One oddity that’s been fascinating me, is that in pretty much every educational system in every country, the teaching of languages has been centered on grammar.
That’s interesting, because out of every possible way there is of acquiring a new language, in my experience grammar is the least efficient. My method of choice (one among quite a few possibilities) consists in memorizing lots of simple sentences containing frequently used words, which provides me with in-context (and thus reusable) vocabulary. There are even tools out there to help you do that near-optimally. Turns out that about 3000 sentences (representing as many words), plus a lot of hours of oral and written practice are enough to give you a surprisingly strong conversational ability. And that’s merely a “15-minutes per day over one year” formula. It does work: I just did that with Japanese and I am now happily working in Japan. I also did 9 years of German grammar at school when I was younger, to utterly no avail.
So why teach grammar of all things? Why this universal and systematical focus on what works least, on what is the worst at serving the purpose of teaching —providing students with actual skills? From an evolutionary point of view, the reason as I see it is simple. Turns out the system is not better off if students walk out mastering a language or not. The system is better off if it makes life easier for the people implementing it —the teachers and students. At the end of the day, grammar is what is most adapted to the “one-teacher in front of a bunch of students” model. By far. Grammar is the part of a language that can be “explained” in a professor-to-student interaction. In real life you don’t need a teacher to learn a language the efficient way —you need an Internet app, and some native pals to practice your skills with. But in the classroom, grammar is the way of least friction.
But this seemingly absurd disconnection doesn’t stop to language teaching.
If you look out there, so many things have followed the same path —spontaneously evolving not toward better serving their Purpose but toward better serving their working mechanism, their Engine. That’s the way of Darwinism: the fitness function of any system is set by what implements it, by what is responsible for bringing the system to life. Politics serves the interest of politicians and the system. The evolution of a species serves its survival and spread —the Engine behind the very existence of the species.
So many things have followed the same path —spontaneously evolving not toward better serving their Purpose but toward better serving their working mechanism, their Engine.
The only way for a human-made system to work properly is for the two —the purpose and the fitness function, the “engine”— to be correlated. In economics, a working version of capitalism would do a pretty good job at that. Take consumer tech, for instance: its innovations serves sales and only sales —the interest of the people who are working in consumer tech. But sales are strongly correlated to how the products serve the interest of the consumers, so the system ends up evolving toward better consumer satisfaction. Which was its initial “purpose”, as seen from a wider perspective. All that matters is to preserve and develop this correlation between sales and consumer satisfaction, between Engine and Purpose… sadly, most regulations seem to work towards the opposite.
Now, what about the next paradigm in human evolution, the Internet? What is its Purpose, and what is its Engine?
The beauty of the thing is that both are up to us. We stand at this special edge of History where we are free to set a Purpose, and build the Engine accordingly.
It starts with a choice.