Speechless

It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange
  The more things happen to you the more you can’t
     Tell or remember even what they were.

The contradictions cover such a range.
  The talk would talk and go so far aslant,
     You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there.

William Empson, Let it Go

I am not as fond as I should be, I think, of silence in the classroom. My own experience of learning anything is that getting my head down quietly means productive work; talking equates to getting not much done. And yet I jabber at my students and provide a range of babbling stimuli, and all in all we get a whole lot of talk under our belts.

Learning a language, of course, is about talk: talking is what we want to learn to do. Sitting speechless is a sign of failure. There are not too many students, these days, who want to learn a language predominantly for the purpose of reading, say, or listening, even if those are in many ways the most profitable, not to mention the most beautiful, things you can do in a foreign language (if not the most useful: that remains ordering a beer).

Which I suppose points to one reason why the US Election, or the Brexit campaign, were so wearisome. An election campaign is all about the talk. Everyone has something to say. But repeat a word enough times and it starts to lose all meaning, as the neuronal clusters associated with that word adapt to the stimulus and cease to register it; listen to the same talk for long enough and it starts to disassemble before your ears. The talk would talk, said William Empson, and go so far aslant.

I was talking to my students a couple of weeks ago about the merits of silence. One – not a great talker – said that he would like to spend a year in a monastery, preferably in the Himalayas. I asked him why. For the silence. And he is right. There is a difference between the sort of thought that comes in busyness or activity, and the sort that comes after prolonged silence. Prolonged silence argues lack of stimulation. Stimulate a hair on the back of your hand long enough, and you will soon feel nothing at all. Perhaps letting my students sit for a while in deep blankness wouldn’t be the worst use of their time.

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