Learning Chinese as a Critical, Multiple Literacy

The Chinese Immersion Program that my daughter is enrolled in has been featured in the local media over the past few days, mostly due to the fact that US DOE officials were in town. Here is a clip from the newspaper.

The Lansing School District will expand its new Chinese immersion preschool into a full elementary experience with an $800,000 federal startup grant announced Wednesday.

Likewise, Michigan State University and Dearborn Public Schools have received a multiyear, multimillion-dollar grant from the federal government to develop a K-16 Arabic instruction curriculum.

Both Chinese and Arabic are among the most critical foreign languages needed in today’s schools, according to the federal government.

Lansing State Journal: Globally speaking

Now, I am all for this program (obviously, since my child is in it), but I am becoming increasingly concerned with the ways in which this program is framed, both by the school and the media. The way that the DOE uses “critical” to describe these languages needs to be unpacked a bit. Basically, the way I hear it, I think that critical means something like this:

  • Learn Chinese so we can continue the capitalist march into China and that we can communicate with them for our own purposes, mainly to make money. Check out this NPR story from today on this topic.
  • Learn Arabic so we can beat the terrorists. (I won’t say anymore about this, because others have said it more eloquently and passionately than I could.)

In this discourse of critical language learning, no discussion emerges in the ways that a multiliteracies perspective would suggest we think of “critical literacy.” In this mode of thinking, we might say that learning Chinese is important so we have a better understanding of the culture and language so that we can express ourselves more clearly.
It might also suggest that the visual, gestural, and otherwise artistic “texts” that the Chinese culture produces are different from our own, let alone their way of thinking and being in the world, and understanding that perspective can give us insights on how the rest of the world views us. And how we view ourselves.
Rather than learning Chinese to be able to make money (and, I know, that is part of it, no matter how idealistic I want to be), why can’t we focus on the cross-cultural understandings that can come of this?

Having worked with many international students at the Writing Center, I have come to appreciate the ways in which students from different cultures communicate — the words and phrases they chose, who and what has agency in their language, the structure of their narratives and arguments. This is why I want my daughter to learn another language; she should be better able to communicate in English and in Chinese because of the cultural and rhetorical understandings that she can make from knowing both of these languages and cultures.

I am happy that she now wants to see the Great Wall instead of going to Disney Land. Her world is growing every day. As a bonus, she will be able to “compete in the global economy,” but that is just be a bonus on top of the cross-cultural understanding she would posses.

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Thoughts on Morville’s “The Sociosemantic Web”

Today for Critical Studies, we read a chapter from Peter Morville‘s Ambient Findability, “The Sociosemantic Web.” This chapter suggests that taxonomies are out, folksonomies are in, yet (given the choice) Morville says, “I’ll take the ancient tree of knowledge over the transient leaves of popularity any day” (p. 139). That was the one line of the text that confused most of us, given his overwhelming support of how links, tags, and other forms of metadata can contribute to our understanding of the web, but that was one of our only concerns.

A few things that the chapter raised, however, related to the ways in which we, as researchers and educators, find, use, and distribute knowledge, as well as what counts as literacy now. First, we talked about the ways in which we “traditionally” did research in school with 3×5 cards, encyclopedias, and card catalogs which then lead to a final, polished paper of regurgitated information. Today, students are (or, at least, they could be) working from Wikipedia, keeping Google Notebooks, checking out social bookmarks and blogs of others working on similar research, and creating collaborative reports with a wiki. In what ways does this challenge the traditional power structures evident in schooling, in general, and literacy education, in particular? Was there ever a “pure and good” way to do research, despite the clear and concise steps that we would like to believe comprises good research?

Second, the idea that the world was built on taxonomies and is now working in folksonomies (although we are not so sure there was ever a dichotomy) makes what we want students to do as literate citizens very different than what it used to be. It is no longer about memorizing one idea sequentially after another, but instead looking for connections — sometimes suggested by experts, sometimes by peers — and trying to synthesize ideas into something new and useful, not just to repeat it for a test. We talked about the list of genres represented in hypertext (p. 146) and the ways in which composing those texts on paper as compared to using hypertext drastically changes the task. In some ways, linking is the new way to create citations (although, looking at a list of someone’s references to see what to read next has been a skill that we’ve used before the Internet).At any rate, it was an interesting read and since Morville might be coming to campus later this year for a talk, I figured it would be good to write a little bit about his work now.

Comments on “Learning a language to welcome the future”

Like many of you, I have read The World is Flat, and — while I agree with many of the points that Friedman makes in the text — I have been searching for a more nuanced argument, beyond reasons of pure economics, about how and why our children should become more technically proficient and multilingual, especially if that language is Chinese.

I was looking for a way to articulate points that the New London Group argues for in their seminal essay, “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures,” as it relates to recognizing linguistic diversity, both within and across languages, and understanding technology and new literacies from a critical perspective. In other words, we might want to teach our children another language because it can make them a well-rounded person, one who is better able to communicate in a variety of contexts not just a money-maker. That is my approach to literacy as it relates to technology and, I feel, a perspective not shared amongst the dominant discourse of literacy learning in American schooling. Our lack of K-5 foreign language offerings is proof to that.

So, I was happy to see the argument that the The Star Tribune developed with the topic, especially since it was on the eve of 9/11. Here is their entire editorial:

Want to do your bit to shape the future? Walk over to your neighborhood preschool and sit the teachers down for a chat: Teaching the kids to sing and get along is great, but what they really need is a daily dose of Chinese. If your listeners blink in bafflement, just explain: Chinese is the language of tomorrow, and today’s tots can learn it in a twinkling.

Preschool is the sensible place to start since children’s brains can easily absorb languages (many at a time, in fact) before age 6.
But it makes little sense to have preschools do this if grade schools won’t continue, and there’s reason to worry they won’t. The United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t require consistent foreign-language instruction starting early in grade school.

A survey from the Center for Applied Linguistics shows that fewer than 15 percent of elementary kids study a foreign language. The proportion rises to just over half among high-schoolers.

Beyond the educational system’s blindness to the science of language acquisition are a few other snarls: One is the fact that very few of the U.S. students working seriously to learn a foreign language are studying Chinese — let alone Arabic, Hindi, Russian, Farsi or any of the other “emerging” tongues.

And if demand for learning these languages were suddenly to rise, U.S. schools couldn’t come through — for teachers of languages are desperately scarce. Sorting out this situation will require acknowledging with sincerity the merits of multilingualism and a wholesale excavation and recasting of the country’s approach to introducing new learners to foreign speech.

The consequences of the country’s linguistic lassitude have already proven ominous: Because it lacks an adequate supply of proficient speakers, the U.S. government often displays clumsiness in diplomacy and cultural outreach, sends garbled messages to foreign media outlets, fumbles in gathering intelligence and warding off terrorism — and insults nations overseas by staffing our embassies with officials ill-equipped to communicate.

By the time today’s toddlers become globetrotters, monolingualism will compromise not only American pride, but American livelihoods. Before long, competency in Chinese could very well be the key to forging friendships and averting needless enmity. The ability to speak the world’s most common language will likely open doors and job opportunities. And though America’s linguistic layabouts seem not to know it, speaking as others speak has always been the key to opening minds.

Editorial: Learning a language to welcome the future

Now, why did this one really strike a chord with me? Well, today, our daughter started her first day in preschool — half the day in English, half the day in Chinese — as part of a partnership with MSU’s Education for Global Citizenship Schools. As parents, my wife and I wanted her to be a part of this so she could have the experience of learning a new culture and language. As the Star Tribune notes, this is about more than just money; instead we need to view learning a new language as part of the cultural experience of being 21st century citizens.

I know, I know. Even that argument can come back to economics. I am not here to rewrite the rules for what Jim Gee calls “fast capitalism” and to try to subvert the system. I am aware of it, and that, for now, is enough. Besides, I realize, much to my chagrin, that my daughter’s participation in this full program (with a waiting list) just adds to the list of data supporting these types of arguments.
But, just for a day, just for my daughter, I want to believe that this is, indeed, about more than money. I want to believe that it is about her learning another language and culture. I want to believe that she will be engaged as a global citizen because it it ethically responsible, not just fiscally prudent. Before we went into the school today, she told me that she was afraid she wouldn’t understand anything that her Chinese teacher told her. By the time she got home, she couldn’t stop talking about how much fun she had, even if she only knew how to say “Ni hao.” I believe that this is a start.

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