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Language and Culture

Quick Guide to Language Learning
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Aspects of Language

Language is not information, but the format for processing information -- not explanation, but mastery. Drill and practice helps to impress the models of the languages into the learner's subconscious.  This enables the learner to approach natural spontaneous production, based on thought and intent.  This takes practice.

We tend to think of explanations of the language as critical.  But the cognitive part of language is in our use of the language to think.  Therefore, understanding explanations of the language is not the same as using the patterns of the language to form our very thoughts!

Conscious awareness of the models and structures may help the learner master the structures rather than be limited by them. But the models must be mastered, in order for thought to flow into communication. This is done through practice and use.

Language consists in social events, communication events, interaction with other people.  In common teaching approaches, language is often isolated from its practical context.  Learning a dialogue only in a classroom, for instance, gives no context for memory other than the classroom.  Then every language text learned in that classroom has the very same memory context! No wonder learners get tired and find it hard to remember words or phrases!

Learners can retain much more, with less memory work, by association with total event, place, relationship, action or movement, emotion, smell and sound.  Languages are used by social groups (families, clans, tribes, societies) to manage their relationships and cultural roles, obligations and interrelationships.

Culture is the context of the social encounter in the communication event.  Previous experiences affect expectations.   Thus differences in the experiences related to history, and cultural or ethnic identity lead to differences in expectations for communication events.

Spanish, Swahili and French are examples of multi-national, multi-ethnic languages.  Thus different sets of experiences and resulting sets of expectations exist even in the same language "community".

Most people intuitively know this, but it is overlooked when we approach the actual learning, because we are so school oriented, that many westerners do not think they can learn unless they are in a school.  Then if they lack such a resource they see no options.

A large part of cultural knowledge is cognitive -- you can gain an entrance through explanations in your native language, you can watch movies for cultural insight, you can read sources in your native tongue -- all these can help you move into target language.  But there is the social aspect of culture.

Communication events involve exchange of cultural information.  This is managed in the target language of the culture group and in the context of their common experiences.

Language is a motor skill.  A new language will feel funny, but difficult to produce.  It is analogous to riding a bicycle or mastering a physical sport.  The tongue, lips, throat and other speech apparatus have to learn new positions and sequences of positions.

This takes preparation, practice, mastery, training.  The learner will fall off the bicycle, have limited stamina and skill at first, but the total experience builds as one continues to work on the various aspects of the motor skills involved.


Here are some short-hand references to principles and techniques.


The natural learning sequence facilitates learning for most learners:
                                hearing, speaking, reading, writing (understanding)

Eyes can trip ears in the new language, because the only sound association a new learner (normally) has is the system from his native language.  This will be imposed upon the new language and patterns learned wrong are very hard to unlearn.

Unlearning takes enormous effort, which could be better used in correct learning of sound-symbol association by training the ear first.

Literacy can begin from the very first, even in a hard writing system, and grows at each stage.  Just learn how to represent what you have learned up to that point.  Remember:  You don't pronounce letters, but rather, letters represent sounds.

Association -- Work to build a strong event association, focusing on social, kinetic, visual reinforcement or setting, not grammatical structure.  Drama, directed activity.  We remember by association.  A communication event is associated with place, people, exchange, result.  Thus learning is retained better and reproduced better if initial learning is associated with a social event, a particular place, certain people, certain actions, etc.

Mastery is the goal, not just conscious awareness, not just understanding of the rules.  The theory of Generative Grammar focuses on the basic patterns and changes that can be generated.  The learner must master these and draw upon the subconscious models to generate sentences in appropriate variations.  Thus recurring practice on and use of basic grammatical structures is always worthwhile.

Focus and practice on the models/basic structures and the transformations/variations possible in the language. Work towards independent construction based on models and observed transformations. A helper can lead in questions and answers using the sentence pattern in focus.

Think in terms not of teaching the language, but facilitating learning.  Learners can help their tutors in this perspective.


Many techniques and activities can be used to foster learning, to create a learning environment.

Drills: The purpose of a drill is to focus on one feature or set, to reinforce that and lead to recognition and production.  Perform any activity which presents a model, and leads to mastery.  Reinforcement works better than simple correction.

Suggested applications -- use visuals for new texts drills: slides, magazines, pictures, stick figures, student position in relation to the helper, real life situations for environment reinforcement.

Enhance learning and motivation with:

Drama: Video, simple setup staging for model text, practice or free expression; written by student and corrected and extemporaneous; videos -- 3-5 minutes.

Directed dialogue: Question-answer; comment-response.

Comprehension:  exercises give command for various physical actions that can be performed in the room.  Individual command-action; group practice.

Directed comprehension drills: teacher commands student to give command to another student -- involve the class.

Instructions used in the classroom should always be in the target language:
           repeat, good, no, try again, listen, open books, read, come forward, write.

Social context: practice language in the cultural setting.  Learn on the spot from experiences in social contact.  Bring the learner's needs from actual situations into the next classroom session.

Kinetic learning: reinforces learning; gives higher recall than verbal or visual learning; spatial position or language -- communication association with movement, action, events.


Principles and Techniques based on notes from a presentation for an Inservice training session for language teachers at Skyline High School Dallas Independent School district, 1974; and
an inservice for language teachers at Rosslyn Academy, Nairobi, Kenya, 31 January 1995.

First Published as two articles in Focus on Communication Effectiveness:
Issue 22, December 1996, as "Perspectives:  Aspects of Language."
Issue 27, June 1998, as "Techniques:  Principles and Approaches of Language Learning."

This Version Posted 12 May 2000
Last edited 30 May 2006

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Email:  researchguy@iname.com

Copyright © 2000, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.
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