Three challenges of language learning

Language learners face three very distinct pedagogical challenges. Each demands very distinct pedagogical approaches. Yet most language courses tend not to distinguish them.

The first challenge is to learn the morphosyntax, vocabulary, phonetics and pragmatics of a specific language. For instance, learning French, I need to learn that the word for ‘grapefruit’ is ‘pamplemousse’, I need to master the phonetic realisation of French nasal sounds to pronounce (and recognise) the first syllable, learn about gender in nouns to use the word in a sentence (by the way, grapefruit is a boy). I also need to learn common ways to communicate intent through grammar and intonation, for instance, the word ‘pamplemousse’ used alone with a rising tone on the last syllable to mark surprise when someone is about to throw pieces of grapefuit into the bowl of punch – and stop their heresy.

The second challenge is learning to communicate in a language you do not fully master. This is a very distinct difficulty, which more generally ties on our capacity to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. Low levels of linguistic mastery bring chaos in their wake. My phonetics are off, my vocabulary patchy, people misunderstand the words I’m using, or they must focus hard, and miss on other cues. I misunderstand their words and intention, my response is off, and after three cues, we’re both knee-deep in quicksands. This is exhausting cognitively, and emotionally draining. Survival requires personal resilience and self-awareness, but also the capacity to get help from strangers, and trigger their benevolence.

Finally, there is the challenge of incorporating the new language to your identity, and enacting a persona consistent with your own in the new medium. This is more than expressing meaning adequately, or attuning emotionally with a Frenchman: it’s about being ‘you’. More specifically, it’s about being ‘you’ as a wriggling, helpless linguistic larvae, stumbling on consonants and stifling on vowels. It’s ‘you’ desperately trying to keep the ‘pamplemousse’ off the punch, yet only producing meaningless foam (in French, ‘mousse’). It’s your adult self trapped in the linguistic body of a 2 year old, or worse. It’s you defining your relationship to smelly cheese, and politeness codes expressed in pronoun choices, and adapting your body language to the next context.

Incidentally, those are the very same challenges a new staff member faces when joining an organisation. Learn the jargon, master local norms of communication, and expand their persona to the new context. And so, if we were to do language learning right, just imagine the value for culture building across the board, from community groups to start-ups and large corporates. Oh but wait, I forgot, is ‘pamplemousse’ a boy or girl?

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