Sometimes when I can find a quiet place in a bar I examine the causes and effects of the things that surround us, of the things that we so often take for granted or which take place over a length of time such that they are beyond our possibilities to notice. How could we tell, for example, back in the 1960s and 1970s, that the eventual result of buying those refrigerators would be the endangering of our atmosphere through the release of the gases that allowed them to work, or that we would become nations that wasted up to forty percent of the food we buy?
It is the same with education – at the beginning of our working life we may only guess what we will need to know in our jobs in fifty years’ time, as all that we know for certain now is that by then the world will have changed. Well, one thing will not have – there will still be people moaning that the beer is not as good as it used to be.
In the teaching of foreign languages we often start out by learning phrases that allow us to exchange names, and for English we might learn ‘My name is Jan’. As we then rise through the schooling system we get handed from teacher to teacher, teaching material to teaching material, yet there is no one in full control of our education path. If someone in the teaching system does notice, for example, that graduates cannot do basic math then questions get asked and the basic math teaching may even be reassessed. However, if no one notices such an effect, then how can we seek out the cause?
We know what we know, and we know what we do not know, but we do not know what we do not know.
So, students of English here in Poland get their early bite of vocabulary in the word ‘name’, and then at a later point in the curriculum this is joined by ‘surname’ amongst a whirlwind of other words and structures. Eventually the words ‘name’ and ‘surname’ arrive together in a single phrase: name and surname. No questions are asked, because no one knows that there is a question to ask.
The word ‘name’, though, is a general word, on the same level as ‘beer’. If someone arrives in a bar and asks for a beer and a brand-X lager, they should not share the barkeep’s surprise. ‘Surname’ is a specific noun, on the level of ‘Brand-X lager’, one designed to describe a specific product.
Beer and brand-X lager.
Name and surname.
Logically, we might think, this error should not happen, for the usage of name will be explored many times in the curriculum, as well as appearing in other sources, such as general culture.
My name is Bond, James Bond.
If we were a university lecturer and we somehow failed to comprehend this information in the blizzard of information that is a second language, although a fraction of that collected by a native as part of his or her life’s experience, then the error may start appearing in our work. The result of our failure could be whole generations of students becoming teachers and repeating it in their work, as some kind of truth. This is not untypical in a classical world where we value repetition over observation of unharnessed raw data, learning specific things by rote and then crying when too few people appear to create anything these days.
Those typical errors which do appear regularly in second language use are often there due to a lack of feedback from real life events. University lecturers continue to smile and teach, repeating their past to each new set of students without taking an effective part in actual language use. This failure goes unnoticed by the people who pay the lecturer’s wages – us.
As the effect of second language use is largely hidden to us in the mists engulfing the recipients, living and speaking elsewhere, it is very difficult to track an error back to its source. In foreign language study the connection between what someone does and the result is weak, and as a result the participants are often unwilling to accept that they have a responsibility to society to actively seek the failures. After all, they are doing what they were trained to do – why should what they do be queried? Even better, since the teachers attend the same courses as the translators then many errors in translation go unnoticed by other people in the nation as they have been taught the same errors by their teachers.
This sad lack of quality and quantity of contact with foreign natives does leave the lone translator, often working alone at home, in a rather difficult situation and under a great deal of pressure when required to produce work that is ‘native’. One could compare language teaching to a bar in a village, where the villagers rarely venture forth beyond their borders, never tasting what the world has to offer, yet with no specific training attempting to deduce the world from an advertising card depicting a scantily clad lady, with the final two packets of peanuts still obscuring our vision.