I see in my little essays so far a recurring question: What is it like to learn a foreign language? My theme is officially: what is it like to teach a foreign language? However, four out of five of my first subjects are American-born Anglophones. Only Chris Overstreet teaches a language she has used continuously since she was a child. In the other cases, the “target language” was learned after childhood.
Most teachers, of course, teach something they once learned in school, but this is not true in the same way for language teachers as for, say, philosophy teachers. Many of them, like Chris, teach their native language. Moreover, many American professors of foreign language want to teach literature, film, comparative linguistics, or some other metalanguage—not the most elementary communicative skills.
To want to teach these skills, I assume, it helps to remember learning them as a pleasure or a powerful achievement. As a beginner, the adult learner may enjoy the process of decoding and understanding the relationships between languages; but something else is required to reach beyond this into real proficiency and identification with another culture.
Elinore Fresh spoke Chinese as a child and Kathy Dwyer-Navajas heard Spanish spoken in her grandmother’s home. However, they both emphasized how difficult it was for them to acquire (or re-acquire) these languages in college and graduate school. Perhaps the childhood exposure clarified for them the scope of expression in these languages. (I could be romantic and say that these languages represented for them the lost world of childhood.)
Susan Kubota and Sherrie Nunn, on the other hand, decided to learn the languages they teach without childhood experience of them. A work of literature, the Tale of Genji, inspired teenage Susan to study Japanese on her own. Sherrie, at a younger age, was fascinated by her older sister’s Spanish homework, but she was only able to study Italian in grad school, when it was just one of her Romance languages, along with Spanish, Portuguese and French.
Learning a foreign language is hard, and it is not a process that ends at the end of the semester, but it is exciting and life-changing. Kathy tells her students “I did it, and so can you.” Elinore looks to games and songs to awaken the child-learner in her students. Susan can exploit her students’ motivations, which often involve a passion for Japanese culture (just like the desire that brought her to the language). Sherrie and Elinore both talked about strategies to get students to make the leap from thinking about what to say, to actual speech and participation in a social exchange.
Kathy wondered, when she was researching her dissertation in Argentina, how deeply it is possible to understand a Latin American culture if you did not grow up hearing the language, seeing the words around you on signs and packaging. Sherrie commented that, much as she loved Spanish, the multiplicity of Hispanic cultures meant that she never felt as if she belonged to a single one of them (whereas after a year in Rome she had an identity within Italian culture). The position of the teacher of a learned language seems to me to lie between these two problematic situations. You know enough about the language and culture to be aware than you will never know enough. And teaching the language becomes the way to keep learning it.