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How to Learn a Language and a Culture

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Philosophy of Language/Culture Learning


General Approaches
Culture-Learning and Personality
Scheduling Learning Activities
Language, not Academics
Confidence with Experience
 

General Approaches

Language-culture learning should center around meeting people, developing friendships, earning a place in the society, and gaining acceptance by the local people. The newcomer has to slowly gain their confidence and show himself trustworthy to the local people.

Keep in mind the following basic approaches, which are addressed to the learner.

First, be seen in the community. Show yourself interested and avail able. (Do not stand aloof, do not be just a "tourist.")

Then, initiate contact. Cultivate a learner role. Put yourself in contact with the people and offer opportunities for the people to respond helpfully to you. (You must become vulnerable to some extent to be an active learner. But this elicits the help of the people.)

Cultivate the concept of managing encounters. The learner should learn phrases and texts which enable him/her to manage situations, expressing the role of learner, need for limited information, need for help, slower speech, repetition, etc. This will enable the learner to learn from normal people in normal situations creatively and productively for practice and help.

Cultivate some continuing contacts for growth in practice. There should be certain people to whom you return regularly for practice. Always add some new contacts, but return to those who can see your progress and encourage you, can be your resources for cultural and language help. Some will become good and lasting friends.

Continue to make new contacts to challenge yourself and to provide more unstructured practice and settings. Try to engage new contacts in an ordinary way, without specifically stating (at first) that you are a learner. This will enable you to expand your ability to communicate in an unplanned setting, as well as to continue to get help from certain people. (Cultivate the learner role with certain people, and try "normal encounters" with others.)

Develop your contacts in terms of your being a learner and their helping you, letting you practice with them. Distinguish between contacts for practice and those related to your job assignment. (Have some contacts who are justlanguage helpers or cultural informants.) Work to develop the critical skills of general communication.

Look for cultural insights on certain topics (1) As they come up in conversation or (2) As you feel a relationship enables you to request help from people on items you want to learn about.

Remember this important principle:

"To learn the language" is too broad and indefinite a goal. Pick specific aspects of language to learn and master. Identify reachable goals by the week and month. If a certain skill or situation to handle is identified, it is easier to tell when that goal has been reached, when that assignment has been fulfilled.

A corollary principle is this:

Social skills accompany language skills--thus you cannot expect to learn the language perfectly in the classroom before trying it in the field, in the "real world."

Do not allow fear of failure to keep you from trying out each little bit of the language as it is introduced. This fear of failure is the most critical cause of failure in language learning. Perfectionists often create their own stumbling blocks by entertaining unrealistic expectations for themselves. They may then have to work harder than the slow but motivated learner, to reach those unattainable, or unrealistic, goals.

Language cannot be approached as a laboratory science or an academic subject. One cannot learn the language without using it at every stage in learning. The community must be the laboratory. If one avoids the risk of failure, one also forfeits the possibility of reward.
 

Culture-Learning and Personality

Learning a language means learning a culture. Being a language learner means being a culture learner. To learn the language well and to relate and communicate effectively, a language learner in Africa has to learn to think as an African, to feel as an African and to react as an African would in a certain situation. This means that the individual's personalityis involved.

Relationships and Roles. What we are dealing with is the total complex of the relationships and roles the learner is having to cope with in the new society and in the process of learning the new language.

Whatever the objective situation when we come to a new country, we are not in the same situation we were in at home. We are not in control of the situation, and that is really the key. The new person is not in control of the factors most affecting his or her life at that time.

Our personalities developed in response to cultural forces we were unaware of, influences from our first days of life. The way we relate to others was learned subconsciously. Patterns of cultural roles and relationships were internalized in our early years, and we do not think about it now.

This is a "natural" part of who we are. The problem is that these same patterns of relationship are not going to work for us in the same way in the new culture. What is "natural" differs. Standards of what is "normal" are different. The language learner needs to be aware of this.

When a person's competence in society is tested, when one's self-identity is challenged, there is a sense of threat. The person under pressure to make deep changes in relationship patterns and thought-forms will feel vulnerable and, to some extent, defensive. If the learner recognizes that this is normal then maybe it will not be so frightening.

Irritated Personality.  It can be a positive experience which will enable the language learner to grow beyond that feeling of disorientation and threat. The learner need to realize that whenever growth is occurring, the edges of the personality are irritated until they wear off, then the new pattern settles in and new psychological calluses form to give some sense of protection, security or comfort.

These new patterns are developed by experience. Thus some acculturizing experiences must be incorporated into any initial language course or orientation program for new arrivals. This will get newcomers started in the process of making the gradual adjustment consciously, becoming aware of the process and fostering it throughout the period of orientation.

Comfortably Uncomfortable.  Some of the orientation provided and the cultural experience gained can gradually diminish the need to be in control. The participants can begin to feel comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, to feel satisfied with feeling unsatisfied.

As they gain more insight into the acculturation process, they will gradually feel more and more adjusted and at ease in their new social surroundings, with the new cultural demands on them. This will help in personality development in the local cultural setting.

Culture Shock. People often do not recognize what is happening when they go through culture shock. Everything is new, and there are many small irritations, challenges and frustrations, which individually would not be so bad. But the great number of such experiences, the high level of minor but constant irritations is disorienting. People in this situation usually do not know why they feel the way they do, what is causing their frustration, their depression, their restlessness.

The new learners will be going through culture shock, and it will have causes unrelated to the actual language learning. But the most obvious place to react is against the class, the teacher, the language helper or other "authority figure."

The most prominent thing in life at that time is language learning, so it offers many points of focus for blame: either what you are studying or the pace you are going or the teacher you have or the difficulty of the language. The learner may simply feel unsettled but unable to identify a cause; but it is the whole adjustment problem.

Preparing the Learners. Some of these adjustment problems can be eliminated, or minimized, if there is a supervised and well-organized initial orientation, during the first week in the country. Then in introducing the program, learners should be given some indication of these kinds of tensions and problems that are normal in any language learning process.

Actually, orientation and adjustment begins with the first contact the new assignment has with the new appointees in the homeland. Preparatory letters before arrival get the psychological transition process started. Early correspondence should set the stage for the experiences in store and introduce the whole language/culture-learning situation.

The new language learner may not know whether what he is experiencing is bad or not, whether it is normal or not. It will help the newcomer to know that others have had or are having the same experience. I think a lot of the uncertainty contributing to culture shock can be diminished by having a positive, supportive approach to the total orientation program.
 

Scheduling Learning Activities

Some people prefer the structure and stimulation of a class setting, while others prefer a freer schedule centered around informal learning in natural settings. To the former I say language and culture learning can occur quite adequately without a school or class approach. There are some things you cannot learn in a classroom. Language is a social skill. Structure is not equivalent to a class.

To the latter group, I point out that progress is insured only when progress is planned and evaluated. There must be a pattern to community contacts and practice, to enhance the value of informal contacts, which are indispensable to adequate language learning.

Varying the Schedule. The boredom of study or learning activities, also, can be alleviated by breaking up the schedule. For instance, in my Swahili program, for the second half of Wednesday morning, I scheduled a guest speaker on a cultural topic, or a field trip for cultural orientation. Then Wednesday afternoon was free, providing a good mid-week break.

Some participants in the Swahili program schedule ministry-related learning activities as a part of their Swahili learning program. These include spending Thursday with a family in a village, or working one day a week in a clinic.

You might schedule Wednesday morning or a periodic night session for cultural reading assignments. The program could include guided reading assignments, or just scheduled time for free reading. But such time could be allowed in the schedule, rather than being considered an extracurricular add-on.

Complementary Activities. In one country, we found a language institute with a minimal course, oriented around basic conversational skills. I designed a one-year language program using this four-month course as one component.

The institute course included activities over six days of the week, but gave Wednesday afternoons off, with only two hours of language class on Saturday morning. Thus Wednesday afternoons could be used for field trips, cultural study or individual language assignments.

The institute activities took only three hours a day the other days. Thus there was time to add one hour of personal conversation practice on Monday and Thursday, and half an hour for three or four mornings a week for individual student presentations of short reading assignments.

Exercises could be scheduled so as to vary the activity, increase attention span and interest or vary the ways in which each learner had to use the language, or encounter the culture.

For instance, for church workers, in the sixth week of the Standard Curriculum, students start reading simplified Bible materials (new reader literacy series).  Thus a devotional aspect, a worship experience pertinent to their expected working assignment, is added to the program.

A new dimension of group relationship, and hopefully of motivation,  is added to the "class." However few or many there are in an orientation group, all can participate. So the first half-hour of the day learners are reading materials together, with each brief review or reading led by one of the class..

Minimizing Frustration. Some tension and frustration can be avoided simply by good organization of the course, some minimized by variation of the components and some handled by individual counseling or guidance in the day to day context.

I prefer an informal and low-key approach, with a few planned sessions for formally dealing with language learning and cultural adjustment as part of the orientation throughout the course.

I do a lot of individual counseling with language learners, helping them interpret their personal goals and the goals of the course. I try to help them recognize some of the tensions they feel. Then we have some specific sessions with each class as a whole to help them recognize learning problems and plateaus, and to help them gain perspective in situations where they feel overwhelmed and material is not making any sense.

It is common to have periods in language learning when the more the student learns the less she understands. There seem to be so many seemingly unrelated patterns. But then after persevering and pushing on ahead, the student gets over the hump to where, suddenly, it all seems to fall into place, it begins to make sense. The learner has moved up to another level and progress is faster. Then things begin to slow up again, and the learner experiences another plateau of consolidation, after which there is another spurt of progress.
 

Language, not Academics

The stresses and tensions of cultural adjustment and the challenges of language learning take their toll. Some people are more susceptible to the pressures than others. Some take the stresses in stride with little effect.

Language learners are often harder on themselves than they should be. They often judge themselves by academic standards based on previous performance. Language learning is not an academic discipline. Perfectionists, who were good in academic pursuits, often have more learning problems than "average" students. Because of the unique factors involved in language learning, they have no frame of reference by which to judge their progress.

Academic Need.  Learners often ask analytical questions, feeling an academic need for grammar explanations. 

This gives them information about the language, which is satisfying to most Western students, due to their academic orientation and limited language experience.  But it does not help them much in speaking and hearing.

Functional Questions and Answers.  Learners can make better progress by asking functional questions, which can clarify what you say when.
-- Functional answers can alleviate the need for detailed explanations, which may be intellectually satisfying, but draw energy away form learning to communicate. 
-- Learning is eased when function is in focus, and the meaning of a phrase is learned from the inside out (not from an English meaning in).

This problem is a part of the cultural perspective, the way of thinking. The learners are thinking in their foreign perspectives, and trying to interpret the local language into the language categories they know from their native language. If you approach the local language on its own terms, you can begin thinking about how the language says what it says, by-passing the English (Western) thought.

Much of the change in perspective, however, is simply a function of time.  It takes experience to gain an intutive "feel" for the language.  Function is critical; nformation supports function.

Confidence with Experience

In one French-speaking African country, some parents were filled with anxiety because they had to go down and talk to the teacher at the children's school, in the first week or so. These Americans had come directly to their African country without learning French, but they needed French to communicate with the teachers and school officials. They felt a lot of tension.

After their first time or two with some help, as they learned their French, they gained confidence. You don't get this kind of confidence in a classroom.

OBJ

Series Posted 06 July 2000
Last edited 29 November 2007

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Email: researchguy@iname.com

Copyright © 2000, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.

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