Language, a tool for freedom

by on Friday, 20 February 2009 Comments
Renlai and Taipei county government have started a cooperation so as to reflect together on the local implementation of global challenges: water management; sustainable farming; ecotourism; integration of migrants within the community; lowering carbon emissions... In the Chinese issue of Renlai (and on the companion Chinese pages of this website) the topic treated in March is "language education", be it education to mother tongue or foreign language education. County governments in Taiwan are in charge of primary education. In Taipei county, new textbooks have been recently edited, aimed at developing children’s reading and thinking abilities. An opportunity for pondering anew the rationale behind language education.

Studying one’s mother tongue and learning other languages are interdependent experiences: it is only if you know your own language well that you can enter into the intricacies of a foreign language. And, reciprocally, studying a foreign language gives you a distance vis-à-vis your mother tongue that helps you to appreciate and understand it into a new light.

Actually, learning languages is what makes you able to learn all other disciplines. What is even more important, it is by learning languages that you are able to understand yourself, to understand the others, to develop your freedom and creativity, and to work fruitfully with others. Let us take these four dimensions one after another:

-Understanding yourself: learning a language will provide you with words through which you are able to express your identity, your true feelings, to channel your self and thus to understand it. It is by saying whom you are that you truly understand who is this “I’ who is speaking. Furthermore, by connecting you with your cultural past, by understanding how your mother tongue is connected with a cultural history, with a world vision, you understand yourself as being in solidarity with a history and a community - even if you use this language for challenging the values that are the ones of this community. Also, mastering a language amounts to know the words that describes all the facets of feelings, miseries and desires in the human soul, and thus to know better one’s own “light” and “darkness”, thus being able maybe to accept whom we are, with our contradictions.

-Understanding the others: listening what the others say in your own tongue, being able to discern in the words they use the subtleties of their feelings and thoughts is already a way of understanding Otherness. Of course, this becomes even truer when you learn foreign languages: you learn not to take for granted values and categories that seem to be “basic’ in your own language, you learn to see the world through another prism so to speak.

-Developing your creativity: words and syntax are the tools we use for conceiving and expressing new ideas. Mastering languages helps you to find newness by creatively assembling these tools. Furthermore, educating a child to adequately express what he thinks throughout the study of language amounts to educate him to freedom of thought and creative thinking. Once can say that teaching a language to someone (when you do not nourish him only with proverbs and stock sentences) is to educate him to freedom: he is able afterwards to think and say whatever he wants in this language!

-And finally, if you understand quite well who you are, if you are able to understand the others, and if you are able to think freely and creatively, then you are also truly able to work and invent within a group. Language remains the basic tool that helps a human community to stand together, to communicate, to debate, and, ultimately, by creating and progressing, to perpetually re-invent itself.
So, when teaching a child his or her mother tongue and foreign languages you are doing much, much more than preparing him to succeed in exams. You are providing him with the tools that are necessary for being truly human. He will do whatever he wants with the formidable tools you are equipping him with – for language is a weapon that can be used for the best and the worst. But, by showing him that language is meant for freedom and creativity, you can bet that he will more and more understand and gratefully appreciate the wonderful gift that is thus given to him.
June LEE (李禮君)

Former Managing Editor of Renlai Monthly (2004-2009). Board member of the Taipei Ricci Institute.

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