Multilingualism In A Pervasive Learning Environment

Jan Visser 1, 1997

The Need For A Changing Vision Of Learning

Learning has long been identified almost exclusively with what happens in the school environment. While such notions as adult learning and lifelong learning may have become part of the regular vocabulary of the education community, they are often seen as mere adjuncts to the mainstream model, which views learning as the school based preparation of members of a new generation for life after school. This model is totally out of tune with the current reality. Some of the reasons why we are in need of a new vision of learning will be discussed below. They have to do with the changes that take place in the world at large, posing fundamentally new challenges as well as offering new opportunities. They equally pertain to the rapidly increasing complexity of our environment. But they also relate to inadequacies of established educational practices over centuries past. For the purpose of this paper, the relationship between learning and language, and how it is associated with the changes that will inevitably take place in the learning environment, will receive specific attention. It will be argued that multilingualism is an important dimension of and condition for effective learning in the present day world and in the foreseeable future.

The challenge of change

Human beings and human systems face increasingly rapid change and augmented levels of complexity in their environment. Whereas in the past change could be managed through generational processes, each generation preparing the conditions for the next generation to adapt to change, this process has now become an intra-generational one. Within the time span of their life, people often have to adjust to fundamentally new sets of circumstances, opportunities and risks. They will also themselves contribute to the creation of such new circumstances, opportunities and risks for others with whom they interact in a variety of configurations. Such changes could not have been foreseen at the time such people went to school, whence the learning in school of distinct bodies of content is an insufficient option when conceived of as the dominant mechanism through which we prepare ourselves for life and stay abreast of changing circumstances throughout the lifespan. Yet, educational planning and decision making are still largely based on this dominant paradigm. Worse even, many of the alternatives generated to overcome the shortcomings of the school, such as those that make use of distance education approaches, are often based on the same assumptions as the school model and tend to approximate or replicate its features (e.g. Visser, Jain, Anzalone and Naidoo, 1997).

The challenge of complexity

Not only is the present day world characterized by change - and particularly by a rapidly increasing rate of change, requiring people not only to adapt to the specific change that occurs at particular moments but also to get to grips with ever accelerating processes of change in their environment - the world is also growing more complex. Not so long ago, people would conceive of themselves as actors in a variety of more or less closed and separate environments. They would see themselves as members of a family, playing a role in a set work environment, and socializing with fellow human beings in settings such as the pub, the church, their home or the workplace. They would take note of what happened in the world around them as they received news via the printed press and electronic broadcast media, but their behaviour as family members, employees or while socializing would only in distant ways be influenced by the notion that those roles interacted with each other and that, what they did, had implications for the world at large. These perceptions are dramatically changing. As we reach the limits of what our planet can accommodate, we become increasingly aware that what one individual does potentially affects all the others. In a sense, every human being stands somehow in the proximity of - in the sense of standing in the way or being an opportunity for - all the others. To smoke or not to smoke, to drive a car or not to drive one, to procreate or to refrain from getting children, to write a paper on the changing learning environment or instead to go out for a walk, these used to be decisions seen to have implications mainly at the individual level. Not so any more.

Children today grow up with the tremendous responsibility to not only undo the damage done by the generations that preceded them, but also to create entirely new ways to live and learn together. Yet they continue to be subjected to the same linear approaches to learning that have defined the learning environment most of their parents grew up in. Can it be changed? Yes, it can, and further on in this paper I shall refer to some of the emerging opportunities that prompt such change. It may well be necessary for children to lead the way and create a new learning environment that will eventually also encompass adults, rather than the other way around (see e.g. 2B1 or Papert, 1996).

The notion of complex adaptive systems (CAS) is quite relevant in this context. Human beings - and all living organisms for that matter - are complex adaptive systems. They operate in environments - such as political context, ecological surroundings, the economies and networks of social interactions they are part of - that are themselves also complex adaptive systems. Holland (1995) lists the following significant characteristics of such systems:

It is not difficult to see the above characteristics represented in both living organisms, such as humans, and the larger systems with which they interact. Learning is an important dimension of the processes through which humans stay in tune with their human, biological and physical environment and through which that environment is allowed to take shape around them. It is thanks to complexity and the occurrence of variation in a complex environment that there is growth. As Pinker (1994) explains, learning is an optional faculty, given to living organisms by nature, that allows them to cope with unpredictability in their environment. It frees up capacity in the neural networks that would otherwise have to be hard-wired for a broad range of responses that might be required for an equally broad range of circumstances the organism could possibly encounter. The way we acquire language, and how the faculty to do so is provided for by the brain, reflect that gift of nature. In order to foster growth, it is important that the diversity in the language environment be maintained.

The inadequacy of past and current schooling practices

Above I have referred to various reasons why current educational practice is out of tune with the world as we see it ahead of us. There is, however, also a well documented inadequacy of the schooling system when measured against the requirements of the past and the present. To start with, school based learning has a tradition of staleness which is probably best described by the parable with which Seymour Papert (1993) opens his book The children's machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer. A group of time travellers from a couple of centuries ago, including surgeons and teachers, visits present day schools and medical facilities. The surgeons find themselves totally unable to even recognize what is going on, let alone to perform any of their skills, whereas the teachers can, without any major difficulty, take over the class.

Many learners experience a mismatch between their specific strengths and the narrow segment out of the total spectrum of intelligences and learning styles that the school system caters for (see e.g. Howard Gardner, 1991). The system is based on the dominant conception of 'learning once in a lifetime'. The routes to attaining particular learning goals are quite inflexible and curricula as well as assessment practices usually define in an equally inflexible manner what is supposed to be learned. It works for some, but there are also many for whom it doesn't work. On a global scale, no less than 130 million children in the school age do not attend school. In part this is due to sheer incapacity of the existing systems to accommodate a growing young population, in part it has also to do with the irrelevance of what the school has to offer and the poor quality with which it is being offered. For the same reasons do we have similarly large numbers of children who leave the school prematurely or whose learning never reaches a level at which it will sustain as an autonomous behaviour. No surprise that there are close to one billion illiterate adult people in the world. No surprise either that such people are assumed to be out of reach of any learning opportunity before they acquire the ability to read and write, because those are the prescribed stepping stones on the way to learning. Clearly, there is variation in what I have just described across circumstances, and there are inspiring exceptions. They show how unnecessary the overall situation is.

In many instances, learning is still almost exclusively interpreted as the consequence of teaching. In that conception, learners and teachers are seen at opposite ends of a process in which knowledge - interpreted as a 'thing', as pieces of information, as facts that can be reproduced - is being passed on. The model is far removed from such notions as learning as construction, situated learning, or cognitive apprenticeship. In the school context, participation in the rituals that pertain to the processes assumed to facilitate the transfer of knowledge is the privilege of the young. This, again, should be no surprise. The transmission model assumes that there are people who know more than those who learn. Being older is thus a prerequisite for the ability to teach; being younger puts you in the position to have to learn.

The above assumption applies up to a certain age. In adulthood it is quite generally accepted that older adults can acquire knowledge from some younger ones. There is also a belief, though, that human beings reach the pinnacle of their development in early adulthood. Those of us who have reached late adulthood may be consoled by research evidence (Sternberg, Ed., 1990, provides a comprehensive overview) showing that development does not stop after adolescence. With the exception again of some good and inspiring examples, such research evidence has so far led to little exploration of how lifespan development can be facilitated through learning. Nor has it resulted in the development of effective infrastructure by society to accommodate the need to learn at any age.

Finally, learning is mostly seen as something done only by individuals. The notion that groups of people who share interest, vision or purpose, behave like organisms and thus engage in organismic learning, is still little recognized by the education establishment. It emerges, though, and is increasingly practised in the corporate environment (see e.g. Senge, 1990; Chawla and Renesch, Eds., 1995; Marquardt, 1996). Social entities are complex adaptive systems which function at a different level of complexity if compared with individuals. They are equally, and for the same reasons as individuals, in need of learning. In fact, left to themselves - just like individuals, such as street children - they do learn. However, without a societal concern with the learning environment, such learning normally takes a course which is exclusively directed towards the self-interest of the individual entity or the immediate larger entity of which it is part. That learning can be very effective. The resistance of organizations to change - a shortsighted approach to survival when everything else changes - is a manifestation of the effectiveness of such learning.

A New Learning Environment

Learning is much more complex and much more pervasive than is assumed by the education establishment and than transpires from the processes and infrastructure created by that establishment. The world is in urgent need of a change of perspective, one that puts the emphasis on learning - what you do to yourself with others - rather than on education - what is being done to you (Visser, 1996), one that is based on care, i.e. on the notion that individuals and social entities should be able to respond proactively to changes in their environment, one that reflects respect for complexity, for diversity, for learning and learners at different levels of organization, for different time frames that drive the need to learn. In an environment that accommodates such a perspective children will no longer learn exclusively from adults. It could be the other way around, or children could learn from, or rather thanks to their interaction with, each other. Teachers will no longer be as we conceive of them today (Visser and Jain, 1996), nor will learners continue to see themselves as the passive recipients of knowledge. The new environment will be characterized by the existence of a culture of learning 2, by which I mean that:

There are encouraging signs that the vision that the above notion refers to is an emerging reality. Listen to the following stories.

Story 1: Children as the facilitators of learning by their teachers

In the Olympia School District in the State of Washington in the USA, children are taking the lead in helping their teachers to become conversant with the new technologies. A visit to the web site of Generation WHY (Worldwide Horizons for Youth) explains for instance how, during the Spring of 1997, 160 Generation WHY students in grades six to twelve, collaborated with 160 teachers to conduct 160 projects to incorporate technology into the curriculum in a wide variety of areas. The web site lists a Genetic Traits Project, English/Reading Projects, Social Studies Projects, Art Related Projects, Science Projects, Math Projects, Health/PE Projects, and Foreign Language Projects. Through these projects, Generation WHY plays a role in the "restructuring of education through telecommunications" with the "involvement of students in collaboration with teachers, the local community and corporate sponsors." The project concentrates deliberately on youth as partners - often as leaders - in this process of change. They build and maintain networks, supporting their teachers in the use of technology in the classroom and developing contacts with people remote to their schools. Students who participate receive an semester course of 18 weeks which prepares them for their role as mentor and helps them acquire the technology and lesson planning skills required. The Olympia School District now functions as a model for other school districts which will follow its example.

Such a reversal of the traditional roles of teachers and students is not only of interest as it generates experience that breaks through the barriers of age old but not necessarily effective pedagogical practices. It also makes much sense from another point of view. Children have an incredible technological fluency (Papert, 1996) for those areas of technology with which they grow up. Members of the older generation who saw the same technologies enter into their life at a more advanced age have usually great difficulty catching up with their children. The term fluency used by Papert clearly refers to the same quality of acquired natural ability as can be noted in the learning of languages at an early age. Neurophysiological research shows (see e.g. Pinker, 1994) that the early years in human life provide a particularly favourable window of opportunity in which the development of the brain accommodates the acquisition of these natural abilities. Language learning at a later age is neurologically distinct from the acquisition of the native language in the first years after birth. It involves a different part of the brain as was recently documented in a letter to the Journal Nature by Kim, Relkin, Lee and Hirsch (1997). I am not aware of any research on technological fluency from a neurobiological point of view that might show a similar window of opportunity for its acquisition at an early age.

Story 2: Managing planet Earth together

There was a time when all continents were joined together. In the theory of geological formation in which this notion occurs, this togetherness of the different parts of the earth is designated as Pangea. The same term now designates a French language World Wide Web site, run out of the Ecole Active de Malagnou in Geneva, involving the mobilization of schools in all continents. Children in different parts of the world participate in a programme of intercultural communication, developing knowledge and awareness of their shared global environment, asserting their power of shared control over that environment while using different technologies to communicate with each other. The principle is that each group of students corresponds with two other groups of students in different parts of the world. To do so they use ordinary mail, fax, e-mail, etc. depending on available conditions. They correspond each in their own language. It is on the receiving party to find a way to understand the messages received. The central theme of the correspondence is the global ecology.

Skeptics may think that the world is moving in a direction of ever diminishing contact between real human beings, starting with children whose main interface with the world is a computer screen. They are wrong. On one occasion the school in Geneva received a message in Hebrew from a school in Israel. It raised two questions: "Are there devices that allow you to type characters different from the European alphabet?" and "How can we find out what is written?" Solving the latter problem led the children in Geneva to remember that almost next door there was a Jewish school. They had never given them much thought or attention and in fact rather avoided the contact. Thanks to their distant relations with the Israeli school via the Pangea network they now got in touch, had their message translated and developed new friendships, understanding and appreciation of difference.

On a related web site (in French, go to the Projet Mosaïca link on their page), Pangea documents the experience of children all over the globe who interact with each other more particularly via modern informatics resources. To do so they need to be conversant with the Lego-Logo programming environment. Together they run a virtual island called Mosaica - the name is derived from a contraction of the names of two real countries, Mozambique and Jamaica, the island Mosaica being half way the two countries. The island has a series of environmental problems which the children work on together. As part of the economy of the island depends on tourism, the children have recently decided to organize an international festival on Mosaica.

Story 3: "Here's looking at you..."

Ragni is a now 13 year old girl in Pakistan. She runs her own web site where she publishes her poetry. Her eyes look at you when you open her home page. She tells about her friends, her school, her parents, the meaning of her name, her language, Urdu, the city where she lives, Karachi, "one of Pakistan's finest cities", and the violence she sees around her. She tells you about her dog and that she likes to read. She explains her love for music, the classical Indian dancing styles she masters, and her likes for Pop and R&B. "Some of my favourite singers and groups are Boyzone, Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, 3T, Alanis Morrisette and many others", she goes on to tell. "But I also enjoy the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, as well as some of the stuff my parents listen to (they were 'near­Hippies' in the Sixties ...). Which means I find Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles and Elvis fun, too. That's enough to shock most of my classmates. So if I'd mention Pavarotti, they'd just die, I guess."

Then she tells about the 7000 year old culture of the Indus Valley Civilization she is part of, compared with which her country, Pakistan, is still very young. "I'll be using this site to tell you all about Pakistan", she says, "our customs, culture and other fun things. I'd be glad to answer any questions that I can, for kids from all over the world who want to know about us."

Through her web site she gets in touch with lots of kids all over the world. She learns from them, they learn from her. One question remains, though. She receives reactions from children in many countries, with the exception of one: India. "Why?", she asked her father.

I met her father two weeks ago. He gave me his answer. More than seven thousand years of shared culture between the populations of what are now two independent countries. In 50 years the politicians had succeeded to screw it up. On independence day this year, the same date for both India and Pakistan, he would have his own web site up and running and he would use it to get the children from the two countries to talk to each other.

Story 4: NetDay

Conditions to get schools connected to the Internet vary across countries. Parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia are still totally without connectivity. A number of countries all over the world have e-mail only. However, even in those countries that are listed as having full connectivity it is often still problematic to get schools connected. The United States of America is one of those countries.

The NetDay web site allows parents, children, teachers and community members to take charge of their own connectivity. It mobilizes people to investigate what happens in their school district or state. The information provided, some of which is updated on an hourly basis, prompts them to take action and provides them with suggestions on how to do so.

NetDay is a grass-roots effort. It mobilizes the business community to contribute to solving the schools' connectivity problems. The work, which would normally cost more than $ 1000 per classroom, is carried out by volunteers. These include for instance 800 000 volunteers from the telecommunications industry, along with members of local community organizations, parents, teachers, students, school personnel, etc. The first NetDay was held in March 1996. In California 4000 schools were wired on one single NetDay. By October 1996 a total of 70 000 schools had been wired all over the country.

Story 5: Learning while training

A Dutch girl, Karlijn van Aerde, travels every Friday from her university town Utrecht, where she studies medical biology, to her home town Tilburg, where she spends the weekend with her parents. The first part is a train ride by 'intercity' to Den Bosch, which takes approximately 30 minutes. On one such occasion she started explaining to her fellow passengers what she had learned in school during the week. This aroused sufficient interest among her audience that she was encouraged a week later to continue the practice with new content. Interest in her lectures grew rapidly, and soon a whole carriage participated in the learning event. In view of the success and the interest of the passengers, the Dutch railway company now attaches an extra carriage to the train, with special facilities to accommodate the moving learning experience. (The story was reported in the Dutch newspaper Brabants Dagblad of 7 June 1997.)

Story 6: Through the eyes of children

The poor, and particularly poor children, are seldom in a position to represent themselves. They are normally represented by others. Shahidul Alam helped children find a way around that problem. The story begins on 3rd October 1994, International Children's Day. Looking at a picture of the charred bodies of children. They had died in a fire at a garment factory in Mirpur, Bangladesh. As they used to be locked up at the beginning of the working day, there was no escape when the fire broke out. Their bodies were dumped in the drain. What happened to the owner? Nothing. "Nothing ever happens to owners", says one of the kids sitting around. "If I had a camera, I would take his picture and put the guy in jail", she concludes.

The first cameras are made out of empty milk powder tins. A darkroom was constructed and the work could begin. The first pictures are of the school, the garment factory and a banana tree, just for the fun of it.

They would stare wide eyed at all they saw. They took starry eyed pictures. Later they began to question and probe. They changed in other ways too. When I first saw them, they had wanted to be garment workers. Rabeya had wanted to be a doctor. Rabeya now wants to be a photojournalist, as do many of the others. Ironically most of the kids are now at work, and have little time to take photographs, but some like Phalam, still [want] to carry on. "I work from eight in the morning till nine at night, including Fridays, but I do have an hour's lunch break. I can get home in five minutes and be back in another five. If I finish my lunch in ten minutes, I can still take pictures for the other forty minutes."

Rather than just taking pictures, the children construct their own social commentary. The world as they see it and experience it. In the process they transform it and are changed by it.

One of the girls, Shopna, stopped coming. The kids asked Shahidul to talk to her dad. He found out she was to be married off. Shopna's mother was not keen on this, and together they talked to Shopna's dad. It is not known if it was the talking that did it, but Shopna was not married off. Instead she now works fourteen hours a day in a garment factory! There is so much more to be done!

The first thing that Rabeya does when she has won a $ 500 World Press Photo prize is buy her own camera and return the one she had on loan.

"...With the money they buy rice, they then eat, at night they sleep; again in the morning they wake up; again they leave for their places of work. this is how their lives are lived."


Story 7: Computers in the clubhouse

The Clubhouse has been there since 1993. It was founded by the Computer Museum in collaboration with the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It provides a constructionist learning environment for youth from 10 to 18 from different underserved communities in the Boston area. They can work with computer equipment to develop computer­based projects inspired by their own ideas. The kids come in after school. The idea is that they acquire technological fluency. Says Mitch Resnick, who helped start the Computer Clubhouse: "The goal is for youth to become fluent with new computational media, becoming creators (not just consumers) of computer­based projects."

It all started during a school vacation, explains the text on the Clubhouse's web page. "Five neighborhood kids made their way into the Computer Museum to participate in a robot­building workshop. Speaking to one another in a combination of English and Spanish, they excitedly built models of cars, cranes, and merry­go­rounds and then learned how to use a computer to program their machines to move. After seeing a drawing in David Macaulay's book, The Way Things Work, one boy got an idea for a new gear mechanism for his crane. 'Mire, mire, look at this,' he said, as the machine lifted his car into the air." Unfortunately, museums cater for short-term events only, not long enough to satisfy the continued interest that had meanwhile been aroused in the kids. Somehow it had to continue. And that's how the Clubhouse began.

As a constructionist learning environment, the Clubhouse encourages its members to work as designers, inventors and creators and to do so on projects of their own interest. It also seeks to create a sense of community, fostering collaboration between young people with support and inspiration from adult mentors - students and professionals in fields such as art, science, education or technology who share their experience and serve as role models. It offers resources and opportunities to those who would not otherwise have access to them.

This is not the kind of place where young people play games with computers. Rather, they "learn how to use professional software for design, exploration, and experimentation. In the Clubhouse, young people can try for themselves what it is like to be an architect, engineer, composer, artist, journalist, scientific researcher, computer programmer, and a wide array of other professions in the modern workplace."

The approach promoted by the Clubhouse is based on sound research evidence, particularly the notion that "adolescents learn most effectively when they are engaged in designing and creating projects, rather than memorizing facts or learning isolated skills out of context" and on "the importance of interpersonal relationships and community in the learning process, particularly for adolescents." Working in the environment of the Clubhouse, young people overcome "their disinterest and apathy about learning, and develop the internal motivation to learn and grow." With over 4500 visits a year the Clubhouse has become a vibrant environment for young people to express themselves artistically, work on science projects, produce their own web pages, make music, design and experiment with robotic devices. It now proposes itself as a model for the generation of similar dynamic learning environments and offers help in creating them.

Open Learning Communities

Each of the above stories reveals the existence of an open learning community. None of these learning communities is the result of coercion. Their appearance on the scene is entirely natural. They are there because their members generated them and because there was a propitious environment that allowed them to be created. All of them somehow reveal the characteristics of Complex Adaptive Systems as detailed earlier in this paper and therefore have the capacity of self-organization and self-reorganization. They are not rigid. They are not permanent. As a consequence, they all contribute to growth as they are all learning. But their learning is not necessarily restricted to the kind of behaviours to which many students get conditioned in the traditional school context. As far as these learning communities interact with the school environment, such as is the case, for instance, in Stories 1, 2 and 4, schools become a different reality. They are places where teachers feel comfortable with the fact that they are seen to be learning by those whose learning is being entrusted to them, their students. They are places where those who came to learn find themselves facilitating the learning of others. They are places of cohesiveness instead of polarized division. They are places that accommodate communities who come together to engage in action around relevant issues. They are places that are pertain organically to the larger community they are part of. That larger community contributes to their growth as much as they contribute to the growth of the community around them.

I have related no more than seven stories. Seven stories that are no more than the tip of an iceberg that is already changing the landscape. Many more such stories are emerging on a daily basis. On this Learning Without Frontiers web site we are establishing a growing number of links with them. Organizations like the recently created 2B1 Foundation, events like the creation of global scale communication networks such as Motorola's Iridium system of Low Earth Orbiting satellites or the system of Digital Direct Delivery broadcast to portable radio receivers worldwide as conceived by WorldSpace are examples of the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Multilingualism In A Pervasive Learning Environment

Learning will increasingly become the domain of communities whose constitution is fluid, open and flexible and who thank their existence to the presence of an environment in which they can flourish. Knowing that environment and managing its resources is a challenge that goes beyond the techniques and approaches to educational planning and administration that have given rise to and maintained and developed the traditional schooling systems (see e.g. Gushee and Jain, 1997). The linguistic qualities of that environment form a crucial dimension of it.

Learning increasingly takes place across traditional barriers. The Computer Clubhouse mentioned in Story 7 started with kids expressing themselves in a mixture of Spanish and English; Ragni in Story 3 tells you about her language Urdu while writing in English; the kids of Story 2 communicate with each other using any language they like, always able to find a solution to understanding the messages they receive and meanwhile familiarizing themselves with other people's languages and celebrating the linguistic diversity in their environment. In Story 1 teachers become not only familiar with new technologies, but also with the lingo that relates to their various attributes and uses. Events like NetDay (Story 4) and the Computer Clubhouse (Story 7) have significance on a national scale but are equally important on a global scale. They serve as models for exemplary development and as resources for action in totally different environments, where other languages are spoken. The process of their diffusion will greatly depend on how the world handles its linguistic diversity. And what will Karlijn van Aerde, in Story 5, do if one or more of the passengers on her learning train are foreigners who don't speak her native tongue? Well, I guess she went to school in The Netherlands and will have learned to master a variety of foreign languages that will help her help others with their learning. And finally, the children in Story 7. They have found their own way to tell the world about their own lives and the lives of the people whose lives they document, creating powerful stories without words.

"European culture arose as a reflection on the destiny of a multilingual civilization", writes Umberto Eco (1995, p. 18). At its present stage, it is both "in urgent need of a common language that might heal its linguistic fractures. Yet, at the same time, [it] needs to remain true to its historic vocation as the continent of different languages" (p. 344). How to reconcile the two demands? Eco offers a solution not far from the one already practised by the kids who communicate with each other worldwide in the Pangea environment described in Story 2. He refers to "a community of peoples with an increased ability to receive the spirit, to taste or savour the aroma of different dialects" (p.350, 351). In such a community of peoples "differences of language [should] no longer [be] barriers to communication" (p. 351). And he continues to suggest that, within that community,

people can meet each other and speak together, each in his or her own tongue, understanding, as best as they can, the speech of others. In this way, even those who never learn to speak another language fluently could still participate in its particular genius, catching a glimpse of the particular cultural universe that every individual expresses each time he or she speaks the language of his or her ancestors in his or her own tradition (p. 351).

What Eco advocates as a solution for a plurilinguistic Europe, holds, probably even more forcefully, for the world as a whole. The rate at which languages are disappearing in the world is frightening. Pinker (1994) refers to the linguist Michael Krauss who "estimates that 150 North American Indian languages, about 80 % of the existing ones, are moribund" (p. 259). The picture, according to the same linguist, is not much better elsewhere with 90 % of the languages in Alaska and northern Siberia, 23 % in Central and South America, 70 % in Russia, and 90 % in Australia at risk of disappearing for good. Worldwide his count adds up to about 3000, i.e. 50 % of the total number of languages still in existence. But for how long? Let's listen to Pinker:

Only about 600 languages are reasonably safe by dint of the sheer number of their speakers, say, a minimum of 100 000 (though this does not guarantee even short-term survival), and this optimistic assumption still suggests that between 3 600 and 5 400 languages, as many as 90 % of the world's total, are threatened with extinction in the next century (p. 259).

Pinker (1994) refers to the extinction of languages as reminiscent of the extinction of species in the biological world. Their causes overlap. "Languages disappear by the destruction of the habitats of their speakers, as well as by genocide, forced assimilation and assimilatory education, demographic submersion, and bombardment by electronic media" (p.260). In an argument similar to that of Eco (1995) referred to above, Pinker alerts that:

for anthropology and human evolutionary biology, languages trace the history and geography of the species, and the extinction of a language ... can be like the burning of a library of historical documents or the extinction of the last species in a phylum. But the reasons are not just scientific. As Krauss writes, "Any language is a supreme achievement of a uniquely human collective genius, as divine and endless a mystery as a living organism" (p. 260).

The emerging information society has great potential, as I have tried to demonstrate, to create the conditions for pervasive learning. Without pervasive learning humankind, is at risk to extinguish itself as it is no longer able to respond creatively to the rate of change it itself creates. The information society, besides its potential to let us generate new forms of learning together, also carries in it the potential of its own destruction, by destroying the linguistic diversity in the human habitats it is to accommodate. It need not develop that way if we can continue to generate stories like the ones I have related above. Stories that are part of a literature that happens "when its language becomes a question addressed to language itself, [or rather perhaps] in response, in fascinated and repeated response to the speaking that occurs as language remarks 'that there is language'..." (Fynsk, 1996, p. 242).


Chawla, S. & Renesch, J. (1995). Learning organizations: Developing cultures for tomorrow's workplace. Portland, OR: Productivity Press.

Eco, U. (1995). The search for the perfect language. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Fynsk, C. (1996). Language and relation: ...that there is language. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Gardner, H. (1991). The unschooled mind: How children think and how schools should teach. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gushee, S & Jain, M. (1997). Seeing open learning communities: Towards a new mode of sector analysis. LWF paper in collaboration with Florida State University (Draft July 1997). Paris, France: Learning Without Frontiers Coordination Unit, UNESCO.

Holland, J. H. (1995). Can there be a unified theory of complex adaptive systems? In H. J. Morowitz & J. L. Singer (Eds.), The mind, the brain, and complex adaptive systems. Proceedings Volume XXII, Santa Fe Institute, Studies in the Sciences of Complexity. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Kim, K.H.S., Relkin, N. R., Lee, K-M. & Hirsch, J. (1997). Distinct cortical areas associated with native and second languages. Nature, 388, 171-174.

Marquardt, M. J. (1996). Building the learning organization: A systems approach to quantum improvement and global success. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Papert, S. (1993). The children's machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer, New York, NY: Basic Books.

Papert, S. (1996). The connected family. Atlanta, GA: Longstreet Press.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates languages. New York, NY: William Marrow and Company, Inc.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Sternberg, R. J. (Ed.) (1990). Wisdom: Its nature, origins and development. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Visser, J. (1996). Learning, not education. Published in the proceedings of the Colloque Internationale sur la Formation tout au long de la vie dans la SociJtJ de l'Information: Les nouvelles technologies et la lutte contre les exclusions, Valladolid, Spain, 26 - 28 September 1996. Paris, France: Forum Internationale des Sciences Humaines.

Visser J. & Jain, M. (1997). Towards open learning communities: Recontextualizing teachers and learners. In D. Passey and B. Samways (Eds.) Information technology: Supporting change through teacher education. IFIP Joint Working Conference Proceedings, London, Chapman and Hall, 1997.

Visser, J., Jain, M., Anzalone, S., & Naidoo, G. (1997). Learning without frontiers: Beyond open and distance learning. Paper presented at the 18th World Conference of the International Council for Distance Education on "The new learning environment: A global perspective", held from June 2 to 6, 1997 at the Pennsylvania State University. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University.


  1. Director, Learning Without Frontiers Coordination Unit, UNESCO. Any opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and not necessarily those of UNESCO. The author can be contacted by e-mail at - back
  2. In a forthcoming publication in LlinE, Lifelong Learning in Europa, I will more elaborately deal with the concept of a culture of learning, an issue which I have earlier addressed in a keynote delivered at the Second Global Conference on Lifelong Learning, held in Ottawa, Canada, from 23 to 26 March 1996. - back

Top of document LWF Documents LWF Home Page LWF Activities LWF Links

This site is maintained