How appropriate to discuss language and language skills in a time our nation is flooded in a celebration of culture and language. Language is a fascinating thing. It is a window to a culture. It is a living thing. It is also an unbelievably practical tool that we rely on and use every day to interact with the world. It is so practical and so practical and so ubiquitous we often forget how intricate language really is.
If you think about it, language is not just made out of words that are made out of letters. Language is not just about the correct grammatical syntax in which a sentence in built. Language is a mass of words that clump together to create phrases and idioms, colloquialisms and proverbs – all meant to help us articulate concepts. These concepts can be material – like things perceived by our 5 senses. These concepts can be immaterial – like things we think or feel, but are amorphous and have no “real” form.
In a previous post, I mentioned the importance of vocabulary, particularly within the context of career education. That followed the release of a research done by the University of Derby to explore students’ understanding of different concepts revolving around jobs and careers. The results were very interesting and showed that complex terms – like those surrounding career, jobs and further education – require exploration rather than “correct definitions”.
These complex and amorphous terms are not things you would learn simply by opening the dictionary or read about them in Wikipedia. They are terms that you investigate throughout your life. You use your own experiences to explore them and add meanings to your own personal interpretation of them. With the right guidance, you learn to explore terms in different ways, add more meanings and interpretations to them and build a well-rounded definition in your mind.
Teaching language is more than reading and writing
What’s all this to do with language, then? This is to do with how we approach language. Language skills are usually divided into four: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Due to the recent influx of requirements to standardise testing, and a great focus that was put on reading and writing, the teaching of language has become quite a mechanical thing. Don’t get me wrong – I think it is very important to get reading and writing right. I am a firm believer in great spelling (even though I’m impartial to the odd typo..), and a firmer believer in correct syntax.
But by solely placing our language skills focus on the mechanism of language, we forget that there are many more layers that are just as equally important for us to know and learn about in order to use language properly.
I read this blog not long ago. It talks about how language shapes an organisation. I will snap it right into context – language shapes society as well. The point that most resonated with me is how, once the writer became a leader, every word he said would be repeated, dissected and analysed.
As educators who shape and influence young minds, we need to take that into account when we are teaching language and language skills. I know some schools have been adding listening and speaking skills into their curriculum – I’m keen to learn more about the success of these programmes. I believe it is important that language is taught beyond the point of spelling and grammar. Students have to learn about context, phrasing and expressions. They need to understand that the language they use invokes a reaction that – in the extreme – can be interpreted by a workforce of a newspaper as an approving nod to break the law (and invade the privacy) of people for the sake of selling a newspaper.
We need to remember that much like complex vocabulary, some of the additional language skills are built on complex concepts that a person continually explores and develops through their whole life. In Management Development programmes delivered in the private sector, there is a great emphasis on language skills and communication. It is never too late (or early) to start.
Augmenting the language skills tool-kit
I studied French as my second foreign language when I was teenager. I was terrible at it. I do, however, remember that the dialogues used in the text book were beyond ridiculous. They taught us the mechanics of French grammar, but they were utterly useless from a contextual perspective.
Here’s an example (true example, by the way.):
“Qu’est-ce que tu as dans la valise?”
“La valise là, derrière-toi!”
“Oh! Le fromage!”
From a technical standpoint, yes, this quick exchange taught me to use “inside” and “behind” in sentences. In the grander scheme of things, I may as well have learnt that the French keep their cheese in suitcases. So – while ticking off my reading and writing, the additional layers of context, meaning, culture and more are completely lost in that endeavour.
If the texts are meaningful, the learner can learn more about the hidden layers of language from them. While some of it is being done through Literature, perhaps there is room to explore language skills as spoken (and the acted word) as well as written. As language lives beyond the pages, bringing in more interactions with language will help students develop language skills to the language that lives around them. I believe that these can be done through popular culture and not just through purpose-built media. Students learn so much from TV, might as well give it real educational weight and good meaning.
Starting earlier on will not only equip them with the language skills themselves, but give them the tools to learn to adapt their language skills as language – and culture – evolve around them.
Just to end on a bit of fun, here is an RSAnimate video from Steven Pinker’s (Canadian-born experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist and popular science author) lecture about language as a window to human nature:
Viewing advisory – perhaps not suitable for young audiences.
Language Skills word cloud in the thumbnail was created with Wordle.