For those who know…

October 22, 2010 § 24 Comments

I have very much enjoyed reading two recent complementary posts by Henrick, who has been Doing some thinking, and by Cecilia in her Box of Chocolates about the organic nature of language and learning. What tipped the balance and has inspired me to lay out my own stall was Tao Te(a)Ching’s beautifully-crafted post, where he slipped in the following quotation to eloquently sum up his perhaps fleeting views that surfaced during an educhat that had broached the subject of what Dogme actually is, and which is presented as a language plant at the top of this post:

“For those who know, no explanation is necessary;
for those who don’t know, no explanation is possible.”

And quoting from Tao Te(a)Ching again, here is what Thornbury and Meddings wrote in their original treatise: “STOP! Teaching a language can be more effective when you actually use the language to talk to each other about your thoughts and feelings. You don’t need books or DVDs for this. You just need people. The world itself is a panoply of existences that are waiting to be discussed.”

I got married last year, to a Kenyan, in Kenya. Nya nya, the grandmother, of uncertain age, but who was born before European forces brought their fight to her homeland during the First World War, and who chuckles with delight every time she remembers my dancing at the wedding, but that’s another story, nya nya had a helper, Auma, an old lady herself who dressed in brightly coloured garments that matched from head to toe. With my wife’s sister able to suck on her stock of sugar cane and act as go-between and translate Luo, the name of both their tribe and language, shared coincidentally by Barack Obama’s father, and the reason why the inauguration of the first black president of the United States was greeted with such euphoria in this neck of the woods, I orchestrated my first LLFL (Learning Luo as a Foreign Language) lesson.

“I’m going to the farm”, I wanted to learn. My wife’s mum was always back and forth from the farm.
“Adhi puodho”, Auma responded. “Puodho” translates as farm, garden; small-holding may be best, any of these really.
I repeated and practised, doing my best not to superimpose a Brummie-tinged RP onto the words.

“Nang’o?” Aumu interrupted. “Nang’o?”
“Why?” she was asking. “Why are you going to the farm?”
Good question.
“I’m going to pick vegetables” I ascertained.
“Adhi ng’weto alot”. “Alot”. That was easy to remember. “Alot. Vegetables.”
“100 carrots. That’s a lot alot!” Haha. My first bilingual Luo-English joke.

But I wasn’t allowed to rest on my laurels.

“And then?” Auma was asking in Luo. “Kaeto?” “What are you going to do once you’ve picked all these vegetables?” “Kaeto?” “And then what?”

“Kaeto adhi chiro!” “And then I’m going to the market!” I was soon able to say. This was fun. Relaxing in the early evening sun, surrounded by lush species of tropical spinach that I’d eaten many a time there, I was writing these phrases down as a language plant, which is very similar to what Jason, on English Raven seems to have had great successes with recently where he got his learners to write on wavy lines on the board. They are a way of putting down on paper in a non-linear fashion different possibilities, different collocations or structures, in such a way that the words branch out from each other. Grammatical mind maps I always say. “Adhi”, meaning “I am going…” was my nice big trunk. It is similar in meaning to English in that it can refer both to the act of moving and secondly as a reference to the future, to which we must be grateful to Shakespeare. All the other new words I was wanting branched out from it.

And it was taking shape. Something was beginning to emerge.

Scott Thornbury, in a recent private correspondence by email about which he is happy to divulge, acknowledged the “brilliant” way that language plants reflected the emergent language of a learner that he mentions in his video “Seven ways of looking at grammar”. Here, they were encouraging, prompting emergence too.

Auma took the next step. “Nang’o?” I’d been on my way to the market, and she was asking why again. She saw the pattern too.

“Adhi …I’m going… adhi… to buy meat. What’s “to buy meat?”. “To buy meat.” How do you say it in Luo?” I suddenly needed to know.
“Adhi ng’ieo ring’o.” Difficult. ““Adhi ng’ieo ring’o.” I stumbled. You can imagine I didn’t get these elided vowel syllables down to a tee, but I managed to make myself understood, and I contented myself with that, and recapped.

“Adhi puodho ng’weto alot …and? and?  gi…gi adhi chiro ng’ieo ring’o”. Wow. I had just said:
“I’m going to the farm to pick vegetables and I’m going to the market to buy meat.”

“Kaeto?” I knew this. What was it? Ah yes. “And then?”

“Kaeto … adhi … kitchen!” I was very busy, wasn’t I, laden as I was with such locally-grown produce.
“Kaeto adhi jikon” “And then I’m going to the kitchen”. “Jikon. Kitchen.”

Hugh Graham-Marr describes in his excellent post push and pull (and ZPD and dogme) a way of looking at student-teacher interaction. A Push activity is one where language is pushed onto the student. “Read the text and answer the questions.” That’s Push. Pull, conversely, is when a student pulls, or draws the language out of the teacher. It is student-led, fulfils a need, is very much here and now, and very Dogme. I think it’s a wonderfully vivid analogy.

We were pushing and pulling, leading and following, prompting and persuading. I once did an evening course in Tai Chi, and just loved the activity where you both ever-so-lightly touch the back of your partner’s hand with the back of yours and mirror their movements. Throughout it, there are times when it’s you who is directing, and then you’re aware that your partner has gained the initiative. A silent hand dance, an activity brought to EFL by Mario and his peers, and when it works, you both know. Yin and yang. A team effort. It had been like this with Auma.

“Adhi jikon gi kaeto adhi tedo”. “I’m going to the kitchen and then I’m going to cook”. “Tedo alot gi ring’o”. “To cook vegetables and meat”, I affirmed.

“No salt?” She laughed. But that was for another day. I was exhausted. And hungry. “When’s mum back from the puodho?” The sun was getting low and night falls quickly at the equator.
“Ah, here she is! Mum, adhi tedo with you. What are we having?”
“Alot gi ring’o!” she called back.
“Ummm, sounds delicious!” And it was too.

She, Auma has of course never heard of Dogme, but for her it seems, no explanation is necessary.

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§ 24 Responses to For those who know…

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