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GLOBAL ISSUES IN LANGUAGE
EDUCATION NEWSLETTER
March 1996 - Issue No. #22 (p. 10)

Teaching A UN Summit / NGO Forum

by Jeris E. Strain

Himeji Dokkyo University

Teach a United Nations Summit or NGO Forum? High-level vocabulary, complex grammar, formal rhetoric? Impossible!

And yet, UN Summit and NGO Forum discussions and materials highlight the areas and issues most critical to the future of each individual student. Is that not reason enough to try? Even to try the impossible?

The Beijing Women's UN Summit and NGO Forum illustrate this dilemma perfectly. The Women's Summit / Forum was in reality a course in global issues -- and a statement by over half the world's population of the challenges to be met and issues to be resolved if humankind is to achieve a world of peace. The alternative? In this era of environmental degradation, potential nuclear catastrophe, disintegrating family systems, need one ask?

OK! Then how can one teach such difficult material to, say, a class of 40 Japanese university students (English majors) in one ninety-minute session per week over ten to twelve weeks?

Well, how about using a content-based approach and a workshop methodology? Original materials provide key words, concepts, and patterns (both grammatical and lexical) for each issue; a workshop format can optimize small group activity (eg, 10 groups of 4), oral reports, and written summaries. The primary goal? Oral production and written production of subjects that not only interest students but also are valuable for their future well-being.

The Beijing Platform for Action consists of 12 major concerns:

poverty
education
health
armed conflict
power/decision making
economic participation
violence
human rights
women and the environment
women and the media
girls
state / international mechanisms

while the NGO Forum activities were organized by thirteen themes:

human/legal rights
environment
health
education
media
race/ethnicity
economy
peace/human security
science/technology
arts/culture
governance/politics
spirituality/religion
youth

Extracting a syllabus from all of these for 10 (or 20) class sessions is a challenge, but can be done in any number of ways.

My Fall class focused on Beijing workshops presented by Baha'i Women's Groups from Malaysia, Singapore, Sabah, and the Philippines; these represented some of the Baha'i International Community NGO (ECOSOC, UNICEF consultative status) Network groups attending the Forum. They had prepared attractive handouts with quotations for workshops such as:

  • young women and the environment

  • young women and peace

  • young women and partnership

  • young women and a violence free society

  • women, work, and the family

  • burden of poverty on young women

and these lent themselves well (minimum language burden, maximum language expression) to discussion. Moreover, their focus was on constructive, forward-looking guidelines for understanding and resolving global issues. One example is the quotation selected for "women and partnership":

The world of humanity is possessed of two wings,
the male and the female.
So long as these two wings are not equivalent in strength,
the bird will not fly.

- Baha'u'llah, Gleanings

Two surprising outcomes of this class were high motivation in expressing personal views, and the wide range of weaknesses that appeared in written summaries. The weaknesses led to grammatical judgment tests (identify the error and correct it) based on the summaries, and suggested a clearer insight regarding the students' dictionary mind-set (words, not patterns, to express meaning) and mistranslation (encoding-decoding) practices.

It is clear that the wealth of knowledge that exists in students' minds is severely constrained by their word-to-word mind-set and encoding-decoding protocols. Put differently, their greatest obstacle to English language mastery is not so much language as it is shifting from a "Japanese-English equivalents" approach to creative expression in and by means of English itself. This should be a natural for content-based instruction -- so long as it focuses on production rather than coding.

*****

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