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Life without words

Words Season 8, Episode 2 by Radiolab

If you somehow skipped Episode Words on Radiolab. Do find time in your busy schedule to listen to this interesting discussion. It is an amazing synthesis of life experiences of different people brought together to discuss what words mean and what it is to live without words. Although the creators seem to inform listeners (they present accurate information in a descriptive way), the podcast is not only informative, but enjoyable as well. It is difficult to tell what strikes most in this episode:  how the stories are presented, or the stories themselves, or speakers’ ideas regarding the meaning of language, or the combination of all three. Anyway, the conversation is not tied to any language theories and is easy to follow and to understand.

The conversation starts with an incredible story of Susan Schaller who, like many of us, never thought of how it feels to be born deaf and live in a world without words, until she met 27-year-old man and started to teach him first words in his life. This moving story, which she later compiled in a book, describes her understanding of how life changes once we realize that “everything has a name”. But let us leave this story on its own. It’s goal here to introduce question, “What is it that happens in human beings when we get symbols and we start trading symbols?” and the answer given is “thinking”. This idea sets the tone to the rest of the discussion.

Words are important for thinking, namely, for sharing thinking. The blog speakers report on how they arrived at understanding that. During recovering period after a stroke, Neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor explains her perceptions of life without language as “peace”.  As she began recognizing the words and names, she gradually started pulling them together into “stories”. She explains that language is a coded system for information exchange. For example, when the notion “I” labels with name “I”,  “’I’ness” becomes connected to other names, or to who ‘I’ is now, who ‘I’ was. It does not feel to be “I” anymore. Not diminishing the role of language for communication, she argues that by using language we become devoid of experiencing it. This is more clear on the example of Ann Senghasa, a  professor who spent 30 years understanding the language of 50 deaf children, who were not taught sign language. Put together, the children started creating a language from their own experience and eventually demonstrated more intelligence than older learners who were instructed in signs. Her central claim is that we build language to live in a community. James Shapiro, the Shakespeare Scholar, makes interesting contribution to the discussion. He enters the conversation explaining that Shakespeare created words for unnamed images and emotions that people had already experienced. He combined words different in meaning to label notions, which were easily understood by spectators and readers. Overall, the conversation explains that words are tools used to convey the concepts. Once we grasp them, we start connecting notions, then reflect on our understanding, and this what thinking is.

The idea of the role of language for communication and thinking, raised in the podcast, is not new. However, fueled by its examples of people using gestures, mimes and whole bodies to share experiences, for a second I imagined us, instead of using words or signs, acting out notions to communicate. What would our life be like? Would we be different? More creative? Less thoughtful may be? Of course, we can turn to the dawn of human evolution for the answer. Still… Use your imagination and share in comments on what you see.

P. S. The video is inspired by Words, radiolab



Research in my world

The question What is research in my world? leads to the questions, What is my world? What is someone’s world anyway?  Where in it is research and what is its role? If I answered all these questions with one statement, the answer would be, Since I was at GSE it doesn’t matter what my world is like, it is where I am in whatever I do and think about the things in the world – form now,  with “an army behind” (as one of our instructors once said).

The way how I situate my stance is different now. It has moved from being personal and uncertain to confident and grounded. In fact, learning at GSE has divided it into before and after. Not that I have changed very much, but I have gained much. Here, I am not talking about the knowledge acquired, undoubtedly valuable either. I mean the skill of answering my own questions by communicating with scholars, which I developed through experience and guidance I recieved during the first year of doing Master’s. For example, I had been pessimistic and unconfident about the success of trilingual policy in Kazakhstan before I started exploring multilingual education in many other contexts. After having studied works on language policies, gauging and evaluating different authors’ arguments based on their researches, I see that the uncertainty should have taken place. Moreover, there is “an army” of researchers discussing and speculating over the issues so that others would learn from those studies and avoid the flaws. This is the value of research, its main purpose – to serve for the better.

Research is asking questions and finding all possible ethical ways to answer them. My world forces me to seek for the answers to different question, at times, not related to academic life. Searching out the answers to questions is a skill I have developed here in GSE, which I am going to apply in the world beyond the university. The only question research cannot find the answer is, What my world will puzzle me with, as it is only the matter of time.

Argument Deconstruction: “5 techniques to speak any language”

Synopsis. The TEDx talk “5 techniques to speak any language” is presented by Sid Efromovich, a hyper polyglot from Brazil. He lives in New York now, after few years travelling around the world. Based on his own language learning experience, he counsels 5 tips which will help a learner to master a language in a less stressful and shorter period. 

ThesisThe five techniques, proffered by the speaker, will help learn any language in an easy and fun way.  

Methods of development. The presenter explicitly ensures the effectiveness of his advice by repeating the statement several times at the beginning. His language is clear, he smiles, acts (“breathe in”) and gesticulates energetically. The speaker jokes, uses lofty expressions throughout his speech, which sometimes fall out off the main context, “If you anything like me…”, “reach heart and soul”, “a journey of thousand miles”. To some extent the presentation is persuasive. The use of some more practical and original tips would have made it compelling. 

Deconstruction. The first and the second tips are “to make mistakes” and to “scrap the alphabet” (technique 1, 2). The young man insists that the main obstacles to acquire any language successfully are the fear to say something wrong and reading and spelling confusions.  This is hard to disagree with. Although the first problem is psychological and the second could have been explained in few expressions, the speaker spends 7 (!) minutes on phonetic examples to explain how to overcome the impediments. It is left unclear, though, how language reading and speaking anxiety is related to the sound structure.

The third and the fifth (technique 3, 5) “to find the sticker” and “the buddy formula” are similar. The presenter suggests “to stick to someone” and to find someone having “best language in common”, respectively.  He recommends, “If you can’t find locally…, try technology, if you can travel, that would be perfect.” He admits that traveling might be difficult, but finding “a buddy” who speaks few languages including the one “best in common” is easy. He himself did it: he is a linguist and works amidst other linguists. These are interesting suggestions, but could not be applicable to everyone. Exploiting technology (software programs, apps, social networks) gives more possibilities than “finding a language buddy” around. Besides, the author should have combined the two similar tips into one.

Another advice is “shower conversation”. This is an allegorical expression, of course. It means having practice whenever and wherever possible. The point is that you don’t need someone to build an imaginary street or market conversation. The listeners probably recognized themselves doing “home alone” language practice, as I did, for example, talking to myself in English while doing the housework. It is a good piece of advice. It is not new, ground breaking, neither it is very different from any other ways of informal language learning.

Did I enjoy the presentation? Yes, I did. Will I use the techniques? Yes, I will. In fact, I have been already using some of them. Are they original? No, they are not. They are generic and ubiquitous. Not “cutting edge”, like the ones we expect from the stage of TED’s “worth spreading”ideas.

It’s all decided.

This summer thousands of teachers from all parts of the country are going to take the English language course. This is another big step of Kazakhstani policy for the bigger goal of improving the educational system.  What might this bring to teachers, “planters the seeds of knowledge”, “gardeners” “artists”, and, as some policy makers call them, “performers of reforms”? To answer this question let’s turn to philosophies of education. Yes, you have got it right, not policy, but philosophy. While the former is the set of rules and regulations to govern an educational system, the latter might shed more light on the answer, as it addresses the sense, the purpose and major problems in education.

The omnipresent, yet important, notion “student centered teaching and learning” evolved from the educational philosophy of existentialism. Existentialism is philosophical thinking which centres existence as central for human beings. The supporters of the existentialist thought believe that the existence and its purpose are determined by individuals’ decisions or actions. The truth, according to them, is relative conception, the matter of individual choice (Sanderson, 2004). As an example, a single historical event can be interpreted differently by the authors in various times. The truth is what an individual decides to be true. Although this philosophical movement has been debunked by rationalists and empiricists, it remains to be one of the focal in contemporary education, at least in Western societies (Sanderson, 2004, Higgs, 2012).

In education specifically, existentialism is built around the freedom of choice, where individuals (administrators, teachers, students) can choose and be responsible for their decisions. It accepts individualism in schooling, fosters independence and develops decision making and problem solving skills (Sanderson, 2004). It is rather individual oriented than student centered approach to learning and teaching.

The article “Moving out of the cellar” by Kline &Abowitz (2013), in supporting existentialism as “fundamental value for teachers” (p.159), presents the voices of teachers who experience “ambiguity and contingency” due to “contemporary classroom working conditions”, where “success exclusively evaluated by hyper-standardized, quantitative measures” (p. 156):

  •  What happened to my creativity? What happened to the fun in teaching and learning? What Happened? (G. E. Johnson)
  • I don’t know what else I could do, having wanted to teach all my life, I feel I am being forced out, forced to choose between a life and teaching. (Name not supplied) (Kline &Abowitz, 2013p. 158)

The article argues that teacher preparation programs, workshops, professional development courses are designed according to and constrained by “strategies”, outcomes, “rubrics”, and assessment rates, leaving little room for reflective and inventive practice (p. 166).  The authors warn that “the teacher identity becomes less open, more closed to individual critical and creative work/play” (p. 166). High expectations from a professional cause frustration and, as a consequence, lack of confidence. The article turns attention to the existentialist view of teacher independence, accountability and courage in making decisions as a driving kernel towards teaching and learning improvements (Kline &Abowitz, 2013).

The upcoming courses will set a new bar for teachers to overcome. Regardless the age, socio-economical and educational backgrounds, the participants are expected to take the course and, eventually, to demonstrate certain level of the English language proficiency in a short period.  The answer to the question that it may add more anxiety and fear to already loaded and demotivating work is less disturbing than the fact, that the decision for better teaching practice, has been made for teachers without any choice. This goes against the existentialist philosophy of education, though might go alone with the trilingual policy.

Image: from

Critical Thinking vs. Languages (part II)

This is the extension of the discussion on “Critical Thinking vs. Languages” (part I). The follow up comments to the previous post raised the question on how students’ CT can be fostered in school settings. To answer it we will look at how different scholars have reported on building students’ thinking skill in schools. By now, the promotion of CT in education has been asserted to be a convoluted process of rigor attention, demanding a lot of resources and energies, rather than the issue constrained by a single subject.

Last decade studies on facilitating critical thinking in teaching have broadened the scope, requiring the alliance of school administration, teacher performance, and education curriculum in promoting CT. Tomilison (as cited in McCollister & Sayler, 2010) points that “whether enrolled in preschool, elementary, middle, or high school, the integration of critical thinking skills into the daily content and lessons is essential” for education system (p. 41). Tsai, Chen, Chan, & Chang (2013) found that enhancing student’ critical thinking in science classes not only helped students understand the scientific process, but also increased students’ resourceful and inquiry skills. Waraporn, Kowat & Anan (2016) proposed the two stages development program for primary school teachers. The primary school teachers who volunteered to this longitudinal development program, reached “the highest” level critical thinking ability and demonstrated the readiness to adjust it to their teaching. Paul & Elder (2008) stress that “there is no perfect technique for fostering critical thinking, no ideal method for engaging the intellects of students” and propose that “discipline thinkers need a good deal of active thinking” (p. 34). The authors see classroom thinking experience in CT as “spoon feeding passive activity”, keeping in mind that it goes beyond even regular thinking practice inside school (p. 35).

Additionally, the number of recent works have shown how critical thinking can be facilitated in EFL (English as a foreign language) classroom (Ordem, 2017; Zhao, Pandian,  Singh, 2016; Yimwilai, 2015; Zhou, Jiang & Yao, 2015;). None of them claims that it is the only subject where the CT should be the focus. Moreover, in congruent with Paul & Elder (2008) it is even less than “spoon feed” to fill the need for students’ CT. It must be realized that critical thinking does not only entail an individual teacher or a subject, it is a scrutinized cooperative work of all school units towards one bigger goal.

Kazakhstan is now depositing much on the implementation of trilingual policy. Apparently, human and material resources are not fathomless. Reasonable and expedient spending on what is really important will not only save our energy, it will ensure better life for citizens, because how we live our lives hinges upon how we think more than how many languages we speak.

Critical Thinking vs Languages

What is more important for Kazakhstani students nowadays: mastering the three languages or developing critical thinking? The more I hear popularizing the former, the more confident I become in the latter. In the era of information availability the skill to differentiate facts from opinions, not accepting things without challenging them and “arriv[ing] at the truth” after careful examining the information (Wood, 2002) is more valuable than learning several languages and “arrive at” being multilingual.

From 1956, when critical thinking started attracting educators’ attention, many scholarly works on what CT is and the role of developing CT in education have emerged. Bloom (1956); Ennis (1987); Kennedy, 1991; Kuhn (1999); Mayer, R. E. (1983); Wood, R. (2002);  Paul, 1993; Nickerson, 1987 are only a short list of those who espouse CT as the school policies’ main focus (as cited in Mansoor  & Samaneh, 2014).  Despite, the model of education as global marketing workforce supplier in some countries underestimates the role of CT in mother tongue. Moreover, instead of developing students’ higher order thinking in L1, it “perpetuates”   the power of an international language “without associating it with learning skills”, so that a foreign language becomes a “stratifier” (Tupas, 2014, p. 119). Tollefson warns, “Those who can afford it go to schools with a high quality of English language teaching and learning; those who cannot afford it also go to English-medium schools (because of the belief that English is the way out of poverty) but end up being taught English deemed undesirable by society” (as cited in Tupas,2014, p. 119). The truth is that the quality of teaching languages is not equally available for everyone, and the necessity for various languages differs from area to area. The individual’s actual need for a language can be satisfied by asking questions oneself and others and gauging possibilities and aspirations, in other words, by being a critical thinker. That is why CT in education should be priority.

Regarding Kazakhstan, if we exemplify our blog experience (both Leadership in Ed. and Multilingual Ed.) as a minute model of Kazakhsatani education, the preliminary calculation of current topics shows that concerns around languages appear in the blog fifth as much as on critical thinking. Counting that a critical thinker can find ways to learn languages (and not only) independently, isn’t critical thinking more significant than a symbolic importance several languages?

Tupas, R, (2014). Inequalities of multilingualism: Challenges to mother tongue-based multilingual education. Language and Education, 29 (2), 112-124.

Do not put a label on me, I am not a suitcase!

I like reading signs, especially because they are short.  I don’t like categorizing people, especially according to their abilities.  And if a sign does so, it confuses me, if not annoys. Why divide people if the message is meant to catch everybody’s attention?

It is in human nature that we categorize things, patterns and objects. However,   it is more sensitive when it comes to personal abilities. The sign I have come across recently says, “Intelligent people read!” It would be more understandable if the sign would elaborate what kind of pieces and how much exactly they read, in case I would like to affiliate myself to “intelligent people”.  There is nothing salient in those two words. However, as De Saussure explains, words have not much sense on their own; they become value laden in relation to others. Thus, the words “intelligent” and “read” can turn to a more meaningful game, when they are “on their position on the chessboard” (as cited in Chandler, 2002, p. 20) In our case the sign labels some as “intelligent who read” implying there are those who are less or not intelligent at all. In other words, by soaring some the slogan diminishes others. The better sign, for example, though banal, would be “Discover the reading world with us!” which is not separating, but embracing and involving.

The Pierce’s model of signs and symbols triangulates the form, the sense of the form and the meaning beyond the sign. He explains that it is not only what a symbol is and what it represents, but also how it is interpreted (in Chandler, 2002). For example, the sign “Smart people turn off their mobiles when they work!” raises the question, “If one turns the mobile, will he/she become smarter? Or, – Do all smart people turn off their mobiles when they work?”  Because the message is not calling to care about people working around, it is suggesting that if you want to be smart or look smart, then turn off your mobile, because that’s what smart people do. Now there is another sign, which I leave for you to contemplate on and share your thoughts in comments, “Turn off your mobiles, brilliant minds work!”

One might say that those are nothing more than signs, not many people read them. I believe in power of words, in their ability to build perceptions of oneself and others. The signs like these push us to subconsciously determine ourselves to one category inferring that there is another. Why divide people if a sign is meant to be for everyone?

School’s got talent

%d0%b4%d0%bb%d1%8f-%d0%b1%d0%bb%d0%be%d0%b3%d0%b0-children-are-engaged-in-the-hobbies-and-school-activities-silhouette-stock-vectorThis is a follow up post as an extension of my previous ideas. There was mentioned in comments that not every student is talented. In the discussion to follow I suggest that if education focuses on the process during which talents are revealed, not the outcomes of already gifted students, then there are more chances for students to become creative.

Let’s assume how curriculum and classroom practices might change with the integration of art. For example, music in education is usually associated with singing or/and playing musical instuments. Besides the fact that singing is not an innate ability rather an acquired skill, and the role of singing and playing musical instruments in students academic achievements is an undisputable fact, music is a rich world of different types and genres each with its own history, which can enrich the content of education. Even a single song can have a story. For example Imagine, Tears in Heaven or Dudarai have real, touching and thought provoking stories behind.  As to drama I would argue that it does not necessarily imply performing on the stage, even though the shyest can silently perform a tree hidden behind decorations. A good teacher may find ways to engage kids in playing out the stories they like.  Regarding the artists, many of them did not have special artistic education, but what they did have were brushes, crayons, and their free views to create beautiful pieces. Needless expecting students to be prominent artists in making enjoyable art class, the basics can be practiced under the guidance of an art teacher. After all, to be an artist does not automatically mean to have your painting in Louvre. What is more valuable for students is freedom in trying new things and not to be judged for it.

With the arguments above I would ask, isn’t it a good idea to have two or three subjects in school curricular, where students can express themselves the ways they like, providing there will not be any assignments and the work of students will not be graded? Won’t a school be a better place if it is not a race where students with better academic achievements are praised and awarded, and those who do not succeed are left behind ignored?

Art has no enemy except ignorance. (Latin proverb)

Is there a place of art in our lives now? Watching duplicated TV shows on television, listening to some local contemporary music and observing boring walls of surrounding buildings, my answer would be, “Not very much”. Have we stopped being creative? Addressing the question to education, I would ask, “What subjects first comes into your mind when you think of education?” – Probably, Mathematics and Languages. No one doubts that for a new globalized economy, with international distributions of goods, mathematics and languages are needed. Yet, they are not enough to raise morally and esthetically developed personalities for a society, because life is not just facts and numbers. It is filled with visual and emotional experiences that everyone endures throughout one’s life.  Understanding and, more importantly, coping with them comes through moral exercises, which should be provided in school settings. Besides, the policy makers of our country want citizens to be innovative, i.e. creative. In other words, creating new methods or develop new strategies in learning and searching to generate innovative ideas for country’s further development.

How can we expect students to think creatively, if we do not provide opportunities to become creative? Not many students have been given opportunities to observe The Guarnica, for example, which does not only depicts the act of the attack, but illustrates the emotions caused by it. Any piece of music produced by harmonious collaboration of musicians can be an unforgettable emotional experience for students. It may also provoke a thoughtful discussion on how much scrutinized work it requires, provided they practice producing music together, let’s say, in a school band, instead of roaming around in gangs.

I believe any forms of art (visual art, music, drama) should be embedded in school curricular if we want to raise creative thinkers. Art education should share equal amount of hours alongside other academic subjects. Many studies have proved the role of art education in improving student achievements, moreover, they have showed the increase in the student engagement, as it allows the involvement of students who have naturally diverse intelligences and different socioeconomic background (Snyder, Klos, & Grey-Hawkins, 2014). Why, then, there is such ignorance in education towards arts and humanities, whereas the matter is of paramount importance and should be considered today, if we want more creative thinkers tomorrow!


Snyder, L., Klos, P. & Grey-Hawkins, L. (2014). Transforming teaching through arts      integration. Journal for Learning through the Arts, 10 (1). Available at