serious counterweight to the run on influence English has had for the last two hundred years.
Bilingualism is not the answer to the world’s problems. But I believe more language means more diversity, more perspective, and more opportunities for robust culture to emerge. Bilingualism also allows for more humility with our typos! Inequality and issues with status may always be a struggle for humanity. But if we’re to be true international educators, we need to have a broader understanding of the relationship between English and education.
Just a few pages before the comment quoted above, Rosling wrote,
A single typo in your CV and you probably don’t get the job. But if you put 1 billion people on the wrong continent you can still get hired. You can even get a promotion.
Language teachers. Classroom teachers. Administrators. Let’s put people above typos.