Activity in spite of relationships hovers on the edge of meaninglessness.
Every task we undertake as humans -- social beings, after all -- threatens to do violence, or at the very least ring hollow, when the well-being and happiness of ourselves and those around us are ignored.
As an Asian Studies and Chinese language instructor, I've battled like every other learner through years of schooling, confronted with a feeble tolerance for tedium, futility and wanton callousness in education. While learning in no way inherently needs to be a torturous numbing path to the acquisition of knowledge and skills, it sometimes degenerates into it. As a young professor, once faced with the daunting task of mastering what is arguably the world's most difficult language, I've experienced again and again the key to sustaining motivation for myself and my students. The key is no great secret.
To the gathering troop engaged in happiness, motivation and mindfulness research (Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds, The Lazar Lab, Greater Good Science Center, etc.) and those generally attuned to the stirrings of the human spirit, the Holy Grail to sustained, nurturing learning is not money, fame, or promotion. Instead, it's a resource much more readily available and sustainable than those idols to fulfillment. The answer couldn't be simpler. It's our relationships with ourselves and others.
Whatever the cultural, economic and political conditioning compelling us to deny or hopelessly qualify this assertion, it still holds as the principal truth and motivation to a language-learner's -- or for that matter, anyone else's -- long-term success.
I experienced the inspiring effects of this long ago when I learned my second language, Italian, while engaging in service in Lombardia and Piemonte. Shortly thereafter, a number of business trips in northern Mexico further confirmed this as Spanish linguistic proficiency followed easily the growth of friendships made in the desert. And when thousands of Chinese characters and the menace of literacy swirled like an interminable typhoon, it was finally involvement in micro-finance in China and local community outreach that sustained my studies.
The past two summers, I began collecting data from the language students I've been working with at the Kentucky Governor's Scholars program in Louisville, one of the country's preeminent summer academic programs for rising seniors. Research is slim to nil on the effectiveness of contemplative practices in the language classroom.
Quoting from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, contemplative education is one "that promotes the exploration of meaning, purpose and values and seeks to serve our common human future. An education that enables and enhances personal introspection and contemplation leads to the realization of our inextricable connection to each other, opening the heart and mind to true community, deeper insight, sustainable living, and a more just society." Such noble aims of education often vanish amongst the grammatical minutiae and dizzying stroke-order of Chinese.
With the Kentucky Governor's Scholars program, I sought to restore to students time for deeper insight and concern for self and community, inviting their attention back to themselves and their peers, to investigate their internal motivations, emotions and personal quests for meaning. The results have been very encouraging, corroborating what neuroscience and educational research is currently claiming about the benefits of contemplative practice, while at the same time registering improvement in foreign language performance.
One of the students wrote:
"When studying foreign languages, there is always this anxiety that creeps over me. I suddenly forget what I'm supposed to say because of this. Contemplative practices allow me to channel out my anxiety and fears and instead focus on the task. I find that I'm much more confident this way."
"My personal favorite contemplative practice was the listening meditation where we became deeply focused on one sound that was around us and focused only on that sound. When doing this practice, it helped me to forget about all of the thoughts that were distracting me and keeping me from putting my full attention on my learning. Emotionally, this practice helped me to release the stresses I had and become calm, collected, and ready to learn. In the classroom, this practice made me much more focused on my tasks and I was able to learn without as many distractions as I usually had."
It was fitting that the two mottos for the course were a Confucian saying "Only when there is calm will things settle," and "language without humanity is inhumane."
Allowing for students the time and attention necessary for enhanced self-awareness reduces anxieties that inhibit performance, instead lightening the spirits and sharpening the mind.
Ironically, the best thing for language learners sometimes is to not speak at all, but to listen to themselves and others.
Dr. Aaron Godlaski, behavioral neuroscientist, and myself are currently preparing a manuscript articulating some of the results of this ongoing study.