Digital literacy

About 20 years ago at an education conference one of the speakers said: “To be literate is to fully inhabit a culture”. At first it felt a little affected or a bit too “luvvie” for my liking. Over time however I have repented. I find it useful rather than struggling with new words like “learnacy”.

The learning needed in an agrarian society is very different from that needed in a modern pervasive technology world, and with it our notion of what it means to be educated changes. With technology advancing on many fronts, constructing a curriculum which embraces technology for learning outcomes rather than for its own sake is a tricky business.

The debates over electronic calculators and arithmetic in schools illustrates how the developments challenge teachers and curriculum setters. Banning calculators doesn’t help, but because it’s easy to “do” arithmetic on a calculator doesn’t mean it’s any easier to understand or learn arithmetic. My stance has always been that it is best to accept the reality of technology advances and to understand the upsides and downsides dispassionately.

With the new ICT curriculum in schools, it is time for a wider think about the world we are preparing our children for and to understand what it means to be “digitally literate”. For me, it’s far more than a narrow focus on coding skills.

All technologies are defined as much by their limits as they are by their capabilities. It can be easy to be seduced by the shiny new toys and lose sight of the bigger picture. Let’s take language learning as one example.

I recently heard a claim re-iterated that I’ve heard for many years: “Advances in real-time language software will remove the need for children to learn foreign languages”.

I have only one problem with that sentence. It’s complete nonsense. If some policy wonk in an era of tight budgets believes this idea, then it could be dangerous. There were recent reports that we don’t have enough diplomats with Russian language to deal with Putin. Should we stop worrying because in 10 years’ time they won’t need to?

Now the advances in language software in the last few years have been impressive, after many years of slow progress. However, there are still important limits and we need to understand them if we are to use these advances to enrich language learning and to avoid dumbing down the curriculum.

Let me illustrate some of the limits which I believe are important in thinking about why and how children should learn foreign languages.

First, language evolves over time.

Take the King James Bible example of “Suffer the little children to come unto me”. If you Google it alongside the religious references it appears in articles about paedophile priests where it is clear that contemporary usage of suffer is meant, not the archaic meaning of permit or allow.

A 20th Century example illustrates a different issue. The standard English translation from the original German aria “Girls were made to love and kiss” from Lehar’s 1925 operetta Paganini explains the tenor’s belief in the title with the following line: “the good Lord made me gay”. To modern ears that’s odd. When the translation was done in the 1930s, I have been assured that it was a good translation of the German meaning.

The choice of words partly is determined by the rhyme way/gay. Some recent singers have replaced this rhyme with law/flaw. While that makes more sense with modern use of the word gay, it is further away from the literal meaning. The German language and the English language have and will continue to evolve in different ways.

Second, language is more than words or sentences.

Some things cannot be translated without significant loss of meaning. Translate into French: “Now is the discount of our winter tents”. Humour, double-entendre and cultural references will remain resistant to language software for some considerable time.

Third, meaning changes in context.

It is important in translating “every couple has its moment in a field” to know if this is Physics or alfresco delights being written about.

Now, in a world where many documents can be translated automatically to a “good” standard, this surely does provide opportunities to engage children in language learning more creatively. However, if homework can be translated into French by Google translate without passing between the ears of the student, I would argue that it is the homework and curriculum that is the problem, not the student.

So, children have no need to learn foreign languages? Well, all they will miss is music, poetry, theatre, humour, culture, history just to name a few fields. Not much to give up?

Adapting a well-known line: “Who knows English, who only English knows”. Now translate that into Greek!

By Chris Yapp (a NET leading Thinker)