Learning a Universal Language

Angry Talk (Comic Style)
Image via Wikipedia

I just learned a new language.

I used to run a British pub in New York City where we used to joke that we spoke about a dozen languages: American English, British English, Irish English, Australian English, Singapore English, Nigerian English, Indian English, Scottish English, Welsh English, South African English, Canadian English and Spanish.

I’m not yet fluent in my new language, but I’m learning it very quickly, probably because I am exposed to it so frequently.

New York City is the world’s most linguistically diverse place and this language is all around here, but I bet it is in your town, too. It’s probably in your school, maybe even in your classroom.

It was in my library today.

What language is so pervasive that it is common in New York City and Little Rock, Arkansas; in Omaha, Nebraska, in Adelaide, Australia and anywhere else there are enough people to have a middle or high school?

The language of anger.

Angry Sphynx
Image via Wikipedia

Anger a language? You bet!

Everything anyone does, wears, doesn’t do or doesn’t wear is a form of communication, a language.

Today some kids communicated by pulling a whole bunch of books off the shelves of my library and scattering them around the room. I wasn’t there at the time, but when I came back I understood their language right away.

Those kids were speaking anger, much more a universal language than Esperanto could ever be.

What were those kids angry about? I can only guess; being in school when they don’t want to be, being in the library with a rookie teacher from a different academy (we have seven in our school) who was covering the class for an absent colleague; and, likely, some stuff happening at home or elsewhere outside of school.

Everyone connected with school these days seems to have plenty to be angry about.

Teachers are angry about budget cuts, standardized tests, and people with no educational background criticizing their job performance and telling them how to do their jobs better.

Principals are angry that their jobs depend on raising test scores for all, but raising them for the most challenging students at a faster rate despite uncontrollable external factors including poverty and budget cuts.

Students are angry because their school building looks and feels like a prison, compliance is the response expected, and everyone they come into contact with in school is focused on short-term results.

By the way, many experts say the focus on short-term profit making was one of the major factors behind the recent economic collapse. If that is true, the current focus on short-term educational success will likely lead to a collapse in our field, too.

It’s just one more thing to be angry about.

Anger Is the Swiss Army Knife of Emotions T-shirt
Image by Mike Monteiro via Flickr

Or is that the opportunity we’ve all be looking for to make some real changes in how school is done?

That’s what anger is, an opportunity to make changes.

It is not easy to change things even slightly, much less radically, when everyone’s happy.

But when everyone is angry the door is wide open.

The question is, will we take advantage of the anger or spend our energy trying to repress it?

I’m angry about the probable answer to that.

You should be, too.

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5 Responses to Learning a Universal Language

  1. Brian Barker says:

    Can I ask why you wish to denigrate Esperanto ?

    During a short period of 123 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of Google, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook.

    Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include financier George Soros, World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

    Your readers may be interested in the following video. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

  2. Chris says:

    If we do not spend our resources (time, money, energy) attempting to harness and direct our anger toward growth, we will likely be very sorry.

  3. Mary Beth Hertz says:


    This post really hits home for me, as I’m sure it does many urban educators. I find myself teaching my students simply how to speak to each other without yelling and how saying things in a certain tone can change the meaning of what you are saying.

    My students live and breathe anger and aggression every day. It is my hope to model and teach them a different language to use when communicating with each other.

    However, as you suggest, we need to harness that anger and turn it into productive change.

    • Deven Black says:

      I am fully convinced that our students act out the way they do because they don’t have the vocabulary to express their feelings adequately with words and they feel like no one is listening anyway. I don’t think this anger, the lack of vocabulary and the feeling that no one is listening is limited to urban situations. Look at all the shootings at suburban and semi-rural schools, look at the vandalism that occurs in almost any middle or high school anywhere and you see the same feelings expressed in equally dramatic fashion as occurred in my library.

  4. I think I was fortunate to be able to help students learn the language to express anger. Of course, teaching to the tests – which is demanded, doesn’t help the situation, but I tried to create as many gradable alternatives as possible, from ‘mock trials’ to standard papers – I was surprised how the ‘problem students’ took so much effort to use clips of the ‘godfather’ mixed with Macbeth to advocate for an insanity plea. Also, we used to regularly pound on the wall next door to annoy the class there. And do Dr. Suess poetry readings which made the floor shake (apparently the difference between high school and junior high is the foot stomping, I was told by a high schooler – Sam I am!).

    Seriously, I do not envy a teacher, who is the one place so many children leading lives without choice or power have to speak out, even if it is acting out.

    I like your picture, it looks like a gargoyle, but might be a cat.

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