Episode 3

Hello, and welcome to episode three of No Word Is An Island Advanced English, the podcast for inquisitive students of English who want to be more fluent and articulate.

One of the inconvenient truths of education is that the process of learning is not as straightforward as we think. Human beings can be quite fickle, that is, we often change our minds about things or people that we like, and can’t always be depended on. We are emotional beings and we can’t simply take in new information the way information is downloaded onto a computer. As the ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch wrote in his essay On Listening, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

In all likelihood you’ve already heard some version of this quotation, which has sometimes been misattributed to Socrates and William Butler Yeats. The trouble with these pithy statements is that they often sound like platitudes – statements that have been made many times before and are not interesting or clever. One thing I enjoy about getting older is that many of these nuggets of wisdom, which used to sound like mere platitudes, now reveal more of their depth to me. Experience has somehow made me more receptive to their truth.

So, how is this relevant to us? Why should you, as an English language learner, be concerned by what Plutarch had to say about education two thousand years ago? Whether we admit it or not, most teachers – and students – take for granted that we are all akin to empty containers waiting to be filled with knowledge. We assume that having access to accurate information is all that we need to learn. But nothing could be further from the truth

If you ask any language teacher to identify one habit that distinguishes average learners from exceptional ones they’re bound to agree that it’s reading. In fact, in my experience those learners who have an uncanny ability to express themselves in English are all voracious readers. Don’t get me wrong, there are more and more students who manage to achieve a pretty impressive degree of fluency largely by having watched loads of Netflix shows in English. But such students do not achieve the range of expression to hold their own in more formal contexts and express themselves articulately. 

Going back to Plutarch’s fire. Why is reading a novel so much more transformative than reading a coursebook? It’s simple. Human beings crave meaning and stories. Stories structure our very existence. And, at least when it comes to language, there’s no better way to learn. And the more you awaken to this truth, the more you realise that it’s not so much that we need stories to learn language but that we need stories to think and feel. And the more adventurous you become in your language learning journey, the more you realise that expanding your language allows you to have new thoughts and insights. Indeed, once you cross the B2 threshold and start on your journey as an advanced learner, you are honing not just your communication skills but also your very thinking. 

I was talking to a former student of mine recently, and she was telling me how she loves English because there are so many ways to say the same thing. Now, don’t get me wrong, what she said isn’t entirely wrong, but it made me realise that teachers do advanced students a disservice by simply teaching more ways of expressing the same thing. 

According to the Council of Europe’s companion volume to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, achieving a C2 level is not about sounding like a native speaker, but rather being able to express yourself with a high degree of precision, appropriateness and ease. Of these three criteria, precision is perhaps the one learners struggle with the most.

If we want to express ourselves precisely we need to be able to express a wide range of concepts. So rather than learning loads of idioms in the pursuit of sounding native-like, learn words and chunks that express important concepts. Take the example of “inconvenient truth” that I used at the beginning of today’s episode. This phrase was made popular by Al Gore, a former vice-president of the United States and environmental activist. The 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”, featuring Gore warning about the dangers of global warming, heralded the advent of a new global environmental awareness. 

As far as I know, Gore coined this idea of an inconvenient truth. At the very least he popularised it. This, to me, is an example of precise language. The idea that the truth can be inconvenient, that is, that it can be at odds with our behaviour and values, that it makes us feel uncomfortable, well I think this is a very important concept and one which can be applied in many areas of our lives. As I mentioned at the beginning, an inconvenient truth in language learning is that one of the strongest predictors of success is not the quality of teaching a student receives. This may seem inconvenient to teachers because it seems to make our role less important. But it’s actually quite liberating when you think about it because it means we can focus on nurturing better habits by encouraging our students to read more challenging, enriching texts. And, almost as a byproduct, students will end up with superior language skills, not to mention a deeper knowledge of the world and enhanced critical thinking.

Let me give you an example of a novel I’ve taught my students and how they benefited from it. A few years ago I was asked to teach a group of fourth-year Education students. They were graduating that year and had chosen to specialise in teaching English as a foreign language in primary schools. Now, that summer I had gone to Scotland for the first time to attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And while I was there I came across a novel by the well-known Scottish writer Muriel Spark called “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”. It’s a short, intense story set in 1930’s Edinburgh and focuses on Miss Jean Brodie, an unorthodox school teacher who builds an almost cult-like following among a group of girls. Anyway, I bought the book and read it and when I got back to Barcelona I was faced with the prospect of teaching an entire semester of advanced English students without a coursebook. And as I’d just finished this gem of a book all about a teacher and her students, I figured why not read it with my students.

gem stones

One of the challenges of working in a faculty of education is that educators often deal in platitudes. When you ask education students why they want to become teachers, the usual reply is “Because children are the future”. Quite frankly that answer makes me want to scream because it suggests that the speaker hasn’t really given this question much deep thought. 

In a sense this book – “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” – was an antidote to such sophomoric ideas – it is not your average romanticised view of education. It’s not Dead Poets Society. (You can Google that if you’re under 40. It was a very popular film starring Robin Williams as a charismatic English professor.) Miss Jean Brody was a single, independent woman back at a time when that was not the norm. She was well-travelled and shared with her girls her love of culture and beauty. She regaled them with stories of her travels to Rome. Oh, and did I mention she was a Mussolini sympathiser? And that she had favourites among her pupils and demanded absolute loyalty? She was charismatic and inspiring yet also narcissistic and impulsive. In short, she was complicated – and very human. 

Carlton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland

A fair amount of the class discussion revolved around whether Miss Brody was a good or bad teacher, which to a certain extent was missing the point. But still, all sorts of interesting questions came up about what it means to be a teacher and more fundamentally the profound and unexpected ways in which people influence the course of our lives. What’s more, the novel gave my students a glimpse into a bygone time. They were made aware of fascist ideology and how incipient forms of feminism were already present nearly a century ago. They learned about key figures in Protestantism in Scotland and what the Reformation was and why it still matters in the modern-day. Perhaps most importantly it showed them a more nuanced and raw view of human relationships than they could ever get from their university psychology lectures.  

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie may not be the book that lights your fire. But rest assured there are plenty of books, articles and essays out there that will. If there’s one thing to take away from today’s episode it’s this. If you develop a consistent reading habit your English is bound to improve. In fact, if you’re aiming for a C2 level it’s a sine qua non, that is, a prerequisite. Choose texts that challenge you and make you more knowledgeable about the world. I highly recommend reading: The Guardian, The Guardian Weekly (a weekly magazine containing the top articles from The Guardian and The Observer), The Economist, The Times Literary Supplement and The New Yorker. Both The Times Literary Supplement and The New Yorker contain book reviews that will give you ideas about what books to read, both fiction and non-fiction. Once you find a publication you enjoy, consider getting a subscription. While pricey, subscriptions are a worthwhile investment. If you want free online reading materials, I highly recommend the Electric Typewriter, which contains links to free articles and essays by some of the world’s best journalists and writers and The Marginalian, formerly known as Brain Pickings, which has posts on topics such as art, science, poetry and philosophy.
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