Aboriginal Languages Have Complex Grammars Just Like Any Other Language Contextual Fluency And Cultural Awareness In Language Learning

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Contextual Fluency And Cultural Awareness In Language Learning

Linguistic fluency is a state desired by many students of foreign languages. Entering into the Nirvana which is ultimate proficiency and capability is of the highest importance to those who wish to pursue a foreign language, yet it is notoriously difficult to come by. Does the study of a foreign language ever cater enough for the speed of evolution of the language? There is an apparent need for native speakers to teach their mother tongues to those who wish to learn it, but just why do students feel more comfortable and confident when their teacher is a native speaker? Perhaps the answer lies beyond the pale of linguistic mastery, and instead is nestled deeply in the unconscious knowledge and reverence for a culture belonging to the teacher. Therefore, it can be said that learning a foreign language goes far further than simply learning grammatical rules and vocabulary. To use a construction analogy, think if you will, of a foreign language as a house where the grammar is the mortar and the vocabulary is the bricks. Mortar is useless without having bricks to bind together, just as bricks without mortar will collapse disastrously as the first opportunity. Use them together well and there we have it, a house. Fully functional, four bedrooms, all the necessary amenities. But it’s a bit bland, isn’t it? What makes it stand out from the rest? What makes one speaker of a foreign language different to others? It needs to be prettied-up, and just as a garden can be the difference between an impressive and an unremarkable house, so can cultural knowledge be the greatest factor in separating a native speaker from a fluent speaker. We have created, albeit basic, a formula for foreign language learning:

Grammar mastery + vocabulary knowledge = proficiency (=/= fluency)

Grammar mastery + (vocabulary knowledge + cultural awareness) = fluency

Interestingly, vocabulary knowledge and cultural awareness have been placed in parenthesis in the equation above. Cultural awareness goes above and beyond knowing what a particular culture does at Christmas, or whether they even celebrate Christmas. Nor does it constitute an advanced knowledge of the history of a culture. Culture, in the context of language learning, means adapting what one has learned to say and changing how one says it.

Fluency is made up of a number of factors. Competence is one of the least important of them. Don’t worry, you read that correctly. What is most important in achieving fluency is comprehension. Being able to communicate basic ideas in a language is useless without first being able to understand what information is being sought after. However, comprehension itself does not mean knowing every word being used, and knowing why such and such a verb has been conjugated in such and such a way. Comprehension goes hand in hand with context. You may not know how to explain complex aeronautical engineering problems and their respective solutions in a foreign language, but if you’re going into a bank to open a savings account, the chances are pretty low that you would need to know how to explain air-resistance to weight ratios and trajectory. If, during a train journey, you are approached by another passenger who points to the empty seat beside you and asks you something in a language you know, but in a way with which you are not familiar, it can be safe to assume that this person is asking if the seat beside you is free. Here, assuming you can communicate the basic ideas of yes or no in the language concerned, total fluency has been achieved. Of course, this is not completely fool-proof. Fluency cannot be achieved by simply going into shops and pointing and what you want while grunting like a caveman. There needs to be some sort of evidence of linguistic knowledge and competence, but the competence is minimal. The amount of questions which can be answered with a simple phrase or even yes or no is staggering, and usually this contextual discourse will only be used in conversation with someone who does not know your linguistic ability. Simple ideas can be communicated and problems dealt with, all thanks to the magic of context, and for the other party, as far as they know, you’re just as competent as they are.

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