Once upon a time, a group of people decided to get together and build something. It was to be a tall tower, so tall that they could touch the sky. Shake hands with God. Reach into the heavens. Or something like that. Then God – or Allah – or however one might call that greater deity – decided to put an end to the building by creating confusion in the form of multiple languages. So it came to be that the building stopped, and the people, unable to understand each other, went their separate ways. At least, that’s how stories from certain world religions would explain things.
There are other explanations, of course, as historical linguists can tell us. Language is a living tool, used to communicate about all things, and as such, is subject to change over the course of years. It forms bridges, but just as easily forms barriers, as the tale of the Tower of Babel clearly illustrates.
It is this barrier that we teachers strive to overcome, day after day. No matter what it is we teach, be that language, math, music, science, religion, physical education, or art, we work to help our pupils understand the world around them. Teaching our children foreign languages gives them more than a new set of lexicon with matching syntax structures. It gives them a new view on things as they pick up idioms and phrasal verbs. With a new language, they gain cultural insights that they might have missed out on before. That’s what makes our work so important. The more understanding we can create, the better our world can be.
I like to start my new classes with the story of my husband, back when he was a small child. When he was little, his parents took him to a campground, where he would play with a ball on a nearby field. One day, a boy came to him and spoke. My husband, not understanding him, said (in Dutch), “you talk crazy!” and hit the hapless boy on the nose. Later, my future mother-in-law explained to my future husband that that child wasn’t speaking crazy, he just spoke French. Fast-forward thirty years, when a mother at school came to me and told me a similar tale about her own child. Instead of hitting the poor stranger on the nose, however, this young child reached out, asking in his very best English, “you want play ball?”
That’s why we teach languages: to help build bridges between children. I tell my students that my ultimate goal is to create world peace, one word at a time. It sounds lofty, and it is, but just like every mountain, it can be reached if we just take things a step at a time.
In this new year, may this be a message of encouragement to all teachers out there working toward this goal, one child, one step, one lesson at a time. The more we and our children understand, the harder it is for ignorance to feed its fear-filled grip, and the closer we come to creating a better world.
Happy New Year to each and every one of you!