Language Is Alive

Language Is Alive
Juliette Casas, Development Assistant with Irma Alarcon, Elementary Associate & Shoulong Zhou, High School Teacher

Language is a framework through which we process our experiences and a tool we use to shape them for our lifetime.

It is the vehicle by which we transport our thoughts from our minds to others, but like a vehicle and its many unique parts, language has its variation. It is not naturally occurring—rather, it is a human construct that must be expanded, given context, and refined. 

Why is it desirable for a child to learn a non-native world language*?

*“World” language, not “foreign” language, is an intentional choice to use inclusionary language. The use of “foreign” intrinsically carries a connotation of the “other,” “alien,” or “outsider.” The collaborators of this piece would like to bring greater awareness to how we both express and think about world languages with our use of word choice.

Teaching a world language provides students with valuable tools throughout their developmental years. It enriches their self-expression, equips them with interpersonal skills, and provides them an opportunity for validation and respect from their educators and peers alike. Students derive a sense of confidence and comfort as they are able to connect with a more diverse group of cultures and individuals, enriching their life experiences. 

Upon the student’s arrival to the prepared Montessori environment, the introduction of a non-native language is delivered purposefully, with calm tones, comforting language choice, cordial greetings, and connected to their sensorial experiences. At The Post Oak School, introduction to language is intentionally made a seamless part of the educational environment, with guides presenting material and activities in both English and Spanish. Depending on the grade level, Spanish or Chinese is used during an allotted time span in the class day or incorporated into their work simultaneously.

Fundamental to world language education is the incorporation of the five c’s as the material is being introduced: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities. This model carries on throughout the student’s education, with vocabulary expanding in increased complexity. As students grow in their understanding, material progresses from the concrete sensorial experiences and categorization to the abstract expression of concepts. 

Language unites.

We reflect on the words of Nelson Mandela,

 “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” 

Irma Alarcon, Spanish language coordinator at the Upper Elementary level, reminds us of the greater purpose and meaning found in learning a non-native language, which is ultimately to connect, reach understanding, and respect and appreciate other cultures. 

Claudia Arce, Young Children’s Community assistant teacher and Spanish language guide, recalls an instance when she was asked by a parent what her child meant when he would speak certain words or phrases in Spanish. The child had so naturally incorporated Spanish into his daily life that the parent decided to also embrace Spanish to better understand her child’s needs. The young student’s parents made a choice to meet the child where they were and sought to empower the future person they were becoming. Claudia’s personal upbringing taught her that the ability to communicate or translate for someone in their native language is not only pragmatically necessary but gives comfort. In teaching her students about her culture and the Spanish language, she is passing on the ability for them to gift the same.  

In their work, our language guides honor The Post Oak School’s mission for “a diverse and welcoming Montessori community…”. 

The writer brings to mind a uniquely Spanish expression "cada cabeza es un mundo."  Translation of this phrase in English would be “every head is a world.” While grammatically this statement might be clumsy and at first glance confusing, the meaning of the phrase can be deciphered. In each person, a different world exists (shaped by the five c’s). Command of another language will greatly increase your ability to carry the intentions of your words across to another person. 

Shoulong Zhou, Chinese language specialist at the High School level, adds that there is a depth of understanding one can only arrive at through the knowledge of another language. Language, while unifying, has limits! There are “untranslatable ideas” that cannot be shared in direct translations, because it is a unique concept or expression of the values held by the culture that uses it. With greater awareness of world languages, a deeper insight is available into the person/people you interact with. 

Language evolves.

As our Spanish language guides can attest, mastery of a language is a life-long pursuit. Vocabulary from previous works of classic literature may no longer be recognized in present times. New vocabulary is constantly being adopted to express our ever-changing reality. Think of the words “selfie,” “emoji,” “cryptocurrency,” or “gigafactory.” New words and new dialects form to meet the needs of the unique place and time of the people employing it. 

While there are several formal languages recognized internationally for use in the formal sectors of life (e.g., education, government, work), greater are the number of variations of languages, better referred to as dialects. In her work here at Post Oak, Irma is conscious of the need to guide students in proper language instruction while still giving due respect to these variations. Both the formal and informal languages are valuable cultural identifiers for the communities that use them. 

Her extensive experience with children of varying non-Spanish-speaking backgrounds—whether one parent speaks Spanish and not the other, or they are exposed to a Spanish speaker in some other caretaking capacity in their lives—some children have come with an informal knowledge of Spanish that more resembles a regional dialect mix of “Spanglish.” Spoken uniquely in the southern region of the United States bordering Mexico, generations of citizens from immigrant communities to this region have found a way to stitch together their identity as American Native-English speakers with their Spanish speaking backgrounds. The lack of practice or formal instruction in Spanish and the desire for assimilation creates a generation of English speakers that meld words they’re familiar with, in both Spanish and English, to create new terms recognized by their community members.

Irma’s approach is to recognize that the use of informal vocabulary or dialect is an indication of the student’s willingness to learn an additional non-native language, and strives to encourage their attempts. She adds that even within the formal Spanish-speaking countries of the world, the same terms have varying interpretations, such that we could not simply reject dialects. Language, she says, is a bridge to connect people of various cultures. She seeks to impart the students with the lifelong inspiration to continue their Spanish language education and learn to love the richness of diversity. 

Shoulong’s approach to language education is to make students aware of variations to the Chinese vocabulary as it is introduced, according to regional and historical context. The Chinese Mandarin word “software,” for example, in the People’s Republic of China is 软件 (ruan jian) versus  软体 (ruan ti) as expressed in Taiwan—similar sounding but with a slight variation in pronunciation. Another example he provides is that of the word Kindergarten 幼儿园 (you er yuan) versus 幼稚园 (you zhi yuan). These may be translated as young children versus childish/child-like. 

He states, “Language evolves with the change of society and culture” to meet the needs of people using it. He recalls students’ reaction to “Singlish” earlier this year during their March-Term (M-Term) study trip to Singapore. Post Oak students on the trip identified elements of the English language being used in a way they might not be familiar with, but likewise effectively communicated meaning. Due to Singapore’s location within Malaysia, formerly colonized by the British, waves of Chinese immigration, and international trade agreements, English has mixed with the unique dialects spoken by Singaporeans. Had Singapore remained as a part of Malaysia, this variation of English or their own spin on Chinese may not have arisen. 

Language spreads. 

Shoulong gives an example of how language spreads. If we take the phrase “long time no see,” it is such a common colloquial greeting of the southern region of the United States that no one questions its grammatical structure, yet it would never be used in a formal letter. This phrase in fact, he reveals, arose from the Chinese greeting  好久不见 (hao jiu bu jian), which at best could be translated into English as “very long no see.” We’ve heard the use of the phrase “to save face” so often in American English culture, and while the specific arrangement of those words would be unintelligible to a non-native English speaker, the concept is understood as preserving a sense of dignity or pride. The word face does not, in and of itself, carry a definition of pride or person in English, but in Chinese Mandarin, he explains the character for face, 面子 (miàn zi), translates as reputation or prestige. 

These elements of Chinese were integrated into the fabric of American culture as waves of Chinese immigrants arrived from the 1850s and 1860s to the United States, where they were employed to establish ports, expand railroad lines, and traveled through the use of the large networks of rivers, bays, gulfs along the coast. Out of the need to communicate with their new neighbors, using their limited knowledge of English, these immigrants would translate their native greeting and so brought about the use of “long time no see.”

Both Irma and Shoulong feel that knowledge of language is a pursuit that requires constant self-led learning. “It’s about self-growth,” he says. “In society you are constantly meeting people, and it is an inevitable fact of life that you will encounter different cultures and languages.” There is consensus among guides that the study of your own native language is an endeavor for a lifetime. “Even within your own community, language is a valuable tool to expand those relationships.” Shoulong’s words echo the feelings Irma describes when she is able to see the sense of pride her students form as they are able to more comfortably speak to her in Spanish. 
Originally studying law and working as a part-time English and second language teacher in China, Shoulong’s personal love for language studies was a “gradual process [he] had to arrive at.” The comparison of the two languages intrigued him, sparking his fascination. He hopes that in their studies, his students ignite the same interest for his subject. 

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