Home > Commentaries on TTC > 47 – the quintessential random number of the universe

47 – the quintessential random number of the universe

Shooting from the hip

Without going outside, you may know the whole world.
Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.

Thus the sage knows without travelling;
He sees without looking;
He works without doing.

There are rumours that Lao left the walled city because his travel agency firm had gone bust. Similarly, there are those who see in these wise words a prediction that we would all one day get fat by sitting in front of a glass-fronted box and living virtually, rather than virtuously. Which school do I belong to? Read on, dear souls.

The converse of “The farther you go, the less you know” is, “By going nowhere, you know everything.” What does this mean for language teachers? The answer, it will come as no surprise to read, is that all you need to teach or learn a language can be found in the classroom. If teachers look around their classroom and review their teaching practice critically, all that they need to do their job properly will be evident. If this is a reasonable gloss of Lao’s words, then he is arguing against the glut of information that twenty-first century living tells us is essential to a purposeful life.

If Lao had worked for the Pentagon, there would never have been an internet. The internet overloads us with information. Too much information can lead to too little activity. We spend longer looking for the answer than we do putting the answer into practice. And, at the end of it all, we may learn a lot, but we know virtually nothing.

Let’s also consider this through the perspective of learning language. By going outside how language is usually learned, Lao suggests, we learn less. For me, this suggests that deep analysis of language is less likely to promote learning than actual language use. This is perhaps not a very controversial thing to say. In the shallow end, people could argue that this is what the communicative approach is all about. But I beg to differ. The communicative approach is all about how language is perceived to be used, rather than how it is used. When I think of the communicative approach, I think of a hologram of language use. It seems real and three dimensional, but it isn’t. It’s a shimmering illusion. I think of gap fills and role plays and teacher-generated learning activities that may promote language use, but are ineffective as catalysts for language acquisition.

Language is acquired by using it meaningfully. Again, this is no mean feat for the teacher of English as a foreign language because for so many of the world’s English language learners, English does not exist as a medium for meaningful communication, any more than Latin or Ancient Greek existed for me at school as tools for meaningful communication. They were ways of helping me transport a text into meaningful language (i.e. English) but I could just as easily have been reading a code of numbers, such as used to appear in the activity pages of my favourite commas: 26=A, 1=Z.

Forget P-P-P. Try Z-z-z.

So how does the English language teacher make the language meaningful to a classroom of students who see the whole exercise either as meaningless or imbued with meaning by other more powerful people? Dornyei talks about the need to harness the power of language selves. One of the potential selves that guide our progress through life is the Ought-to self. Essentially,this self is a being – and we’re not being metaphysical here; we’re talking about a tangible, fully functioning being who walks a certain way, talks a certain way, lives a certain way, breathes a certain way. Try listening to Living Doll but imagining yourself as the doll that is being sung about. Now you have an idea of what this Ought To Self  is all about. I’m going to do my best to please her, just cause she’s my living doll.

Our ought-to self is the person that we know we need to become. In my case, he is considerably thinner, much more efficient as a manager and has no debts to his name. He doesn’t smoke, eats in excess of five-a-day and finds the time to spout crap, write books, fight for various liberation movements, raise kids, spend quality time with his family and he holds no grudges. The chances are that he will never be fully realised, but like most ideals -Taoism, Christianity, anarchism, supporting Liverpool Football Club- it is the journey towards the destination rather than the destination itself which changes our worlds.

Dornyei suggests that the language teacher spends more time actually helping learners to develop a real sense of their living doll. In my case, that means inviting students to imagine themselves as students preparing themselves to go to a UK-based institution of higher education. It means asking them to describe their working day and to think of why they are doing everything that they do. It means asking them to think about the things that they should be doing on a daily basis. But it doesn’t settle for things like, “I should listen to the radio.” It demands such detail as, “When I wake up in the morning at 0800, I should wake up to the sound of the news on my clock radio. I should lie there in the dark, listening to the news. I should be trying to understand how many different news items I hear. I should be attentive to new phrases that I may understand, but never actually use myself. I should have a means of noting down any items of interest that I want clarification about. I should be measuring my progress on a daily basis. etc.”  In short, it is not possible to have an overly-detailed ought-to self.

Another way of motivating the unmotivated is to create an environment which they will want to join. Sure, they may hate English and England, but they may enjoy being in Room 322. There may be class in-jokes that they like being a part of; there may be social events that they like helping to plan; there may be ongoing conversations that they want to participate in; there may be romances that they want to kindle; if they are genuine technophiles, there may be kindles that they want to romance. If the lingua franca of the environment is English, the job’s a good’un. Rather than learning English because eet-izz-un-eenternash-oh-nal-lang-u-ag-ee,  they want to learn English because it is a pretty bloody localised language. Rather than learning English because it will help them get a job, they learn it because it helps them get a life.

And we find ourselves, rather conveniently, in a situation where we do not need to go outside to find a reason to learn English or look outside the window to know the benefits of learning a language. We know the joys of language learning without travelling. We see them without looking for them; we are working without doing anything.

Categories: Commentaries on TTC
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