Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hunters & Gatherers

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

I’m guessing that most of you are familiar with the idea of a “hunter-gatherer” society. According to Wikipedia, this is a society in which “most or all food is obtained from wild plants and animals.” One feature of this kind of society is the division of labour between the sexes, with men tending to be hunters, and women more likely to be gatherers. However, the Wikipedia article stresses that hunter-gatherer societies tend to be egalitarian, with women having just as much power as men. This is because equal importance is given to the role of hunting and the role of gathering.

In many ways, I think the hunter-gatherer metaphor is one that can also be applied to language learners. Some learners are hunters, some are gatherers, and some (the most successful ones) give equal importance to both. In the field of language learning, “gathering” might be taken to mean collecting new words, phrases, and structures as you discover them. However, just as an effective gatherer of food is not someone who simply waits around to be given things, effective gatherers of language need to be constantly on the lookout for new “nourishment” for their language ability. Gatherers of food actively search for it, looking under rocks, inside holes, and even in the trees above their heads. In the same way, efficient gatherers of language have to be constantly aware of their surroundings and open to the possibilities that present themselves. A Japanese woman I know who works for a publishing company once told me that she thought the secret of successful language learners is that they constantly have their “antennae” raised. In other words, they are always sensitive to new language, and they unfailingly notice it when it appears.

Another thing that food gatherers have to do is store their findings so that they can be accessed later. There is no point, for example, in picking a delicious-looking mushroom only to find out when you get home that you have dropped it somewhere along the way. In the same way, language gatherers need a systematic approach to filing away new language as they collect it. Here in Japan, I have found that students tend to have an obsession with writing things down. I suppose that, because of the frailty of human memory, we get a sense of security from making a permanent record of something that we want to remember. The problem for most of my students is that instead of being a means to an end, writing stuff down becomes an end in itself. Many students scribble things on scraps of paper that disappear into their bag at the end of the lesson. When I ask  them what they intend to do with those scraps, the most common response is a blank look. For those students, “learning” new language simply means writing it down.

Although being a good gatherer of information is an important skill for learners, I have found that most of the very successful ones tend also to have a “hunter” mentality. These people do not just wander around close to home picking up whatever happens to be lying around, they set out on journeys with the specific intent of finding new language and bringing it home. The difference between these people and unsuccessful learners can be seen in the contrast between the questions “What do I have to do for homework?” and “What can I do for homework?”

If you talk to a successful language learner, you will inevitably find that they were highly proactive in their learning. These are the people who read extensively, who watch the same DVD over and over again until they have learnt all of the lines, and who search tirelessly for new ways to “hunt” the language they want to learn. You will also often find that these people have developed their own methods of hunting. These have normally been developed through a process of trial and error, and they benefit from (and contribute to) a heightened awareness on the part of the learner of their own learning styles as well as their strengths and weaknesses.

On the subject of strengths and weaknesses, I remember some advice that Arnold Schwarzenegger once gave to aspiring bodybuilders. He told them to “spend 90% of your time in the gym working on the weakest 10% of your body.” I would say that is probably good advice for language learners too – spend 90% of your effort on the weakest 10% of your skills. In the world of bodybuilding, people often do the exact opposite, working ceaselessly on the parts of their body that respond best, and largely ignoring the bits that are slow to respond. That is why you often see men with huge arms and chests and skinny legs! In the same way, we also often see language learners who have great pronunciation but a poor vocabulary, or great reading skills but no communicative ability.

Going back to the hunter-gatherer metaphor, I think it is possible to identify three types of learner. The first is what might be called a “passive gatherer.” These people will collect language when it is presented to them, but they do not go out of their way to look for it. The second type are “active gatherers.” These are people who search for new language and make a conscious effort to store it. Active gatherers are usually more successful than passive gatherers. The most successful language learners of all, however, are the hunter-gatherers. These are the people who not only gather what they find lying around them, but who also plan regular expeditions to new and unknown places in order to hunt their prey. Which type are you?

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