Once upon a time, when training for my teacher education, I was made to read a number of pedagogy books. Most of them were pretty dull, to be honest, but one did capture my attention. Le maître ignorant, by Jacques Rancière, which tells the story of a late 18th century French professor who comes to teach Flemish students in Leuven, without sharing a language with them. The story has Joseph Jacotot and his students stumbling, feeling, probing, at times quite clumsily, into each others’ worlds. Learning occurs, but slowly, seemingly without plan or direction, and whether any teaching is involved remains unclear.
The past couple of weeks have reminded me of Rancière’s ignorant ‘master’ quite a bit, as I started participating in (and, nominally at least, ‘co-teaching’) an MA research seminar in Finnish – a language I don’t master nearly well enough to have a reasonable conversation in. And so what I do in the seminar cannot be called teaching by any stretch of the imagination, But I’m finding it a highly useful exercise in so many ways (quite apart from the obvious value it has in exposing me to a language I’m trying to learn).
- every week, I’m forced to read something slowly, methodically, halted by frequent consultation of the dictionary. This is far removed from my usual practice: I’m a pretty fast reader, and reading with focus and efficiency is one of the skills I’ve developed most over the last decade or so. It’s what has kept me afloat in what can sometimes be a quite frantic life as a researcher. As a result, I’ve also gotten quite good at recognizing (and producing or improving) textual structure and tone. But none of that is available to me in Finnish. Unable to grasp subtleties, I am left with only content. It provides me with an odd sense of focus. “What is this text about?” is no longer a pedantic question about clarity or style. It’s a genuine problem to be solved.
- It may be the only conversation in my life I actually give my full attention to. There is simply no room to multitask. In fact, I can’t let my attention slip even for a moment, because more than my lack of vocabulary, my inability to predict where any sentence will go, forces me to be completely invested in the present moment. This, I have learned (or perhaps remembered) is what fluency brings above all. Not so much the ability to express oneself without trouble, but rather to anticipate what others may say or do. When speaking a language I ‘know’, I’m formulating answers in my head as I listen to others, I quickly look up a reference whilst keeping half an ear tuned to the ongoing discussion, I balance the value of what I think I have to say against its potential damage to the natural flow of the conversation. There are no such niceties when I intervene in a Finnish conversation. I can’t tell when a sentence will end before it does – and I usually only figure out what it means when it has already become irrelevant in the conversation. Every statement I make becomes portentous – and therefore much more vulnerable.
It’s conversational role, I realized, I am no longer used to. Balances of power and comfort in academic conversations are complicated, and I’m rarely confident going into them. But I had forgotten what it’s like to be the least fluent person in the room. It’s a good reminder to get, once in a while.