Language is in the head, not in the hands

Hands may help when the words fail you, but language is more than the words that make it up.

In a dream world, when we learn a new language we simply map our words and sentence rules onto the other system. Finish. Like a software upgrade: old files are “improved” or replaced by the new ones. I don’t mean that the new language would replace our own language, but in creating the knowledge base for language 2 we would take our existing database (language 1) and “save it under” a different name, with a different content. That would be simple, most of all because it would be a clear-ended process: you press a button, the process starts unfolding and there’s an end to it where you click “OK”.

The problem is… the process seems to be running by mysterious rules. Language experts still cannot define why our learning processes freeze at a certain point; or why we “know” a rule but keep failing to apply it when speaking; or why we cannot learn language 2 the same intuitive way we learned our language 1.

One thing seems to be clear, if not in the scientific research, at least in practice: we are better able to communicate in language 2, even if words fail us or structures are not really accurate, if we have something to say. This might sound obvious, but very often both teachers and learners have complained that they have covered a lot of language stuff, but the performance is still poor. It means that the essential leap from “knowing about language” to “using it naturally” often remains a task not completed. But how can someone learn language 2 faster because they “have something to say”, as I claim?

Let’s imagine that a businessman has rich experience of business development, of management strategies, of the global business world. He has travelled a lot and done business with partners from different cultures. He has built companies from scratch and has experienced failure at some time in his career.

If he does a language course and the trainer provokes him to a discussion so as to apply the new language learned, he will have a rich content to refer to. This rich content coming from his real-world experience will focus his attention on communicating his ideas, so he will look for language only as a secondary concern, as a tool to build his message blocks – which means that he is already taking the leap to “using the language naturally”. Having to move within a familiar territory, he will find the right work-around when he does not remember the word for “insolvency”, for example. Conceptually he can quickly switch between different levels of generality and for example may easily describe “insolvency” as “you know, when you can’t pay your invoices”.

More importantly, a person who knows what they are talking about and has something to say about it will think of concepts that for others do not exist other than in the dictionary. Ask a production manager for example to describe a good communicator. Then ask a human resources manager to do it. It is probably the latter that will search for a word like “articulate”  – simply because it is the HR manager that will probably be involved with the concept of “articulate communicators”. If we now compare two HR managers in terms of competence in their field, both as experience and know-how, we can expect that the “better” one will sooner start searching for more complex words, will be more willing to make a point in language 2 and to expand on it. Which means that they will end up communicating more, and more meaningfully, in language 2, all other things being equal (course level, number of lessons completed etc).

With more conceptual content to get across, such people will be able to make interesting points in communication even when their grammar is not accurate. Negotiating meaning will be easier when the conceptual load is more powerful. Alternatively, with more conceptual content to get across they will sense fine distinctions that will guide them to use different structures. One example is using the passive to talk impersonally, or using modal verbs to talk about hypothetical things. Also, with more conceptual content to get across, such people will be better able to connect and develop their ideas into a coherent message, following the logical operators between their points (for example, in general, on the other hand, even if etc).

Finally, no trivial thing: trainers will love such courses, which will motivate them to teach even better. People who are competent in their field, or have had an interesting life experience, will be easier to get to talk, to apply language learned – on condition, of course, that the teaching has really focused on the learners’ relevant topics. Tapping the learners’ experience is not just a requirement for good teaching, it is the key to effective, sound learning. The learners will only then be able to take the lesson input with them into their real communication, which is the leap from “knowing about” to “actually using” that I mentioned at the beginning.

If you are a teacher, think of just how frustrating it has been to work with people who don’t have much to say (professionally or personally). Think of how helpless you have been in teaching them to use language 2, since there were so few things that they could talk about  in their own language 1.

If you are a learner, think of what experience you would take with you into the language classroom. Does it match your expectation to learn language 2 up to the level of your choice? Is it rich enough to enable you to speak at the advanced level you wish to attain? Look carefully at the descriptions of levels in the Common European Framework. Where would you put yourself, according to the typical communicative situations you are involved in and where would you set your goals? Are you ready to put your own life experience into the language 2 learning process, starting to talk about personal opinions and views for example? Are you ready to try to expand on them, which very often means thinking more about them?

This is because a language is more than the words it is made up of. It is above all a cognitive experience, having to do with people’s mental abilities shaping and re-shaping their own experience of the world.