A.k.a: How can we turn our everyday interactions into learning environments?

Suppose you wanted to learn or improve a foreign language. Now, suppose time and money were no issue and you could actually choose how to do that. What would you do?

Based on my experience with students, I bet most of you would say ”go to the country where the language is spoken and spend some time there”. Indeed, the idea of acquiring a foreign language naturally, as opposed to making a conscious effort in a language learning classroom understandably appeals to so many people. After all, we all know at least one person who hadn’t spoken any Hungarian (random choice), then moved to Hungary and after one year could already understand and communicate in Hungarian.

However, apart from the anecdotal evidence, there is no research-based consensus that living abroad is the optimal method of language learning. The reason is simple: while it is true that full exposure to the foreign language and culture can foster your communicative competence and enable you to get by much faster than studying the language back in your country, some other aspects of the language you ”end up with”, the most obvious one being accuracy, will actually largely depend on how actively you engage with this ”subconscious language acquisition”. Now, I am certainly not inclined to consider that only an accurate language is a valid language. On the contrary, I argue that too many beautiful learning opportunities out there are missed out on for the sake of accuracy. But, in reality people do mind the accuracy quite a bit – they want to sound right when talking to the natives of their new home, and they seek to fit in. So, again it boils down to making an effort in your own learning, which starts with processing and analyzing the linguistic input, and a lot of reflection. In other words, you need a conscious approach to language learning, and you need to make it strategic.

What Is Learning in the Wild About?

A strategic approach to learning an L2 abroad is precisely what Dr Clark in front of the Swedish RISE Institute proposed in the workshop I have recently participated in. Basically, he suggests that the out-of-classroom environment, or ”the wild” as he symbolically refers to it, offers abundant opportunities for learning through everyday interaction. To illustrate, if you are in a bank where you need to communicate using your L2, you can actually take conscious steps to ensure you learn as much language as you can from that experience. This entails participation from the other side, too, as the idea is that native speakers learn to act more as language coaches when interacting with a linguistically less competent person.

Another example we analysed in the workshop was couples where one is of a different cultural and linguistic background than the other. Although the two of them have assumingly already established a common language of communication, a gap can still remain in communication with the partner’s parents, for instance. Obviously, in this situation the more competent partner makes an exceptional learning resource, but be careful not to jump to a conclusion that the learning will automatically happen (it is sort of analogous to the deep-rooted misconception that native language speakers are inherently better language teachers). Unfortunately, as some of you must have experienced personally, someone trying to teach their mother tongue to their partner usually experiences a rapid and steep transition from elation to frustration. That is, this teaching attempt is bound to fail unless a strategic approach is employed, according to the ”learning in the wild” principles.

What does this mean in practice?

Now, the big question of what strategies to use imposes itself. Here is where the researchers behind this project come with a model named ”Sit-Talk-Sit Model”. Basically, the idea is to consciously engage in a 3-stage learning process centred around any everyday interaction in L2 that takes place ”in the wild”: 1. Prepare for the interaction (e.g. think of questions to ask and rehearse them), 2. Engage in the interaction (use the previously prepared repertoire to initiate the conversation and then extend it, as much as the occasion allows, by asking more complex questions, for example), and 3. Reflect on your experience (e.g. write a journal entry, post about it on Facebook or discuss it with other learners).

In the workshop, we looked at a few tools that can facilitate learning with the ”Sit-Talk-Sit Model”. Let me introduce one that needs no special description – Facebook Live feature. A beginner-level learner of Swedish livestreamed his phone call to a mobile shop support service to elicit helpful comments from the viewers. Understanding very little of the automatic instruction he was hearing on the other side of the line, this learner needed the viewers to participate in his call by explaining to him what number was supposed to dial and what next step he was supposed to make. After the call, he could use the video and he relevant comments as reflection material or he could continue the discussion in the comments section straightaway, which would correspond to the third phase of the model. This particular activity fits the ”learning in the wild” principles as it is, but can be altered in many ways to provide a learning opportunity.

For more detailed information on this project and more examples of everyday interactions turned into language learning events, visit this website.

What can we take from ”learning in the wild”?

Everyday interactions seen as language learning opportunities is not a new thing. Neither is the idea to approach them more strategically, although ”learning in the wild” might be one of the first to offer concrete and practical guideline on how to do it. While I certainly find a few issues with the example activities and tools recommended by this approach (e.g. for starters, attracting viewers to comment usefully and synchronously while you are livestreaming your phone call seems hardly feasible from a practical standpoint, although Dr Clark assured me that his experience with this activity has shown otherwise), I would rather like to focus on the implications that  ”learning in the wild” has for autonomous learning. As I see it, what this project shows more than anything else is that we, educators and learners, ought to start thinking more pragmatically when it comes to autonomy in learning. We have theorized about what autonomous learning means enough; now it is time to provide concrete activities for learners to facilitate their learning process.

Have you ever lived in a country whose language you could not speak well? What was your experience like? What do you think about ”learning in the wild”? Tell us in a comment!