Jan Smuts described the term holism as follows:
"The tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution."
In other words, some things cannot be fully understood from their parts alone. “to form wholes” means to form full, complete things from many parts. “the sum of the parts” means adding all the parts together.
Whole entities have unique behaviors of their own and can often be unexpected or unpredictable. Think of an ecosystem for example. Everything naturally within the ecosystem is connected to everything else in that ecosystem. If you remove a part of the ecosystem the ecosystem will not function as it should, and may eventually die.
A language is a good example of this.
A language has its own ecosystem made up of language (spoken and written), culture, society and so on. It can’t be understood from its parts alone. To understand a language you need to understand the culture, society, and everything that effects that language and makes it what it is. This is different from simply learning to speak and write in that language.
When native speakers communicate with each other, the words they use have “meanings” much more advanced than simply their dictionary definitions.
Words and phrases are tightly linked to the culture and society that they are used in, and in order to truly communicate effectively with another person you need to have experience of a shared cultural background. Notice that I wrote “communicate effectively”, not simply “communicate”. You can communicate in your new language by simply learning it but you will be missing many nuances of the words you use, therefore you communication will be a little less than truly effective.
Only after learning the cultural background of the language will the words and phrases used have their true meaning.
For example, have you ever:
- Tried to say something you’re sure is correct in a foreign language, only to be told: “Yeah, but we just don’t say it like that.”? (That happens to me often when I use my elementary level Spanish.)
- Listened to someone speaking in another language, felt like you understood every word, but failed to grasp the meaning? (That happens to me often when I listen to my friends and others speak their native Spanish.)
- Learned a whole load of stuff, but not been able to use any of it out in the real world? (Yes, that’s me.)
This is the result of ignoring the whole (the written/spoken language, the culture, etc), and of not taking a sufficiently holistic approach to language learning.
What does holistic language learning look like?
If holistic learning involves using your new language for real purposes, real conversation, rather than breaking it into its many grammar rules, what would it actually involve?
This is what it involves:
- Reading a book, or text/essay/short story, in order to enjoy it (rather than to learn the words it contains)
- Chatting about things that interest you with a language partner on Skype/the phone/the internet (rather than being “taught”)
- Going out and spending time with native speakers (rather than studying)
- Imitating the sound of a whole sentence, parroting (rather than individual words)
- Taking a class (painting, karate, exercise, etc) conducted in your new language (without worrying about understanding everything)
- Contributing to a discussion on a Facebook/Google+/Yahoo group (without worrying that you won’t be accepted as a non-native speaker)
- Listening to the radio or watching movies and TV shows (and not worrying about understanding every single thing)
- Reading the news in your target language (CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Yahoo/Google News, New York Times, etc)
- Searching on the internet for that thing you need to know about in your new language
Think of it as using the language for the same reasons as you would use your native language. This, after all, is the ultimate goal in the language you’re learning.
This is powerful, because you are using the target language to perform real tasks while also taking care of your other “human” needs at the same time.
By speaking, you’re developing an awareness of your social self in the target language. By reading for a real purpose, you’re addressing your cognitive needs to find information or for pleasure.
In essence, you’re developing your own mental awareness in your new language.
It’s not necessarily easy… your textbook will feel much more comfortable by comparison. But the right mindset can get you started much quicker than you thought. In other words, learning from a textbook is easier than trying to learn through real-life experience.
In the words of Leo van Lier:
“A [holistic] approach sees the learner as a whole person, not a grammar production unit. It involves having meaningful things to do and say, being taken seriously, being given responsibility, and being encouraged to tackle challenging projects, to think critically, and to take control of one’s own learning.”
So take a step back.
Don’t throw out your textbooks (you’ll be needing them).
But consider how you’re spending your time. Are you focusing on the part (grammar) or on the whole (experience)?
And do you need to readjust the balance on your path to fluency?