Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

12 December 2010

Pidgin Learning

Clark @ 8:01 AM

The other day, my colleague Jane Hart wrote an interesting post comparing getting comfortable with learning in the real world to the experience of learning a new language. In my recent experience visiting my aunt in München and then family friends in a small village outside Bayreuth, I had a chance to experience the intermediate stages of transitioning from one language, really one culture, to another.

As I sit on a train watching the landscape change from snowy villages to rainy towns, one of my learnings was that the ‘camaraderie’ of the people trying to communicate means a lot. While my German is pretty bad, and my aunt’s and the friends English is better but unpracticed, we could communicate. This was because there were good intentions all around. We were not looking for ways to misinterpret, or to avoid on the grounds that we could not comprehend. We instead were looking for ways to understand.

It’s clear that we were speaking a ‘pidgin’ language, a simplified hybrid of the two, and actually both the German and the English were butchered as a result. We would mix words from both languages when our vocabulary failed us, and find creative ways to express our thoughts. And express our thoughts we did. Between getting directions to the post office to mail the package of goodies my aunt had expected me to bring back in my streamlined luggage, running her errands, and getting my glasses fixed, all went well.

Similarly with less-familiar folks; the wonderfully warm people who hosted me in the small village were family friends, but hadn’t seen me for 20 years, even though they know my mother. Regardless, it was easy to help her buy a computer, and for them to take me through a dark and snow-covered village in a small valley to the once a year weekend Christmas Market, where I met their friends and we drank glühwein, sang some Xmas songs, translated questionable jokes into English, and had a truly magical time.

The implications are clear: when people are committed to the process, they can be incredibly productive despite challenges. Conversely, when they’re not, even insignificant obstacles can become complete barriers.


  1. Very nicely put. I’ve been mired the writing of two chapters of my book that talk about definitions, and I think you’ve hit it bang on. In academia, much has to do with territory and attribution. Giving credit is important, but that too often becomes about territory – credit is given to those in one’s own field, but not to ‘outsiders’.

    So I guess the question is, how do we motivate people to commit to the process?

    In Quaker practice, for example, there is no voting on anything – all decisions proceed by consensus, which in this case means ‘permission to proceed’ as agreement is not required. The process assumes everyone is committed to the process, and here that’s usually true. It can be a slow process though as it requires that all participants have a chance to speak and to be heard.

    The actually hearing what someone is saying is something many academics have a great deal of trouble doing.

    Comment by Katrin Becker — 12 December 2010 @ 9:46 AM

  2. One other thing this illustrates: communication (especially in cross-cultural situations) are more than words. I have found it easier to communicate with those that don’t share a common language than those that do as when there is a language barrier, the assumption is that it will take more effort to communicate. When we share a language, the assumption is that we have the same assumptions and common understanding.

    Comment by virginia Yonkers — 14 December 2010 @ 10:12 AM

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