Thursday, September 20, 2012

Maybe, but so what?

Today I was at a little conference talking about, among other things, how to get language learners to high levels - 3 or above - on the ILR scale. At a session about what those learners who get to 4+ or above (comparable to WEHANS, the Well-Educated Highly Articulate Native Speaker) have in common, someone asked a question about getting people to higher levels in their second (third, fourth...) language who don't function at high levels in their native language. (Answer: you can do it but it's hard and almost always involves getting them more proficient in the native language first.)

Anyway, this brought out a lot of the computer-game-disparaging, lazy-kids-these-days comments. I said something then, and I'd like to say it here, too.

First, yes, I have those students. They don't know what's going on in the articles they're translating - don't know the culture, don't know the events - and mostly they don't care. They can't even be bothered to research (you know, a quick Google of "Yashin bribery scandal" or "Stalin Russian metro" or "Bandera Hero Ukraine"). They will, with a straight face, write "US Finance Minister Timothy Gaytner".  More than that, they don't read (interestingly, there are three things these high-achieving learners share: most (not all) come from multilingual neighborhoods - note, not multilingual families; they're almost all tenacious, detail-oriented (ectenic) learners; and they all - all - read voraciously.) These students don't read non-fiction (some don't read fiction, but most do - genre, though, not 'literature'). They don't read analysis in English - Will or Friedman, Sowell or Kristoff, anybody. They don't read anything more complex than the front page and sports section of USA Today. And that means they have a hard time of it.


That is neither new nor uniquely American. When we talk about the competency of the high-level learner, we don't just say "native speaker". We aren't just talking about the man in the street, the field, the coal mine, or the factory. We have to specify his attributes and qualify them with adverbs that describe superlativeness: not just educated but well educated; not just articulate but highly articulate. In any country at any time the percentage of people living in it that are both of those things is quite small.

So yes, it's true: many of our students don't read, and don't know a lot about the larger world around them. But that doesn't make them different from most people around the world. When we talk to them about what they need to do to get better, we need to remember that it's not their generation or even their country that's to blame.

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