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Language: Edward Hall - The Silent Language

In The Silent Language Edward Hall explores the cross-cultural context of communication and learning. The silent language refers to how people from different cultures communicate to each other without the use of words and states that "there is an entire universe of behavior that is unexplored, unexamined, and very much taken for granted." Underlying this exploration is the need to understand communication and learning in different cultural contexts in order to more fully appreciate the diversity of how the world can be perceived. Throughout his book, Hall focused on a number of important ideas related to learning...

Learning: Understanding The Acquired Content

The act of understanding another language is not limited to translation. Words carry a collective meaning that is specific to a cultural context in which they are used. Further, there is a wide range of cultural gestures that are not universal, but instead are unique to a given cultural setting. One of the greatest problems in developing more effective approaches to learning is cultural blindness:

The fact is, however, that once people have learned to learn in a given way it is extremely hard for them to learn in any other way.
- The Silent Language

Hall suggests that we need to understand that our beliefs about life and ourselves in general are not universal:

What is most difficult to accept is the fact that our own cultural patterns are literally unique, and therefore they are not universal. It is this difficulty that human beings have in getting outside their own cultural skins that motivated me to commit my observations and conceptual models to writing.
- The Silent Language

This advice is similar in kind to McLuhan's suggestion that we need to learn to stand outside the effects of a medium in order to understand its influence (see: Probe: Learning Environments - The Medium Is The Message). Both authors focus learning on developing powers of discernment that allow us to become more aware of the environments we find ourselves in.

Education: Assimilation Into A Single Acquired Context

Hall made a number of critical remarks about education as a form of ethno-centrism:

  • Learning, then, is one of the basic activities of life, and educators might have a better grasp of their art if they would take a leaf out of the book of early pioneers in descriptive linguistics and learn about their subject by studying the acquired context in which other people learn.

  • The fact that so many of our children dislike school or finish their schooling uneducated suggests that we still have much to learn about learning as a process.

  • The adult mentor molds the young according to patterns she or he has never questioned.

  • Much of the difficulty in our schools today stems from the fact that teachers try to inculcate and teach patterns that are partially or incorrectly analyzed... In fact, much of what the child hears goes against everything he/she has learned outside the classroom.
    - The Silent Language

The importance of understanding the "acquired context" acquired context for learning is fundamental in learning to understand how people in different cultures create and communicate meaning. Western systems of education represent a specific kind of acquired context. In McLuhan's terms the idea of an acquired context is similar to his description of a medium. In spite of the presence of content that may be culturally diverse, it is all communicated through the context of our own culture.

What Does The Silent Language Mean For Learning?

If this book has a message it is that we must learn to understand the "out-of-awareness" aspects of communication. We must never assume that we are fully aware of what we communicate to someone else.
- The Silent Language

Learning, from this perspective, is full of wonder, mystery and diversity. Each culture, then, is a kind of learning ecology that has its own character and personality that distinguishes it from other cultures. Through learning people develop beliefs about time, space, identity, and life in general. One cultural set of beliefs about time, space, identity and life are often different from another.

In chapter three "The Vocabulary of Culture" Hall suggests that people operate on three different levels - formal, informal, and technical. These are key concepts in his vocabulary of culture. He suggests three kinds of learning: 1) Formal Learning; 2) Informal Learning; and 3) Technical Learning.

  • Formal Learning is an imposed form of learning by adults on youth. The main idea of formal learning is to instill sets of beliefs in youth that are not questioned or challenged. Hall states that, "Formal patterns are almost always learned when a mistake is made and someone corrects it."

  • Informal Learning proceeds from the use of a model to encourage imitation. The reasons for behavior encouraged are often invisible, that is, the rules are not visible until one is broken. "Whole clusters of related activities are learned at a time, in many cases without the knowledge that they are being learned at all or that there are patterns or rules governing them." In a sense, informal learning is a form of conditioning.

  • Technical Learning is closely aligned with training. It represents more of a one-way transmission of an expert's knowledge to a student in verbal and/or written form.

The Culture of Learning | The Learning of Culture

It seems obvious to say that people in different cultures learn in different ways yet the significance of this remains understated. A person in one culture will not perceive, apprehend, comprehend, discern, understand, or construct meaning in the same way as a person from another culture. The difficulty in learning about this in any significant ways lies in the difficulty in providing people with immersive experiences in other cultures so that they can experience the "acquired context" first-hand. Attempting to teach students about another culture from a classroom, it seems to me, is not only a difficult but also a potentially misleading thing to do.

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