HomeCulture & CitizenshipIs Language More Like a Meal or a Shake?

Is Language More Like a Meal or a Shake?




ClassroomChris Franek takes a look at why people want to learn a language and who make the best students…

I once knew of a young guy in his mid-twenties who was a former college baseball pitcher. He was obsessed with being fit and was always working out. As an outgrowth of his obsession with being fit, he eventually came to the conclusion that what was most efficient and convenient for him diet-wise was to treat the necessity of eating more as a problem to be solved rather than something to be enjoyed. In his final analysis, he concluded that not only was cooking a waste of time, but eating in general was a waste of time. Why, he reasoned, should one waste his time eating when science had evolved to a place where there existed an abundant supply of meal replacement shakes that were precisely formulated with all of the nutrients the body needs to function physiologically? Not only was it more efficient but it was much more convenient. I suppose my question is, do we really want to reduce eating to being nothing more than nutrient intake?

I am a foodie and an epicurean in that I truly love food. Eating great food is almost a therapeutic experience for me. I enjoy not only the eating aspect of it but I love preparing and cooking it. I love the subtly of flavors and textures that come with not only the immense variety of food but the innumerable ways it can be prepared. To subsist on a diet of shakes is unfathomable to me. Subsisting on not merely shakes, but any type of ‘diet’ based form of eating transforms our relationship with food from one that is incredibly substantive and deeply enjoyable into something that quite the opposite. Our relationship with food has devolved into something that is decidedly unenjoyable, unsustainable, and outright combative in some cases.

I wonder if our relationship and typical experience with learning language has perhaps de-evolved in a similar fashion. It’s very interesting to me to observe what seems to have become a really common approach to teaching language. Many teach it from the premise of reducing language down to being just a collection of dry grammar rules and vocabulary words. As a result, the language student’s experience learning language is often incredibly dry, tasteless, and unstimulating in terms of both the standard classroom experience and even more so with the proliferation of computer-based language learning platforms like Rosetta Stone. The reality is that language is much more than a collection of words and grammar rules. It is tethered to a culture and culture is the collective expression of a group of people. Language is that binding agent by which we can connect to one another and connecting to each other is an innate drive within all of us.

Reducing eating to being nothing more than a problem in need of a solution essentially strips the joy out of eating. It takes something that should be a special time to commune with our food and dismisses it as nothing more than a nuisance to be avoided. In like manner, by stripping cultural context out of the language learning process, we are arguably removing the joy and the life essence out of the learning experience. What is the difference between a person and a corpse? The breath. If a person has no breath, he has no life. He is a corpse. If language has no cultural reference, it has no life—no breath. It is dead.

I think in considering just how valuable and essential culture is to a language, I think we can simply consider what inspires someone to learn a language to begin with. Of course, there are the legions of people who learn English because they feel it necessary to do so in order to create better career opportunities for themselves. While I dare not argue against such motivations, I also don’t feel that necessity is synonymous with inspiration and true desire. People rarely do anything well when they are doing so out of obligation. However, people can do things remarkably well when motivated out of a sense of genuine desire and inspiration. Over the 16 years I have taught ESL, the best students I have encountered were not necessarily those who had the highest IQ or aptitude but rather those who had the strongest desire. Therefore, I would like to, for the sake of argument, toss out necessity as being what I would consider an authentic source of inspiration.

So why would someone WANT to learn a language? Usually, people choose to do things when they are caught by it. In the case of choosing a language to learn, most people don’t throw a dart at a board and randomly select whatever language it lands on. Ironically, however, if you look at the way language is typically taught, you would probably conclude just that. Honestly, what would separate one collection of grammar rules and words from looking any more appealing than another collection of grammar rules and words? Not much really. The reality is that people likely do not randomly choose a language to learn. Rather, they choose a culture to learn. Or to put it more accurately, they are caught by a culture. Why are French and Spanish among the most popular languages to learn? They are popular because people are fascinated and caught by the appeal of the cultures those languages represent. They are caught by the people those languages represent. They are caught by the customs those languages represent. They are caught by the food and the music those languages represent. No one is caught by a collection of grammar rules and words.

In a future article, I’ll comment on what my observations are about how we can kineticize (to coin a new phrase) the idea of including cultural context in language learning. It’s one thing to say that culture should be included while it is another thing entirely to offer suggestion for how to do so.


  1. I think it depends on the student (of course). Lots of people I know are learning a language purely because they need to – exam, work, etc – and they have had no choice in the matter. In fact I would say the majority of students in schools are there because they are expected to be there or they need to be there.

    It’s a shame, surely, but that is the way it goes. Of all the students I’ve taught over the years perhaps only a handful who have genuinely wanted to learn English because they fell in love with the culture and wanted to know more.

    As teachers we might be able to inspire some and lead them into loving the language and the culture, but with 60 minutes and a classful of teenagers it’s not always that easy.

  2. Thanks Chris! I loved that. That’s exactly what I try to practice as an English teacher. Many students are there because they’re told to go to this classroom at this time in school. Others because a boss requires it. Or a mother. Or simply workplace reality. But if we can pass on that it’s OK – dare I say essential? – to hook onto some element of culture (“I love Johnny Depp!” “I want to learn to make chocolate chip cookies!” “I’ve always wanted to see Buckingham Palace!”), we’re making a big difference in whether or not that student progresses or not with English.

  3. Great post! Unfortunately most official eductional bodies seem to consider language learning as shakes and not meals and ignore the rich cultural knock-on effect which should accompany the process of learning another language. They break down language learning into meaningless chunks devoid of cultural value.

    You mention majority languages but this is so true too of minority languages.There is such a rich cultural heritage associated with a minority language (the meal) which surely can only enrich a person’s life. Those people who think that a language is just a means of communication are missing out on so much.

    Recently I read a famous Czech saying on twitter that went something like this: the more languages you speak, the more lives you lead.

    I’m definitely in favour of the meal experience.

  4. Thanks for all of the great comments—all of them valid. Yes, unfortunately necessity is often the underlying motivator and that is unavoidable. I wonder, however, if how the “meal” concept might better inform us is not through preoccupying ourselves with the underlying motivations of the student but the intentions of the teacher. I believe that the teacher is the maestro that can orchestrate the climate of the class and the interests of his students. When it comes to group class dynamics, I’ve noticed how different groups have different energies and take on group personalities. They can range from enthusiastic, to indifferent, to apathetic. However, our students are not the only source of energy in the class. Teachers have the ability to effect the personality and energy of their classes. If that teacher is more like a “thermometer”, he will mirror the climate that the students create. However, if he is like a “thermostat”, he creates the climate of the class. I think the question of whether language learning is approached like meal or shake might be better directed at the teacher rather than the students. Great teachers, like great chefs, create great experiences. There is a wonderful Chinese adage that goes; “The true master approaches every class like it was his first.” Like Susan said, we can make a big difference and I believe that. I also agree wholeheartedly with Fiona that both major and minority languages are equally steeped in rich cultural heritages. That’s funny that people are learning pithy Czech sayings off of Twitter now! I couldn’t agree with the wisdom of it more wholeheartedly.

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