In part one of this four part blog series, I talked about how trying to replace eating real food with scientifically formulated meal replacement shakes strips out the joy that is inherent in eating. Reducing eating to being nothing more than a problem in need of a solution is probably not wise. Likewise, reducing language learning to being nothing more than the memorization of a bunch of grammar rules and vocabulary words is also equally unwise. Language, I argued, is more than a collection of grammar rules and words. It is connected to culture which in turn is the collective expression of a group of people. How then, might this inform us in how to more effectively learn a language?
I think before we can answer that question, it is perhaps worthwhile for us to consider what it is that inspires one to want to learn a language to begin with. Of course, there are the legions of people who learn English because they feel it necessary to do so in order to create better career opportunities for themselves. While I dare not argue against such motivations, I also don’t feel that necessity is synonymous with inspiration and true desire. People rarely do anything well when they are doing so out of obligation. However, people can do things remarkably well when motivated out of a sense of genuine desire and inspiration. Over the 16 years I have taught ESL, the best students I have encountered were not necessarily those who had the highest IQ or aptitude but rather those who had the strongest desire. Therefore, I would like to, for the sake of argument, toss out necessity as being what I would consider the best motivator. I believe authentic desire is.
So why would someone WANT to learn a language? Usually, people choose to do things when they are caught by it. In the case of choosing a language to learn, most people don’t essentially throw a dart at a board and randomly select whatever language it lands on. Ironically, however, if you look at the way language is typically taught, you would probably conclude just that. Honestly, what would separate one collection of grammar rules and words from looking any more appealing than another collection of grammar rules and words? Nothing. The reality is that people do not often randomly choose a language to learn. Rather, they choose a culture to learn. Or to put it more accurately, they are caught by a culture. Why are French and Spanish among the most popular languages to learn? They are popular because people are fascinated and caught by the appeal of the cultures those languages represent. They are caught by the people those languages represent. They are caught by the customs those languages represent. They are caught by the food and the music those languages represent. No one is caught by a collection of grammar rules and words.
Why then are most language learning experiences more like a shake than they are real food? Why are they so often not much more than educational pablum? In the next entry of this four part series, I’ll delve into specific ways in which students can find a language learning experience that is more richly engaging—one that includes its natural cultural component in the learning process.