Listen and speak

By Mathias Maurer, August 2019

It still works with adults, not just with children – I have tried it out myself: listen closely, repeat what you have heard – the meaning appears later by itself.

That could apply to almost anything we can’t yet do, but I am here referring specifically to learning a new language. In my case it was Italian. I would immediately falter if I first had to search for the correct grammatical form; rather, I build momentum if my skilled interlocutor builds linguistic bridges for me and the next thing follows on from what has come before. In this way it becomes more correct with each practising repetition. 

I sometimes wonder how much easier it would be even for adults to learn a language if they were to be immersed in a language, like the children in the lower school of a Waldorf school, through singing, recitation, stamping their feet and hoping about. Then parents might also be better able to understand that after four or five years of foreign language classes it is not important to be able to speak, read and write correctly. Because what still happens in the lower classes as playful learning has a deeper didactic reason and could quite easily be continued and enhanced at a higher level in middle and upper school: actually, a class play each year should be a firm part of the schedule for all foreign languages; I suspect undreamt of language potentials and talents would emerge. It’s called “embodied learning” – a resource which is used not nearly enough. 

A further enhancement is to actually do what we are speaking about, that is, speak in the context of a concrete activity or work. Nowhere do I learn as quickly as when I am working together with Italian lavoratorion a building site, restore an armadiowith the joiner, choose the hardest salamewith the stallholder in the weekly market, ask the traffic police where the nearest ferramentais, or fetch mielefrom the farmer, where we get on to the subject of bees and he shows me his hives. All these things can also be done locally with the pupils: gardening lessons in French, ironwork in English, a Spanish week in the school kitchen... 

Or foreign trips: there are numerous Waldorf schools abroad (also close by) with which an exchange network could be systematically built up which would work without great (expensive) formalities, including accommodation with local families. The same is true of work experience abroad in educational, special needs or agricultural facilities. In other words, speaking a foreign language in real situations – this, too, a resources which could be expanded and which not only serves the acquisition of a language but also life- and self-experience. 

But back to listening: we don’t always understand one another even when we speak the same language. In other words, all understanding of a language – this is true of any language – is preceded by listening. You might have encountered the following phenomenon: although you did not understand precisely every word of what your interlocutor said, you nevertheless intuitively grasped what they meant. An open ear is a gateway to the world and the resonating half of every successful conversation in any language.


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