Friday, 19 April 2013

A Leisurely Stroke

This Year’s Hot New Metaphor

I am slightly too fond of the occasional high-falutin’ metaphor. I could, and probably have, go(ne) on about how they’re an essential function of how we explain – and maybe even perceive – the world around us, but more than anything else they’re useful. This is especially true in my position as a teacher and a trainer of teachers. We’re into that time of year when it’s all a little more hands-on, so if you’ll forgive me I’d like to give another one a test-run here. Thank you for your continued patience.



Swimming, it’s all about swimming. Every stroke you take while swimming provides propulsion but also creates drag. It pushes you forward but if even if you’re spot-on with your technique it will inevitably impede your forward movement slightly. In the truly extreme cases you see beginners screw up the timing on breaststroke so badly they end up going backwards.

The aim then is to take as few strokes as possible, which means each individual stroke should be as powerful and technically efficient as you can make it. Michael Phelps could manage an Olympic pool (50m) using about 34 strokes. When I was a lifeguard I could usually manage the 33m pool I worked at in about 23-24, and an former youth-international on the staff regularly did it in the mid-to-high teens (if those seem to compare slightly too favourably to a multiple Olympic medal winner, remember to factor in the glide after turning in a smaller pool).

One regular customer earned himself the nickname ‘Bath Toy’ due to his style; his trademark frenzied thrashing was usually put to great effect in hazing new staff, so indistinguishable was it from the panicked flailing of a genuinely drowning man. In as far as we could discern individual strokes, he usually managed the 33m in about 55. Still, you can’t deny he got a decent work-out from it so maybe he wouldn’t have given a toss about our less than generous analysis of his technique.



New teachers panic. That’s to be expected, if you are able to stand in front of a class for the first time ever and produce a smooth, compelling, and engaging lesson then you’re a better person than I. There is, however, a fairly specific form of panic for foreign language teachers attempting to conduct lessons entirely in the target language. Like the animal fear of fully submerging your face in water, it’s a form of panic that lessens with experience but never completely disappears. It’s liable to resurface (*ahem*) at any time.

For newer teachers it’s normally during explanations. For all that we try to emphasise the Show Don’t Tell aspects of language tuition, there are occasionally times when you really do just have to tell the students what you want – go there, do this, get that. The panic kicks in when you trot out your carefully prepared spiel only to find you’ve waded out of your depth and are now caught in a terrifying riptide of blankly mute incomprehension.

So you give it another go and, like the drowning man, the tendency is to flail; to try to do as much as you can as fast as you can to reach that seemingly impossibly distant driftwood plank of understanding.

No. Stop. Relax. Don’t swim against the current, go across it and do more with less. Most people’s initial instinct when faced with mis- or incomprehension is to rephrase things and add more detail. While those are perfectly reasonable strategies with native speakers they’re actively counterproductive with language learners because you’re not adding useful detail, your adding extra complexity that must be decoded by the listener.

Say exactly what you said again, word for word. Say it slower. If that still doesn’t work, say less, not more. Lower level learners haven’t developed the strategies native speakers take for granted when parsing sentences; they have no idea which words are important and which aren’t and so, until they learn otherwise, every word will be equally as important as every other. It’s why Simon Says is a crap game for beginners, it just doesn’t work because their language use isn’t sophisticated enough to edit out the seemingly less crucial information.

This is not an efficient form of communication. As a teacher it’s your job to teach them those strategies and that sophistication but, until you’ve done that, you have to supply them yourself. Less of the Noise, more of the Signal, because the more water you splash upwards, the less effectively you’re going to move yourself forwards.




I should also give a nod towards Ant of the unpronounceable Greek squiggle for dredging these ideas up again. See? The internet can occasionally be good for something other than porn and funny pictures of cats.

ETA - Chris offers some typically forthright suggestions for refinement over here.

22 comments:

  1. 'Antisthenes'. What, you weren't taught Ancient Greek at your school?

    Though I appreciate nods and links, I am left wondering if my post is being called impenetrable, and an example of poor explanation...

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    1. For all that I went to a state school with quite severe public school pretensions, they didn't quite stretch to making room in the curriculum for Greek or Latin, no.

      You're being thanked for jogging my memory at an opportune time, is all. To be honest I found the original post completely over my head, though that was mainly due to my lack of background knowledge and attention. Given that, your response to my comment was far more lucid and informative than I deserved.

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  2. Ha, reminds me of the time I was trying to teach "per" as in cost per kilogram. I kept talking about kms per litre of petrol and the class looked confused. Nothing seemed to work until I clued on that none of them knew the word "petrol"... only gas!

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    1. That's it exactly. Word choice is a killer. Not helped by that fact that what Americans call gas, well, isn't.

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    2. I'll have you know we NORTH Americans ALL call it 'gas', and far outnumber the rest of you other English speakers... I just hitched my Canadian wagon to the US...?

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    3. Hitch it wherever you like, my friend, still doesn't change the fact that 'gas' isn't gas ;)

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    4. Gasoline. And burning 'fags' or 'faggots' is a hate crime.

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  3. Love it! After three years as an ALT one of my schools got a graduate fresh out of teaching school (the first and only time I have ever outranked someone at work... and yes, I officially out ranked her) and I was asked to help her get used to the actual practice of teaching. After her first class she asked me how she did. Because I think teaching can only be learned, not taught (ironically), I just told her that she did well. In my head however, I spent the lesson thinking "Don't act so scared! Kids are like animals, they can smell you fear. And stop negotiating with them! Students are like terrorists, we never negotiate!"
    So basically, according to my inner monologue, my students are animal terrorists.

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    1. Thanks. My school's just got a load of fresh meat in too. You're absolutely right, kids can smell the fear. More to the point, if the teacher doesn't have confidence in what they're saying then why should the students?

      Thanks for commenting. And linking too, those little spikes in traffic are always nice to see :) Now if I could only work out how to follow facebook links back to source...

      For the sake of the new visitors (Hi, by the way, and good luck) I should clarify that it's not just about speaking more slowly, it's about choosing your language more carefully. Use fewer words, but make sure they are ALL necessary. More with less, remember.

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    2. "Kids are like animals, they can smell you fear. And stop negotiating with them! Students are like terrorists, we never negotiate!"

      Been a teacher for over a decade, and as a father of a toddler and infant I have to remind myself that my wife wouldn't know this instinctually, because neither did I once.

      She once threatened to take away the toddler's dessert if he didn't finish dinner. He didn't, and she was too fed up to fight, so let him have his dessert. So I said to her:

      "Look, sometimes I don't have the energy to fight with a kid, so I don't make the threat in the first place: save it for when you have the energy. But if you make a threat, you have to carry it out; if you take on a fight, you have to win!"

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    3. Oh god yeah, kids aren't stupid. Make a threat and don't follow through that'll get filed away and make stuff harder further down the road. Best not to make threats at all, in fact.

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    4. She did it again today! "If you don't eat I won't take you to the NHK concert." Now I'd love to give that a miss in Golden Week, but the J-wife is looking forward to it most of all.

      Me: "Are you really going to throw away three tickets you lined up in the rain to get?"
      Her: "... No..."
      Me: "Can you stop saying that shit?"

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  4. "There is, however, a fairly specific form of panic for foreign language teachers attempting to conduct lessons entirely in the target language."

    Which can be made much worse by an obvious lack of preparation. I'm pretty good at winging it, but without any anticipation of possible snags and no plan B's or plan C's, I can easily find myself doing the Bath Toy for all to see...

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    1. On the larger scale - activities and the like - you're absolutely right. On the micro-scale people tend to jump to B and C far too quickly, without giving A a proper chance to work.

      Either way, it is always -always- obvious if a teacher hasn't prepared. The lucky few can use that to give the class a bit of immediacy and energy, but more often than not it just ends up sucking.

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  5. If I were a King..
    I wouldn't have a Jester but I might have a bright eyed bushy tailed ALT straight off the plane heading to a big school in a big city. Watching that unfold via live feed would surely be more entertaining than some clown with jokes. The "Holy Shit...these kids are not listening to me and I don't know what to do" is a Youtube moment if there ever was one. Has anyone ever gotten that on film? Is it like a Yeti or Chuppacabra? Something witnessed and rumored but never caught on film?

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    1. I know quite a few teachers (both 'real' and the other sort ;) of quite a few subjects in quite a few countries, and without exception every single one of them said their first lesson sucked. The better ones used it as motivation to improve quickly, the poor ones didn't.

      Not that that disproves your point, of course. You know those youtube compilations of skateboarding fails that basically consist of five minutes of teenage boys whacking their nuts on railings? I'd pay good money for an ALT equivalent. There's clearly a gap in the market for that kind of thing :)

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  6. ive been teaching about six years and i still fuck up quite often. its just knowing how to handle it and not let anyone see you!!!! maybe at school u remember askin a teacher a question and they said "ok thats ur homework tonight - go and find the answer and u can tell us all tomorrow" - crafty way of saying "i dont know"? my first lesson is trauma-etched onto my brain - six czechs all looking very serious. i had a intro speech actually written down (where did i get that idea) and i was shaking like a leaf. when u r shakin like that u shouldnt read a speech, i managed to turn the light off by accident as well and also took about 2 mins to figure out how the projector worked. had a few stiff ones after that day. if there was a video of it it would be fuckin hilarious to see now

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    1. "six czechs all looking very serious."

      In my limited experience with people from the Czech Republic, this is pretty much par for the course :)

      I don't know about 'not letting anyone see you.' Everyone screws up from time to time, it's just a question of making sure it doesn't undermine your authority further down the line. I'm constantly telling my students that I want and expect them to make mistakes in their efforts to communicate, so I'm perfectly willing to turn my (rare, very rare ;) mistakes into 'teachable moments.'

      Still n' all, writing down an intro speech perhaps wasn't the best idea...

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    2. by not letting anyone see it i meant hiding the puddle forming at ur feet. a nappy works for me

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    3. thts what u meant by drowning right?

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  7. Less noise, more signal. That sums it up, I think!

    I've been the drowning man. One time I had to bike to from one school to another during lunch break in a rain storm and then teach the most uninterested class in my town... I arrived soaking wet of course. And the teacher was not one to help me out... then the principal came in to see the class. That day I was the drowning man. It sucked.

    Times like those it;s best to pull, back, take a deep breath, and just go at it slowly like you talk about here. Well written.

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    1. I didn't mean the bit about drowning quite so literally. You got the bit where I said it was a metaphor, right? ;)

      That said, I've definitely been there. Usually in rainy season too, where the humidity means your clothes are getting soaked from both sides. Still, at least the rain hides the sweat.

      Thanks.

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