Language of history, language of the heart

Jul 22, 2021 | 1 comment

Everyone has heard of the Panama Canal, even my third-grade grandson who is studying American history this year. I borrowed two of his history 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, a new government that the U.S. immediately recognized and negotiated with to build the canal. One book went on to explain the world-wide benefits that resulted from the building of the canal including the discovery of the cause of malaria and the conquering of the disease. The building of the canal is described in glowing colors in many U.S. history books.  

What is the Panamanian perspective on the Canal? A small CultureBound team visited the Museo del Canal Interoceánico de Panamá (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 in such glowing colors. For instance, did you know that if Panamanians wanted to go from one side of the canal to the other, to pass through the canal zone, 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? No matter what level of language you are at, beginner to near-native, you can learn more about people’s history and their perspective on their history through language. Mark Hedinger talked about how to learn people’s history in the Global Trellis blog: Three tips for learning history.

If you are a just at the start of learning language, you can try some of the following ideas to combine language and history:

—Get a history book of your new home that is written in your native language and read it to get a history timeline of events. If you can find one written by someone from the place, that would be best. It might give you a head start on discovering how the people see their history.

—Learn vocabulary and concepts that you need to be able to understand when you start asking people about their history. If there are young children’s books about a historical event, that would be a great place to glean vocabulary and concepts.

—Ask a language helper, tutor, or someone else in your Language Learning Community to tell you about a historical event in a short paragraph and record it. Listen to it a lot and see if you can start forming simple questions about the content and ask them of the person who gave you the recording. Record more answers as you expand out 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. As you well know, different people have different perspectives and opinions about the same event. 

The above suggestions can be used by more advanced language learners, but you can also try some of these ideas:

—If you are a proficient reader in the language, read about historical events in the target language written by people from that area. You can learn about their history and be able to 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, with a gracious, empathetic learner’s attitude, ask some people you know 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 Mark mentioned in his post, don’t be surprised if how they talk about their history hurts. “It may hurt them; it may hurt you.” People can hurt people. Nations can hurt nations. We have a Savior who died for those hurts and offers forgiveness even as He tells us to forgive.

As you learn language and people’s history, the Spirit can make a way for you to introduce some 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?

Photos by Karen Hedinger

Karen Hedinger

Lover of languages. Director of CultureBound’s LanguageCourse. Wife. Learner.



1 Comment

  1. Phyllis

    Yes! I am a big history buff. I’m always reading local history, in all three of my languages. As a homeschool mom, I’m teaching it to my kids, too. So important!


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