The goal of this paper is to examine the current context of experiential and service learning in the field of language education with an emphasis on the short-comings of the current model of language teaching vis-à-vis experiential and service learning. A model for the future consideration of experiential and service learning in language education will be posed and used to generate scenarios for language teaching future possibilities. Finally, the implications of this model and subsequent scenarios will be discussed.
The current state
Language learning has always been experiential learning, to some degree. The act of speaking another language itself can be experiential in that the student must actively participate in order to be successful. But experiential learning can be so much more than this. Experiential learning has been assumed to be a part of language education. Study abroad, for example, is a form of using the language in context, and study abroad has been a part of language learning before language instruction was formalized.
However, other popular approaches to language instruction have de-emphasized the role of experiential learning. The grammar translation method, popular in the 1950s and 1960s, emphasized learning languages from reading the “great texts” of that language. Language was learned through the process of reading and translating from the target language (L2) into the student’s native language (L1).
More recently, the communicative model of language instruction re-emphasizes experiential learning. The communicative model assumes that language use should be the central focus; the structure of the language can be learned later. While grammar translation emphasized language form (learning verb conjugations, for example), the communicative model suggests that when a student is motivated by the content, the structure of language can be more easily taught. Therefore, language materials following the communicative model focus on what the learner needs to do with the language: reserve a hotel room, buy groceries, go to the doctor, etc. The communicative model, by its nature, assumes that it is also experiential (Swain, 1985; Shafer, R.E., Staab, C., & Smith, K., 1985; Long, H.M. & Porter, P.A., 1983; Krashen, 1984; Cantoni-Harvey, 1987; Allen, J.P.B., 1983; Day, E.M. & Shapson, S., 2001). Communicative language learning came about in the early 1980s, and it continues to enjoy popularity today. Language learning has been resting on its laurels with regard to experiential learning.
To some degree, experiential and service learning has always been a component of language education. To the degree that study abroad itself is experiential language learning, language education has emphasized learning from being in a context of application by encouraging language learners to study languages in a context of practice.
However, some methods of learning languages have been less focused on experiential and service learning than others. For example, the grammar translation method emphasizes learning languages by reading and translating the great texts from a language. This method was likely popularized by scholars of Latin and Greek; after all, it’s pretty hard to do much experiential learning with a dead language!
More recently, though, communicative language teaching/learning has emphasized learning the structure of the language in tandem with language use. This is sort of a structural/functional approach. Teachers ask, “what do my learners need to do with the language? What structures do they need to learn to accomplish their tasks?”
I think about my own experiences learning languages, and I know my most recent Spanish language learning was more communicative in nature. First year students (I didn’t need to refresh the first year) didn’t learn any grammar—they only learned how to communicate. They got tourist language, and the classes focused on being able to produce the language. The next year, the class continued to focus on production, but now adding the layer of “these are the grammatical structures you have been using. This is how these grammatical structures work.”
I think that language learning as a field is pretty content these days with the level of experiential and service learning built into pedagogy. But, I think that as language teachers, we shouldn’t be satisfied with where we’re at. There’s big changes ahead in terms of how we receive and send information, produce and use knowledge, and creatively adapt to changing circumstances around us. It’s time for language education to consider ways to adapt to future language use.