The following is the full text I prepared for my presentation at the 2019, 21st Century Learning conference held in Hong Kong.
Good afternoon everyone. My name is Graham Noble and I am an ESL teacher at Delia School of Canada, here in Hong Kong. I’ve been teaching language now from before the introduction of the iPhone and widespread WiFi. I hope that doesn’t make me sound too old, but if you do the math this only takes me back to before 2007.
So today I’ve come to talk about Language, and more specifically it’s likely being the “ultimate technology”.
But first. An activity.
I need a volunteer. If I can’t get one, I’ll choose someone. I promise I won’t make you do anything embarrassing.
Great. Can you stand up? What’s your name?
Just before you sit down. Can you turn in a circle? Great.
Raise your right hand? Great.
Can you tap your head and move your hand in a circular motion on your belly?
Can you do that on one foot?
Now, is there anyone here who speaks a language apart from English?
- Do we have two people who speak the same language?
- Okay, one of you go outside.
- I need a third person who doesn’t speak that language.
- Now, I want you (first of pair who speaks the language) to tell me how to say “Language is amazing.” in your language.
- I want you, (the third person), to write the phrase as best as you can in that language using English letters
Now, let’s invite that person back in. Hi, can you read what’s written on the board here? Do you know what it says? I’ll give you a hint. It’s your language. Can you translate it back to English for us.
This was just a little activity, but I hope it demonstrated to you the power of language, and the more specific power of writing, another form of language. For the first part of this activity I got our friend _________ to stand up and follow my spoken instructions. To be more specific. I caused vibrations to emanate from my mouth and throat, then, according to a range of frequencies they travelled through the air to be scooped up by her/his ears, down the ear canal, bouncing along a few miniscule bones to trip a nerve that had their brain translate those vibrations and connect them to pre-learned meanings. All just in a few seconds.
In part two, with the activity involving the translations, we had our one ___________ speaking friend encode strange sounds to a familiar phonetic schema using English letters. The second ______speaking friend was then able to decode the unfamiliar written form of their written language via the English letters to approximate sounds in her own language. Finally, the second person was able to retranslate the phrase back into English so that we could all understand it.
Let’s give a round of applause to our volunteers, our brains, ears, and this amazing thing called language.
The title of this talk is Language: the ultimate technology. I hope my little demonstration sheds some light on the message I have today: that language is an unsung hero, but which is so critical to our humanity and so vital to education in an increasingly culturally, and linguistically diverse international education scene.
So I hope to do three things. First, I want to compare and contrast language and technology a little. Then I want to discuss what lessons and implications there are for our multilingual schools.
But first. Let’s get some definitions:
Here’s a definition of language from Google:
- the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.
Pretty good. I’ll keep it.
And here’s one for technology.
- the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.
Hmmm. A clear enough definition. I can see how buildings, railroads, internet cables, airports, the plastic in this room, and so on are clear applications of scientific knowledge.
From the early human use of flint arrow heads and axes right up unto our present and rapidly increasing abilities to editing DNA, tech has given humans immense power over their environments.
But when we speak of technology in education, we are often implying digital technology. After all, although there are those who debate the pervasiveness of personal devices in classrooms, no-one debates the improvement of paper and notebooks over the old-school, pardon the pun, slate of our great-great-grandparents. Sadly, there are schools in the world where chalkboards remain the sole school-purposed technology in a classroom. This guy is an inspiring example.
Anyways. Back to Google.
Google wasn’t so helpful in proctoring a definition this time, so here’s one from Dictionary.com.
noun, plural digital technologies for the branch of scientific or engineering knowledge that deals with the creation and practical use of digital or computerized devices, methods, systems, etc.
There we go. Chalk and slate. Technology. Check. But is it digital technology? Uhhh. No.
It just doesn’t quite connote the same thing when compared to computer coding, artificial intelligence, or neural mapping.
A pencil is old school tech, though, revealingly, it’s still deeply embedded within our schools. Here’s a scene from Minority Report set in the future with cars that can travel on buildings, immersive virtual reality. Tom Cruise’s characters is just donning his gloves to prepare for some hyper hi-tech screen manipulation action. And there’s still paper and pencils on the desk!
I do wish to make that subtle distinction between technology (tools, applied science) in general and digital technology in specific, but I also feel it important to allow those ideas to be blended.
Let me now look at the features of technology and language.
Features of technology.
- It keeps satellites in space after launching them
- We now have nanobots capable of delivering sperm to eggs
- It organizes people in cities
- Totalitarianism is only possible through technology. Just think how excited Ghengis Khan would be living today with the tech and surveillance.
- In classrooms, easy access to tech has threatened, but not necessarily broken, traditional methods of instruction.
- Technology challenges the importance of knowledge
- Not all technologies are in danger of obsolescence, like our pencil, but they must all be on guard. Think typewriters, computer labs, SmartBOARDS
- Much has been made of the influence of the industrial education and its influence on public education, but we’ve always needed methods of organization as group sizes increase. Technology facilitates this.
- Technology has a massive appetite, a massive physical footprint.
- Technology begets more technology, but it also creates dependencies. Every time there is a power outage, we realize how completely dependent we are on technology. Sure, we can physically survive without much of modern technology, but not well, or for long.
Features of language
So what about language. Let’s look at some of its features:
- As I discussed earlier, language by itself is an arbitrary assigning of sounds to meaning. There is evidence that our brains are preprogrammed to acquire language, and it’s possible that there is an underlying language structure beneath all languages which is rooted in our brains. The verdict is not yet out. While people like Elon Musk argue that there is no specific direction to technology, most of us would argue that there is a great deal of human labour involved in propagating it and developing it. Except for those of use who’ve tried to learn a new language as a teen or adult, we didn’t do all that much for the first part. It sort of just happened. Languages can and have emerged within short periods of time, but we have not been able to observe the relationship of language to the human brain over the course of thousands of years. Nothing is preserved from language prior to about 6000 years ago. Neurons don’t fossilize well.
- Language likely needs our brains. But, paradoxically, our humanity is arguably baked into language. Any normal child, which is the vast majority of children, will acquire a spoken/signed language provided they are given enough input growing up. And the linguistic input doesn’t even have to be good quality. Deaf children can assemble a stable, complex language from highly imperfect signed input. And when deaf people speak, they are using the same parts of the brain that non-deaf people use.
- There are unfortunate cases of ferile or imprisoned children that have had no exposure to language. Unfortunately, they do grow up without an ability to effectively communicate, even if exposed to language later on. They’ve missed a critical window of opportunity. And just to be clear, all of you who worry that you’ve missed a critical period in learning a second language, please remember this doesn’t apply to you. You probably don’t want to learn or need to learn badly enough.
- Modern homo-sapiens have existed for some 200000 years. Although we have no record that people have spoken for this long the accepted consensus is that we have. Written language is much younger, less than 4000 years. Our brains haven’t had enough time to evolve brain structures to make this possible. This explains why it’s quite rare to find a child that cannot speak any language, but the presence of struggling readers are a very real and important concern in our schools.
- It’s only since the invention of the printing press, that written forms of language have started to solidify and slow down the evolution of language. A big win for written language, was the standardization of spelling that emerged. For English speakers, the standardization was too little, too late, what with all our chaotic spelling rules.
- Another very recent concept has been the idea that there are fixed boundaries between languages. The nation state, with its fixed borders and official languages, have suggested that there are these boundaries between languages as well. But as the linguist Bickerton noted, “You could walk from the middle of France with a pure French to the middle of Spain where pure Spanish is spoken, but where along the way in each adjoining village the people would be able to understand each other.”
- The old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is literally true, for it’s not the sound waves of the words or the ink of the letters that cause the harm, but rather the tweet, or the cyber-bullying message. It’s the tech associated with words that has causes and has the potential to cause so much suffering. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but a thousand angry people united in word are pretty might too!
- The only footprint of language is our brains. Admittedly, without a recording system, our repository of knowledge and common experience is limited.
Language, technology, and memory: similarities between language and technology
Now that we’ve seen some of the features of technology and language, let’s look at some important similarities between language and technology.
We have no record of all that has been said. And it can be more difficult to infer what has occurred in a culture when there are no written records. Spoken language and the knowledge contained and transmitted through oral traditions was ephemeral and subject to change. The emergence of writing was a game changer, first in the recording of business accounts, “See, you owe me 90 bags of rice, not 19! I wrote it down, here.”
Later the practical application to writing down speech came about, and of course the shaping of histories and culture. Writing improved the accuracy of memory, but it was never without its flaws. We see this today where the objectivity of video is not always so clear.
But writing was nevertheless an important innovation. There’s a scene in the dramatized historical Netflix TV series called The Last Kingdom where King Alfred, the scholar king who successfully united the Anglo-Saxons, carefully recorded all that happened as a record for posterity, and the illiterate Danish Vikings couldn’t figure out what was going on.
Writing becomes a part of the historical record, both as record, but also as influencer of record. Likewise, the technological evidence of humanity is clear in archaeological records. Without a written history, we can still trace the story of humanity’s struggle against the elements, each other, and existence through the remnants of spears, cave art, ancient roads, tombs, and altered landscapes. Archaeologists of the future will have the added ability to navigate and look at digital relics. When Facebook or Google have gone belly up, where will our selfies, videos, and sexts be. Physically stored in some data storage facility or a recycling dump in Ghana? Or maybe as long as there is an internet, which is, we must remember, physically connected to physical things like data centers and hard-drives, perhaps an AI can scrounge for the fragments and reassemble us.
Just as language is rooted in our brain, and we are dependent on language to make sense of our world, digital technologies and products, are physically dependent on hard-drives, data servers, electricity. It’d be tricky, but it’s technically possible to corrupt or destroy all data stored around the earth. Digital technology appears ephemeral, but it has a very physical base. Spoken language also has an ephemeral quality to it, and if left unrecorded or unwritten, both messages and vessel will become extinct. This is indeed the case with dozens of languages each year.
Is everyone still with me? I’m getting to the take-away.
Language, Technology, and International Education
We are all involved in education here, directly as educators, or supporting the infrastructure or personnel of those that are.
Now what about language and technology in the classroom. What’s the practical application in all this. If language is technology, so what. If it isn’t, does it even matter?
Well if the point of education is to prepare and equip children for an uncertain future, then we must seriously confront the enormity of the digital revolution at hand. We have to ask the same questions now that we have only ever asked of language. While it might seem ludicrous to ask:
“Am I human without my smartphone?”
“Can I think without its help?”
“How soon will it be before I even need the written word? When I can interact with the world with a phone and an earbud?”
“Do I even need to learn another language? I’ve got Microsoft or Google Translate to help me.”
But is it ludicrous to ask, “Am I human without language?”
We embraced writing, an unnatural, technological innovation. Post writing, have we become more human?
And now with the increasing penetration of digital technology, machine translation, artificial intelligence, and tech-assisted learning, can we be without it?
The miracle of language is that once everyone in a community is on the same page (so to speak), language takes root and propagates. With spoken language, naturally. As we’ve seen, children, even, can take imperfect languages and combine them to form a fixed and stable new language. Writing will continue too, but it needs a more intentional propagation.
While it might seem a bit dramatic, humanity in general, and perhaps education in particular is at a cross-roads. On the one hand, we cannot imagine our humanity without language. On the other hand, we cannot imagine our humanity without the massive benefits of tech and digital tech. Or can we?
Language, technology, and education as means to other ends
Language is a means to an end. Whatever selective pressures pushed our sapien ancestors’ brains to make use of the power to develop language, it eventually led to all of this. Writing paved the way for the dismantling of a monopolistic church in the West and lead to the systematicity that helped enable the scientific revolution.
The means of language is communication, whether through vibrations created in the mouth and received via the ear, through squiggles on slate, in a book, or on a computer screen. The means may soon involve permanent earbuds or brain implants.
And the end. That END will likely be debated forever, but in our schools we must see that we use digital technology as a means to other ends. We must, I believe, be more modest in assuming that tech solutions necessarily humanize us, or that they have no impact on our planet.
So what of all this. What’s my take-away. Well let me try to share it via an anecdote.
Just last week, my Grade 4-6 ESL students completed a series of formal debates. The main purpose of the debates was to get the students a little out of their comfort zones, articulate, deliver, and respond to arguments on a variety of topics. The kids were great, with reasoned arguments, and rebuttals witty enough for the opposition in the House of Commons, or a celebrity trial before a jury. And what was our tech? Vibrations from the mouth. Squiggles on paper and pixels on a screen to serve as cues. And all of it, done in a second language.
What my students were doing was no different from what our ancestors were doing thousands of years ago, trying to figure out better ways to take down a mammoth, outwit the lion, survive the winter, find the water. Or just sit around the fire and regale one another with stories. Trying to put words to our emotions and make sense of our place in the cosmos. But the basis of all of this is language, by its very definition, a shared experience.
But here’s the more serious take home message. International schools are filled as they never have been before with a greater diversity of language than ever before. This does pose challenges to the way that curriculum is delivered. The language of choice in international schools is English. And one of our primary duties as educators is to establish a strong literacy to accompany a strong oral linguistic ability. And might I stress, that maintaining this mission is our most important mission. More important than tech literacy, coding, STEM, because it is all of those things as well. Administrative stakeholders need to be aware of the selective pressures put on non-native speaking English parents through requiring English proficiency for admission. Where children may lose their first language in pursuit of the competitive advantage that English offers. Teachers must be supported as they work with their English Learners, so that high levels of literacy and fluency are achieved with realistic time frames and relevant support. The Anglo-West needs to embrace the linguistic diversity and multilingualism that is the norm in most parts of the world and through much of history.
It cannot be the case where a quality international education is one associated with high degrees of fluency and literacy in English, and yet that is the tacit message of a majority of international schools.
Education is a means to an end, and one of those means is the development of a strong literacy. Our brains can handle whatever language is thrown at them, a result of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years of evolution. But literacy, the technological innovation which took place some 4000 years ago, and which only moved from the elite to the wider society in the last 150 years, is not a natural phenomenon.
Now that we are well into the 21st century, might I argue that multilingualism is THE technology that we should that we should be nurturing and developing in our international schools. After-all, as much as I love English, it’s just one of some 6000 languages done by earth’s 7.5 billion people. As educators, let’s join parents, governments, the media, and all other relevant stakeholders to ensure that language, perhaps the greatest technology, is central to 21st century education.