Sunday, May 25, 2008

What you trade and what you get

Trading places with your students is good experience for any language teacher. A good long trade really is the best: the kind where you go and live in a country where they don't speak your language and you try to fumble along in theirs. You get the triumphs of hearing yourself say something for the first time or finally being able to trap a word that had been as elusive as a deer fly, but you also get the embarrassment of relying on childishly simply observations because you simply can't express the more profound thoughts slamming around inside your brain looking for an escape vehicle; you go through the tedium of memorizing all the vocabulary and the endlessly incomprehensible irregular features; and you face the frustration of not being able to get what you want because nobody understands you. It's a humbling experience.

But that's just in one particular language. John Kuhlman has traded into a situation where he is "exactly like a Spanish speaker or a Chinese speaker in a room full of English speakers... If I’m in a room for a cocktail party," he says, "I can hear everything, but I can’t understand a word. So I’m pretty good at understanding their problem. I’ve got empathy, sympathy, patience." And that's exactly what a good (language) teacher needs, though I don't think I'd want to trade my hearing to get it as Kuhlman has. In a lovely NY Times piece on Kuhlman, Samuel G. Freedman brings us the voices of his students:

“He has more calm, more patience with me,”
“When not understand, he explain to me. He’s nice people.”
“He have a lot of passion. He like to listen to any question. I have find he’s very friendly.”

In the same piece, Freedman observes the trades that so many of our students have made:

"Fate also moved his students here. They were drawn by jobs in the factories and the fields, trading their own sacrifice for their children’s American future."

This reminded me of a passage from On the Road:

"They had come down from the back mountains and higher places to hold forth their hands for something they thought civilization could offer, and they never dreamed the sadness and the poor broken delusion of it."

But it also reminded me of a post I wrote back in January. At that time, I discovered that most people say, "not at the cost of (bad thing)" where the bad thing is a noun but "not at the cost of (good thing)" where the good thing is a gerund-participle. It seems I had been using the gerund-participle pattern with nouns.

Now, here we have Freedman making a similar switch. Notice that if I trade comfort for patience, I lose the comfort but I get patience in return. In the quote above, however, Freedman has the language learners trading their sacrifice for their children's future. Of course, he intends us to understand that they have taken on sacrifice, not lost it. And that's just how we interpret it. I'll wager that out of the thousands of people who read that article, not more than two or three will find his formulation strange, and that none of those who do so will find it at all confusing.

The possibilities of language really are astounding. And we would be fools to trade those possibilities for the poor broken delusion hiding behind the false certainty of prescriptive conformity.

No comments: