Fighting Illiteracy of the Heart

by Howell J. Malham Jr.


We all know the obvious reasons kids in America are expected to learn a foreign language: more job opportunities, fatter salaries, higher ACT scores.

In school systems that are primarily interested in developing Adam Smith's idea of human capital, it's hard to argue with those benefits, especially in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

But foreign language teachers in schools that are interested in bucking those lingering norms, and focusing instead on the development and formation of human beings not human capital, are seeing another value to learning Spanish, French, German or Mandarin: it doesn't just teach the mind.

It teaches the heart…

When the Dalai Lama calls, you answer. And that's exactly what happened a few years ago when Victor Chan, the man who co-founded with his holiness the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education in Vancouver, called us quite literally out of the blue. He wanted to know if we would be willing to design a new suite of tools to teach empathy in public schools. His holiness has long believed that social and emotional skills not only benefit students in many practical ways, they can in fact be one of the keys to our survival as a species.

We said "yes". How could we refuse?

In partnership with UX for Good, we headed to Vancouver with an international team of designers to uncover the best, most practical ways for teachers to teach empathy to school children: something we had hoped would point the way to a new model for this kind of curriculum in school systems all over the Western Hemisphere to combat what I call an illiteracy of the heart— a universal factor in problems that involve human beings, and that demand smart, imaginative and empathetic human beings to solve them.

Empathy is a language unto itself. And, sadly, so many of us still haven't learned to read, write or speak it.

A general appreciation of another culture— and being able to order room service in another language while on vacation— doesn't always translate to empathy.

One of the final concepts to emerge from our work in Vancouver was known at its inception as the Heart-Shaped Tool Box. A version of it now lives on The Center’s website as Heart and Mind Online, a robust collection of resources that builds “capacity in individuals and communities to support the Heart-Mind well-being of children, and promote the development of competencies related to their social and emotional development.”

We know something now, however, that we didn’t know then: One of the shortest, surest paths to empathy is through foreign languages — courses that have long been a part of school curricula, but for very different reasons.

Adam Smith's reasons, not the Dalai Lama's.

There's an intuitive component here: by learning a cross cultural competency, one cannot help but begin to appreciate how people in different countries see the world— an appreciation that comes from learning and understanding the words those individuals use to describe their world, which is also our world.

A general appreciation of another culture— and being able to order room service in another language while on vacation— doesn't always translate to empathy.

That conversion, as one foreign language teacher told us recently, mainly occurs when it comes to engaging with what we now consider "trigger" words: “fat,” “skinny,” “stupid,” “ugly,” “poor.”

Foreign language textbooks still include these kinds of descriptive adjectives, which we know can wreak emotional havoc on children of all ages; sometimes, they are the first words one learns, though not always in a classroom.

As social norms evolve, and our collective social EQ increases, new conversations about those words and how— and if— they should be used in any language to describe another human being are now part of the lesson in some foreign language classrooms.

While students in those classes are not banned from learning these words, they are increasingly encouraged to explore the intentions and reasons for using them. And not using them: When they are role playing with one another in a foreign language exercise, for example, and when interacting in other classes, or even their own homes, in their native tongues.

By challenging superficial ways to describe a person, some teachers are now helping students to see one another, and themselves, in a different light: as multifaceted humans who can be thought of in ways that go beyond those magazine cover conventions of Photoshopped “beauty,” weight or tax brackets.

Further, as foreign language teachers impose what we call a Limit— describing others without using “trigger” words— students are learning to think imaginatively, creatively: the way designers and innovators think, and must think, in a world that is in dire need of problem solvers of all ilks, and who can work with a variety of complex constraints.

In the process, those teachers who continue to unlock the hidden value of foreign languages will soon be recognized for what the best of them really are: social innovators. :: :: ::