Musings on Rhizomatic Language Learning

I have recently attended a couple of very interesting classes at UnB. On the very first class, the professor talked about the curriculum, and the required readings, and gave us a historical and conceptual overview of the subject-matter, namely Approaches in Language Teaching within the field of Applied Linguistics. As the professor was exploring more theoretical grounds, presenting key concepts/constructs, a fellow student asked him the question: “Why is there a need to label things?”. She was genuinely curious, and so was I to hear his answer to that somewhat unexpected question. He explained that we needed to name constructs and concepts so as to develop a common code or language which would enable researchers to understand each other and to build up on the existing knowledge in the field. Academia is, among other things, a language, then.

The other day I had the pleasure of having a wonderful conversation with fellow rhizoer Simon Ensor. One of the things he wanted to know was whether I saw a connection between rhizomatic learning and language learning/teaching. Although I`d thought about the possible connections and applications of rhizomatic learning to my teaching practice, what I said to him had not occurred to me before the moment I actually heard someone other than myself ask me the exact same question I’d so many times before asked myself in thought. I said to him that rhizomatic learning resembled language learning, in that a specific language, or a branch/dialect of a language we might have already been familiar with touched the nature of my rhizo14 experience in a way. I mentioned a feeling shared by another fellow rhizoer Bali Maha. She mentioned how it sometimes felt like we were unconsciously creating exclusion with all of our reflections and writings and other expressions within rhizo14, and the difficulty with which someone not a part of rhizo14, or not being the least bit familiar with the language/constructs/concepts of rhizomatic learning might have faced in attempting to make any sense of it. Rhizomatic learning is, among many other things, also a language, then.

A while later, Keith Hammon wrote a post inspired by a recent rhizo14 Twitter chat. He talked about the need for a rhizomatic rhetoric that would somehow help make sense of and communicate the personal accounts of rhizo14 experiences being shared on the various autoethnographies/surveys that are going down as a follow-up to the course. Keith explores the potentials of what a ‘rhizo-rhetoric’ might look like. If there is to be such a thing as rhizomatic writing, what rhetoric should inform a writing of this kind, Keith asks. He goes on to share with us a take on Deleuze and Guattari’s Introduction: Rhizome, pointing out that DL&G reject the idea of the observing by-stander, who offers explanations detached from the object of inquiry/investigation. I will not exhaust Keith’s wonderful post here, for it is definitely worth your while reading it.

Then there was a very interesting discussion thread following a post I wrote about learning. There was talk between Frances Bell and I of comparing the nature of the learning experience in rhizo14 to the experience of an ethnographer/anthropologist engaged in participant observation within a social group/tribe. Then Keith jumped in the discussion, bringing his ideas of BYOC (bring your own context), asking whether that might actually be part of the secret of rhizomatic learning, after all. He ventures into an exploration of a rhizomatic dynamic in which the learner would seize and exercise his ‘freedom of context’. I feel the need to share Keith’s words with you now.

“Traditional education too often strips the context from the object of instruction (language, math, science, history, etc.). At best, traditional ed may try to supply a one-size-fits-all context that students must find a way to fit into. Rhizomatic classes, on the other hand, encourage students to bring their own context (BYOC) to the class and to find their own meaning. Those students, or participants, who manage to do so find the MOOC engaging and rewarding. They find meaning within their own contexts, and then they find a way to enlarge their contexts by engaging the other participants with their contexts and meanings.”  ~ Keith Hammon

Traditional education. Rhizomatic education. Traditional language. Rhizomatic language. Must they always be in eternal opposition? Are we as educators, having been initiated in the rhizomatic rites, facing a duty of sharing that ‘linguistic’ knowledge with our learners? With everyone who crosses our paths? How about those of us who are already fluent in the language of academia? Are we up for the task of facing the challenge of blending academia and rhizome, creating a new language? A new educational culture?

I leave you with Scott Johnson’s fiery last lines of comment on this amazing thread.

“What bothers me about modern education is the student leaves no marks of their passing through the landscape beyond those selected as approved by the keepers. Keepers of things not theirs to own and trade. I think Freire knew education to be transformative by the sign it left on us as well as the marks we made to it.”  ~ Scott Johnson

And so, power, again… Which of those among us are willing to think/deconstruct/challenge? the powers-that-be with our rhizomatic language skills?

I have a box of matches in my pocket…


  1. Thank you for the thought-provoking post linking language learning with rhizomatic learning. I now realize that my learning and the approach I’ve been pushing could be compared to rhizo in many ways. It is actually the “natural” way to learn a language, the way most of us learned our first language – exploring and experimenting with the things we were exposed to, trying to make meaning, trying to be heard.

    Many of us do not have the luxury of learning additional languages that way, at least not as adults. We want an expert to teach us – usually from a proven, canned method. Fortunately for me, that method was unavailable. I was a representatives of the dominant culture living in a community where Canadian Aboriginal People are the majority. I did have the luxury of learning much of what I know of the Tłı̨chǫ Dene language in the hunting and fishing camps and in the smoke-houses and living rooms of people who were incredibly kind to me as a newcomer to their lives.

    Since not many “outsiders” bother to learn the language, I’m incorrectly labeled an expert (big fish in small pond) and asked to teach the occasional person who does want to learn. The would-be language learners are usually professionals, often educators or health care workers.

    When I’ve offered (free) language learning classes, I ask learners to identify what they need to learn in their own context, either personal and/or professional. I encourage them to locate and hire their own language assistants to introduce them into authentic language-exposure situations in the community. I offer them technical tools to work on pronunciation. I always co-teach with someone who is a born language expert and who can provide accurate pronunciations for recordings, shed light on facets of culture that come to light in learning a different language, and laugh with them.

    I explain that I cannot “teach” them the language, because I’m not a native speaker . I can, however, guide them in their learning journey by helping them make sense of the things that puzzled me as I first began learning. I tell them class time is for problem-solving, but actual language learning needs to take place in the community, that it’s about relationships as much as it is about words.

    And they still ask for word lists…

    1. Jim, thank you for this very rich comment! What an amazing experience you had with the Aboriginals. Reading your reflections made me think of learning versus acquisition, both of which being constructs in the field of Applied Linguistics. That ‘opposition’ is sort of melted down within the communicative approach to teaching language, which, in my view, aims at fostering learning by exposing the students to a balanced combination of contextualized practice and formal input or metalanguage development. In other words, learning the language and learning about the language. It might be that we rhizoers had the opportunity of acquiring/learning a language together by bringing our own contexts and being open to experimentation and relativization of these contexts/identities. However, there’s an intuition that we are onto something rather interesting (and of great value) if we venture into learning about this language that is rhizomatic language. I think that’s partly what I mean when I say that academia and rhizomatic languages ought to be blended, maybe.
      Does this make any sense to you?
      Thank you for dropping a line here!
      Best, C.

  2. Clarissa, your mention of power made me think of education as more than simple accumulation of facts that lead to knowledgeable practice. Aren’t we also asking to be someone other than our beginning selves? That whatever we learn transforms our whole way of being–to paraphrase Keith: “enlarges our context.”

    Not all of us ask for change when we enter school and I think education might focus too much on minor accessories to our existing selves. Safe and incremental adjustment may work for some people–a comforting stroll in a field of soft lambs. But we are playing with the power of transformation here too and there may be people who filter only for mild sensations of accomplishment while others are ready to catch on fire.

    This volatility must also be a context. I see people around me who would collapse in the face of challenges that would bring positive change to others. Wonder if we can (or should) push everyone into another self? It might be the exclusion that Maha mentions is a recognition that this is hard and potentially disorientating work. As we in this group develop a literacy of change and understand that the necessary price can be genuinely upsetting do we take “education” too far for most people?

    Is the answer to raise the threshold for all students so everyone comes to expect a challenge? My thinking is that wolves and lambs in the same class might be too much excitement and danger for many who still need some form of education. Or it might be that we are at a time when minor adjustments are no longer adequate? One thing I’m certain of, we are too late to change the past no matter how hard we try.

    1. Scott, yes, my beginning self was very naive and intuitive, and I mean that in terms of density of presence and awareness of knowledge – knowledge imparted with me in the connections made in rhizo14. I have recollections of being rather ‘warm’ about learning in general as a student, but as a teacher, the context expanded quite a bit. Volatility is something I’ve been unable to prevent from happening within me in blistering degrees lately. I don`t know about our being able to talk anyone into another self, as you put it. But I’m pretty sure I can push myself into something other than this naive disengaged self that I’ve grown weary of putting up with. In my particular context, as an exotic from a third-world latin american country, I tell you, there is a long and winding road ahead of anyone who’s willing to think education as transformational. We are still tackling more basic issues down here. That’s why when I think of the rhizo14 legacy in my life, as a Brazilian educator, woman, and mother, I see myself finding a way to make a contribution to the reflection on how we can make our nation’s teachers better prepared to teach/mediate learning in this new era. That’s definitely gonna be taking education too far for a lot of people here, but that doesn’t seem to put me down. A vast majority in my country do need some form of education in order to just keep their heads above water.
      Scott, you’ve sent my mind in meanderings and I am surrendered… I guess I’ll stop now. I ramble. Thank you for this awkwardness in emotion and intellect you’ve triggered in me.

      I look to the future, but most urgently to a presence in the here and now.
      Best, C.

    1. Thank you, Sarah, for this! I’ll be sure to engage it soon, for it looks quite enlightening. Looking forward to reading it and discussing it with you. 🙂

  3. Clarissa, this reminds me of a post that I need to write soon before I forget. I’ve heard too many people suggest that rhizomatic learning is for advanced students, but I think I disagree. I think children—especially little children—are the most rhizomatic learners of all. No one, for instance, can pick up a new language quicker than little ones can, and they always learn rhizomatically: responding to a context with what is at hand and as the need arises. They always learn in an attempt to connect to others and to their environment. This is rhizomatic learning, I think. They are mapping their worlds, and they will use whatever resources they have, whatever language is available.

    This is so fun.

    1. Yeah, Keith, totally agree with you on that about children. They give themselves to experimentation and discovery in a way so wonderful to observe. Take my three-yr-old, Julia. She’s beginning to say her first words in English, like colors. Just this morning she replied to my sister, who’d pointed to some object saying it was amarelo (yellow in Portuguese) and Julia promptly responded saying “Dindinha, não é yellow, é orange.” Yes, it was an orange object. The argumentation, half-half Portuguese and English was what astounded my sister…
      Fun does begin to describe this. Thank you, Keith, for dropping by again.
      Best, C.

  4. Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and I find It truly useful
    & it helped me out a lot. I hope to give something back
    and help others like you helped me.

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