Jump to content
The Education Forum

Second Language Acquisition and History


Guest Les Albiston
 Share

Recommended Posts

Guest Les Albiston

The practice of teaching English as a second language through the medium of History raises many challenges but also offers possibility of placing the subject at the heart of the curriculum.

Traditionally, History can be regarded as the subject in the curriculum of national education systems, which has served to inculcate certain national values and helped create and perpetuate a sense of national identity. In an international teaching context it is fairly easy to abandon this notion of History teaching since teachers, parents and students have chosen an educational system which stands outside national boundaries. But increasingly in Europe we are witnessing the decision by individual states to develop second language proficiency amongst its young population, and to do this by extending contact with the target language beyond foreign language lessons and into other areas of the curriculum. History is often chosen as the subject, perhaps because it is rich in language and offers students the opportunity to encounter a variety of registers in the target language. Ironically however, the teachers of this subject, who within their national systems have fulfilled their role as the medium through which a body of cultural knowledge and values is transmitted, may resist either actively or passively what they perceive as an imposition on their discipline and an erosion of their traditional function.

As a teacher of English within a French school I have witnessed this reaction, even at the level of the general inspectorate. When the notion of the “Sections Européennes” was introduced over ten years ago and History was widely chosen by schools as the “discipline non-linguistique”, the subject which would be taught partly in the target language, history teachers were as reluctant to accept this decision. Some of the concerns were understandable. Firstly, as essentially two disciplines were to be combined would the teacher be a linguist with some historical knowledge or an historian who could speak a foreign language? Was the principal objective to develop skills in a foreign language or in History or both? If the programme followed was still that of Education Nationale where would teachers find textbooks with the appropriate course content in the target language? Most importantly how would the initiative affect teaching methodology?

In the meetings I attended during the establishment and development of these programmes, “pédagogie,” the way we teach the subject, was the main topic of debate. But whereas the debate tended to remain at the technical level of general classroom organisation, the real but unstated focus of unease, I felt was in the notion of a nation’s children encountering and exploring their own history in a language other than their mother tongue. This unease I perfectly understand, because to learn a language effectively we have to accept and adopt the values of the culture which created it. Effectively, we have to become someone else. And this means that we start to look at our own history through different eyes. We understand in a different way, we question in a different way, we formulate ideas in a different way and we express them according to conventions which are different from those of our mother tongue. In this sense, the teaching of History through a target language is a subversive activity.

I am sure that many History teachers reading this article will claim that they do not consider themselves as the means by which their countries “condition” their young. On the contrary, many will rightly state that their intention is just the opposite. They have chosen to teach History in order to foster in their students an informed scepticism which is the right of every citizen in a democracy. But how much easier becomes the ability to empathise if a student can imaginatively project into another culture via a second language. How much more vigilant are students to the nuance of language in the texts they study when they have become more linguistically aware through the acquisition of a second language.

A final issue I wish to raise is the choice of the foreign language. Pragmatism has driven many systems to adopt English as the target language, but of course the danger here is the hegemony that teachers wish to avoid. It will require an act of political will to ensure that languages other than English are chosen as the vehicles for the learning of History. And naturally the greatest linguistic challenge lies not with those students and teachers wishing to share the experience of English as a second language, but for mother-tongue speakers of English for whom the attractions of speaking another language, and even the need to do so, diminish as English takes an even greater hold. While everyone else will have a language of the head as well as a language of the heart, we English-speakers risk becoming the disadvantaged, like one-eyed creatures in the land of the fully sighted.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I have a colleague who is currently conducting research into this area. He's currently looking at what happens when a Swedish teacher of Physics teaches Physics in English to Swedish students. He won't have any hard experimental results ready for about another year, but I can let you have his e-mail address if you want to discuss this further with him (he's a bit too busy to participate in this Forum, unfortunately).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...