A Tale of Two Tongues

Jonathan Robert Pool

Unpublished essay, 1989

It was June in Perifistan. June was examination month, the month of reckoning. In any secondary school, your ears told you it was June. Whispering was the norm in the halls. Silence reigned in the classrooms, while proctors and cheaters matched wits. A burst of shouting and scuffling meant that a student had fatally underestimated a teacher’s angle of vision.

Foreign-language examinations were different, though. Perifistan’s education ministry had listened to the latest expert thinking about how languages are best learned. Memorization of grammatical forms was out; conversational practice was in. Written work was deemphasized; speaking and listening skills were stressed. In keeping with this doctrine, the foreign-language examinations were oral and individual.

If you were to visit Room 17 in the Novu, Perifistan, secondary school on a certain scalding June afternoon, you would find three teachers sharing the creaky front table with one student, while several other students waited their turn outside. For one, this oral exam was the last barrier to a diploma conferring the right to dream of a university education in the capital. For another, back from a year of suspension for failing just one of his 16 subjects, this was the chance to reenter school. For a third, the score earned today would be crucial in the battle to go on studying rather than pick vegetables forever. This examination was a chance of a lifetime and a sword of Damoclese rolled into one. The teachers could see both hope and fear in the eyes of each student who gingerly but somberly approached the interrogation table. Each student, in turn, sought clues in the eyes of the examiners as to the grade they would give after the student left the room.

The language being tested was Centralese. Centralese was rarely heard on the streets of Novu and never seen on the newsstands, but it was universally respected and feared for its power to determine the fate of the town’s students. Teachers and local administrators now in their fifties had gone to school when Metropolish was “the” foreign language. They needed it to get where they got, but now they could only lament that the locks had been changed, and their key to success no longer worked. Today, Centralese was the language that opened doors, and today’s students knew this. Demand for courses in Centralese far exceeded the teaching capacity of the schools. Nobody knew how long this shortage would last, and many were even speculating as to what other language might someday rise to regional dominance, but for the moment the main issue was learning Centralese.

One of the three teachers was Jack, himself a Centralese. The Centralese government had sent him to Perifistan, as it had dispatched thousands of its citizens around the world in response to the rising and unmeetable demand for teachers of Centralese. Centralese politicians portrayed the teaching of Centralese abroad as an act of altruism, a contribution to peace and economic development. They called these teachers “Soldiers of Progress” and defined solidarity rather than money as their chief reward. But self-interest and national interest were also parts of the appeal for volunteers. The knowledge of exotic languages and cultures that the teachers would bring home would, the government said, enrich them intellectually and occupationally and serve their nation.

It was now late afternoon, and all but three of the examinees had trudged in and slunk out. A boy entered and sat at the examiners’ table. Torn pants, callouses, a deep tan—this one was obviously fresh from the fields, here for his last chance to get back into school. The teachers asked questions in slow, simple Centralese. The boy didn’t respond. The questions got simpler. The boy began answering, but the words were barely recognizable. Bottom-of-the-barrel questions like “How old are you?” elicited some real Centralese words, but they didn’t form meaningful utterances and were unrelated to the questions. What else could the teachers expect? After he’d failed a similar exam while still in school, would his meager smattering of oral Centralese actually improve during a year or two of toil on a farm deep inside Perifistan?

Exasperated, the teachers told the boy he could go. As he stood up, he blurted out (in Perif, of course), “Bitbo, efjoroj, iskolfra tö jal zad şon darılıd, usvar rabavajant”. The nonstandard pronunciation corroborated the claim made by the words: he had been out of school two years now, working, and only the teachers’ mercy could help him.

Grading was usually consensual, but not in this case. After the last student had been examined, Ibber, one of the local teachers, wrote a “5”, the minimum passing grade, next to the farm boy’s name on the grade sheet, uttering the Perif equivalent of “Let’s give him a break.” Jack protested, likewise in Perif. “I’m sorry, Ibber, but this guy didn’t know a thing.” In the ensuing debate, the teachers trotted out lofty but conflicting principles, such as social fairness, equal opportunity, legality, objectivity, and collective responsibility for grading.

Suddenly Ibber erased his “5” and put a failing “2” in its place. “All right, have it your way if you want to kill the poor kid’s future”, he yelled. “You Soldiers of Progress have no idea about our problems in Perifistan. The Ministry of Education shouldn’t give you the right to examine and grade our students, and I’m going to tell them so. We’re an independent country, not a colony!” With that, Ibber dashed off his signature on the grade sheet and stalked out of the room.

Jack wondered whether the local teacher was right. Had the examination been fair? Did theories of language learning developed in Centralese universities ignore the conditions under which the rural poor of countries like Perifistan had to study foreign languages? Why did Perif children have to speak Centralese anyway, when their universities taught in Perif? Was the school system turning a language from a medium of communication into a barrier against upward mobility? Were there groups in Perifistan that profited from the existence of this barrier and perhaps blocked efforts to dismantle it? Did a Centralese guest damage the people of Perifistan by judging their competence in his native language and blocking the path to educational advancement for those with inadequate skills in Centralese speech and listening? And could Jack really avoid complicity in an unjust system just by leaving the grading to the locals, as Ibber had suggested? Jack was never able to put these questions to rest, and every few years when some daydream would bring him back to Perifistan he would wish he knew what the teachers’ decision had done to the boy from the farm.