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Intentional Babel

Holistic Approaches to Preparing Enriched Environments for Multi-Language Learners

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If the walls could speak what language would it be in?

By Ronald Green 9/2013

    I was at a dinner table a few years ago with an older gentleman who, along with his wife, are dear friends of the family. Conversation about my work in language brought up an intense reaction that I wasn't expecting, not because I didn't know that the particular sentiment existed but rather that I had been away from the polarized north for sufficient time to lose track of such tangible fears. The man had recently visited a fast-food chain that traditionally served hamburgers and french-fries. He entered the drive-through line and was a little perturbed to find the menu printed in both English and Spanish. The degree of disturbance was influenced by his many years of owning a sign and print shop, thus he was well acquainted with the costs of sign production. Seeing this from the business owner's perspective he interpreted the cost of producing the sign at twice what it should have been (not to mention other media and safety postings, and so on). One might imagine then, as he was laboring between a new pressed-chicken-low-calorie-limited-time-offer-sandwich and una hamburguesa doble con queso, that when the drive-through attendant greeted him, Buenas noches y bienvenidos. ¿Cómo puedo ayudarle? for all the politeness of the bilingual-minimum-wage-night-shift-burger-jockey, the explosion of the man's patriotism, free-market liberties and dominant-culture entitlement could indeed, not be helped. What the hell is wrong with this country! he exclaimed and, a little violently, maneuvered his Escalade away from the joint, without dinner, toward a more mono-linguistic experience. He thought to write a letter to the owner stating that the decision to go bilingual at that particular location had cost the loss of the meals of at least himself and his wife, and presumably countless others of similar frustration. Not long was his drive before he encountered a billboard for a world renowned Rocky Mountain beer advertised with a woman in a bathing suit and the words Montañas Azules-Refresca Tu Mundo. Too old to become an activist, he decided this would be the war of younger generations.

    This experience may well represent the sentiments of many Americans but it serves as an interesting example of authentic multi-lingual text. If trans-lingual media can be so inescapable and upsetting for the non-student, figure its value to one, directly or passively, open to learning. Holistic multi-lingual learning environments might create multiple waves of these moments in and attempt to move languages into daily life and interact with them in meaningful ways as emotionally engaged participants simply by developing unemployed or underutilized space. In such surroundings, cultural diversity and language is celebrated and nurtured rather than ostracized or feared.

    Most countries have a hot-button immigrant concern. The constant shift of language and culture has always been a fact of world markets. With the perpetual increases of connectivity and speed of exchange in the global village the richness of cross-cultural interaction is ever more subject to reduction of ethnic diversity. The same dilution of culture is being experienced within dominant cultures as the media grows more and more homogeneous. With the lack of variegation comes an impeded perspective and appreciation for differences. Education within such an environment will undoubtedly face growing deficiencies in critical thinking. As choice, nuance, and multiplicity are rendered sterile, the atrophy of creativity increases.

    Scaffolding the potential of language enrichment is more about seeing every student (and teacher) as a multi-lingual learner. A step toward this would be a migration from the tendency to assume that minority language learners are Second Language learners. Language learning, be it immigrant, or native speakers studying a world language, is essentially one discipline with contrasting urgencies. It is important to stay aware that not all immigrants, refugees, or non-dominant language students are learning a second language. Perhaps it is their third, fourth, or fifth. How does the perspective of a student change when acquiring their third language compared to their second? Does it matter? It does, very much in fact. Each additional language is a new lens of reality and possibility. It creates an elasticity in the learner's concepts of structure, content, metaphorical palate, and tolerance for ambiguity which in turn fosters critical thinking.

    Discovery based learning environments strive to create atmospheres that attract the natural curiosity of humans and provide time for the learner to exhaust that interest authentically rather than arbitrarily deciding a specific learning objective must be digested and demonstrated within a finite period of the instructor's command. The irony here is that the world at large is seething with enrichment. The advantages of studying a language, for instance, in a respective nation are obvious. What is sought in these enriched experiences is intense repetition and limitation of our urges to revert to our language-one (mother tongue). Still, language learning on the street comes with challenges in regard to elevated stress, lack of immediate repetition, intention, or explanation of relevance, and a shortage of knowledgeable performance feedback. Yet, through a number of intentional techniques of prepared environment the classroom can come alive in such a way as to become a second instructor. The goal is to deliberately reform and enrich the classroom and/or campus to build relationships between the space and the student that ignite with or without facilitation. The mark is to submerse the learner in content in conjunction with traditional analog dispersal of information, peer learning or other multi-dimensional approach. Through this intentional design of peripheral space, content (linguistic or otherwise) moves into our lifestyles and learning is maximized.

     In all the discussion of education perhaps we ought to remind ourselves more often that biology has provided for us systems designed for learning. We are naturally curious. We process much more information in a given moment than our consciousness is aware of. We have the capacity to apply all relevant information we have learned to imagine many possible outcomes for our next decision and thus we are capable of autonomous experimentation. We use our imaginations as laboratories for the possible as well as the fantastical. Why then is education such a quagmire? Why aren't the youth then maneuvering with ease through the academic disciplines, blowing away basic tests, constantly compounding sophistication in the dance of learning? Indeed, it should be difficult not to learn. It does not require a robust critical analysis to conclude much of what is done is simply our of tradition rather than a continuously sharpening purpose and dialogue with all the pieces involved in the discussion. Much of the focus is specifically on curriculum or teachers, but how often do we analyze the walls, the floors, the desks, the lights? I'm not only speaking about aspects of aesthetics which of course come into play and have massive psychological effects, but also enrichment. Is there art on the walls? Does it elicit learning in multiple dimensions, that is: low-level literal or physical layer integration as well as initiating more complex or refined concepts and synthesis? Does the media push dialogues of local interest relevant to the culture, international importance, instructor whim, or is it simply impotent decoration or self congratulation and marketing? If we acknowledge the subconscious as a player in the learning process, how can we manipulate the environment to augment learning?

    For instance, the experience of my friend who went without dinner (and is probably better off for not eating fast-food), demonstrates a moment where the only new information he was experiencing was that of another language. In the signage he knew what was available without ever looking at the words simply by the nature of his familiarity with the products. What college students pay exorbitant amounts of money to receive abroad this man received in a Hispanic (Latin heavy) influenced section of town. Without dwelling on the catalyst for his behavior, the culture's programing of linear learning is clear; that is: I went to school to learn. I am now done with school. I am educated. The implication is that learning is finished. This is a dangerous conceit that many in ethnocentric communities or cultures exhibit and act upon. The shape of decisions made from this perspective are radically different, and far more narrow in scope than those generated from individuals who see no end to learning. Imagine that the integration of foreign languages and multi-lingual students into an environment is seen as a gift of enrichment at a far reduced cost to that of foreign travel or formal classes.

    If we put our learning environments to the test of attraction, or aesthetics we might first simply watch the entire population of an institution. Teachers, administrators, parents, students, the wider community, service staff, neighbors, anyone connected in any way to the learning facility, do they want to be there? Do they run from the building when the bell rings? Are they rare visitors to all corners of the campus? Do students respect the institution or do they consider it an antagonist? Envision a learning environment that would be so attractive the learners, instructors administrators would not want to leave. Imagine that when they spend time there they feel refreshed, invigorated and creatively stimulated. If a learning environment is aesthetically designed, comfortable, multi-sensory, in addition to being safe and accessible, wouldn't learning overall increase, not just among students but all parties involved?

    Psychological marketing research is keen on identifying the characteristics of what will bring and keep customers returning. Take for instance the difference between Starbucks and McDonalds. Both have invested heavily in the subconscious workings of their present and emerging customer profiles. Both have identified color schemes that affect customer behavior not only in attraction but in the length of time a customer visits. Fast-food restaurants typically employ brighter color schemes that are visual attention getters but so busy that the customer will not want to stay long as they become increasingly agitated by the circus. Coffee houses and book stores, however, profit from loitering. Seating is more comfortable, browsing is encouraged, literature is provided, and colors are often warmer and invite longer periods of patronization. Now envision a typical school, often bland interiors, uncomfortable seating, fluorescent irritating spectra of light, industrial flooring. Simply viewing the environment as a living instructor we might begin to re-imagine these spaces as portals of learning rather than utilitarian structures.

    Moreover, cues from the richness of outside world offer examples from the most effective learning environment. Real trees, whenever possible, should replace an abstract, whiteboard, contour drawing. The chemistry of coffee, the music of warblers, small business economics rather than text book statistics can give learners a much deeper experience with which to apply new learning under constantly variable settings. The process of adapting to these variables is constant exercise in critical thinking. Most learning could be much more easily or appropriately facilitated if it moved out of a boring or irrelevant and disconnected classroom into a real place of meaningful interaction. There are many practical environments that will never be adequately simulated in a traditional class room (sky-diving for instance) but by preparing that classroom with care and attention to future objectives learning can be incubated extremely successfully. This process requires viewing the learning environment like a dynamic ecosystem that self regenerates perpetual life. For this, the permaculture model of edible forest gardens serves as an analogy for a healthy learning environment which grows in each story or layer of the classroom. Imagine the divisions of a forest, the forest floor, understory, canopy and emergent layer with giant trees popping out on top. If the ideas of these layers are superimposed on a classroom how do we develop the micro-ecosystems of learning with the intention of a balanced ecology of learning?

    The inclusion of peripheral learning elements and authentic text can help tremendously in the speed and fluency of acquisition because they cross relevancy with new material in a holistic manner. Authentic text is any which has not been subject to doctoring for the sake of accessibility for the learner. True, it is not common to see a label on a corner of a classroom that reads “corner.” But a prepared environment maintains an intention in one location for as much absorption of material as possible. For instance, the word corner might be dimensionally expanded by placing two signs adjacent to it, one reading “Winslow” the other “Arizona.” Now a mundane word becomes a packaged allusion to be employed by the teacher when the time is appropriate to discuss the vocabulary and music of the Eagles, directions and geography or the economics of platinum album sales or the launch into a history development of 1971. The entire spectrum of mundane to rich literature should be present in a curriculum and enriched learning environment. There is plenty of high quality authentic material in all levels to avoid supporting abridged, altered or domesticated literature or media. A prepared environment will handle all such resources intentionally from peripheral or passive learning to direct and dynamic medias. Intention distinguishes an enriched environment from a prepared environment for learning.

    Street signs, directories, posted instructions, are all real tools of a culture and provide reinforcement in very literal mediums. An intentional environment might even over emphasize the employment of redundant signage, for example, a sign on the door might read, “door”, “entrance” or “welcome.” The repetition here is emphasizing the value of living with the written word, which may indeed be foreign to students from various cultures particularly those that are still primarily oral. This may seem obvious to primary school environments where the tactic is utilized as a regular practice, but in mature settings the device as a learning tool often wanes due to the assumed competence of the learners or the professional demeanor expected by either the client, teaching staff, administration or all of the above. Now, if maturity meant that signage was ineffective in conveying valuable information then roadways, public events, shopping centers would be quite free of print. Advertisements work. The point is to make them work for a different intention. Or rather, push these places to be utilized to expand the original intention to carry as many intentional messages as possible. For example, using rescued objects or recycling materials for artistic signage. The color, design, ecological philosophy, and artistic conception are peripheral objectives translated as different harmonics on the literal note of the sign's mundane purpose. These harmonics can then be tapped into by trained educators to augment learning simply by drawing a learners attention to repurposed space.

    Another dimension of this approach is to go beyond the minority learner and seek to enrich the dominant body. If signage is generated why not put “door” in an alternate language that might enrich the dominant-culture? Imagine a door to a class-room where students enter every day. Imagine that there is a sign that reads “door” which is designed to reinforce a foreign language culture whose mother tongue is Spanish. Now imagine the sign also reads “(mén)” or “дверь (dvyehr')” or "दरवाजा dar-WAA-za” or “باب (baab)” or all of these. The dominant culture is learning peripherally and the minority language culture is actually learning double. Our attentions are hijacked by advertisements constantly, so why not regain some control and productivity out of our space?

     What could learning a few random words from various languages do to improve education? The words are not random, to begin with. They are relevant daily objects, places, or communications we interact with. As learners come to be acquainted with such an environment on a daily, intimate, one might even say mundane level ethnocentricity is slowly replaced by tolerance, and eventually enthusiasm, for differences rather than xenophobic prejudices that can exist in sterile environments that lack diversity or expect assimilation or the sort of cultural apostasy of language-one for the sake of the dominant culture that many communities may adopt out of economic or social pressures. The appreciation that develops within learners is successful without a teacher ever necessarily spelling it out. The learners live with the expansion of reality, the multiplicity of solutions, and incorporate this thinking into all their work whether conscious of it or not.

    Many advertisements prove to be extremely complex for employing idiomatic expressions and puns which require considerable unpacking for a non-native speaker. At the same time, English second language textbooks may seem to have language at the heart of their curriculum but they are just as much an advertisement as a bathing-suit billboard. English second Language texts present an extremely homogenized view of the world and unfold units of information in a marginalized way that does not adequately suit any learner. They are crafted with the logic of English publishers complete with the latest political fad and cheap chic topics which most learners have access to via a myriad of other more professional and authentic sources should the learner be inclined. There is no text book that can satisfy all of the variable differences, advantages and challenges that each particular culture and foreign tongue brings to the process of language acquisition.

     Enriched learning environments are perpetual accelerators of learning for all participants, learners and instructors alike. When the environment itself is seen as a crucial asset in the inspiration of learning, instructors are more effective because learning moments are planted and repeated without their constant facilitation. The physical and emotional atmosphere can encourage the process additionally because when the learners themselves are borne of this interaction they can take on the rolls of mentors and facilitators of learning themselves. There is a labor and design focus on the outset of building a prepared learning environment much like a permaculture garden that is structured to produce perpetually but requires heavy planning in the beginning. Once established though, the environment takes on its own life and role as a teacher. A balance of respect emerges naturally between the community of learners that cannot be equaled in conventional, often sterile institutions which have neutered creativity for the sake of statistics.

    A richly prepared learning environment will be a storehouse filled with seeds of future learning. It will spawn narrative in every nook. It will literally live and breathe and require maintenance, feeding and attention just like any life. All intelligences must be ignited upon entering the space. It ought to be colorful, speak to a wide range of eclectic interests, incorporate nature and the cosmos- all to excite the imagination be it through soaring Eagles, multi-lingual bathroom doors, or Montañas Azules.

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