Learning Languages

"The limits of my language are the limits of my universe" - Ludwig Wittgenstein

"To learn another language is to have one more window from which to look at the world" – Chinese proverb

Ancient myths, whether Greek or European, American or African, seem to agree on one fact: people lived together in unity and spoke one language. Later, natural disasters, be it storms, floods or famines, scattered them and they formed different nations with diverse language forms. Today, in the global village we live in, these same civilizations are coming together once again – LANGUAGE is primordial to unite them. The teaching-learning of world languages is of utmost importance today, as people and cultures are in a constant state of movement and interaction. Knowledge of one or more foreign or world languages will help them think and communicate better in their lives as global citizens or workers.

In this age of global migration where youth travel to different countries for higher studies or jobs, another language (French, German, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Russian or Mandarin) is an added asset. In fact, when it comes to placements conducted on-campus, candidates with valid certification of fluency and competency in foreign languages are offered better remuneration than those who are without such an asset. Several French companies and banks (Réligare, Technip,, Michelin, BNP, Société Générale etc have recently been established in India and they recruit graduates with a good competency of French for processing documents and undertaking translation as well as interpretation in various capacities. Companies like TCS and CTS, which have branches abroad also search periodically for candidates with a good knowledge of a world language.

On a lighter note, for us adults, it has been proved that language learning fires the white cells that normally become sluggish with age. With so many frightening accounts of senility and forgetfulness due to old age, it is comforting to know that learning another language can help us retain healthier neurons when it counts (Rudelson 2012). Further, in spite of good translations of books and manuscripts existing today, a sound knowledge of another language helps us directly access legends, myths and stories of another civilisation in its own words providing us with a better knowledge of how to co-exist with our neighbours.

In many schools and universities, we see a large number of students flocking to register themselves in the foreign language departments with the hope that scoring high grades is within one’s reach as the teaching starts from the basics - nothing much could be learnt in a year or two. With this in mind, students’attitude and approach to language learning minimises the long-term benefits of learning and appropriation, as they memorise blindly in order to gain as high marks as possible. Post examination, the memories fade away, leaving a student who hardly knows how to communicate in the foreign language learnt.

It has also been noticed that the pressing demand for languages has often forced academic institutions to overload the classroom and teacher, without considering the impact of a large class on the objectives of teaching-learning a foreign language. The core objective of a student in choosing a foreign language is to communicate in that language in a realistic manner. Is this possible in a large class (with student strengths of 50 to 70, sometimes more), which often has a heterogeneous mixture of students (beginners and those who already know varying levels of the language)? The answer is no. The situation is further worsened by the fact that the prioritised objectives of teaching French or any other foreign language in school is to succeed in a theoretical examination; this shifts the focus of teaching-learning process from a holistic communicative approach to one based on reading and writing.  Read More

When a language is taught, focus should be on the 4 competencies of communication: understanding speech (oral comprehension) and speaking (oral production) as well as understanding written texts (written comprehension) and writing (written production). Earlier, most traditional methods for learning a 2nd language involved a systematic approach, based on a package of grammar rules and vocabulary lists, which the student had to memorise and reproduce at a given stimulus. This produced an individual with no real language skills and in such cases, focus was on reading and writing only. The changing trend is to place the emphasis on a communicative and interactive approach, which encourages the student to immerse him/herself in the language leading to the production of extemporaneous conversations evolving around basic skills in an environment, in which the targeted language is normally spoken. Thus, there has been a marked shift from linguistic content to real life content. When language learning is thus centered on holistic learning of the 4 competencies, the student learns to communicate realistically. In this context, autonomous institutions of higher learning, which include foreign languages as soft skill or elective programs are at an advantage since the faculty is free to frame a syllabus which enables the global students to achieve his/her objectives. The Council of Europe after nearly two decades of research has elaborated a Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for language acquisition (teaching, learning and assessment). It is “designed to provide a transparent, coherent and comprehensive basis for the elaboration of language syllabi and curriculum guidelines, the design of teaching and learning materials, and the assessment of foreign language proficiency. The CEFR describes foreign language proficiency at six levels: A1 and A2, B1 and B2, C1 and C2. It also defines three ‘plus’ levels (A2+, B1+, B2+). Based on empirical research and widespread consultation, this scheme makes it possible to compare tests and examinations across languages and national boundaries. It also provides a basis for recognising language qualifications, thus facilitating educational and occupational mobility” .

If an autonomous institution bases its foreign language curriculum on the CEFR, it can clearly give objectives that are internationally recognised and show what a candidate should know at the end of each level. Further, students thus trained can take up examinations at centres, where that language certification is provided, for example, the Alliance Française of Madras (AFM) conducts examinations 4 times annually and external candidates can take up these examinations without necessarily being a student here. In Chennai, there are several institutions like the AFM that offer language learning with certification that is universally recognised; students could directly register and study in them. A little time spent on the Internet will help the prospective language learner decide where and how to pursue studies in the language of interest .

A teaching-learning process based on a communication and interaction, can only materialise if the teacher is trained in the use of technology in the classroom; language textbooks today come furnished with CDs on the oral component. The teacher can also supplement the classes with e-learning resources found on the web. For a given objective like Learning how to present oneself or Asking directions, several resources are present on various websites and even Youtube for free. All that a teacher has to do is to devote some time studying these resources and choosing those that suit the identified objectives of the course or the level in question. However, even if a student is trained and becomes competent in the 4 competencies discussed above, living and communicating authentically in a foreign environment is not possible if one does not possess what is known as “savoir-faire”, i.e., proficiency in the psycho-motor domain or cross-cultural competency. This savoir-faire is nothing but an understanding of the civil code of the society, in which the student might one day have to live, study or work (Gousie, 1998: 65) in France. For example, it is very common to go to a shop and buy things. But the student must be sensitised to the fact that he/she has to be polite. Shopkeepers would consider customers very rude if they just barged in and said that they wanted a certain product. They have to start with a simple “bonjour”, or good morning, and then very politely state what they need – “Je voudrais un … s’il vous plait”, (I would like a …. please) as opposed to I want a ... or one so and so… as we so commonly do. This part of the teaching-learning process is essential but often ignored by the teachers as it is not directly implicated in the four competencies. Further, teachers should either have spent some time in the foreign country in question or have been trained in understanding its culture. Often, this is not the case, and the sections on savoir-faire are skipped, as it is felt that it is not important. Civilisation or culture is thus an inherent part of language learning and all textbooks available have included such basic topics in their content.

Teachers of foreign languages thus have a clear-cut task before them: creating a curriculum that focuses on practical and realistic targets or objectives, while including sections on how a society lives and functions in a given environment or as some experts say, “authentic, real-life contexts” (Jensen et al., 2007:5). A final point that comes to mind in this discussion was first brought to my notice by Toffler Niemuth in “New tools for student engagement” (Niemuth, 2010:2). The word foreign “denotes exclusion, isolation and alienation, rather than a sense of acceptation, collaboration and communication”. In this people-oriented global world that we are trying to nurture, the term foreign languages, has to be replaced with a more “friendly” term like world languages.Why the term world languages? When we speak of inclusive education, the impetus should be on unity and oneness; therefore, language teachers should no longer isolate themselves into foreign compartments but embrace the togetherness of world unity.

Currently, this need has become more noticeable as our new government is attracting world attention, which implies a soon to be felt growth spurt in global investments, trade and industrialisation, on a large scale. In such a context, business, engineering and all institutions of higher education, should gear up to equip their students with what is needed to communicate, compete and survive in the global market. Let all language teachers thus equip themselves to train students so that they can communicate in a world language and co-exist while living or working in a universal environment.

About the Author

Dr. Adeline G. Albert is the Head – Department of French, Ethiraj College, Chennai.