Monday, February 15, 2016

Learn a language in 2016, Britons are urged

The British Council has urged people to learn a new language in 2016. Fair enough, it’s a good idea in itself, and such promotion is part of what the BC does. But is it really a good idea for most people? What do they gain from it?

As pointed out in the article, it can make holidays more fun, enabling you to interact with the world around you rather than simply observe it. The advantages of this range from simply asking where the bathroom is or buying a ticket at the railway station, to the less practical but far more interesting ability to read the local newspapers and hear what people are talking about. Understanding what is going on around you and learning what matters to people are a far better way of getting to know a place than just reading the guide book and staring at churches.

A language is a route into a culture, the literature is has produced, the way it is currently moving, how it thinks and behaves, its moral values and personal assumptions. All of this can be quite fascinating and instructive.

A language is an unusual addition to a CV in England, and so can be attractive to an employer. Attractiveness to employers is a very good thing indeed.

There has long been a kind of understanding among English people that any foreigner worth talking to already speaks English. This is true up to a point, but not much of a point. English is the lingua franca of business, culture, politics, communications, and most things that matter to people around the world, but there are a lot of things going on in other languages that we miss, and might not want to miss.

Learning languages is, then, in my opinion, an excellent thing. I make my living helping people to do it, after all. But there is another side to the question.

Learning a language talks a very long time. Several months of immersion, or years of classroom study, to acquire basic competence, and basic competence is rarely enough for anything more than a tourist. As I frequently have to point out, half a language is no use to anyone, so unless you can achieve the right level of competence you are unfortunately wasting your time.

In Spain, professionals and aspiring professionals know that they must have a high level of communicative competence in English, and they work hard to achieve it, and their parents spend a lot of money to help them achieve it. The Spanish education system only aims at providing a B1 level, which is not an independent user level, and is no use to an employer. It might just do for a traveller. In any case, it usually fails to provide even that, which is great for my business, but not so great for the average Spanish student, who can’t afford private tuition over a period of years, or may not realize until it’s too late that what he’s been promised by his high school is not enough.

For a Spanish teenager with ambition, or for their parents, the effort and the investment are certainly worth making. For a young English person, possibly not, unless you have a very specific professional goal in mind, such as diplomacy.

So do listen to the British Council and learn a language this year. You really will be opening up all the possibilities that they offer, but be aware of the time and effort, and money, it will involve. Also, once you learn one language, and open up a culture you were barely aware of, you won’t want to stop.

But that, I imagine, is where the real fun lies.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Murray Dreamed a Dream

O Henry was one of the greatest craftsmen of a particular type of short story. He almost invented the type, in fact, and did it so well that no one has quite been able to copy it. You know an O Henry story when you see it, and you read it because it's his. When he died he left this story incomplete. He had written the opening, and left a few notes about how it should continue and finish. I don't know that anyone has tried to finish it before, so I've had a go. The result, for what it's worth, is below. The first half, roughly, is O Henry's. The rest is mine. My apologies to the shade of the great man for taking the liberty:

Both psychology and science grope when they would explain to us the strange adventures of our immaterial selves when wandering in the realm of "Death's twin brother, Sleep." This story will not attempt to be illuminative; it is no more than a record of Murray's dream. One of the most puzzling phases of that strange waking sleep is that dreams which seem to cover months or even years may take place within a few seconds or minutes.

Murray was waiting in his cell in the ward of the condemned. An electric arc light in the ceiling of the corridor shone brightly upon his table. On a sheet of white paper an ant crawled wildly here and there as Murray blocked its way with an envelope. The electrocution was set for eight o'clock in the evening. Murray smiled at the antics of the wisest of insects.

There were seven other condemned men in the chamber. Since he had been there Murray had seen three taken out to their fate; one gone mad and fighting like a wolf caught in a trap; one, no less mad, offering up a sanctimonious lip-service to Heaven; the third, a weakling, collapsed and strapped to a board. He wondered with what credit to himself his own heart, foot, and face would meet his punishment; for this was his evening. He thought it must be nearly eight o'clock.

Opposite his own in the two rows of cells was the cage of Bonifacio, the Sicilian slayer of his betrothed and of two officers who came to arrest him. With him Murray had played checkers many a long hour, each calling his move to his unseen opponent across the corridor. Bonifacio's great booming voice with its indestructible singing quality called out: "Eh, Meestro Murray; how you feel--all-a right--yes?" "All right, Bonifacio," said Murray steadily, as he allowed the ant to crawl upon the envelope and then dumped it gently on the stone floor.

"Dat's good-a, Meestro Murray. Men like us, we must-a die like-a men. My time come nex'-a week. All-a right. Remember, Meestro Murray, I beat-a you dat las' game of de check. Maybe we play again some-a time. I don'-a know. Maybe we have to call-a de move damn-a loud to play de check where dey goin' send us."

Bonifacio's hardened philosophy, followed closely by his deafening, musical peal of laughter, warmed rather than chilled Murray's numbed heart. Yet, Bonifacio had until next week to live. The cell-dwellers heard the familiar, loud click of the steel bolts as the door at the end of the corridor was opened. Three men came to Murray's cell and unlocked it. Two were prison guards; the other was "Len"--no; that was in the old days; now the Reverend Leonard Winston, a friend and neighbor from their barefoot days. "I got them to let me take the prison chaplain's place," he said, as he gave Murray's hand one short, strong grip.

In his left hand he held a small Bible, with his forefinger marking a page. Murray smiled slightly and arranged two or three books and some penholders orderly on his small table. He would have spoken, but no appropriate words seemed to present themselves to his mind. The prisoners had christened this cellhouse, eighty feet long, twenty-eight feet wide, Limbo Lane. The regular guard of Limbo Lane, an immense, rough, kindly man, drew a pint bottle of whiskey from his pocket and offered it to Murray, saying: "It's the regular thing, you know. All has it who feel like they need a bracer. No danger of it becoming a habit with 'em, you see." Murray drank deep into the bottle. "That's the boy!" said the guard. "Just a little nerve tonic, and everything goes smooth as silk."

They stepped into the corridor, and each one of the doomed seven knew. Limbo Lane is a world on the outside of the world; but it had learned, when deprived of one or more of the five senses, to make another sense supply the deficiency. Each one knew that it was nearly eight, and that Murray was to go to the chair at eight. There is also in the many Limbo Lanes an aristocracy of crime. The man who kills in the open, who beats his enemy or pursuer down, flushed by the primitive emotions and the ardor of combat, holds in contempt the human rat, the spider, and the snake. So, of the seven condemned only three called their farewells to Murray as he marched down the corridor between the two guards--Bonifacio, Marvin, who had killed a guard while trying to escape from the prison, and Bassett, the train-robber, who was driven to it because the express-messenger wouldn't raise his hands when ordered to do so. The remaining four smoldered, silent, in their cells, no doubt feeling their social ostracism in Limbo Lane society more keenly than they did the memory of their less picturesque offences against the law.

Murray wondered at his own calmness and nearly indifference. In the execution room were about twenty men, a congregation made up of prison officers, newspaper reporters, and lookers-on who had succeeded in getting permission to make sure Murray got the end that had been ordered for him. They had their own reasons, some of them. Others had none beyond curiosity.

Murray took in the prison warden, the doctor, an anonymous man who he knew would be the one to throw the switch. Some other time he would have found the face interesting, it surely had much to say, but now it meant nothing. The man had a job to do, no more. He thought he recognised some of Ginny’s folks. Not her mother. Poor woman, she had got old very suddenly, but she didn’t hate Murray enough to be there. He wondered if she wanted to hate, for the hate to give her courage so she could watch how it ended. For a moment it stopped him thinking about her father and that brother of hers who would likely be where Murray was some day. They were there, and Murray wondered if he should greet them. He smiled at himself.

The chair was to his left. They turned him and guided him towards it. It was a long time since he’d done anything of his own free will. As he was gently led he accepted the chair as part of all this. His life, the good times, when it all went wrong, what he had done to the girl, Len, Bonifacio, the man who came this way yesterday and whose name he had forgotten, the things that seemed so distant, and the games he had played in the prison, the conversations with those he was allowed to be around, empty talk it was now, meaning nothing; it all led up to this. It all made sense. His life was meant to come here.

Yet suddenly he was filled with horror. No, it should not be this way. He took in again the people and the events around him, he understood what they were doing, but it was not for him. It couldn’t be. He wasn’t the man they wanted. He dimly felt the straps being fastened. This was wrong, thought Murray. He understood that he had done nothing. He should not be there. The scene faded and he no longer saw the guards nor felt the straps nor smelt the old burnt wires within the machine that was meant to kill him. He saw what should have been, what was.

His life was suddenly before him. There had been no fight, no killing, no trial. There was no chair, no straps. He was in a brightly-lit room, where the sun shone on cheerful yellow walls, a warm carpet and wooden furniture he had made himself after his neighbour Pete had patiently taught him how to handle hickory. There are two paintings on the walls, small, framed landscapes, and a series of photos, portraits of men and women looking uncomfortable in clothes they weren’t used to wearing. His family and his wife’s, of course.

Through a curtained window is a garden with a lawn and a resplendent flowerbed, immaculately kept, and beyond it a wood filled with colour. The beauty of the scene was arresting, breathtaking even, and for a moment Murray couldn’t take his eyes from it. The room, the house, surrounded by that garden and that patch of nature, made a picture so idyllic he could hardly bear to believe it was real. And yet it surely was. It was his house. Murray felt a wonderful calm, a great peace. This was his house and his life, and it was as perfect as he could have imagined. Looking about him he could see his father-in-law’s photo, the tie badly tied because he had lost patience with the photographer. Murray smiled as he remembered that moment. There was a mark on the side of the kitchen table where the saw had kept sticking and even a plane and a lot of coarse sandpaper couldn’t smooth it away. They had left it that way and they laughed about how Murray had made his mark on his house. He would run his fingers across it as they sat down to eat.

There was a woman in a rocking-chair under the window, letting the sun play on the face of the baby she held. He greeted her and she addressed him as ‘darling’. She raised the baby’s hand as though to wave to him. She was Murray’s wife, the child was his child. He felt the joy that it caused him to see them and to know that they were his family. He knew that he had always felt and would always feel that same joy. She rose and came towards him. He took them both in his arms and kissed them.

At that moment the warden gave the sign and the current shocked through him. Murray had dreamed the wrong dream.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Teaching Huckleberry Finn

There is a specific problem with teaching this book. There is a word in it that some people don’t like. (Most people, in fact). It’s a fine book, a borderline classic. It would be a great shame if people stopped reading it for fear of a word. Is it better to change the word ‘nigger’, where it occurs, to stop publishing the book, remove it from libraries, stop worrying about it, or when encouraging children to read it, explain why it uses that word, and its significance in that context?

Banning books is not civilized, and is almost impossible in practice, anyway.

Changing the word to something else is possible, and has been done before, but it’s a matter for the publisher. The book is out of copyright and freely available in electronic form, and I can’t see Gutenberg or Amazon or anyone else bothering to make that change. Many books have things in them that a lot of people don’t like.

I don’t believe the bad word should be forcibly removed, and the idea of Bowdlerization of any sort does not much appeal. The author wrote what he wrote and he did so for reasons which we cannot always understand, or even know. In the case of Huck Finn, the word is largely used by Huck himself, is not usually derogatory in any way, and it is certainly not an expression of hate.

I have never used the book in class, but I was thinking about it, partly because of some discussion I saw about this very matter. If I did, the word could be used as one of many internal devices for interpreting the internal and external context of the book.

This is great in theory, but the theory would clash rather badly with reality if that reality were a black student in the classroom. There aren’t many here, hardly any in fact, and the word doesn’t have the same cultural implications, but in the English-speaking world, to try to explain that an expression that  a black student has been told all his life means that someone hates you, and that he may well have experienced as such on a number of occasions, that he'll just have to lump it because that's what Twain wrote, is not quite so easy as it sounds.

I imagine it could be handled by asking the students what they think, negotiating among several options. Treating students as responsible, mature people is a good way of helping them to act like it, and to become like it. It would depend on the nature of the class. It's easy for a teacher to conclude that it's not worth the trouble, there are plenty of good books to read. I understand that position, but it can very instructive to work out a way of introducing difficult stuff in the classroom. It invariably means communicating with individuals, which is why it's rewarding for everyone, and why making some blanket policy, or talking in vacuo, doesn't work.

As a result of these idle ponderings I am about to read the book again. My thoughts may appear here in a few days.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Assumptions and Motivations

There is an assumption, a set of related assumptions in fact, behind all of these observations, comments, criticisms and proposed solutions, an assumption that may not be shared by all readers. The assumption is that the purpose, the only important purpose, of education, is to prepare young people to make the most of their future in the world.  This view is certainly not shared by most of the people who create and maintain our systems of education. The main aim of this work is to encourage people to consider and come to share that assumption, but those who do not initially share it may well be rather mystified by much of what I have to say.

That assumption, so easily and regularly forgotten, is something I can never forget, because of the other major motivation of this blog, which is not theoretical but personal and practical:

I benefitted enormously, to a degree that can scarcely be overstated, by having parents who understood that hard work brings a better life, and transmitted this idea by their daily example (which is the only way that actually works). This combined with the luck of having a decentish brain, and going to very good schools (in the case of my primary school because we were Catholics, and the Grammar school because it still existed and I found a way through the 11+).

A lot of luck, yes, but that combination of circumstances should be, and could be, much more readily available than it is. Even the example, which cannot always, or even often, come from parents, but there are other people who could give that example. I have seen now a generation of children come and go, and the majority have had to settle for far less than they might have had, for reasons that do not need to exist, and without ever really understanding that things could be different.

John Steinbeck, who I quoted a few days ago, and who came to understand the art of teaching (which most teachers do not possess) said that good teachers do not tell, they catalyze a burning desire to know. An education system should not process and control children, it should inspire them, most of them, to desire and demand a future and an intellectual life which can turn them into something they never imagined they could be.

I have spent many years observing a number of different forms and systems of education, in two different countries, and reading a great deal about others, that once existed, and that exist now in other countries. In the course of those years I have identified many failings, deficiencies so great, so damaging to the people whose lives they affect, that they must be solved, and yet I have seen little or no understanding of that imperative need, or will to seek solutions, in those who are involved and in a position to do something about them.

Monday, January 4, 2016

What should not be taught in schools

The use of schools to solve other social problems that arise when children cannot easily or comfortably be supervised by their parents, causes many more problems in the schools themselves. The need to fill a complete timetable, and to follow to some degree the model of the public boarding schools, coupled, naturally enough, with the desire of government to control growing minds, led fairly quickly to the creation of subjects which should not be taught in schools at all. If they were removed from the timetable, the school day would be much more reasonable, could address its real aims more clearly, and some activities which children learn to hate could be understood as fun.

Much of what schools do is unnecessary. Many subjects should not be taught, some because they are simply a waste of time, like religion, ethics, ciudadanía and the other ways of telling people how they should behave according to some fashion or other, and some because they are far better provided in another way. Churches are always willing to instruct the young in their beliefs and codes, and sport and the plastic arts are far more enjoyable if done freely at a municipal or private facility rather than under the full disciplinary structure of a school as they now are. Within useful subjects, a great deal of time is wasted with unnecessary material and in attempting to measure knowledge, rather than provide it and teach how to use it. And of course, the biggest problem of all is that many of the people who are forced to be there are not in fact going to benefit from it, but their presence will prevent others from benefiting.

There is no reason for schools to teach religion, unless that is one of the specific purposes of the school. Otherwise, it is a waste of time. Parents who want their children instructed in their own faith, or in some other, will find plenty of people willing and able to do it for them, freeing children two or three hours a week.

Likewise sport and art, which should be enjoyable activities done for pleasure. If there were places children could go, and choose the activities that attracted them, they would enjoy them much more, and schools, and the taxpayer, would save a fortune on all the facilities that have to be replicated unnecessarily in every school in the country.

I am not, of course, suggesting that children should not study their parents' religion, or that they should not do sport or learn art. The point is that schools are a bad place to do it.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Conversation with the Natives

In their constant struggle to improve the quality of education in this country, the relevant authorities forever miss the very point of it, create obstacles when they mean to smooth progress, ignore the people who actually know what needs to be done and how to do it, pay scrupulous attention to the interests of everyone but the children, for whose benefit the system is supposed to exist, and generally create more and more regulation and paperwork to less and less effect.

So it’s quite unusual for someone in government to say something intelligent on the subject. The surprising news in this case is that President Rajoy has suggested that there should be conversation classes with native speakers in schools, to improve the level of English. This is a good idea. If anything comes of it, it will be done badly, ineffectively and at unnecessary expense, but the idea is sound.

First, some background. The focus in Spanish schools is on grammar and vocabulary, because those who decide these things lack imagination and experience, it’s much easier to justify the marks you give if they come from written exams, and it’s difficult to do useful oral activities with groups of 30 or so pupils. Some would see these as problems to be solved. In fact, they tend to be seen as excuses not to try to do things better.

The aim of the recent Education Law is that pupils who leave High School at 18 should have a B1 level of English. For those of you who understand these things, that is Cambridge Pet level, and you will recognize the problem. It is not an independent user level. It is half a language, which is no good. You can’t actually do anything with it that a company, a University, or you yourself, can use. A B1 level does not allow you to answer the interview question ‘Do you speak English?’ with a ‘Yes.’

Also, needless to say, the aspirations of government when they wave their hands about and create these documents are not always fulfilled. Most children don’t even reach the low level that is set as the target. The result is that the great majority of Spanish youngsters leave school with a very limited knowledge of English, a bit of useless baggage that has cost them thousands of hours of wasted time, and doubtless many arguments and punishments along the way. This is not the way to do things.

The idea, though, that the purpose of language is communication, is not really recognized by the system in use. Anything that changes that perception is good. It really is like riding a bike. You are more likely to reach your destination if you actually have somewhere you want to go.

Conversation with Natives

Just to clarify:

Conversation (communication) classes with a native teacher are an important part of the process of learning a foreign language. In the case of younger (preschool or primary) children, this is because the naturalness of the accent* and the prosody (primarily intonation, and this is often underestimated or not understood) contributes greatly to the way the foundation of learning is built. They will mostly be hearing native speakers in the resources used to back up the class, and on the television and in the songs they hear and sing, and the natural rhythms of a native speaker reinforce the memory and the ease of use.

For older students this is much less important, but a native speaker, one who grew up in a cultures where the language was part of life, can provide a much more interesting background to the conversation, which adds a lot to motivation, and leads to real communication.
When I say native teacher, of course, I do mean teacher, not some random unemployed graduate found on the streets of London or Dublin or San Francisco. Teaching is not nuclear physics, but it requires competence and experience.

*it doesn’t matter all that much where it’s from, or what kind of education it denotes, as long as it’s something that most of the English speaking world would understand and accept