Language love needs a community

Make language practical and find a community!
Make language practical and find a community!

Why do students complete four years of language class in the US and come out unable to carry on a conversation? Yet four months immersed in another country will make the language light bulb come on?

How can we say in our country that learning a language is important, yet English is the only language valued in schools that work to assimilate students of various cultures?

The answers are connected. We do not value non-English speaking communities–immersion without leaving home. As a result, we do not engage them. Language classes convey impractical, abstract information, when they are not linked to native speakers. Only when we value the marginalized communities of non-English speakers, will Americans begin to learn languages quickly and effectively.

Languages in school largely convey an abstract set of information, like physics. (See, “Anyone can learn a language, but not always in a classroom.”) Physics isn’t always abstract, but it usually is. Occasionally in physics, you find a nugget that intersects with regular life; for example, if you want to keep drinks in a cooler cold, put the ice at the top rather than the bottom, because cold air is denser than warm. Plotting velocity on a graph, however, will always stay abstract, except maybe if you’re an aerospace engineer.

In most US language classes, you might learn a little practical nugget about English grammar or an exotic cultural tidbit, but “Can I get a reservation?” in any language but English will not be necessary in 90% of foreign hotels because they speak fine English. (I think the most practical thing to learn in any foreign language is, “Go away!” That way we can be assertive in situations where we feel uncomfortable. But when do you actually get to hear that in class?)

We created this situation because we forced all languages but English to the margins. If we hadn’t done so as a society and forced English as the only language, Yiddish and Italian would not be isolated to small neighborhoods of Queens and Downtown Manhattan, but would be a part of any New Yorker’s natural multilingualism. (See, “To be American is to be multilingual.”)

This shift to irrelevance is happening before our eyes in other parts of the country. My friend’s son studied Spanish in high school in Colorado, but the scores of native Spanish-speakers in the hall played no part in his education. The practical part of language didn’t fit into the curriculum. (Besides, those kids in the hall are supposed to speak English, right?) (See, “International students in middle school: Marginal or model?”)

When you learn a language spoken by those around you, none of it is abstract, because the language relates in an immediate way. This is the benefit of immersion, and why, in many ways, focusing on a language spoken in your town will work better than one spoken 1000s of miles away. Anyone who has moved from a classroom to a community that uses a language saw their own brain light up. “Oh my goodness! I just heard someone use a subjunctive!” “Wait! That word I just heard–I remember getting that wrong on a quiz! What does that mean again?” The language only engages in the community.

Hence for any language class to produce results, it must immerse students by plugging into a community. Nothing is stopping you. Teachers can find communities in many ways, thanks to modern technology:

  1. Native speakers of the language in the school and their families;
  2. Communities within the areas near the school;
  3. Remote communities accessed via videoconference or other means.

If we want Americans to learn languages, we have to go to those communities, and we find them in the margins. While our culture forced to the margins the only ones who can really teach us foreign languages, we have to enter into that space if we want anyone to learn a language. (See, “An organization teaching community languages,” and, “Community Languages in Schools.“)

The language communities we forced to the margins provide the context for us to learn a language. We must not only value these communities, but seek them out and interact with them intentionally.

What communities do you engage in your language learning?

Photo credit: Swamibu / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

18 thoughts on “Language love needs a community

  1. Rachel

    Yeah, this is why I’ve persued my high school languages in almost the most unconventional way possible. They conventional way, of course, being an English-speaking classroom in an English-speaking school, trying (and failing) to teach another language and get the kids to speak it. I started that way, but when I left (not entirely intentionally), I’ve never looked back. Being in a German-speaking classroom in a German-speaking school, even if it’s only one day a week, gave me a swift kick into improving my German. I’m still not great with vocab for household situations, but good golly can I function in a school! Spending two weeks in Spain in a Spanish-only class/school for foreigners sent my Spanish to a level I was theoretically only meant to attain after 5 years (the average length of high school here), but I covered 3-4 years’ worth of classroom work in those two weeks. Short of subjects to finish school this year, I’m now back at the alliance, learning French in a little slice of France in a house in suburban Adelaide – no English past these doors. My Gaelic classes have amazed me in that, despite being on the phone, my ability has grown in leaps and bounds. From the moment I phone in, I have to use just Gaelic – from the telephone operator connecting me to my lesson, right until I hang up. If I have a question, I’ve got to ask it in Gaelic. And this is on the phone! If classrooms functioned like this, imagine how students would progress!

    The German school has connected me to a community and friends I’d never have had otherwise, and I’ve spoken the language in situations I never would have had a stayed in a conventional German classroom at a conventional English-speaking high school. At Pause, we played scrabble and catacombes in German, and it’s given me the confidence to use the language with my friends outside of school. Learning a language in a situation where it’s accepted that the target language is the primary language gives opportunity to use it in ways – useful ways – that you don’t where English is the primary language. Pass the stapler? May I go to the loo? Ooh, what have you got for lunch?

    I recently had to go back to a normal school class for French, and it was horrible. I can’t imagine how someone can really learn in that environment, or speak the language for anything other than pre-assigned grammar exercises. I spent ten weeks there before winning my place at the alliance, and I hope never to go back to such a situation. Now I just wish, like you, that every school would treat language-learning this way, not just specialist schools.

    Liked by 1 person

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