Inaugural Language Pedagogy Workshop - August 2012

August 20, 2012

Welcome to Inaugural Language Pedagogy Workshop

August 20, 2012
Laurie L. Patton, Dean of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences

I am delighted to be here to welcome you to what I hope will be the first among many—might we even say annual—workshop on language pedagogy. As the planners of this conference know, I am keen to place language learning more front and center in the curriculum—as a way of signaling several things: truly sophisticated understanding of the global, and a focus on holistic learning in the classroom.

Let me begin with a more sophisticated understanding of the global.  In preparation for this workshop, which is rather a depressing thing to do since I prepared for a workshop I cannot stay and enjoy, I was particularly moved by Mary Louise Pratt’s words for a new public idea of language. Her words echo my own thoughts:

"They will make themselves heard as advocates not for particular languages but for the importance of knowing languages and of knowing the world through languages. Speaking as people who have had the opportunity to learn languages well, who made the effort and reap the rewards, scholars of non-English languages and cultures are uniquely situated to bear witness to the possibilities of language learning and to make the case for language learning as an aspect of educated citizenship. I believe we need to make that case in as many ways as possible, right now."

I perhaps might make an even more radical argument. That we are not global if we do not attend to all forms of language and language learning—even the most obscure. Languages classified as “obscure” in the United States are spoken by millions of people, whether they are Telugu or Uzbek or Catalan.

In addition, I sense in the world of language pedagogy a move beyond the search for the magic bullet. Since language is at the center of what we do, the Chomskian romance with a single, unified theory of language and cognition, or a single best language pedagogy has haunted us for a while.

But I think our guest for today, Susanne Even of Indiana University, is correct when she writes,

"Based on the principles of drama pedagogy, drama grammar makes use of techniques from the performing arts. Encompassing cognitive, emotional, social, practical and kinesthetic learning dimensions. Both the failed quest for the ultimate foreign language teaching method and inconclusive evidence regarding the effectiveness of different approaches to grammar instruction highlight the necessity for postmethod approaches to grammar teaching and learning."

 

When it comes to language learning, we can be rigorous and holistic at the same time. We can be creative and effective at the same time. I learned this deeply when I taught Sanskrit for the first time at Bard College—the only way to get students to internalize the rules of grammar was to have them do something they would have done in spoken language class. I had them choose a favorite photograph of India, and then write an essay about it, and deliver a presentation about their essay in Sanskrit. They stared at me terrified when I asked this, but they ended up loving the assignment and knowing more grammar than they would have if I had given them creative memorization techniques.

But there are other, less obvious reasons for this conference – on a postmethod pedagogy, and that has to do with the myriad contexts in which language is learned. While Even’s work focuses on the classroom, there are so many global contexts that inform classrooms and even become classrooms, the sites of language learning. I take my cues here from my own ethnographic study of women Sanskritists—women who have chosen to study and teach a language despite the fact that such learning has been prohibited to them for millennia.

In over 90 interviews, I have learned of some very moving contexts in which language learning motivations have been deepened and effective language learning has taken place. Despite the fact that it has been a patriarchal language for millennium, now that women have access to it and are engaging it in record numbers, some unusual learning scenarios are emerging.

Women have taught their daughters and sons Sanskrit as they move through the house doing housecleaning. They have taught Sanskrit as activists through street theater on the AIDS epidemic in a Mumbai slum. They have taught their husbands one last verse in Sanskrit as they nursed him in his last days. They have recited it in delivery rooms as they were giving birth and used it to argue with their mothers (also Sanskrit speakers) about who was going to take care of the child.

 

And, perhaps most difficult, they have remembered long forgotten protective verses in Sanskrit while they hid from an abusive family member. These too are moments of language learning and language teaching—ones that have moved and inspired me as I conducted my interviews.

And if we do not have a holistic theory to account for these moments, then we will not have described the rich cognitive and emotional landscape that is language learning, the incredibly complex and mysterious act of taking new words, new structures, into our lives.

So onward, to the work of building a holistic, multidisciplinary, dramatic and postmethod approach to grammar. And let me congratulate you on the imagination and energy it has taken to plan for and engage this workshop; I very much hope for you to achieve the success that all of your hard work over the years at Duke deserves.