Around the world and in almost every city there exist now places of gathering for verbal communication in a foreign language: Language Exchange. In case you have not had the fortune of attending such a gathering (whether it be in Spanish, English, Japanese, German, French, etc.) allow me a minute to introduce to you the setting and the goals that drive these intercultural communication sessions. A language exchange is a gathering of two kinds of people: Those that can not speak the target language and those that can speak the target language–either because they are more advanced or because they are native speakers of the language. The language in question is not a language readily spoken in that area/country and so therefore the goal is simply to give both parties the chance to improve their speaking skill.
How is this improvement made?
Those with little experience are supposed to speak to those with more experience, through which an increase in confidence should help boost their ability to communicate verbally in the target language. Likewise, the more advanced speakers may speak with native speakers of the language who have come to help. To consider an alternative, the more advanced speakers may benefit by speaking to the lower-level speakers simply by the act of explaining more complex facets of the language to them: Learning through teaching. Most of the people that I know that have participated in such events have all come out of it with a positive experience, but “having a good time” vs. “learning to speak” are different, are they not?
To quote my favorite childhood scientist, “Please, consider the following” : An English teacher in a foreign country is assigned to teach young students who are at a low-to-intermediate level; one student approaches the teacher with a question but is only able to ask in a broken, nearly unintelligible manner that commands the deciphering skills of code-talker; realizing this, the teacher answers the student using simple words, incomplete sentences, a constant omission of “a”, “the”, or “an”, and a series of odd hand motions. What is the result of such a conversation? Crazed looks from bystanders? No! Incredibly, the student understands completely and walks away satisfied that she has “communicated” with her English teacher. How can this be? Or, more importantly, were these two people really communicating in English? How broken can a language get before it is not the original language at all?
You see, in the above example, the “language exchange” may have accomplished an important goal–answering the student’s question–but it came at the cost of the target language, and not just to the student. In such situations it is both parties that lose in the language game. While the student may have used two or a few words in English to the best of her ability, she was answered in a form of English that had been chopped up into tiny bite-size pieces that were easy to chew but far from correct. The student will not benefit from hearing, excuse my language, crappy English. The teacher’s valiant effort to assist the child was like giving money to a homeless drunkard on the street in hopes that he might buy food: counterproductive. Why? Because now the student is becoming conditioned to hear broken and incomplete English rather than full and grammatically correct (though admittedly more difficult) English. The more of this fragmented version of English that she experiences, the more difficult the transition from incorrect to correct usage will be. Correct usage should start young and never look back, especially when dealing with students in a foreign country where the target language is hardly heard at all anyway.
Now let’s look at it from the teacher’s point of view. The teacher (or the advanced-level speaker) has an almost complete knowledge of the language and all its complicated grammatical facets and is comfortable using varied vocabulary. The teacher is literally at a level which the student or lower-level speaker can not comprehend. Therefore the advanced student must limit himself in order to reach the low-level speaker by using simple grammar structures and simple vocabulary all the while talking only about topics which the lower-level speaker can discern and give meaningful feedback. On a side note, If you have ever read The Shack then you will find this discourse to be substantially similar to the description of god. What can result from such an exchange when we look at it from the teacher’s point of view? Suffice it to say that for many years English speakers that crossed the world to teach in Japan would be asked to leave after some 5 or 7 years because their English speaking skills had deteriorated to a level unsuitable for the position they held. As a result of reducing their speech to an elementary level for so many years, native speakers found their speech a sorry degenerate of its former perfection, an inadequate form in need of repair.
Both groups lose: The lower-level speaker is spoken to with broken and incomplete–insert foreign language here–while the advanced-level speaker experiences a decrease in ability caused by constant limitation of his capabilities. Thus, it is mutually detrimental to both parties to engage in such “language exchanges” because eventually they turn into language mutation seminars merely focused on cultural exchange and exposure to people from a country in which the target language is spoken… or is that the point?
The counterargument is this, if it is true then that such exchanges are mutually deleterious why then should we believe that any teaching of any kind is different? The teacher always must limit himself in order to help the pupil grow, there is no other way short of computerizing (de-humanizing) the entire process of instruction. Since this is neither desirable nor historically true (we seem to have gotten along just fine as a race for the last many thousands of years using this system) then it is safe to deduce that in this system of instruction the benefits outweigh the detriments. As I stress in my life these days, I learn through teaching. Though it may come at the cost of a few precious vocabulary words and the time to read a book, I gain interpersonal skills, cultural exchange, new relationships, discovery again of the basics of my own language, patience, and a chance to review what I thought I knew but was too afraid to ask again.
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