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The Creative Tilt: Motivating Villagers to Seize Their Own Learning Opportunities

By Dr. Heidi E. Hamilton | Published: March 29, 2016

Creativity, or Kreativität, is an integral part of life
at Waldsee, the German Language Village

Routine is important to learning. At Concordia Language Villages staff members help villagers on their language journey by establishing clear practices and expectations. But sometimes the best learning happens when we're caught off-guard. Recognizing this, counselors occasionally act in ways that fly in the face of crystallized routines.  The element of playful surprise motivates learners to participate more energetically in our explorations of language and culture. We call this practice the creative tilt.

Here's how it can work. Imagine preparations for the evening meal at Waldsee, the German Language Village. Villagers form a circle in the town square, the Marktplatz.  They sing a song, recite a poem, and then it's time to eat! The Village dean asks if they are hungry (Habt ihr Hunger?).  Upon hearing a loud Ja, he directs them to the dining hall (Dann gehen wir zum Gasthof!). So goes the evening ritual. Villagers learn to gather outside the Gasthof, singing Wir haben Hunger, Hunger, Hunger… (‘We’re hungry’) and shouting together Dürfen wir bitte essen?  (‘May we please eat?’).  Meanwhile, counselors have already entered the Gasthof and are ready to invite the villagers to join them. Kommt, das Essen ist bereitet, they sing. ‘Come, the food is ready.’  A meal presentation and other familiar routines follow, interspersed with everyday mealtime conversations.


Mealtimes offer energetic learning opportunities in the Villages

But one evening, Waldsee’s dean does the unexpected. He tells the villagers that they are the ones who can go right into the Gasthof, and the counselors are the ones who will have to wait and sing for their supper. Surprise and confusion quickly gives way to a pulse of energy. Villagers squeal with laughter as they surge into the Gasthof. They immediately take on the behaviors and associated language of their counselors, which until now they had only witnessed and never practiced.  Several take on an additional responsibility of the counselors, going to the outside door to meet the counselors-turned-villagers who are now singing the villagers' song and clamoring to get in. Having had their fun, the villagers-turned-counselors decide it's time to let everyone in. They start singing Kommt, das Essen ist bereitet at the top of their lungs, a song that they had only heard before. They use their instructors’ language – and the words (and melody) are all in place! The sameness of routine is gone. New energy, fresh motivation, and a burst of learning have taken its place.


Surprise is key to learning at
Concordia Language Villages

Within hours of living in a Language Village, you’ll see the creative tilt at work. It builds on what children know from their own experience with language play in English (see Crystal 1998 esp. chapter 5) and helps them discover that even their new language can be a resource to reshape and enjoy.  It can generate the same kind of exhilaration and freeing feeling that Pico Iyer (2000) describes about travel: “It whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head.”

It also fosters flexibility when expectations are confounded – an important ingredient in intercultural misunderstandings (see Agar 1994).  It gives learners practice in responding to an upside-down world with emotional comfort and intellectual acuity, and it helps them to remain open-minded in unexpected situations – a critical skill for global citizens. 

Agar, Michael. 1994.  Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation.  New York:  William Morrow and Company, Inc.
Crystal, Davis. 1998.  Language Play.  Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press.
Iyer, Pico. 18 March 2000.  Why we travel.  Salon.


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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