Learning a Language vs. Creating a Language Community

 

A game from the Sechelt Nation WAYK workshop

 

There are a lot of people doing good work in language education; and you can find many talented language learners and polyglots. There are countless resources to learn a language out there, whether immersion programs, classes, software, CD sets, podcasts, online language mentoring forums, and on and on.

We respect and value all these tools and resources – any tool that works is one more tool than you had before! It is important to understand that the work we’re doing at WAYK is on a totally different level than these kinds of resources. This isn’t hyperbole; this is a painstakingly developed, intentional change from conventional language education, to address a very specific challenge.

WAYK is not any particular method (though it employs several unusual and iconic techniques); it is a comprehensive system for employing all the methods that work. Tools are great, but you need a way to to use them strategically.

WAYK is also not just for a single language learner to learn their target language. To be clear, it certainly can be used for this; we train language hunters to “parachute” into any country (or conversation) and immediately begin absorbing the language. This is an exciting, but also uncommon opportunity. More difficult, and more common, is the attempted acquisition of language without the benefit of such an immersion scenario.

Much of WAYK is based on a simple discovery we made while working with endangered languages: if you don’t have a self-sufficient speech community forming around you, you are missing the greatest opportunity for rapid language acquisition for yourself. The greatest accelerator to language acquisition is immersion in a thriving, generous community of conversation, with fluent, playful peer-teachers.

 

 

A quote commonly (though perhaps erroneously) attributed to Albert Einstein that applies: “problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

Endangered languages emerge in the context of monolingualism, military/economic pressure, institutional oppression, community trauma, and the idea that languages are difficult to learn.

Endangered languages may be the heritage for a community that sees them as the remnants of a shameful past with little modern relevance. They may have few remaining speakers, all of whom may be elderly.

Simply teaching such a language, classroom style, to a group of students wanting to “learn” isn’t enough; what if no one in the community wants to speak with your students (or there is no one to speak to)? What if the teachers themselves have minimal fluency in the language due to lack of access to willing fluent speakers? What if you lose your best teachers, due to economic factors, social factors, or just plain bad luck?

By creating tools that will work in the context of this kind of intense challenge, we were forced to craft a radically different approach; we were forced to “raise the level of our thinking”. This new level impacts all language learning, endangered or not.

Now, we see language acquisition as inextricable from cultural revitalization, and both inextricable from community organizing. To learn a living language, you must revitalize and participate in a language community. You cannot discriminate between a “student” and a “teacher” – they must be one and the same.

Because we can see this now, because it has become “obvious”, now we can explore how far we can take this understanding. What can we do with it?

 

A game in Squamish language

 

From the very first game of WAYK, you are participating in a web of community organization. You are helping to create the strongest scenario for sufficient players to populate a regularly occurring language night. Then multiple language nights, different days of the week, all around your community, led by fellow players. Then you all go for language immersion weekends and overnight gatherings every quarter. Then…magic happens. As you keep playing, you achieve critical mass, and your community begins to use the target language as a second language, and if you keep working it, then as a first language.

With sufficient language hunting skills, this can be a fun, focused race to community-wide language play. It takes time. But it can be done, alongside friends, family, and neighbors, laughing all the way.

Even if your goals are humble, to simply become fluent in a healthy target language (modern languages like English, French, Russian, Chinese), by approaching your goal in this way you become able to learn any language, and to immerse yourself in friendships and community.  You’re not in it alone.

Because you’ve focused on helping create a speech community, rather than just on your own language acquisition, you will rapidly discover your “students” teaching you and pulling you along with them. Who is the student? Who is the teacher? In the end, everyone is just a language activist, a language hunter, a member of the language-play community.

You don’t stop with one language either; you keep going. If you stop, you may or may not lose all those language hunting skills, but the next generation will never learn them. Revitalization is a never-ending activity; every new day calls for it. We keep our languages strong by keeping our neighbors’ languages strong. The strongest scenario for endangered language revitalization is a deeply multilingual world.

We all get there together. And it all starts with your first, simple game.

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One thought on “Learning a Language vs. Creating a Language Community

  1. Pingback: Trees and Dancers: Finding Our Ways | Clyde Street

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