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From Babel to Pentecost: Language Learning in a Classical School
  • Language
Sharon Harrington

I have a vivid childhood memory that never actually happened. In my memory, I approach an older woman (no one I had ever met) sitting on the balcony of an apartment building, andearnestly pronounce the word “chair.” At this point, the memory breaks down. I knew what was supposed to happen: this hypothetical non-English speaker would not, in fact, understand my utterance. However, my preschool mind simply could not imagine that there was any person in the world who would not immediately understand “chair” if I just... said it. (Why “chair” was myword of choice, I still do not know.) I remember this being a problem I pondered frequently after that; perhaps it was my first contact with the tragedy of Babel.

I also have a distinct recollection of the first time (now as a young adult) I understood a question, answered it, and saw that I was understood in return, in a new language. To be fair, it was a two-word question, with a scarcely longer answer, conducted through an open window in the span of perhaps ten seconds. But the moment of actual communication, about something that mattered in daily life, unhindered by the “chair” phenomenon – the actual contact of minds, however brief–remains a singularly powerful memory to this day.

During this time I lived overseas, I happened to live with the Language Learning Coordinator for my organization in the region. She met with each team of missionaries regularly to provide support and guidance and evaluation as they tackled an all-encompassing task: learning a language they did not yet know, often one for which there was no textbook, no grammar, and no written description. In this way I was exposed to practical applications of much of the best current research and theory regarding how to approach the language learning process. I remember hearing frequently how important it was to engage as many senses as possible while learning a new language. I remember her emphasis on the need to listen carefully and long, because listening precedes speaking. Most of all, I remember hearing how important it is to use the language you know in real-life situations in order to acquire more language. She emphasized many times that a phrase you use to truly communicate with someone is a phrase you will remember far better than one you simply repeat over and over to yourself. 

TSCS is perhaps the only school I have encountered where our philosophy of language learning matches what I experienced among missionaries whose work depends on their ability to communicate effectively. In most of my own school experience, language study (especially of Greek and Latin) involves memorizing lists of endings, parsing individual words for case, number, and gender, wrestling to translate sentences written to meet particular educational goals, and, in general, chewing the end of a pencil and staring at a book. (Let me hasten to add that I describe this process as a student who thoroughly enjoys it! The puzzle of languagelearning has always appealed to me, so the fact that I appreciate Saint Constantine’s approachis not disillusionment.) While these are significant ways of gaining knowledge about a language,and I certainly don’t advocate throwing out the study of grammar, you will not see elementary school students doing these things at TSCS.

In a TSCS Lower School language class, you may find students singing silly songs about cabbage. If you come on the right day, you may find us doing a reader’s theater production of The Bear and the Pig (Ursus et Porcus) or making up a collaborative and cumulative silly story about a dog. We might be playing Four Corners, discussing a famous painting, making lots of animal sounds, telling stories about pirates and cheese, singing nursery rhymes, reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eruca Famelicissima), or throwing an orange ball to each student in turn.

Our approach focuses on gaining understanding through talking aboutthings other than language. We communicate about sheep, monkeys, doors, and icons, and through rhymes and games and stories and pictures and motion, so that by the time students encounter grammatical concepts they are coming from a place of intuitive and joyful understanding, gained not by communicating primarily about language but through language.

It also seems to me this approach is in harmony with the Christian view of studies, not as an end in themselves, but as a means to something else. All our studies and all the attention we give to them are worthwhile insofar as they result in an apprehension of real things that exist, their complex beauties and relationships. These real things that exist are, in their turn, images that help us to better understand their Creator (the source of all reality, and realest of all real beings) – to “think God’s thoughts after him,” as Kepler put it. When we approach language learning from the very earliest ages (as we intuitively do when our babies and toddlers are learning their first language) by treating language as a lens through which we see interesting and wonderful things, we are using it naturally for the communicative purpose for which it was designed. When we experience joyful moments of true communication in another language, we acquire new ways of seeing and new ways of comprehending. Perhaps if the “chair” memory is my micro-experience of Babel, then a moment of understanding and communication between two minds can be a microcosm of the immense power of Pentecost, where the gospel came to each person in his own particular heart language.