Musing after class

Two of my students are lovely retired ladies who are pursuing English for their own pleasure. We’ve been working together for over two years now and they have graduated into being able to read novels in English, but they still struggle a bit understanding spoken English. We have worked with several films and there is progress. So, at their request, we are now reading Pride and Prejudice, unabridged, and watching the BBC film with Colin Firth, which is quite faithful to the book.

Today was our first lesson with the new book. We read the first two chapters together, discussing the implications, explaining the mentality of the period, and translating an occasional word that they didn’t know or that could be confused. Their level is good enough not to require much translation. Then we watched the first three scenes on the video and compared what we saw and heard to the original text. It was a pleasant class and they were enjoying themselves, appreciating the irony of Jane Austen’s writing. When we had finished, one of the students remarked that the book was easier for her to read than the last novel we read, A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton.

Now I had chosen that detective novel because Sue Grafton’s style is elegantly simple, almost limpid, and I thought it would be easier for my students than, for example, something by P.D. James. Then a little bell tinkled in my head and I remembered an incident from my days in the Lycée. My advanced class was studying a text by Winston Churchill when we received a group of American students as guests. After the class, the Americans told me that the text was too difficult! One said, “I didn’t understand half the words myself!” I then realized that the “difficult words” that the Americans struggled with were the very words that made the text easy for my students because they were cognates for French speakers.

High frequency English words derive predominantly from Anglo-Saxon. Lower frequency words will more often be derived from French or Latin, therefore cognates. I now realize that choosing Jane Austen’s novel was not as ambitious as I had thought. I’m looking forward to my next class, knowing that there will be more discussion since the students  are finding the reading easy.

In TPRS we call it PQA, Personalized Questions and Answers. I call it conversation. Today I learned something new about Mr. Darcy when I thought I knew all about him. It’s often said that teachers learn as much as their students, and one of the joys of our profession is the fascinating things you pick up from students. I’ve recently learned about free-style scooters and The Walking Dead (from younger students), but today I discovered that the scene in which Mr. Darcy dives into the lake and comes out soaking wet is considered the most exciting scene in English drama. I was surprised because it doesn’t exist in the book and I thought it a rather tacky additon myself. My student said that there’s even a giant statue in London of Mr. Darcy in his wet shirt. After class I googled it and discovered that the statue is in Hyde Park as a publicity stunt. (Don’t ask me what they’re selling.) I also discovered that there is a “Mr. Darcy’s Wet Shirt Appreciation Society” on Facebook, and that Colin Firth said the original script called for him to strip and dive in naked, but that he and BBC were too prudish. And the screenwriter said they had him keep on his shirt because of his “love handles”.

How will we follow this up? My students are to listen to the video with the English subtitles and pick out words and expressions they can hear that don’t get into the subtitles. The goal is simply to attune their ears to spoken English. And I’ve found a lovely little video from Lost in Austen, that I will use to exploit the “Wet Shirt Appreciation” angle.

Image credit Arne Koehler, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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