Beyond Meaning Making – Establishing Language Ownership (Part 1)

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As our field grapples with the difference between performance and proficiency, translation and meaning making, fluency and errors, grammar and functional language use, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own language learning experiences. Born and raised in Germany, I was fortunate to be exposed a second language in elementary school by learning Russian starting in 5th grade. It probably was everything we would label a traditional language class, but when I had the chance to go to Russia at the age of 14, about three and a half years into my Russian studies, I jumped on the opportunity and was indeed able to use some of my fairly novice Russian to communicate with my peers in then Leningrad. My second second-language learning experience was English and began in 7th grade. Once again, it was a fairly traditional experience: we following the book (“English for you”), watch the matching video series on TV, and spend most of our time trying to convince our teacher to let us leave class early so that we could beat the line at the newly opened soft-serve ice cream stand close to the school. Remarkably, it worked rather frequently, but of course, I learned very, very little English. Fast forward a couple of years and I found myself as an exchange student living in Southern Kentucky, attending an American high school and learning English all over again. Of course this time it stuck. While I wish that all of our students could have the experience of living and learning abroad, I also know that’s not realistic, but I did want to share a few language learning experiences that might provide some insight into what language teachers are trying to do every day.

As a non-native speaker of English, there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t run across a word that I haven’t heard before. I pretty much get used to it and know how to deal with it. But what’s more fascinating is the breath of the vocabulary and language functions that I use in my own speech, both in my personal as well as my professional life. I’ve been trying to pay extra close attention to the frequency of words that I use (we all have our favorite words) as well as how I first encountered the word. Here are three stories of three words that I found incredibly interesting once I noticed them.

One of my favorite English words: is delicious. You could say I find that word delicious. I love hearing other people use it and I just love the way it sounds. To my ears, the sound of the word matches the meaning so perfectly. Every time I use it though, and I use it a lot, I also have an emotional connection to the word that is based on how I first encountered the word. During my first year in the United States, remember I was novice English learner exchange student, I frequently found myself spending time hanging out with a then 3-year-old little girl that was the daughter of a family friend of my host family. Delicious was her favorite word and given the natural food limitations and preferences that young children will express, that word came up a lot and meant a lot to that little girl. The level of excitement, when used the word and tried to express the meaning of the word to its fullest, is something I’ll never forget. I developed an emotional connection that has aided my ownership of the word.

My second story is this word: supposed to. Of course in Kentucky, that gets contracted quite a bit until it sounds more like “sposedtwo”. Being a young teenager in a high school setting there were a lot of things I was “sposedtwo” do. From teachers, host parents and siblings, I heard the expression so frequently, that I remember one day finally asking my host mother what the word meant because I didn’t really understand it. I can still remember sitting on the front porch with her trying to explain to me not only the literal meaning of the word but providing examples for the many possible uses. I developed an intellectual connection to the word that has aided my ownership to this day.

The final word to share is delectable. It’s a rather random word and I could use hundreds of others, but it came up in a conversation recently that made me stop and think. Sure, I know what the word means. I know what it means in English. I know what it means in German. However, I can honestly say I have never used that word in a conversation, written the word or used it any way. I don’t recall when I discovered the word or its meaning, but I have neither an emotional nor an intellectual connection to the word that could aid me in my ownership of the word.

I’m sure, we all have these stories of emotional and intellectual connections to words in both our native and second or third languages, and language teachers have the incredible opportunity to be part of these stories for their learners. When new language, be it vocabulary, language chunks or functions, is treated just as language, and language learning experiences are limited to establishing meaning, learners don’t have the opportunity to build true ownership in the language and will forever be left trying to match meaning in the first and new language. They may know what a particular word means. They may even be able to use it successfully within the context of the language learning classroom or on an assessment. However, if you have ever uttered the words: “these level 3 kids don’t even know what ___ means”, then you also know that you are working with learners that did not develop ownership in the language and likely will never be able to use is outside and beyond their time in the classroom.

Of course, there are many more factors that impact ownership, but it’s pretty clear to me that providing emotional or intellectual connections to learners will help them become owners and most importantly users of language. It’s been well over 20 years since my first interactions with “delicious” and “supposed to” and I use them both frequently without ever even thinking about the meaning of the words. I have developed ownership of the words and they are just as much a part of me as ……. How do you provide opportunities for your students to develop emotional or intellectual connections so that they may build ownership in new language?

Thomas Sauer is the Director of Design and Communication for AdvanceLearning and an independent consultant. He previously held…

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  1. I couldn’t help but think about my encounter with the phrase “helping” in Chinese. When living in Memphis I had several Taiwanese roommates, and as the native English speaker in the house (very convenient for them throughout college) I was frequently helping them with homework, papers, etc. The realization of the nuance of the word in Chinese came when helping my buddy do his homework one night. His mom called from Taiwan while we were working and she wanted to chat with me to say hi as well. When she asked what we were up to, I told her I was helping him do his homework, ”我在幫他做功課。“ My friend immediately was doing the “No no no!” motion silently and gesturing for the phone back. Afterwards, I learned that you can’t say you’re “helping” someone with their homework, instead, you’re “teaching” them how to do it, “我在教他怎麼做他的功課。” “Helping” him do it carried the connotation of me doing his homework for him. Something mom would not be happy with. We had a good laugh about it and to this day I’ll never forget the usage of those words within the context of learning and homework.

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