Language: The School Subject That’s Not a School Subject

If you grow up on a desert island with at least one other person, you will not automatically know physics. You may know the effects of what is studied in physics—say, when the other person pushes you out of a tree—but you will not know the academic discipline called physics.

You will be fluent in at least one language without trying.

If you grow up on a desert island with at least one other person, you will not automatically know when the Qin Dynasty collapsed, what happened in 1066, or how to assess and use primary documents. You will have an idea of what has happened in your lifetime and what another person tells you happened, but you will not know the discipline called history.

You will be fluent in at least one language without trying.

If you grow up on a desert island with at least one other person, you will not automatically know how to play an instrument. You may learn an instrument and you may be able to sing, but you will not know the discipline called music.

You will be fluent in at least one language without trying.

If you grow up on a desert island with at least one other person, you will not automatically know algebra or geometry or calculus. You may add or even multiply in order to live your life, but you will not know the discipline called mathematics.

You will be fluent in at least one language without trying.

If you grow up on a desert island with at least one other person, you will not automatically know what dramatic irony, tropes, and foils are. You may hear, tell, and evaluate stories, but you will not know the discipline called literary criticism.

You will be fluent in at least one language without trying.

Learning a language is just about the only thing we do in school that, given the right circumstances, would happen without any academic activity.

There is also the academic study of language, called linguistics, an exciting and profitable endeavor. But it is not what most people are going for when they say they want to learn Italian or Russian or Chinuk or Mongolian or Quechua, and it won’t do much for anyone’s proficiency in a particular language.

So, why does the name of a language appear on most people’s schedules or transcripts at some point?

Setting aside historical factors, we can say languages are school subjects because they’re worth learning and most people aren’t going to learn them anywhere else. This is a pretty good reason. We certainly shouldn’t stop teaching languages in schools. Why does it matter, then, that languages aren’t really school subjects deep down? If nothing else, taking this fact seriously frees us from several ideas that make life harder for us and our students:

1. We can be free from the idea that acquiring a language is like remembering-in-general or skill-building-in-general.  Internalizing that mesa corresponds to “table” is a different type of process than internalizing that 7×7 corresponds to 49. Becoming a fluid user of conditionals in Polish is a different type of process than becoming a fluid user of the periodic table.

2. We can be free from the idea that a language activity, lesson, assessment, or course will be structured like one in another subject.  Demonstration>guided practice>independent practice? Nah. Three-week units followed by a test? The odds that all the elements of a language can be split up that way, or that all learners will acquire the elements in the same order or at a similar pace, are zero. The idea that they need to is bizarre.

3. We can be free from the idea that language skills or proficiency levels correspond to academic years.  Teach For June is on the right track. How about Teach For June Of Senior Year? How about Teach For June Of Life?

4. We can be free from the idea that students in the same language course or year should all know or be able to do the same things.  Kids acquire elements of languages in different orders (though with several similarities in order of acquisition of morphology and syntax) and at different rates. Why would we expect this variety to stop at some age?

While all this is freeing indeed, it doesn’t solve a certain practical problem: we still have to decide what to come in and do each day. You have your own excellent ideas about this, and I’ll share more in future posts. For the time being, I encourage you to reflect on how you, your department, your administration, your professional organizations, etc., might take seriously that language acquisition is not like most academic pursuits.

By the way, if language acquisition is not an academic pursuit, what kind of pursuit is it? Not every pursuit needs to fit in a category, of course, but, if I had to fill in the blank in “Language learning is a ______ pursuit,” I would probably put something like “social” or “community.” That thought deserves its own article.

 

For more things to consider when creating or evaluating a language program, course, lesson, or activity, see Essentials Of Any Language Program.

 

Notes:

Note 1. I used to say that art and P.E. and a few other subjects are like language in this way, but they aren’t, really: even artistic and athletic disciplines are “derived” pursuits; that is, someone had to or has to invent them and intentionally perpetuate them.  This is not the case for language.

Note 2. In case anyone should be concerned that I’m making too much of the similarity between acquiring a language as a small child and acquiring one later on, I’m not. There is no claim in this post about how people acquire languages. I’m simply encouraging us to consider the difference between “getting good at” a language and getting good at chemistry or oboe or literary criticism.

Note 3. I am not suggesting that academic subjects are inferior to language because they are somehow less primal, just that we should expect differences in how languages and academic subjects are learned.  Presumably there is further variation between academic subjects, variation that thoughtful teachers of those subjects are considering and acting on.

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