Thursday, 14 May 2015

Does academic equity even exist?

I've just finished reading through Yvette Slaughter's PhD thesis: The study of Asian languages in two Australian states: considerations for language-in-education policy and planning and what an eye-opener it was. And not for the reasons I thought it would be.

I'm really interested in language-learning ecology/(ies) and since hers mentioned this, I decided to take the plunge and wade through the 372 pages. And what I found was rather interesting. Aside from all the detailed analysis, the most interesting chapter was on  "Is Asian Language Study Equitable" - she has written a paper on it, which unfortunately doesn't seem to be easily accessible (i). (Just tried to find her on twitter to see where I can get a copy...).

And that's where I met my enthusiastic educational idealism face to face.  I am so naive. Yes I know all about the digital divide. I know that having a higher socio-economic status (or at least your parents) give all kinds of benefits such as extra-curricular, extra tutoring etc. But never would I have expected the vitriol around the supposed benefits Asian students have in studying Asian Languages. Even though I've experienced it first hand... does that sound absurd? In our HKU Chinese class we were separated between heritage and non-heritage learners (with Korean & Japanese bundled in with heritage due to their writing advantage), in fact, I switched to their class because I'd had a few years of stop start chinese classes and the mono-lingual anglo-saxon class was going a bit too slowly for me. And yes it was easier for them, but never once did I think it was not equitable. It just was. And I had to cope with it. And I just had to work a bit harder. A lot harder. But they were a nice bunch of people, and I'm still good friends with a few of them 7 years later.

There is so much background noise in the learning ecology that a rational person just would love to discount - however, it can seriously derail higher ideals. Looking at the example of our school. I really am a passionate champion for mother tongue. I'm a passionate champion for learning of languages in general, for everyone. But there are a lot of structural, emotional, financial and particularly attitudinal variables getting in the way of this ideal.

I have two children learning language at a native level, and they're two different languages, one we speak at home (Dutch) and the other was acquired in a dual language immersion program (Chinese). The attitude of my daughter when 2 native speakers joined her class this year? "At last! They've made the standard go up considerably, and they're showing up the laziness of the heritage kids and the weaknesses in the curriculum".  My response - nothing. If that's the way she felt, then I was fine with it. If she'd moaned and said it was unfair, I guess my response would have been that those kids were probably struggling in the rest of the subjects, so it was just as well they had a little respite from academic stress all week.
Maybe I've just been living in Asia for too long and have become one of those tiger mums. Or maybe language is important enough for me that I make sure the necessary time and effort goes into it.

Or maybe I don't care that much about grades. Ok, we're only in middle school in this household, and I'm not feeling the stress of university acceptance and IB results. I know for myself I do want to do well in my courses. But more importantly is how interesting, how relevant and how stimulating they are. Getting a good grade for largely arbitrary assignments (except the ones where I can choose the topic and have some lee-way to localise them - which so far at CSU has been most of them), is a side issue.   Ok, maybe I don't so much not care about grades as I'm ambivalent about the whole academic competition thing and putting a number on learning.  Except to indicate where you are in the learning / knowledge continuum for a particular subject.  I totally get homeschooling, and personalised learning, and entrepreneurial learning (except for the small but significant detail that I'm likely to commit infanticide should i ever have to educate my own brood). I hate putting kids of the same age in the same class - I love Seely Brown's Global one classroom thing -

For me the point of learning a language is to learn the language. Not to pass an exam. Not to get a diploma or certificate. To learn the language. To communicate. To access the culture. To pay homage to your own culture. To understand yourself and others. Anything else are pleasant externalities. I fear I may be in a small minority in this view.

I need to go and read some more. Leo van Lier's "Semiotics and ecology of language learning" awaits. Language is political. Who would have thought.


Slaughter, Y. (2007). The study of Asian languages in two Australian states: considerations for language-in-education policy and planning. PhD thesis, School of Languages and Linguistics, The University of Melbourne.

Van Lier, L. (2004). The semiotics and ecology of language learning. Utbildning & demokrati, 13(3), 79-103.

(i) Slaughter, Y. (2005). Public perceptions of Asian languages in Australia. In May, S., Franken, M., & Barnard, R. (eds.), LED2003: Refereed Conference Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on Language, Education and Diversity. Hamilton: Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research, University of Waikato.