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?

On speaking up

Today, I took part in a Hackathon organised by the Red Cross. Our goal was to come up with new creative solutions to improve social cohesion and integrate new migrants. I was part of a diverse team: a doctor from Pakistan, a basketball champion from Iran, a logistics expert from Congo – and a young Australian woman working for the Red Cross.

When working with diverse groups, particularly when English is not everybody’s first language, I’m very sensitive to conversation patterns: are all voices being heard, or do some people speak more than others? Generally, my tactic – and personal preference – is to sit back and listen, leaving more verbal space for others. If I am in a good position to do so, I try to encourage the more silent people with warm looks and smiles, or if I sense that they might want to contribute, try asking them a question.

Not everybody does that. Today, I noted an increasingly awkward dynamic develop in our team. The young Australian woman was a manifest extravert, and articulated all her thought processes aloud, thereby quickly dominating the conversational space. She might have been aware – she pulled anxious frowns, and seemed to call for help with her eyes, meanwhile piling up sentence after sentence. Not with much success. Our Iranian team-mate sat back, arms crossed.

An observer from the Hackathon core team came and sat with us for a while. When she left, she tapped on the shoulder of our African friend – all the time she was here, he had not spoken a word. ‘You should speak up,’ she said in half-voice, ‘I’m sure you’ve got a lot to contribute.’ This is often how we like to frame the situation. If in a group, some voices are not heard, well-meaning observers will encourage them to ‘speak up’. Much more rarely, if ever, will they turn to the local extravert, tap them on the shoulder, and say in half-voice, ‘you should shut up, I’m sure others have got a lot to contribute.’