Recent articles about kids, language, and technology

If you have seen the talk that Tim and I presented at Clojure/West in October on Learning Clojure through Logo, it should come as no surprise that topics of education, technology, and language are of interest. A couple of recent articles were published that caught my attention:

Icelandic language battles threat of ‘digital extinction’
This article talks about how the relatively low population of Iceland (only 300 thousand) means that there are not enough speakers for the economy to be a first priority for technology companies. But as technology becomes pervasive (smart phones, and now home devices, some of which are voice-activated), the gulf between a supported language and a less-supported language widens. Perhaps Iceland is like other Scandinavian countries in that there is a high rate of notable fluency among the populace, and in Iceland’s case, the prevalence of native Icelandic is diminishing as its relevance relative to English.

South Korea bans English education for first and second graders
In South Korea, a possible future balancing act is unfolding. Because English is already seen as too prevalent relative to Korean, the government has banned English from 1st and 2nd grade education. Pre-adolescent kids will still be able to pick up English, thankfully. But clearly, this action comes from a place of fear that the trend happening in Iceland has already progressed too far in South Korea. There are a lot of interesting issues of language, identity, and economics to unpack as well from that article, but I will not do so here.

Both of the articles above take a view that is worried about the eroding future of minority/non-English languages, and with it, culture and/or identity. They look at the current generation of kids’ adoption of technology as the change agent hastening this change. But it also reminds me of the following excerpt of a TED talk, that marvels in that very same ability for kids to learn on their own, and to do so via technology:

How Much Can Children Teach Themselves?
Click the blue play button to hear the audio from the TED Radio Hour news story. The entire story is worth hearing. The featured speaker, Sugata Mitra, a professor of education, did many experiments of putting a single, unattended computer in poor areas that kids can reach. Kids in Delhi taught themselves English and how to use a computer in the most improbable way. Kids in Tamil Nadu taught them the basics of DNA.

When he gave his talk previously, in the LIFT conference in 2007, he entitled it “Kids can teach themselves”. There is a positive, affirmative statement there that kids can learn anything, and they always seem to find ways to work around problems in doing so when given the chance. There are a lot of echoes of Seymour Papert’s philosophy about education and the role of technology to enable fundamentally different ways of teaching that are more effective and user-driven.

And his stories of kids teaching themselves via technology, kids without many resources or a good education to begin with, sometimes teaching themselves basic English just to operate a computer, brings us back to the beginning. It reminds me of the fact that Power Turtle has the ability to support any human language in teaching the basics of programming that extends into a full-blown programming language also in their native tongue.

There is still a lot of interesting and exciting work left to be done to deliver on that promise: in regards to programming education, and also in regards to supporting the diversity of languages of the world fully (the full stack from font to rendering to input method).