A Russian student of mine recently told me a story about a misunderstanding she had while on holiday in Scotland. She was sitting in a cafe, feeling car sick after a long drive. Next to her there was as young woman, and so she asked her if there was a pharmacy nearby. The young woman looked at her as though she had two heads. My student repeated her question, and this time also tried out the word drugstore. Now the young lady looked alarmed. Here was a Russian, a gangster probably, wanting to know where she could buy drugs. The young woman left the cafe in a hurry, but not before talking conspiratorially to one or two of the other customers.

I told my student that the young lady in question probably needed to hear the word chemist (although pharmacy and drugstore are perfectly acceptable alternatives). I was also able to tell her about the time I leapt in a mild panic into the back of a taxi in Rome and demanded that the driver take me to a 24-hour farmacia (I needed some prescription drugs at 11 on a Sunday evening); and he looked around slowly and asked me to confirm that I wanted to go a 24-hour rosticeria (where they have chickens roasting on spits in the window). Perhaps he knew what was best for me.

It’s all a question of context. We are constantly forming little paradigms and hypotheses about our interlocutor’s intentions, hypotheses which are open-ended, liable to be discarded at a moment’s notice.


Portrait of Luca Pacioli – Jacopo de’Barbari

But context, for all that we like to talk to our students about its importance, is a slippery beast. Context can be a help, but it can also be an anchor. One of the hardest things for any student of a language is handling a situation where the context changes rapidly – at a dinner party (my own worst nightmare, for all sorts of reasons), or in a meeting or video conference. I am certain many of my students have sat in meetings (or my class, just possibly) wondering why everyone was talking about roast chicken and drug barons, trying desperately to formulate some paradigm which would encompass all the random remarks which had passed over the last few minutes.

There is no easy solution to this. Preparing for a meeting will only go so far, if topics veer rapidly off subject. There is, in the end, no substitute for simply knowing the language. The slow bottom-up slog is, ultimately, the best way to go.

And even then, no matter how good your English gets, there is no accounting for other people’s stupidity.


Subtle Ingenuity

We continue to watch America unfold these days, and marvel. Albrecht Dürer, who on being shown some of the productions of the New World on a visit to Antwerp, wrote in his journals of the ‘subtle ingenuity of people in strange lands’, was referring more to the material than to the political culture of the Amerindian peoples, but the phrase is apt. The subtle ingenuity of ‘alternative facts’ lies at the heart of the Trump project, for all the president’s superficial stupidity and credulity. We have to assume that he and his slightly freakish team of advisors know what they are trying to achieve.


Dürer – Subtle Ingenuity

But the fact that there might be a scurrilous logic to the Trump programme does not mean that at surface-levels of organisation, it isn’t all a bit Alice-in-Wonderland. Here, for instance, is a transcript of part of a speech Trump made during his campaign. Cicero it aint.

“Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart —you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you’re a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.”

(Watch him deliver the ‘speech’ here).

What is he talking about? No doubt psycholinguists could make much of its fantastical babble. I don’t have the patience. Politics is an amplification of all social transaction, and in all social transaction there is always, I suppose, a coded distaff between the underlying intent and the surface noises used to realise that intent. But all I am getting here is a deeply insecure man talking about how smart he is and how dangerous his enemies are.

So, perhaps we should come up for air for a moment. Here is Vladimir Horowitz playing Robert Schumann’s ‘Von Fremden Ländern und Menschen’ (‘Of Foreign Lands and People’), from his collection Kinderszenen (Scenes of Childhood) where Horowitz manages an extraordinarily controlled interplay between the melancholy, nostalgic depths and the child-like surface simplicity. Which gives you, if not hope (Horowitz died nearly 30 years ago; Schumann more than 160), then a memory of what hope once felt like.

Midwinter Spring

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
T.S. Eliot Little Gidding

Last Sunday was very much its own season, a day of brutal frost and low scudding sun. Picturesque in the extreme, and moderately hostile.

Yesterday was less clearly so. We have a small innovation at the Cambridge school – a ‘live’ weather board, where students and teachers can add their own annotations during the day, to comment on the weather. Yesterday we started off with ‘dull’ ‘freezing’ ‘icy’; Kensuke wanted to add ‘miserable’, so that went up; and Vibeke, more English perhaps in spirit, wanted to post ‘improving’, whether because the weather was in some sense morally improving, or was in fact getting a bit better at that point, was not absolutely unambiguous.


Sunday was, to repeat, a short day of frost and fire (as Walter Pater would have had it).

There is in Cambridge, near the school as it happens, a museum of brutal frosts, the Polar Museum, formally the Scott Polar Museum, which memorialises the history of polar exploration. I was at a similar museum in Tromso in Norway last year, where I was able to inspect Roald Amundsen’s sledding compass, the one which he took, and which took him, to the South Pole. In Cambridge there are similar mementos of British Polar exploration which, between Ross, Franklin, Scott and Shackleton, is a rich seam of Boy’s Own adventure-type narratives. In Tromso, they tell the story of Nansen’s extraordinary three years trapped in the Polar Ice, but that story is, if not dwarfed, then overshadowed by the epickest  of all Arctic and Antarctic epics, Shackleton’s 1914-17 expedition; and out-tragedied by that most tragical of them all, Scott’s fatal drive to the South Pole in 1912.


Shackleton, Scott and Edmund Wilson before their march  South during the Discovery expedition, 1902

What better way of passing a winter Sunday, than among these Titans of eternal winter? Certainly not ironing shirts, which is mostly how I passed mine. Scott wrote in his journals that at the Pole, the bounce and swagger that gets people through in the civilised world, where people pretty much take you at your own estimation, falls away, and inner steel, or the lack of it, are revealed. That may be so. But other corruptions of civilisation also fall away, prominent amongst which is the need to iron a shirt. I might not be a possessor of inner steel, but under my winter jumper my shirts are still ironed, down to their invisible tucked tails. More fool me.


Are they scientists? Or tourists? If they are scientists, they don’t seem to ask a lot of questions.

Theoretical Physicist Ian Donnelly in Arrival

In the recent movie Arrival, where Amy Adams plays a professor of linguistics charged with communicating with recently arrived aliens speaking an incomprehensible language, there is a moment where Adams’ character is forced to explain to a Colonel the order in which she intends to build understanding of the question the Colonel would like her to ask the Aliens: “what is your purpose here?”

Her answer culminates in the observation that the creatures may be so instinctive, so non-rational, that they simply cannot comprehend the concept of ‘purpose’. Whatever they do in life, they merely do. There is no such thing as ‘why’. A ‘why’ question presupposes a rational detachment; we can consider our purpose. If you could ask a cat a ‘why’ question, it would have no conceptual basis for understanding. Cats just do.

A question can only be asked, we must conclude, from a shared standpoint. There must be conceptual agreement before we can begin to frame an answer. Which makes me wonder a bit about IELTS.

When we teach IELTS (and other exams, but especially IELTS), we are most trying to engage students at the level of language, when very often we need to engage them at a much deeper level. Students often do not understand certain concepts which they read, not because they do not have the vocabulary, or are thrown by a structure, but because they do not understand the content. They would not necessarily grasp the point in their own language.

Amy Adams is talking about Aliens, but she is talking to a US Army Colonel. The Colonel is not a stupid man. Far from it. But his various operating discourses give him no immediate insight into the problems Adams is facing. She has to explain the concepts bit by bit, as though to a child. And of course, when you think about it, that is what all teaching and learning amounts to. Getting to grips, slowly and painfully, with a new, slightly different, technically challenging way of conceptualising the world, or at any rate some bit of it. Intelligence may be a transferable skill, but the transfer is slow and annoying. We keep reverting to our known concepts to explain the new, and get fuddled when they do not correspond.

Perhaps we should be teaching our IELTS students, not exam skills and vocabulary, but Classical history, pre-Socratic philosophy, medieval aesthetics, a little fluid mechanics, and so on. It might take a while. But it we would finally be able actually to start talking about some of the subjects in a meaningful way.


“Huge hills and mountains of casks on casks were piled upon her wharves, and side by side the world-wandering whale ships lay silent and safely moored at last.”
Herman Meville, Moby Dick

If the brain is not optimised for concentrated learning, as mine is clearly not, then perhaps it is optimised for something else. And if I observe myself in my natural learning habitat – the classroom – then that something which my brain is optimised for is almost certainly looking out of the window and thinking about something else.

I am pleased to read, therefore, that mind-wandering is not only useful, but frequently intentional. It seems that often, when we lose concentration, we do so on purpose. We scoot off down some by-way of thought and seek refreshment in other places. We are not absent, as the saying goes, so much as present elsewhere.

Why do we do this? There are several possibilities. One is social. The French philosopher Michel Certeau wrote memorably in the 1980s about human ingenuity for resistance: citizens will resist coercive power (of governments; of employers; of teachers) in a variety of almost invisible but creative ways. They will carve out small times in their day which they use for their own purposes; they will cycle on the the footpath, walk on the grass, book holidays when their boss’s back is turned, or text friends under the desk while the teacher blathers about some idée fixe he or she has. Mind wandering, under this argument, would be a very quiet howl of protest.

But another possibility, equally interesting, is that the mind wanders in order to get somewhere else. It is a subtle approach to problem solving. There we stand, mouth agape, outwardly immobile, but inwardly burrowing toward something new. The mind knows better than we do how to reach something. Crossword puzzlers will be familiar with the non-striving mindset which often cracks hard clues, a sort of trance where the letters dance lightly in front of the mind’s eye, while the conscious mind, perhaps, drifts off to think about some other clue. All climbing to a great height, as I have noted elsewhere recently, is by a winding stair.

So I am not too down on my students if I see them momentarily abstracted from the hurly-burly of the classroom. If I see them gazing out of the window, I take it on trust that they are doing productive work by other means, whether careening and caulking in preparation for another journey, or submerged to incalculable depths like the whale in search of the giant squid, or just resisting my own white hot sermonising up there at the front of the class.



Cambridge vs. Mansfield

On Saturday I will be making one of my infrequent but always miserably enjoyable visits to see Cambridge United play.


There is always something thunderous and muddy about a lower league match. Cambridge play in League Two, the ineptly named fourth tier of English football. They are currently vying for a spot in the end-of-season play offs, hoping for promotion. I am not optimistic, but overt optimism at the Abbey Stadium would be out of place.

Cambridge United play to smallish crowds – a few thousand fill the ground. On a late Saturday midwinter afternoon, however, as the floodlights kick in against the black sky and the team bleakly and maniacally chase down an equaliser, a point, a freak win, or merely some dignity and self-respect, it can be an atmospheric place. It may not be as edifying as the Fitzwilliam Museum, or as serene and iconic as King’s College chapel, but it offers something a bit different.

It is, more’s the pity, one of those corners of Cambridge which foreign language students, rarely seek out. I can’t really find it in my heart to recommend it – while it is an excellent resource for certain kinds of language (language of despair; language of frustration; language of sweariness etc.), it is not a place where you interact much. You sit with your arms folded, frowning into the gloom, while the bronze age spectacle of ritual battle and defeat plays out in front of you.

But as a cultural event, it is, I would venture, highly typical of a certain sort of Englishness. On Saturday, for example, Cambridge is hosting Mansfield. And I am willing to bet that Mansfield, beyond these shores, is the least well known town of 100,000 souls in the kingdom, whatever they might sing about themselves on the terraces. Two unknown teams, then, clashing in meaningless battle on a lost winter afternoon. This, perhaps, is how we learn, not only that winning is not everything, but that winning or losing are largely meaningless. Just turning up is a minor triumph of comity and defiance.

Winding Stair

I’m going to type every word I know. Rectangle. America. Megaphone. Monday. 

Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation Season 3, episode 5

There are various ways you could set about learning a language, some of them better than others. A friend of mine in Rome, an American who was studying German so that he could go to Berlin to study Russian, began by picking up an old German novel at a flea-market and a pocket German-Italian dictionary, and making lists of words. When I asked him what utility he thought he would derive from the words he was listing (Rectangle; Megaphone) he just shrugged: languages are big, he said; just have to pick a corner and go.

This is a nice way to think about it. Unsystematically. Unfortunately, it does not work for everyone. I had a student many years ago in Italy who took a great interest in the English language. It was a hobby for him. He had a colossal lexicon of arcane terms. But he did not know how to pronounce half of them, or use any of them. He had no grammar, no structure, no paradigms, and no experience. And yet he kept on storing away the words. While it is possible he eventually reached some sort of critical mass and went thermonuclear with the English, it is also unlikely.

We all go wrong somewhere, and most of us continue to go wrong in the same ways. Our habits are often more important to us than our ultimate progress. Someone said that doing the same thing in the same way and expecting different results was the definition of madness, the sign of a malfunctioning programme where input and outputs do not correspond but we keep bashing in the inputs nonetheless. And this, I suppose, is where a teacher is supposed to come in. We are there gently to steer our charges away from the precipices, get them thinking about their practice and so on.


Only in more than twenty-years’ teaching I do not think I have ever fundamentally changed a single student’s approach to language learning. Tips and tweaks are one thing: revolutions in style are quite another. Quite apart from anything else, teachers also have their idées fixes. If they are lucky, their idées fixes will correspond to those of their students, and everyone will rub along very nicely; if they do not, everyone is in for a bumpy ride.

And perhaps it does not really matter. We cannot fix our students. We can only accompany them on their various mad journeys for a while. All rising to a great place, said Francis Bacon, is by a winding stair. In the end, my American friend was not proposing a method so much as accepting a truth: it mattered little how he did it, so long as he did it.