How often do we hear others dismiss language learning as “too hard” to bother?
In my own long and varied experience with MFL, it’s a charge I’ve heard frequently levelled at languages, as much from frustrated students as from family and friends. “I’d love to learn a language, but I’m just no good at it” is such a common defence; “I’ve got a terrible memory for languages” is another.
But what if expending too much effort is part of the problem? This isn’t to say that there’s some magic, easy method to acquire a working knowledge of a language in a short amount of time. No subliminal headphones-while-you-sleep shortcuts, I’m afraid.
Rather, we should be challenging the over-serious, head-breaking, traditional model of language learning; that slightly authoritarian, sit-down-and-learn-your-grammar reputation that MFL has (rightly or wrongly) earnt over the decades.
Recently I’ve been working on interactive resources in Maori and Latvian, two languages I know next to nothing about. A lot of the groundwork for this involved pretty repetitive copy-pasting to create resource files for apps. However, despite the fairly automatic nature of the task, I found myself noticing and picking up language patterns almost subconsciously during the process. After more than 100 Latvian verb conjugations, for example, you start to recognise present tense endings like -u/-i/-a/-m/-t/-a and other groups more or less instinctively.
In the zone
Not only that, but turning into a bit of a copy-paste automaton for an hour or so was an easy – even relaxing – experience. Talking about it with a colleague, I likened it to ‘taking a stroll’ through the language. I’d entered that mindful state of ‘being in the zone’, or flow, as described by positive psychologists like Csíkszentmihályi. I had, in effect, created the perfect mind conditions to enjoy and absorb working within the foreign language, almost without any conscious effort.
I do this kind of task very often in my line of work, unsurprisingly, it’s led me to a head chock full of vocab and grammar snippets that I never really intended to learn, but somehow, fortuitously, did anyway. It leads me to re-evaluate the kinds of learning task that we often dismiss in MFL, those that seem to have little worth on the surface, like word searches and simple matching activities. I’ve often a guilty ‘word search snob’ myself, but it’s likely worth rethinking their poor reputation amongst MFL educators in this light. Food for thought when considering whether to include such ‘low-level’ tasks in your language learning regime or resources!
If they’re engaging enough to spark a little of that flow, contain a fair amount of language patterns and paradigms with clear meaning, then maybe, just maybe, ‘grunt’ language learning tasks have a valuable place in learning.