should foreign language classes be required in college?

In the December 2016 “Room for Debate” from the Opinion Pages of The New York Times, three high school students shared their thoughts on then-recent proposal by Princeton University that would require college students to study another language, even if they are already proficient in another language. The students’ responses varied significantly. Yes, one said. It’s a global world out there and students need to be able to communicate in another language besides English in order to be competitive. No, said the second. Learning to think is more important than struggling to express your thoughts in another language. It depends, said the third. It depends because it depends on a student’s goals; really, if we’re going to require students to learn a second language, we should really starting requiring it in kindergarten.

These students’ responses are not unlike responses politicians and educators have thrown around in the past, but what I find interesting is the common threads they all share. First, each of these students recognizes that, by the time a student reaches college, it’s already way too late to introduce them to a second language: The time to learn a language is when you’re young and your brain’s neural pathways are still being formed. Second, they all recognize the inherent value of knowing a second (or third, or fourth) language. The way they define these values are different, but they all see second-language learning as being beneficial. And third, they all feel that something needs to be changed about the way second-language learning is being approached in the United States. The American education system is falling short and, in so doing, failing our children.

And I have to say, I agree. The American education system is failing its children, and something does need to be done — long before students reach college. Learning a second language is critical for all kinds of reasons, but the one I feel most strongly about is one that isn’t usually talked about — or at least isn’t fully understood.

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With a group of 5th graders in Taiwan. Can you find me? :D

When I was 25 I moved to Taiwan. I moved to a little city called Sanjhih, about an hour north of Taipei, to teach English at a camp for 5th graders. Originally I was only going to stay for seven months, but I ended up staying for two years, and afterward I lived in Hong Kong for a year. In both cities I found myself surrounded by an unfamiliar people, language, and culture, and at first it was really hard. I was incredibly homesick and thought many times about returning home. Ultimately, though, it was my students who changed my mind. My Taiwanese students — bright, inquisitive 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds — were for the most part incredibly sweet, and I was blown away not only by their sweetness, but also by their similarity to the 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds I knew back home, as well as by their aptitude for English. Many of my students were already quite adept English speakers — fluent, even — despite the drastic difference between the English language and their native tongues. But more than that, English or no English, they were kids like any other kids found anywhere else in the world. The barriers that cultures and countries and religion and political systems create wasn’t in place yet. These kids were just KIDS. (People are PEOPLE.)

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Suffice it to say when I came back to the United States, I returned with a new set of eyes. I could no longer see my own country in the same light, nor I could I see those from other countries in the same light. A foreigner struggling to ask for directions in broken English was a person in a strange land trying to get by, just as I had been trying to get by, struggling to ask for directions in Mandarin at a 7-11 in Taiwan. The noisy group of tourists from mainland China was no longer an annoying group of tourists but an interesting group of people with a unique culture and background. Living abroad and the little bit of Mandarin and Cantonese I’d learned while I was there had changed my perspective on the entire world immensely, and I would never be able to go back to the narrower mindset I’d had before.

That said, it is very true that, because I wasn’t (and still am not) fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese, I felt very isolated while living abroad. I know that if I’d been able to communicate more easily, I would have gained a better understanding of the culture in which I was living. I also recognized while living abroad just how difficult it would be to master a second language like Mandarin, and that if I would ever have been able to do so, I would need to have started very young — very young, as in, kindergarten.

jGHNy51According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, American students lag way behind European students in language learning. In her article presenting the study, Kat Devlin says, “Across Europe, students typically begin studying their first foreign language as a required school subject between the ages of 6 and 9. Furthermore, studying a second foreign language for at least one year is compulsory in more than 20 European countries . . . Meanwhile, far fewer K-12 students in the U.S. participate in foreign language education. Throughout all 50 states and the District of Columbia, 20 percent of K-12 students are enrolled in foreign language classes, according to a 2017 report from the nonprofit American Councils for International Education.”

This is, I feel, more than a shame — it’s doing our students harm. The cognitive benefits of learning a second language have been proven time and time again. The potential for improved job prospects and general understanding of other cultures is also vastly improved by knowledge of other languages. The United States is home to people from all different backgrounds, with roughly 65.3 million Americans over the age of four (i.e., approx. 21 percent) speaking a language other than English at home (2015 U.S. Census). If this is the case, and if my own experience in Asia is true (which it most certainly is), how much could we stand to gain if we started implementing the European language-learning model in our country? What would the results be if we started teaching our kids a second language in kindergarten? How much wiser would they be? How much more understanding of others? How much more competitive in the global job market? How much more culturally aware both abroad and at home?

At the rate the United States is going, we’ll likely never know. Things seem to move at a snails’ pace when it comes to making changes in education at the federal level. According to Dan Davidson’s “Notes on the American Academy Commission Report: America’s Languages (2017),” the founders of our country understood that “the study of language in the U.S. was a complex and varied endeavor, so much so that they determined not to establish an official state language for the new nation. They supported inquiries into what they referred to as the ‘rationale, genius and idiom of the English language,’” as well as examined Native American languages and linguistics more generally, as they believed that an “appreciation of the plurality of languages would improve communication domestically and internationally, and help the new nation understand its place in a changing world.” And yet here we are more than 200 years later, lagging behind the rest of the world in this very key area.

That said, if anyone brings up the argument, “Well, if we’re going to teach a second language, what language should we teach? There are so many here in the States, after all—how do you choose?” To them, I say, Any spoken language! It doesn’t matter. The results and benefits of knowing a second or third are the same no matter what language is being studied.

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With my language-exchange friends in Taiwan–Mandarin is hard!

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Note: Sorry for my long absence! I actually wrote this as an assignment for a grad school class. Grad school is hard!

hush trump, the king is talking

If you scrolled through social media at all today, you likely caught a glimpse of the above image. The artist, Haitian-American Watson Mere, originally developed the image to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in 2017. A week before the event, though, Donald Trump was inaugurated and, “with the atmosphere . . . and everything going on in the news, my spirit led me to add Trump to the image, too,” said *Mere.

The image went viral then and resurfaced again today, for obvious reasons. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a hero, but his birthday weekend is sad for me  sad because we’re still fighting the same fight; sad because his dream still hasn’t been realized. (Also sad because we do, in fact, have such an asinine president. I don’t usually talk politics on my blog, but, well . . . Perhaps I’ll make an exception another time.)

That said, today in Dr. King’s honor I’ve decided to post a few of his most famous and moving quotes. Please take a look at the below slideshow and be inspired.

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*Source: PRI’s The World

travel, racism, and compassion

(And you thought they weren’t connected . . .)

Shortly after returning to the States in 2012, I wrote a post about people. “No matter where you go, people are people,” I said. “Can you believe that? See, I thought (when I moved to Taipei), that this dark-haired multitude would be somehow different than me. And of course they were: I mean, the things they liked to eat and the way they did their hair—that kind of thing. But when it came down to the REAL stuff, the stuff that makes people people, they were exactly like me . . .”

It was a silly post, really, but it demonstrated well mankind’s similarities. My students were a great example. Children in Taiwan are no different than children here. Kids aren’t born racist or culturally constricted. These are things they learn by example over time.

Now . . . Of course since we adults are so “wise,” we should easily understand this, right? Sadly, this is not always the case. Take, for example, the note I found on my rental car after a run last week.
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Whoa? Really? A piece of trash, huh? Because I put my stuff in the trunk and because of my car? Wow.

I was really put off at first. I’ve never been called “trash” before, and I actually grew up not far from El Dorado Hills. If anyone was “trash” in this situation, it was the person who would leave this kind of note on another person’s car. And yet . . .

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered what would cause this person to do such a thing? What insecurities did they have? What pressure were they under? Why would they attempt to build themselves by tearing a complete stranger down? . . . Also, were they looking to rip off my “crappy” car? Nothing about the note made any sense.

As a matter of fact, a LOT of things in the world don’t make any sense. Another pertinent example of this is racism. I can’t comprehend what would cause someone to feel superior to others because of the color of their skin, but it’s an epidemic that’s gripped this nation since its inception. In 1968, not long after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, educator Jane Elliott did an experiment with her white students in Iowa to explain racism. In the space of 15 minutes, she made her brown-eyed children feel superior to those with blue eyes and thus demonstrated the heinous effects of such attitudes. It’s something she’s been trying to explain—and destroy—ever since.

Please watch!!

“We live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. White people are the free, and people of color have to be brave. I want this situation to change.” — Jane Elliott

Jane’s life work breaks my heart and brings to light the systematic racism we see in this and many other nations today. It demonstrates how odious racism is and shows white Americans (like me) the truth of white privilege, which never should have existed in the first place. After all, as Jane so rightly says, there’s only one race: the HUMAN race. (Amen, amen!)

One thing Jane’s experiment doesn’t do, though, is explain what would cause a person to take racism to the next level. Extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan have horrified me since I first studied them in grade school, and back then I thought they were a thing of the past. In the segment below, Sarah Silverman interviews Christian Picciolini, a former “skinhead” and reformed white supremacist, who helps explain why people are attracted to these groups and why rallies like the one in Charlottesville happen—and what we should do in response.

Please watch to the end!

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Obviously this interview touches on many things, but what stood out to me most was the dialogue at the end. In response to Sarah’s question, “What advice would you give us?” the very wise and kind Christian says this:

“Because compassion is what changed me, I challenge your audience—go out there and find someone that’s undeserving of your compassion and give it to them. Because I guarantee you that they’re the ones who need it the most.”

Amen! Amen!

rage against the machine

Do not be gentle in this, the great fight.
Rage, rage against those with little sight.
Rage against the machine.

In 2015, the Gun Violence Archive states that there were 53,711 gun incidents in the United States. 13,507 of those incidents resulted in death. In 2016, the number of incidents rose to 58,700, with 15,084 resulting in death. Thus far in 2017, at the time of this writing, the number of gun-related incidents and deaths is 54,610 and 13,775, respectively.

That’s a lot of (unnecessary, avoidable) deaths.

To get away from numbers, though, let’s look at headlines. “Missing Illinois bartender found shot dead.” “Toddler finds gun, accidentally kills playmate.” “White cop shoots black man during regular traffic stop.” I am disturbed every time I look at the news. People die from gun wounds EVERY DAY in the United States.

And yet we are silent.

We are silent until a mass shooting in Las Vegas takes place, and then suddenly the whole nation is up in arms. DO SOMETHING!! we cry — for a little while. We are angry with our government for allowing madmen to obtain guns. We are angry that these killings keep happening. But, really, we are tired. We are tired of the headlines. We are tired of bad news. We are tired of our own troubles, and, truthfully, we don’t want to give up our guns. We don’t want to do what it would take personally to eradicate the gun problem in our nation.

By now most everyone has heard about the steps Australia and Japan and the United Kingdom took to curb gun violence on their home fronts. Australia did a huge gun buy-back program; Japan requires intensive training and testing to own a gun. The U.K. banned private handgun ownership and bought back tens of thousands of guns from its citizens. In Hong Kong, where I lived for a year, citizens were never allowed to own guns in the first place. I felt safe in Hong Kong. I don’t feel safe in the United States.

Since the Las Vegas shooting, though, what have people been talking about? Sure, there’s been talk about stricter gun laws, but we Americans have this tendency to focus on effects rather than causes. Just like we still take our shoes off at airports because of one incident years ago, I’ve heard more discussion about screening hotel guests’ luggage than I have about making it more difficult to buy guns since the massacre at the Mandalay Bay.

Notice that I said “making it more difficult to buy guns.” I didn’t say, “Do away with all guns,” or “Only law enforcement officers should have guns,” or “All guns are bad.” Having lived in the South for a few years and having made many wonderful friends here, I can easily see how guns and hunting, etc. are a big part of the culture here. What worked in other countries will not necessarily work in the United States. You can’t come in with sweeping measures that many oppose and expect to find success. But surely there is a middle ground we can all agree on? Surely the reasonable gun owners in the nation would be willing to make some concessions on the kinds of guns they need to own — and the process they’re willing to go through to get them — if it meant keeping a larger majority of our nation safe? If it meant keeping machine guns out of the hands of maniacs?

Because, if we’re not, well . . .

We have no one but ourselves to blame.

(And, also, I’m becoming an expat.)

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Below are a couple of videos I’ve posted previously on my blog talking about gun violence and the need for change in our nation. They’re worth the watch.

 

*Note: This post was originally written for my friend Sreejit, an amazing blogger who’s currently featuring other writers in his “Rage Against the Machine Month” on his blog, found here. He’s asked me to write a post for him many times, and I’ve never followed through — until now! Stay tuned for a tie-in to my last post next time. 

we’re the butt of the joke, and we don’t care

Please watch the videos as they are part of the post!

As a blogger in the United States, it would seem negligent to avoid the topic of the recent shooting in Las Vegas. Everyone wants to voice their opinion on that, right? Well . . .

Those of you who know me know that I don’t like controversy — especially here on my blog. It has taken me a few days to collect my thoughts. If I’m going to approach this topic at all, I’d better have thought things through, right?

This time, however, the more I’ve thought, and the more arguments I’ve heard for and against stricter gun control, the more hopeless I’ve felt. Even when presented with statistics proving the relationship between the growing number of guns and gun-related deaths in the United States, a large percent of the population still feel their rights are being violated if laws are passed to make it harder to obtain guns. Many of these people grew up with guns. Many shot guns in their backyards as kids. Many enjoy hunting. Many want to be able to protect their families if someone ever invades their homes.

Okay, I get that. I do. But what about the other side of the coin?

It occurred to me on a run the other night. I have this bad tendency to run later than I should, and it’s crossed my mind that someone could pull out a gun out and shoot me through their car window at any time. It’s an awareness I’ve grown used to, but it was something of an epiphany when I realized recently that, if I were in Australia, for example, this fear would be unfounded.

But the problem isn’t guns, people say. Guns don’t shoot people, people shoot people.

Umm, exactly.

But even if you take away guns, crazy people are still going to kill people. They can use knives, bombs, cars, all kinds of other sh*t.

True. You’re absolutely right. Stricter gun laws won’t keep crazy people from doing crazy things. But, as was illustrated in the video at the beginning, there is no disputing that more guns means more deaths, period. Also, it’s interesting that driving is a “privilege” while owning a gun is a “right,” is it not?

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So what do I propose? I have no idea. I’m just tired of being laughed at. I’ve talked to a number of friends around the world who can’t understand America’s obsession with guns and denial of their harm in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. I also agree with an American friend who referenced The Onion on his facebook page recently.

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“This is an associated cost of the 2nd amendment and the culture that has grown up around it. So far, it seems to be a cost Americans are willing to bear. If that continues to be the case, at some point the calls for prayer, thoughts, and sympathy following yet another tragic incident of mass gun violence begin to ring very hollow indeed.”

I’ll close with a video from Trae Crowder* **, the “Liberal Redneck,” an up-and-coming comedian who’s making a career in Hollywood by playing off of his Southern roots. (I actually hesitate to do so. Studying Rhetoric has increased my awareness of the damage labeling does and the ways in which it perpetuates stereotypes and other negative phenomenons in society. It cannot be denied that stereotypes do exist, however, and Crowder contests pro-gun arguments from a perspective I cannot, as I have never owned a gun and originate from the “left coast,” “wrong coast,” and the “land of fruits and nuts” [a.k.a. California].)

 

*Interestingly, in researching Crowder, I realized he’ll be speaking in downtown Knoxville tonight and tomorrow night. You’d better believe I just bought my ticket. (There are some real benefits to living in a college town!)

**Please note that some may find Crowder’s language offensive. He makes some d*mn good points, though, and while I may not agree with everything he says, I appreciate his perspective.

 

p.s. You’ll only give an angel wings if you’re respectful of others’ perspectives in the comments section. 😂

 

 

 

little by little

jon

Chasing seagulls at nearby Bodega Bay

I’m supposed to be applying for a job right now. The open tab on my computer — “Children’s Fiction/Non-Fiction Writer” — is just to my right. I think I might actually have a shot at this one. I’ve been a teacher, and I love to write. The position is freelance, so . . . What more could they need?

Well, they’d need my application first.

I guess I forgot to mention that we moved. In all of the hustle and bustle of the holidays, and of packing and unpacking, and of apartment hunting and job searching, there was no time to blog. Continue reading

the hope of christmas

IMG_0376ed2014 is almost over. Where does time go?

It hardly seems a few days since last Christmas, when I woke up beside a lake in Pell City, Alabama. I was welcomed with open arms by Jon’s family — Southern hospitality in full form — and spent New Years Eve beneath the stars in Santa Cruz. The past year has been a big one — full of changes and surprises, love and laughter. It’s been a sad one on a national and global scale — so much hurt and pain and anger; so many issues that make me sad. But, through it all — the good and the bad — one thing rings clear: HOPE. Continue reading