And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us.
One of the most extraordinary scenes in English literature takes place in the graveyard of Elsinore during the funeral of Ophelia. Laertes, brother of Ophelia, jumps in her grave and commands that they pile up the dirt upon him until he is buried under a mountain of it. Disturbed that anyone should overreach his own excessive grief, Hamlet promptly joins Laertes in Ophelia’s grave and claims that 40 000 brothers could not have the amount of love for Ophelia that he has. He then goes on to issue a series of dares that would prove his love, such as eating a crocodile. Finally, Hamlet declares that he too would be happily buried alive with Ophelia but that he would be buried under millions of acres until the mountain reached the sun.
This hyperbolic episode, of course, has immediate resonance with the teaching of ESL (yes, it does) . There is a sublimity to it, an asymmetry between Hamlet and Laertes’ grief and its practical expression, which also finds an affiliation, if not a completely different emotional hue (I hope), in the basic project of all TESL. The fundamental premise of each and every student’s career is that they cannot do that which they seek to do. Students begin with an asymmetry – they want to communicate in a language they cannot speak.
There is a kind of glorious foolhardiness about the enterprise of learning such a vast thing as a language. Hours, amounting to weeks and weeks of labour, are required just to sound like a fool. Fluency itself is a dream akin to piling up a mountain of dirt from which to touch the sun. Rarely do so many people announce such a blissful disregard for the present and invest so much energy, effort and time into a project of seemingly monumental sublimity as when they sign up to an English course. There is a magnificence to it of which I am happy to partake.