Language Learning and Community Engagement

By May 8, 2020July 23rd, 2020Faculty Blog

During the study abroad programs in South East Asia and Europe, our students here at SSU interact with linguistic and cultural communities vastly different from their own. They have opportunities to learn and practice foreign languages, which can sometimes be fun, and sometimes trigger the performance anxiety that many of us have experienced in similar situations. When we are learning to speak a foreign language, we often feel catapulted back into childhood, as we forego mastery of our mother tongue, and instead find ourselves stumbling for words and feeling a little foolish. But if we focus too hard on trying to “get it right” or judge ourselves for “getting it wrong” we often miss the beautiful, living exchange that is underway as we attempt to communicate.

In fact, grasping the idea of language as a mutual exchange can really alleviate potential performance anxiety around language learning. It is also an idea that I think is worth exploring as a metaphor for the kind of attitudes with which we can approach the developing Community Engagement aspect of our academic program.

So what exactly does it mean for language to be a mutual exchange?

In a TedX talk about hacking language learning, linguist Dr Conor Quinn emphasizes that “we make meaning together” and that we therefore need to “[learn] to lean on the other person’s full and complete knowledge of the language and even more on their willingness to help [us] make this conversation happen.” Indeed, among the characteristics of human language that are commonly agreed upon as distinct in comparison to animal communication, one is that of Joint Attention.

“Meat from a Cow”

While some animals, especially apes, demonstrate certain elements of joint attention (such as looking at the same thing and even being aware of looking at the same thing), they don’t appear to cooperate in the complicated way that humans can. In the communicative act, humans demonstrate remarkable shared intentionality as they work together as a team, needing to “read each other’s minds” in order to identify another’s goals, and thus be able to help them achieve those goals.

So when, in Barcelona as a leader on the 2017 Europe study abroad program, I used my limited Spanish to try to ask for ground beef in a supermarket – “Meat from a cow. Very small. Like a hamburger but not together!“ – the woman behind the meat counter really gave this communicative event her full attention, and after much laughter and many hand gestures, she ended up figuring it out and grinding me up some steak! From my “imperfect” effort at communication, and with her willing cooperation, I gained a linguistic success, the ability to make taco salad, and a special experience of human connection.

It is an incredible part of being human that we are constantly employing such complicated forms of teamwork to communicate with each other, whether in our own language or a foreign one. Though we’re aware that it is debatable whether we always truly understand each other, we nevertheless do often manage to arrive at shared meaning, and even get some things done together!

“The Mutuality of Language Can Teach Us”

As a metaphor for the way we approach Community Engagement as a university, the mutuality of language can teach us some important things. In our discussions as faculty about Community Engagement we have regularly mentioned the importance of mutuality in student opportunities to engage with the wider community. We and many of our students desire to serve our town and region in positive ways and not be stuck in an “ivory tower,” but we are also very aware of not wanting to pretend to be the saviours or to have all the answers. We hope that Community Engagement will have a component of mutuality at its core, where our students are useful and make real contributions, and are also consciously aware of being learners, approaching the whole enterprise with a good deal of humility, so that both parties in any interaction come away with benefit, learning, and connection.

To return to Dr Quinn’s words, “we make meaning together” and this involves “learning to lean on the other person’s full and complete knowledge of the language and even more on their willingness to help you make this conversation happen.”  Community partners will in some senses speak a language that our students do not yet know – the language of, for example, a particular industry, company, or not-for-profit. I hope that our Community Engagement program can prepare students to enter any situation with an awareness that different “languages” are being spoken and learned; with a clear understanding of mutual goals and shared intentionality; and with skills for dialogue and mutual exchange. Ideally, both sides of any partnership will know that they can lean on the other’s knowledge, and on their common willingness to make this conversation – this exchange, this project – happen. (And hopefully they will also have some fun in the process!)

Rachael Barham


For more on St. Stephen’s University’s active role in community engagement, check out these opportunities:

SSU Community Engagement Scholarship

Community Appreciation Campaign

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