Language Learning for Academics Part. 2 : Structuring your Learning

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By Emily Sieg and Willi Barthold

In the last post, we discussed the advantages and disadvantages of taking a course with native and non-native speakers of the target language. In this post, we’d like to discuss what strategies you can employ once you’ve entered the classroom or perhaps already have some semesters behind you. Coming from a systemic functional linguistics (SFL) approach to language learning, we embrace the notion that language is at heart about making choices rather than rote memory of abstract grammar rules. Perhaps that sounds at odds with our last post, which touted the grammatical self-awareness of the non-native speaker, but give us a moment to explain.

Rather than viewing grammar as the ragged cliff that you must summit before “mastering” a language, considerate it more like the “guidelines” that can lead to appropriate or conventional language choices that can optimize your meaning making potential. If we think back to the native and non-native speakers, the native speaker was socialized into the language and thus inherently knows when language choices are appropriate within a given social context and when they sound like “mistakes”. The non-native speaker, on the other hand, must internalize these conventions in order to maximize the likelihood that someone else will understand what they mean to say (or almost as importantly, do not mean to say). By thinking about language in this way, its fundamentally social basis comes into focus: if we need grammar, then it is only because grammar contains the generically approved formulations that make us mutually intelligible. Taken a step further, it goes a long way when learning a language to reorient yourself away from the right/wrong paradigm towards the appropriate/inappropriate paradigm of language usage, because language is intrinsically grounded in culturally specific communicative contexts.

Since the authors are both German speakers, we’d like to take a few examples from German to illustrate the point. As does not need to be explained to professional historians, “Germany” historically speaking was not a unified political, economic or even linguistic unit. Regionalism has and continues to play a major role in Germany and especially in consideration to German-speakers within not only the Federal Republic of Germany, but also Switzerland, Austria and other enclaves around the world from Brazil to the Caucasus. What sounds “right” to one of these groups may sound “wrong” to another or even go against the grain of codified grammar rules. For example, while Germans and especially Berliner like to substitute in the dative case wherever possible, a Swiss national might emphasize the grammatically accurate genitive: not wegen demWetter, but wegendesWetters. Of course, the Berliner might not have even understood the correction because Swiss speakers have at times an incomprehensible accent to the North German ear. But consider then if an overly confident American language learner points out the genitive to the Berliner, the American will not be credited with having rectified a “mistake” but for clinging to outdated grammar rules that no longer reflect the living language. (Coda: you’ll ultimately want language input from as many diverse sources as possible, because only then will you understand the nuance of “appropriateness”.)

Appropriateness in turn is all about context. What is appropriate in one context will not be appropriate in another. Therefore, in addition to recommending that you take a step away from the grammar tables and right/wrong paradigm, we encourage you to think more systematically about context and genre. Are you the American telling off a Berlin graduate student? If yes, then hopefully you’ve assumed that your native speaker language partner has equal or better linguistic awareness than yourself, but you chose to point out the genitive in the context of a collegial jest and not a fit of being a know-it-all. In the former case, you may have made a friend, in the latter, you may have just lost one. 

In the context of archival research, the same rules of appropriateness apply. When reading 300-year-old poetry, the word order rules and spelling conventions that you’ve agonized over for hours could get thrown out the window, but being able to recognize the difference between genitive and dative might be the key to decoding it all. If you’re looking at diplomatic correspondence from the 18thcentury, forms of address and the hierarchical differences between du, Sie, Ihr, Er and Euer Liebden will of no doubt be of importance even though no textbook addresses all of these forms. Thus when dealing with historical texts, your ability to understand these sources will come down to how well you can acclimate yourself to the conventions of the genre you are reading. 

Consequently, try to think systematically about what you need language for and attempt to identify as soon as possible what aspects of language will be most meaningful to you – not everyone needs to know five+ degrees of respectful address, but maybe you do. If you are just starting a language, grappling with even the most basic of such language conventions is undoubtedly difficult, but this is where it would be useful to have an instructor to ask. Personally, when our students come to use with specific learning goals, we almost always have tips or advice that could be useful to that student. Even though the average curriculum is catered to suit the needs of a generic student, an instructor’s input during office hours can be very enlightening when determining where to invest your time and resources. 

In the absence of an instructor, there are other methods for teaching yourself what you need to know. Take for example the tedious task of writing a grant application. Whether in your native tongue or a foreign one, this exercise is rarely a joy for anyone. Fortunately, online guides exist in all languages for application letters of all kinds. Taking an extra hour to look at other examples of the genre will always be worth the time and effort. When reading samples of the genre you want to emulate, take note of certain phrases that are recurring and make sure to use them yourself. Maybe it hurts your independent streak or feels like plagiarism to copy phrasing, but every serious German selection committee will have more respect for the clichéd “Für weitere Frage stehe ich Ihnen gerne zur Verfügung” than the “Bitte fragen Sie mich, wenn Sie was wissen wollen” that you were able to come up with on your own. It’s all about appropriateness for the context: there are just conventionalized ways that a selection committee expects to be addressed and it would behoove you to learn what those conventions are. If something in an example foreign language grant application looks “off” to you, see if it is a recurring feature, not a bug. That might tell you that you’re the one who will look “off” if you fail to include it, even though you never once considered writing something similar in English.

Over the course of these two posts we hope we have been able to provide some practical advice for language learning. Whether it be choosing a native or non-native language instructor or determining how to prioritize your studies, we encourage you to consider the context in which you are learning and the context in which you hope to apply your language skills. All language learner needs are individual, but the basis of language learning is premised in identifying and contextualizing social conventions. Wherever you are with whatever resources you have, keeping this principle in mind can help you make the most of your current language capabilities as well as steer you in the direction that is most appropriate for your own needs.