Language learning in literature as a source domain for generative metaphors about anything

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In my thinking about things human, I often like to draw on the domain of second language learning as the source of analogies. The problem is that relatively few people in the English speaking world have experience with language learning to such an extent that they can actually map things onto it. In fact, in my experience, even people who have a lot of experience with language learning are actually not aware of all the things that were happening while they were learning. And of course awareness of research or language learning theories is not to be expected. This is not helped by the language teaching profession’s propaganda that language learning is “fun” and “rewarding” (whatever that is). In fact my mantra of language learning (I learned from my friend Bill Perry) is that “language learning is hard and takes time” – at least if you expect to achieve a level of competence above that of “impressing the natives” with your “please” and “thank you”. In that, language learning is like any other human endeavor but because of its relatively bounded nature — when compared to, for instance, culture — it can be particularly illuminating.

But how can not just the fact of language learning but also its visceral experience be communicated to those who don’t have that kind of experience? I would suggest engrossing literature.

For my money, one of the most “realistic” depictions of language learning with all its emotional and cognitive peaks and troughs can be found in James Clavell‘s “Shogun“. There we follow the Englishman Blackthorne as he goes from learning how to say “yes” to conversing in halting Japanese. Clavell makes the frustrating experience of not knowing what’s going on and not being able to express even one’s simplest needs real for the reader who identifies with Blackthorne’s plight. He demonstrates how language and cultural learning go hand in hand and how easy it is to cause a real life problem through a little linguistic misstep.

Shogun stands in stark contrast to most other literature where knowledge of language and its acquisition is viewed as mostly a binary thing: you either know it or you don’t. One of the worst offenders here is Karl May (virtually unknown in the English speaking world) whose main hero Old Shatterhand/Kara Ben Nemsi acquires effortlessly not only languages but dialects and local accents which allow him to impersonate locals in May’s favorite plot twists. Language acquisition in May just happens. There’s never any struggle or miscommunication by the main protagonist. But similar linguistic effortlessness in the face of plot requirements is common in literature and film. Far more than magic or the existence of Vampires, the thing that used to stretch my credulity the most in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was ease with which linguistic facility was disposed of.

To be fair, even in Clavell’s book, there are characters whose linguistic competence is largely binary. Samurai either speak Portugese or Latin or they don’t – and if the plot demands, they can catch even whispered colloquial conversation. Blackthorne’s own knowledge of Dutch, Spanish, Portugese and Latin is treated equally as if identical competence would be expected in all four (which would be completely unrealistic given his background and which resembles May’s Kara Ben Nemsi in many respects).

Nevertheless, when it comes to Japanese, even a superficially empathetic reader will feel they are learning Japanese along with the main character. Largely through Clavell’s clever use of limited translation.

This is all the more remarkable given that Clavell obviously did not speak Japanese and relied on informants. This, as the “Learning from Shogun” book pointed out, led to many inaccuracies in the actual Japanese, advising readers not to rely on the language of Shogun too much.

Clavell (in all his books – not just Shogun) is even more illuminating in his depiction of intercultural learning and communication – the novelist often getting closer to the human truth of the process than the specialist researcher. But that is a blog post for another time.

Another novel I remember being an accurate representation of language learning is John Grisham‘s “The Broker” in which the main character Joel Backman is landed in a foreign country by the CIA and is expected to pick up Italian in 6 months. Unlike Shogun, language and culture do not permeate the entire plot but language learning is a part of about 40% of the book. “The Broker” underscores another dimension which is also present in the Shogun namely teaching, teachers and teaching methods.

Blackthorne in Shogun orders an entire village (literally on the pain of death) to correct him every time he makes a mistake. And then he’s excited by a dictionary and a grammarbook. Backman spends a lot of time with a teacher who makes him repeat every sentence multiple times until he knows it “perfectly”. These are today recognized as bad strategies. Insisting on perfection in language learning is often a recipe for forming mental blocks (Krashen’s cognitive and affective filters). But on the other hand, it is quite likely that in totally immersive situations like Blackthorne’s or even partly immersive situations like Backman’s (who has English speakers around him to help), pretty much any approach to learning will lead to success.

Another common misconception reflected in both works is the demand language learning places on rote memory. Both Blackthorne and Backman are described as having exceptional memories to make their progress more plausible but the sort of learning successes and travails described in the books would accurately reflect the experiences of anybody learning a foreign language even without a memory. As both books show without explicit reference, it is their strategies in the face of incomprehension that help their learning rather than a straight memorization of words (although that is by no means unnecessary).

So what are the things that knowing about the experience of second language learning can help us ellucidate? I think that any progress from incompetence to competence can be compared to learning a second language. Particularly when we can enhance the purely cognitive view of learning with an affective component. Strategies as well as simple brain changes are important in any learning which is why none of the brain-based approaches have produced unadulterated success. In fact, linguists studying language as such would do well to pay attention to the process of second language learning to more fully realize the deep interdependence between language and our being.

But I suspect we can be more successful at learning anything (from history or maths to computers or double entery book keeping) if we approach it as a foreign language. Acknowledge the emotional difficulties alongside cognitive ones.

Also, if we looked at expertise more as linguistic fluency than a collection of knowledge and skills, we could devise a program of learning that would take better into account not only the humanity of the learner but also the humanity of the whole community of experts which he or she is joining.

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