This is the final post in a four part series discussing why the approach to language learning should not be reduced to grammar rules and vocabulary words as is so often the case. I believe that when people choose a language to learn, they are not so much seeking a meaning of language as much as they are an experience of language. I think that experience of language is best transmitted through the cultural context that language arises from. The ultimate question then, is how do we go about ensuring that culture is included and woven into the language learning experience?
Culture is adhesive in nature. It sticks to our souls. It is what binds us to other members of our country. This is why there is a sense of pride and solidarity when you see a member of your country’s Olympic team win a gold medal and hear the national anthem. Likewise, have you ever noticed how great teachers have an adhesive quality to them? They have a way of binding the interests of the student to what they are learning not due to the efficiency at which they disseminate information but due to the colorful and passionate way in which they do it. The great language teachers are great ambassadors of their native cultures. Mediocre teachers don’t have this special quality. They simply view teaching as a technical skill that is based largely on techniques and pedagogy. Teaching language is merely a vocation for them. Great teachers aren’t doing a job. They’re expressing their passion. As such, the great language teachers bring color to their craft by using their imagination to drive their lessons. They connect their students to their culture.
This is why finding the right teachers for my language organization, Premiere English, is of such critical importance. This undertaking is not simply a function of looking at a resume and seeing if someone has the language teaching experience. Of course, experience is important but what is arguably more important is meeting this person and having an authentic experience with this person. I want to see if this person has that special adhesive quality that great teachers always have. What kind of energy and spirit does this person have? Would I want to be this person’s student? I look for that tiny minority who have that spark in their eyes and a dynamic spirit that is palpable. A great teacher will bring the spirit of connection to a classroom environment. They are people who are connected to others, their culture, other cultures, and life. They are the type of people who germinate a connection with the learning process in their students and once that happens, it’s nothing short of magic. Great language teachers are able to connect students to the language learning process because they themselves are connected to the cultural milieu that influences those students. Great language teachers are very often teachers who have lived and taught abroad. Moreover, they are people who loved the experience of being immersed in a foreign culture and language. They are xenophilic rather than being xenophobic. They often times love traveling and have a natural affinity for developing friendships with foreigners.
These experiences and affinities for foreign culture and people deeply inform a language teacher’s approach to teaching language in a profoundly positive and imaginative way. Such teachers create an organic learning environment that mirrors the way life happens. In the real world, communication is not the exclusive domain of books. It is unpredictable and a great teacher brings imagination to the learning process so that students learn in an environment that isn’t passive but is active, kinetic, and engaging. I believe a language learning environment should be more like a cooking class where you are actually playing with real ingredients and trying to prepare a real meal versus being handed a recipe and just reading about how to prepare a meal. It’s much more interesting to learn kinetically rather than theoretically. Language classes should be about praxis and not theory. Great language teachers know how to re-purpose theory as praxis and that makes all the difference in the world.
So is learning a language more like a shake or a meal? I passionately believe it is the latter. Language learning environments should be kinetic, imaginative spaces where students can marinate in the cultural dynamics that feed a language. Such an atmosphere whets the appetite of desire in the student which in turn engenders a sustainable learning process. No one can return week after week to a classroom environment that has all of the appeal of a bland meal replacement shake. But they will excitedly return to a learning experience week after week that is the equivalent of a finely prepared meal. There is a type of wonderful aroma that is associated with a great learning experience that keeps bringing us back to the table time and time again. Can you smell it? I can.