From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Primary Sources—Introduction (h) Language and Culture

One year ago on Round and Square (28 May 2011)—Le Tour de la France: Father's Last Words
Click here to access Round and Square's "Primary Sources" Resource Center 

As my student sat in my office after class, she spoke of the texts we read. I thought of the texts my own teacher and I had read. We were three generations...and one elementary community. She said one more thing that day, though, and it goes even further to underline the impassioned community created by these texts. Remember that the curriculum changed in the late-1990s, and that the texts of the last decade or so have a much softer edge to them in terms of ideology, didacticism, and patriotic fervor. Some Republic of China citizens of a certain age have even sniffed that those little green books were far more challenging than the linguistic and cultural pabulum put forth for young folks today. 
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If that sounds familiar, it should. Versions of that story have been repeated every generation since Grog first scoffed that—unlike children "today"—his generation had to eat raw mastodon meat, hunks of flesh torn from the bone. Of course, they walked uphill both ways (often barefoot and in the snow), eating mastodon jerky and sharpening their spears. His was a world that those pampered children could not imagine. The little junior Grogs rolled their eyes and poked at the embers, dreaming of ways to roll across the landscape faster than Uncle Grog would ever know.

Yes, the "kids these days" theme has been around for a while. Still, this was someone twenty years my junior speaking to me as though we were elementary school classmates. I had sensed, back on that early summer day in 1985, that I had stumbled onto something important—something that would forever change the way I thought about language and culture. As I read (and read...and read), I knew that this was big. It was not until that day in 2005, though—when my student from Taiwan finished our discussion of elementary school texts with a final, flourishing sentence—that I was certain. Something bigger than grade school was bottled in those texts. They contained the linkages that connected people, society, and passion, and polity. 

"We read the real books," she concluded. "It's just not the same anymore."
***  ***
This series will explore the books that bound at least three generations of readers together on a little land mass on the Strait of Taiwan.

We have covered a lot of territory in this introduction, so let's review. To my mind, it can all be summarized in a few words. Let's start with these:
[b] Path RF
Those words, and the themes embedded in them, have dominated my teaching and research for the last twenty-seven years. There are a few pivot points in my career that led me into a lifetime of studying these matters, not the least being my decision at Carleton to double-major in history and anthropology, and to study Chinese. There were a few. That day in 1985 was surely another of them, as I have tried to show and not just tell in this introductory essay.

In fact, I have a bone to pick with language programs that fail to integrate cultural and historical matters in a deep, resonating way. Most don't. When I speak of "culture," I definitely do not mean the kind that is often added on as an extra in language class—tea ceremony reenactments in second-year Japanese or a beer house in introductory German. I mean culture in the messy, picky, ideological, didactic, and particular way that people learn their own—and, eventually, other—cultures. I mean elementary education in the broadest sense, and it requires that we review two more terms:
Remember the very beginning of this introductory essay? We started with the idea that has come full circle. Children learn language, history, and culture in a way that is fundamentally different from the experience of the second- (or third-) language learner. Most grow up in the protective womb of family, speech, and lived experience. Written words abound in many societies, but they are, for the most part, a closed book until the schooling process begins. They are most definitely not a blank slate when they start school, though. They know the cultural and natural world around them in ways that foreign language learners may never comprehend. There is nothing "baby"-like in the vocabulary and even grammatical advantage that a five-year-old possesses, and the smug fourth-year college language student would do well to reflect, and show a little bit of humility.
[c] Salt/fresh RF
The five-year-old, you see, is already well on her way to enculturation, to learning the ins-and-outs of the society around her. Anthropologists have tended to make a distinction between "enculturation" and "acculturation"—the latter referring to learning other cultures—but I find it to be mostly superfluous. There are no lines between "cultures." They function much like Atlantic saltwater easing and oozing into the Chesapeake Bay. By the time you put your canoe onto the Potomac, you have transitioned, but you didn't know exactly when. Learning "culture" is like that. I'd like to call it all "acculturation."

No matter. The themes of this series revolve around learning how to learn in a distinct historical (c.1985—a phrase I will repeat endlessly), cultural (Republic of China on Taiwan), and linguistic (Mandarin Chinese taught to children through the medium of primary school textbooks). As every beginning student of anthropology knows, language is culture and culture is language. What that student is taught less often (and this remains a problem in anthropology) is that it is all fundamentally historical. This series will consider all of those elements, and show in detail what it is/was to negotiate the 276-step path of primary education. In Taiwan, c. 1985, with implications for past, present, and future.

[d] Historical RF
Each post will contain the traditional character Chinese text, a simplified text version (with an explanation for why it is included), and an English translation. In other words, readers who wish only to read the English will get a good sense of what is contained in the text. This should be illuminating in its own right for readers interested in primary education.

Stick with it. Really.

From there, each post will have three sets of "notes." The first will deal with history and culture. These are written for all readers, and give context to the reading. The second set of notes focus on translation. English readers will be able to understand most of this material, even though it will begin to veer into Chinese language territory. Finally, there is a section for language notes. These are addressed to language learners.

In short, this series is not about language instruction. Let's be clear about that. If you want to learn Chinese, get a teacher, focus on pronunciation, and then study all of the time for a decade. This series is meant to be an anthropological trek through the subtropical tangles of language, history, and culture at a peculiarly fascinating time in Chinese history. Have you heard that before? I hope so.

That is the theme of this series in Primary Sources. We have a long trip ahead, so shine your boots, pack your toothbrush, and sharpen your #2 pencils. Let's get started.

Click here to start your first day of school (in Taiwan, c.1985).
[e] Steps RF

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