April 3

Language Learning And Freedom

The ways we learn languages can affect our sense of freedom.

Speaking a language is an inherently creative act through which we express who we are. We have endless ways of saying what we want to say in our mother tongue. It is our choice how we say what we want to say, or not, depending upon who we are and our intentions. Language gives us the freedom to say what we want to say. Of course, our own thinking and beliefs may put limits on that freedom and creativity, that is for sure. Not to mention our cultural, social and political environments, they can also constrain us at times. However, that does not detract from the nature of language itself and what we are capable of.

So when we learn another language it is a factor to consider that we do want to retain that ability to be able to say what want and what we mean. Unfortunately, many times when we are taught a second language, (and many times also when we learn it ourselves, as we tend to duplicate the methods we were taught with at school) we are taught in ways that serve to effectively limit our possibilities and what we can say. Unless we learn to break out of the constraints that are put on us we always will feel constricted in the 2nd language, never really regarding it as our own. 

Ways of learning languages that can limit our sense of freedom.

So why do I say that much of language teaching serves to limit our ability to be creative and to be able to express what we want to say with freedom? I ask you to consider learning a language by:

    • memorising of vocabulary or grammar rules
    • repetition of set phrases or conjugations of verbs
    • drilling what we are learning
    • doing exercises that merely are designed to replicate or test what we already know
    • translating words from our mother tongue
    • learning language that is not a fit with our perceptions,  our “world” or our attitudes

All of these methods, in fact, don’t require us to engage who we are, what we believe, what we see. They are designed only to engage a very limited aspect of our intellect. All we seem to need to is to call on is an aspect of our memory that is not creative nor asking us to engage ourselves.  We have feelings, perceptions, understandings and are essentially meaning making machines! We inevitably are always making sense of what we are involved in by using a range of our capacities. The exercises mentioned above can cause a sense of confusion and of being disengaged from what we are learning. There is a feeling of inadequacy and a sense of not being who we really are. This can be a subtle but important factor that can affect our attitude towards learning languages and no doubt is one of the reasons why so many people give up on the activity at an early stage.

Ways of learning languages that respect our sense of freedom.

So what would language learning look like that called on all of us, on our understandings, on our perceptions, on our feelings and on a more holistic view of our intellect? Here are a few hallmarks of such learning:

    • we are expected to engage all of us in what we do – our feelings, our perceptions, our intellect, our senses etc
    • when we are not interested and attracted to an exercise, we are not pressured into doing it
    • we are not expected to mindlessly drill but instead expected to apply what we have learned to new situations 
    • our intelligence is called on, so we are not told things we can figure out for ourselves 
    • our practice is creative so what we say or write transforms what we already know in even small, sometimes unpredictable but knowable ways
    • we are expected to listen and not hand fed understandings that we can work out from what we have heard
    • where we can work meanings out from situations, we are encouraged to do that rather than translate or ask questions; that way we are exercising our brain in ways that can only make it “stronger”
    • from the very beginning, our skill in creating structurally “correct” AND situationally appropriate sentences are emphasised and nurtured so our feel grasp of the language gets stronger and stronger.  


Of course, there are those learners that can express their creativity and individuality no matter how they were taught, but then there is the countless multitude that struggles and never feel that they are at home in it. This in large part to do with how they were taught or how they learned the language, NOT the fact they are in some way deficient.

This relationship between how we learn (or are taught) and who we are and aspire to be, namely having the freedom to express ourselves as we want so we feel completely at home in the new language, is an important factor in the process of learning languages. 


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  • A crucial and unique way of viewing the language learning process – thank you for this wonderful article, Andrew!!

    I think that poetry frees the minds of students and allows them to ‘own’ the language.

    Here’s an example of a poem written by a student in Tunisia:)

    I must have hurt you by my arrogance..
    and you must have forgiven me by your patience..
    I must have killed you by my silence..
    and you must have overcome me by your brilliance..

    You must have enjoyed my company at distance..
    and I must have annoyed you by my prudence..
    You must have showered me with your joyance..
    and I must have ignored it with no conscience..

    I must have charmed you by my presence..
    and you must have fallen into the trap at once..
    and you must have thought I am a guidance..
    while I am nothing but .a hindrance..

    You must have thought of vengence..
    and I must have felt a deep grievance
    and I must have admitted being a nuisance
    while you still insist I am a pleasance..

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