The Tesla Coil

February 22, 2010

ESL vs. “Hamlet” – the remix (part 1)

Filed under: Remixes — Sputnik @ 1:18 pm

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

Is this

a) the wish of a snowman with an itch?

b) the thought of an IATEFL speaker just before they are due to give a paper?

c) a Shakespearean conceit which may prove instructive to ESL teachers?

Pity poor Shakespeare.  Here he was with a superlative plot for a play about a man who thinks rather than acts, and yet, how could he show it?  The most important feature of Hamlet the play is that Hamlet the character is a thinker. But what legitimate means did he have at his disposal to render the plight of Hamlet, and above all to give witness to Hamlet’s inner shoe-gazing?  He could not very well have the actor repeatedly wander across the stage in a dumbshow with his fist clasped to his brow, or looking wistfully from Elsinore’s battlements while he smoked a pipe.

No, he had to employ another solution.   And despite the claims of Elizabethan theatre to be ever more naturalistic than its predecessors, Shakespeare had to make recourse to a wholly artificial device in order to show Hamlet in action, or inaction – the soliloquy.  As the wonderful Margreta de Grazia remarks, ‘it is an awkward solution to be sure: speaking is asked to give the illusion of non-speaking’.  In other words, to access a greater reality, that of Hamlet’s inner self, we have to deliberately absent ourselves from reality, the reality where thoughts are silent, contriving in its abandonment to yield a more serviceable if less accurate truth.

Such theatrical pragmatism may also have a role in ESL instruction.  The general advocacy of natural, authentic and real English has never been more prominent – let us burn our textbooks, fling away their CDs like Frisbees, and condemn the school’s library of handouts to be turned into paper boats on paper seas.  But perhaps, if we can stop keeping it real for one moment, we might like to remember quite how useful the convenient fictions of course-books are.

As the great Henry Widdowson had cause to note, ‘the language subject as a pedagogic subject is not like the real object language’.  Textbook language is fake, of course it is – it’s a device we employ to get to the greater truth of communication.  Without it, we would be like a real Hamlet sans soliloquies, strutting the stage and moaning while looking wistfully into the distance: useless, uninteresting and, above all, mute.  Indeed, the real artifice is naturalism itself.  For quite in the same way as being on a stage renders everything artificial anyway, so does being in a classroom.  Is it not possible, then, that just as Shakespeare used the artifice of a soliloquy to give expression to Hamlet’s inner world, can we not use the artifice of textbook English to give expression to our students’ inner worlds?

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January 25, 2010

ESL vs. “Hamlet” – the remix (part 2)

Filed under: Remixes — Sputnik @ 12:54 pm

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.

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