Humanising Language Teaching
Crippled by Words
By Jim Wingate, Author of How to be a Peace-full Teacher
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Here is a series of pictures. As you see and experience each picture, sense the overlap as they are overlaid in your perceptions.
I neither speak, nor understand, nor read Japanese. Yet there I was understanding everything in a Japanese hotel watching a Japanese programme in Japanese about Chernobyl. I'd studied Chernobyl, helped to publish a book about it…
I neither speak, nor understand, nor read Catalan. There I was in the cathedral in Barcelona listening to the sermon in Catalan, feeling immensely frustrated. I suddenly understood why. When I'm listening to any language my mind sees it like ticker tape - a string of written words moving past me. But I kept missing bits of the Catalan because I couldn't spell it.
I dream for half an hour. I write trigger type notes - just enough to bring it all back. I write 10 hours a day for 4 months and the half-hour dream is a whole novel. I've written 12 novels from dreams…
At the age of six I read a big, thick novel. It's my favourite book. I inhabited that book. Forty years later I found a copy. Now I saw to my surprise there are parts in French, Spanish, Latin and Scots Gaelic. These never worried me as a child…
At the age of seven I started to be 'taught' Latin at school. Latin was all rules. I did so badly I had to translate Caesar for an hour a day as a punishment. I still can't read Latin. I can't see the words, only the syllables, and when I look at the endings I go into a state of bewilderment. Caesar not only defeated the Ancient Britons, he defeated me…
Every day from the age of five to the age of eight, I wrote out the alphabet many times. This was entirely voluntary. I was trying to make sense of it, trying to understand what it was. I still don't understand, and on aptitude tests involving the alphabet I come out as a moron…
Can't do it
You see, I think in pictures, which have emotional content and action. I don't think in words, not naturally. Speaking for me is simultaneous translation. Word association? I simply can't do it…
Svenn was three years old. I used to take him for walks in the countryside. I used to talk, (in English, his father's language), almost non-stop, showing him the insects, the footprints of the animals and talking nature. He'd come back with me and immediately tell his mother in Norwegian everything we'd seen and done…How did Svenn do that? He wasn't translating all the time I was talking. The experience went in as concepts to the whole brain connecting with English. To his mother he reviewed the experience as concepts again, this time connecting with Norwegian. That is the sort of simultaneous translation that I'm talking about - experience into words.
"How do you remember all those stories?" Regularly I tell 60 traditional stories. I don't remember them as words, but as images and experiences which I can review and put into words. If I hear a good strong story only once, I can remember it and tell it…
Science at University
But then University Chemistry was all the worst things for me - sequences, symbols, letters, formulae, abstract, theoretical, rules, rules, rules. I failed completely. Then I decided to do it my way. I made each chemical into an image with character and personality and behaviour. Suddenly, chemical reactions were interactions of people, drama, theatre, emotional. I could remember and relate and enjoy…
After passing the chemistry exam as a re-sit, I changed to study English. Most of my fellow students spent 30 hours or more, per week, studying and reading the books and writing the two 8,000 word essays we had to do each week. I spend 40 hours a week doing plays, four or five productions per term. I only had 8 hours a week left to read the books and write the essays. This was accelerated learning in 1970: ten minutes to make a pile of 12 books in the library; 5 minutes to devour each book, key words triggering emotionally loaded images simultaneously my right hand would be copying short quotes; 5 minutes staring into space while my brain overlapped the images and put them into an order simultaneously my right hand would be numbering the quotes to go with the order of images. An hour and ten minutes into my 8 hours, I was starting the really slow process, writing, putting the last images into a stream of words, peppered by quotes. At the end of the 2 hours 50 minutes of writing, it was time to create the second essay by the same process…
At the age of 30 I did a year's course on agriculture, but found, to my horror, I would have to attend 5 hours of lectures per day. Listening to words is so slow for me it is torture. Out of a one hour lecture I get 3 to 4 minutes of images. I can get those in 5 minutes skim-reading a book. So, in each lecture I would be reading a fiction book, writing poetry in response to the fiction and my right hand would dart across to make notes from the lecture even though my eyes didn't look at the notes my hand was writing. For revision I found I didn't need to read these notes I'd never seen. I simply needed to look at them and the facts would come back to me as images and be glancing at the pages, not the words, I was able to get distinctions in all the exams…
Language is not Needed
So, now I believe that words are not needed, language is not needed, understanding can by-pass language completely.
Let me give you two examples.
Life Into Words
At TESOL Spain I set up a table with 2000 buttons. In the break-times each teacher chose 5 or 6 buttons, put them into a pattern and I told them all about themselves. Their right-brains had chosen the button's colours and sizes and the pattern to make. I simply put into English words what their right brains were trying to tell them. "Amazing!" "It's all true!" "How do you know all that about me?" One teacher spoke no English (only Spanish and French). She queued up, chose her buttons, but when I started speaking, she turned to her friends for a translation. I forbade that and talked to her in English with no translation and she understood everything. Immediately after, she doubted and asked her friend in Spanish: "When he was talking about the green button I think he said etc, etc, etc", and her friends said each time "That's correct." She had understood perfectly. Why? Because I was putting her own real life into words.
Here's the second example. Karl Preis, a friend in Austria, uses Bernard Dufeu's skills of psychodrama to teach his pupils English. I knew his pupils and watched a demonstration. Then Karl and the teachers went off for coffee and the pupils said, "Jim, try it". I said, "No, no, I can't speak German, I've never learnt". But they insisted, so I sat with one pupil at one ear and another in front of me. They had never taught German. I had never learned nor spoken German. They put my thoughts into German and I spoke fluently, confidently, with good pronunciation. The whispered voice in my ear was reading my thoughts, (like the Babel fish in A Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy) and I was immediately speaking native-speaker level German…
This article is not written analytically or logically or sequentially. Were you able to read it? What frustrations did it raise in you? Were you able to discover some understanding in it of yourself? Do overlapping images (in words) work with you?
Are there other people out there like me? Do you think in emotional pictures, not words? Do all people retard their thinking by using words? Are there short, short cuts to international understanding, where language is not something that needs to be 'taught' or 'learned'. Are all people "crippled by words"?