Hello, and welcome back to No Word Is An Island Advanced English, the podcast for English language learners who want to be more fluent and articulate. Remember that this podcast is designed to be used with he interactive transcript and Quizlet flashcards available at BetterLanguageLearning.com/podcast. As you read the script you’ll notice words and chunks highlighted in pink. By hovering over them with your mouse or finger you’ll see a complete definition with information on register too. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, on with the show!
For years one of my favourite newspaper columns was This Column Will Change Your Life by Oliver Burkeman. It was a charming, humorous and critical look at pop psychology, social science research, philosophy and religion. He brought to all of his columns an insatiable curiosity to understand human experience and a healthy scepticism and wit. Needless to say, when he announced his retirement from the column about six months ago, I was really disappointed. The good news is that there’s a huge archive of past columns that we can all explore, and I urge you all to do so using the link in the interactive transcript. We shouldn’t take for granted that The Guardian is virtually the only top-notch international newspaper whose online content remains entirely free.
Last week I was listening to an interview on The Psychology Podcast, hosted by the endearingly nerdy Scott Barry Kaufman, with Oliver Burkeman, who’s promoting his new book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. This is a time of year when a lot of us are taking stock of our goals and are thinking about our plans for the future. As you’re probably well aware, this is a process full of pitfalls. It’s easy to get ahead of ourselves and make ambitious plans that, in our heart of hearts, we know will never come to fruition.
The more jaded among us might take this as proof that setting goals is just a fool’s errand. Why bother with goals if we aren’t going to reach them? And, to be fair, there is something appealing about this question. I for one have given up countless times on goals in the past based on this logic. Unlike practically every other person writing on goals and personal development, Burkeman’s ideas are devoid of the usual self-help wishful thinking. His point is almost the opposite. He claims that it’s precisely once we accept that we’re going to miss out on almost everything in life that we can get down to the business of actually giving our all to whatever is right in front of us. It sounds counterintuitive, but hearing this grim reality actually cheered me up.
I’m not sure I’m able to capture quite how insightful – and entertaining – this interview is. But if you feel torn between different priorities in your life and feel that you’re somehow not fully committed to them, this interview may help you find a greater sense of clarity. I think we’re all collectively primed to think that clarity is the natural state of things when nothing could be further from the truth. Uncovering our values and motivations is a constant work in progress – and the sooner we can stop wishing our problems away but using them as the fuel for our development the better. This takes effort and is uncomfortable.
Take this podcast. It is the result of my deep desire to put my own spin on language learning. It is about sharing the things I love and being unabashedly myself. But it isn’t a walk in the park, if only because it’s surprisingly scary putting myself out there and being subjected to scrutiny.
As language teachers we are often trained and socialised to see our main goal as the teaching of information, be it grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation. Yeah, there’s some cultural stuff, but for the most part it’s an an afterthought. We may teach the odd short story or poem here or there, but it’s not part of the official syllabus. Nowadays the very idea of a literary canon, that is, that there’s a set of great books that everyone agrees on, has become an anachronism. Still, I think we’re doing ourselves and our students a disservice by carrying on without good quality extensive reading programmes in place. And we’re depriving our students of what constitutes the core of a true education: challenging and rewarding reading. There’s a word for this attitude: philistinism.
What’s more, we get our students to write countless essays without ever exposing them to good models. How many language school students have read an essay that brings them to tears or makes them laugh uncontrollably? How many have read an essay that’s raunchy or subversive or disturbing? Such essays exist and the world is better for them. But our students remain in the dark, convinced that an essay is nothing more than a few dull paragraphs stuffed with furthermores and therefores.
And why do we never suggest that our students try and write for themselves as their primary reader? There is solid evidence showing that journaling on a regular basis about challenging events in the past as well as contemplating your ideal future has a positive impact on physical and mental health. For instance, university students who struggle academically are more likely to finish their degree if they engage in this practice. And yet as teachers we carry on doing what we’re familiar with, handing out assignments that are at best tangentially meaningful to our students and then pretending to be surprised by their lacklustre writing.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call going through the motions, that is, doing things without really believing they’re important and meaningful, simply out of a kind of existential inertia. Now, if you think I’m suggesting we all start a riot and burn down the schools and universities, well, no, that would be missing the point. What we need to do is disabuse students of the belief that good writing is simply pretty turns of phrase. This takes me back to a point I made in an earlier episode that far too many language learners mistakenly assume that reaching a C2 level in English consists of simply learning more ways of saying the same thing rather than of learning entirely new concepts.
So, as a student what are you to do? Find compelling, challenging reading material in your areas of interest. A huge amount of language development comes about through a process called lexical priming. If I said to any English-speaking child “Once upon a ____” they would no doubt fill in the gap by saying “time”. How is that? Well, that’s how every story a child hears begins. And so the brain is primed to expect that word in this pattern. This is why in previous episodes I’ve recommended long-form journalism from sources like The New Yorker, The Economist and The Times Literary Supplement, because you’ll be primed with the kind of language
you’ll need at C2. What’s more, you’ll be primed in other ways, that is, you’ll be primed not just lexically but intellectually – you’ll be exposing yourself to the careful thinking of expert journalists and essayists. With any luck some of their coherence and insightfulness might rub off on us.
Your only risk is discovering a detour that’s even more rewarding than your final destination. If you’re wondering where to start, why not read this absolutely mind-blowing piece from The New Yorker entitled The Science of Mind Reading. And if you haven’t ever kept a journal, what’s stopping you?
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The first Quizlet set contains the definitions of each word and chunk while the second provides gap fills with the vocabulary in new contexts.