Inspirational Purposes of Language Teaching: 7 Pick-me-ups for Paramount Performance
“This homework was so hard. It took forever to finish!”
“Why can’t this language have an alphabet? I just don’t get these characters at all!”
“Dude! Not the subjunctive again!”
Do you ever hear your students say things like this?
Even your best students?
Does it discourage you?
Well, it shouldn’t!
Language learning is hard, and some languages are harder to learn than others.
You know what else? Language teaching is hard, too! Students have different learning styles and various reasons for coming to our classrooms, and we need to find a way to best accommodate as many students as possible with our limited time and resources.
There are inevitably times when—at the end of a long, tough day—we wonder why we continue to teach.
The truth is, many teachers leave the classroom each year, never to return. If you love teaching, don’t let this be you! Our students persevere, and so should we!
But how, exactly?
For starters, always think about why you’re in the classroom and what you want to accomplish with your students.
Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions.
For example, why do we do what we do? Why do we teach languages? What is the purpose or, should I say, purposes of our language teaching? And how do we ensure that we have a classroom that meets these goals and expectations?
When we ask ourselves these questions, we may discover that what we see as our purposes and goals in the classroom actually overlap with what our students hope to get out of our classes.
We may even find that teaching a class that meets these goals isn’t as hard as we thought.
So let’s consider some good reasons for both you and your students to be in the classroom.
Deconstructing the Purpose of Language Teaching: 7 Big Pieces of the Puzzle
1. We teach to provide a marketable skill
We may not like to think about the marketability of what we teach. We like to think that we teach just to pass along knowledge and wisdom, but our students increasingly think about what they are going to do with what we teach them out in the “real world,” and we should keep this in the back of our heads as well.
This question has become especially important in higher education, where the humanities, social sciences and liberal arts (where language teaching is often housed), have found themselves under increased scrutiny for their “usefulness.”
Language teaching provides our students with a measurable skill that can increase their qualifications for jobs and perhaps their salaries upon starting them.
This means that we should strive to have a proficiency-based classroom and curriculum, where all five language skills are taught and tested to ensure that our students are best prepared for their post-graduate careers.
This is not only because such an approach meets international best practices in language instruction, but also because we cannot predict how they will use the language when they leave our classroom.
Will they negotiate deals verbally? In written form? Will they have to serve as a translator or interpreter? With preparation or on the fly? Will they have to serve as a cultural adviser, helping to understand both what is said or written and what remains unstated? Or will they need to read and research the foreign press for information? Will they need to listen to or watch press conferences or board meetings or even TV commercials or news shows? Will they need to listen to internet radio?
We simply don’t know.
But if we ensure that they gain a high level of proficiency in reading, writing, listening and speaking, with the appropriate cultural information (including history, literature, politics and popular entertainment), we will give them the tools they need to succeed beyond the classroom!
2. We teach to share a culture
If we’re teaching our first language, what do we love about our culture that we wish to share?
If we’re teaching our second language, what drew us to studying that language in the first place? Was it just the language? Was it the history, literature or politics? A love for or interest in its culture?
We can share our love of that culture through language teaching.
Enthusiasm is infectious. What we get excited about is easily passed along to our students. They will grow to be enthusiastic as well and, if we’re lucky, pass that enthusiasm on to others!
Why is it important to show this enthusiasm early on? Not only because we want our students to return again and again and again to our language classroom, but also because we want them to go out and explore these cultural realms themselves.
Often, the only way to explore the human condition as represented in a foreign place is through reading that culture’s literature, examining its history and actually studying the culture. This all allows an examination of how that nation and its people approach moral dilemmas and other difficult situations. It might take a long time to discover this through traditional language study alone, but we can help our students by teaching culture, even a little, from the earliest days onward.
How can we do this? Through authentic materials, for a start. Rather than making culture a separate part of our language classes, we can teach it at the same time as the language itself.
We can use snippets of literature to teach a grammar point, leading our students to read the entire work.
We can show a segment from a TV show or a famous movie.
We can use authentic video clips from FluentU that are up-to-date and classroom-ready.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
All of this encourages our students to explore more of the culture on their own through real-world media, which will help to develop listening comprehension skills. It will also teach important phrases that have come into common parlance.
Without this cultural knowledge, our students might understand the words that someone says, but they might not always understand the ideas behind them.
3. We teach to increase global understanding
Globalization. Internationalization. Intercultural communication.
These terms are tossed around so often now, both inside and outside of academia, that they have almost lost their true substance, seeming more like buzzwords used by those who really don’t know what they mean.
But the truth is, if considered correctly and carefully, they are very necessary, not as trendy topics, but as worthy and meaningful goals. And what better way for our students to learn about these concepts than through learning a foreign language?
In fact, these goals represent exactly what we have been teaching and the world in which we have been preparing our students to work and live all along, even if we haven’t been doing it under those names. It’s what quality language teaching has always done.
So how do we increase our students’ understanding of global culture?
We give them a business letter from the target language country, which shows them how a national or multinational company composes such correspondence.
We take our students to cultural events or create them on campus—preferably with food!—to expose them to an international vibe.
We teach how different cultures indicate pleasure and displeasure, directly or indirectly make requests or indicate refusal, show love or affection and deal with authority.
For example, a recent Australian report presents the following incident: A Chinese worker in a Hong Kong-based British company comes to his boss and discusses his sick mother, how he doesn’t know how she will be, what she is going to need for care, etc. His boss doesn’t understand that his employee is indirectly asking for time off to take care of his mother. It is against Chinese custom to make a direct request, so he is hinting at what he wants, hoping his boss will understand and offer to let him take as much time off as he needs. When his boss doesn’t understand, the Chinese worker gives up and walks away.
Consider also the story of a meeting between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and American President Ronald Reagan: Reagan was so excited to meet Gorbachev that he tried to hug him across the threshold of the doorway. Russians don’t shake hands (or hug) across a threshold, as it’s considered bad luck. Reagan didn’t know this, and once he was completely inside the door, everything was fine.
By teaching about such incidents, potential risks for cultural misunderstandings and how to handle them, we increase our students’ intercultural and multicultural understanding.
4. We teach to help our students learn about the self by learning about the other
Do you remember what it was like when you were a child, trying to learn your first language? Do you remember the mistakes you made? The words you formed that your parents later told you were “cute”? Were you often frustrated, not able to say what you wanted to say because you simply didn’t know how? Do you realize how that helped you to develop as a person—learning how to negotiate meaning, making yourself understood, dealing with frustration while learning to keep it all together?
Possibly not. But in learning a foreign language, you are faced with all these moments again. As teachers, our job is to lead our students through these moments, these gaffes, these challenges, so that they are ultimately able to accomplish in a second language what they are able to in their first.
Language learning is a key to the development of identity and growth, whatever language it is you’re learning: first, second or beyond.
Language teaching, therefore, is a key component of helping our students further grow and develop their identity.
But there is another level as well. In learning a first language, we learned about the culture in which we grew up. In studying a second language, we learn about another culture in comparison with our own.
This is an additional level of instruction that we provide our students: We teach them to learn about themselves through the eyes of another culture. We give our students the tools through which to question their own values, their prejudices, their approaches to people different from themselves and their way of doing things.
But it will go even deeper than that! Did you ever ponder why other cultures approach problems and problem solving differently from you? Why businesses or educational institutions are structured and function differently in a foreign culture than they do in yours? By teaching a foreign language, we teach a different way of thinking and, in so doing, our students learn to think differently, to approach problems differently and to work with others in a different environment.
If we think again about the Chinese worker in the Australian report and his lack of success in getting what he wants, we might well ask how we would have handled the incident and begin to wonder if we are doing things correctly ourselves. This might cause our students to reflect that, perhaps, in their own culture they are more direct and that this, in turn, might offend people.
What about the threshold incident? This might not cause such a negative reaction against what we do, but we can do our best not to violate any Russian superstitions, simply out of respect for Russians and their culture.
By teaching about potential cultural misunderstandings such as these in our language classrooms, we allow our students to think about these and similar situations and decide for themselves how they would handle them, perhaps by changing the way they think and act.
5. We teach to help our students communicate in a foreign country
Let’s be practical again. Many of our students are studying a foreign language either because they want to visit the country where that language is spoken or because they are already living in that country.
Teaching a foreign language simply lets our students communicate in that target language while abroad. Aside from just being able to conduct simple transactions, though, knowing how to communicate in that language can open unexpected doors for you while there.
Have you ever traveled to a country, probably on vacation, where you didn’t know a word of the language, hoping that the locals would know enough English for you to get by? Did you realize how much you’re missing out on? A few simple words (“hello,” “please,” “thank you,” etc.) can go a long way, especially if the locals think that their language is “too hard” for someone to learn.
More importantly, it’s simply polite! But what if you knew more than those few words? What if you could have an actual conversation? Might that get you an invitation to tea or coffee? An offer to show you around, while continuing the conversation? An invitation to dinner? Maybe, ultimately, a new friend for life?
Some countries even have programs that allow tourists the opportunity to dine with a local family, which makes for a new and exciting cultural experience. These programs, such as Meet the Danes in Denmark, pair up local families who speak the language of their guest with travelers who want to experience a bit of local home life and home-cooked food.
These programs are a great opportunity for our students, but even more so if they are prepared to speak in the hosts’ language! This would make for a much richer cultural experience. This is the type of interaction we should be preparing our students for when they travel abroad, even if it’s just as a tourist!
Teaching how to make small talk and engage in simple conversation opens all sorts of doors for our students in another country, and they will be actively using what they learned with us!
6. We teach to help our students take action at home
Not all language teaching is only applicable to study outside one’s own country.
We could be teaching a language to immigrants, so they can assimilate into their new country. We could be teaching people to communicate with those same immigrants in their language.
We could be teaching second or third generation students who want to communicate with their grandparents or other relatives who have also immigrated. We could be teaching students who have friends from a foreign culture and who want to learn to communicate with them in their language. We could be teaching students with a foreign-born spouse or adopted children.
We could be teaching students who might be interested in working with refugees through an organization like PAIR, which links students learning a particular language with locally-based refugees who speak that same language. Working with such an organization allows students to develop their language skills through interactions with native speakers while at the same time providing a valuable service to their communities.
Teaching a foreign language helps our students communicate in these spaces, where they can use their foreign language knowledge without ever leaving their own country!
This might not mean much change in how we teach a beginning language course, as we are developing fundamentals that will allow our students to communicate on a basic level.
In a more advanced course, however, we can specifically prepare them for a service learning project, first by working closely with the organization to see what their linguistic needs are and then developing an appropriate academic unit to share with our language students to prepare them to meet these needs.
Service learning is a perfect combination of language learning and community outreach. Our students are both doing a good deed and working with people who speak the language that they are studying. Besides, this gives our students further practice outside the language classroom!
7. We teach to provide a tool to learn about other topics
Let’s be practical again for a final time. What about those students who are studying the language and want to go deeper into the study of local history, culture or politics? What we can give them in a traditional language course just isn’t enough to satiate their desires.
Or what about those who are studying the language, but who study or work in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields? The latter might visit the target language country, but more than likely they won’t have time during their studies. They might have an interest in the history, culture or politics of the host country, but that’s not their main goal, and they might get enough of a taste for that through a regular language course.
They certainly want to have a marketable skill—in fact they’re probably thinking along those lines when they first come into our classrooms—but they likely want more: They want to use their linguistic knowledge in their field of study.
We can provide both of these groups of students the tools through which to do that through content courses taught in the target language, where the content drives syllabus design, relegating grammar to secondary status under the topic of study at hand.
But what if we’re not qualified or don’t have the resources to offer such a course?
We can still let our students know what’s out there. FLAC (also check out CLAC) courses, for example, are where a content-based second-language course is taught in tandem with a content-based course taught in the primary language. Such a secondary course both supplements and complements the primary course by teaching our students similar material in the target language, using primary sources as texts.
If designed properly, such a course will require the students to complete a final task-based project in the target language.
If we teach linked courses such as these, we provide students the practical skills necessary to complete these projects in the target language, and we also teach them a new way of approaching these topics, by showing them how native speakers of the target language approach them.
By the completion of such a linked course, along with the regular course, the students have developed valuable learning skills in two languages: the native language and the target language.
Even if you don’t personally teach one of these courses, simply making your students aware of them shows that you think it’s important that they can apply the language in a practical way!
Teaching a foreign language allows our students to communicate beyond traditional borders, expanding their horizons, whether it be with another community in their own country or outside of their country. It opens up new frontiers and enables our students to explore them in a time and way of their own choosing.
Ultimately, we teach to touch our students’ lives, to teach them what we know, to help them make their way in the world and in so doing to make the world—we hope—a better place.
By teaching our students a foreign language, we help prepare them to work and live on a global level.
By teaching them a foreign language, we make them true citizens of the world.
Jonathan Ludwig has 25 years of foreign language teaching experience. He has successfully directed language programs, taught and mentored current and future teachers, and is always looking for new and exciting ways to engage and educate his students.