Read and Thou Shalt Receive: An Essay by Julie Lai

The teaching profession has been on the defensive ever since the results of the language benchmark test were released. Parents, students and public alike are quick to lay at the teachers’ door the whole blame for the plummeting language standards of HK students.

Why our society likes to view teachers as the lynch pin is a curious question. Were these teachers not once students like ourselves, who >suffered the very same educational process the current generation is going through? Should this not suggest that something is amiss with the way we learn?

As our society hastens its pace to keep up with the modern age, a wide array of high-tech gadgets, such as computers, cell phones, and DVDs, have been invented, in the name of electronic media, to assist and hurry students into taking in information as quickly as possible. With a flick of a switch, or a press of the mouse, a stream of pre-processed images and data are ready to be uploaded to the minds of schoolchildren. No communication is necessary; no thought process required. Beep! Data zip-driven into their cranial storage. They do not even need to stir—except maybe to click the screen away. In a society where time is money, pupils would love nothing more than copying and pasting data onto megabytes of brain cells.

Reading, on the other hand, initiates an intimate discourse between the author and the reader.

A reader needs to wear three hats–three, at the very least. The reader, now an interpreter, has to digest strings of words and transform them into images, sounds and emotions that are intelligible to his own mental framework. Yet such images are often incomplete, since writers often bury hidden messages underneath the surface. So the reader, in his knowledge hunt, turns himself into an artist: he paints the picture in broad strokes, then, using his own imagination as the palette, adds the finishing touches with a finer brush. Now the reader can stand at a distance from the image, and savour the message whispered into his ears. The reader, now a critic, can talk back to the writer, harping on the language or content. This, my dear readers, is how learning takes place.

This process—taking information from the linguistic dimension and transplanting it onto visual, auditory and epistemological planes; comprehending others, who may think likewise or otherwise; comparing one’s pinion with her own—is what breeds critical thinking in a learner. And if that learner can translate these ideas, vivid images and all, into coherent and precise messages, written or spoken, to readers or listeners, she may well be a budding writer or public speaker. Give her the opportunity to exercise the brain to such constant state of >fitness, and a scholar is born.

But such stars have yet to arise from our system> of language learning, no thanks to the massive flood of alternative media to our senses.

Reading has fallen out of favor among the younger generation. It is considered too slow, and does not fall in step with the accelerating pace of the society. We are packed with unprocessed information, so when we communicate, we are prone to regurgitate stock phrases and stale >words, many of which are more overused than the old files drawn from our hard drives. These banal statements, often coming in a different shape and form than the ideas that need communicating, do nothing but confuse the audience, giving the message a fuzzy and convoluted edge. And this, my dear readers, is the erosion of language in our society.

What difference, I wonder, will it make, if we, as individuals, all take a baby step towards a lifelong journey of learning. For once, turn off the TV, shut down the computer, and pick up a book; and for once, enjoy the serenity of a silent exchange between the author and ourselves.

And our young may just follow suit.

~Julie Lai Chu-leung (Hong Kong)

Return to In Class: Poems & Stories about School Life & Education (Asian Voices)

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