My undergraduate degree was actually in Global Studies, a sort of modern day International Studies degree that focused on globalization and global systems (political, economic, cultural and otherwise). While I had fair share of core classes, my own focus was on how communication and communication systems are affected by globalization and global trends. One point that came up time and time again during undergrad was the idea that languages are a tool for conversation and conveying meaning.
While I will not deny the strong bond that exists between language and culture, I feel like certain cultural elements become stripped away when a language flirts with or has reached lingua franca status. At that point, the bond between a particular language and its culture MUST be broken to allow non-native speakers a chance to imprint their own culture onto the language, and on a more basic level use the language to communicate. Chinese, in my opinion, is in the process of making this transition.
Today, however, as a language teacher and non-native speaker of Chinese I find myself reflecting on the idea that language is a tool. While I don't think my undergraduate program missed the mark or got anything wrong, there are certain elements of this concept that can be greatly expanded upon in reagards to second language acquisition.
As a language student the idea of having a tool for conversation is incredibly important. In initial stages (especially when already living in the target language environment) this often means learning the necessary language to survive and interact with people in the environment. Buying things, hailing a cab, asking for directions, going to the bank... these things are often necessary for living in the target language environment. But what happens once you've passed to the next level, or you've already achieved the ability to successfully communicate (here I am referring to conversational fluency) in the target language?
In other words, what happens next?
I left the title of this blog post open ended because I think the "what happens next" should be a very individualized... which is really the best part about language being used as a tool. You can can use the tool in any way you want. For me, this notion means trying to figure out a way to live our lives (or at least part of our lives) as we might have done in our home country or in our native language. There should be no reason why you cannot strive toward using your second language to fullfil your own interests and needs. If you like cooking, for example, than what is stopping you from taking cooking classes in your target language, or picking up a cook book in your target language? Interested in music? What is to stop you from writing songs, or taking music lessons in your target language? Interested in sports? Go do that in your target language. Interested in just about anything, than go and try to find a way to do that, or learn more about it in your target language.
So often, language blogs seem to spend all of their time focused on the process of learning a language, but I'm beginning to wonder what negative side effects that might cause/create. Instead, what would happen if learning Chinese stopped becoming the goal, and instead became a tool to reach your goal?
In that case you really wouldn't have a choice, you'd simply have to
learn use it.