Just like juggling with flaming words on a unicycle

25th August 2006 at 01:00
"Cooler today," I remarked as I walked my dog past Jim in his garden. "Not so hot, anyway," was Jim's qualification.

Now I don't know which dictionary you peruse, but my OED gives the definition of "cool" as "to make less hot". Yet I knew what Jim meant. It wasn't as hot as yesterday, but it was still too darn hot for gardening.

So first I thought: isn't language wonderful? And then I thought: it's time I was back at work before I become too weird for words.

My colleague says we teach language skills. We're keen on the word "skills"

in further education, because it sounds like hard work and not much fun.

Yet I have always found "language skills" an odd term, as if we teach learners to juggle with flaming words while riding a unicycle. Presumably you would begin with little words like "it" and "so" and graduate to impressive feats like juggling with a fiery "flabbergast".

Yet the word "skills" does imply that you can learn and improve. Certainly in the early weeks there is the sense of a beginner's clumsy effort with much dropping of torches and falling off cycles. And that's just me. I'm having to remember what it's like for learners to be right at the beginning of their college experience and mind my language.

New students are a little bit scared, and take things literally. I once tried to help a new student with the structure of a difficult paragraph.

"And then you'd go on to say blah, blah, blah." She did just that. My fault, not hers.

It's important not to frighten students on their first day. You woo them.

You sparkle, you smile, you bond. You make the subject seem fascinating and challenging so they can't wait to get started. You pause on a high. You want some feedback.

"Anything you'd like to ask about anything that I've said?"

There's a beat, and then someone asks: "When's break?"

The put-down. At this stage at least, it's unintentional and rather sweet.

A friend was invited to talk to primary children recently about trekking in the Himalayas. They were encouraged to write down questions to ask him at the end of the session, which he thought had gone really well. The first scrap of paper unscrewed to read: "Do you like cucumber?" Not for nothing did the dominie practise a "shut up and listen" type of teaching.

The two-way street is a difficult place for people riding unicycles. Take the business of checking the knowledge of your audience. Even theatre professionals can fall flat on their faces here. David Benson was outlining his first stage appearance. "I wore a basque. You know what a basque is?"

he asked a big guy at the front. The guy looked a bit scared and shook his head. "I'm from Australia," he explained.

So, as the session gets under way, I'm gearing up for a hilarious time as we learn to unicycle together. I remind myself: "No irony." New students don't get irony. At some point in the year, however, I will have to cover irony and that's fun. A dangerous tool. Look what happened to Swift, I'll tell them, who made enemies by suggesting that, in time of famine, eating babies would be a very good idea.

Like last year's class, they will probably recoil in horror. "Horrible man! Eating babies? Yuck." Still misunderstood after all these years.

By the time they are ready to leave, I know any put-downs will be intentional, that they can take a joke, that we'll have mastered unicycling on a two-way street - and hey, we'll even be showing off by tossing lit batons back and forth with all the insouciance in the world.

But this coming week, we're all just raw beginners.

Dr Carol Gow lectures at Dundee College.

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