Mental Housekeeping

A number of small jobs have been carried out in the school in recent days: we now have a second TV on the wall in the students’ lounge, a couple of seats in the lecture theatre have been fixed, a shelf has been straightened, a door handle put right, some notice boards shifted around.

Merode Altarpiece, Robert Campin

Merode Altarpiece, Robert Campin

By coincidence my garden this afternoon is having a similar mini-makeover: a couple of tree stumps pulled up, a couple of fence panels put in (my fence is forever blowing down), and so on.

I sometime think that the best use a student with a decent level of language proficiency can make of a language class is a similar sort of mental housekeeping. The big things – improving fluency, developing listening skills, building vocabulary in key areas, and so – are often best attained by modest steps, and by seemingly unambitious attention to detail. Language, above a certain level, descends to detail. A language is a vast pile of details. There are generalisable rules, to be sure (slapping an -ed on any verb is going to make it sound like the past, even if it is irregular) and mastery of those can happen more or less rapidly, depending on a student’s cast of mind. But taking an interest in detail – in exceptional cases, in interesting words, in regional variation – can be just the sort of misdirection the mind needs truly to prosper in a foreign language.

As can an interest in weeding out the bad habits. The little things – the false friends that native speakers anyway understand, the habitual mispronunciations, the nailing of one particular vowel, the use of modal structures to replace adverbial structures – all these lead to a greater naturalness in spoken and written English. And for these, for that bit of mental housekeeping, there is no place or context better than the enforced and focussed leisure of the language classroom.

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