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A Third Devilish

The valley spirit never dies;

It is the woman, primal mother.

Her gateway is the root of heaven and earth.

It is like a veil, barely seen.

Use it, it will never fail.

(Feng and English)

If I was who I am now when I discovered the Tao Te Ching, I would have put down the book and backed off at this point. “What a load of hippy crap” would probaby have been my first reaction (you can tell I “did” English at university, can’t you? Or perhaps you can tell that I “did” more things that were not on the official curriculum).

I’m instantly suspicious these days of anything that tries to label one thing masculine or one thing feminine. For example, the idea that it is more feminine to sit down and discuss a problem whereas the more “masculine” thing is to shoot everyone who is in the way. Gender is a construct, baby. That is, it only exists because we have chosen to notice it and deem it to be worthy of distinguishing between the categories. We then set about applying our perceived characteristics to it all and annoying people like me.

I am assuming (somewhat wildly, it must be admitted) that the Old Hippy thought exactly as I do and that I am wholly and completely correct in my translation of the TTC. So, there must have been more behind his Whole Earth nonsense than is initially obvious. So, we will begin in a very Shelock Holmes style – by taking opium and having a fiddle.

There we are. And with the doors of perception thrown wide open, we can see what we want to see. Isn’t it pretty?!

Change “valley spirit” to “language spirit”. This spirit will never die. Language will continue to be spoken by our species until we finally persuade the Earth that its self-regulation means our destruction. Language is what defines us as humans. Other species communicate, but, as far as we are prepared to consider, we are the only ones who have language that allows us to gain access to a world of thought. It is a natural and inevitable part of human life.

Use it, it will never fail

Use it, it will never fail

The TTC writes about how “the Door of the Woman” is the root of Heaven and Earth. I think that language is the root of the human concept of heaven and earth. We would know nothing if it was not for language. The world wouldn’t exist to us as it does now if we did not have language. All of our thoughts make themselves manifest through language. Everything. Even the musician who expresses herself through musical notes probably used language somewhere along the line between having an experience and then putting it to music, even if, like “the Door of Woman”, “it is like a veil barely seen.”

So what? The TTC has these words for language teachers: “Use it; it will never fail.” LeGuin translates it as “Forever; it endures forever/And all its uses are easy.”

Use language in class – if you do this, it will never fail to inspire; to take root; to structure itself; to become. Too often we aim to study language. We submit it to microscopic examination; we peddle half truths about grammatical rules; we cut it up and paste it back together again; we supplement it with pictures and activities. And students routinely say that they hate learning languages. If we just used the language, who knows, we might actually get somewhere!!


What does it mean to use a language? What do you think it means? What is a language used for? You only get half marks if you say “to talk to people”. Far be it from me to say that I have the answer, but I do have my answer. As far as I am concerned, language is the means by which we shape our perceptions of ourselves and of our world. Language is also a means of transmitting our views and perceptions to other people in the hope that they will approve of them. In other words, language is what makes you who you are. When you use language with other people, I suggest that you do so in the hope that they will listen to what you say and concur with your idea of self. No? Still unclear. Put simply then, you use language to think about the world and everything in it. You then use it to share your opinions. You tend to hope that people will agree with your opinions.

That is as true in the language class as it is anywhere else. Only in the language class, you have all these people who are trying to do these things in a language that they may not be very proficient in. This can lead to all sorts of problems, including crises of identity, frustration, questioning of self, questioning of others, questioning of everything! Thus, a teacher needs to be sympathetic to this process. If the Door of a Woman is a poetic metaphor for…well, you know…, then we are really talking about a birthing process and the teacher is a midwife.

I have spoken about this with learners and find that it is very, very common for people to feel that they are losing touch with who they really are when they are learning a new language. I’d suggest that this is even stronger when they are living in that language community and when they are adults (or at least no longer young children). They begin to fret that they will never be the Same Me as I Am At Home. They lose the ability to crack jokes or to measure the impact of their words carefully. They attempt to portray themselves a suave, devil-may-care, humourous types, but they come across as lazy, rude and humourless. And they know this!

What the teacher can do is to warn them about this. Prepare them for the idea that they may never be the same person in the language that they are learning, but that this is perfectly normal. You´re learning a new language. Language makes us human. You are becoming a new human. There will be similarities with the other you, but there will also be radical differences. Other You will not disappear, s/he will just retreat into the shadows of New You.

Once language is being used to aid the birthing process and to construct a new identity, I believe that it will never fail. What’s more, I agree with Le Guin that “all its uses are easy.” They’re easy because they are natural. In other words, just be prepared to let your students use the language (to talk about themselves, their beliefs and their worlds as much as possible). Help them to do this and draw their attention to moments when the message they are putting across is at variance with the message they would like to be putting across!

When I originally thought of all of this, I thought I had discovered a universal truth; I thought that people would eschew alphabetical order, solely to put my books next to Chomsky and other great names in the field of linguistics; I thought that this was my ticket to the lecture circuit and the book signings; Scott Thornbury can eat my dust, I thought. Of course, the whole area had been conceived, researched and written about many years ago. Still…at least I get the chance to trot out my version of it now. Thank you Web 2.0.

The language teacher’s job is a pretty easy one, all in all. We are really responsible for helping people do something that they are perfecty capable of doing on their own. Our job seems to be to support their learning and to encourage them to keep going when the going gets tough. What makes our job especially difficult is that education systems all over the world have drummed it into people’s heads that they are “bad” at language and only teachers can help them become “good”. This can be attained by the teacher telling them how to learn the language and their following of such rules. In other words, education systems don’t often encourage people to learn how to use a language. They content themselves with teaching people how to study a language. As we know, this often fails.

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Categories: Commentaries on TTC Tags: ,
  1. November 2, 2009 at 17:03

    Whilst I have nothing of interest or importance to add to your message above, Dairmuid, I must voice my approbation of smoking opium, playing the violin, and living with a nice chum.

    Meanwhile, in an effort at a free bit of shameless publicity, Dairmuid, your UK readers might like to trip over to my blog and vote on this: “NOVEMBER POLL: Whose interests do the British Council and English UK serve via their accreditation processes?”

    I’m hoping for a big turnout on this one, chaps!

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