How to speak better English than Donald Trump

https://youtu.be/9CvKu5y5I_o

Would you (or your students) like to speak better English than a “native speaker”*? Wouldn’t it be great if your command of the language could be superior to that of the most powerful English speaker on the planet? Granted, Donald Trump is not noted for his articulacy. Possibly as a result of a degenerative brain disease, his fluency, coherence and range of vocabulary have deteriorated considerably over the years, as this 1992 interview demonstrates and this article explains in detail. He used to be able to follow a train of thought; now listening to him is more like witnessing a syntactical train crash. Half-ideas cascade chaotically like carriages piling up on top of one another, deafening explosions of total incoherence reverberate down the track while anyone with any regard for their personal safety runs away screaming.

The very latest indication that Trump’s mastery of standard (or, rather, sane) English is slipping out of his tiny grasp came yesterday, in the tweet he posted in the wake of yet another NRA-sponsored massacre**. His tweet offered his “warmest condolences” to the victims (and, obviously, no condemnation of the culprit – Trump hasn’t expressed any anger at the killings). Cue howls of ridicule across social media: why? Well, no one talks about “warm condolences”. You might offer warm congratulations to a friend who’s just found a job, or sincere or heartfelt condolences to someone who’s just lost a loved one. But the adjective ‘warm’ just doesn’t go with the noun ‘condolences’. Or, in other words, it doesn’t collocate.

How do I know this? Well, I’ve spoken (and, more importantly, read) English all my life (and taught it for nearly 20 years). I’ve never seen or heard that expression before. The fact that Trump thought that ‘warm’ was an appropriate word in response to a mass shooting may be some indication of how such events make him feel deep down. But it’s also an indication that he’s not in control of what he’s saying. Maybe the fact that he boasts of never reading books has something to do with it.

So, how can you acquire a better command of the language than him? Well, you could buy yourself a collocations dictionary, which will tell you which adjectives are commonly used with which nouns, which nouns collocate with which verbs, etc. (Better language coursebooks also put a great deal of emphasis on what many now call ‘word grammar’.) Or, you could use this website. As you can see, it has a really simple interface, and is free. I urge all my students to use it, and it has an immediate and dramatic impact on the quality of their writing in particular. A smattering of collocations can easily raise any IELTS score from 6.5 to 7.0, for example. I’m sure Trump would struggle to write a coherent 250-word essay; he probably hasn’t composed anything longer than 140 characters since he was cheating his way through college. (As for writing in a foreign language, he’s probably barely aware at this point that such things exist.) In the speaking test, he’s probably get a 4.0: links basic sentences but with repetitious use of simple connectives and some breakdowns in coherence; can only convey basic meaning on unfamiliar topics; errors are frequent and may lead to misunderstanding and/or nuclear war.

*This is in inverted commas as it’s a highly problematic term, its use punishable by stoning in some quarters.
**Trump is also sponsored by the NRA, to the tune of more than $30 million.

In which I teach my Chinese students (and myself) all about Welsh

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There’s a cliché that the ‘best English’ is spoken in Dublin. I’d like to put a new one into circulation: the friendliest variety of the language is that of the Welsh. When I left Cardiff a couple of weeks ago I felt genuinely sad to be moving away from a place where everyone I met in the course of two months greeted me in a helpful and engaging manner, even though I couldn’t speak a word of their official language. Well, one of their official languages. We managed, or the most part, to get by in English.

I spent eight weeks teaching almost exclusively Chinese students on a presessional course at Cardiff University. One reason I chose Cardiff is because I’m very interested in issues of language and identity, particularly national identity. I also thought it would be an opportunity to challenge my long-held patronising view of the Welsh language, which has occasionally caused me to use its very existence as a punchline whenever the name of a slightly absurd language is called for. Force of habit meant it was hard for me to overcome my slight amusement at finding in the university library a copy of the book ‘Business Welsh’. Surely the one phrase that would be most useful in such a setting would be ‘Edrychwch, pam nad ydym ni ddim ond yn gwneud y cyfarfod yn Saesneg?‘.

Things are, inevitably, considerably more involved, as is always the case with minority languages. The point of a language is not merely to communicate, after all, but to maintain and represent a particular culture and identity. Hence, gaining a better understanding of the role of Welsh is a way of rethinking other such languages. Besides, as this wonderful poem by Nayyirah Waheed implies, who wants to speak bloody English all the time? Nevertheless, in the relationship between Wales, Welsh, and English, contradictions abound. Reflecting on the role of Welsh in state school education put me in mind of a lengthy conversation I had with a young Spanish speaker in San Sebastian a number of years ago, who was frustrated that the Basque language was used to exclude people from other parts of Spain from public service jobs. On the one hand, I could relate to his annoyance. When I lived in Dublin I was prevented from applying for a civil service job by my total lack of Gaelic, and given the Welsh-English border is so fluid and that so many Welsh people don’t speak Welsh, it’s easy to understand why such exclusion, when and where they do exist, might create resentment. On the other hand, to complain about the imposition of such requirements is to ignore questions of historical injustice around identity which cannot simply be repressed. There are very clear reasons why stickers reading ‘PARLA CATALAN!’ can be found on lampposts around Barcelona. The Spanish attitude to Catalan identity is exemplified in the nickname they give to the local language: polaco (Polish), supposedly a language that few want or need to understand. Such attitudes are, as I write, provoking a potentially world-shaking response.

I suspect that Cardiff’s relationship with Welsh is rather like Dublin’s relationship with Irish. When I was living in Dublin, I barely noticed the existence of its second official language. Back then, as a confirmed monolingual, I didn’t spend much time thinking about languages. When I visited places like Singapore and Malaysia, I experienced and thought of them as essentially English-speaking countries. I must have just blanked out those portions of street signs and official notices that weren’t written in English. When I went to live in a non-English speaking country I became, as the young people like to say, woke, to the point where the role of languages and dialects became something of an abiding obsession in whichever country I happened to be living.

Wales is, of course, not as linguistically diverse as China (where I spent the academic year 2004-2005) or Italy (where I live now), but the Welsh language does have two distinct varieties. North and South Walians often don’t see tongue-to-tongue*. Those who have made the effort to learn the language (many of whom are from the south) are often disappointed to be responded to in English by ‘native speakers’ (who are more commonly found up north, and are (derisively, I think) known as Gogs)**. Nevertheless, the language has, since devolution, gained massively in prominence and official status right throughout the country. Many non-Welsh speaking-families now prefer to send their kids to Welsh language-schools, because Welsh medium institutions tend to achieve better Ofsted results***. The knotty implications of this are explored in a documentary called ‘The Welsh Knot‘, the title of which refers to a time in which the use of Welsh at school was severely discouraged.

Being in Cardiff in English meant I wasn’t exactly immersed in Welsh-speaking culture. In effect, given my level of exposure to Mandarin Chinese, I felt I was going to work in China every day, to the point where I started to feel I should be speaking it myself (I’d say my vocabulary, which had gone down over the years, made a sudden leap up from A1.1 to A1.1003). It was a conversation with a typically chatty Cardiff taxi driver that made me start to wonder about my students’ perceptions of the Welsh language. After all, although they were all effectively Mandarin native-speakers, some of them, particularly those from places like Sichuan, probably spoke different dialects at home. How did they think of Welsh? Did they recognise its existence? Did they think of Cardiff as a Welsh-speaking city?

Given a whole morning to work on my students’ note-taking skills through the use of an extended text, I decided to explore and develop their understanding of the role of the other official language of the country where (most of them) will be spending the next year. (I also thought that exposure to a totally unfamiliar language would help consolidate their understanding of English.) The first documentary I showed them followed younger learners from a range of countries going through a transition similar to my students, viz doing a crash language course in preparation for attending a (North) Welsh-medium secondary school. We also watched part of the one of I mentioned earlier, which centres on introducing a North Walian schoolgirl to a South Walian one; both of them study in Welsh medium schools but language plays a very different role in their lives outside the classroom. (The programme is described in detail here.) I introduced the topic to my class by saying a couple of Welsh greetings I’d taught myself (it was a unique situation in that it was the first time I’ve been the most proficient Welsh speaker in the room), and then asking them to do a short survey which I had prepared but have subsequently lost. (The results are thus not available for peer review.) They found answering the questionnaire entertaining, as they’d recently put together a similar survey of their own. In response to a question about which parts of China they thought similar to Cardiff in linguistic terms, many chose a region geographically close to their own where a substantially different dialect was spoken: Guizhou, Guangzhou and Shanghai were mentioned. Their estimate of what proportion of the local population spoke Welsh was 80% (it’s actually 20%). Asked for their opinion as to whether I spoke Welsh, about half guessed yes, which I thought was interesting as they know that I’m not from Wales. I also asked them if they could think of any words they’d learnt in Welsh, and a couple of them wrote down ‘prifysgol’, a word they’d seen hundreds of times over the previous few weeks for fairly obvious reasons.

While the results of my research were inconclusive, they did help me think about the ubiquity of linguistic diversity, and they both confirmed and challenged my assumptions that my students would automatically transfer their perceptions of their own country’s minority languages onto Welsh. Had I hung onto the results, I’d have more of value to impart. (Apparently the Welsh phrase for ‘sorry’ is ‘mae’n ddrwg’.)

Languages are multifarious, lithe, fluid creatures, filling up all available spaces to fit snugly into the social form. I suspect that my class, indeed the whole cohort of pressessional students in Cardiff, will, in the course of their courses, start to develop their own codes, relative to their new environment, mixing in English words and names and possibly even Welsh ones. Language creates and affirms shared identity: wherever new identities are being formed, new forms of language emerge to satisfy the collective need. That’s how classes, tribes and cultures are formed, and that process in some important ways reflects a more significant function of language than mere communication. When I first began to learn about the role of dialects in other cultures, I’d badger representatives of those cultures with a question which I now understand to be irrelevant and misleading: if you go to part X of your country, can you understand what people say to you? It’s a daft question, because the answer is almost inevitably: yes, because if, for example, a person from Rome goes to Napoli, or if someone from Sichuan visits Shanghai – or, for that matter, when someone from Cardiff finds themselves in Caernarvon – the locals will automatically communicate with them in their mutually understood language, not in the specific local variety. I’m sympathetic to the idea that there are no such things as languages, only language – in other words, that borders and boundaries between languages are artificial****. However, acknowledging that reality doesn’t help to resolve the status of different dialects and languages. The State has a responsibility to recognise the diverse cultural backgrounds that make up the population.

When people migrate to areas where a strong local dialect prevails, a variety of things can happen, depending on their kind of interactions they develop. Some assimilate, some develop hybrid varieties, some remain at a linguistic (and, presumably, therefore, social) distance from the local culture. Then there are very particular expressions and pronunciations which give the speaker the status of insider; code-switching, i.e. swapping between languages or varieties of a language in the course of a single conversation or utterance, is, after all, a ubiquitous feature of human speech. We all do it within our own languages, mimicking other social actors in order to take on or discard particular social roles. To switch between languages or dialects rapidly can take very great skill, but can be extremely useful. (On a side note, the fact that I look German means that in speaking German in a German-speaking country I get away with using a great deal of English vocabulary.) It would be interesting to know how this operates with regard to Welsh and English. As I said to the taxi driver, I can’t imagine that sort of thing is actively encouraged at the Eisteffod. One curious detail I found about about some of my students’ perceptions of Welsh is that when they didn’t understand what (for example) a shopkeeper was saying to them in English, they just assumed they’d started speaking Welsh, which some, it turned out, thought of it as a mere dialect of English. Such mortifying linguistic confusion may explain why some students included in the bibliographies of their final essays seemingly random references to texts published in Turkish and Portuguese . Oddly enough, however, none of them cited any works written in Welsh. Byddai hynny’n fucking hyfryd!

*Thanks to Terry for teaching me the English word ‘Walian’.

**According to my mum, an English speaker can learn French in half the time it takes to learn Welsh. (N.B. My mum doesn’t speak Welsh, and may well have gleaned that information from the Daily Mail, so it might be ceilliau.)

***More thanks to Terry for pointing out that the local equivalent of Ofsted is actually called Estyn, which, to its credit, sounds a bit less like the name of a character from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.

**** Someone who’s demonstrated this is Diego Marani, the inventor of the ‘language’ (actually more of a game) Europanto.

Helping your students to understand Scottish accents

One of the most bizarre moments of my teaching career was when a whole class of Portuguese students complained to the Director of Studies because they’d paid tens of thousands of escudos for a ‘native’ teacher and had been assigned a Glaswegian. The conversation in which it was explained to them that Scotland is an English-speaking country was apparently a little awkward but the cause of much subsequent staffroom mirth. If there’s one thing EFL students love more than talking about their driving tests, it’s complaining about the range of accents that people (uh?) the English-speaking world. Two popular sources of confusion are Indian accents (which sometimes smacks a bit of racism, given that India is partly (and officially) an English-speaking country, so get used to it) and Scottish wans. It’s useful but sometimes fruitless to point out in response that by no means everyone from Scotland sounds like Rab C. Nesbitt. Although doing so by first explaining who Rab C. Nesbitt is tends to complicate things still further.

I decided to take on the task of challenging the notion that Scottish accents are hard to decipher, and have enlisted the help of Glasgow comedian Limmy, who in 2006 introduced the world to a cast of inimitable characters from that deer green city. I have chosen three clips with three of those characters and prepared some compehension questions which will, with a little guidance from you the teacher, enable your students to see through the mist of culturally-conditioned prejudice and grasp the gist, the details and the subtext of the monologue in question.

N.B. One or two of the videos include(s) the occasional example of raw or vernacular language.

  1. Who was ‘Sandy’?
  2. Why did John Paul dial 1471?
  3.  What did he then tell his friend Craig?
  4. How long did he wait before calling the woman back?
  5. What did he say to the woman the second time he calls?
  6. What did the woman do to try to stop him calling her, and why doesn’t it work?
  7. How long did John Paul then wait before calling her back?
  8. What happened in the end?
  1. What was ‘D-Day’?
  2. What sort of company was BAMN Concepts?
  3. What did Benjamin send the client?
  4. What question did Benjamin ask himself?
  5. Who did he call, and what did he ask them to do?
  6. What did the people of Glasgow find graffiteed all over their city on Monday morning?
  7. What made news of the campaign go global?
  8. What were the consequences for everyone involved?
  1. What kind of event did Jacqueline decide to go to?
  2. Why did the organisers take her photo?
  3. Why did she feel awkward about what she was wearing?
  4. What happened at 8.30?
  5. How long would the partners have to talk to each other?
  6. What did Jacqueline start to explain to her partner?
  7. How many partners did she dance with altogether?
  8. Was the night out a success?

Lesson plan: Is it right to burn money?

A great theme for a lesson is one that makes your students sit up and go WTF WAS THAT?! In all my years of trying to provoke my students this is the lesson that has generated most furious debate as it opens up a lot of political issues that people tend to take personally, like money, wealth, value and waste.

The lesson should take about 75 minutes and will work well with any class above B2.1/Upper Int. Access to an IWB will facilitate things immensely.

Procedure

  1. Show this film clip, giving students time to identify what’s happening (ans: some people are burning lots of cash).
  2. Do a quick straw poll: Who thinks it’s right or wrong?
  3. Get them to look up online who the KLF were, specifically how they got the money in the first place.
  4. Establish that they were an (unusual) pop band who had huge success. Show a couple of short clips from their videos.
  5. Elicit ideas as to why they decided to burn a million pounds. Show this photo to get them started. Get students to look up any articles in which the members of the group explain their reasons for what they did, and share what they find.
  6. Using the collocations dictionary ozdic.com, point out that you can, regardless of the legal or moral implications, burn (as in waste) money. Students in pairs list other ways of ‘burning’ money.
  7. Share their ideas on the board.
  8. Students prepare for a debate. Who thinks the KLF were right or wrong to burn money? Help with arguments on each side. Encourage them to use real and hypothetical examples of similar cases.
  9. Hold the debate – you can follow the procedure described here.
  10. For homework, get the students to write an IELTS-style essay setting out the main points on each side and giving their own opinion.

    C’est tout!

    Lesson plan: “You are a refugee”

    Wherever you happen to teach there’s a chance that your class includes refugees and/or racists. The point of this lesson is to increase the level of understanding of the plight of the former and encourage the latter to be less so. Linguistically the lesson lends itself to concentrated practice of various conditional forms. In terms of vocabulary, the ‘text’ is quite lexically dense so I wouldn’t attempt it with anything lower than B2. As you will see, discovery and development of relevant vocabulary is written into the task as it will be repeated various times.

    To set it up you will need access to a pc, ideally with an IWB/projector; it also requires that students make use of their own phones.

    Procedure

    1. As students to write down the name of anyone they know who had to leave their home for a prolonged period, maybe because of war, political instability or a climate catastrophe. If they don’t know anyone personally ask them to think of any famous people who fall into that category, or even any films they’ve seen which depict such a situation. Ss discuss in small groups.

    2. Share ideas, obviously sensitively if anyone in the class has had such an experience. In the process elicit, board and clarify key vocabulary: refugee, seek refuge, protection, asylum; escape, flee, run away.

    3. Tell ss they’re going to imagine that they’re refugees. Ask them to guess which country they might be escaping from. Tell them they’re going to face a series of dilemmas and see if they’re successful at reaching safety. Point out that the scenario is based on the real experiences of millions of people.

    4. Show them this page from  the BBC website and recapitulate the scenario. Point out the vocabulary that has already come up and highlight the words ‘traffickers’ and ‘deportation’. Clarify any misunderstandings.

    5. Tell then you’re first going to do the task all together. Decide on the balance of the class if ‘you’ are male or female.

    6. Show them the first dilemma: Egypt or Turkey. In pairs, students discuss for about two minutes, then vote as a whole class.

    7. Take them through the dilemmas, clarifying vocabulary as you go. If you like, you could highlight the 1st/2nd conditional forms on the board.

    8. See how ‘you’ end up. Gather reflections on the success/failure of their route.

    9. In the same pairs, ss repeat the task on their phones. Monitor in case they need help with language.

    10. After a couple of attempts, gather reflections on their experiences.

    Homework: Students repeat their task at home and write the story of what happened in the past simple, first person, adding details as they go to make it more real.

    Extension task: in a following lesson you could the videos on the same page to practise talking about unreal scenarios using 3rd and mixed conditionals, eg. ‘If they had paid the smuggler…’, ‘If he hadn’t decided to go to Libya’, etc.

    هذا هو!

    Business English lesson plan: Emmanuel Macron’s Neoliberal BINGO!!!

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    I kinda like Emmanuel Macron. He soundly defeated one of the world’s most unpleasant creatures in the debat last week and in Sunday’s election, and he’s also said some very laudable things about France’s shameful colonial past and its need to hold onto its liberal traditions. At the same time, he is, as many have pointed out (some of them dickheads, but what the hey) a bit of a (quelle horreur!!!) Neoliberal. Watching an interview with him this week (he is an excellent role model for non-‘native’ English speakers), I was struck by just how many neoliberal buzzwords he managed to fit in to a short interview: competition, compete, competitiveness, competitively, markets, markets, markets… it was a bit like watching a windup neoliberal doll. On that basis I’ve devised this game for use in ‘Business English classes’ (after all it’s basically just neoliberal ideology taught more slowly, your students coming up with wacky product ideas and reading articles on how smartphones will enable a new generation of innovative entrepreneurs to market their innovative innovations competitively and provide innovative global leadership blah blah innovative blah…). The interview in question is here and the BINGO! cards here (don’t worry – that link genuinely has nothing to do with Wikileaks/the Kremlin). If you don’t know how to play Bingo, er…jfgi.

    P.s. You could complement the lesson (and counter the pro-neoliberal stance of Macron) by showing your students this.)

    Et voilà!!!

    Anti-fascist lesson plan

    This is an anti-fascist lesson for the week leading up to the potential election of a fascist leader of a major European country. Although in some teaching contexts political content is discouraged, engaging with questions of power and society is one way of allowing your students to develop their rhetorical skills, and also a means of encouraging a sense of group unity and shared purpose at a time of increasing division and social atomization.

    It’s possible that you have a fascist or two in your class. Let’s hope not. This lesson isn’t designed for them, but who cares. Maybe they can leave the classroom and go and troll Twitter instead. It aims to enable your normal students to engage politically on an international level through the medium of English. If you don’t feel comfortable with that, don’t do the lesson, but it’s worth bearing in mind that a) English is not just a language for conducting trade, presenting innovative product ideas, etc and also b) if fascists such as Le Pen triumph your livelihood as teacher of a globalising language will be under threat and a lot of your students (and your friends, your family and you) will end up exiled, in jail, dead, or guarding concentration camps for a living.

    The lesson as designed is 75 minutes long and should work well for high Upper Int/B2.2 upwards. I did it on Tuesday with a B2-ish class of Political Science students and it worked wonderfully.

    Lesson procedure

    1. Write on the board ‘fascism’. Ask what it is. Elicit names of famous fascists but also ideas about how to define it. Offer no definitions of your own. (5 mins)

    2. In pairs students write their own definition of fascism. (5 mins)

    3. Now look at the one on Wikipedia. Do your students agree? How would they change it? (5 mins)

    4. On their phones or together as a class, edit the definition on Wikipedia (NB. your/their definition(s) will be rejected almost immediately, but you don’t need to tell them that.) (10 mins)

    5. In small groups students address the following

    Questions for discussion:

    Do you know any fascists personally?

    What would you do if a friend of yours started talking about:

    • Voting for a fascist candidate?
    • Joining a fascist organisation?

    Have friends on or off social media been talking about the French election?

    What would you say to a French friend who was talking about voting Le Pen?

    (10 mins including brief report back from each brief pair on what was briefly said – don’t let this bit drag on. Make it brief.)

    6. Half the students read Article A, half Article B. They take notes on the MAIN points (stress this and jog them along if they get stuck on details – with less strong groups tell them to just read the first seven or eight paragraphs), check difficult vocab and compare with a partner who’s read the same article. (15 mins)

    7. Students swap partners and share what they learnt, taking notes on other person’s article. (10 mins)

    8. Share and clarify the meaning of vocab they learnt on the board. (5 mins)

    9. Students imagine they have a French friend who has been posting pro-Le Pen stuff online. They write an email to their friend telling them what they think. Depending on their level you could instruct them to use a certain number of conditional sentences (‘if Le Pen wins’, etc). Be on hand to offer vocab and grammar suggestions, etc. They then share what they wrote with a partner, asking for constructive suggestions, etc (20 mins)

    10. For homework students write a second draft and then email it to you for corrections, etc.

    C’est tout. Nique les fachos!

    Listening worksheet: David Foster Wallace’s commencement address (B2+)

    Students can often surprise you with what they’ve read in English. I once taught a 14-year-old FCE candidate who’d enjoyed ‘Trainspotting’ by Irvine Welsh in the original ‘Embra’ dialect, and over the years I’ve met several dedicated fans of Nicholas Sparks and Paulo Coelho, one Margaret Atwood reader (yay!) and a particularly sulky and precocious Russian student who on the first day of the course simultaneously impressed and horrified me by proudly claiming to have read everything by Ayn ‘Medicare’ Rand. Choosing a particular long-form author to be your language teacher is, as Steven Krashen points out in this excellent essay (one which is also very good to use in class), a tremendous way to take your command of a language way beyond anything a coursebook can teach you.

    David Foster Wallace is more of a challenge. Although I wouldn’t suggest ‘Infinite Jest’ to anyone with a CEF level of less than C9.9, his essays and short stories are so entertaining that the inherent language difficulties shouldn’t be insurmountable. If you happen to be teaching students with a very strong interest in issues of language usage his long essays ‘Tense Present: Democracy, English and the Wars Over Usage‘ and ‘Authority and American Usage‘ are worth pointing out to them.

    But even for students who would never tackle his writing, this speech (audio here, full transcript here) is typically inspiring and engaging, particularly if you’re teaching university-age students. The format is one they should be familiar with – I start by showing them a google image search for ‘commencement address’, which brings up photos of Oprah Winfry, Barack Obama and Steve Jobs. His speech, which has been very widely shared and published and is known as ‘This is Water’, lasts 25 minutes, so it’s a very good idea to break it down into four sections – stop the recording after each four answers, allow the students to consult a partner and then share ideas. To extend the exercise/for homework you can get them to write, rehearse and perform their own five-minute commencement speeches, passing on the multifarious lessons that life has taught them, or, in the case of any Ayn Rand fans, telling the audience they’re all worthless subhuman filth :-P.

    Listening worksheet

    1. What is the point of the fish story?

    2. What is the point of a Liberal Arts education supposed to be?

    3. What, for DFW, is a more important thing to learn?

    4. What does the eskimo story have to say about belief, according to DFW?

    5. What do we need to bear in mind about a lot of the stuff we believe?

    6. What is our ‘default setting’?

    7. What is the most dangerous thing about a university education?

    8. What does ‘learning how to think’ mean?

    9. What is the point that DFW makes about suicides?

    10. What is it that no one talks about in commencement speeches?

    11. What is ‘the absolute voice of death’?

    12. What is the point of the supermarket anecdote?

    13. What is ‘the only thing that’s capital-T true’?

    14. What is a great reason for choosing some sort of spiritual higher power to believe in?

    15. Why will the world not discourage you from operating on your default settings?

    16. What is ‘the really important kind of freedom’? 

    Some thoughts on language, education and class

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    I spend my working life around people (students of English for Academic Purposes) who are insecure about their language use. That means I get to think and pontificate about issues of status, ownership and standard versus non-standard forms.

    I can identify with the anxieties of my students, and not just as someone who has (in the past) enjoyed learning other languages. I’ve also long been self-conscious about my command over/of English. Like some of my students(,) I’m very sensitive about being corrected, tending to take corrections as a bit of a put-down rather than a chance to learn. The ego-insecurities I experience when expressing myself in other languages are clear manifestations of anxiety about my own status as an English-speaker.

    Some of that anxiety is related to having a parent for whom English is a second language, and part is related to class. My background is not exactly humble but I was the first person in my family to go to university. Working in higher education feels like an achievement, but I’m vulnerable to a certain feeling of being out-of-place. Someone who came from a similar background was the critical theorist, academic and blogger Mark Fisher (aka k-punk), who wrote this in 2013 about the response of the ‘left’ to the comedian and actor Russell Brand’s famous interview with Jeremy Paxman about the need for revolution:

    I’ve long been an admirer of Brand – one of the few big-name comedians on the current scene to come from a working class background…(His) forensic take-down of Paxman was intensely moving, miraculous; I couldn’t remember the last time a person from a working class background had been given the space to so consummately destroy a class ‘superior’ using intelligence and reason. (However) Brand was quickly judged and-or questioned by at least three ex-private school people on the left…It’s alarming how many ‘leftists’ seemed to fundamentally agree with the drift behind Paxman’s question: ‘What gives this working class person the authority to speak?’ It’s also alarming, actually distressing, that they seem to think that working class people should remain in poverty, obscurity and impotence lest they lose their ‘authenticity’. Someone passed me a post written about Brand on Facebook. The whole tone was horrifyingly high-handed, as if they were a schoolteacher marking a child’s work, or a psychiatrist assessing a patient. There’s also a shocking but revealing aside where the individual casually refers to Brand’s ‘patchy education [and] the often wince-inducing vocab slips characteristic of the auto-didact’ – which, this individual generously says, ‘I have no problem with at all’ – how very good of them! This isn’t some colonial bureaucrat writing about his attempts to teach some ‘natives’ the English language in the nineteenth century, or a Victorian schoolmaster at some private institution describing a scholarship boy, it’s a ‘leftist’ writing a few weeks ago.

    Fisher himself wrote movingly about an episode when his own mother confided that she didn’t want to go into a Georgian teashop in a neighbouring town for High Tea because she was worried she would “do the wrong thing”:

    We know this too, really, we felt it going on to University, feel it still, my sister and I, she with her anxiety around her middle-class friends whose parents are all teachers and doctors, me with my endless writing of novels I can’t bear to do anything with as it means engaging with them, having to make them like me, listen to their opinions of my work. But for us, half clambered out of our class as we are, we don’t find a Grange tea-room existentially threatening. She said it herself, my mum, and it immediately struck me, the disavowal, “some people get nervous in tea rooms, don’t they?

    These are the wounds of class, ever-present, life-long. Knowing that you’re common, not good enough, not one of the decent people.

    In the case of Russell Brand, faced with mass and social media sneers at his upstart activism and the ‘sub-undergraduate dross’ of his writings about politics, he retreated. He realised that if he wanted his right to discuss his concerns to be recognised, he would have to reeducate himself. He is now doing a three-year MA in Religion and Global Politics at SOAS, and is sharing his newly-acquired knowledge via a (frankly unmissable) podcast. In the first episode, an interview with the political philosopher Brad Evans on the theme of political violence, he gave what I think is an inspiringly honest account of how he arrived at this point and how it feels to be there:

    “Being briefly in the academic world, as I have been, obviously loads of it’s really really exciting but I think a lot of what I hear feels reiterative, like someone says ‘what’s a country? It’s just an agreement in our minds, and I think, I knew that, anyway, those are things I’ve come to myself. But then there are things that are so complex I can’t begin to come to terms with them, and in this field I’m having to learn about political history, critical theory, philosophy, so I’m suddenly having to learn about Foucault, Derrida and all these other names I can’t even say confidently yet. And my original impulse for doing that course was, I got really deeply involved in the political world, and (…) I realised that this was a very complex world and I didn’t have the armoury, the artillery to engage in this battle. And I’ll like our listeners to be able to embark on this journey with me, so what do you think is a good entry point for someone like me who feels disillusioned with politics but doesn’t know quite where to begin on a journey of understanding?”

    One theorist who Russell would find very useful in terms of issues of language, politics and class is Pierre Bourdieu. He relates that feeling of being out of one’s depth and beyond one’s station to what he calls ‘habitus’: the attitudes, mannerisms, tastes, moral intuitions and habits that influence our life chances. This behavioural comfort zone is a manifestation of our level of cultural capital. While Brand may have a high level of objectified cultural capital in the form of fame and wealth, his attempts to acquire institutionalised cultural capital (formal educational qualifications) are hindered by accent, which is a manifestation of embodied capital. In particular fields (for example in the academic world) it can be hard for individuals from a working-class background to obtain a “feel for the game” and to feel they should be (as it were) on the pitch.

    This seems to me to be related to the experiences of people from ‘foreign’ language backgrounds in higher education. ‘Foreigners’ don’t automatically have a pre-assigned rung on the social ladder, and hence struggle to find an appropriate station even when they have a sufficient mastery of the language. I’ve been thinking about a friend of mine who has an excellent command of the spoken language and who knows things and can do things in it that I certainly couldn’t. I wonder how he views Brand, and how he relates to what Brand says about his own struggle to feel like a valid participant in the academic world. My friend recently dropped out of a university course he’d long dreamed of doing because he felt his English wasn’t up to writing long essays (I encouraged him to continue and offered to help, but to an apparent avail). In fact, I’m writing this to persuade him, others like him and also to remind myself that such feelings are very common and by no means insurmountable.

    From outside, manifestations of social class are hard to perceive. English people know when to question someone’s intellectual credentials as soon as we/they hear us/them speak. To people who didn’t grow up here, vocal class markers are much harder to recognise. It may seem to my friend that all ‘English’ or British’ people are equally confident in higher educational settings, that they we all feel valid and accepted.

    Perceptions of these issues inevitably differ, depending partly on one’s cultural and social background. Among my (mostly well-heeled) students, I’ve found that some people have a frustratingly monolithic understanding of the relationship between language and social status. The belief persists that the speech of some is simply inadequate. There’s also widespread misunderstanding of the relationship between spoken and written language, with some assuming that the former is a poor attempt to produce the latter. Inevitably, others have explored these issues far more articulately than I ever could.

    As for myself, I always feel anxious when someone makes a jibe about someone(’s?) being ‘self-taught’. Everyone is, to some extent. Luckily (after three slightly wasted undergraduate years from which I was lucky to emerge with a 2;1), I eventually had the chance to go back to university and get a Master’s degree, an experience which greatly improved my sense of confidence in what I say and write. Having lived in other countries and struggled with other languages has also helped to bolster my self-assurance, as has teaching the spoken and written language for almost twenty years and spending several years examining others on their usage. In terms of writing, the internet has also helped enormously (what’s a good synonym for confidence? what are the three types of cultural capital again?).

    Inevitably, for everything I write here, thousands of people are studying or have studied that subject in an academic context and are far better placed to provide evidence-based theories than I am. A lot of what I present here is hearsay and guesswork, but I content myself in the knowledge that this is after all just a blog. I’d like to think of myself as a polymath, but ultimately I’m more of a dilettante, and this is an appropriate format.

    The wounds of class run deep, but then, as both Lynsey Hanley and Helen Mort have articulated brilliantly, the sense of discomfort at being stranded between classes, particularly at being a working class person in the more rarified echelons of higher education, can also be uncomfortable. Then there’s the opposite: chippiness and reverse snobbery, and then the reaction to chippiness and reverse snobbery. And so on.

    I still lack confidence when sending people what I’ve written with a view to getting it published. To do so you have to be fairly bullish, and being rejected or ignored is always painful. Although some things I write get a very pleasing reaction, I have little way of knowing whether or not what I write is any good in terms of what matters, which is to be accepted as more-or-less an equal by those whose writing I admire. But at the same time, most of them are professional writers and/or academics, and I’m not, so it should, by rights, remain a pipe dream.

    There remains one thing I want to make clear, for the sake of my own honesty and integrity. This piece may contain what some will regard as self-pity, and I wouldn’t really have much of an answer to such a charge. I had the chance to go to university, twice, without getting into debt, in my own language. My privileges in terms of education have, in comparison with most people in the world, been immense. I’m not a victim of disadvantage in any sense that means anything on a global scale. I’ve even, despite my manifold anxieties about my credibility as an English speaker and writer, and thanks largely to a mere accident of birth, managed to make a reasonable living as a teacher of my ‘native’ language. But I know that these feelings are not exclusive, and I hope a) that reading this has made clear some connections between class, status, nationality and language that may not have occurred to you before and b) that you find this sentence an appropriate way to end a piece of writing of this nature.

    That time I worked for a religious sect

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    Of all the language schools I’ve worked for over the last 18 years, only one has gone on to help organise a military coup. So far. The school in question (in North London) was part of a global network belonging to Fetullah Gülen, the Muslim sect leader accused of orchestrating the anti-Erdogan coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016.

    I started working at the school in late 2007 and stayed for about nine months. At first I thought it was a normal school that just happened to be owned by Turks, but was intrigued when, upon learning who I was working for, several politically-minded Turkish people I met around that time reacted with outright revulsion. I also found out from a former student from Uzbekistan, who had been part of the group while studying in Ankara, that they had some connection with a group of terrorist fascists from the 1970s called the Grey Wolves. Turkish leftists told me that where Gülen’s movement had taken power in more remote areas they had imposed quite a strict version of Islam, and that then Mayor of Istanbul (a Gülen supporter) had recently banned beer-drinking in the street. Given that the job apparently involved potential for travel, I was quick to picture myself running round Chechnya with an AK47. It would make a refreshing change from teaching Korean design students and unemployed Italian graduates the language for sucking up to their bosses on their unpaid internships. In any case, I knew a little bit about the murkiness of Turkish politics (the Deep State, the Susurluk affair, the succession of military interventions to prevent a non-secular government being elected) and (especilaly since I’d never been to Turkey) I thought it would be a good way to learn more.

    Nevertheless, rumours aside, the people I worked for all seemed very nice. They were good-natured and courteous and they plied me between classes with strong tea, sujuk, olives and overflowing fruits platters. The students (mostly men in their 40s) were also polite, attentive and motivated. They were also respectful of my role as a teacher, almost excessively so. They taught me a slightly mad Turkish proverb: ‘if you a teach me one thing, I will be your slave forever’.

    As for politics, although I was on the lookout for any furtive radical inclinations, I didn’t detect any secret jihadi fervour. Their views seemed occasionally naive but certainly well-meaning. They were very excited about a conference which had just taken place in UCL on their work of their founder, with several leading academics and a number of UK parliamentarians. They talked a great deal about education, quoting Gülen himself on the need to open the minds of the young and to educate women. My boss told me that their organisation had recently been kicked out of Uzbekistan, with all the school closed down at a whim of the regime. We talked about the prospects for meaningful democracy in Central Asia (he had spent several years in Tashkent and I’d recently read Craig Murray’s book), and he said things would change once ‘our people’ were in charge. This set off a muted alarm bell, but he said it in an almost reassuring way, or at least as if he was a loyal employee of a corporation looking to expand its commercial domain.

    My students (mostly from the organisation or there under its auspices) taught me a huge amount about 20th Century Turkish history. When it came to the Kurdish question they were sentimental and a little patronising, saying that the Kurds didn’t seem to understand what the Turkish State was trying to achieve, but they never seemed aggressive in their attitudes. At the same time, all of them were very enthusiastic about a  TV crime series called ‘Tek Türkiye’, which seemed to promote a quite brutal model of policing. I did recognise a strain of nationalism but it didn’t strike me as untypical or remotely fanatical.  

    Where differences in our worldviews emerged, they were always conciliatory. They were sympathetic to the new Government (Erdogan’s party was then called the APK) and their apparent progressivism seemed to reflect what I was reading in the press about his more enlightened form of Sunni Islam. An article appeared in the Guardian which reported on Erdogan’s relationship with the then Spanish Prime Minister Jos’e Luis Zapatero and the Turkish PM’s mission to create “a 21st century form of Islam, fusing Muslim beliefs and tradition with European and western philosophical methods and principles”.

    When it came to the classes, there was a slight clash between my expectations and those of my Academic Director, as his formal approach conflicted with my then teaching ‘style’. This involved my being attentive to whatever came up and exploiting learning affordances, or, if I was hungover, then same thing in far less high-falutin words. He asked me more than once for a complete booklet of the week’s activities in advance, which at that time was a bit like asking me to conduct the course in 13th Century Japanese. Luckily he didn’t insist.

    I also taught a group of teachers from Turkey, who were among the smartest and wittiest students I’ve yet had the pleasure to teach. Another memorable student was a 14-year-old from Rotterdam. He had clearly grown up deep within a conservative Turkish immigrant milieu and, horrified at my suggestion that Turkey, like anywhere else,  had a fair share of gay people, argued back that not only did Turkey have no gay people, his adopted homeland (The Netherlands, lest we forget) didn’t have any either.

    While few of them did or said anything to shock and offend me, I can’t say I was always as well-behaved. Once, given widespread confusion over the meaning of the word ‘speech’, despite my miming and trying to get them to name any famous speeches that Atatürk had made, I decided to draw upon my, well, drawing skills (which are non-existent but come in handy sometimes for comedy purposes). I drew a picture of someone who looked a bit like Mussolini (I couldn’t remember what the Father of Modern Turkey looked like), stuck a fez on his head (er…), and gave him a speech bubble reading ‘blah, blah, blah’ with a couple of umlauts and cedillas floating around in it. I thought it was an efficient means of communicating my point, and it certainly got their attention. In the mid-morning break students from other classes crowded into the room to admire my artwork. One of them, clearly awestruck at my mastery of desin, remarked with not atypical Turkish gravity, ‘In Turkey…you die’. My elevated position of Respected Knower Of All Things seemed to have stood me in good stead and my life was spared.

    The bigoted Dutch/Turkish teenager wasn’t typical of the 2nd-generation immigrants I met. I also taught a pair of 13-year-old German/Turkish brothers who I would happily place in my personal top 10 of funniest-and-most-charming-people-I’ve-ever-taught. Their mother would send me daily meals of ichli kurfter and other treats. The brothers were part of a group mostly made up of 15 or so very sweet kids from Turkmenistan. I suspect that in their three weeks in the UK me and my fellow teachers were the only locals they spoke to, such were they shepherded around. They left me with enough CDs and postcards of their country to suggest they’d brought enough to go round everyone in London.

    When those groups weren’t around I was just left with the local staff of the Gülen organisation. Occasionally someone who I’d been teaching for several months would disappear, and upon probing I would learn that he had been relocated overnight to Nigeria or Russia. What they were doing in London apart from gamely fielding my inquiries about Turkish politics and struggling with the present perfect continuous was a bit of a mystery. I knew that there was some sort of fundraising which involved Turkish businesses, but I let myself believe that the invitations they were making to local kebab shops to contribute to the cause weren’t too forceful. They also had some vague relationship to the movement’s (leading national) newspaper ‘Zaman’ (Time).

    As it happened, my Uzbek friend had come back into contact with members of the Movement, and, down on his luck, gone to stay in one of their houses for a few weeks. This involved getting up to pray at 5am and having very lengthy debates about which food products from Lidl could be considered Halal, but no apparent talk to the need to violently overthrow the state.

    The managers of the school were ambitious. They wanted me to get them up to British Council inspection standard in a few months, but with only the occasional proper class it was a forlorn hope. By the autumn of 2008 it was clear it wasn’t going to happen, at least not for the time being. Even sending people down to Oxford Street to hand out leaflets for free classes wasn’t working. The school closed soon after and the premises were given over to a company promoting educational tourism.

    I’ve vaguely followed developments since then. At some point Gülen broke away from Erdogan to the point where he and his group became public enemy number 1. The coup last summer shocked me and others I know who have had contact with them in the past, but it did put me in mind of that comment made by my boss about Uzbekistan. I don’t know if Hizmet (the more recent name for the movement, meaning ‘the Service’) shares Erdogan’s evident leanings towards Isis, or at least his willingness to use them to suit his strategic ends with regard to the Kurds. I suspect not, and the circumstances of the split suggest (without wanting to be either naive or cynical) that some principles were at stake. If those pleasant, courteous and seemingly very sweet people I taught over the course of those few months are also supporters of the most brutal forms of political violence (as the Turkish state alleges), there’s clearly something about life, people and the world which I haven’t understood.