foreign language learning

Learning a Foreign Language: a Journey of Discovery

May 1, 2014

Whilst studying English literature as a teenager, I remember thinking that the words of Shakespeare were little more than a foreign language reserved for the elite. The vocabulary, the structure, the rhythm of the language was far removed from my common everyday usage of English and thus, so I thought, totally inaccessible. Studying Shakespeare off-the-page seemed like a form of punishment. I always gave it my best shot, but it was a never-ending uphill battle with the pleasure that so many commentators derived constantly eluding me.

‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.’ William Shakespeare, As You Like It

It was only as an adult when faced with Shakespeare at drama school that my perception altered. I very quickly realised that the plays written by Shakespeare were not created for the purpose of publication; that these masterpieces were not reserved for intellectuals to scrutinise and analyse. Far from it – they were created to entertain the masses and to be performed. After all, without our modern day technology and the likes of soap operas, theatre was not only entertainment, but also a powerful means of social commentary and indeed, provocation.

Performing Shakespeare brought the language to life for me and allowed me to enter into this magic kingdom of words. The rehearsal process provided the time to experiment and play with the language in order to connect with the words and discover the intentions behind them. The choice of words for each character gave them a richness, a fullness, a social context, far beyond anything that I had ever imagined possible. But in order to realise this, I had to immerse myself into the language. To let it become part of me, and me part of it.

‘A different language is a different vision of life.’ Federico Fellini

As an actor, I have learnt a lot about myself and others. The journey taken during the rehearsal process in order to be able to interpret a role can be as much exhilarating as exhausting. Stepping into the shoes of another person is not an easy thing to do. It takes courage. We are all individuals and try to shape ourselves into someone that we are comfortable living with and presenting to others on a daily basis. When you portray another character, you need to open yourself up to another way of life: vocabulary, accent, gestures, mannerisms and behaviour may all need to change as a result of the social context and cultural differences. Learning a foreign language: a journey of discovery.

So how important is the rehearsal process? I would say critical. Let’s just take a brief moment to reflect on the word rehearse and its origins. According to entomologists, during the 1300s, rehearse meant “to give an account of”, from the Anglo-French rehearser originating from the Old French rehercier “to go over again, repeat,” (literally “to rake over, turn over” the soil or ground). In the mid-1400’s it was used to mean “to say over again, repeat what has already been said or written”. The modern day usage in the sense of “practice a play, part, and so on” is from the mid-1500s.

I want to focus on the second definition “to say over again, repeat what has already been said or written”. Isn’t that exactly what a child does when learning to speak? The process of repetition and imitation begins at a very early age and generally continues throughout life, if we allow it to. It’s instinctive at an early age and the means by which we start to communicate. So why does this instinctive process often develop into an intellectualised process as we get older? Our conscious awareness often becomes a major obstacle when learning a foreign language. It’s like an actor trying to learn lines off the page without knowing anything about the character, their intentions or the social and cultural context of the situation. The learning process is much more rapid and permanent when the actors are allowed to experiment with the text during the rehearsals without the pressure of rote learning.

Vocalising

Vocalising the text and interacting with other actors often leads to exciting discoveries and text acquisition with little conscious effort. Again, just like a child starting to speak for the first time. To me, this is the most rational justification for learning a foreign language using theatrical techniques, and the principle reason why this underlies the approach to teaching languages at the World Language Learning Centre within the newly- opened GEMS World Academy international school in Etoy.
Imagine a sportsman preparing for the 100-meter sprint by simply watching others, reading about the technicalities of running and then performing the race in his head. It sounds completely ridiculous. How could he possibly race without the physical preparation? In order to run, he must practice running. He must develop and work the muscles necessary for the task in hand. It seems so obvious.

So why is it that so many people when learning a foreign language do so in relative silence? They read books, learn verb tables, study vocabulary lists, listen attentively to a teacher and maybe engage in some written work, but do they Embodying a new language: a journey of discovery speak? Don’t be so silly. How many times do you hear people say ‘I can understand a lot but I cannot speak’ or ‘I can say it in my head but when I try to speak it out loud strange things happen.’ This isn’t surprising.

Think back to the athlete. In order to be able to run he needs to train, to practice, to work hard to develop the required muscles and technique. Not only that but before every race he needs to warm up those muscles to avoid injury. Actors do the same – physically and vocally. Every time we speak we produce different sounds which are the result of exercising certain muscles in varying ways and we support this process through our breath control. The number of sounds in a language varies considerably from one to another, which means that the way muscles are used and our vocal instruments subsequently develop is determine by the main language being spoken and the sounds being produced. Without exercising these muscles sufficiently how can you expect to replicate the sounds of the language that you are learning? But is that important? Think of the extra effort it takes for you to pronounce your native language in a foreign accent. It doesn’t come naturally. Surely the same could be said about pronouncing foreign words in your native accent. So why not train yourself to pronounce the foreign language in the foreign accent?
This is where we return to the word ‘rehearsal’: to say over again, to repeat. By allowing yourself to explore languages, to improvise, to imitate, to replicate and above all to communicate by having fun with the sounds you will make discoveries: about yourself, as well as the language, the society and the culture that you are exploring. Unfortunately, many educational establishments still fail to encourage this inquiry-based approach to learning, one of the key learner attributes valued by International Baccalaureate schools. As an actor and language teacher I find this is incomprehensible.

Theatre can take you on a voyage of discovery and open up new and exciting worlds and opportunities. Using theatrical techniques in the language learning process presents you with an unlimited potential.

‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein

Written by GEMS World Language Academy

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