All Posts By Catherine Oughtibridge

The (questionable) authority of the ‘Should-Be’

No caption needed. Slovenia. August/September 2014.

Once upon a time, getting ready to go out, a dear friend fretted that they didn’t have the right shoes. They didn’t feel that the shoes they did have fitted the occasion. They were inappropriate shoes. Impractical for the weather. Then before I knew it the friend’s whole wardrobe was denounced as unsuitable. It started with fretting about the rain, but before long became a tearful stomping rant which could be summed up as “I have nothing to wear!”

After all, we were going out in public… people will judge.

And people do judge; this is undeniable

Judgement itself isn’t problematic as such, but when it is based on a lack of knowledge and has a brittle nature it’s not helpful. Sometimes, it can be terribly damaging. We form judgements and then defend our judgements and then embroil ourselves in the defence of our defences before we’ve had time to either analytically or emotionally recognize the truths of our original presumption.

Travelling can help you see these judgements

When you live in a foreign country and have an atypical way of approaching the world as I do, you run into people’s presumptions all the time. Sometimes it’s quite funny. European solo women travellers have a bit of a reputation in Latin America and it’s not for liking to curl up in front of the fire in the evening with a good book. Sometimes the same funny can turn dangerous.

Tripping over stereotypes happens all the time and for everyone

Some people though don’t notice that they’re doing it. I had to learn the hard way that it might not be initially apparent that someone is shy rather than (my assumption here) uninterested. Once my insecurity triggers my defences, I’m all ready to confuse uninterested with disapproving. Oops.

Do you approach the person you believe to be shy in the same was as you approach the person who you believe to disapprove of you?

Unlikely.

Instead, can you be generous with your assumptions?

We’re all just people trying to navigate our complex world as best as we can, and cultural and language gaps often lead to an overuse of presumption. Guesswork is used to fill the gaps in our knowledge. When we can recognise the contradiction between the stereotype and the reality, we have better luck navigating. We also find it easier to accept the person who doesn’t submit to the stereotype when we accept the stereotype is just a stereotype.

For me, this can be harder at home

Recognizing the difference between our presumptions and reality is much harder in a familiar context where our judgements have become more concrete and have a deeper foundation. Seeing becomes more difficult because we believe that we know the people we share our lives with. Even with our dearest loved ones, the truth is we only know what we’ve witnessed from the outside when they’ve been in our presence; we’ve witnessed only a small slither of who they are.

If your loved ones no longer surprise you, you’re possibly not actually seeing them. After all, they’re not stationary. They’re continually moving and developing, learning and living. If the people around you have become predictable, maybe you need to find a way of seeing them from a different angle.

Unfortunately, there often comes moments when we live as though our presumptions are fixed in fact without questioning them. We believe we know. We cast judgement. We blame.

And we do it to ourselves too

We are always comparing what we are with what we should be. The should-be is a projection of what we think we ought to be. Contradiction exists when there is comparison, not only with something or somebody, but with what you were yesterday, and hence there is conflict between what has been and what is.

Freedom from the Known, Jiddu Krishnamurti

[I’m reading this book by Krishnamurti as part of a project I’m working on. But his thoughts on the ‘should-be’ and comparison seemed particularly apt.]

We turn the judging upon ourselves and scratch at our identity

My friend, reluctantly, apparently wearing the wrong shoes and the wrong clothes finally left the house, looking dignified and coordinated on the outside, but inside still raging because of the wrong clothes.

On our return, I sat down on the sofa, drank my tea and tried to recall what people were wearing. Could I remember? Was I judging? Did it actually matter what people wore? There was one girl who had worn a blue dress with stars which caught my attention. It had reminded me of the ceilings of Ancient Egyptian tombs where they filled the whole wall as to not give evil the space to hide.

We can all laugh at the idea of not having the ‘right’ thing to wear

But it’s a hollow laugh. Few people, I think, have avoided that uncertainty and fear about stepping out without the right kind of outfit. We all strop from time to time about our appearance.

I suspect that the people who avoid such moments live without having much choice about what they can wear or can afford to buy, and as buying, owning and choosing the ‘right’ outfit is beyond their freedom, they don’t waste energy on the matter. From experience, I know choosing what to wear is considerably easier when you live out of a suitcase – you wear what’s clean. I also know that given a bad enough mood, fears about how I look come back with vengeance.

It’s exhausting

This comparison between what ‘ought to be’ and what ‘is’ leads to an internal conflict that blinds us. We forget self-compassion. We forget to be kind. We forget to simply enjoy ourselves and the body we have. We forget to be grateful that we can afford to clothe ourselves. We forget to act from a place of love.

Why?

Who is saying what ‘ought to be’ and with what authority?

Don’t the cultural norms that dictate the ‘should-be’ have the same origins as the cultural norms that lead to the destruction of the climate, systematically continue racist and sexist behaviours, engage in wars where innocent civilians end up dead and look away from human rights abuses?

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to pause and question such an authority?

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Their Chilean constitution / my Chilean education

The majority of the protests were always peaceful. La Serena, Chile, October 2019.

Chileans have chosen to write themselves a new constitution.

Being British I didn’t grow up with the idea of a constitution in my head. Whilst we have constitutional principles, there is no single rigid document that defines them. We do have some important documents – like the Magna Carta written in 1215 – which state how our countries systems function together, but we don’t have a single quotable text.

As such, the word constitution wasn’t one I’d really considered

It’s possible that prior to going to Chile the word hadn’t passed my lips. I couldn’t spell it. Instead, I was focused on the challenge of voting in the British elections, which, when I left, were only a possibility, but since Britain was bashing its metaphorical head against a wall, seemed likely and did, in December, occur. All I vaguely knew about Chilean politics was that it had previously been a dictatorship but was now a democracy.

It wasn’t the first few days of the protests, when buildings were burning, and we were caged under a military curfew that I became aware of the constitution issue. For the first few days my only real concern was staying safe and working out what was happening on the streets. My phone filled with news and fake news and the media gave a side of the story which grasped the scariest parts but missed the core.

When I went out into the streets though, with a friend who had promised to make sure I got home safe and that we would disappear the moment things became violent, I started to really learn. Of course, leaving the house that afternoon I was scared, in the way a British woman wandering around in a Latin American protest ought to be, but I was also excited.

What’s worth noting here is that I might never have gone if it weren’t for the father

The mother jokes that trying to persuade me to do or not do something will just make me more determined to do it. She fears that if she says ‘don’t go to Colombia’ then I’ll go. In reality, the father did say ‘don’t go to Colombia alone’ and I didn’t, I went to Chile. I rang him and told him what was happening. I didn’t want him to be too alarmed, but I wanted him to have the truth.

The father said, “As your father, I’d prefer you to stay at home, but…”

And so, I left my house and went out to investigate

The people chanted songs I don’t know and words I didn’t understand, but in their hands, I could see placards with words they’d painted on. Pieces of card and board stuck together with words crammed on them. Chilean flags everywhere. Profanities everywhere. Hope.

From amid the crowds I read the words and I tried to understand their meaning

I went home and searched the internet, scavenging for understanding, hunting for clarity, but finding more questions than answers. I learnt that the Chilean democracy was shackled by a constitution written by the dictator Pinochet. My weak Spanish frustrated me; it is always so far behind where I need it to be. Then I downloaded books, fiction and non-fiction, and in those weeks without work I begged my friends for explanations and devoured Chilean literature. Before I started to realize that I would never comprehend entirely and would never solve the sorrow for my borrowed country or my fierce anger at the ridiculousness of it all.

After summer, in the new year, I returned to work determined to use the run up to the plebiscite to ask questions and learn as much as I could from my colleagues and friends. I didn’t want one opinion, I wanted lots of opinions.

Then, instead, the pandemic happened, sending me back to England, to watch from afar

I feared for my friends living under considerably more stressful situations than myself. The loss of incomes, the inadequacy of the health services, the step up in authoritarian control – curfews and restrictions all over the place.

It’s not so strange then that I choose to predominantly teach Chileans when emotionally so much of me remains there. I don’t solely teach Chileans, but the majority of my students are Chilean and almost all of my students live in Chile. With their resilience and fear, their boredom and frustration, they have no idea how much they’re teaching me.

Yesterday, the plebiscite took place

My students described the long queues and the excitement of going to the polls. I worried about violence erupting, as it had done earlier in the week. I hoped though, that each of them would use their democratic right to vote and prayed that they would be heard.

While they were sleeping, I awoke and checked the results. Chileans have chosen to write themselves a new constitution.

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“Did you feel comfortable on the flight?”

Flying. Iceland 2015.

I’ve just got back from Berlin and a friend is curious. What is it like to fly at the moment?

Well the airports are pretty much deserted; the toilets are cleaner than usual and there are many signs and instructions. Wearing a mask is compulsory, as it is in many other locations where you come into close proximity with the public, but security is delightfully much faster to pass through.

Being seated for a couple of hours, my legs ached a bit, and when I finally ‘alighted’ from the train at the end of my journey, I felt relieved to be able to remove my mask. Truthfully though, the familiarity of being on the move and the odd solitary state of flying alone soothed my nomadic need. I was glad to be in the air.

There is a limit to how helpful worrying can be

As analytical thinking creatures, we’re pretty unreliable at recognising the severity and likelihood of the dangers we face. We underestimate and overestimate on a daily basis and all of this effort can be exhausting. To avoid it, we delegate to the media who are financially incentivised to provoke our emotions, and to the government, whose job is to manage the whole of society rather than just us, the individual.

Going with your gut feeling is all very well if your gut feeling has a history of actually being right, and by this I mean actually right, not just all right enough that you could rewrite a storyline to make it feel not so bad. I don’t ignore my gut feeling, going against my stomach’s intuition is generally a bad idea, but nor do I think I should be led by my stomach. If your stomach’s twisting and turning in fretful motion, you probably need to do something (although it might just be something you’ve eaten). You should listen to it. However, that first inclination of how to act may well be wrong.

But from a practical viewpoint, who’s to say that my voyage to Germany is any less safe than spending a day working as a waitress? And who can analyse that with any accuracy, certainly not me.

The siren of warning emanating from your insides is just that, a warning. Your stomach is saying it’s unhappy. Most likely a decision needs to be made and action needs to be taken. It doesn’t excuse the analytical mind; it’s a sign that the analytical mind needs to be used. However, the analytical mind is limited and fallible. No wonder we are confused and overwhelmed.

Some people are much more risk averse than others

Sometimes I feel guilty for my lack of risk aversion. I’m not the sort to seek high adrenaline adventures just for the sake of it. Yet, I’m sceptical of fear. I want to live my life as I want to, not dictated by unfounded and uncertain fears. This isn’t just the post-trauma effect, it’s part of my character, although perhaps the post-trauma reclamation of life has added to my stubbornness. It’s certainly added to my scepticism.

Sometimes I do things that other people are afraid to do, although perhaps slowly as I build up my confidence, but the conclusion is the same. I’m focused on what I want. I’m not driven by the adrenaline, I’m driven by my curiosity, but often fulfilling one’s curiosity comes at a price. It asks that you dare.

Not daring has huge consequences

When I arrived in Berlin and stepped out of the airport into the cold, grey of cityscape autumn I felt lighter. I’d been stabbed in the throat with a cotton bud by a chap in a plastic gown, and I’d rubbed excessive hand sanitizing gel into the crevices of my hands, but I’d arrived. I breathed in the German air and relished in the selfish choice I’d made. It brought me a sense of glee.

It’s really difficult to decide what is best for us, the individual

We face a whole lot of confused messaged and contradictory thoughts, suggested to us by governments and news agencies who focus on their needs to manipulate the population as a whole. Nobody is quite sure what behaviour counts as dangerous. Some people flaunt the rules on masks or mixing households and some don’t leave the house. The psychological cost, being invisible and uncountable, is generally feared, but ignored within the risk assessment.

For me personally, the psychological threat is the one with my attention

It’s a danger I know from up close. When I look at my friends, I’m looking for the light of life in their eyes. I’m listening to the threads of negativity and I worry. I worry about the effect of a general reduction in laughter over the year. The lack of excitement about future plans and the dent in ambitions. It’s all rather saddening.

Psychologically, letting myself unfurl my wings for a brief moment was a precious balm. When I booked the flight, I had no idea whether regulations would let me fly or whether the aeroplane would even take off, but I felt it was worth the risk. Travelling is part of who I am.

“Did you feel comfortable on the flight?”

Yes, I’d go as far as saying that actually I enjoyed it. But I can assure you washed my hands thoroughly when I disembarked.

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Entirely self-indulgent writing about books

I mention Cleopatra… so you’ve got a picture of a pyramid. It’s only a few thousand years older… Saqqara, Egypt, January 2016

There are many types of book. Some are written well, others are not. Some are compelling, others you put down, lose and eventually uncover again to repeat the whole procedure until at some eventual end you pass the book onto someone else, hopefully someone with a stronger desire to learn about the topic and fewer qualms about the author’s voice. Some books have sat on my bookshelf for years unread.

The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George, which looks like it might be seven or eight hundred pages has been waiting to be finished for many years. It’s neither badly written nor lacking a compelling element. Indeed, I once spent a good three hours in the bath reading it without any awareness of the hour. You might ask why years later it remains unfinished? I didn’t want dear Cleo to die.

When I glance up at my bookshelves, organized by whether the books have been read or not, one thing stands out. I’m much more likely to finish a shorter book. And I don’t just mean by page length but also page height. Which suggests to me that I need to limit my buying to paperbacks only a little taller than my hand span.

In addition to the books that line my shelves are those that I read electronically. Maybe Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov would have presented more of a challenge in paperback. My ebook reader is 174g. When I read Anna Karenina, I naively had no idea of the book’s true volume and worried greatly that the story might, at any moment, end. These worries began in Germany after only a few hundred pages and continued through Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, until in Finland I accepted that Tolstoy wasn’t going to let me down.

And because I adore the annotation function when reading electronically, I’ve been led to misdemeanours with real books. Not only do I fold over the corner of the page as a bookmark (how sinful), but I also engage in marginalia. When I don’t understand a word, I’m bound to scribble the definition on the page.

If the writer wants to write ‘effulgent’ I feel compelled to add ‘! Shiny’. I have a lexical notebook for actually transcribing these words and improving my vocabulary, but most of the time it’s somewhere else and I’m just annoyed at having had to pull out my phone or a dictionary to find the meaning. My notebooks are full of words and definitions I’ll never learn. This electronic reading has the benefit of having a built-in dictionary, except I find that I seemingly read books with words that can’t be found within its normal dictionary.

If it were not for books, I’m not sure how I would manage to remain sane. Books are where I turn when life presents itself to me in a fashion I simply cannot comprehend. When I’m overwhelmed, I hide in a book. When I need help, I turn to a book. When I’m sad, I seek comfort from books. And when I’m angry I hide in books knowing that with my head in a book I am more likely to keep my mouth shut.

And that, in itself, is one good reason to read.

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Shutting up

Not to size. The Netherlands, 2014.

There was a quote that I scribbled down about six years ago on a scrap piece of paper. Its words are attributed, but I’ve no idea where I came across the quote. What I do know is that the other day, when it fell into my hand, I decided that it would work as inspiration for some writing. Except now that it’s Monday morning and I’m facing the blank screen the quote is nowhere to be seen.

It must be here somewhere, among the lists of Spanish words which I have so far failed to translate into English, the scribbles I make as my students speak, an unfinished letter I’m writing, a drawing of a hamster, my to-do lists and grammar notes.

But I have swept all these papers aside so that I have a clear desk to write on

And in doing so have jumbled up all the components of my life. The past lies with the present and the plans and intentions for the future. Things classifiable as work hide with the deeply personal. Recipe books, grammar guides and the advice of the Dalai Lama make a united heap, crowned by a tiny book of Chilean legends.

Some people like to keep a strong separation between different aspects of their lives, but I find that the more I do that, the more it feels like I’m defining myself by the roles I play. I’d rather avoid that.

We all play roles, here in my parents house I am a daughter, but when class begins, I’m a student or a teacher. If we identify as the roles, and the roles change from situation to situation, who are we?

We act differently in different situations

But in the past, I believe there would be greater differences in my attitude. The more the role I was playing mattered to me, the more attached I got to the associated behaviours and responsibilities. I identified myself as the role. Inevitably this leads to a crisis. When you feel strongly attached to something, whatever it is, the potential for loss increases. The more attached you are the more you tighten your grip, driven by a fear that it could all disappear. Should such a role disintegrate, you fall.

For me, the better option is to engage a little obliviousness towards the role I’m supposed to be playing.

Any time I’m consciously thinking of the role over the moment, my mind has turned inwards and is analysing the past and planning the future. If I’m thinking this way, my actions and thoughts are going to be limited by what I feel I should do. I’m seeing myself through other people’s eyes, but I’ve shut my own. My behaviour will likely be pre-programmed rather than responsive to the people actually in the room.

Teaching is a good example of this

The hardest thing to do when you’re teaching is shut up. You take on a role of influence and power and this can very easily lend a bit too much spark for the ego. University lectures are the pinnacle of this egotistical teaching. For an hour, the students sit and take note of the professor’s great knowledge, but at no point does the professor seem to consider whether what they’re doing is assisting the student to learn. Why not pause at the end of the slide and let some cogs turn?

The most important part of any lesson is the moment where the teacher shuts up and gives the student time to think, meanwhile listening and watching to see if what they’re trying to do has worked. Frequently, the student’s mind is going in a different direction. The teacher wants to jump in, to stop the student and bring them back on track with the teacher’s plan, but often what the student needs is time to think through their thought, time to realise the connections.

The teacher wants to teach because that is what they feel they are supposed to be doing, but often the best teaching comes by saying barely anything at all. Learning is a slow and laboured process and it has to be given time. But the teacher’s ego, so proud of its knowledge, desperately wants to sabotage it all and interrupt.

I’m not saying that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with roles

They remain strong components of the functioning of society. However, using them to define ourselves leaves us vulnerable when the role we held ourselves so tightly to no longer exists. And it can prevent us daring to bring anything new to the table.

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Sometimes patient, sometimes not so much

Flowers from the harvest festival. Murcia, May 2018

Patience takes courage. It is not an ideal state of calm. In fact, when we practise patience we will see our agitation far more clearly.

Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You

It is inevitable that from time to time as part of my teaching, some student, who is struggling to make a phrase sound accurate and is conscious of the time, will remark on my patience. I smile, accepting the compliment, though the truth is that I have never found being patient with my students difficult. While they’re thinking, I’m watching, trying to decipher the confusion. I wonder what little suggestion would get them to the bullseye, and in fact if any suggestion at all is needed.

Most of the time, students can self-correct. If they can’t identify the problem immediately, they might need some guidance as to where to look, but most of the time, once you’ve given a hint of where to look and possibly the nature of the mistake – for example, by asking them what tense the verb is in – the student can find the answer. The only other ingredient they need is time. Time to look, time to reread, time to think, time to remember.

Slowing the process down is not a frustration, it is the method. The only alternative to pausing on the errors is to rush ahead, with my voice giving the correct English and the student obediently and embarrassedly scribbling down note after note. Notes which will unlikely ever be read and even less likely be remembered in the natural flow of next week’s conversation.

But this patience isn’t something limited to the realm of learning another language, it applies to life. Allowing ourselves time to pause, stop and think is the only way that we can stop from making the same mistakes week after week after week.

With a student, there’s a sense of responsibility and care. When my students open their mouths they are taking risks, speaking a foreign language, uncertain of their own pronunciation, conscious that their word order is often disordered, that they miss words, that I might misinterpret their jokes or opinions. We must show the same vulnerability with ourselves when trying to reconsider and learn from the events of our own lives.

Except being patience with someone who is paying you and looks up to your guidance is a whole lot easier than being patience and staying in that point of vulnerability with oneself. To be patient with others takes courage, as Pema Chödrön rightly declares. It can be frustrating keeping your mouth shut. When the student falls silent my ego wants to fill the gap and it can be work keeping her silent and attentive. When the student is silent and thinking, and my ego wants to speak, I’m acutely aware of my own agitation.

But this is all good and necessary practise. My patience has to be a strong muscle, built with daily training otherwise, how could I ever find the courage to pause and listen to myself.

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Learning as comfort: Crivelli, Botticelli y perspectiva lineal

Italy
Just one of those beautiful Tuscan sunsets. April 2012. Italy.

Winter has come. Outside there’s a blue sky and it looks deceptively like summer, but a bird sits on the branch of a bush, which bobs in the breeze, and one by one picks off the red berries.

And the underfloor heating in my bedroom has sprung into life.

I collect the glass milk bottles from beside the door and chat with my grandparents a short while on the phone. My first coffee is decaffeinated, but my second isn’t. I place my bum determinedly on my chair and click to play the video which constitutes the next step of the course I’m doing. It would be surprising if I wasn’t studying something. My brain is comfortable when engaged in study. I like how my awareness feels like it’s expanding, but without that panicked style ‘must learn’ of formal education.

Learning is comforting

It used to bother me that instead of remembering facts I just stored a bunch of vague ideas in my brain, but with time I’ve become more forgiving of my inability to recall specifics. I have intelligent friends who have remarkable memories and can store endless names, dates and details in their heads with immaculate precision. I’m not like that. If I do recall details, I have to admit that they are often not accurate details. If I ever start a sentence with a statistic, you should roll your eyes in response. It will inevitably be wrong.

Sometimes though, I feel that, for me, vague ideas are more useful

What I find fulfilling is knowing of ideas and themes that allow me to listen to conversations and connecting them to my knowledge and understanding of the world. I like walking into a museum or gallery and having a sense that the material is something I’m a little familiar with – regardless of what type of museum or gallery it might be.

This time I’m taking on the world of Renaissance Art… in Spanish

As I listen to the short lecture, I scribble down the words I don’t know (arrodillarse, adecuar, afán, pliegar, la orilla…) and after it has run through, I complete the comprehension questions. These throw more words (martires) at me but I understand enough to answer the questions, and when I don’t I look the words up.

The Annunciation, Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi) (Italian, Florence 1444/45–1510 Florence), Tempera and gold on wood
Sandro Botticelli, The Annunciation,
Robert Lehman Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA (Public Domain CC0)

Thankfully, the context is one that I can understand

Even if I don’t recall dates or names, I have by now read enough art gallery walls to recognize some core characteristics in Renaissance Art. One of the three paintings in today’s video is Botticelli’s Mars and Venus which can be found in the National Gallery in London. His ‘The Annunciation’ can be found in New York, which means I can’t have seen it, although I may have seen photos. Yet something niggles at me.

I’ve seen a similar image, somewhere…

The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius - Carlo Crivelli - National Gallery.jpg
Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius, The National Gallery, London, United Kingdom (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Eventually, after frustrated searching, I discover an artist called Carlo Crivelli. I don’t recall his name, but his painting of the annunciation hangs in the National Gallery in London and I must have seen it because the Botticelli version looks like a similar yet simplified version of the same image. The two artists were contemporaries. The more I look at it, the more I know I’ve seen it before.

Beside Crivelli’s painting, on the wall of the gallery, I believe was a detailed description of the techniques the artist had used for creating a sense of perspective. Linear perspective wasn’t something new to me; understanding its role in renaissance art was. Botticelli of course being a contemporary Italian artist was engaged in the same challenges as Crivelli and experimented with the same techniques. And such techniques were what set the early renaissance art as being different to what had come before it.

And as my toes warm on my heated carpet, I have to delight that my mind can be playful like that.

Even if next week I’ll have forgotten the painters’ names.

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Teaching: a guessing game

Summer in the Alps, July 2018

As far as I can tell, after spending so much time watching people who supposedly know what they’re doing and being formally educated on the topic – teaching is mostly guesswork. Once you start reading into anything at depth you realize how little evidence there is that any technique actually works.

Coming from a scientific background I go searching for evidence

And for the criticism. Any evidence seems inconclusive and there seems to be bucket loads of criticism all over the place for every technique going. There seems little in the way of a benchmark of how fast anyone picks up a language. There’s a lot of beliefs about how people learn and a lot of assumptions.

Students ask me how long it will take them to get to a certain level and this is a reasonable question, to which I have no ready answer. In secondary school Spain, the students took two years of English classes to get to A2 on the common European framework then another two years to B1 then another two years to B2, but the only students who would achieve all that were ‘la crème de la crème’ (the best).

And there are all these students, stumbling around in fits and bursts

Like two-left-footed dancers missing the rhythm but bouncing along nonetheless, the luckiest of whom can laugh their way through, and somewhere along the line they learn that having your feet pointing in the right direction is more of a metaphorical need than a literal need: sometimes we sideways shuffle into success.

The truth is that the teachers themselves stumble through too, guessing how much input to give their students, balancing the accidental overwhelm with the pursuit of progress, trying to make things natural but wanting to demonstrate a learnt skill using specific language.

This talking to one another thing can get a bit tangled at times

In classes, we try to keep things structured and organized, but all that ticking little squares and faff that I detest is merely a tidy imitation of the language in action. Communication isn’t a checklist. Memorizing the dictionary won’t make you eloquent. My mother designates my father as the ‘putter upper’ of the umbrella and suggests hiding something in the ‘out-of-the-wayest’ place and my sister whom she is speaking to doesn’t even blink. This, despite being slightly unexpected, is still all English.

English is not a tick-box exercise. English is a living, breathing, sweating language with a uniqueness in every mouth it escapes. And that’s more than a billion mouths the vast majority of whom are using English as an additional language. There has to be a balance between analysing the language and developing a gut feel of what works.

So teaching is intelligent guesswork

It’s a game of balancing between too much and to little. With too much correction, the student becomes confused and demoralized. Too little correction, and they don’t progress: their errors become set in stone. And every student is going to have their own point of equilibrium and that point, from Monday to Friday, is going to change.

It keeps me guessing.

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The advantage of being a child

Summer in the Alps, July 2018

I am slowly becoming more knowledgeable about pronunciation, intonation and stress patterns. The only stress patterns I had previously considered were the stress patterns of my own documented life. The overwork and over-obsess and the bang fizzle pop of oh no Catherine has been doing too much again.

In language learning, stressed syllables and words are those with a tad more emphasis. In the English language the words you stress are the ones that carry meaning. If you can’t sense the stress change then you lose part of the meaning.

We show this stress too by the rhythm of the language

Between any two stressed words in an English sentence exists the same length of space, regardless of how many little bits fall in between. Spanish, on the other hand, is like machine gun fire, it’s steady and repetitive. When you apply the machine gun technique to the English language, you get something that sounds flat and ambiguous. When you try to stress time the Spanish language, you end up changing tenses and creating a lot of blank looks.

Intonation especially is a nebulous creature

Look it up in a teaching book, and the first thing you learn is that it’s hard to recognize. Or no. It’s hard to recognize by the human rational thinking brain. The lizard part of you which doesn’t know much about dictionaries or teaching theory understands it instantaneously.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

Faked intonation, purposely changing the pitch of your voice as to manipulate, just sounds wrong. This, I guess is why actors really have to get into character. Intonation is hard to comprehend, hard to fake, hard to model, and hard to learn.

But without it we’re blind

The true meaning of language is hidden from us. This is the part that I think children learn faster than adults. Children are more willing to imitate, so they listen with more than just their ears. Adults often have their brains distracted running multiple tasks, emotions blinded by an earlier disagreement or a nagging doubt. Children are comfortable play-acting the words. Adults focus on the words themselves and forget the playfulness.

My tutor recently reminded me that intonation is also a kinaesthetic process. Sometimes when we’re trying to understand intonation it’s better to watch people speaking and notice the movement of their head or hands rather than focus on listening to the pitch. Again, when adults restrict their body movement because they are aware of their own body language or through their own insecurity, they limit their opportunity to learn this way.

No wonder language learning is so tricky

You cannot simply memorize words and structures, you have to play.

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On Solitude

The valley. Yes, that’s the Mediterranean down there. Sicily, November 2016.

The heavy rain that woke me this morning ceases and is replaced by fine droplets,  barely visible to the eye, but there’s a quivering in the light between my window and the dark hedge telling me that it’s still falling. The sky is the sort that photographers detest. It’s one solid pale grey block. It’s not that it lacks character, dull can be a character trait too, but it’s so consistent that it gives nothing to draw the eye. There’s no spontaneity. The rain will keep falling and the sky will stay grey and not even the wild cat will show up today. She’ll be hiding somewhere safe and dry.

Last week, curled up in my father’s rocking chair in front of the roaring fire, I felt a sudden pull of nostalgia for the two weeks I spent in the south of Sicily. It was the fire that did it. I stayed in Sicily, near a town called Noto at the end of November in 2016 and although during the day there was frequently warm sunshine, in the evenings the temperature suddenly dropped. We had no central heating and the electricity was limited. If it had been sunny in the morning, we might get enough energy through the solar panel to run the washing machine, but dinner would have to be eaten by candlelight.

For some, such an environment might feel somewhat limiting, but for me it was a remarkable moment of quiet. A quiet that I desperately needed. In the evenings I’d take a book from the library and curl up in one of the guest bedrooms where I’d light a fire in the wood burning stove and contentedly read, write or stare at the flickering flames. Contentedly alone.

Staring at our fire here, lit because the windows had to be propped open as they’d just been varnished, I couldn’t help but think about Sicily and the perfectness of those quiet, solitary evenings.

Some people, I know, hate being alone. It makes them uncomfortable. They actively avoid solitude. I’m not sure what it is they fear or dislike about being alone with themselves, and I guess it’s something I’ll never quite understand, but still they talk of being alone with great distaste. Other people cling to their isolated-ness as an identity. As if somehow being able to survive being with themselves somehow makes them not need a thriving active social life. I fall into neither category. It’s the combination of quiet moments of solitude and comfortable connection with people I love that make me thrive.

That evening, in front of our fire, I picked up my Sicilian diary from the bookshelf and flicked through it, wondering what I had written about. I’m not sure what I expected, maybe that my diary would be me writing all about me. That I’d be self-pitying or excessively analytical. It wasn’t. In my diary I write about the flames, how the logs burnt and the heat warmed my skin, I quote passages from the books I’m reading and muse upon the writer’s thoughts. There’s a long paragraph where I’m sitting out on the patio in the sunshine watching a lizard devouring a grasshopper, I record the battle with an obsessive fascination which falls into a contemplation of the act of dying and how the grasshopper fought back.

Page after page, I write about the steam in the shower and the sun on my skin. I write about arguing with a god I don’t believe in. I write about the beat of the hammer falling in the yard of the villa the far end of the valley where a Sicilian man laboured.

And I’m not normally the nostalgic type, but sometimes when life is busy all around me, I think of the incredible quiet that I felt those few days in Sicily. And I long to go back to it.

Here, meanwhile, the rain continues to fall.

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