Innocence and experience: Walking on the wild side

5th October 2015 at 16:26

Subject Genius Heather Martin

Which one of us has not, from time to time, invoked the classic slogan, ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it probably helps’. I can remember seeing it in the local chip shop as a child.

I would go a step further. You do in fact have to be (intermittently) mad to work here (in this case any educational establishment). Which may or may not catch on. I throw in the ‘intermittently’ because I assume that total non-stop madness would be counter-productive and unbearable. But, equally, total non-stop reasonableness can be just as unhelpful.

I would argue that about 90% of education is about teaching us to access our rational, well-behaved selves (the side that Nietzsche called ‘Apollonian’). But we can’t afford to neglect the other 10% - which is where the madness comes in (or the ‘Dionysian’).

Here is what I mean.

Language is all about the rules. You learn them, you stick to them. You become, thereby, a good citizen, linguistically speaking. Discipline and rigour. Result. But you also have to let go, just occasionally (maybe even quite often).

One problem facing language teachers is the sheer scale of the enterprise: it is tempting to assume there is no time for digression or divertissement. Grammar, vocab, pronunciation, more grammar, vocab… Which is when you choose madness – before it chooses you. This pro-active solution also allows you to preserve the element of the unexpected and continue surprising your pupils i.e. it keeps them awake. And you. So it turns out the opposite is true: however tight your time allocation, you cannot afford not to stray from the straight and narrow.

For example, in this lesson, my deferred objective (to sound a rational note) is for my pupils to know how to choose between the verbs 'to have' and 'to be' when talking about how people feel. And in the next one, for sure, I will teach this explicitly, distilled as a succinct grammatical formula: tener (conjugated) + (invariable) noun vs estar (conjugated) + adjective (which must agree with the subject). It’s all rigorously, rationally mapped out. The kind of thing you can mention in lesson plans.

You probably don’t mention, ‘What makes a new-born baby cry?’ Which is what out of the blue, I ask my class. Stunned, they fall right into my trap, excited that I have apparently forgotten I am there to teach rules and that we have illicitly wandered off-piste. 

If the word ‘nappy’ doesn’t come up in the next 10 seconds, then they really are a lost cause. Before long we get to hunger and thirst, 'when they feel too hot', 'when they feel too cold', when they're tired, startled, frightened. 

We talk about ‘crying’ as a pre-linguistic but highly effective form of communication and speculate that it may be the most important thing we ever do. Sometimes I invoke the poet Lorca, who was quite possibly inspired directly or indirectly by Rousseau’s romantic ‘cri de la nature’ in describing the 'grito' (cry or lament) of flamenco song as 'anterior al lenguaje'. We talk about instinct, reaction and survival, even the preservation of the species. We talk about defencelessness and dependency. We haven’t done any Spanish yet. But when we do, I am confident it will stick, because we have managed to hook the learning to the story of all our lives. The irrational side.

After this, it is a matter of moments to learn 'tengo hambre/sed/frío' etc, and there is further enjoyment to be had in the game of literal translation (‘I have hunger/thirst/cold’), which provides a useful grammatical focus on parts of speech. Further down the list, we stumble across 'pena', 'vergüenza', and 'celos'. Which leads to the second big question of the day: 'Can babies feel embarrassment or shame or jealousy?' Suddenly we are contemplating separation from the other (mother, father) and the fall into self-consciousness. The dangerous power of these deep, dark emotions brings a ripple of anxiety to the classroom. Our human trajectory has led us from innocence to experience. 

Even being rational has an irrational side to it. In the common phrases 'tengo suerte' and 'tengo razón' (‘I have luck/am lucky’, ‘I have reason/am right’), we sense a comfort and well-being akin to the security of being warm and well-fed. In the relatively dull 'tengo prisa' (‘I have haste/am in a hurry’), conversely, we detect the potential for breathless, sweaty stress.

This language package provides the perfect context for teaching the full conjugation of the irregular verb 'tener', in as many tenses as you like. It also causes us to reflect on the qualitative difference between alternative ways of expressing the same fundamental human experience. 'Feeling hungry' seems to place the emphasis on a central ego, whereas 'having hunger' suggests the weight of an existential burden that is externally imposed.

Sometimes it can feel more like ‘moments of sanity’ amid the pervasive madness. But that is probably no bad thing. The Spanish would call it ‘duende’ (which might translate as 'soul', but maybe 'that which does not translate very well, particularly by computer’, would cover it).

I suspect this walking-on-the-wild-side approach applies across the board. As David Hume nicely put it, ‘The reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.’ Or, to put it another way, let your class explore the meaning of life, as articulated in the structures of language, even while introducing the nuts and bolts of basic grammar.


Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist, and assistant head at Kensington Prep School