Learning a New Language – By Proxy

In this short text, Noa Lange, Education Excellence Manager at Swedish for Professionals, ponders an aspect of learning that may help learn a language more effectively as new in a foreign country.

My favorite aspect of learning is the way that learning about one thing can lead you to learn about others organically.

No object, concept, person, or trade exists in a vacuum. In other words, as a consequence of learning about your particular hobby horse, you can end up with useful knowledge about a wide variety of other things that you wouldn’t otherwise have supposed were relevant or been interested in, though it somehow wouldn’t require a ton of willpower or grit to come by.

Genuine interest is to learning what oil is to machinery: new knowledge is easy to come by if it comes from a place of curiosity, rather than grit. At the same time, it’s an interesting problem that you can want to learn something, but lack a genuine interest in it as a topic of study. An example of this is moving to a new place in which a different language is spoken, and wanting to learn it to integrate into its society, but being distinctly uninterested in the detailed facts about sentence structure, word inflections, prosody, idioms, and whatever else required to learn it. What help do people in that situation get from the fact that genuine interest makes learning easier?

I propose that to learn a language effectively, you don’t have to start out specifically interested in the language itself. You can learn it organically by engaging with something genuinely interesting in the culture in which it’s spoken, be it at the workplace, in popular culture or elsewhere. You can learn a language by proxy, starting out with an entirely different passion.

Every day at Swedish for Professionals, we try to discover how we can help course participants discover this nifty fact about the growth of knowledge, so that everyone no matter their degree of passion for languages as a subject can come out of a lesson more creatively involved with their own learning journey. We try to discover how to help our participants understand that a course need not be a linear compilation of isolated grammar facts and vocabulary drills, but can be an opportunity to discuss things closer to their hearts merely by using the new language as a vehicle. We think that this is more likely to inspire a genuine interest in that vehicle and its properties. Before then, some interest or other needs to play the role of oil to get the machinery that is learning to work smoothly.