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Language Learning is Weaving a Rope

Reframing Language Learning for Teachers and Students

If we want to change the way that predominantly monolingual societies think about multilingualism, it’s clear that the public discourse needs to change. How do we do that? One part of the job involves getting teachers and students to reframe what language learning is. How about using a metaphor to do that?

I’ve been following what people say about this since before I began writing Babel No More, my 2012 book about the upper limits of the ability to speak, learn, and use languages. In many popular discussions about learning in general, writers and thinkers find fame and fortune when they play up the role of effort, discipline, and practice. In what I call “the 10,000 hours industrial complex,” it’s good business to hook onto the prominent idea that people can make themselves into anything they want to, simply by applying the right effort in a motivated way over enough time. It’s also good business to downplay the role of inborn organic factors.

Michael Erard edits Schwa Fire. He is a linguist, writer, and consultant. 

I had a recent Twitter exchange with a language tutor in the UK who justified downplaying talent because too many students told her, “I don’t have any talent for languages, so I’m just going to give up.” She tells them that talent doesn’t matter—if they stick to the task, they’ll succeed.

I want to recommend a better response. Before I do, let me tell you more about myself. For five years, I worked at a strategic communications think tank in Washington, DC, the FrameWorks Institute, where we used social-science methods to reframe social issues such as learning, education reform, early-childhood development, addiction science, and criminal-justice reform. We worked from the assumption that everyone possesses default ways of understanding the world. These are called “cultural models,” and we have them in our heads, passed down by our parents, and reinforced by our informational environment. The cultural models that people possess enable certain messages but can disable others. To know how to communicate to people, you have to understand their models.

When someone says, “I don’t have any talent for language learning,” that’s an expression of a cultural model about language and about learning.

Likewise, responding that “talent doesn’t matter, it’s all about hard work” is an expression of a cultural model as well. That’s why it’s so easy and familiar to respond that way. In individualistic cultures, people believe strongly in the primacy of hard work in shaping individual outcomes. In Babel No More, I called it the “will to plasticity.”

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But pushing talent off the table is also problematic. There are four reasons. The first is that it’s scientifically inaccurate. We should be talking about the dynamic interplay between organic factors and individual effort, because creating good learning outcomes isn’t zero sum. We should also be talking about environments and access to resources. Along with “grit” there has to be “fit.”

Saying that talent doesn’t matter can also be detrimental in the long term, when learners perceive that their hard work should be producing better results. In reality, that difference is aptitude (or talent, or whatever name you give to organic, innate factors). But when the teacher has discounted aptitudes and talents, he or she can’t use them to explain what’s going on.

By not talking about aptitudes and talents, the teacher has also removed a pedagogical resource, which is the third reason not to dismiss them. Modern theorists of language learning aptitude such as Peter Robinson talk about aptitude as a cluster of abilities; these clusters are more or less suited for different stages of learning. The teacher should be able to say, “You do bring strengths to this and you do bring weaknesses; let’s orient you to the strengths and boost the weaknesses.” The teacher should also be able to say, “Your strengths will be most useful for this part of the process and not that.” But if you’ve discounted aptitude and talent, you can’t talk about it.

Let me back up and say that the frames around learning and the stories that circulate are very important for what learners think is possible. Change the frames, get different outcomes. I believe this and support research to empirically demonstrate it.

I ought to say that I’ve studied Spanish and Mandarin intensively and lived and traveled in places where those languages were spoken. I also taught English as a foreign language to a range of students in Taiwan in the early 1990s, and I taught writing in university settings. I'm not naive to language learning or to teaching. 

A final reason why the “talent doesn’t matter” response is dangerous: it doesn’t account for another cultural model that I suspect influences how Americans think about foreign-language learning. In her book The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley notes that Americans have relatively high scores in reading and writing on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test compared to their numerical-reasoning scores. Why? She speculates that it’s because Americans believe that you get better at reading and writing if you practice—just like sports.

But math and music belong to a different conceptual category of pursuits to Americans. In the math/music category, Americans believe that performance is a function of something organic and inborn, whether personality, gift, or even ethnicity and race. I don’t know for sure, because no one appears to have researched Americans’ cultural models of language learning, but I suspect that they put languages other than English into the math and music category. If you want to get people to stick with languages, you have to get them to think of the activity differently. (For that reason, you can’t attract Americans to language learning by comparing language to music. It’s better to say that French or Spanish or Mandarin is baseball.)

All this is to say: The best way to answer the students’ frustration is to keep in mind their cultural models about learning.

At the FrameWorks Institute, we recommended that people reframe an issue using a combination of elements that usually involved a metaphor. In this case, I can recommend the best metaphor to use to reframe language skills, because I was part of an interdisciplinary team that designed and tested it. Out of six candidate metaphors, one worked best to change the way people talked and reasoned about skills: learning skills as weaving ropes.

Ropes, as everybody knows, are made up of multiple strands, and language skills, like other skills, are made up of cognitive, social, and emotional components. Learners have to have those strands modeled, and they also have to be given opportunities to practice weaving those strands together. Some of the cognitive strands are given because you’re born with them (and they include working-memory capacity, brain processing speed, and general plasticity factors), while others are more plastic and can be enhanced. The social and emotional strands involve activities like dealing with boredom, staying focused on tasks, doing fun things, dealing with errors, social anxieties, and seeking out opportunities to use a new language. All these strands are related to each other, and the rope as a whole needs all these strands to be as strong as they can be.

Putting that all together, I’d present this metaphor at the beginning of a class if I were a teacher, and I’d bring it up again at multiple points, including when someone wanted to quit because they “have no talent.”

Learning these new language skills is like weaving a rope. There are a lot of strands that go into a rope, and they have to all be tightly woven together in order for that rope to be usable. Its true that some of those strands are related to abilities that were born with—we all bring some strands to the task of weaving skills. But some strands were given. And no matter what we start with, we all need opportunities to weave those strands together.

What are the types of strands? There are cognitive, social, and emotional strands. Some people come with really powerful cognitive strands, but even they are going to have to develop the other parts of their rope. None of the strands by themselves are going to make this rope usable. So lets try to figure out what you want your language-skills rope to be able to do, and lets figure out what strands were going to need to weave together in order for you to achieve that.

Try out this metaphor and tell me what you find out. The next issue of Schwa Fire will have an editorial about reframing foreign-language learning at the societal level.

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