Language as a living organism

A friend of ours in Cameroon was a Dutch botanist working for a German museum. He spent all day every day in the forest looking for plants that had been collected and classified for the museum before World War I, when Cameroon was a German colony. After two world wars many of their samples from Cameroon had been lost, destroyed or damaged. His job was to find the original plants and send new samples to the museum.

One day he found the plant that every botanist dreams of. An uncollected plant, a lovely white, night blooming flower that had never been identified before. Very excited, he dug up a complete sample with roots and all, took it home and then, since we were eating with him and our car was in the garage, came to pick us up. He was very excited and told us all about his wonderful find, how, as its discoverer, he would be allowed to give the new plant his own name.

Then we arrived at his home for dinner. His wife had made a nice meal and the maid had set the table with a pretty cloth and flowers decorating each place. Horror and catastrophe! The unlucky girl had found the plant her employer had brought back from the forest and had taken all the flowers from it to decorate the table, scattering bits of greenery and blossoms between the plates from one end to the other.

Our friend, normally a very mild man, began to shout in fury. His great scientific discovery had been reduced to little bits of stems and flowers. His wife, pitying the maid, suggested that they could reassemble all the parts and still send the plant to the museum. He was even more outraged, saying that no respectable scientist would accept a plant that had been pieced back together. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to locate the place where he had found it again and he might never again have an opportunity to name a flower.

Language is the lovely, wild flower growing in the forest. It has no need of names or explanations. With its stems and blossoms and roots and leaves it is an organic whole. When teachers present language as comprehensible input, in context, rooted in the earth with all its parts working together to produce meaning, we keep the language whole and our students are able to see it as a living organism. As we use the whole language to interact with them, to communicate, they see it breathe and grow before their eyes. And thus it takes root and grows in their brain, reproducing itself as it becomes their thing, their personal tool that they can use to express their own ideas and thoughts. As teachers we must be as careful as botanists to maintain the integrity of the language, to keep it whole rather than breaking it down into “parts of speech.”

Teachers who spend precious class time talking about the language, although they are doing what their own teachers did before them, although they are well-meaning and find beauty in the bits and pieces of their lessons, are like our friend’s maid, using a very precious and unique plant to make a pretty dinner table. The end result is a dead organism reduced to broken parts of the whole that our students are unable to put back together.

As Cato the Elder said, “Grasp the subject, the words will follow.” Simply put, to learn to speak a language all you need is someone to talk to and something to talk about. Comprehensible Input teachers talk to their students about things that interest them. TPRS uses stories to keep their interest, but the stories are preceded by PQA, Personalized Questions and Answers, and nothing is more compelling than talking about ourselves. Throughout the lesson, the language is whole and organic. We don’t clip off the “difficult” bits like the subjunctive or the past perfect or future conditional. We use whatever is needed while we focus on meaning, on being comprehensible. When our students grasp the subject, they find the words they need.

I showed my students the first scene of The Lord of the Rings, the Prologue. “Three rings were given to the elves…. Seven rings were given to the dwarf-lords … and nine rings were given to the kings of men … but another ring was made … they were all of them deceived.” We discussed it and I questioned them. How many rings were given to the dwarfs? To the elves? Where was the master ring made? Weeks later, discussing a later scene in the movie, I asked, “Who made the master ring?” One of my students answered, “The ring was made by Sauron.”

Did he know that he was using the passive voice? No. Could he tell you what the passive voice construction is? No. Did he need a schema to help him find the correct auxiliary? No. Was he using it correctly and appropriately? Yes.

So let us be gardeners that cultivate beautiful plants, plants that live and grow in our students’ minds as an organic whole. We know that acquiring another language opens up worlds, letting us communicate with marvelous people from distant lands, many of whom have no idea what the passive voice construction is, though they use it every day.

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