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The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: “Neuroscientist” on Learning

Banning the learning of a subject, even a foreign language, can hardly be the best way to produce long-term results.

South Korea has a problem with education. It also has a problem with the English language. The Korean government has just taken the step of banning the teaching of English for first- and second-grade students in elementary schools.

Al Jazeera reports the explanation given by Kwon Ji-young, director of early childhood education and care policy division at the Ministry of Education. “According to many English education experts and neuroscientists, the right age for learning English as a second language is the third grade.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Neuroscientist:

A category of scientist whose authority can never be questioned because they are believed to know everything about the brain (including how learning takes place), much like a car mechanic knows everything about the workings of an internal combustion engine

Contextual note

Note that Kwon cites “many English education experts and neuroscientists.” There are three key words here: many, experts and neuroscientists. “Many,” of course, can simply mean more than two or three, even if the selection pool is in the thousands. He fails to mention that there are many, many more holding the opposite view, for which much hard evidence exists.

The selected “experts” and “neurologists” alluded to apparently ignore a Harvard University study that made the following observation: “Conversations in any language besides English [the children’s native language] are also helpful … bilingual children of many ages have better executive function skills than monolingual children, so experience using an additional language is an important skill.”

In other words, precocious ability in a second language will have a positive effect on other skills and on learning ability in general. Excluding English — or any second language — from the Korean curriculum cannot, therefore, be seen as helping young learners. As the study also affirms, “Based on the information we gain in our first few years, everything we have learned grows later in life … 50% of our ability to learn is developed by age 4 and another 30% by age 8. This is why three-year-olds are encouraged to learn a second language.”

In an editorial of the Korea Herald, the author points out that “Ministry officials base their decision on the argument that the English classes have little effect in enhancing students’ English skills.” The ministry may be right to point out that foreign language as it is taught in schools may not be effective — at any age — since language is a multidimensional social skill, not a body of knowledge to be memorized. As Oscar Wilde once pointed out, “nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”

Deeper analysis of the ministry’s position may reveal what no one wants to talk about: that the real motive reflects a serious cultural and political trend. Pushing young children to learn English perpetuates South Korea’s economic and cultural dependence on the US at a time when the American empire is in decline. Korea may, in this superficially trivial way, simply be declaring its cultural independence from the United States.

Historical note

For many years, South Korea has been classed at the top of the education league tables by Pearson and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The system is highly successful according to standardized criteria. But is it really effective? South Korea’s educational culture “is often described as very stressful, authoritarian, brutally competitive and meritocratic. It emphasises high pressure and high performance.”

By focusing on the results from standardized tests, it has encouraged the phenomenon called “Pig Mums”: parents who micromanage their children’s education. The overly competitive educational culture leaves the lives of even many of the successful students socially, emotionally and intellectually impoverished, if not broken. “In 2015 Korea ranked in the bottom fifth of OECD countries in three categories — social connections, work-life balance and health status.” We also learn that “A Korean Ministry of Education survey of 6.5 million students showed that 16.3% needed psychiatric counselling, with 4.5% needing intensive treatment and 1.5% classified as in ‘imminent danger, such as committing suicide.’”

Statistically, the achievements of Korean education are real. But is it really learning, or is it simply a form of conditioning that produces significant collateral damage for learners and eventually the society as a whole?

When asked how he had learned rocket science Elon Musk replied, very simply, “I read books and talked to people. That’s kind of how one learns anything.”

This may be what Oscar Wilde meant. Teaching has its limits. Learning comes from knowing how to exploit the best available resources. On the other hand, banning the learning of a subject, even a foreign language, can hardly be the best way to produce long-term results, whether the desired outcome is communicating in a complex world, being a healthy and productive member of society, or building a new generation of interstellar rockets.

And, of course, appealing to unnamed “experts” and “neuroscientists” will not convince many truly educated people of the wisdom of such a decision.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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