When talking about language learning, I’ve sometimes found people approach this with an all or nothing approach. Specifically, seeing the goal as “becoming fluent” or having the skills to work as a translator. While these are great (and I’m all for expanding our linguistic repertoires as much as possible!) I think a focus on obtaining advanced levels of proficiency sometimes ignores the valuable skills that we can still obtain at lower levels. In my context (the United States) where English speakers generally need to (and should!) exert considerable efforts to expand their linguistic repertoires, and many will not reach advanced levels of proficiency in a 3-4 year college program for example, I think this is even more important. So in this post, I’m addressing one of these skills, listening.
When we talk about listening skills in regard to language learning, we usually think about listening skills in the target language, and this is important. However, what I think is overlooked is the potential transfer of these listening skills (or more specifically the effort put into listening to speech we don’t easily understand) to languages we do know well. If English is the Global Language, English speakers need to be able to understand multiple accents and varieties of English, and this is something monolingual English speakers are often not very good at.
It’s certainly true that you can get better at understanding more accents in English by listening to more accents in English, and improve your English as a lingua franca by using it in international contexts, and I think these are also important skills for English speakers to engage in, rather than assuming everyone else should conform to their variety. Learning a language though, can also help with these skills, and potentially also help us understand what it’s like to use an additional language, or to operate in multilingual contexts.
When we talk about understanding accents, it’s also important to keep in mind raciolinguistic ideologies, and how our social judgements about how much or how little of an accent someone might have in English impact our ability to comprehend them. We can of course discuss this in English classes, but it’s also helpful to see in language classes, where we can talk about who is perceived as an Arabic speaker, or Chinese speaker, and how this relates to raciolinguistic ideologies we might otherwise be unaware of.
To be clear, I’m not saying this awareness is an automatic result of language learning (there are all too many language classes that ignore sociolinguistic variation, raciolinguistic ideologies, and more). However, it is a potential outcome of language learning, even without reaching advanced proficiency levels, that I think is all too often overlooked.
What do you think? What other overlooked aspects of language learning can you think of?
Leave a Reply