The Real Reasons for Learning Languages

by Martyn Rawson

(Reprinted with kind permission from Steiner Education, Vol.30, No.2, July 1996)
Herodotus, the Greek historian, records an experiment designed to reveal what the original language of mankind was. The Egyptian King Psammetrich I ordered two newborn children to be removed to the desert wilderness and placed in the care of a goatherd who was forbidden to speak to them. The children grew up in this environment with only the dumb goatherd and his goats for company. The experiment was designed to see if the children would develop language out of themselves. After two years the children were recalled and examined. All they said was “bek bek”, presumably in imitation of the goats. The King made inquiries among his more travelled and learned courtiers and established that the Phrygian word “bekos” meant bread. Thus, the royal psycholinguist deduced, Phrygian must be the original language of mankind. Modern linguistic research has not borne this discovery out.

The Old Testament recalls (Genesis 11) that “the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech”, but that in the midst of building the tower subsequently known as Babel, the Lord went down and confounded “their language that they may not understand one another’s speech.” Following this stage of language development the scattered peoples of the earth expressed them-selves in various tongues and dialects.

The Acts of the Apostles (2) recalls how at Pentecost the Apostles “were filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak with other tongues” and when the cosmopolitan multitude of Jerusalem gathered on hearing the commotion, they “were confounded because that every man heard them speak in his own tongue”. Out of the Babel of diversity each individual heard and understood, as if they had been addressed in their own language.

At an elementary level we can all experience our ability to comprehend, however approximately, a person with whom we share no common language. Body language, intonation, the clouding or sparkling of the eyes, are all means by which we can understand each other. Whatever subtleties are lost in translations, the very fact that it is possible, to an exact degree, to translate languages, implies the existence of a universal human language. In principle all spoken languages can be translated into any other. Even some languages only known by their script can be, at least partially, translated.

The other Biblical experience (Babel) is also an all too common one, even among people who nominally retain the same formal language. How many industrial disputes, marriage break-downs and social conflicts involve people simply not understanding each other in spite of a common language?

The lessons implicit in these mythological pictures are instructive. The brutal experiment of the Egyptian king at least demonstrated what modern linguistics has confirmed, that language does not arise of itself, in-born or ‘hard-wired’ into the brain. It also points significantly to the element of imitation in language learning. The Biblical images remind us that a universal language of human understanding has been lost and can be found.

At a time when the international endeavours of political institutions such as the United Nations or the European Union are committed to encouraging internationalism, multiculturalism and ethnic tolerance, the counter forces of xenophobia and ethnic conflict remain as potent as ever. The breakdown of the superpower control mechanisms has unleashed suppressed and latent tensions that all too often find expression in an acute need for peoples to assert their ethnic identity. And thus identity is profoundly tied up with language. It shouldn’t surprise us to see with what tenacity people cling to their language in the face of generations of education programmes designed to suppress it. Culture is to language what a glove is to a hand; and language is the bond which holds a people together.

We know from human evolution that language ability as we now possess it was one of the key, if not the key, determining factors in the making of mankind. With the ability to communicate, as we now can, our ancestors not only had the means to express their full humanity but they also possessed the essential tool to colonize the world from the Arctic to the Antarctic Circles. Language bonds, facilitates and expresses the group. It also identifies ‘them’ from ‘us’.

One of the things that research into foreign language learning has identified is that, as a rule, only languages learned before puberty, and especially in early childhood, are spoken without a ‘foreign’ accent. Language almost always betrays the outsider. Almost invariably accent identifies who ‘is not from round here’. This is even true of dialect. It is rare for someone beyond puberty to be able to plausibly sustain another regional dialect of their own native tongue. The locals will always be able to tell. Those with an aptitude for these things can tell a Hull from a Grimsby accent, two towns separated by the River Humber.

Language then has to do with people, the work they do, the lives they lead, the songs they sing and the place they live in. Languages tell us how a people think and experience the world, what their priorities are; whether they have one or twenty ways of saying hello, or have 40 words for different qualities, forms and types of snow but no general word for snow, or whether they appear to understand each other despite the fact that most spoken sentences are fragmentary, un-finished and the words interspersed with the meaningless syllables ahm or er.

Learning a foreign language usually doesn’t make us ‘one of them’ but it does give us more or less insight into how ‘they’ experience them-selves and the world. The more one has imbibed a language at a formative stage i.e. when one is young, and the more one has been immersed in the cultural ‘waters’ of the people and the place, the nearer one comes to think and feel like them. People who can move effortlessly between several languages often find that some experiences can best be formulated in say, German, while other thoughts in French have a certain ‘je ne sais pas’. The Englishwoman who prefers saying “ciao” on leaving, clearly has a different experience in mind than if she would say “ta’ra luv”. Our response to either farewell will be correspondingly varied.

Other languages not only give us windows into the soul of other people, they also expand our own realm of experience. Furthermore, learning even one other language awakens us to our own language, thus giving us another dimension to our own self-knowledge.

I stress these aspects of language learning not because I feel anyone needs to be persuaded that foreign languages are a good thing but to draw attention to the pedagogical implications for how we should learn and teach them. The usefulness of speaking some foreign languages in today’s world goes without saying.

One of the unique features of Steiner Waldorf Education over the past 75 years has been that children are taught two modern languages from the age of six onwards. (Schools who only offer one language are usually limited by resources or lack of staff and would if they could.) In so doing, the pragmatic viewpoint of the utility of foreign languages is complemented by a whole range of other educational intentions. The obvious ones of inspiring a genuine multiculturalism, in the sense described above, and of deepening the awareness for the native tongue are supplemented by other educational ‘spin-offs’.

Learning a language means learning to be still, to listen and to concentrate. It means being open to the challenge of the unknown, the unexpected and it means having the confidence to have a go, to try the unfamiliar, to learn from mistakes in an active willing way. In listening to another person we have to let go of ourselves a little and slip into the other’s train of thought, if we want to really understand them. The foreign language demands this of us to a heightened degree. In response when we speak, and especially when we try to use a foreign language we have to wake up to our own feelings, thoughts and intentions. Language learning strengthens the ability to listen to the other person as much as it helps us to clarify what we actually wish to say – both qualities that are often not in evidence in much of our social intercourse.

Only if we can follow, understand and grasp what the other person is saying (whether in a foreign language or not) can we empathise or make a balanced judgement. There are no more important qualities in social life where we are called upon to understand increasingly complex human situations. We not only have to comprehend but we may also have to act on behalf of or in defence of others. How else can we really welcome the outsider, the immigrant, the alienated, the inarticulate, the physically, emotionally or spiritually homeless into our literal and metaphorical homes?

The method used for teaching foreign languages in Steiner Waldorf schools adapts to the changing developmental needs of the children. In the first 3 or 4 years the children learn their languages orally in a way analogous to the learning of the native tongue. Since the children are no longer babies this is obviously done with more consciousness. Nevertheless, imitation plays a very significant role in language learning. Recent physiological studies have shown how important muscle movement and tension are for language acquisition. The American researcher William Condon filmed children both speaking and listening and noted that the hearer accompanies the speech intonations and rhythms of the speaker in tiny, but perceptible micromovements of the whole muscle system but particularly the larynx. Condon referred to both speaker and listener “dancing to the same rhythms”. Many other studies have confirmed Steiner’s view that speaking is concentrated and internalized bodily movement.

The foreign language is strongly and warmly identified with the personality of the teacher who works consciously with the role of representative for both language and culture – in short for the quality of’ Frenchness”, “Germanness” and so on. Even the non-native speaker can do this through his or her use of material, gesture and teaching aids (such as cakes or other appropriate delicacies typical of the culture, puppets or dolls, items of costume and shopping basket items, to give only a few examples). The warmth is important, for as the linguist Harald Weinrich established in 1981, the ideal psychological state for learning language is one of “relaxed awareness”.

The children participate in a fluent series of songs, poems, counting rhymes, skipping chants and games designed to engage them and to carry them in the stream of the language. As well as oral work the children also enact situations in a free and lively way. Whole exchanges of dialogue can be learned by heart and an extensive range of vocabulary and grammatical structures are acquired in situ, as it were, rather than in an abstract, conceptual way.

Grammatical structures form the basis of all speaking. Thus all the basic forms are learned through actual use, though the children will have as little knowledge of grammar as they had in learning their mother tongue. Modern research has established that children learn language, either their first or subsequent ones, initially in the form of ‘chunks’, that is combinations of sounds that form a semantic unity, without realizing that these may consist of a series of separate words and parts of speech. The process of analysing this synthesis of sound and association belongs after the age of 10 when children have begun to develop the cognitive ability to recognise speech functions such as verbs, nouns, adjectives etc. in their own language.

This process begins with learning to write some of the things the children have already learned orally by heart. They read what they have written themselves in the security of already knowing what it means. There is a tangible joy in the encounter and recognition of the familiar and unfamiliar form – an attitude which if retained into adult life in other realms, encourages an inquisitive mind. Much of the fourth school class (age 9-10) language lessons are taken up with mastering the basic orthography of the foreign languages. De-pending on the languages, this takes more or less time. Russian, with its different alphabet is a long haul, German with its basically phonetic spellings takes less time.

Because language is such a personal experience the children take great pride in Mon Grand Cahier de Français, Mein erstes Deutschbuch, self-made, hand-written text-books containing everything we know. It may not contain literally ‘everything’ but it does contain the essentials. As the pupils move on up the school, the one book will certainly be replaced by specialised books for grammatical rules, vocabulary, written exercises, diaries, poetry-books and so on. A difficult spelling or particularly tricky verb form are best remembered when the pupil has had the opportunity to grasp its use and then is given the time to formulate their own ‘aide de memoire’. These are far more useful then most drily written books of syntax. At the right time the pupils may be introduced to their first reader.

There is not the space here to enter into a detailed account of language teaching methodology in the Middle School (age 11-14). Recitation, singing, dialogue, conversation, play-acting and improvisation remain the core work, though this is naturally supplemented by a systematic learning of the formal use of language. Vocabulary and the application of grammatical form need to be regularly exercised until they become faculty.

Inasmuch as the Upper School (14-18) examination syllabuses allow a Waldorf language curriculum ‘room to breathe’, the new interests and abilities of this age group will require new approaches. It is usually found very fruitful to make concentrated and comprehensive review of all the main grammatical elements so that the young people can find a new conceptual relationship to the languages.

At this age the students will have great interest in historical and cultural aspects of the nations where their chosen languages are spoken. Their interest will be particularly stimulated by discussions on recent socio-political issues as well as the artistic expression of other cultures. As with the approach to literature, a good foundation in the geographical and historical background is essential. Where interest has been awakened, even quite challenging literature can be tackled.

Many Steiner Waldorf pupils have the opportunity to visit or attend a Steiner school abroad. One of the many advantages of being an international schools’ movement is that contacts can readily be made and the shared Waldorf curriculum makes integration relatively straight forward. On leaving school, many pupils take the opportunity to travel, or to work abroad as volunteers in communities working with handicapped or socially disadvantaged people, or for aid organisations. It’s not only that their languages come in handy, it’s more their openness to the challenging and unfamiliar, that stands Waldorf pupils in good stead. To be able to listen, understand and communicate with other people in radically different life circum-stances and cultures is what makes a person a world citizen.

And so perhaps future generations will be able to work from the Babel experience to the Whitsun experience more effectively than we have done. There is no better way to cultivate our universal humanity than to help children to liberate them-selves from the narrow confines of one view of the world, and develop an interest, an enthusiasm – a love even, for the ‘other’. In the global disaster that was the First World War, Rudolf Steiner realised that the only way to prevent it happening again was to encourage cultural awareness among children and young people, particularly through language teaching. Language teaching in the Waldorf schools should be, he felt the schooling of the ability to empathise with other people; it is social pedagogy; it is education towards peace, not through discussion or being informed alone, but through the development of the ability to perceive, because even between people who speak different languages, that which separates them will be swept away, if each person vividly experiences what the other person experiences through their language.

Martyn Rawson has teaching experience both in Germany and England, as class teacher, language teacher and Upper School specialist.

© 2023 Donna Simmons

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