Home > Commentaries on TTC > You only sing when you’re winning

You only sing when you’re winning

Gerrard tells the Napoli fans to shush.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Liverpool Football Club, the most successful club in England, beat SSC Napoli by 3 goals to 1. For most of the game, however, Napoli were winning by one goal to zero. To my left was sat a young lad of about ten years. Below us, to our right, were some vocal Italians. Their vocality incensed my younger co-supporter and he stood on his seat, looked in their direction, and bellowed, “Who are ya?” The Italians responded, albeit not directly, by shouting back something that I imagine went, “We are the team that is winning here, young sir, and we are awfully glad about it.” Certainly, by the 90th minute when Steven Gerrard had let his feet speak for him, the Italians were less in evidence, giving rise to the chant, “You’re not singing, you’re not singing, you’re not singing any more.” This was followed up with the less welcoming, “You’re the sh*t, you’re the sh*t, you’re the sh*t of Italy.” The Liverpool fans had found their voice. By the end of the match, I had lost mine again.

Your voice. What is it? It is the answer to the question, “Who are ya?” It is the tool that you control which projects you out onto the external world. For Vygotskyans, it is also the tool with which you assimilate the external world. Knowledge is first appropriated by external speech – possibly by mumbling over the sound of a new word until it takes root in your internal lexicon; then it may be used in inner speech – possibly an imagined dialogue that you have with a shopkeeper.

Karenne asks whether or not it is true that students -or anyone, I guess- know what their own needs and interests are. After all, if you don’t know who you are or what tickles your fancy, how can you answer the question, “Who are ya?” Hall and Kenny (1988) would have referred to a speaker’s illocutionary force – in other words, what they believed or felt at a particular moment. The idea being that students’ needs and interests have a dynamic of their own. What they need or believe or feel or are fascinated by might change from one instant to another. A football match is a good example of this: in the stands, it’s life or death. If you’re near the back of the stand, you’ll see people punch the corrugated tin with frustration at missed opportunities. Yet what really surprises me is when you leave the ground and see how many, many people have reorganised their priorities. No longer is the match central to their being. For many people, it is no longer even  part of the topic of conversation. So, I would disagree with David Hall’s assertion that students know what their interests and needs are. I think that these interests and needs emerge in the classroom or in whichever environment that they may find themselves. After all, if you’d seen me in Anfield on Thursday, there is no way that you would have known that I would love to visit Italy.

Karenne also asks how do we or they provide/utilize materials to encourage their voices to come out. It’s a very good question. It introduces a distinction between we or they. Whose job is it? Does it matter whose job it is? Perhaps the question should be, “Who can do this?” I would say that only the learners can provide the materials; the teacher is left with providing the affordance. The teacher creates the opportunities for the voices to ring out and become identifiable (as much, perhaps, to the speaker as to the listeners). This means I think, that the teacher has to find ways of teaching students strategies for clarifiying what they have heard – or read. Because it is the negotiation of meaning that we are interested in. We have to accept that every time a student opens up their mouth to utter something, they are taking a huge risk. They are offering up a view of themselves that they have carved with a particularly bendy, cheapo plastic spoon. They may mean to come across as humorous, but succeed in coming across as puritanical boors. This is when they can be helped by people asking, “Are you saying…?” or “Surely you don’t mean…?” The more common reaction, it seems to me, is to project your own insecurities onto what another person says. This is oh-so-true on the worldwide web. You write something with a particular tone of voice, but your reader interprets it with their own particular gloss on it. Despite being an intelligent reader, they don’t respond accordingly, and simply assume that if you said X, you must mean Y. Because, goes the underlying message, if they had said X, they would have meant Y. Karenne has alluded to this when she has said something in the past and this has been seen by others as self-aggrandising; I have had the same experience countless times (which says something about the style of my writing, I guess) – most recently with ELTChat moderator, Olaf Elch. So, once again, the confusion of dogme is actually resolved with simplicity. How does the teacher encourage voices to come out, by creating silences in which they can be heard and offering tools by which they can be heard as the speaker intended them to be heard. An example might be:

S1: What does collaborate mean?

T: Abdullah?

S2: I don’t know.

T: Have you ever collaborated with anyone on a piece of homework? Have you ever heard of the famous collaboration of Lennon and McCartney? Does your government think it is OK to collaborate with the US government? What do you think about FC Barcelona’s collaboration with UNICEF?

S2: Work with?

T: Have you ever collaborated with anyone on a piece of homework?

S2: Yes. With Ana.

T: Ana, who did most of the work?

S3: I did!

T: Is this true, Abdullah?

S2: No way! I spent ages in the library!

T: [Looks at Ana]

S3: Yeah. But what were you doing in there? Drinking coffee! Typical man!

T: What is a “typical man”? Write down ten words that you think describe the typical man.

The class then moves on to discuss their words in small groups. In the feedback stage, the teacher might ask if anyone can think of words with similar meanings. They might then explore what the finer nuances are of these words with similar meanings (after all, why have two words that mean exactly the same thing?)

There’s nothing special about the above, right? That is often the reaction that dogme provokes. But, say I, it is the thinking that underlies the whole thing that is dogme. In the example above, the teacher is trying to let learners discover their voices. One student wants to know what a particular word means; the teacher opens the question to the class and focusses on Abdullah. Abdullah doesn’t know so the teacher asks some questions in the hope that Abdullah will be able to put some meaning onto the word. Luckily for the example, the teacher (or Abdullah???) succeeds. The teacher offers a little bit of scaffolding to facilitate the entrance of Ana into the conversation. And then the teacher reappears only when he (for in this case it is a man) spots an opportunity to allow people to put forward their opinions and ideas.  He might just as well have stopped the conversation to ask, “Do you think people should be allowed to drink coffee in the library?” The intention is less to get learners to produce a list of adjectives than it is to provoke debate and discussion. In the debate and discussion, people’s voices will be heard.

And, depending on your students, it may be that in this debate and discussion, a hierarchy establishes itself. The Saudi military may defer to a higher-ranking officer in the room; the teenage boy may defer to the drop-dead gorgeous teenage classmate; the reticent student might defer to the wisdom of the teacher; the wealthy student may expect the darker-skinned student to defer to him; the middle-eastern student may expect the almost incoherent Thai student to defer to him. People come into the classroom with all sorts of expectations and preferences and prejudices and assumptions. How do we raze these distinctions and raise the flag of egalite? I don’t think we can. I think that what we must do is to provide an opportunity to all to have their vaoices heard and once the voice is heard we are seen to be giving it as much validity as we would to any other. For if a voice says something and that something is seen to be taken seriously by a person in authority, perhaps it follows that the origin of that voice is not an untermensch. Or perhaps nothing changes. Real change can never be foisted upon somebody – it has to come from them. All that the authority can do is to create an environment which is conducive to a more egalitarian setting. It might be argued that this is what governments do when they pass legislation against homophobia or ageism or racism or whatever form of discrimination that they are dealing with. In the short term, it is right to say that these measures are ineffective. A racist doesn’t stop being racist just because the law tells her to. But the law marks clearly a boundary and over time, it becomes less acceptable to say racist things. Over a longer period of time, people begin to depend less upon the colour of a person’s skin as a criteria for distinguishing them from themselves.

Karenne also asks how can we ensure that all of our students are actually heard? To which I say that we don’t! We ensure that those who want to be heard are heard. We check that those who are silent are not languishing in torment at their inability to speak, but if it is clear that they are listeners rather than speakers we leave them to it (although we may want to warn them about the effect that their apparent passivity may have on their projection of their silent voice). After all, by appearing to choose to offer nothing to the conversation, they are making their voice heard. Asks Karenne, “are people in general really interested in hearing about each other or only themselves?” It’s an interesting question. I suspect that people are mainly interested in hearing about themselves, but by listening to the stories of others, their view of themselves is challenged or confirmed. However, people are also looking for alliances – and this also requires them to look for bonds with other people. So, although they may be interested in hearing about somebody else, it is, I think, for self-serving purposes. This all sounds rather bleak and misanthropic, but I’m not attaching any judgement to it. Why am I writing this? I’m writing it partly so that everyone can gawk at my erudition. But I’m writing it mainly to discover what it is that I believe. In other words, I am trying to discover my own illocutionary force. Gnothei seauton – Know thyself! I don’t think we should ever underestimate the force that this drive to know ourselves can exert over our daily lives. Perhaps more so these days when we are becoming alienated from our own identities by the demands of society that we exceed our own capabilities and become ubermenschen. Do we need emotional intelligence to cultivate our voice? No. In fact, I don’t accept that there is any such thing as emotional intelligence. Nor do I subscribe to Dr Gardner’s idea that there are multiple intelligences. Come to that, I would dispute the existence of intelligence itself. All of these things – Goleman’s emotional intelligence, Gardner’s multiple intelligences or the psychometicians’ intelligence seem to me to be largely unhelpful metaphors.

Finally, to answer Karenne’s question about whether L2 voices are different from L1 voices, I would say yes. In the same way that one L1 voice (L1a) is different from another L1 voice (L1b). In other words, they way I speak to my students is different to the way that I speak to my children which is different to the way I speak to my wife which is different to the way I speak to my colleagues which is different to the way I speak to my friends which is different to the way I spoke to the fans of SSSC Napoli which is different to the way I would have spoken to the fans of SSC Napoli if there had not been a sizeable distance and a cordon of security forces separating us. Perhaps the Greek philosophers would have been better to direct us to Know Ourselves. Says Karenne, how do you change when you are speaking L2? Says Diarmuid, can you ever know? After all, you need to put across your voice and be able to read how it is interpreted. If we want to know how our voices change, we have to know how they are heard – both in L1 and in L2. Because it is only when they are heard that our voices have an effect. The effect that they have is what determines how we are – at least to others. And the problem is that when we are heard in either L1 or L2, we are heard in a multitude of ways. My students hear me differently to my children who hear me differently to my wife who hears me differently to my colleagues who hear me differently to my friends who hear me differently to the way that I ciucciarelli did on Thursday last. Perhaps it is not important to know the differences, just to know that there are differences.



Hall, D. and B. Kenny. 1988. “An Approach to a Truly Communicative Methodology: the AIT Pre-Sessional Course.” In English for Specific Purposes. Vol. 7. pp.19-32. Pergamon Journals.

Categories: Commentaries on TTC Tags:
  1. sue annan
    November 7, 2010 at 10:49

    This strikes a chord. One of my Bulgarian students said that he had problems being himself in English. He has a natural inclination to play the clown, which is apparent in his dealings with his fellow workers(also Bulgarians. This is not the case in English, where he feels restricted by the language available to him and the cultural code of the native speakers. He has a level 7 at IELTS, so it isn’t a question of a low level of vocabulary or structure. He comes across as serious and is hampered, more by his lack of knowledge of the cultural norms , than his communicative ability would suggest.

    • dfogarty
      November 8, 2010 at 00:41

      Hi Sue
      An nteresting story that I am sure we are all familiar with. My suggestion for this student would be to help him towards the realisation that he will probably never be the same person as Bulgarian Him. Bugarian Him is only one identty of the many he is host to. English Him is less comical – the founder of Glosbish (Youtube it) would approve. It’s not all bad – Spanish Diarmuid married Basque Rosa and they’ve been together for over ten years and have had three kids. English(-speaking) Diarmuid is very different to Spanish Diarmuid (and swears much more prolifically).

  2. November 7, 2010 at 10:53

    Very interesting, some very good points. I like how you show how you can latch onto a new topic that appears and work with it, but also that it could have been one of a any number. What do you mean that there is no such thing as intelligence?

    • dfogarty
      November 8, 2010 at 00:48

      Just that I am not convinced that intelligence exists in the way that the psychometricians would have us believe. That is, I don’t believe that it is something that is virtually tangible and which can be measured. In fact, I don’t think it is any one thing in particular. It is a label that is applied to a wide range of different things. A quick perusl of Wikipedia tells me that I am not alone in this belief:

      “Alfred Binet, and the French school of intelligence, believed intelligence was an aggregate of dissimilar abilities, not a unitary entity with specific, identifiable properties.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligence]

      Intelligence is a pretty meaningless label that is stuck to these many “dissimilar abilities” and which serves to reinforce the idea that together they all go towards forming something which we call intelligence. It is not dissimilar to those people who look at the tiny adpatations that nature has made to its environment and decide that this is the work of some sentient being with Intelligent Design.

      • November 8, 2010 at 10:22

        Thanks. In that case, I’m with you.

  3. November 7, 2010 at 13:21

    Brilliant post Diarmuid… I especially like the way you went from illustrating how dogme is on the thinking (behind the way you lead a class into this or that direction, according to what you hear in the student’s voices ) to talking about possible hierarchy in the classroom. I had never considered that (hierarchy) but I think you are right on spot! And I’ll certainly look at my groups with different eyes trying to notice the hierarchy.

    I agree that as teachers we have to provide the opportunities for everyone to be able to say what they want, but we can’t guarantee they’ll all be heard.

    I’m just not sure I agree with you when you say people are mainly interested in hearing about themselves. I know it is true for many people, but I also believe there are equally as many who are indeed interested in what others have to say. You may have written this post to better make sense of what you think and what you believe in, but by reading it I learn, and you got me thinking. But then, maybe you’ve got a point on the self-serving purposes, for I read it to broaden my ideas on the topic. You got me all confused now Diarmuid! 😉 I don’t want to agree with you because in a way I have this more romantic view of the world, I believe in selflessness and people being good. But I can’t seem to find a way to disagree with you without being contradictory.

    Thought provoking post indeed… as usual.

  4. dfogarty
    November 8, 2010 at 01:05

    Thanks CC. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think it is a bad thing that people mainly want to listen to themselves talk. In fact, I think it’s quite normal. After all, we are the only things in this world that we can be certain of. It makes sense to listen to the one person you know to have your best interests at heart. Put simply, we are at the centre of our own private universes and, it is my belief at least, that we are inevitably the Masters or Mistresses of our Universe. We stride through it like Mighty Gods and our attention is drawn either by those features of the universe that serve to lend credence to this interpretation that we are Gods or by those features which serve to undermine us.

    So, when we listen to people, our motivation is to serve the image we have of ourselves as fair, impartial people who wish to be open-minded to the ideas of others. When we help little old folk across the road, the intent is really to strengthen the image we have of ourselves as saintly folk who go out of the way to help others. When we give to charity, the intent is to strengthen the image we have of ourselves as god, caring folk who are willing to make a sacrifice for the good of others. We are truly worthy. When we resist the torturers, we are reinforcing the image of ourselves as people who are truly committed to a cause and who would never betray our comrades. A rather OTT example, but one which I include to show that this egotistical motivatio does not rule out altruism or any other heroic behaviour.

    According to my theory, you read my post either to feel good that you are in agreement with me and are therefore my intellectual equal or to feel good that you can see the flaws in everything I am saying and are therefore intellectually superior to me. There may be an element of feeling that this kind of behaviour is typical of the great teacher that you are. There appears to be a sign of that second type of motivation where you are aware of a threat to your view of the world and this unsettles you. But the good news is, I think, that the threat will resolve itself either by acting as a catalyst for change (thus proving that you are still a dynamic system) or by reaffirming your original point of view (thus proving that you still have a clearer view of the world than the tired old cynic).

    In any event, none of this is bad or wrong. Much as I hate to say so, I doubt that much of it is very original either. My only fear is that I am echoing the philosophy of some rabid reactionary who writes for the Daily Mail or some such rag. Essentially, the message is that everything you think/do/say/believe is what you think that the Person-With-Your-Identity would think/do/say/believe. What is fascinating, of course, is the fact that you might be wrong!

  1. November 11, 2010 at 03:08
  2. November 11, 2010 at 03:50
  3. November 12, 2010 at 17:56

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