Secrets Gandhi Knew About Language Learning

July 11, 2011

Regular readers of this blog know about my passion for connecting language learning to leadership. I truly believe that language learning helps us to improve our leadership skills, understand others with a deeper sense of compassion and see the world in wiser ways. I am inspired by the work of Gandhi, who was a strong advocate of learning second and foreign languages.

Here’s a reprint of an article that was published on the topic. It was originally published in Zephyr, the newsletter of the Second Languages and Intercultural Council (SLIC) of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. It is reprinted here with permission:

View this document on Scribd

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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Gandhi empowered others in 11 different languages

July 15, 2010

I have long been a student of Mohandas K. Gandhi and his work. For him, learning languages was a way to better understand the world around him and ultimately, to change it for the better. Gandhi learned 11 different languages in order to extend his reach and empower others:

  1. Gujarati
  2. English
  3. Sanscrit
  4. Latin
  5. Hindi
  6. Urdu
  7. Tamil
  8. Telugu
  9. Arabic
  10. Persian
  11. French

Gandhi saw learning languages as a way of communicating better with others and understanding the world more profoundly. These weren’t just noble intentions. They became part of the foundation of his work.

Aren’t these, at least in part, some of the same reason we are drawn to teaching and learning other languages?

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Check out my conference paper on this topic:

Eaton, S. E. (2010). Leading Through Language Learning and Teaching: The Case of Gandhi. Paper presented at the Interdisciplinary Language Research: Relevance and Application Series, Language Research Centre, University of Calgary. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED508664

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Update – November, 2017 – This blog has had over 1.7 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Leadership through Language Learning and Teaching: The Case of Gandhi

May 11, 2010

In February I presented a paper called “Leading through Language Learning and Teaching: The Case of Gandhi” at the “Interdisciplinary Language Research: Relevance and Application Series” at the Language Research Centre at the University of Calgary.

I talked about a study I conducted of Gandhi’s autobiography, An autobiography or the story of my experiments with truth.
My purpose was to uncover and analyze Gandhi’s experiences as a second language learner. Here’s what I found:

1) Gandhi learned 11 languages throughout his life, including his native Gujarati.

2) He used his knowledge of other languages to connect with others on a deeper level, helping them fight for human and civil rights.

3) He believed that all children should learn more than one language.

He says, ““It is now my opinion that in all Indian curricula of higher education there should be a place for Hindi, Samskrit, Persian, Arabic and English, besides of course the vernacular.” (Gandhi, 1948, p. 9)

For Gandhi, language learning and leadership were intertwined. He saw language learning as a way to communicate with others in his own country, to connect with others on a deeper level, understanding their human condition from a compassionate point of view.

While not everyone who learns another language may go on to have a profound effect on the world to the degree that Gandhi did, any person who learns a new language grows as a human being because they can communicate with others in new ways. This helps to develop a more profound curiosity about the world around us, which leads us to learn more about that world. Learning more about the world and those who live in it leads to deeper understandings of other cultures, other values and other ways of understanding life, love, politics, spirituality and all that is important to humans. Learning other languages opens up new possibilities for personal and professional growth, new opportunities to do meaningful work and ultimately, to value others more deeply because we can communicate with them better and understand them.

The presentation included a practical classroom activity for students.

The full-text paper is publicly available on the ERIC data base.

http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=ED508664

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Want to change the world? Learn a language (Part 2 of 2)

May 5, 2010

A quick video on how leaders who learned other languages changed the world in deeply transformative ways. This video captures the essence of what I mean when I talk about leadership and language learning.

Click here to see: Want to change the world? Learn a language (Part 1 of 2)

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Want to change the world? Learn a language (Part 1 of 2)

April 29, 2010

In the movie Dead Poet’s Society (1989), the fictional English teacher, Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, tells his class of adolescent boys, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” It’s a notion that I’ve shared with my second language students on many occasions. I tell them that by learning a second language (or a third or a fourth or a fifth), they learn new ways of understanding not only themselves, but the world around us.

The challenges of learning another language are immense. There’s vocabulary to be acquired, grammar to master and verb conjugations to memorize. All of this information and more must be internalized, synthesized and then reproduced spontaneously as interactive speech. It’s an enormous feat. And it’s an enormous feat that millions have undertaken.

But to what end? We like to tell our students that their job prospects are better if they learn other languages. But are they really? I live in an affluent area of Canada, where young men (and women, though far fewer of them), can leave high school early and go north to work on oil rigs or in the towns that support the oil business. They can make cash, and lots of it, quickly. It’s hard work, under intense conditions. Yet thousands of them do it. Try telling them that if they learn a second language their job prospects are going to be better. They’ll scoff, turn around and drive away in a shiny new truck, that’s been fully paid for in cash.

So, the job prospect line doesn’t really fly very well where I live.

Travelling to other countries? There are plenty of tourist areas in the world where the locals have thrown themselves into learning the language of the tourists precisely to make them feel more welcome. People can travel to resorts all over the world and be served by locals who speak their language. In fact, I’ve heard people say, “Why should I learn their language when they’ll learn mine?”

So, the travelling argument seems a bit hollow, too.

What’s the real reason we believe so strongly that learning another language is important? It’s what that fictional character, Keating said, “because words and ideas can change the world.” When we commit ourselves to learning another language, we challenge ourselves to dig deep into ourselves to tap into our own power to communicate with others, to reach out, to connect.

When we take the plunge and test our communicative skills in another language, we reach inside and overcome our fears of making mistakes, fear of being rejected by others, fear of not being good enough, fear of not fitting in. We try anyway. We connect, however imperfectly, and that leads to wanting to understand more, learn more and discover more.

As we learn other languages we also learn about other cultures, other people, other faiths, other ways of living and being and looking at the world. We find our own sense of who we are profoundly enriched and deepened in ways we could not have otherwise imagined.

It’s hard to explain this to someone who doesn’t believe there’s any value in learning other languages. There are those who will never be convinced. Rather than trying to implore them with hollow arguments that are hard to back up, instead, we can offer concrete examples of individuals who changed the world by learning other languages. Here are some examples:

Albert Einstein. He was born in Switzerland and spoke German as his first language. (Anecdotally, I am told that he did not speak at all until he was five years old.) He learned English as a Second Language.

Nelson Mandela. His first language was Xhosa, an African dialect. He learned English as a Second Language.

Mohandas Gandhi. His first language was Gujarati. He went on to learn 10 additional languages.

Rigoberta Menchu. Her first language was Quechua, an indigenous language of her native Guatemala. As I understand it, she learned Spanish in order to give her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize which she was awarded in 1992.

Critics would argue that all of these public figures learned a language of the dominant population and would go on to discuss issues of power and oppression. My aim here is not to enter into such a discussion, but merely to point out that the work that these individuals did would not have been possible if they had not learned other languages.

That is a bold statement and I stand behind it. Let me repeat it: the work these influential people did would not have been possible if they had not learned other languages. Why? Because learning other languages gave them opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations, connect with others and do the work that they were so deeply passionate about a larger scale. They moved beyond the parochial into the global. They transcended personal, political, scientific and historical boundaries. With their words and ideas they changed the world.

When we learn other languages, we change who we are. We grow to understand and appreciate the world around us in new and meaningful ways. As we change, so the world changes. That’s the real reason we believe in the power of learning other languages. Because when we do, we learn to reach out to others, connect deeply and express our passion for life and our life’s work in profoundly transformative ways.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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