Cooking Together: My Experience with Language Learning in the Wild

Image result for couple cooking

As promised in a previous post, I have implemented the Sit-Talk-Sit method in one of my everyday interactions to see what it looks like from a learner’s perspective. Namely, since I have recently moved to Spain, but only have a basic competence in the language whereas my live-in partner is native, I thought I should make a perfect candidate for trying out language learning in the wild.

I chose an activity that centers on interacting in Spanish while cooking together for two reasons. First, I was intrinsically motivated to engage in such an activity, which is one of the essential factors in experiential language learning. Second, I saw ”cooking together in Spanish” as a great opportunity to build on food and cooking instructions related vocabulary, especially since there is direct involvement with the objects of reference (equivalent to EFL classroom realia). In other words, for me, a newcomer to the Spanish society and cuisine, this interaction was both relevant and meaningful.

What I Did

I began by deciding I wanted to prepare asparagus for dinner. Not that it matters much, but it seemed symbolic and appropriate for this activity as I ascribe asparagus to the Spanish cuisine, having not seen it used that much in other countries I’ve been to. Then, I worked on the ”before stage” of my interaction diagram, as recommended by the learning in the wild approach. This basically meant identifying previous experiences that could both create the need for and facilitate the cooking-together interaction. In this case, my previous experiences of ordering food in restaurants, shopping for groceries, reading various recipes for Spanish dishes, etc. seemed relevant as occasions that helped me build some of the vocabulary for a cooking activity.

The Interaction Diagram (Navigator) serves to help you organize your ‘learning in the wild’ activities.

Next, I implemented the Sit-Talk-Sit model. Here is what it looked like:

The Sit Phase

  • I watched a YouTube video of a man preparing baked asparagus while giving instructions in Spanish. What I liked about the video was that the presenter’s language was clear and simple featuring quite a few useful cooking-related expressions.
  • While watching, I wrote down the expressions I found useful for my interaction. This entailed a lot of google-translating and searching for correct spelling of the words I either heard for the first time or did not know how to write properly (almost all my knowledge of Spanish comes from listening to natives so very often I know a word but am clueless about its spelling).
  • I also browsed for any useful language in the comments section (e.g. requests for instruction clarification, more cooking-related vocabulary and similar).
  • In the end, I tried imagining how my interaction would look like – what questions I would ask, what my partner would reply, what instructions I could give him, etc. Having written those sentences down, I spent around 5 minutes rehearsing them.

The Preparation Phase (Sit)

The Talk Phase

  • During the interaction, besides using the rehearsed expressions, I consciously tried extending the conversation by asking additional questions, as it was suggested in the learning in the wild workshop. For example, even though I’d initially planed to ask only whether we should chop or squeeze the garlic, I took the opportunity to elicit some other food preparation verbs by asking what else we could do with the garlic.
  • My partner was fully aware of the educative character of our cooking together activity. The decision to involve him stemmed from one of the learning in the wild aims to turn (native) language speakers into language coaches. The premise is that although we cannot literally expect native speakers to develop into proper teachers of their language, we could raise their awareness of the importance of strategically choosing the input provided to less competent speakers. In my case, however, it was interesting to observe how my partner adopted a completely didactic tone during the activity, without ever being asked to act as a teacher. The only thing I had explicitly told him was that I wanted to turn our cooking together,  something we anyways did regularly, into an opportunity for practising my Spanish. Yet, the manner in which he, being native, automatically assumed a more responsible role in our interaction came as a little revelation and made me reflect on the teacher potential of native speakers we interact with.

The Sit Phase

  • Immediately after the interaction, I reflected on the experience from a learner perspective and tried to identify what I learnt from it concretely.
  • I wrote down the corrective feedback I received along with some questions that arose during and after the activity. For instance, some of my notes were: ”Do you say asparagos or asparagoses? Does the word have a plural form?”, ”Pimiento vs. pimienta, pepper-vegetable vs. pepper-spice”, we can also say ENTRA en horno”, etc.
  • A few hours after the interaction, I reflected on the overall effectiveness of this activity. I wrote down: On the one hand, this activity obviously prompted a more conscious focus on language form than an unstructured and unplanned interaction would do, which has its benefits from the point of view of language acquisition. On the other hand, a great deal of spontaneity of the cooking together interaction was lost and consequently I felt it as highly didactic, especially due to the ”teacher role” my partner assumed.
  • Days after the interaction, I am turning my reflections into an online blog post.

What Can We Take from This Experience and How Can Technology Help?

Based on my experience with learning in the wild approach, I can say that there are a few important points that it teaches us, or more accurately said, reminds us of:

  1. Structured vs natural learning debate. In the SLE field, it has been long debated whether we should let language acquisition happen naturally or treat learning as a fully conscious process. The former implies exposing learners to the language while encouraging them to focus on establishing good communication and getting their message across rather than focusing on accuracy and form of their language (e.g. Krashen’s Natural Approach), whereas the latter necessitates structuring one’s learning in order to develop understanding of language rules and its elements. Although its name may imply preference for the Natural Approach and related theories, learning in the wild certainly does not prove that either is the right way. Rather, it emphasises that the two approaches are complementary – yes, being forced to communicate and achieve a meaningful conversation in a foreign language can be an advantageous starting point for language learning, but wouldn’t it be even better if some structure was put to it? Or is it that, like in my case, any amount of structure cancels out all the benefits that come from a more natural way? We do not have an answer to these questions, so we need to find a way to utilise both approaches simultaneously, in other words determine the optimal ratio of natural and structured language learning.
  2. Reflection is integral to learning. This is not exactly new, but nowadays we can read more and more about it, especially in the light of technology. As this paper argues, the interactivity that new technologies have enabled does not exclude conscious reflection, on the contrary, it only provides more means to engage learners in it (e.g. chats, forums, video conferencing, games, and above all, social networks and online communities). That is precisely what language learning in the wild proposes – after interaction, the learner should reflect on it. Not only immediately after, but also hours after and days after. But just to make it clear, reflecting does not mean sitting at your table and thinking about your learning experience. Actually, it presupposes a much more active role on the part of the learner such as engaging in online and classroom discussions.
  3. Technology enhances learning. Sure, this is what this blog is all about, you would say. But in this approach in particular technology plays a vital role as it serves as a tool for preparation (e.g. I used a YouTube video), and a platform for reflection (e.g. I am using blogging). In my previous post, I described how a learner used Facebook live video feature to host his interaction, a phone call with a mobile phone service center, which then evolved into a discussion (reflection).
  4. The role of the native speaker. So far, this issue has been controversial mostly in the light of EFL teachers and the misconception that native speakers automatically make better teachers, but language learning in the wild to my knowledge for the first time raises the potential of any native speaker to make a conscious effort to scaffold the non-native speaker. This is particularly relevant in those societies that are experiencing influx of immigrants who are faced with learning a completely new language. But is it ethical to impose such a demanding role on a common citizen? And more importantly, how can we raise their awareness and integrate structure in the way they communicate to non-native speakers? These two questions are in my opinion the essential take-ons of the language learning in the wild.

All in all, you can gain the best insight into learning in the wild if you try it out yourself. You can replicate the steps I took or experiment with a different scenario, but do remember to prepare the interaction, and reflect on it afterwards. For example, a good place to express your reflection is in the comment sections of this post, where others can see it and share their own experiences and opinions. Enjoy it and let us know how it went!

P.s.: If anyone is wondering how the asparagus turned out:

Asparagus in the Wild



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