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LOLcats and Language Learners – Free Time, Creativity and Cognitive Surplus

lolcats and language learning: silly things are important for learning a foreign language!It’s too hot today to think about serious stuff. So instead of discussing the deep and profound things that every language course implies, I will turn to something that language students rarely think about.
I want to think about LOLcats. And if you read on, you’ll see that you should, too.

0. The starting point: why you’re (usually) wrong about motivation

You want to work at that big law firm to help people solve important cases, deliver big speeches at court and uncover lies and mysteries. But you spend most of your days going through immensely boring documents and waiting for the photocopier to start working.
You learn to code to channel your inner geek into a fantastic program that will topple Facebook and make you rich. But day after day, you untangle and trim lines of unruly code that doesn’t even hint at brilliance.
Finally – you want to learn that language to get a better job and have insightful conversations with interesting strangers, dazzling everyone with your fluency and native-like accent. But most of your learning time is spent talking to people who also learn, or going through material that’s designed to be dumbed-down, repetitive and safe.
What motivates us is not what most of the work will look like (there’s a gap between who we want to be and who we feel we are). The motivational outcomes are big, bright and bold. The mundane work that gets us there is, well, mundane.
Which, I want to argue, is actually okay.

1. Clay Shirky and the hope behind creative acts

Clay Shirky looks at technology and what it helps us to achieve. He’s got some interesting stories; you should definitely watch this TED talk to find out more. But he’s got a few words to say about the silly things we do with tech gadgets, too.
LOLcats, for example: he calls them “the stupidest possible creative act.” You’ve got to give it to him: after we’ve seen how people use their immense resource of free time to achieve great things, a LOLcat is not really impressive. But Clay Shirky sees the hope in the captioned cat:

“But here’s the thing: The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act. Someone who has done something like this, however mediocre and throwaway, has tried something, has put something forward in public. And once they’ve done it, they can do it again, and they could work on getting it better.”

2. Language learners who do silly things

Most language coursebooks will not ask you to prepare a meme in the language you’re learning. They won’t test your skills at small talk, latest gossip or white lies. The emphasis will be on texts and tasks that are true, big, useful and earnest.
It’s hard to blame the language course authors: even if you ignore the motivation to help learners do good with their foreign language, the big and useful chunks of linguistic knowledge tend to remain stable and to resist cultural change for longer. So the coursebook remains valid for longer.
But that doesn’t mean that the small, silly things go away. In fact, if you take your mothertongue culture as a reference, the small talk and “linguistic fluff” makes up a large portion of most languages. It’s the volatile, malleable part that changes quickly, means little and serves no other purpose than fun and games.
You should not ignore this part, here’s why.

3. LOLcats as “gateway drugs” into language learning progress

The big stuff that most language courses prepare you for – getting things done in a foreign language – that’s what plays well with your “big and bold” motivation. YES! You’re finally able to ace that job interview. SUCCESS! You’ve got the skills it takes to write short stories. FINALLY! Your grasp on Spanish is sufficient to talk about post-bolivarian politics with people who really matter.
You get the idea. And when you get there, it sure feels good. I’m keeping fingers crossed for you.
In the meantime, though, you’re getting through several “not-quite-there-yet” moments. Revising, making mistakes, changing course. The people you speak to are your classmates and your tutor (and not the dreamy people of Paris, not yet), the tasks you complete are endless excuses for more tense practice (and nothing resembling hosting a good board meeting).
That’s where the silly things must matter: both consuming and producing them.
Jokes, blog posts, memes, song lyrics, rambling forum discussions, self-destructing messages, YouTube…these silly and ephemeral forms of expression will keep you going. They will give you the “linguistic fluff” that makes your mothertongue so tasty and appealing. They are the foreign language equivalent of a sugar rush: empty calories, fueling you through a few moments of fun and elation, then disappearing. And you need fun and elation in learning anything.
So listen up, polyglots, this may sound awkward: close your well-meaning workbook and do something silly in a foreign language. If you fail, learn to do silly things better next time.
You’ll thank me when it’s your turn to tell a joke in Swedish, or join in the Japanese banter around the water cooler.

(Photo credit: Ian James / eltpics, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/“)

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