In 2005, the late lamented David Foster Wallace made a memorable speech to graduating students of Kenyon College which was posthumously published under the title This Is Water.
A few years back, inspired by this, I decided to make my own humble address at the end of an advanced English language course in Italy which I called my ‘Where do we go from here?’ lesson.
Today, I found my notes and decided to post it here (complete with DFW style asides in italics).
It comes over as much more pretentious and self-conscious I think but I delivered it with the best of intentions, hoping to end the course on a thoughtful note rather than a lame ‘goodbye and good luck’ message.
Anyway, here it is warts and all (comments welcome):
Nowadays, it’s common to hear people talking about life-long learning.
[I ask who has heard of the phrase ‘lifelong learning’ – nobody has!]
One time, there was the mistaken idea that when you finished school or university, your official period of learning was finished – your next goal was to find work and earn a good salary. But learning is not a finite thing. In a very real sense it never ends.
[The students look as though they are thinking: ‘Where is all this leading? – Does he think we’re dumb?]
People who remain curious about the world are, in my view, those who are most alive.
[The students look as though they are thinking: ‘He DOES think we’re dumb’]
Many qualifications will technically be valid for life but, in practice, they are only usually recognized for two to three years. The reason for this is, in part, business orientated – but the less money orientated justification for this is that language skills have to be continually updated.
And it is true that if you stop practicing a language you will lose the edge – you will still be able to understand on a fundamental level but not much more.
For you, at this stage of your lives you are faced with a lot of choices and it would easy to set aside English if it is not immediately necessary for your career or study needs.
[I am definitely getting all David Foster Wallace on their asses at this point!]
This is my view would be a pity. You have the opportunity to build on what you know and develop your skills, not simply to pass tests but, to use the wording of the common European framework, to move from being a ‘modest’ user to being a ‘competent’ or ’good’ user and ultimately an ‘expert user’.
There is no magic formula for how you move from one level to the next. One of the aspects of language learning is that you constantly feel you have reached a kind of plateau where you don’t get worse but you don’t feel you are improving either. And, in the words of the U2 song, some days are better than others.
[I toy with the idea of playing the video to this song to break the heavy didactic tone but think better of it. A wise move!]
My own experience of this is from learning Italian, which I have never really studied in a methodical way, as I probably should, but have simply picked up as I’ve gone along over the last 17 years (now 20) of living here. I would like to improve my Italian and I hope you would like to improve your English.
So how can we do this? We can study grammar books and memorize lists of words and rules but this is neither interesting nor necessarily a guarantee that you will become an expert.
There must be other ways. It’s up to you to decide what these are.
Modern technology has opened up the world so that information is now available in a way it never was before. Can this help us learn a language?
What I would like is that you individually find the motivation to learn English for its own and not just to pass exams.
I wish you all the best.
[My impression was that I didn’t connect as I had hoped I would. My captive audience was made up of university students used to taking tests and the majority don’t seem to see anything intrinsically bad in this. It’s just the way it is. If only one student got what I was trying to do I’d be happy]