This Whole Language-Learning Thing Really Affects People

Sometimes when I’m thinking and writing about all of these issues around language acquisition, so much of it can seem so highly technical or theoretical that I wonder if it’s all just academic with little actual relevance to everyday people’s lives.

Then I see or hear something that reminds me of the real need for better ways for people to pick up languages, and the huge consequences of limiting or simply incorrect ideas about language learning, leading to many opportunities (and perhaps even languages!) being silently lost.

I looked at some of these limiting ideas in a recent post on heritage language learners, many of whom seem discouraged as a result of the influence of “traditional” language learning approaches that put the focus on the language itself through study and practice.

Without knowledge of how they can improve in their language through comprehensible input and meaningful communication, many of these learners appear to give up on their heritage languages despite the great foundations they already have in them.

I saw another example of ignorance around language acquisition having big consequences in a TV interview that aired several years ago in Canada, where English and French are official languages and Quebec’s status as the sole Francophone majority province shapes the politics of the country.

Canadian politician and diplomat Stephen Lewis

CBC News chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge was talking to former Ontario New Democratic Party leader and former Canadian UN Ambassador Stephen Lewis.

The interview came during the 2012 federal NDP leadership race following the death of the popular Jack Layton, who had led the party to Official Opposition status in the House of Commons.

Mansbridge asked whether it had ever occurred to Lewis to join the race, noting the support for him he had seen on social media.

Lewis replied (watch at 03:38):

You know, Peter, it never occurred to me and there’s a very simple reason for it: I don’t speak French. And I don’t believe that the leader of the New Democratic Party, whoever the next leader is, can’t be other than comfortable in both languages. It’s just got to be. It’s not merely the 59 [House of Commons] seats in Quebec, it’s just the nature of the country. It would be wrong, fundamentally wrong, I think, not to be comfortable in French.

MANSBRIDGE: Did you ever try?

LEWIS: To learn French? Oh yes. As a matter of fact, I actually took a session with my wife and younger daughter at l’Institut de Français at Villefranche-sur-Mer, courtesy of the Canadian government, where you go for a month and you can only speak French and if they catch you not speaking French you’re fined—significantly—and I was the first person in the 50-year history of the institute who didn’t pass. [laughter] Everybody else had passed over five decades and I managed to flunk. I’m just really lousy in languages.

Here we have someone who could be a formidable candidate for leadership in Canadian federal politics given his experience and charisma citing his perceived failure and inability to learn a language as a reason not to run.

To be fair, Lewis also cites his age and a need for a younger generation of leaders as reasons, but it’s clear that limiting ideas and beliefs about language learning have had an impact on him, and perhaps even significantly altered his career path.

Lewis appears to have taken a number of ideas from the way the French program he attended is set up and interpreted them to support his I think mistaken conclusion that he’s “just really lousy in languages.”

In my next post I will examine these ideas in more detail, and suggest some alternative approaches that might suit many people better—especially those who feel that they’re “lousy in languages”.

I’m not saying that these ideas are being specifically put forward by the French program where Lewis studied, but they do represent things that many people believe about language learning and may take from such a program.

Lewis’s anecdote gives us another example of the impact that misconceptions about language acquisition and the lack of better information and opportunities can have, not just on individual lives, but on entire societies at many levels.

This whole language-learning thing really affects people!

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