Ways to vocabulary

By Peter Lutzker, August 2019

There is no dispute about the need to acquire a passive and an active vocabulary when learning a foreign language. In contrast to learning the rules of grammar, something about which there is a range of views among the theoreticians of foreign language teaching, no one questions that understanding and being able to use words is a primary concern in teaching a foreign language. Hence the focus is not on the “why” but rather on the “how”. Here we can use the threefold structure of the human being, which is of central importance in the whole of Waldorf education, as a productive foundation.

Ideas, will and feelings

In the second lecture of The Foundations of Human Experience, Steiner discusses the polarity of the conceptual and the will activity of the human being. This polarity is subdivided into the respectively inherent and corresponding forces of antipathy and sympathy. Antipathy, belonging to the conceptual pole, is placed in a direct and continuative connection with the activity of cognition, memory and the formation of concepts. Thus antipathy does not here have any negative connotations. On the contrary, it is the elementary force which accompanies and enables such activities. Steiner assigns the force of sympathy to the will pole, allowing us to approach the world in an open way; it can also lead to the development of fantasy and imagination. The closed off head shape and the nervous and sensory system as a whole, including the brain, is assigned to the conceptual pole while the metabolic and limb system is presented as the physical foundation of the will pole. The human feeling life is seen as the third mediating element between the conceptual and will poles which has its physical foundation in the middle rhythmical system, primarily the heart and lungs. 

As far as vocabulary is now concerned, we will probably begin by locating it at the conceptual pole. After all, is it not essentially connected with the recall of words and correspondingly with the memory? That is indeed the case to the extent that we focus on the cognitive activities of conscious recognition, learning and remembering words, for example through the use of vocabulary lists. Here each word in the foreign language is equated with one or several meanings in the learner’s mother tongue.  

With this kind of vocabulary learning we are dealing solely with the process of recall almost exclusively anchored in the nervous system. The activity of the limbs, together with the spectrum covering sympathy and imagination, which is associated with the will pole, is hardly activated, if at all; neither is the feeling level and the associated rhythmical system. 

It is evident that such an almost exclusively cognitive learning process is fundamentally different from the natural acquisition of a person’s mother tongue. Each child experiences and acquires the vocabulary of their mother tongue(s) in many different ways through the concrete situation, accompanied by feelings and, above all, physically in constant doing and active interaction with the environment.  

The key question with regard to the theory of teaching a language is thus whether we can find productive approaches in the process of natural language acquisition which can be applied to working with vocabulary in the foreign language. From the perspective of The Foundations of Human Experience, this would be the same as the question whether the life of the feelings and the will with their respective physical substrate could not be addressed and activated in the same way as the conceptual activity when learning vocabulary. 

Threefold language acquisition

Let us look at vocabulary acquisition for example. Alongside creative writing and extensive reading, unimagined further possibilities open up particularly through drama, scenic play and process drama when compared to conventional vocabulary learning.  It immediately becomes clear that something quite different is happening here. Since artistic and drama work fundamentally requires action, the will pole and metabolic and limb system become directly active. According to Steiner, the force of sympathy is activated with the will pole. Playing a part or putting on a play requires imagination. The actor is no longer just themselves and the whole situation is fundamentally different from normal “reality”. 

But the feeling life is also activated in such an artistic process, not just through immersion in our own part, but also through the experience of our fellow actors. The more intensively we make a piece or a part our own, the more we address, indeed challenge, the feeling life, that is the “rhythmical system”. 

As far as the acquisition of vocabulary in such a process is concerned, it is of central importance that the learning of words is not the primary goal. Rather, learning and, to an even greater extent, using the words in performance is an artistic necessity. It is the main part of the rehearsal work which may then show its “fruits” in a performance. No less important is the work on gestures, facial expression, bodily stance, all key parts of working on a part and thus also of “incorporating” text and vocabulary. Incidentally, such an artistically based learning process relates not just to the words we speak ourselves but also includes those of our fellow actors. These, too, we learn to understand in the course of the work and often we learn them by heart as well. 

Embodied learning

The whole learning process within such an event is thus radically different from learning a vocabulary list by heart at our desk at home or being tested on it orally or in writing. Vocabulary is acquired not by memorising single words but always in the context of coherent sentences, thoughts and actions. Accordingly, it is not surprising that many research results show that the inclusion of the world of the feelings and the physical body – embodied learning – supports the retention of words and phrases in the foreign language.

It is thus not about simply understanding and recalling a word and its meaning in the mother tongue (“translation”) as the ultimate goal of learning vocabulary but about the lived acquisition of qualities and resonances which are specific to a language and culture and which are associated with the words. As part of a long-term learning process, artistically based vocabulary acquisition leads not just to a much richer and more differentiated vocabulary but also to a fundamentally different view of learning a foreign language as such. 

Note: This article is a greatly abridged chapter from the book Zugänge zur Allgemeinen Menschenkunde Rudolf Steiners, edited by P. Lutzker and T. Zdražil, Stuttgart 2019, which will be published shortly.