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June 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

On Humanising and Language and Teaching

Edwin Alan Salter (MA MSc PhD) worked in theatre before teaching at universities in London and abroad.  He has particular interests in creative education, life-long learning and, as a counsellor, in personal change.  Now based in King's Lynn, he writes diversely, campaigns on humanism and climate change, and tutors in speech and movement.  E-mail:  



The title of this journal is, of course, ambiguous with its -ing forms, the curious gerunds,  It could take the activity of language teaching as a given and be about how to humanise this. The method of teaching could be better adapted to learners or perhaps the content itself more focal to  human interactions and embodying values that distinguish us.  Alternatively, we might suppose that some features of language are intrinsically humanising and that the task is to identify and then teach these.  Such features might be very general and involve comparisons among natural languages and with the non-verbal and artificially constructed.  We also note that the language is undefined in the title and may be native or foreign.  Young children from homes with poor language communication may nowadays be familiar with on-screen distraction but foreigners even to the vocabulary and interaction patterns of simple conversation: deficiency likely endures.

My present purpose is not grandly systematic within a discipline.  Rather it is to disturb expectation a little, allowing threads to be followed and ideas to be scattered.  The 'well made lesson plan' consists of an identified topic, organised content, clear delivery and up-take check.  Here the suggestion is that the even better lesson includes some surprises such as associations extending the topic, personal quircks of delivery, and connections to learners' life experiences.  It is the small escapes from formula that are humane and civilising.

Education for all is an achievement still in progress, with its own history of institutions, methods and personal endeavours (Malala a recent example), and so influential that it is often constrained or prejudiced to preserve power. The injunction “Speak that I may see you” (Socrates?) asserts that our speaking reveals us and that by open talk we may better deal with our individual and collective problems.

For a fresh start, imagine alien intelligence and perception and thence arrive at the information carried by Voyager space-craft.  The human extreme would be a solitary child somehow provided with a sustaining environment devoid of human communication (compare Milgram's monkeys).  We might expect, as with babies, emotional expression by spontaneous vocalisations or made sounds (clapping, banging..).  There might be evident a repertoire of basic emotions, those which we would expect to find identified  and described in all languages (such as the 'melancholic humour' – sad/ depressed/ lonely/ down in the mouth ..), perhaps with cultural priorities. 

This beginning has approximate fact in cases of partial deprivation (the Elephant Man beneficially literate) and in 'feral children' found in isolation, sometimes criminally deprived (the case of Genie).  The damages of impoverished experience are many, and there are clear reports that simply adding meaningful conversation and literacy to restricted lives brings much value (the underprivileged, those in prison or care).

The obvious link is with developmental capacity.  Pitch learning - 'a good musical ear' – has an age window of advantage. Similarly the learning of a foreign language is a largely missed opportunity to optimise education over time.  At the other end of life, dementia can be detected in simpified vocabulary and structure, and an over-use of familiar and vague phrases (the thingummy..). 

Reality often restricts perception but provides the human context that imports language as it is for the majority without handicap..  Helen Keller, both blind and deaf but with help becoming a highly articulate person, is a splendid example.  There is some interest in cross-modal associations (crimson/ trumpet etc; also synaesthesia).  Sign language that began with painstaking spelling out has now developed as natural language to a freer and expressive form: compare the neutral expression of a television news reader with the colourful gestures of accompanying signing.

Foremost is the fact that language is profoundly distinctive of H. sapiens (this makes resolving its evolution more difficult – compare vision, multiple examples eyes from simple to complex so that a path can be traced).  It developed our understanding of self and our empathy with others as alike, and our ability to comprehend and manage the world.  We even arrive at “I think you think I think that...”  History, thought and discovery are shared by speech only over a few generations but by writing in dispersed and permanent form: our collective competence grows ever more rapidly.  Arguably the sudden dominance of computer mediated language interaction and of 'games' that act as proxies (note aggression and the Bobo doll experiment of Bandura) deform the development of relationship.

At the simplest, language perhaps began with imitative sounds and movement, the physical structures of brain and vocalisation further selected as advantageous (the curious larynx and our choking propensity are outcomes).  The phenomenon of  'sound symbolism' (from the bouba/kiki effect to the voice skills of public speaking) invites exploring the expression of sounds.  The movements and dynamics of vocalisation, gesture and posture (interesting formulae of rhetoric, Delsarte, and social fashion) are also seen and sensed, integral to the experience of reception.

Speech itself leaves no fossils but genetics suggests our ancestors (we find other Homo species) were sometimes very few, then limiting its diversity.  Artefacts imply concepts, signs and writing emerge and diverge (celebrate the Rosetta Stone, the comparative struggle for proto-languages).  The spread and interaction of language families is traced over time and place and some deductions about speech can be made from historical texts and we can, for example, sound early and medieval English.

Animals communicate and express (Darwin's study of emotion), and such as chimpanzees and dolphins are able, under contrived conditions, to link 'word-signs' and objects so as to act purposefully. Is there an innate 'language acquisition device' in the Chomskyan sense that is represented in a set of general rules for open-ended human language (new utterances and forms from pidgins to graphics)?   We know that natural languages have both rules and exceptions and there seem correspondingly distinct types of aphasia; and peculiarities of language within some families can be ascribed to genetic mutations.  We also know that the brain localises function, including hearing and motor control (in the brain homunculus the tongue is large, hands huge), and that this applies also to language function (historical insights such as lesions of Broca's area  extended by Penfield's experimental stimulation, and now by imaging techniques).



Our thoughts and feelings interact, and cognitive therapy recognises how self-talk may be depressingly dismissive of positives but catastrophic as to negatives; these distortions are not unlike 'figures of speech' (meiosis, hyperbole...).  Terms used for groups may be extolling or discounting, and much 'political correctness' revolves about this.  Assessments of attitude are often based on location between opposing terms, bipolar constructs, as in the semantic differential (Osgood) which uses a few basic dimensions such as good/bad and strong/weak to place words in a psychological space (compare synonyms in different languages).  The dimensions are clearly appropriate to the judgements needed for evolutionary survival, and infants begin with parent words and in relating opt for the familiar.  As individuals our values may be based in certain personal constructs (perhaps wealth despising poverty, kindness fearing tyranny) interesting to compare.  Sometimes there are national stereotypes to examine and the language, imagery and emotional appeal of national anthems provides a task for study.  Simply counting word frequency use of individuals or within a community can be revealing of concepts and attitudes (even infants within Britain vary regionally in 'sorry' and 'thank you').

A familiar task with lessons is to have the straightforward material and then wish to add a little vitality.  Suppose we are teaching phonetics.  The history of the subject easily provides colourful, relevant anecdotes.  The first writing, as distinct from picturing, attempted to record sounds individual or composite (compare cuneiform, heiroglyphic..).  It became desirable for travellers to prepare for languages and manners they would encounter, whether for curiosity, trade or diplomacy.  Systematic language study found connections in sound over place and time, and the advent of dictionaries further distanced writing by fixing it.  Admirably scientific in spirit were the identification of phonemes and the cardinal vowels, sensitive flames for pitch and X-rays of metal chains on the tongue.  Notation and teaching methods developed (Pygmalion/My Fair Lady as a treat?), while commercial shorthand became a major employment skill.

One possibility always open to teachers is to challenge students to do better.  For example here is a sardonic comment on English spelling to beat: “Plough through thorough thoughts though roughly coughing”. Or for homophone repetition this recognition that my 'here' is 'there' for others:  “I see you writhe ere 'their there'.  There, there!  They're there.  Their 'there' they're therefore saying is here.”  Or create a word list mnemonic to sequence the tongue positions of English vowels (improving on “Who saw start err please?” and “pat, pet, pit, put, pot, putt”).  Phonetic notation invites spotting everyday contractions of language (“Do not know 'dunno'?”) and clarifies jokes and confusions, devices from jingles to poetic assonance and rhyme.

Various word games that entertain native speakers can also inform and sometimes be simplified.   As to rules, the dominant pattern in English sentences is subject-verb-object and curious effects can be achieved by switching.  Always creating the past tense by an accented '-ed 'produces mock historical speech, while sticking to either Germanic or Romance etymology alone is subtly changing.  Vocabulary indicates date in both literature and one's own speech and some obsolete words endure as cliches or quircks (white elephant, filthy lucre).  A random sample of words can provide a competition for the most connections discovered between them.  One word can be extended in a chain of sound or meaning (prow/ prominent/ proud; compare chatter/ jabber/ gibber).  Association games can be usefully applied to stimulate creative thinking if the mind is blank (the ccircularity of  'poison – snake – serpent – Eve -childbirth - pain).  Or usefully develop an essay topic by repeatedy asking for connected concepts so that from the central title strands extend outward, sometimes themselves linking (appearance as communication might 'mind map' via clothing to wearing logos and via exposure to tattoos, both then to words).

Conversation in a foreign language can be difficult and to facilitate the other speaker is a useful skill which can borrow from counselling (attentive posture and gaze, non-verbal cues, repetition that invites..).  Exercises in  minimal communication are at the opposite end from freely winding talk; literary examples of reduction versus prolixity might be Hemingway and James, and 'stream of consciousnes' may challenge.  Formulating a concise airport announcement that will not lead to error is a very different task from an imaginative slogan that will endure persuasively.  The written precis can test advanced students as accurate and adequate versions of ever shorter length are  demanded (ultimate terseness usually amuses).

Relating language to human or personal concerns is clearly relevant to maintaining interest.  In English greetings (as How do you do? How are you? How's things?) may be well-being inquiries, sometimes ritual formulae, sometimes genuine, so matching may be easiest social skill.  A conversational group could turn-take, helping each other in shared concerns and building vocabulary (cosmetics, comedy, climate  ). Situational language, intimate to formal, trivial to emergency, meets special purposes for all.  Practicalities from study are valuable, for example that families with more than one language should speak them to babies before phoneme discrimination narrows focus.  The heightened speech we naturally use with babies (pitch up, words slowed, clear regular beat) does promote acquisition by aiding perception and the synchrony of brain activity.  When they stand, infants gain a new viewpoint, then with walking comes the physical separation that requires speech.

As a teacher it is easy to find oneself confined to ordered, polite language. Teenagers busy with themselves and social media will have very different wants from older people in tourist or business roles.  It is always worth asking what learners actually choose to talk about (perhaps conduct this seriously as an exemplary investigation) or most want to say to the world.   The latter could generate slogans to be displayed and spoken emphatically so that different languages or performances are compared (forcefulness, pace and range in both speech and movement can be notated and analysed).   Presenting oneself in a foreign language invites personal change: at the simplest, a birth accent of region or class vanishes and inhibitions (“I can't speak in public, write a poem ..”) are sometimes happily evaded.  Similarly, by taking a different route, expressive movement work (Laban) can be liberating. 



It may be complained that this article is too loose to provide ready utility, that it stumbles about between vague generalities and rum specificities.  The present form intentionally exaggerates whatever connects, the hope that there will be some spark for the reader to develop.  In a lesson the smallest amount of such stuff beyond the topic can suffice.  How this is added - unobtrusively, with humour or a little self-revelation, or with emphasis as something worth knowing  - depends on what students find acceptable.  The knowledge of almost any group extends beyond that of the teacher, and modestly enlisting the experience of students is likely to be both appreciated and useful.  Cultural factors may limit role, method and content (can a mistake be laughable, might we slide into choral speech/drama/mime, what cannot be debated..?).

My view here does not condone teaching (or research) that is a mess, but it resists the demand for narrow curriculum accountability guaranteed by endless testing and by rewarding institutions for high results (actually the response is simply to award them, as the proportion of English first class degrees shows).  Basically, I condemn the influence of ignorant politicians who assume that children should learn as they do, with adult concerns and familiar with knowledge organised to prioritise 'fundamentals' that are formal not developmental: that way leads to ineffective and unhappy outcomes.  If we want to improve we would  better begin with the potential before us and then draw on empirical evidence from educational systems that best arrive at the proper demands of society for knowledge and skill and competence in practical life.

The purpose of the teacher is not merely to impart information - first books and now computers can share that task - but to enthuse and welcome to the world of learning so that there is curiosity and enduring motivation.  Life-long learning creates a thinking, resilient society.  Far too many adults rapidly forget most educational content, settling their minds on a convenient minimum rather than progressing in self-fulfilment.  Achievement is always fostered by teaching that has a sense of discovery on both sides, the lesson mediating a two-way traffic of thought that can sometimes take off creatively.

In the history of reason and culture, the origins of humanism itself are linked to language study. Travel for its own sake, and writing and printing of vernacular leanguage (as Dante commended) internationalised intellectual life.  The Renaissance brought a new appreciation of classical purpose in debate (Plato), community (Epicurus) and persuasion (Cicero).  It was no longer enough to repeat authority, to tell didactically; speaker and hearer both have a role and emphasis shifts from memorising venerable texts to thought in diverse practical tongues.  Ancient rhetoric gave way to new study to promote eloquence, perhaps to justify a position (Machiavelli) or more generally to better understand each other.   Among these explorers of the human condition were More, whose Utopia celebrates dialogue, also Montaigne (asking sceptically 'what do I know?').  Florio, who furthered courtesy among the English, observed (1587) that “beying eloquent, many and innumerable be the commodities that ensue”.

The Age of Reason and development of science sought to transcend boundaries, but self-serving prejudice endures.  Our present global village lacks the evolutionary virtues of face-to-face practicality in small supportive groups: division and deception flourish.  We are immersed, ill-adapted and feeling ineffective, in the stress of remote news and threat.  To properly see ourselves and then others  needs the skills of natural empathy and educated communication, of speaking and listening.


Please check the How to be a Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.

Tagged  Voices 
  • In Memoriam: Remembering Michael Lewis
    Hugh Dellar, UK

  • On Humanising and Language and Teaching
    Edwin Salter, UK

  • Why I Don’t Write To Publish
    Rozaliya Ziryanova, Uzbekistan

  • Is English Only Comprehensible Input?
    Brooks Slaybaugh, Japan

  • An Origin Story
    Jamie Keddie, Spain