“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
― Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

In my first blog, The Night Sky, we considered language in terms of recognition. The examples we used were constellations, and the learning analogy was word maps.

In this post I want to use a different space, the oceans, to reflect on the idea of boundaries.

The earliest sailors believed the world was flat, and feared they would fall off the edge of the world if they voyaged too far. I’ve sometimes thought about lesson plans in this way: the way we manage learning is so careful that it makes us nervous of what lies beyond.

Of course what the great navigators discovered was that the world has no edge and can be sailed around (even if circumnavigation until the construction of the Suez and Panama canals meant risk-ing everything around the Capes of Good Hope and Cape Horn).

We should think of lessons and lesson plans as being curved, not flat. There are no edges on a globe, and there is always a route of return – whether we backtrack or just keep on going.

The seas make an interesting analogy for language learning. Like the oceans, language learning can be divided up into different skills, which in reality flow into one another.

There are five oceans (Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Southern and Antarctic), or seven oceans (with both Pacific and Atlantic divided into North and South), and as many as seventy seas (Google them), according to the International Hydrographic Organization – it depends how you count!

And while the oceans can be named as different bodies, the essential element – water, in a state of calm or upheaval, warm or cold – is the same. We don’t learn entirely different methods of naviga-tion for different oceans, although we need to know where the rocks, icebergs and sirens lurk. Our experience of water is fundamentally the same: we need to float, and we need to sail.

In the same way, our experience of language is fundamentally the same, whatever skills we might be using at any given time: we need to understand, and we need to communicate.

When we itemise language skills we usually list four basics – typically listening, speaking, reading and writing. Some, however, say there are more. So Barry Tomalin argues for the addition of cul-ture – and Peter McKenzie-Brown for the ability to think in another language. Martin Boehme pro-poses six skills, adding pronunciation and memorisation.

Of course classroom life is different to everyday life, and focusing on a language skill can be help-ful. But we also need to learn how to navigate language as a lived experience, and I’m not sure it’s helpful to divide so much of the syllabus, and so much of our classroom time, into separate skills work.

I can see the value of boundaries from a planning perspective, whether it’s designing a curriculum, coursebook syllabus or lesson plan. But these boundaries create a false sense of security for teachers, who may not develop more complex classroom skills, and for learners, who find them-selves struggling to communicate when the real need arises.

Rather than focusing primarily on separate skills work, it might be more helpful to think of language as a complex organic experience – a kind of multi-tasking environment demanding multiple simul-taneous responses. This would in turn demand a different kind of materials design.

Consider how we often read: while moving, while speaking, while listening to others (think of the texts we encounter while walking down the street, let alone on our phones). The same is true of the way we write: we’re using our mobiles to send messages, often very important ones relating to work or relationships, whilst simultaneously decoding a whole range of other language stimulus. We can be moving, speaking and listening while we do this – and of course reading what the other person writes in reply!

Our language experience is very different now to what it was even 10 years ago, let alone 50: it’s normal for many of us to hang out with people face-to-face, while keeping in touch with work or friends online via our smart phones. The idea of sitting down to do nothing but read a book, or set-tling down just to listen to music, can feel like a rare luxury – or kind of weird, depending on how old you are – these days.

Come to think of it, the division of course books into units of themed material also feels a little out of date. Again because of new technology, we spend a lot of our time in more than one headspace, community or even language at one time. To reflect this, coursebooks should have at least two themes per unit, and teachers and students should have to negotiate them at the same time.

If all this seems a little ambitious (not a bad word in my book), let’s return to that idea of the curved lesson plan. If a lesson is curved, like the globe, we can’t fall off. If we learn to multi-task in the classroom, we can learn to navigate language in real life. And we’ll be ok.

© Luke Meddings 2015

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