Waving, not drowning
This is what I was trying to say when I paraphrased FIVE:
Years ago I wanted to write a dissertation that would call out the lie that language learning is a fun, benevolent experience. My hypothesis was that it was a terrifying, destabilising experience for most people who were all too caught up in the myth of their self and unaware that language learning brings about the birth of a new self – one that might be very different to what they thought they were really like. It is frustrating, exasperating, threatening and isolating to learn a new language. I thought that if teachers were wise to this fact, it could change the way that language learning happens. The metaphor I used at the time was teacher as midwife.
This is what I mean when I paraphrase chapter 5 of the TTC. We learn best from experiences that write themselves indelibly on our memory. The moments we were embarrassed or the things we said that were utterly absurd or insulting. They are recorded in the memory in order to avoid the same thing ever happening again. Teachers should look out for the opportunity to put students on the spot, with the skill lying in being able to do so without turning the student off ever opening their mouth to speak again.
“What has to be learnt does not exist without you,/Yet until it is learnt, nothing else exists!” might sound confusing, but is really just a straightforward claim that each learner brings their own curriculum. Each individual will differ in what needs to be learnt. On a crude level, the businessperson will want to know how better to handle negotiations or give presentations while the academic student may benefit more from learning about writing concisely and coherently. On a less superficial level, the student who wants to work to ensure that their humour and irreverence survives the rebirth into L2-speaking self will have a different curriculum to the student who wishes to come across as serious, considered and intellectual. Until they have learnt these aspects of being in L2, they are not. It is only once they can be humorous and irreverent that they begin to exist. There is little point in a student waiting to master their knowledge of language before they dare to start using it.
So the best teacher is the one who kicks the students into the deep end of the pool and who watches them bob up and down, willing them to start kick and thrashing in a more directed style towards either the shallow end or the sides of the pool. This type of teacher is ready to jump in when required, but reserves the right to decide just when she or he is required. Until then, the panic and the gasping may feel overwhelming.
By saying little, the teacher obliges the student to say a lot. By saying a lot, the student will make many mistakes – some so bad that they will be remembered for decades to come. And in making these mistakes, the new student will begin to emerge. This new creature may not be the same as the old one; nor, indeed, may it be the same as the old student had hoped would emerge. There is little that can be done to guarantee that the world will turn out as we would wish. The only option remaining to us is to stay focused on our goals.