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?

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #3

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. 

16 december

Learning is change. I just wrote on a page of my new ‘Julien Leyre’ blog. As I did, I realizsd I learned a lot in the last five years – and as I learned, I changed.

I learned, at a very basic level, to operate entirely in English. I’m writing this piece in English now, and I’ve become more comfortable writing and thinking in English than French – although sometimes I miss the extreme clarity with which I wrote and understood French. I have changed, as a writer – but more fundamentally as a person – from being ‘Julien, francais’ to ‘Julien French-Australian’. The very pronunciation of my name changed, as I became ‘djoulian’.

Can people really change? It is a common philosophical question. Is character a given, determined through the mix of genetics and early childhood influences? Or are we plastic beings, engaged in a constant process of change and renewal? Based on my experience, in my case, the second seems to be true – my brain is now different, I have capacities I didn’t have – and I believe some fundamental assumptions about the world are no longer what they were ten years ago.

I changed language and nationalities, at the same time as I changed ‘profession’ and ‘cross-cultural identities’. I went from being a French linguist and writer to a French-Australian sinophile.

Asia – particularly China – entered my life at the same time as I moved to Australia. This change was, partly, the deliberate expansion of my own personal geography to integrate China – and of my linguistic understanding of the world to include Chinese. Then – or at the same time – came Spanish, through the reconnection with my mother, and a short trip to the Caribbean. And a growing interest for Africa, prompted partly through meetings in Australia. From a North-Atlantic mindset, I shifted to a global mindset. This was a change, too, in implicit perspective.

A large part of this change was the result of a deliberate attempt. I pushed myself to change – or pulled myself. I systematically walked through the streets of Melbourne. I spoke English and thought English. I looked at maps, exercised my worldview like you shift your eye focus at an optometrist’s. I wanted to become a ‘Pacific’ citizen. I wanted to become a sinophile Australian. I wanted to become a Melbourne writer. And I believe it’s happened. I have changed.

This change took a large amount of effort, energy, and time. Whether that was a waste, or the best decision I ever made, it’s too early to know. What I know is that, as a writer, I have developed maturity from this change. What I know is that, as a person, this change has also made me more mature.

What I tend to forget though, is that not everyone has undergone such a massive experience of deliberate change in the middle of their lives. We generally grow up, and change as we do, but then start taking a shape in our early twenties, and don’t vary too much from it. I have had a very long period of growth, experimentation, and taking shape. Or maybe, I have just retained high plasticity, because I enjoy it.

There is something deeply exhilarating about the possibility to change as I have. To be now in Nanjing, under a red quilt, enjoying the warm-ish air blown from my aircon, having come back from a day-trip to Shanghai – on Australian government money – when ten years ago, I didn’t know the first thing about Australia, Nanjing or Shanghai: that’s a bit of a change, and a happy one. I achieved a lot in these last five years – an exhibition, a film, a language, an apartment, a charity, three blogs, a new public profile, many friends, happy memories. I did things in my early thirties, even as I changed.

Soon another major change will take place: I will officially speak, understand, read and write Chinese. Not very well, maybe, but enough that I can take a book off the shelf, and follow it – or write an email to someone, and convey the information I need – or engage in a conversation pretty much anywhere. Europeans call that a B2 level. Fluency threshold. I am no longer a real ‘Chinese learner’. I no longer need vocabulary books, vocabulary lists, or grammar books. I have one more exam to pass, next year in September, maybe – HSK 6 – to seal it off. But I can basically start reading my own books, blogs, or conversation threads. Study days are over for Chinese. I’m now enjoying it. This big part of my life has become a proper source of joy – even as I keep progressing. And that’s so much more energy for the rest. Just as happened when English became no longer a drain, but something I was 100% confident operating in. Things are getting easier. And I’ve done so much, while I learned, and changed. I can just rely on some of that impetus in the coming years – and see what I can bring to life, if I’m changing less.

A paradox of language learning

Communicating in a foreign language is a difficult task. This is an emotional difficulty – fear of social embarrassment – and a cognitive difficulty – mental exhaustion. Both are largely tied to the high level of ambiguity that characterises exchanges between second language and native speakers.

To succeed, it is crucial for learners to build resilience in situations of high ambiguity. However, most language learning models focus on increasing fluency – how to understand and communicate better – rather than increasing the capacity to cope with ambiguous settings. In other words, education is focused on teaching students how to fail less often in their communicative and interpretive efforts; learning how to better deal with failure is only incidental.

What if we reverted this proposition, and designed language learning activities optimised for dealing with communicative failure, with particular attention to the emotional dimensions of the experience? This is what much of my work with Marco Polo Project was guided by!

On work

What is work? We’re now using this verb/noun to describe all sorts of activities. But where exactly does ‘work’ start, and where does it ‘end’? As we look closer, the boundaries blur.

For some of us, work occurs in a fixed period of time – 9-to-5, or the duration of a shift. But even so, reading emails on the tram, filing administrative papers, is that not work? And if we move a step further, what about cleaning the house or buying groceries? Some people do that as ‘work’, for others; and when we clean our own bathroom, or fill our own fridge, is it suddenly no longer ‘work’?

But as the category grows in all directions, holes appear at the core. The pauses of course – lunch, coffee, toilet; social media, personal emails – they occur at work, but are they ‘work’? What about those extra ten, twenty, thirty seconds or more we give a fleeting thought or feeling between tasks – is that ‘work’? And leisurely peeling carrots with pleasant music on, or a stroll to the market with a loved one – is that ‘work’?

We define ourselves largely by ‘what we do’ – by ‘work’. Yet ‘work’ is more elusive than we like to think, more diffuse, more diverse. And the more independent and creative our activities are, the more boundaries blur.

Maybe we need a new vocabulary to better capture the complex interplay between our activities, the value we create and the communities we form. One, maybe, that would better capture the oscillating nature of work and rest, the constant breathing involved in all continuous human activity.

Now articulating this, would that be work? Is research or study work? And as I write this, am I working?

On rituals

There is a particular pleasure to rituals, whether inherited, or made up. Such is – for me – the January 1 action movie that I watch with Philip on DVD, as we finish a slow day, started late, purging the excesses of New Year’s Eve. This year, it was Ant-man.

To talk of celebrating a ritual, the Chinese say ‘过节’. The character 过 refers to the physical act of crossing a river or a road,  but is also used as a grammatical particle to mark a form of the past tense, equivalent to the English past perfect – I have been, I have gone.节 refers both to a festival, and a joint. Celebrating festivals is therefore represented as crossing an articulation in the skeleton of time, and transforming a past period into an experience. Rituals accompany this transformation.

2015 has become our past. By celebrating New Year, and accomplishing the rituals that accompany the celebration, we make it history, converting the loose threads of remembered moments, images and sounds into patterns of meaning and causality. We cross the border, and move onto the next segment of our articulated lives, 2016, January, the new cycle.

And so the wheel turns, rituals marking each of its spoke: Australia Day, Easter, Bastille Day, August 15, Halloween, Christmas – celebrations we share – and our own personal ones: birthdays, anniversaries. Cyclically repeating, every year.

In Australia, as in France, it is common to make resolutions with each new start of the cycle – committing to doing one thing at least differently. Not so that our lives will spin into a different groove; but so that our spiral may go both higher,  and deeper.

That’s fine

We all have our linguistic pet hates. I have written before about my thoughts on ‘busy‘ people. Now I’d like to share my feelings about  ‘that’s fine’.

When you tell somebody that, no, you won’t do some extra favour they asked for, and they reply ‘that’s fine’, as if you were somehow holding on for their permission before exercising your freedom to refuse.

When somebody asks to meet you at the last minute, you say you’ve got other plans already, and they reply ‘that’s fine’, as if you somehow owed it to them to be constantly available, but they granted you permission for this one time to honour previous arrangements.

When you’ve been struggling with a piece of work or an assignment, as other responsibilities have come piling up, you tell your colleague or boss that you might need to reconsider scope or deadlines because you can’t really see yourself finishing the task to the level expected within the delays expected, and offer a clear, workable alternative that will not compromise the whole edifice – and they reply ‘that’s fine’, with no further word of support or encouragement – superbly granting you their blessing for that solution you found.

Please, find something else to say. Please don’t ‘that’s fine’ me.

Project Gutenberg

My first real encounter with the internet as a revolutionary publication tool happened when I was in high school, during a history class. My teacher was a specialist of religious history, trained in Latin and Greek, and was telling us how important the internet could be for the future of classics, that in America, universities were digitalising the whole Greek and Latin corpus – and how it would, or could, save these texts from oblivion. I also remember a name  ‘Project Gutenberg

Later, in my undergraduate years, when I was studying English, philosophy and classics, I often went to the project gutenberg page, looking for originals of Plato, Aeschylus, Aristotle. Or the Bible. At the ecole Normale, where I was studying, the Department most thrilled by the internet, apart from IT, was Classics. A guy in my year had written a programme that automatically generated Latin verse. Others were doing revolutionary research on the history of concepts, searching all occurrences of a word from Homer to

Whenever I hear one of these trite debates about the internet, and how writers should get paid for the content they create, I think back on these formative encounters, and doubt. The internet started as a wonderful library, gathering the memory of the world. A new Alexandria. For me, it started as a multilingual utopia, where the memory of the world all came to the one place, and was accessible at one click. The internet meant I didn’t have to go to that annoying woman in the library – or spend a lot of money – to read some obscure Greek poem about volcanoes erupting; or erotic Latin verse.

I haven’t read Greek or Latin for a while, but my relationship to the internet has been forever coloured by this early vision. It is a repository for the world’s memory. I know it’s very 1.0. I know we’ve had facebook, and twitter, and youtube, since. But I think, in a weird form of dialectics, that 3.0 will take us back to that initial vision of Project Gutenberg. Wikipedia is already there: a huge semantic web, accessible in multiple languages, that aggregates all the knowledge of the world. A super-memory, with hyperlinks connecting parts in unsuspected, surprising ways. And your web identity’s nothing more than the sum of links you aggregate?