Highlights of the week…

By Posted on Location: 2min read
Life before the pandemic. The Netherlands, 2017.

Other than the fence blowing apart, the water dispersing across the kitchen floor and the flashing antics of the oven, I’ve had a reasonably quiet week. Buried in grammar books, my mind remains settled and content. It has problems it can mull over: little things that keep it occupied. And for me at least, immersed in literature, the dullness of reality doesn’t seem so bad. I fear though that the lack of novelty in my life doesn’t make my writing particularly exciting. And that the lack of input results in a regurgitation of the same small thoughts. Despite normally being able to conjure an emotional calamity wherever I place myself – and thereby excuse myself from clear thinking – my moods remain mundane, and I fear my thoughts boring.

Literature fills a gap, but it can’t replace the excitement of screwing up.


It’s not all doom and gloom. Note the dummy variable. If anything, I tend to be an optimist. And these thoughts (about adverbials and complements, relative adjectives or attributional nouns) do make me professionally more competent. There is no doubt that my understanding of the grammatical differences between Spanish and English is helpful to my students. That was an example of a cleft sentence. No doubt I’m also developing a deeper awareness of the prejudice that obnubilates the distinction between how I speak, what my father considers correct, fustian language, beautiful language, clear language and phrasing that compels action…

Bonus points for guessing which of the above words I learnt this week.

My favourite new word is ‘pratfall’, which is American (but let’s not be prejudiced), and ought to be used by football commentators both in a literal and metaphorical sense. Now I’ve written it on the blog I shall wait for my parents to throw it into some dinnertime conversation. Thanks to the pandemic, they are learning grammar whether they like it or not. Accidental language awareness helps too. I was pretty chuffed when a student mistakenly wrote ‘to probe’ meaning ‘to try’ and I suddenly realised the connection between ‘probe’ and the Spanish ‘probar’.

Such highlights I have in my week.

Is dreaming of grammar making me crazy?

I wonder if anyone else dreams about object pronouns and possessive determiners? I guess such nightly tussles are one of the hazards of what I do, all the writing and teaching muddles my brain with an excess of prancing words.

Sometimes this quarantine feels like being buried in grammar books

I began my sojourn in England studying for the CELTA. Since my return, I have been teaching students from the total beginner whose English consisted of a few song lyrics to the advanced student whose speaking skills surpass some non-native teachers I’ve worked with. I don’t, therefore, start with a list of grammatical concepts that I will teach week-by-week; I respond to the grammatical problems my students face in that moment. This means that having recognized a student has a problem and that this is a persistent problem I go from class to grammar book and back again.

Sometimes students say things that simply don’t sound right, but I have no idea why. I record their phrasing and then try to break their structures apart, refer to the grammar books, conduct a search of the Internet, compare American and British forms and see what I can do about creating some form of exercise for the student to practise with. In the midst of this, I dream.

Everyone seems to have their own idea of what’s right

A lot of my challenges come from the way many grammarians have historically discussed the English language. Everyone has their own take. Consulting my books I discover there are several perspectives on the gerund: Scott Thornbury suggests, for example, that we don’t use the word gerund, but use the phrase ‘ing form’; John Seely’s account of the gerund is ‘see verbal noun’; those oft-quoted Americans, Strunk and White, are sticklers who (in their rule 10) state that a gerund requires a possessive pronoun whereas a verbal participle requires an objective pronoun; Seeley says that 90 per cent of the time people use an object pronoun before a verbal noun… Don’t fret, it is irrelevant whether, or not, you understand that last sentence. All I wish to convey is that the books disagree.

One of the consequences of having so many perspectives on a core feature of the English language is that each of my students comes to me with a different set of terminology. In English, a gerund is a noun. However, the word gerundio in Spanish refers to a participle which functions as a verb (or sometimes an adverb) but never as a noun. If my students should start trying to solve this terminology problem by themselves, they will run into confusion.

It’s provided me with a headache

Another conflict occurs between my English and the English that my students are trying to learn, and which, ideally, I am trying to teach. Sometimes I hesitate in the middle of a sentence having realized that I’ve switched a was for a were, an I for a me, or a progressive participle for a past participle as in ‘I was sat’… which is dialectically not incorrect, but nor is it helpful for the student. I stop, explain and correct my mistake. What I would love, is if someone could give me a glossary of terms I use in weird ways, so that I knew where I was leading my students astray.

As I have no such guide, I find myself in an investigation into how I personally speak

The process of trying to understand my idiolect can make me sound quite idiotic. I’m not talking to myself like a human, I’m parroting phrases back to myself. I repeat myself with slight changes in emphasis and phoneme, attempting to pronounce what I say naturally, whilst aware of what I’m doing makes me change how I speak and, hence, sabotages the experiment. As a result, I replicate my uncertainties, going over and over the same combinations of words, and not getting very far at all. Modelling the language is nigh impossible if you’re overthinking it. Especially if you’re not the most confident in your pronunciation in the first place. I fear confusing my students. This fear, it seems, leads to weird dreams.

If you felt like this text lacked examples:

  • Building houses is hard work: a gerund and a noun.
  • A house is a building: a non-gerund noun.
  • I am building a house: a verb as a present participle in the present continuous.
  • I was building a house: a past continuous form of the verb which (and this makes total sense) uses a present participle.

And as for the title… if you got that ‘dreaming of grammar’ is a gerund phrase (or should we call that a verbal-noun phrase) but ‘making’ is a verb then you’re doing well.

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.

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.

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.

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.