Ones and Zeroes

Why hello there, language educators! Or wait, was that language learners?

When we were ramping up for this SPELTAC experience, I caught myself saying some things to my peers as we singled out the multi-linguists among us. Things like “I always get languages mixed up, I panic and use the wrong one” or “I’ve never been very good with languages”. It’s sort of true, I’ve studied French, Arabic and Khmer and though I revel in the cultural exploration, I am terrible at all of them.

But wait!

A big part of how we were celebrating the multi-linguists in our community was focusing on the depth and variety of our literacy skills, not just their ability to hold a verbal conversation in something other than their mother tongue, but their ability to read, write, analyze and interpret the nuances of these languages. When I think about it through that lens, I can bring into focus a tiny glimmer of hope for those of us whose guts condense into an impregnable ball whenever someone asks us a question in another tongue. We have literacy skills for both teaching and learning language, those that transcend a specific culture or enunciation. We employ visuals, models, gestures, expressions, and emotions to communicate. We utilize tools that speak for themselves when demonstrated, and invent new languages and codes to support them. Whether you are an artist, a musician, an actor, an athlete, a hacker, dancer or astrophysicist, we have ways that communicate our understanding other than verbal discourse. We have literacy strengths, and in those, I believe we are equipped to teach academic language.

I can’t resist the shameless technology link, the comparison to the language of machines and how it can be used as an analogy for this musing and it’s effect on my practice as an educator. On a base level, machines only understand “on” and “off”, the 1’s and 0’s of the binary language. Despite the simplicity, humans quickly realized that it was difficult to convey complex ideas using such limited means. We built scaffolds using “code”, a blanket term for the massive variety of acultural symbols and syntax that then are translated into complex arrays of 1’s and 0’s. There are layers and layers of code, from ancient mathematics to colour coded symbols, that flawlessly convey meaning from the human to the machine.

We, as both educators and learners, are not binary. We are not one or the other, on or off. We can use our literacy skills to create scaffolds for academic language by leveraging our strengths and expertise and codifying them in ways that our students mutually understand. Through action and reaction, visuals and emotions, modeling or just the good old “point at something that is happening”.

I guess I’m not really “terrible at languages other than my mother tongue”, I just need to consider the variety of ways I communicate with students, switch my attitude to a “one”, and identify the code that is our common ground.