I read an article years ago about how a teacher knew the moment she had gotten through to her French students when they started cracking jokes in their newly learned language. When students stop seeing language as a set of boxes and brackets and stop flipping through their mental Google to “match the words”, they experience a whole new world of humor and a whole new lens with which to view the world. Once they realize that an apple is an apple, but it’s also una manzana, that’s a great start. But when they learn that in other places kids don’t pack manzanas for their school snack (they may pack guavas) that’s opening a whole different world of opportunities for them.
The words we use are a direct reflection of the ways we use them. It’s difficult to really understand reflexive, formal, subjunctive, differentiated genders and pronouns, tones, and other linguistic and grammatical tools until we put them to work. Many English speakers have a moment of realization when they find that sarcasm doesn’t translate to many languages. Languages have their own tools for imparting intent or context, and once we discover them, we learn a lot about the culture of a place. How much does the originating mix of West African languages affect the culture of Haitian Creole speakers? What does our own immersion in English bring to the table, as far as the ability to express or understand the spectrum of human emotion and natural occurrences?
Inside the classroom, there are unquestionable social dynamics that affect participation and verbal exploration. Many language learners are intimidated by the skills and confidence of others, and are overcome by their own embarrassment that becomes a barrier to trying (and failing) at new words. This is the case with adults too, and may be part of why it’s harder for adults to learn a language: self-consciousness is a powerful universal emotion.
While traveling, there are many opportunities to speak with strangers where using an adopted language is your only option to complete a task. This redirection of focus (to the task rather than the words themselves) creates enough distraction to allow the words to come out, failure and all. Strangers don’t care if you mispronounce something, they’re usually just impressed with the effort.
Existential Reflection and Humor
A teacher once pointed out to me the basal difference in the way different languages interact with their world. Stating “I like this chair” versus “this chair pleases me” gives different agency to the object and subject and changes the actor into the acted-upon. This affects the way people think about their feelings, and how they engage with their surroundings. This neuroplasticity that multilingualism requires also allows for some very funny outcomes. Humor is a complex subject and a well-researched topic in recent years. It has to do with language, context, positionality, and is sometimes very difficult to pick up or understand in a non-native language or culture. But once you start catching the rhythm and joy of another culture or person’s humor (and how it relates to your own), you start to really understand where people are coming from.
When you give students the agency to explore their surroundings, test their social boundaries, challenge their egos, and think about the world from another person’s perspective, it will change their worldview and especially their own understanding and sense of self. Aside from the professional and social benefits of being able to speak with people in their own native language, it also has the power to create a deep cross-cultural understanding for all participating communities. Taking students out of the classroom and pulling them into real-world, low-risk, high-outcome situations is an effective way to increase the efficacy and application of classroom programming.
Lauren brings experience from across Rustic Pathways’ sales and operations, including as our Strategic Partnerships Manager and USA Country Director. She lives between two Caribbean cities—New Orleans and Santo Domingo—and spends time by the ocean in New England where she grew up. She is a Temple University alumnus and non-fiction reader. You can usually find her hosting unexpected parties, exploring cities, or hiking the bayous with her family.