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The Importance of Social Context for Language Learning

By: Callie Schaden |

Up until living in Spain for a semester, my experience with speaking Spanish did not often leave the classroom. Although I spent years learning the language, books and tests were clearly not enough to give me even a conversational level of fluency. Even after three trips to El Salvador and being surrounded by the language, I was surprised by how little Spanish I could really speak. It wasn’t until I was tossed headfirst into an immersive experience in Valencia that I really felt like my language skills were making substantial improvement. I was in an environment where I had no choice but to communicate in Spanish, so naturally my increased use of the language helped me build a higher fluency. However, what I didn’t at first realize is that a big part of language learning is experiencing the words inside of the conversational context.

Even as my Spanish got better and better, I noticed that I lacked an emotional connection to the words. I had much less discomfort (if any at all) hearing or saying things in Spanish that I would have been uncomfortable hearing or saying in English. For example, in an assignment for my translation class we came across an unfamiliar curse word and were discussing in class how it would be best translated given the context and the audience. Of course the solution here was for my professor to list off as many Spanish profanities as he could think of and define them for us so that we would know which word to use. Now maybe it’s just me, but if one of my professors had been listing off as many curse words in English as possible, I would have been squirming a little in my seat. This could bring up a whole lot of other conversations surrounding the cultural usage of words, but the fact of the matter is that the worst Spanish profanity does not bother me one bit and that is because I lack the years of necessary context to make me emotionally connected to it.

I also found that if I felt very strongly about something or was very upset, I would have to communicate it in English. There was a decision I had been agonizing over for weeks that had me nearly in tears every time I discussed it in English over the phone, but when my host mom, who only speaks Spanish, asked me about the situation, I felt completely calm explaining it to her in Spanish. It wasn’t because I had stopped worrying about it (I hadn’t), I think it was because I couldn’t adequately express my emotions in Spanish. To elaborate, I wasn’t struggling with communicating how I felt, but I was struggling to communicate it in a way that didn’t feel impersonal and basic to someone whose mind is a constant whirlwind of thought and emotion. In Spanish I told her, “Estoy estresada porque voy a vivir en otro estado sin mi familia este verano y todavía no tengo trabajo”. In English, “I’m stressed because I am going to live in another state without my family this summer and I still don’t have a job”. That was the bare bones version of what I was wanting to say, and frankly, it made me sound deceivingly relaxed.

Callie Schaden, “Light”, 2022

Now that I’m back in the United States with some time to reflect on this, I’ve done a little bit of research on whether or not these experiences have any sort of scientific or psychological backbone. Turns out there’s actually a lot of research about the emotionality differences between a person’s native tongue and their second language that supports a lack of emotional connection to a non-native language. An article from Current Developments in Psychological Science explains, “When a language has been learned to high proficiency, or when it has been frequently used, it has usually been extensively experienced in the types of social contexts where words and phrases can become emotionally grounded” (Caldwell-Harris 216). Naturally, a person’s native tongue has likely been more extensively experienced than a second language, giving the words more association and therefore more emotional connection. More specifically, the article also claims that, “Swearwords and expressions of love were perceived as more emotional when respondents had frequent opportunities to use them in social interaction” (Caldwell-Harris 215). My experience has been that this applies to the hearing side of things as well. The amount of social interactions I have had in Spanish (especially ones where they use words you aren’t taught in class) is obviously significantly smaller than the amount of social interactions I’ve had in English. For that reason, although I was actively comprehending the meaning of those kinds of words, they sparked barely any emotional response from me.

Of course, now that I think about all of this it makes perfect sense, but I find it so interesting to know that language learning involves more than just knowing what the words mean. A big of it is also becoming emotionally connected to the language by associating those words with experienced social contexts. And naturally, experienced social context can only come with continuous exposure to and practice of the language. Maybe I’ll have to head back to Spain!

Work Cited

Caldwell-Harris, Catherine L. "Emotionality Differences Between a Native and Foreign Language: Implications for Everyday Life." Current Directions in Psychological Science (2015): 214-219.

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Callie Schaden is currently an English and Spanish student at Cedarville University. She grew up in a small town in Ohio and has expanded her horizons in El Salvador and Valencia, Spain, two places which have given her a love for the Spanish language and a desire to continue learning outside of her native tongue.

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