Mental Models in Language Education

The importance of context is well established among language teachers.  Words spoken without context do not express any sense.  The students are just parroting, or repeating mechanical operations, and such activity is not beneficial. If a student is not expressing sense when they practice, then they are not learning to use the language. So it’s necessary to situate their activities in contexts where meaningful expression is possible. One obvious solution is to have them talk about themselves, and discuss real things in their everyday lives. But, this solution drastically limits what can be done, because they couldn’t learn language for situations they themselves have not encountered.

Words are equipment used by a self in different contexts. The difficulty of language teaching I think concerns the variability of this “self in context”.  It seems that student must be able to disassociate from their immediate personal context, and imagine themself as someone else in another situation.  Adopting this as a primary problem connects language education with other fields of humanities research. For example, classical aesthetic theories emphasize the disinterested subject of art experience, and readers of literature are said to exercise a willing suspension of disbelief. And psychoanalysts study structures of symbolic representation where a self is substitutable with others. This capacity for abstract substitution – to imagine myself as another – is considered a civilization accomplishment which some Lacanians call symbolic castration. These theories are related to structural anthropologies that model patterns in social exchange. Also important, and closely related to these, is existential phenomenology. Language education literature should integrate all these various theories, and re-fashion them into suitable conceptual tools.

The problem in language education, as I understand it, is how students are able to imagine contexts. This begins with their capacity to conceive being-in-the-world, or life-world. That is the first human context, and all other imaginary contexts are conceived within that. The students must learn to anticipate how the world overall is organized, and how language is generally used by the peole who live in the world.  Imaginary contexts are not definite, but vague and uncertain, and made from the proliferation of imaginary possibilities. Being-in—the-world is the basis on which these possibilities are generated.  

To study language effectively, a student must have comprehensive abstract ideas of elementary objects such as person, animal, tool, city, food, building, forest, furniture, landscape… everything begins with the development of these ideas, and their integration into a world model. These ideas must be integrated into a referential system oriented around the self, and models of how selves are equipped and embodied in situations. A self conceives its own position in concepts that are geographical, historical, social and technological. Language is functional equipment used by selves in different contexts, and to practice it requires imagining different selves in different contexts sufficiently.

Students may be trapped in imaginary ego conflation, and unable to disassociate enough for symbolic abstraction. This means they can only conceive of what is most immediately present in their lives. This is especially a problem where classes have strong group egos – they are caught in an eroticized social imaginary and preoccupied with personal honor. These students cannot imagine other times or places, since they are obsessed with present appearances of honor. This is a serious obstacle for language education. The teacher must gauge how much symbolic disassociation students are capable of.  If the students are forced to accept too much disassociation they will react defensively, and take refuge in their group ego, or esprit-de-corps.

In order to negotiate this obstacle, the teacher may require some ethnographic psychoanalysis.  The key concept I want to introduce here is class. Class is my term for the positive social being which theologians call redemption or blessedness. This is what a person requires in order to learn a language. Having class means possessing the concept of being-in-the-world. The person of class has grace which saves them from the disaster of creation. This is a generic context in which people are imagined to live. Class may go unrecognized, or even be despised, but it cannot be given or taken, because it is a divine gift.  It is a successful expression of drives. Class drives find satisfying objects through conceptual mediation. 

Classless people are dissatisfied, and to alleviate their dissatisfaction they seek honor. Perhaps they think that accumulating honor will afford them class, but that seems unlikely. Honor is an attempt to compensate for symbolic failure, and it is implicated with spiritualism and fetishism. It is related to the raiding and plundering of martial brotherhoods, and to the circulation of commodities in mass consumer economies. Honor is the supreme value of pagans. Classless people are possessed by the corporeal phantasms of the honor-gift economy. Language teaching must proceed on the basis of divine grace which affords the disassociation to imagine a world with other people who one will never meet.

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