Monday, November 23, 2009

On the Other Side

Originally this post was to be about our little trip to the other side of the Lake. But I've just realized it's actually pretty metaphorical.

So we visited some friends on the other side of the lake last weekend. The weather was not so great as it was the foggy-rainy-chilly combination that is so usual in winter. So we didn't get around as much as I would have liked but the Montreux area is definitely one to visit. I'm planning to go back some time during the spring or summer.

Although it's not supposed to be one of the big attractions, I actually loved the fog. It's so magical, spreading over the lake like a sea of clouds. And at night you can see the shores of the lake all lit up by sparkling villages and towns. Like a fairy tale...

Being around so many Swiss and talking in French a lot made me think. My attitude towards this language is so different from the feeling I have towards English. The more I think about it the more I feel Dörnyei's (2005) Self theory coming to life. Because a language is of course a social medium but if you think about it it's not really imposed on one by the outside world. Or at least for not long, as people generally don't like outside pressure so they either shrug it off or rebel against it -- or internalize the idea.

So the point is that we always have some kind of internal drive to put effort into something. And while with English I had totally romantic reasons, which made the language a crucial part of my life at the time, in the case of French it's more the instrumental-integrative paradigm that could describe my attitude. By romantic reasons I mean the sort of self identification process that one goes through as a teenager -- and English just happened to be the language of mine. And somehow it all determined my future relation to the language. With French it's been totally different.

First I studied French in high school, like many others, and it was more like a school subject than a language. When I grew up of course I realized that it could also come in handy and gradually I started to think of it as a means of communication.

When I was in France I felt really comfortable being the wealthy educated foreigner. At the Cote d'Azur you can be either that or the looked-down-on immigrant and I chose to belong to the fromer group for obvious reasons. I didn't really feel like integrating into local society as I couldn't really identify with the social values of either the rich or the not so wealthy. It's a strange mixture of classes they have there...

So I was quite happy with my Arrogant-American-Speaks-Highschool-French accent and never really thought on polishing it. Of cours I'm too much of a linguist to not learn a language once given the chance -- but never my accent! Having spent like 6 weeks in Geneva last weekend I had to face the situation. I was totally changing attitudes. I'm in the Canadian context.

Gardner (1985) and his cronies have ruled the language learning world with their theory of integration for 20 years. Then teachers and learners all around the world could sigh with relief that they didn't have to pretend any longer. Because what worked in Canada didn't really work anywhere else. Of course you're pushed to learn a language that you encounter every day and that has high social standing. But in the case of the rest of the world it's often not the case. A great many people learn English in school settings or just far from native speakers -- for reasons very different from those of Canadians in the 1980s.

But the Canadian context still does exist. Especially here in Switzerland. And I so feel like integrating. I must admit I'm stunned. For years I've been reading and writing about the decline of the Gardnerian era. I've spent my years studying how this theory never worked in foreign language settings. I was so convinced it was totally outdated! And here I am, on the other side, shining with integrative motivation, learning a language with all its tones and pitch. It's crazy. But it's true. The integrative motive lives on.

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