Home > Commentaries on TTC > Kenny Dalglish was born in 1951.

Kenny Dalglish was born in 1951.

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Chapter 51 of the Tao Te Ching is a kind of pause-deep breath-review chapter. If it was a film, it would be near the denouement when the principal characters are going back and reliving their experiences, but this time from a new angle. It’s akin to re-watching The Sixth Sense knowing that the main character is actually [CENSORED]. It’s not a very sexy chapter when you look at it first. But after a few drinks, you begin to warm to it and listen more to what it says (and when I say “a few drinks”, I mean two mugs of steaming tarry coffee). And then you realise that this is a Chapter that you’d be quite happy to take home to meet the parents.

Tao, like Dogme, is an elusive concept. Perhaps even an evasive one. But there are translations of this chapter which state it quite simply: “YOU are Tao.” And it’s not some trite Spartacus assertion. It means what it says. You come from Tao. Therefore Tao comes from you. If that sounds a bit too twee, think of it as you being made from tao and tao therefore flows through you and out of you. Just think, this means that somebody has – hell, loads of people have- written a book all about you. I bet your day’s looking better already. And we haven’t even started yet.

The chapter starts with four direct assertions:

All things arise from Tao.
They are nourished by Virtue.
They are formed by matter.
They are shaped by environment.

Virtue is how Te (as in Tao Te Ching) is translated. Before we explore this within a context of relevance to language teachers specifically, allow me to try and gloss this -if for nobody’s benefit other than my own.  We are being told that everything that we are aware of has one primal source and we have attached the label “Tao” to this source. So Tao creates the seed of these things; they are then watered with something called Virtue and, at that point, they begin to take on a tangible form. How this tangible form develops is dependent upon the environment that they grow up in. So far, so good. We’re then told that everything, as a consequence of this, cannot but help respect tao or think that te is a bloody good thing too.Not through choice – it’s just in our jeans, as a casual biochemist might say.

Tao, we are told, is a mighty fine thing. Because it gives us everything – nourishment, protection, comfort- and yet it doesn’t come with a hefty bill at the end. These things are just given because tao is tao and that’s what tao does. And we need to be trying to get back to being tao because we’ve spent most of our time as a species trying to get away from it. So, having exposed us to the nature of tao, Lao T advises us,

To have without possessing,

Do without claiming,

lead without controlling:

this is the virtue of the way (or the Te of Tao, if you prefer a bit of alliteration).

Now join me is an early swig of pastis and let’s see if we can make this relevant to the language teacher.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I am very repetitive. And so is this sodding book. But whenever I take the word Tao and replace it with the word Language, it seems to make some sense (not, of course, when I do it with the title of the book: Language Te Ching. Although, I wonder if this is something like those tatty old shop names where one of the letters has fallen off and never been replaced. In which case, Lao T might have been an early forerunner of Jeremy H. One wonders whether or not the 21st century version would be called Language Ker-Ching). Let’s check this out, Scooby.

1. Everything in this world comes into being through language. I know that this furrow is not ploughed by myself alone. Language is the tool with which we mediate the world. 2. If we are capable of thinking about a thing it is because we have words or other symbols to describe it or conceptualise it or visualise it. 3. The virtue (or integrity) of these words allows new concepts to germinate and to become tangible things. 4. What these things mean will depend upon the society and culture which uses them.

Language doesn’t demand our gratitude or respect. It just gives us the means by which we can sense and make sense of everything in the bleedin’ cosmos. So we end up being respectful of language and obeying its limits and restrictions. In fact, try not remaining obedient to its restrictions and you will find that people shun you. One experiment to test this hypothesis is to get on to a train and speak to the person next to you. In this experiment, we are going to disregard the restrictions of language and we are going to exchange the concept of person for the concept of horse. We are going to exchange the concept of photograph for the concept of  gun. We are going to tell our travelling companion, ” I love my husband/wife. S/he’s quite the most beautiful person I have ever seen. I have a photo. Would you like to see it?” The chances are that their stop will be the next one.

This is the Grassy Knoll photo of the Humpty Dumpty assassination. He neither fell nor was pushed. He was pulled.

A taoist would point out that this does not mean that Lao was an egg-headed linguist. After all, everything is tao because everything emerges from tao and it is a very sticky substance.But I don’t care what the taoists say. Like Humpty Dumpty, tao means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less. And this means that when we teach a language, the class itself is tao, is language. And we are trying to get back to tao, to get back to language. And we’ve been away for too long. The obstacles that are in our way are the bland meaningless resources that we are encouraged to use. OK – if the motif works, these things too are tao, are language, but they are -more often than not- pale imitations of the real thing. It’s like setting up a mining community around a pencil lead buried in the ground whilst remaining oblivious to the motherlode directly beneath your feet.

So, teachers, if you want to teach as effectively and as efficiently as possible, you better make like tao, make like language. Let language shape your class, let shared understandings provide the nourishment for the words, let the words provide substance to the ideas that your students and you share and let these words and ideas be shaped by the many environments in which they may find themselves. In the meantime, I’m going to make like a banana and split.

Categories: Commentaries on TTC
  1. March 6, 2011 at 19:52

    Kenny is King

  2. March 6, 2011 at 20:01

    “Everything in this world comes into being through language. I know that this furrow is not ploughed by myself alone. Language is the tool with which we mediate the world.” Is this true? Can’t we think without language? Ideas come first, then we invent words for them. ?

    • dfogarty
      March 7, 2011 at 07:29

      I’ve wondered the very same thing myself. And asked around. And got no 100% clear answer. But the answers that I did get and the reading that I did led me to conlcude that no, we cannot think without language. Language is first and allows ideas to be expressed. [Forgive the rather definite verb tense]

  3. March 7, 2011 at 10:22

    Interesting. Which books? I’d like to reasd them. In The Language Instinct, by Pinker, he says thinking comes first. And I agree. A few things I remember about it: If I say “imagine a ball rolling down a hill, it hits a bump and bounces around a bit”, you can imagine all that, and think about the consequences of hitting the bump, without any language at all. We use language to transfer ideas between people. Language has homonyms, so if we thought in language first, we’d be confused by having more than one meaning to choose from. But we don’t because it’s the concept we are thinking about, and tag on a word, a collection of sounds, to it. Finally, if we cannot think without language, then does that mean that (pre-) humans never thought anything until language came into existence? I’d say it was the other way around. But I haven’t thought (seriously) and read about this for years.

  4. dfogarty
    March 10, 2011 at 22:15

    I struggle to remember – they were mainly online documents, I think. Of course, Vygotsky also says it. Pinker’s claims must be put in context: he is a cognitivist and a great follower of Chomsky. They key in your example is that you are first required to “say” something. My brain hears the words and turns it into images. I don’t deny that the brain is capable of using images, but I suggest that the moment we begin to think about those images, we fall back on language. It is our specie’s tool for interacting with the world.

    I can’t remember where it was, but I read recently something about what happens when we read a word (it may have been over on Scott Thronbury’s blog). If I recall correctly, scientists aregue that what our brain does is actually pull out all of the possible referents of that word and sort through them. In fact, on reflection I think it was in Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid. I suspect that our brain processes language at chunk level rather than word level which helps it work more efficiently.

    It’s a fascinating area (for me). I asked, among these earlier ponderings, how deaf people think; how deaf, mute and blind people think. Are words involved? Can deaf people talk to themselves? If language is what defines us as a species, is it possible for a human not to have access to language? I never found definitive answers. Perhaps this is my second shot?

    You might find the following of interest: http://neuroanthropology.net/2010/07/21/life-without-language/.

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