What Is Indwelling Language? or, A Rarish Word For a Rarish Thing

Almost everybody studies a language at some point.  Almost nobody actually acquires a language in the process.

For the past several years, I have been polling middle school students, high school students, their parents, and other adults with the following question: “Have you had a bad experience trying to learn a foreign language?”  I let them interpret the question however they want, because what I am trying to find out is how people feel about their language learning.

99% say Yes.  That is, in most groups I ask, every single person raises a hand; in some, there is one person who doesn’t.  Almost everyone I ask has had a “bad experience” trying to learn a foreign language.

Based on conversations with these respondents and on my own observations of language programs, the many reasons for this response can be filed into two categories:
1. The language-learning experience was not successful.
2. The language-learning experience was stressful.

By not successful I mean that the person didn’t come out of the program with a measure of proficiency in the language commensurate with the amount of time spent.

By stressful I don’t just mean that there was an overwhelming amount of work involved, or that the person was sometimes uncomfortable.  I mean that the experience was characterized by discomfort, to the degree that real attention was impossible.

The solution isn’t, on the one hand, just to work harder, or, on the other, just to have more fun.  There are many factors in stress and success, and I won’t explore them all here (but you can get an idea from this post).  I’ll just hint at what Indwelling Language has to do with changing language-learning from stressful and successless to joyful and successful.

Both joy and success are supported by two core ideas contained in Indwelling Language:
1. Living in a language, that is, making a particular language part of one’s everyday context (here “Indwelling Language” = “[the act of] inhabiting a language”)
2. A language living in a person, that is, a particular language becoming a new way for a person to experience, interpret, and enjoy the world (here “Indwelling Language” = “language that inhabits”)

Indwelling is not the same thing as immersion:

Language immersion is putting yourself in a situation where you receive only unfiltered input in a target language—input which you may or may not understand—and where you often cannot make yourself understood except by using the target language.

Language indwelling is creating an environment or lifestyle that includes frequent, regular, extended interactions with and in the target language that you can understand and enjoy. (In a classroom, this involves, among other things, ACTFL’s TL90+ principle.)

Indwelling is a pretty rare word.  The language-indwelling proposed here is a pretty rare thing. Indwelling Language exists to make it common.

I am confident that cultivating indwelling, both in language courses and in life in general, will result in joy and success in language learning and teaching.


Have you ever had a bad experience trying to learn a language?  I would love to hear if this post begins to get at the reasons and how things might have been different, or what other ideas you have about what was bad and what could have been different.

(For more on these ideas, see The Indwelling Language Manifesto, Essentials Of Any Language Program, the About section, and “On the Go, In the Language: Introducing #indwelli.”)

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