A right thing for a wrong reason.
I remember one day when we heard our three-year-old son washing his hands. We’d had talks with him about germs and the need to wash up after using the restroom, and thought, “Oh good, he’s starting to get it!” We even decided to reward him to reinforce this new habit and called down the hall “Good job! Do you want a treat?”
“Yeah!” he shouted. He came bouncing into the kitchen with eyes twinkling, hands clean as a whistle, and face and neck absolutely coated with chocolate. It turns out, while we were in the other room, he had come into the kitchen, climbed into the cupboard, grabbed a jar of Nutella, and then proceeded to hide in his closet and eat the entire thing. His hand washing, while something good that we wanted to encourage, was actually done in an attempt to avoid a negative consequence, not because he actually saw value in the positives it would bring him. He was totally shocked when we called him out on his actions, and had it not been masked in brown, sticky goo, his face would have been beet-red with embarrassment when we sent him back to the bathroom to wash again. And since this event, we still have to remind him to wash his hands almost every time he uses the restroom.
Why am I even learning this?
I tell this story for two reasons. I believe that when it comes to language learning, we have two related problems that, if addressed, could change the outcome of the time we spend in this endeavor. First, we often have either no motivation or wrong motivation. My son simply didn’t feel any need to practice washing his hands until he found himself in a difficult spot, and then, when his survival hung in the balance so to speak, he suddenly embraced soap and warm water as his only hope. With language learning in most school systems around the world, the only thing motivating most students is getting a passing grade. Frankly, for the effort involved, this doesn’t encourage people to truly master the language, but simply to do enough to get by so they have time for their other homework and their social life. They have their panic moment during the test, do what they need to do to get past it, and move on.
The second problem is that the way we study is oriented towards simply passing a test and not having a conversation with a person we value. Most tests that I experienced when I studied Spanish in high school or when I took a few classes on Greek in college were basically written puzzles. They had a finite amount of pieces and I had already seen the picture on the box to know how to assemble them. I had to be able to remember individual words or grammar structures in order to put the pieces of the language together, but was very rarely actually creative or reactive to other people. In other words, I never had to actually think in another language.
This is like my son washing his hands and leaving the chocolate all over his face. It’s only going part way, and while we may feel proud of our accomplishments, as soon as we are where someone can see what’s really on our face, we’re left with embarrassment and have to go back and try again. This is especially true for students because they get a false sense of security from their grades. They think, “I studied German for four years and got all A’s, so I must know German pretty well.” However, when they find themselves in a situation where they actually have to communicate in German, many fall flat on their face, are embarrassed to try again, and lack the motivation to overcome that embarrassment.
My wife, Natalie, and I like to talk about how when we first traveled to Ukraine, we knew how to ask questions in Russian, but couldn’t understand any of the answers. It was absolutely embarrassing trying to talk to store clerks who had no patience for our mistakes. Eventually we would say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand you, goodbye,” and leave empty-handed. Then, we would spend hours agonizing over dictionaries and talking to bilingual friends to figure out how to communicate better for next time. We had studied Russian before that point, and coming up with every word was a mental translation exercise. Most people didn’t have time to wait for us to finish the puzzle in our heads. It wasn’t until some time later, after being immersed for months and needing the language skills for everything from simply interacting with our new friends to dealing with medical emergencies, that we moved from “knowing the pieces of Russian,” to “knowing Russian.”
Finding your motivation.
In dealing with these problems, one of the factors that needs to be addressed is that people need motivation for learning a language, and that motivation needs to come from actually communicating with live human beings in real-life situations. For many students, language study is limited to a couple hours a week in a controlled environment oriented around text books, not people (I will address this in another article). While moving to another country or going to an immersion school is one option to find these real-life situations, it is not the only one.
A great solution I found with both Spanish and Russian was spending time among the immigrant communities around me. I would go shopping at Russian grocery stores, invite our Mexican neighbors over for dinner, or go to church services in another language. It doesn’t take much time in an immersion environment before a person becomes aware of just how little they actually know. Also, as you make friends with people and spend more time with them, your natural curiosity spurs you on to learn more so you can communicate on a deeper level and thus relate to each other on a deeper level. Language, by its very nature, exists in community between human beings, and divorcing language learning from this is like trying to build a house without any framework.
Another option is making use of some of the many online language exchange websites. I will give a caution here though, especially if you are considering this option for children. While many of the people on these sites are genuinely willing to help you learn their language if you help them learn yours, there are also occasional predators and scam artists. I will share an article later about how to make use of language exchanges as well as a list of some of my favorite sites, but know that this option can come with some risk and should be used carefully.
Finally, make language learning something you do together as a family. There is no closer community than the one in your own home. My oldest daughter and I love the fact that we can use Russian as our secret daddy-daughter language when we’re out together. We spend time together teaching American Sign Language to our youngest child so she can say “dirty diaper.” We have family jokes from the things we’ve learned and the mistakes we’ve made. We watch movies or read stories together in the languages we are learning. Above all, we try to make these languages part of the fabric of who we are as a family.
As you seek to motivate the language learners in your life, seek to motivate them primarily with people and relationships, not with point systems or consequences. Take them to where the people are. Let them make friends. Let them experience their friends’ cultures. Let them try their friends’ favorite foods. Let them feel awkward, and learn to laugh at that awkwardness. Let them fail and have to try again. Let them see language as what it really is: A bridge between people, not a puzzle to be assembled and disassembled and left in a box and forgotten.