A was an Archer
OISE Cambridge | Monday, January 09, 2017
He that never learns his ABC, forever will a blockhead be...
I’ve been looking at some eighteenth century alphabets, designed to help children with their ABC, and some of them have some pretty rum, and no-doubt memorable,
Learning a language is in part learning to parrot template or example sentences, paradigms for given structures. My own template examples are banal by
comparison with the eighteenth century. I sometimes tell my students that if they lived on the moon, they’d eat a lot of cheese, but that’s about as
far as my imagination will stretch. Beyond that, it’s all about what they will do if it rains, or what is going to happen when those black clouds come
over (why so many weather-related paradigms? – perhaps that merits another post). I hate to think how many students now know that I’ve been to Spain,
but that my grandfather, God rest his soul, never made it there. And so on.
It’s possible that more memorable examples stick better in the mind (although a New Scientist article I sometimes read with my students tells me there
is no evidence for that). The problem with zany examples is that they might not be clear from context. And I suppose that is always the goal: develop
examples in a meaningful context of some sort, or examples which are pertinent to the student.
But the examples I stored away when I was learning Italian were without context, and none the worse for it. I still remember many of them. I remember
what I would do if I were beautiful (se fossi bello, andrei con molte donne); and how you express that you were nearly run over by the bus.
These, and others, were strangely useful to me, an odd poetic little tool box, the core of whatever current competence I now have. Fluency, as I often
tell my students, is a trick: you need paradigmatic examples, and the competence to manipulate them. That is all.
No doubt there were many children in the eighteenth century who through life remembered that the Quarreller broke both his shins, and that the Ostler
stole horse’s corn, just as there will be many twenty-first century learners of English who will always know what to when it rains, and what they can
eat if they go to the moon. And that their teacher is a madman who beat out his eyes.