Monthly Archives: April 2009

Homage to a Teacher

We were in grade seven when a new teacher took over our lethargic and intimidated class. We had been beaten, bullied, and often mocked by his predecessor. With the tip of his cane – for the absence of a whip, I suppose – he would point out of the window, as if he were saying, “Look, this is what is awaiting you in the word of grown-ups. So you had better get used to it.”

Mr. Leonhard, whom we called “Leo” for short, was a natural leader. Yes, I have deliberately chosen this word as it describes his character best. He possessed all of the traits one would find much later in countless studies when trying to isolate the “universal leadership trait” in management personnel. He was confident and would inspire confidence; he was energetic and would miraculously pass on his energy. He had the ability to set high standards combined with an abundance of knowledge in many fields and he expected his standards to be met as if it were the most natural thing in the world. When assigning group work, he would pinpoint responsibility and relentlessly follow up on the common “group spongers”. More importantly, Leo was also the instigator of my discovery that self-study or autodidactic learning was crucial to achieving good results in any field of knowledge.

I still vividly remember the first day when he stormed into the classroom, stopping briefly to take a deep breath, doing his teaching bit, then stopping again – this time to breathe out before he left the classroom. He had literally come, seen, and won. On the very first day, he, being a very good maths teacher, had established that our entire class was about one grade below standard. No problem, he asserted confidently, and soon he proved it wasn’t.

Leo’s unshakable and contagious positive attitude had us hanging on to every word of his when he was lecturing and participating eagerly when his presentation demanded a more interactive involvement. We were keen to study and many of my classmates, including myself, satisfied by far the requirements for homework. We would accept and imbibe knowledge as a precious gift. The words “discipline, study, exercise, knowledge, grammar, and homework” were not dirty words for us and we didn’t need to wash our mouths out with chocolate when we said them.

I have been wondering from time to time, how he would fare in this day and age. I met very, very few teachers like him later; when I was in Germany between overseas jobs I attended Cambridge Proficiency classes, or courses purporting to be on that level, so as not to lose my language skills. It was about that time when the responsibility for teaching-results was shifted from the teacher upon the students or group. Course descriptions might have read something like: ““Active participation is a prerequisite to the success of the language course”. He probably would have replied, “Without input, no output.” Now, please don’t ask me about the difference between active and passive participation.

How would Leo do in the Germany of today, where the unrestrained application of the doctrines of a liberal and permissive society has introduced social work into education? I simply cannot imagine him, standing there, asking what the class would like to do. Or would they rather have another cup of coffee before proceeding? Or explaining for 10 long minutes what he was going to do in the following 45 minutes and spending the last 5 minutes, summarizing what we had done in the remaining 30 minutes?

And would he have writhed in agony when reading the account of a German high school teacher published in the HAZ (Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung) in which she disclosed about two years ago that the teaching material she is using now for grade 12 students was used only a few years earlier for grade 10 students. And how would he have rated the standard of performance of these adult kids once they have become business leaders, politicians, administrators, army officers, judges and teachers, and not to forget – bankers? Perhaps, “the blind leading the blind”?

And what about the excessive use of child-like drawings and graphics in full-colour editions of text books with lots of empty space to scribble onto? And what would he have said about using the very same sort of text books in adult education? Probably, he would have said that it remained to be seen if these improvements would contribute to achieving measurable results, and, in the long run, to raising standards.

And would he have averted his eyes in defeat at attempts by Dr. Joachim Grzega to mutilate the English language with his new method of a language teaching programme? The linguist with a mission advocates a sort of simplified simple-speak, namely his “BGE” or “Basic Global English”. According to him, this teaching programme of his own invention is to accelerate the acquisition of a mutilated sort of English and which is no more than a barely elevated pidgin English or neo-pidgin English. He has reduced English grammar to about 20 rules and a 750-word basic vocabulary, which will be extended by 250 words adapted to the individual needs of pupils according to their hobbies and interests. Pupils are encouraged to speak “fluently wrong” right from the start, which is quite bizarre because parents would never tolerate poor language in their native tongue. Judging by an article published in the weekly magazine “Der Spiegel”, I gather that emphasis is placed on avoiding only the most embarrassing mistakes and accepting gibberish-like language,  rather than imparting knowledge of a tried and tested and established code of standard English communication. Leo would probably have said that he was not finicky about corrections for the sake of correctness, but for the ambiguities, misunderstandings or even abstruseness resulting from too simple or incorrect a language.

As to avoiding embarrassing mistakes, those could run into millions in ever new combinations. A formidable task this is and to me it looks pretty counterproductive.
Why reduce a tried and tested, effective code of communication to the lowest common denominator when you have to patch it up? There likely to be millions of embarrassing or hilarious pitfalls – or both.

To revert to my subject, decades later, I found out that Leo had not held a teaching degree and had not even had a crash course in pedagogy. He was a university graduate in engineering and a tank commander in World-War II. Doubtless, he could have confronted the most obstreperous youngsters in the most unruly school you would find in this day and age. He managed to become a teacher simply for the fact that there was a shortage of teachers after the war and that he happened to belong to the right church. And he was forgiven by the class for having an affair with a very young and beautiful music teacher who had taken the fancy of most of the boys going through puberty as it were.

About this posting

This posting is part of a series dedicated to topics dealing with various aspects of the English language which usually get short shrift on the internet and in other publications. It is, in a wider sense, concerned with the English language crumbling into incomprehensibility at alarming speed and how society is influenced by it. How do schools and universities react and in what way is literature affected by all this? Furthermore, how do people working in education and linguistics cope with this avalanche of “Local English neologisms”?
What often sounds like modern Pidgin English can generally be put down to neo-pidginicity. It is an artificially accelerated and manipulated process – or rather linguistic genetic engineering – of attempting to oversimplify Standard English, the result of which is in all cases some sort of Neo Pidgin English or Simplified-Simple-Speak. Four major fields of contact contribute to the gradual encroachment on Standard English: Basic Global English, as advocated by Dr. Joachim Grzega, machine translations of any kind, unedited documents and publications – frequently of international validity – being passed off as standard English but in fact written by non-native speakers of English, the acceptance of “Local English” and non-native speakers of English teaching their version of “Local English”. The result of the English “produced” in all these areas of contact is often, at best, a barely elevated Pidgin English.
And to compound matters, Globish appears to become a composite haphazard mixture of all about 180 Local Englishes and may for that very reason not be as easy as some people think once it has evolved into a sub-language of Standard English.
Finally, it would be interesting to see the first book written in Basic Global English, Dr. Joachim Grzega`s novel and daring invention and see in which section bookshops will display such a work of art.