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Language Learning in the Wild:  Unleashing Language in the Nooks and Crannies of Everyday Life

By Heidi E. Hamilton | Published: June 13, 2017

A young girl looks down at the coins in her hand. Puzzled, she directs her glance back to the store clerk behind the cash register and slowly opens her mouth: Aber...das ist falsch. Das ist zu viel Geld (“But...that's wrong. That's too much money”). Apparently the clerk has given her someone else’s change. After a recalculation, the problem is solved. With a quick Danke schön. Tschüß! (“Thanks. Bye!”), the girl pockets her money, grabs her soft drink, and is out the door and down the path to meet her friends.

A villager visits the Laden (store) at 
the German Language Village. 

A mundane encounter? Not really, when one considers she is a third grader from Los Angeles who has never been abroad, yet is handling a problematic purchase using a new language (German) and a new currency (euros). Such real-life interactions can be surprisingly challenging for language learners, given that the language needed to negotiate these encounters is not typically taught in language classrooms. In such situations, learners sometimes walk away in silence to avoid confrontation. In these tiny spaces in life, it takes courage to speak up in a new language.

Johannes Wagner of the University of South Denmark explains the difficulty this way: "Currently, [language] classrooms are still hidden behind closed doors, although outside of the classroom the local language is all around the students. Ways to make use of the students' living environment for language learning have been explored sporadically over the last 30 years, but have not inspired lasting changes of teaching practices." In fact, Wagner has been so energized by this challenge that he has built a lively research agenda called 'language learning in the wild.' He and colleagues in Finland, Iceland and Sweden help adult migrants in these Nordic countries navigate the disconnect between what they learn in the classroom and what they need in everyday life situations outside that classroom.  

By working with cafés and other small businesses in the vicinity of these migrants' classrooms, Wagner and his colleagues sensitize employees to the language and cultural needs of their migrant customers and help migrants reflect on their own learning as they conduct their business. Wagner's programs are designed to "bring a second language user out into the ‘wild’ where the target language is spoken" and to "harvest the experiences from the ‘wild’ and to bring them back into the classroom." This work has lofty goals that extend beyond helping learners overcome their fears and frustrations; these researchers believe that these opportunities can provide a "pathway to sustainable local and cultural integration" within "today's multilingual, highly mobile and tolerant societ[ies]."

Such small conversations happen hundreds of times each day outside the 'official' language classes at Concordia Language Villages as learners go about their lives in a new language. Although the introductory illustration comes from Waldsee, the German Language Village, participants in all Language Villages have myriad opportunities to practice language 'in the wild.' They might, for example, ask for another piece of baguette in the dining hall, change money at the bank, invite counselors to join an impromptu soccer game or select the colors of yarn for a friendship bracelet.

The magic of 'living the language' at the Villages is that the 'employees' in the dining hall, the bank, the soccer field and the art studio are actually language teachers who have been trained to help learners succeed in their activities around the Village while using their newly acquired language skills. Although halfway across the globe, this is not so different from the employees in the Nordic countries who are trained to help migrant participants in programs inspired by Wagner's work.


Villagers use their language skills in everyday situations, such as exchanging money at the bank.

Ever since Concordia Language Villages began in 1961, its programs have emphasized the language learning opportunities that can be found within the nooks and crannies of everyday life. Counselors are ever on the lookout for ways to unleash their young learners' language use 'in the wild.' This vigilance helps prepare learners to enter confidently and enthusiastically into life in another language, knowing they are ready to engage in local society wherever they may wish to live, study and work in the wide, wild world.

About the Author

Heidi E. Hamilton is Professor in the Department of Linguistics, Georgetown University, where her research interests focus on issues of language and Alzheimer's disease, medical communication and language learning.  Her books include Conversations with an Alzheimer's Patient, Handbook of Discourse Analysis (with Schiffrin and Tannen), Linguistics, Language, and the Professions (with Alatis and Tan), Handbook of Language and Health Communication (with Chou), and Doing Foreign Language: Bringing Concordia Language Villages into Language Classrooms (with Crane and Bartoshesky). The Language Villages have been a central part of her life for more than 40 years—from participation in her first two-week program at Waldsee in 1971 to her current leadership position as one of two Village Mentors, a term used to denote an expert in language and cultural immersion.


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