Our system rightly considers language a fundamental and foundation skill. It allows us to communicate verbally and in writing, and it is also a means for us to acquire the norms of communication. Mainstream education puts us through formal acquisition of a language through practising through grammatical rules and often memorising vocabulary. Being literate also helps us learn to comply with rules – most of which are written down.
So of course language must be included in early education. In fact that is one of the key building blocks. But the way we teach language, is often as though it is mainly for us to be literate, to understand more of other subjects. Of course, there’s appreciation of the language through literature at higher levels, most of which are considered soft subjects offering limited practical value. I disagree with that, but more importantly, I want to highlight an opportunity we miss in teaching languages.
Languages moderate our thoughts and hence our emotions. How we feel is driven by what we think and what we tell ourselves. Once we acquire language, our thinking almost always become based on the language and the cultural norms – that is how much influence it has on us. And so when we are picking up vocabulary, means of expression and mapping that into reality, there is a huge opportunity to equip our next generation with some powerful life skills.
And one of them is empathy. We often think empathy is something innate, and at best to be cultivated by parents back at home. I don’t disagree, but schools have that opportunity to help. And it is through getting our kids to apply the vocabulary the learn and ways of applying grammar to string words together at different levels:
- to think how would they describe the pain someone else feel,
- to suggest ways of comforting someone in pain
- to express one’s emotions in a variety of settings.
It goes beyond the usual essay writing, beyond just writing descriptive essays or colourful narratives. It gets students to ponder, to develop that sense of wonder. And to be more human.