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Language of History, Language of the Heart

November 18, 2022

Karen Hedinger

Everyone has heard of the Panama Canal! My third-grade grandson, who is studying American history this year, is even learning about it. I borrowed two of his books to see what they said about the Panama Canal.

Both books stated that the U.S. wanted a canal for national interests. Both said it was a major engineering feat. Both mentioned a sudden revolution in Colombia, which created the Republic of Panama. This formed a new government that the U.S. immediately recognized and negotiated with to build the canal. One book went on to explain the worldwide benefits that resulted from the building of the canal, including the discovery of the cause of malaria and the cure for it. The building of the canal is described colorfully in many U.S. history books.

What is the Panamanian perspective on the Canal? A small CultureBound team visited the Museo del Canal Interoceanico de Panama (Museum of the Panama Inter-Oceanic Canal) during one of our trainings. Although the facts were the same as the U.S. history books, the endeavor was not presented positively. For instance, did you know that if Panamanians wanted to go from one side of the canal to the other they had to get a U.S. visa, even though they were in Panama the whole time?

What does this have to do with language learning? From beginners to native speakers, you can learn more about people's history and their perspective on their history through language.

If you are just starting to learn a language, you can try some of the following ideas to combine language and history:

  • Get a history book of the place your language is spoken that is written in your native language and read it. It is best to find a book written by someone from that place. It will give you a head start on discovering how the people see their history.

  • Learn vocabulary and concepts that you need to understand when you start asking people about their history. If there are young children's books about a historical event, that is a great place to glean vocabulary and concepts.

  • Ask a language helper, tutor, or someone else in your language learning community to summarize a historical event as you record it. Listen to it many times and see if you can think of simple questions about the content. Ask the questions to the person who gave you the recording. Record their answers as you talk more about the subject.

  • Visit museums, monuments, historical parks, and places to learn more about historical events. If you can do this with someone from the area who knows your language level, then you can record and write about the events from their perspective.

  • Look for poetry, music, and other artistic representations of historical events.

  • As you advance in your knowledge of language and history, you can ask others about historical events and get their perspectives. Different people have different perspectives and opinions about the same event.

The above suggestions can be used by language learners at any level. More advanced speakers can also try some of these ideas:

  • Read about historical events in the target language written by people from that area. You can learn about their history and converse with people using the words and concepts that they use to talk about their history. As you're reading, pay attention to vocabulary and ways of expressing concepts that are new to you.

  • Listen to podcasts, lectures, and speeches that refer to historical events.

  • As you learn more, ask some people about historical events. if possible, do some of the activities together so both you and the people you are talking with know what was written/said. They might agree or disagree with the author/speaker.

As you learn language and people's history, the Holy Spirit can make a way for you to introduce them to the one who redeems history and offers a future beyond imagination.

Are you a history buff? Or are you inclined to say "pass" on history? Which of the ideas in this post could you implement this week?

This article was first published by Global Trellis on July 27th, 2021.

Karen Hedinger, EdD, is director of language acquisition program at CultureBound. Her experience learning several languages allows her to effectively lead and teach our language courses. Karen has led both culture and language training alongside her husband Mark for many years.


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