Lessons in culture

Well done! Now go and overthrow the Qing dynasty
Well done! Now go and overthrow the Qing dynasty

Stroll through most cities and you’ll see memorials to all sorts of human achievement – from victory in war to brilliance in the lab. But how about success in an exam? Yes, even that has been commemorated. Tucked away in obscure corners of China, you can still sometimes find archways and stone tablets celebrating the fact that a local man once, a long time ago, passed the fiercely competitive Imperial Examination.

The reward for success was an appointment to the civil service, bringing with it prestige and, for many, great power. In theory, the exam – which endured, on and off, for 1,300 years – was open to almost any man in China. In practice, most of those who sat it came from well-off families. Generally, they were the only ones who could afford to subsidise a son until he was ready to sit the exam, by which time he was usually in his 30s.

Flash forward in time to 2009, more than a century after the last Imperial Examination: students in Shanghai face another test – the OECD’s PISA international student assessment. Just as with their predecessors’, their results are closely watched and – when they show the city’s students ranked first in the world – widely celebrated (although we haven’t heard of any statues being erected).

Is there a link between these stories of ancient and modern achievement? A report from the Economist Intelligence Unit offers grounds for thinking that there might be. The Learning Curve draws on research from PISA, and other international student assessments, to try to take the lid off “the black box” of education. To explain, we know what goes into education – funding, class size, teacher salaries, and so on – and we also have a pretty good idea of what comes out, in terms of student performance. But we still struggle to explain what happens between these “inputs” and “outputs”.

This is not a minor issue. Take spending: You might assume that countries that spend proportionally more get better results, but that’s not the case. Finland devotes 6.4% of its GDP to education, and its students regularly come first among OECD countries in PISA; France spends pretty much the same (6.3%), yet its students only hover around the OECD average. And this is not a rare example: As the EIU report states, in education “inputs are turned into outputs in ways that are difficult to predict or quantify exactly.”

So, clearly, other factors are at work, but what? Research in recent years has given us a much better sense of the importance of factors like how well schools deal with students’ from different social backgrounds. But, as the EIU report points out, there are other factors that we understand less well, including teacher quality, the role of school choice and autonomy and the ability of educational systems to identify the skills of the future. And, it says, there’s something else we need to think about – culture.

Which brings us back to China. The Imperial Examination can be criticised on many grounds, not least that it ignored science and experimentation. But it can surely be said to have underpinned a key idea in the culture of China and much of East Asia – one that can be traced back even further to Confucius: namely, if you want to succeed, you need to study.

The EIU report argues that the influence of the surrounding culture can’t be underestimated in determining how well education systems perform, and suggests it may be even more important than national wealth. In particular, it identifies culture as being key to the success of two PISA frontrunners – Finland and Korea. These two take very different approaches to education, but their cultures have at least one thing in common: a profound respect for teachers.

Indeed, the role of teachers has come to be increasingly recognised in recent years and, as The Learning Curve notes, several governments have sought to shift or buttress cultural attitudes to the profession by raising its prestige. This has included concrete action, such as setting starting salaries at the same level as other professions, and symbolic steps, such as Singapore’s creation of a National Teachers Day.

The issue is also receiving growing recognition on the international stage. For example, this week sees Amsterdam hosting the third annual Teacher Summit, with the involvement of the OECD. The conference will look at ways of raising the quality of teaching and evaluating how well teachers are doing. You can find out more at the conference website and follow the discussion on Twitter at #ISTP2013

Useful links

2013 International Summit on the Teaching Profession, 13-14 March 2013

OECD educationtoday blog

OECD Insights: Human Capital

Learn languages and… expand your own being (among a few other things)

Today’s post is written by Anne-Lise Prigent, the editor in charge of education publications at OECD Publishing.

Click to see the book on OECD iLibrary

Brittany, 1689. Voltaire describes how a trilingual Huron arrives on board a ship and is invited to supper by the town worthies. When asked which of his three languages he prefers, the man picks Huron. “Is it possible?” cried Miss Kerkabon. “I always thought French was the first of all languages, after Lower Breton.” “The company speculated a little on the multiplicity of languages; and all agreed that had it not been for the unfortunate affair of the Tower of Babel, all the world would have spoken French.”

Following in Voltaire’s footsteps, Dave Barry stated in 1991 that: “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages”.

Beyond the satires about universal ethnocentrism lies an essential issue. What is at stake when we learn non-native languages and why should we bother to learn languages at all? Languages in a Global World: Learning for Better Cultural Understanding (which cites the above) explores these issues. This bulky (470-page) OECD publication is the fruit of close co‑operation with Harvard University Graduate School of Education where the man behind the project, our OECD colleague Bruno della Chiesa, also works.

The scope of the book is breathtaking: it explores language learning all across the globe, in countries ranging from Canada to Tanzania and from France to Kazakhstan. It goes well beyond (applied) linguistics to deal with history, sociology, ethnology, psychology, neuroscience, music, philosophy and ethics. For those who think that OECD publications are dull, think again. This book is witty, irreverent – and thought provoking.

Why do we learn other languages? In our globalised world, learning languages is more crucial than ever. In fact it’s vital. For a job-seeker, mastering only one language could be a drawback. Writing in The Guardian, Will Hutton points out that “In the UK, the unemployment rate for language graduates is extremely low. The labour market values them. The economy needs more people who can speak foreign languages. This is a valuable skill, whether you’re part of the global scientific community or the world trade system.”

At the country level, mastering languages can also become a competitive advantage. Look at Canada for example. Its multicultural and bilingual policies seem to give the country a competitive edge.

The world’s seven billion people speak about six thousand languages – there are over 30 times as many languages as there are states – and speaking more than one language is quite normal, with around two-thirds of the world’s children raised as bilingual speakers. Yet, some countries tend to be more monolingual than others. Why is that? Could this possibly turn into a competitive disadvantage, even when the country’s language is today’s lingua franca, English? Could it be that power (both in its present and past – colonial – form) lures nations into believing that they (still) don’t need to speak foreign languages?

English is spoken as a first language by only 7% of the world’s inhabitants. It replaced Latin as the international tongue with the rise of the British Empire and US economic expansion. Could it be overtaken in turn by the language of today’s emerging economic powerhouse, China?

By examining what is at stake in language learning, Languages in a Global World goes to the heart of what is often the subject of intense ideological debate. Language is inseparable from cultural identity. Our motivation to learn languages is driven by values and beliefs.

Is one’s national identity soluble in foreign languages and cultures? The good (or bad?) thing about language learning is that it brings awareness – of oneself, of the other, local and global awareness. You may study the world in your native language (only). Or you may live it, think it and feel it as people who speak other languages do. The real thing. The music of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rimbaud, Musil etc. As Goethe said, “those who do not know other languages know nothing of their own”.

We can only understand the importance, richness and specificity of language and culture if we are familiar with other languages and cultures. Lorca’s amazing “duende” sounds more miraculous in Spanish than in any other language. And some (culturally resonant) words lose something when they are translated: “accountability”, “gobbledygook”,  “tartle” (Scottish), “saudade” (Portuguese), “laïcité” (French), “Torschlusspanik” (German), “hyggelig” (Danish), “mamihlapinatapei” (Yagan – Tierra del Fuego), “Iktsuarpok” (Inuit) etc.

Learning languages unveils new worlds. We not only learn how to speak but also how to relate to people in brand new cultural contexts – at subtle levels of perception, cognition and emotion. This gives a new perception of one’s self, of one’s identity and culture.  “If you don’t have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases all your life. It’s harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself in just one language. It’s harder to play” as Michael Hofmann argues.

Learning languages helps us expand our own being and be in tune with the world, or to put it another way, to truly address the other. In that respect, Languages in a Global World is reminiscent of Levinas’ philosophy of responsibility and ethics: our response to another’s face is language. It is the beginning of intelligibility and understanding. Language as an ethical commitment.

Could peace only be a few languages away? Language learning and global understanding go hand in hand. By not speaking other languages, we isolate and impoverish ourselves – economically and humanly. We lose a precious opportunity of becoming open and curious, receptive and creative. We don’t fulfil our potential and just shut up. “Drawing on my fine command of the (…) language, I said nothing.” As Robert Benchley said.

Useful links

OECD work on education

Understanding the brain: the birth of a learning science

Mama mia! Three more countries quit Euro

Shock waves reverberated around the airwaves yesterday when it emerged that Andorra, the Czech Republic and Montenegro were pulling out of this weekend’s Eurovision Song Contest. This came as a further blow to the beleaguered competition, following Hungary’s  decision earlier this year not to take part at all.

Markets reacted calmly for once, with the 10-year Czech bond actually gaining slightly in early trading, but there’s no cause for complacency.

First though, a few words of explanation. In our increasingly globalised world, geography means less and less, and not just for firms but for multilateral organisations too. We’re no longer surprised to discover that Turkey is in the North Atlantic according to the people who make maps for NATO or that Israel is in Europe according to soccer’s ruling body FIFA, so why not Morocco and Azerbaijan for Eurovision?

In fact, the “Euro” of the title refers to a body of the European Broadcasting Union, and in this case covers countries that are associated with Eurovision’s pooled media services. News broadcasts around the world rely on the group’s networks to get the stories from the journalists on the ground to the studios, and many countries such as Libya that are eligible for the song contest have never participated.

The “Song” in the name is much harder to justify, indeed critics say it should always be in quotes. The ESC’s defenders say this is unfair to past winners such as La, La La, Boom Bang-A-Bang, Ding-A-Dong, or Diggi-Loo Diggi Ley, and point out that the Contest has provided the springboard to international success for nearly two groups, following ABBA’s 1974 win with Waterloo.

Why are so many pulling out? The answer is the recession. True, sending a man in a glittery leather suit to a concert hall doesn’t cost much in terms of TV budgets. But Eurovision is a rules-based organisation and the winning country has to stage the next competition. This year’s host city, Oslo is paying 25 million euro, compared with around 33 million in Moscow last time.

An OECD study  found that such events could act as a catalyst for local development, thanks to improved environment, infrastructure and amenities, global exposure, increased visitor economy and tourism, trade and investment promotion, employment and social and business development.

So why are participants so scared of winning the Eurovision Song Contest? Judging from the experiences analysed by the OECD, it’s because there is little time to plan or integrate the event in local development strategies, and practically none of the audience actually come to the real event anyway.

People watch it on TV and can vote for the songs they like. This means that countries with large diasporas have a better chance of winning since they get votes from the places their migrants have settled in. Could this be another victim of the crisis?

The OECD expects the numbers of legal migrants to fall due to the recession. During a conference to mark the First European Day for Border Guards, Frontex, the European border agency said that a third fewer people were detected attempting to cross external land and sea borders of member states in 2009.   

Useful links

OECD LEED Programme (Local Economic and Employment Development)

OECD Communications Outlook 2009

The OECD is organising a conference on the evolution of news delivery on 21 June 

OECD Insights on International Migration