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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Like Learning To Play An Instrument

"...teaching the core curriculum through the arts" (Nolan, 2013, para 1). Now there's a concept!  How about we apply something similar to learning additional languages?

Language learning as a means for learning something else just might provide the motivation needed to drive language learners to achieve more than they might if the objective were solely linguistic.

I remember well my early college days as a music major.  In addition to the core educational classes we all had to take, we also took music theory for two years, concert band, jazz band, choir, among others.  I would take my acoustic bass and find a tiny practice room where I barely had enough space for my instrument, music stand, and me.  I would spend hours practicing scales, changes, exercises, pieces of music, and just improvising over chord progressions.  Each semester we knew we were expected to perform various public events, so it always put practicing into perspective.

Practice wasn't always fun, but I knew there were always consequences.  If I didn't practice that jazz band piece enough, I knew I would look foolish the next day in class, or ultimately the upcoming performance.  In a sense, even group practice became a performance for my peers as well.  Putting in the hours meant that I would perform better for band mates, which in-and-of-itself was gratifying.  I also was performing for myself.  Practicing scales and exercises meant that I would perform a song better, causing me to feel good about myself having achieved something...even as minute as being able to play a difficult passage that I was not able to play before.

Imagine all of the possible (implicit) objectives that one might have taking a jazz band class.  Self expression, connecting with others (both musically and personally), networking with other musicians from other schools, relieving stress, etc.  The joy of learning an instrument (learning the notes on the instrument, learning how to read music, learning scales, learning exercise, and learning songs) comes from the public performance. It's realizing at all times that all of the mundane elements of learning an instrument was to enable the musician to connect in some way with the community.  So personal objectives might range from being very personal (learning a particular scale) to being more global (performing in front of a public audience).

The grading system in jazz band rarely was based entirely on whether musicians could only play scales with no expected public performance.  Expressive objectives might be assessed instead by evaluating the progress of the musician, willingness to take solos, etc.

Becoming a speaker of an additional language (SAL) is like becoming a musician.  The act of becoming a SAL is about always working towards a public performance.  Interacting with others based on personal interests, needs, and learning preferences is ultimately what is assessed and not the linguistic particulars (i.e., reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar, and vocabulary).  That is, the public performance is an effect of one's capacity in reading, writing, etc.  Language becomes a means and an end simultaneously.  Content courses (e.g., learning math in the target language), English for academic purposes (e.g., taking a history course for college credit in the target language), and English for specific purposes (e.g., taking a course in the target language at work in order to do one's job more effectively) are three examples of how learning the target language is more about the means than language as an end.  But can this idea be adopted to any general English course?

Language educator challenge: How can you adopt a general English course (or any other language course) where language is viewed as a means for something else?  What would be that something else?  What challenges might you face?  What successes have you had?