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Foreign Languages & Human Rights: Ways To Get Involved

Today, 10th of December, is Human Rights Day. What can language learners and teachers do to really celebrate it properly?

And why does it even matter?

Introduction: Human Rights Are Your Problem

You wouldn’t like me when I’m getting all political. Part of the problem is that I’m just good at this – my university was quite a forward-thinking one, and politics has always been on the agenda.

If I got political in your presence today, I would tell you that human rights are your problem, even if you’re fortunate enough to live in a “civilised,” law-abiding place. The world got a lot more connected recently; this means that whatever happens globally, may influence you on a local level. But this also means that your local actions may, through this connected nature of today’s civilisation, acquire global importance.

Today, though, I will try to rein myself in. I won’t get too political. Rather than going on about cases in which human rights are broken (you could probably see a lot of this on my Twitter feed today, anyway), I’m going to give you some easy solutions and answers.

The problem – and the question – for these is simple:

How can language teachers and learners actually, and meaningfully, get involved in human rights? Not just today, but whenever they can and want to?

These easy and useful solutions work with most languages, so pick your favourites and try to make a contribution!

[toggle title=”Language Learners: Use Your Skills For Good“]

 1. Listen Up: One of the best ways to improve your listening skills is to listen to news in the language you’re learning. This gives you access to listening material that is relevant and recent. Whilst listening, don’t forget to think critically; it’s OK to question and doubt things you hear, and it’s mostly a good idea to check the facts. This lets you engage with the listening text even more – which leads us to:

2. Read Up: A single point of view is a serious handicap in today’s reality. If you hear a controversial statement – check your facts, and look it up. By doing this in a foreign language, you’re improving your skills vastly – and by choosing a topic you feel deeply about, you can rely on strong and constant motivation.

3. Write Up: This is when you fell confident enough to actually produce something. Perfection is not always necessary here. What counts is the fact that you’re actually contributing to the conversation. Amnesty International has for a long time pioneered the movement of writing letters in defence of human rights across the world. There are many other causes which need letter writers, supporters, campaigners and translators. This is your chance to use your language skills for the cause you believe in. People will forgive you your typos and inaccuracies, but would you be OK with yourself and your inaction?

4. Speak Up: If you’ve followed the process so far, you will have worked a great deal on a human rights cause of your choice. You will have gained a lot of confidence, information and contacts. The last step is the hardest, but also incredibly rewarding. This is when you no longer fear to engage in difficult conversations and arguments. This is when you feel strong enough to interpret between two languages for your cause – or to record a speech on video – or to travel and promote human rights in face-to-face conversations (as a volunteer, for example). Just imagine being able to do this in two languages![/toggle]


[toggle title=”Language Teachers: A Four-Step Guide to An Involved Classroom“]

1. Go Slow: Here’s a recipe for a failed human-rights-oriented project: spend 90 minutes of every single lesson bombarding your learners with data, videos and pamphlets. Even the most worthy cause can suffer from “overkill.” Recognise this early. If you’ve got an idea, that’s great – but you’ve got to “sell” it to your students. They won’t go anywhere if you introduce the human rights subjects a little at a time – but they will complain if this becomes your obsession.

2. Respect & Objectivity: It’s hard to find an issue that’s completely “black or white” when it comes to human rights. I may, for example, feel strongly about the rights of women in Saudi Arabia – but a conversation with my Saudi clients – both male and female – will have to take into account their points of view, cultural roots and beliefs. I may be willing to teach a foreign language through the topic of human rights -but this also means that I must be ready to learn a lot!

3. Don’t Go It Alone: Invite speakers. Show video presentations. Take your learners out to events and meetings. Take every opportunity to bring an outsider’s point of view into the classroom. It’s easy for a disaffected student to “switch off” when a debate turns to human rights – so don’t make it even easier! Introduce variety along with your cause, and you will have their attention.

4. Present Actionable Solutions: Even the most captivating lesson on human rights will be wasted if you don’t encourage your learners to do something about it. If you’re reading about human rights problems in a country, have them write a class email and send it off. If you’ve been watching a video of a talk at a conference, ask students to prepare a video response and upload it toYouTube. This, after all, is a language lesson: waste this chance, and the students will not see the point of paying attention again. Follow up with actions – and you will have a group of engaged, involved language learners.

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Human Rights – Useful Resources

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Do you have any more (learning or teaching) ideas for Human Rights Day? I’d love to read about them in the comments!


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