Why it’s hard for adults to learn a second language


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Brianna Yamasaki, University of Washington

As a young adult in college, I decided to learn Japanese. My father’s family is from Japan, and I wanted to travel there someday.

However, many of my classmates and I found it difficult to learn a language in adulthood. We struggled to connect new sounds and a dramatically different writing system to the familiar objects around us.

It wasn’t so for everyone. There were some students in our class who were able to acquire the new language much more easily than others.

So, what makes some individuals “good language learners?” And do such individuals have a “second language aptitude?”

What we know about second language aptitude

Past research on second language aptitude has focused on how people perceive sounds in a particular language and on more general cognitive processes such as memory and learning abilities. Most of this work has used paper-and-pencil and computerized tests to determine language-learning abilities and predict future learning.

Researchers have also studied brain activity as a way of measuring linguistic and cognitive abilities. However, much less is known about how brain activity predicts second language learning.

Is there a way to predict the aptitude of second language learning?

How does brain activity change while learning languages?
Brain image via www.shutterstock.com

In a recently published study, Chantel Prat, associate professor of psychology at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, and I explored how brain activity recorded at rest – while a person is relaxed with their eyes closed – could predict the rate at which a second language is learned among adults who spoke only one language.

Studying the resting brain

Resting brain activity is thought to reflect the organization of the brain and it has been linked to intelligence, or the general ability used to reason and problem-solve.

We measured brain activity obtained from a “resting state” to predict individual differences in the ability to learn a second language in adulthood.

To do that, we recorded five minutes of eyes-closed resting-state electroencephalography, a method that detects electrical activity in the brain, in young adults. We also collected two hours of paper-and-pencil and computerized tasks.

We then had 19 participants complete eight weeks of French language training using a computer program. This software was developed by the U.S. armed forces with the goal of getting military personnel functionally proficient in a language as quickly as possible.

The software combined reading, listening and speaking practice with game-like virtual reality scenarios. Participants moved through the content in levels organized around different goals, such as being able to communicate with a virtual cab driver by finding out if the driver was available, telling the driver where their bags were and thanking the driver.

Here’s a video demonstration:

Nineteen adult participants (18-31 years of age) completed two 30-minute training sessions per week for a total of 16 sessions. After each training session, we recorded the level that each participant had reached. At the end of the experiment, we used that level information to calculate each individual’s learning rate across the eight-week training.

As expected, there was large variability in the learning rate, with the best learner moving through the program more than twice as quickly as the slowest learner. Our goal was to figure out which (if any) of the measures recorded initially predicted those differences.

A new brain measure for language aptitude

When we correlated our measures with learning rate, we found that patterns of brain activity that have been linked to linguistic processes predicted how easily people could learn a second language.

Patterns of activity over the right side of the brain predicted upwards of 60 percent of the differences in second language learning across individuals. This finding is consistent with previous research showing that the right half of the brain is more frequently used with a second language.

Our results suggest that the majority of the language learning differences between participants could be explained by the way their brain was organized before they even started learning.

Implications for learning a new language

Does this mean that if you, like me, don’t have a “quick second language learning” brain you should forget about learning a second language?

Not quite.

Language learning can depend on many factors.
Child image via www.shutterstock.com

First, it is important to remember that 40 percent of the difference in language learning rate still remains unexplained. Some of this is certainly related to factors like attention and motivation, which are known to be reliable predictors of learning in general, and of second language learning in particular.

Second, we know that people can change their resting-state brain activity. So training may help to shape the brain into a state in which it is more ready to learn. This could be an exciting future research direction.

Second language learning in adulthood is difficult, but the benefits are large for those who, like myself, are motivated by the desire to communicate with others who do not speak their native tongue.

The Conversation

Brianna Yamasaki, Ph.D. Student, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Oxford dictionary’s new words are a testament to the fluid beauty of English


Annabelle Lukin

The Oxford English Dictionary – the “OED” to its friends – has announced a 2016 update, consisting of over 1,000 new words and word meanings, along with the revision or expansion of over 2,000 entries.

The revisions are not just new words or phrases, like “glamping”, “air-punching”, “sweary” and “budgie smugglers”. The OED has also revised its entry of “bittem”, an obsolete word over 1000 years old, meaning “the keel or lower part of a ship’s hull”.

Australia’s most famous wearer of budgie smugglers.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Where did the new words come from? Some are borrowed from other languages, such as “narcocorrido” (a Spanish word for a traditional Mexican ballad recounting the exploits of drug traffickers), “potjie” (from Afrikaans, a three-legged cast iron cooking pot for use over a fire), and “shishito” (from Japanese, a particular kind of chilli used in Asian cooking).

Some additions are deeply revealing of our modern preoccupations – such as the terms “assisted death” and “assisted dying”. This category also includes the word “agender” (without gender), born of a communal reaction to our deeply binary thinking around gender. The OED dates its use first to the year 2000.

The OED has also added new “initialisms”. To its existing list, which included IMF (International Monetary Fund) and IDB (illicit diamond buyer), it has added ICYMI (in case you missed it), IRL (in real life), IDK (I don’t know), and FFS (look that one up if you don’t know it already!)

Many of the new entries are made by combining words. Some of these fit the definition of “compound words”, that is, words formed by joining two together, such as “air-punching”, “bare-knuckle”, “self-identity” and “straight-acting”. Others are just two words put side-by-side, such as “power couple”, “hockey mum”, “test drive” and “star sign”.

The term ‘power couple’ has been blessed by the OED.
Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Clearly some of these terms – “budgie smugglers” for instance – have been around for some time. The OED dates this term to 1998. The source is The Games, the Australian mockumentary television series about the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

But to make it into a TV program like this, the term must have already been an established expression in the Australian lexicon. The only corpus of English comparing usage across various countries, the GlowBe corpus, shows how deeply Australian the term “budgie smugglers” is.

Frequency of expression ‘budgie smugglers’ in the Global Web-Based English Corpus (GlowBe).

The expression “battle of the sexes”, meanwhile, has only just made it into the dictionary. The OED first attests its use right back to 1723.

Then there are the new forms from old stock. For instance, to the verb “exploit,” the OED is adding an adjective (“exploitational”), an adverb (“exploitatively”), and a noun to denote someone who is exploiting someone or something (“exploiter”).

To the verb “to swear” the OED now includes “sweary”, both as noun (a swear word can be called “a sweary”) and adjective (meaning something or someone characterized by a lot of swearing).

Why the wait?

So how do words get into the dictionary? “Lexicographers” – the folk who make dictionaries – add words only when there is evidence of usage over some period of time, and across various contexts of usage. The process for Oxford dictionaries is explained here.

A dictionary can never hold every word of a language. The only estimate I know suggests that well over half the words of English are not recorded by dictionaries. Since this research is based on the Google Books corpus, the data is only from published books in university libraries. We can safely say this figure is very conservative.

Somewhere around 400 million people speak English as a native language. But linguist David Crystal estimates three times as many speak English as an additional language. Thanks to colonization, English is the primary language for countries as diverse as Barbados, Singapore, and Belize.

This latest OED update includes the publication of written and spoken pronunciations for additional English varieties, including those versions spoken in Australia, Canada, the Carribean, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand, the Phillipines, Scotland, Singapore, Malaysia and South Africia. While some of these varieties already had coverage, their presentation has been expanded.

In praise of Singlish

The addition of Hong Kong and Singapore English are entirely new. Speakers of Singapore English, (or “Singlish”) – I count myself as a reasonable speaker of this dialect – will be delighted to see the inclusion of words such as “ang moh” (a light-skinned person of Western origin), “Chinese helicopter” (a derogatory term for a Singaporean whose schooling was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and whose knowledge of English is limited), “killer litter” (objects thrown or falling from high-rise buildings, endangering the people below) and “shiok” (an expression of admiration).

If you think English belongs to Anglos, then you can start by banishing the word “yum cha” from your vocabulary. For a good laugh at Australian English, and the Indian variety, try this series “How to speak Australians”, from the “Dehli Institute of Linguistics”.

By adding the “World Englishes” to the entries on British and American English, the OED has opened a pandora’s box. For instance, read the OED’s explanation for choosing “White South African English” as the model to represent their entries on South African English.

Changes to the OED remind us that a language is not a fixed entity. Not only is English constantly changing, but its boundaries are fluid.

Languages are open and dynamic: open to other dialects and their many and varied users. Therein lies both the power and beauty of language.

The Conversation

Annabelle Lukin, Associate professor

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

British Council Backs Bilingual Babies


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The British Council is to open a bilingual pre-school in Hong Kong in August. The International Pre-School, which will teach English and Cantonese and have specific times set aside for Mandarin, will follow the UK-based International Primary Curriculum.

The British Council already has bilingual pre-schools in Singapore (pictured above) and Madrid. The adoption of a bilingual model of early years learning, rather than a purely English-medium one, is supported by much of the research on this age group. In a randomised control trial in the US state of New Jersey, for example, three- and four-year-olds from both Spanish- and English-speaking backgrounds were assigned by lottery to either an all-English or English–Spanish pre-school programme which used an identical curriculum. The study found that children from the bilingual programme emerged with the same level of English as those in the English-medium one, but both the Spanish-speaking and anglophone children had a much higher level of Spanish.

http://www.elgazette.com/item/281-british-council-backs-bilingual-babies.html

Britain may be leaving the EU, but English is going nowhere


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Andrew Linn, University of Westminster

After Brexit, there are various things that some in the EU hope to see and hear less in the future. One is Nigel Farage. Another is the English language.

In the early hours of June 24, as the referendum outcome was becoming clear, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, left-wing MEP and French presidential candidate, tweeted that “English cannot be the third working language of the European parliament”.

This is not the first time that French and German opinion has weighed in against alleged disproportionate use of English in EU business. In 2012, for example, a similar point was made about key eurozone recommendations from the European Commission being published initially “in a language which [as far as the Euro goes] is only spoken by less than 5m Irish”. With the number of native speakers of English in the EU set to drop from 14% to around 1% of the bloc’s total with the departure of the UK, this point just got a bit sharper.

Translation overload

Official EU language policy is multilingualism with equal rights for all languages used in member states. It recommends that “every European citizen should master two other languages in addition to their mother tongue” – Britain’s abject failure to achieve this should make it skulk away in shame.

The EU recognises 24 “official and working” languages, a number that has mushroomed from the original four (Dutch, French, German and Italian) as more countries have joined. All EU citizens have a right to access EU documents in any of those languages. This calls for a translation team numbering around 2,500, not to mention a further 600 full-time interpreters. In practice most day-to-day business is transacted in either English, French or German and then translated, but it is true that English dominates to a considerable extent.

Lots of work still to do.
Etienne Ansotte/EPA

The preponderance of English has nothing to do with the influence of Britain or even Britain’s membership of the EU. Historically, the expansion of the British empire, the impact of the industrial revolution and the emergence of the US as a world power have embedded English in the language repertoire of speakers across the globe.

Unlike Latin, which outlived the Roman empire as the lingua franca of medieval and renaissance Europe, English of course has native speakers (who may be unfairly advantaged), but it is those who have learned English as a foreign language – “Euro-English” or “English as a lingua franca” – who now constitute the majority of users.

According to the 2012 Special Eurobarometer on Europeans and their Languages, English is the most widely spoken foreign language in 19 of the member states where it is not an official language. Across Europe, 38% of people speak English well enough as a foreign language to have a conversation, compared to 12% speaking French and 11% in German.

The report also found that 67% of Europeans consider English the most useful foreign language, and that the numbers favouring German (17%) or French (16%) have declined. As a result, 79% of Europeans want their children to learn English, compared to 20% for French and German.

Too much invested in English

Huge sums have been invested in English teaching by both national governments and private enterprise. As the demand for learning English has increased, so has the supply. English language learning worldwide was estimated to be worth US$63.3 billion (£47.5 billion) in 2012, and it is expected that this market will rise to US$193.2 billion (£145.6 billion) by 2017. The value of English for speakers of other languages is not going to diminish any time soon. There is simply too much invested in it.

Speakers of English as a second language outnumber first-language English speakers by 2:1 both in Europe and globally. For many Europeans, and especially those employed in the EU, English is a useful piece in a toolbox of languages to be pressed into service when needed – a point which was evident in a recent project on whether the use of English in Europe was an opportunity or a threat. So in the majority of cases using English has precisely nothing to do with the UK or Britishness. The EU needs practical solutions and English provides one.

English is unchallenged as the lingua franca of Europe. It has even been suggested that in some countries of northern Europe it has become a second rather than a foreign language. Jan Paternotte, D66 party leader in Amsterdam, has proposed that English should be decreed the official second language of that city.

English has not always held its current privileged status. French and German have both functioned as common languages for high-profile fields such as philosophy, science and technology, politics and diplomacy, not to mention Church Slavonic, Russian, Portuguese and other languages in different times and places.

We can assume that English will not maintain its privileged position forever. Who benefits now, however, are not the predominantly monolingual British, but European anglocrats whose multilingualism provides them with a key to international education and employment.

Much about the EU may be about to change, but right now an anti-English language policy so dramatically out of step with practice would simply make the post-Brexit hangover more painful.

The Conversation

Andrew Linn, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Westminster

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How language drives students’ transition from rural to urban areas


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Thelma Kathleen Buchholz Mort, Cape Peninsula University of Technology

Molofo and Bulewani are training as teachers at a university in one of South Africa’s largest cities, Cape Town. Both young men come from rural backgrounds and English is not their first language. Their experiences of moving from a rural area to a city, and of becoming English speakers, offer a fascinating insight into how language development and social transition are intertwined.

There are about 25,720 state schools in South Africa, and 11,252 are designated as rural. These rural schools tend to be poorly resourced – some don’t have proper furniture, let alone enough teachers or textbooks. Most pupils are taught in their mother tongues, not English, and even if they do learn in English they have little chance to practice speaking it at home or outside school. Pupils from schools in such areas tend not to perform as well in their final exams as their urban counterparts.

It was language that set Bulewani and Molofo apart from their classmates. I interviewed them, along with two other teaching students, as part of a research project presented at the 2015 South African Education Research Association Conference. An article based on this research has been submitted to the SA Journal of Education and is under review. The research findings echo results from elsewhere in the world: participants reported that “leaving behind” their home languages and their physical homes produced a sense of both loss and gain.

Social distance

It is important that this research used rural areas as a context. Such areas tend to be linguistically, educationally and economically isolated from the rest of a country. The students’ experiences are about more than just geographic distance between their rural homes and the city where they study – they’re about social distance, too.

US educationalist John H Schumann talks about this idea of social distance in his research, explaining it as the distance between two language groups in second-language acquisition. Social closeness involves being embedded in a culture. The more culturally comfortable one is, the less the social distance and the easier it is to learn the relevant new language.

Lives in transition

Molofo and Bulewani come from areas where they weren’t surrounded by English speakers. In some rural schools, even the teachers are not particularly proficient in English. Pupils are meant to be taught according to a policy of additive bilingualism – they learn in their mother tongues until Grade 4, and then switch to English as the language of teaching and learning.

This seldom happens, and neither Molofo nor Bulewani learned English this way. They had good English teachers who forced them to speak the language, and both found that they loved it. By the end of their school careers, the young men spoke English well enough to pass it and qualify for university entrance. They also spoke it well enough and had performed well enough at school to earn bursaries. Without this financial support, they would not have been able to take up their university places.

There were two transitory moments at play for Molofo and Bulewani. One involved a physical movement from a rural to an urban area. The other was a transition from functioning in their home or mother tongue to primarily speaking English. Both transitions were facilitated by their acceptance to university. The move came at a cost, though. One of the questions posed in the research was whether students felt that their culture had changed or was under threat because they had learned English. Both said they were losing tradition – but that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Molofo comes from the Eastern Cape province and grew up in an area governed by a chief. Such areas operate under traditional law. Constitutional democracy, with its notions of guaranteed rights, is remote. He had discovered a greater sense of equality and justice since moving to the city, explaining:

I am not that much interested in a traditional way because there is a lot that I discover that is not fair. Some of the things are not happening in the way they are supposed to. It depends maybe on who you are.

Loss

Bulewani celebrated the fact that he felt more in charge of his own destiny since his “transitions”. But he also experienced profound loss. His family – who are also from the Eastern Cape – lived off the land, and he missed this way of life. He remarked, for instance, that while at home he could go and pick something from the fields, whereas in the city he had to go out and spend money to buy food.

Mostly, though, his feelings of loss revolved around language:

I am losing a lot of words. I miss a lot of words … I am becoming more educated, but I am losing a lot of things in my culture. I am learning a lot of things from Western culture. Talking English. But I am losing a lot of things. I am losing some Xhosa language and traditions.

New voices

Universities need to start collecting more background information about their students to help them settle into this new environment and achieve their goals. For instance, institutions don’t know how many students are from rural areas and might be grappling with the sorts of changes Molofo and Bulewani articulated.

These young men’s voices open an important window on South Africa’s fast-changing society. They are at the forefront of this change, which is both positive and has obvious gains; but is also bittersweet and accompanied by a sense of loss.

The Conversation

Thelma Kathleen Buchholz Mort, PhD student with the Centre for International Teacher Education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘Teaching artists’: creative ways to teach English to immigrant kids


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Liane Brouillette, University of California, Irvine

Bringing professional actors and dancers into the classroom may seem an unusual strategy for boosting the speaking skills of children who speak a language other than English at home. Yet, these creative drama and movement activities can help children struggling to improve their fluency in the English language.

English language learners face a daunting challenge in today’s classrooms, which have an increased focus on written work. To improve their English language skills, these children need frequent opportunities to engage in verbal interactions. Children who do not become proficient in reading by the end of third grade are at an increased risk of dropping out of school.

Schools in San Diego, California, are successfully leading the way in using creative ways to teach English.

Educators and teaching artists have come together in San Diego schools to demonstrate how theatre games and creative movement activities in early grades can help children improve their English language fluency.

Making it happen

Having begun my career as an educator in Europe, I was attracted by the idea of an arts-rich curriculum that motivated children through imaginative engagement.

As the director of the Center for Learning in the Arts and Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, I approached the Visual and Performing Arts Department of the San Diego Unified School District about setting up a pilot project in 15 San Diego elementary schools.

In 2007, our proposal was funded by the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

Over a period of several months, the San Diego Visual and Performing Arts Department recruited and trained the professional actors and dancers who would serve as “teaching artists.”

The idea of recruiting teaching artists was to have a group of professionals trained in dance and drama, who could visit as many as five classrooms each day and encourage English learners to use language as a tool of communication even during the first lessons.

Two teachers at Central Elementary lead a theatre warm-up.
University of California eScholarship Repository, CC BY

Classroom teachers co-taught with a teaching artist for 50 minutes each week for 28 weeks (14 weeks of drama, 14 weeks of dance). Teachers practiced with their pupils on the days between visits. Videos of lessons were made available online, so that teachers could remind themselves of details.

How it worked

In a way, this program was not all that new. These lessons were only an enhanced version of the theatre and dance curriculum that was available to all San Diego elementary schools before testing and budget pressures caused the school district to reduce its offerings.

Budget cuts over the years have forced the elimination of arts activities in kindergarten to second grade in many school districts nationwide. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that in 2009–2010, only 4% of US elementary schools offered instruction that was designated as drama or theatre; just 3% offered dance.

When the teaching artists arrived in San Diego classrooms, children welcomed them enthusiastically and eagerly joined in.

The lessons generally started with the class standing in a circle, responding through words and physical movements to directions given by the teaching artist. Instead of memorizing vocabulary and studying grammar, children learned through active participation.

And English learners who were unsure of the meaning of verbal instructions could check their understanding by watching the teaching artist and other students.

Rigorous evaluation has shown that the program has helped children, especially those with the most limited English speaking skills.

Kindergartners at Balboa Elementary practice a dance activity with their teacher.
University of California eScholarship Repository, CC BY

Teacher interviews affirmed that the vocabulary and communication skills of all children were enhanced by the teaching artist visits.

The most striking improvement was in the speaking skills of the English learners.

Limited learning in classrooms

Today’s classrooms face many challenges.

Nearly 10% of the student population in the US now comes from non-English speaking homes. In California, children whose home language is not English make up over 20% of the public school enrollment.

The passage of Proposition 227 in 1998 has made the situation particularly challenging for non-English speaking children. Proposition 227 requires California public schools to teach even limited English-proficient students in classes that are taught nearly all in English.

In today’s classrooms, children’s learning is limited by several factors.

Contemporary kindergarten classrooms resemble the first grade classes of a generation ago. First graders are tackling assignments that were formerly taught in second grade.

Moreover, the demands of a highly structured curriculum and rising class sizes leave limited opportunities for rich verbal interactions between the teacher and the pupil. Chances for individualized feedback are also often limited.

This is reflected in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) data: only 11 of the 50 states are meeting adequate yearly progress targets for limited English-proficient students under NCLB. At the same time, the number of school-age kids who speak English as a second language is continuing to grow.

What English learners need

Unfortunately, preparation programs for elementary teachers currently dedicate little time to methods for teaching oral language skills.

Research has demonstrated that oral language proficiency in the primary grades is critical to the literacy development of children in general, but especially of English learners.

Drama and dance activities in which nonverbal communication is utilized in combination with verbal interactions can offer an effective substitute for one-on-one interactions with the classroom teacher.

Given that the weekly teaching artist visits constitute a relatively low-cost intervention, such programs may provide a means of affordably addressing an urgent problem.

The San Diego project did not just help English learners; it provided benefits for English-speaking students as well through increased engagement, attendance and exposure to the arts.

But clearly, the need is greater for English learners, for whom the arts can provide a bridge to understanding the language of the classroom.

Next: How should kids learn English: through Old MacDonald’s farm or Ali Baba’s farm?

The Conversation

Liane Brouillette, Associate Professor of Education, University of California, Irvine

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How reading fiction can help students understand the real world


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epa03637244 (FILE) A file picture dated 12 October 2002 shows Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe speaking during a press conference at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Germany. According to media reports on 22 March 2013, Chinua Achebe has died ending a literary career that spanned more than half a century. Achebe wrote more than 20 books in his life, many of them political and critical of African leaders, especially those in his homeland. EPA/FRANK MAY

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, University of California, Los Angeles

The real world is often overwhelmingly complicated. Literature can help. This is true at universities too: courses in comparative literature offer students new insights into their chosen disciplines by unlocking new, varied perspectives.

How can those studying political science truly grasp the terror of living under a dictator? Perhaps by reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, a magnificent historical novel about the tyrannical Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. Students who read it are unlikely to forget the dizzying Cold War political intrigues that led the US to first support Trujillo and then implement sanctions against him.

In area studies, students must learn about the politics of postcolonial government. Chinua Achebe’s 1966 novel, A Man of the People, explores how rapidly post-independence revolutionary zeal can turn venal as the corrupt, greedy postcolonial elite seizes the reins of power from the coloniser only to further strangle the majority.

I would suggest that teaching these and other subjects – history, economics, sociology, geography and many others – can only be enhanced by including novels, short stories and artistic feature films. Students will also benefit from learning the methods of critical reading that are inherent to literary study. In this article I will explore why this is the case, focusing largely on the important but contested field of international development studies.

Why development is about more than economics

International development studies cries out for a literary component precisely because it is such an ideological and normative subject. “Development” is itself a term that should demand ideological evaluation. It is more than economics. This is made clear by the UN’s Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals. These reiterate that “development” also focuses on cultural change, such as gender equity through empowering women and girls.

But the syllabus of almost any international development studies course contains a heavy dose of development economists: Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs. Or, if the professor is slightly more left-leaning, there will be works by anthropologists like James Ferguson and Arturo Escobar or brilliant political science professor Timothy Mitchell. Why only these? This is an area in which books in the humanities and arts are pertinent, yet one never sees a postcolonial novel on these syllabi.

It is frankly criminal. Development was constituted as a field of study and area of practice during the years of decolonisation after World War II. This was the very same time period which spawned the birth of what is today called postcolonial literature. But international development studies courses seldom broach the fundamental question of what is truly meant by development. Developing to what? For whose benefit? Under whose aegis? This question, however, is interrogated in a vast body of excellent fiction.

I have prescribed Nuruddin Farah’s 1993 novel, Gifts – inspired by Marcel Mauss’ classic ethnography The Gift – to my students. When development aid from powerful countries is donated to impoverished 1980s Somalia, a fine line is walked by both the West which “gives” and the Somalis who “receive.” The book is a long meditation on the tightrope act that teeters between donation and domination. Certainly my students learned more about how it really feels to be the recipient of donor aid from this novel than any of our social science readings, which were mostly written from the donors’ point of view.

Exploring different points of view

This isn’t to suggest that such novels are stand-ins for “native informants”, who are perceived to be experts about a culture, race or place simply because they belong to it. Quite the contrary. They should be read as literature, which literary critics like Mikhail Bakhtin describe as a jumble of competing viewpoints depending on language that always struggles to convey actual truth.

Point of view might be an easier concept for students to grasp at first than Bakhtin’s theory. It is a basic narrative technique that is explored in Literary Criticism 101 because it can change the way a story is told or perceived. In the rich 2006 film Bamako the people of Mali put the World Bank on trial to determine why their poisoned “gift” of development aid has left the country with such a debilitating debt burden.

From the World Bank’s perspective, development might mean one thing but for those “beneficiaries,” it means something quite different. Art has the power to convey that point of view with visceral impact. Isn’t this essential for international development students who aim to help the “other” to “develop”?

Room for myriad insights

The end state of “development,” which is implied but hardly ever explicitly theorised in international development studies, is “modernity” and becoming “modern”. This is a subject on which literature and literary theory can offer myriad insights.

Zakes Mda’s wonderful 2005 novel Heart of Redness depicts the tale of a contemporary village in post-apartheid South Africa. Here, two groups of villagers hold radically different positions on what development means to them. Does it mean street lamps and a casino resort that will bring tourists? Or maintaining a more “traditional,” environmentally-sustainable lifestyle albeit with some “modern” amenities? The villagers’ differing positions are also informed by their different views on their history of colonisation.

History is, of course, essential for understanding any subject. For this reason I’ve not restricted myself to postcolonial literature only in teaching my classes. Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, is an excellent novel for introducing the study of British imperialism which is a prerequisite for understanding our contemporary global cultural economy.

Pushing for positive change

In our globalising world, the stakes could not be higher. Many of our students will end up making policy, allocating aid, driving the global economy. They will change the world. Literature and humanistic thinking enable them to change it for the better.

The Conversation

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, Fublright-Nehru Scholar, Research Associate, Centre for Indian Studies, Wits University, University of California, Los Angeles

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.