Fifteen is the number corresponding to The Devil in tarot cards.
In this chapter of the TTC, Lao presents us with a description of “the ancient masters”. It’s not the type of description that would be much use in a police witness statement and it puts me in mind of the cartoon Calvin & Hobbes. Calvin, a frighteningly smart six year old, has lost his stuffed tiger, Hobbes. He is distraught and his mum, seeing how upset her little terror is, offers some good advice.
We want to learn from the Old Masters, so we ask LT to describe them for us. Like Calvin, he replies, ” Errr…subtle, mysterious, profound, responsive.” We ask him how much they knew about Tao; he replies, “Errr…can’t say really. Lots?”
One can’t help but feel that if Lao was giving evidence to the police the questioning would have gone something like this:
“And what were the masked men doing?”
“Right, you obstructive old sod, you’re nicked.”
Lao tells us that the old ones were set apart and we can’t really say much about them other than how they seemed. Even this has a lot to tell us about how we should be. It is courting trouble to say how somebody is; we can only ever say how they seem. So, the Old Masters seemed watchful, alert, courteous, yielding, simple, hollow and opaque.
Now, most of those adjectives can be applied to the Old Masters of Language Learning, children. So, let’s go with that for a moment:
Children who spend most of their day either looking up out of a lying position have very little to do other than watch. Anyone who has spent time babbling away to a baby may have noticed that the child focuses intently on the mouth area. Later they like to put their fingers into your mouth and tear your tongue and gums to shreds with their unfeasibly sharp fingernails. Luckily, their brittle fingers are no match for adult incisors and you just have to bite them off and spit them out.
They are also alert, never more so than when you wish they were inert. Anyone who has had children will be able to recall a period when they stayed with their child until the little one had nodded off. AHA! They thought. Now is the time for fun and jollity (or more likely for cleaning and cooking). No sooner had they completed the thought, than Little Bundle of Joy, perceptive to the change in barometric pressure and hostile to the idea of sharing Big Caregiver’s attention with a mountain of dirty crockery, opened one eye and began to let their lungs flood with air…
Courteous is not necessarily an adjective that one would use to describe young babies who will quite happily vomit down the blouse of a virgin aunt or vacate their bowels whilst having their photo taken. Mind you, courteous has its etymology in a sixteenth century middle English word that meant “having manners fit for the royal court.” So, perhaps these vomiting, soiling squawkers are quite courteous after all.
Nobody is more yielding than a young baby. Jostein Gaardner in his book Sophie’s World points out how a baby would not be taken aback at coming into a room to find their father crawling around on the ceiling. The baby would not try to impose their view on how father’s should behave; they would accept this as yet another peculiar characteristic of the Caregiver Who Is Rarely There and Whose Face Itches. A baby doesn’t splutter and curse you when you mangle your mother tongue whilst conversing with them:“Oohdadadadada?”
“What on earth are you talking about, woman? Learn to speak the bloody language before you come bothering me. Can’t you see that I’m staring at the same spot in the ceiling as I’ve stared at every day all my damn life!”
They accept your inane ramblings as the way that things are (or perhaps as The Way that things are).
Children are also simple: that is, they are not dazzingly erudite, or wittily charming. They breathe, they eat, they shit, they sleep. They scream. Oh, OK, and sometimes they gurgle contentedly and you forgive them the shitting and the screaming. They are not hollow, although they will break if you drop them. And because they are unable to tell us what they are experiencing in any detail, they are about as opaque as they come.
So, what does this offer the world of EFL? Well, children learn language. What’s more, most often they learn it pretty damn well perfectly and seemingly effortlessly. Perhaps our learners would do well to take a leaf out of the babies’ book. Again – I know that a 53 year old German banker is not the same as a mewling, puking infant…apart from on a Friday evening in the bars of Munich. But imagine a learner who was watchful of how the language was being used; alert to parts of phrases she didn’t understand; respectful of the sources of input; yielding to ambiguity. Would such a learner be necessarily disadvantaged?
Now, this section of the TTC asks us what is to be gained from studying the way that people learn languages (OK, this is my gloss, anyway). Lao asks us to consider the point in staring at language learners in the hope of being able to capture the essence of The Way that people learn languages. He asks us to consider whether finding the key is necessarily going to mean we can open the door.
“Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfilment./Not seeking fulfilment, they are not swayed by desire to change,” is his sage advice. Recently, Master Thornbury opened a discussion on what fluency is. My contribution was the rather nihilistic Morrissey-like moan, “Oh, but does it really matter?” Perhaps I might be so presumptuous as to relabel this as a taoist take on the issue. If we try to follow the best Way to learn language, we don’t need to capture, pin down and display Natural Processes. They are beyond us. And it is telling that in order to try and capture the techniques for promoting fluency, it appeared necessary to rewrite the definition of the word to match the processes required.
For learners, this observation means that they are not best served by studying a language “to pass such-and-such an exam” or “to get a good job.” It may be that in so-doing they pass the exam or get the job, but they shouldn’t let that be their guiding light. Fulfillment is not the answer if you are engaged in the lifelong pursuit of language learning. This will not come as a surprise to many, but perhaps now is the time to reflect on the fact that LT is supposed to have said this 2500 years ago. If learners can be redirected towards learning the language because the process of learning it will offer them a richer life, we enable them to redirect their energies in a manner that will possibly be more in keeping with the Way. As such, we are no longer teachers of language; we are teachers of language learning. This is an important distinction, I most humbly suggest…