Language as a `vehicle of peace'


Alternative: Many who teach English to non-English speakers feel that understanding and speaking other languages would help eliminate conflict.

March 30, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE PEOPLE who teach English to non-English speakers around the world met in Baltimore last week. Some 6,000 educators, researchers and linguists from 96 countries considered such topics as "Perception of final consonants by Hmong speakers" and "Using multimedia tools in collaborative learning."

But the underlying talk was of war. The organization, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), had sent President Bush a letter urging that he refrain from invading Iraq. "Your present approach to problem-solving," said TESOL, "is in conflict with our goals as educators. There is a potential for loss of individual language rights and diversity, for loss of life, for the destruction of the education system and other infrastructures that support the people of Iraq."

In the hallways and around the water coolers of the Convention Center there was a palpable feeling of disappointment and worry. These English teachers are not your grandmother's schoolmarm. Many are speakers of two or more languages. Many have traveled extensively, working in the Middle East, Japan, South Korea, Africa and, of course, places like the barrios of Los Angeles. E-mail has wiped out national boundaries and made possible a world-spanning network of linguists and teachers.

Everything about war is inimical to the folks who visited Baltimore last week. "We need to tell the world that language is a vehicle of peace," said Myles Hoenig, a Baltimore resident who teaches English as a second language in Prince George's County. "When you possess language, especially a language other than your native language, you're much more likely to value tolerance, religious and racial diversity -- and to want to solve problems by using language, not by dropping bombs."

At an impromptu session on dealing with terrorist threats, I met Kip A. Cates, a Canada-born teacher of English at a Japanese university. "Many of us have friends and colleagues in Iraq and other Arab countries," Cates said. "We're devastated by the thought that they're in danger."

Cates promotes pen-pal exchanges between children in countries in conflict. He produces a newsletter on global issues for the Japanese Association of Language Teaching. "I've learned eight languages," he said, "and two of the first are languages of my childhood enemies, German and Japanese." If more Americans understood Arabic -- and more Iraqis knew English -- there would be far fewer conflicts and misunderstandings in the Middle East, Cates suggested.

The biggest challenge of the English language educators is to promote linguistic empowerment while avoiding what has been called "linguistic imperialism" -- the notion that all of the world's languages are somehow inferior to American English. Still, as many speakers at the TESOL convention noted, English has emerged as the world's super-language at the same time the United States has emerged as the world's only superpower. A TESOL speaker went so far as to suggest standardizing English around the globe. Like, heaven help us.

Eastern European nations and even longtime enemies like Cuba have dropped the teaching of Russian in favor of English. In one TESOL session, Cuban exiles living and teaching in cities as far apart as Miami and London told how they've been smuggling English books and medical supplies into their native land for years. (A campaign in the early 1960s substantially reduced Cuban illiteracy, and Havana boasts one of the world's few museums devoted to reading, the Museo de la Alfabetizacion.)

As "English-ization" spreads across the world, said Hoenig, language educators and linguists will be hard-pressed to avoid jingoism. "Learning a language," he said, "should be a liberating experience."

City College still strong; Lake Clifton another story

Compare and contrast:

On April 10, City College will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the "Castle on the Hill," the magnificent 1928 building that symbolizes City students' aspirations and achievements (though journalist Russell Baker opined that the structure "sprawl[ed] across the highest hill in Baltimore like some grim Gothic fortress heaved up to shelter civilization from the Vandals").

Renovated a quarter-century ago, City has stood the test of time brilliantly. Not so Lake Clifton/Eastern High School, praised as the nation's largest high school when it was built only 30 years ago. Just a few blocks from City, the building was a security nightmare from the day it opened, and today it's showing signs of decay inside and out. A few days ago, city school officials said they might close Lake Clifton or use only part of it.

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