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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 5, March 2007

Opening our parachutes to diversity

by Patrik Parkes

"Minds are like parachutes; they work best when opened." This saying was chosen as the theme for the 2006 BC Association of Teachers of Modern Languages (BCATML) annual conference, which I attended October 20. As I subscribe whole-heartedly to the notion of opening minds, I was happy with this choice for a theme. Yet I have often thought that, as teachers, we can open our students’ minds only as wide as we have opened our own—a notion that was reinforced through my participation in the BCATML conference.

On occasion I have been told that I don’t look like a Japanese language teacher, and I have heard the comment that Caucasian students have less ability than Asian students at learning Japanese. Such comments have come from both the general public and teachers, and I heard a few such remarks at the BCATML conference. This is, of course, purely anecdotal, and is no indication of a general trend in thinking. Indeed, I believe it reflects the views of a small minority. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that, if language learning and Canadian multiculturalism is understood as a project to open minds and create connections (rather than tribalize), we still have some distance to travel in terms of correcting misconceptions.

Comments about my not looking like a Japanese teacher are mostly innocuous. Nevertheless, in 21st Century Canada, it should come as no surprise that I, a third generation Canadian of mixed Germanic and Slavonic European cultural heritage, can speak Japanese. Nor should it surprise anyone that my French teacher is the daughter of Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong immigrants.

Note that I didn’t refer to myself as Caucasian, which is a term commonly perceived to be a more polite substitute for white, which, as we know, is a code word for Anglophone of European ancestry. As well, it is a term that conveys misconceptions or generalizations about the attitudes and values of Anglophones of European ancestry. Labelling students as white, black, Asian, etc., does little to assist teachers in understanding the needs of individual learners. And this brings me to comments regarding the ability of Caucasians to learn Japanese, and why, in order to combat stereotypes, we need to be vigilantly precise about descriptive terminology.

Comments regarding the comparative abilities of Caucasian and Asian students at learning the Japanese language are, at the very least, begging the question. Such comments might also reveal misconceptions regarding race. However, I don’t believe the people who make such comments really mean what they say. That is, I don’t believe they mean that people of the Caucasoid race (whose ancestry can be traced to Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia) are genetically less predisposed to learning Japanese than people of the Mongoloid race (whose ancestry can be traced to Central Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and North America). Nor am I aware of any research that points to race having any bearing on an individual’s ability to learn one language over another. Rather, what I think is meant is that, when learning Japanese, students whose first language is English lack some advantages when compared with students who speak an Altaic mother tongue (for example, Korean, Mongolian, or Turkish, which are grammatically closer to Japanese), or students who are literate in Chinese (which shares an alphabet with Japanese). Making these distinctions is far more useful. As language teachers, if we acknowledge the language backgrounds of our students, and dispense with inaccurate labels, we are better able to assess students’ needs as language learners.

This principle of accuracy applies not just to language teachers, but teachers in general, and Canadians at large. I know that misconceptions and stereotypes exist in Canada because I often hear Canadians make statements about what Caucasian people are like, or what Asian people are like. I hear such statements from Canadians of many different backgrounds, immigrant and non-immigrant alike.

To be fair, Canadians are usually quite good at ignoring superficial differences between themselves. I know this because I lived for a number of years in a country that finds it difficult to accept outsiders. I was relieved to arrive back in Canada, primarily because here I feel I am more likely to be judged as an individual, and less likely to encounter exclusivity based on things that don’t matter.

Nevertheless, despite Canada’s virtues, work still needs to be done in order to open minds and create deeper understandings within our multicultural, multiracial society. Teachers can be at the forefront of opening minds, but we first need to check that we have opened our own. If not—and if minds truly are like parachutes—we’ll be in for unpleasant, frustrated landings.

Patrik Parkes is a teacher on call for the Burnaby and Coquitlam School Districts.

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