Does learning a language have to be boring?
I once knew of a young guy in his mid-twenties who was a former college baseball pitcher. He was obsessed with being fit and was always working out. As an outgrowth of his obsession with being fit, he eventually came to the conclusion that what was most efficient and convenient for him diet-wise was to treat the necessity of eating more as a problem to be solved rather than something to be enjoyed. In his final analysis, he concluded that not only was cooking a waste of time, but eating in general was a waste of time. Why, he reasoned, should one waste his time eating when science had evolved to a place where there existed an abundant supply of meal replacement shakes that were precisely formulated with all of the nutrients the body needs to function physiologically? Not only was it more efficient but it was much more convenient. I suppose my question is, do we really want to reduce eating to being nothing more than nutrient intake?
I am a foodie and an epicurean in that I truly love food. Eating great food is almost a therapeutic experience for me. I enjoy not only the eating aspect of it but I love preparing and cooking it. I love the subtlety of flavors and textures that come with not only the immense variety of food but the innumerable ways it can be prepared. To subsist on a diet of shakes is unfathomable to me. Subsisting on not merely shakes, but any type of ‘diet’ based form of eating transforms our relationship with food from one that is incredibly substantive and deeply enjoyable into something that quite the opposite. Our relationship with food has devolved into something that is decidedly unenjoyable, unsustainable, and outright combative in some cases.
Tasteless language teaching
I wonder if our relationship and typical experience with learning language has perhaps de-evolved in a similar fashion. It’s very interesting to me to observe what seems to have become a really common approach to teaching language. Many teach it from the premise of reducing language down to being just a collection of dry grammar rules and vocabulary words. As a result, the language student’s experience learning language is often incredibly dry, tasteless, and unstimulating in terms of both the standard classroom experience and even more so with the proliferation of computer-based language learning platforms like Rosetta Stone. The reality is that language is much more than a collection of words and grammar rules. It is tethered to a culture and culture is the collective expression of a group of people. Language is that binding agent by which we can connect to one another and connecting to each other is an innate drive within all of us.
Reducing eating to being nothing more than a problem in need of a solution essentially strips the joy out of eating. It takes something that should be a special time to commune with our food and dismisses it as nothing more than a nuisance to be avoided. In like manner, by stripping cultural context out of the language learning process, we are arguably removing the joy and the life essence out of the learning experience. What is the difference between a person and a corpse? The breath. If a person has no breath, he has no life. He is a corpse. If language has no cultural reference, it has no life—no breath. It is dead.
Culture and language
I think in considering just how valuable and essential culture is to a language, I think we can simply consider what inspires someone 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 an authentic source of inspiration.
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 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? Not much really. The reality is that people likely do not 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.
In a future article, I’ll comment on what my observations are about how we can kineticize (to coin a new phrase) the idea of including cultural context in language learning. It’s one thing to say that culture should be included while it is another thing entirely to offer suggestion for how to do so.
This article first appeared on the ELT Global Blog.