To Learn a Language, You Must Live in that Language

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

To Learn a Language, You Must Live in that Language

At least according to Gregory Bateson (1904-1980):

Perhaps a curriculum is like a hand in that every piece and component of what they would call a curriculum is really related ideally to the other components as fingers are related to each other and to the whole hand. In other words, it is nonsense except as sort of a Faustian shortcut to learn large quantities of listed material unless the learning of those lists can be developed into some sort of organic whole. I am not against the learning of lists. I am against the failure to assimilate the components of lists together into a total vision, a total hearing, a total kinesics, perhaps, of the wholes with which we deal. We are all familiar with the difficulties that Anglo-Saxons face when they learn languages. Englishmen and Americans are notoriously stupid and awkward when they come to a foreign country and try to talk the native language. This is a sharp and clear example of exactly the point that I am trying to make, that we Anglo-Saxons do not learn to live in a language because we believe that it is made of separate parts. We calls these “words” and we make them into dictionaries. But that is not how the natives of the place learn to speak as children nor how they speak today. It is not even how we speak our own English—a language notorious for the number of poets it has produced. We have lost by the time we are twelve the idea of language as a living organized pattern. (“Last Lecture” (1979), A Sacred Unity: Further Steps in an Ecology of Mind, ed. Rodney E. Donaldson, (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) 311–12.)

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