The Night Sky
‘We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened – Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many.’
Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1885 (p. 131, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2009)
How do we make sense of the sky? It’s a fair question, as we lie on the grass on a summer’s night and recognise no more than a handful of stars and constellations. The North Star, maybe Orion. The Big Dipper, which is also the Great Bear. Bears and dippers (or ladles) have never been mistaken for one another, outside of the night sky. But here they mean the same, giving us a familiar reference point among all the speckles.
From where I’m laying, we don’t know whether language was made or just happened either. Is language innate or socially contingent? I allow that it’s both, with a latent capacity triggered and shaped by context.
Acquisition theory aside, I want to think about language from the learner perspective. Because a new language is a little like the night sky – familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. We pretty much know what we’re looking at, and we quickly recognise a few reference points, but we wish there was more to hold onto.
That’s what this series of a dozen posts is all about: finding things to hold onto, finding ways to navigate, and hopefully becoming better language learners along the way.
I’m going to propose a range of spaces for learning, some of them more obvious, some of them perhaps less so, and I want to invite you to join with me in imagining how those spaces could be used by your students to maximum effect.
It’ll be even better if you ask your students to try out the ideas, and there’s a [webspace, to be agreed] where you can share their work and your feedback across the autumn.
The kind of learning I have in mind can be done in or out of class. It can be done by students independently, and by groups of friends who want to help each other learn.
Well these spaces are going to range from big to small, in that order – so let’s start with the largest one: the night sky.
Have you ever looked at the sky all along a summer’s evening? First we see one and then two stars, but as the last light dies we see more and more, and soon it’s too many to count.
Learning English can feel like this – a slow start, a period when we feel more or less in control, and then the realisation that we’ll never know all the words.
As with the night sky, there’s so much out there – almost too much to comprehend. But as an ordinary star-gazer, I just want to know what I can see with the naked eye.
It’s not such a bad way to think about language. What can we see? What do we need to know? And how can we teach ourselves to remember it?