The Curse of Knowing the Curse of Knowledge

I first ran into this term in Steven Pinker’s writing manual that came out a few years ago (sidenote: I’m at the age where “a few years ago” could be anytime since John Kerry was a Presidential candidate).  As I understand it, the curse of knowledge refers to the inability of people, once they understand something, to remember what it was like not to understand it.  That is, the present me who knows stuff has very little empathy for the people, including the former me, who don’t.  If I didn’t have on pretty good authority that the former me is a pretty nice bloke, I’d swear he was willfully ignorant or just incapable of noticing the patterns in the events around him.

This tidbit from psychology has fairly large implications for language teaching.  First, its primary implication, which holds for every subject, is that the ideal teacher is not necessarily the most knowledgeable one on the subject matter.  In fact, depth of knowledge coupled with lack of teaching experience could be taken as a strong disadvantage, representing a likely extreme inability to communicate effectively with novices in that subject area.  For me these were most of my science teachers in junior high and high school.  The best teacher could rather be someone just ahead of the learner in the subject matter, who still remembers the steps they had to take to reach that point.  An added bonus is that that person is likely to be demographically more similar to the learner, and therefore someone whose opinions the learner cares about.

Second, on the specific subject of language learning, the “experts” are usually thought to be the native speakers of that language, whose memory of learning the subject is usually lost in the ether of early childhood.  I learned Japanese (and continue to learn) in adulthood, and in many cases I remember the first time I encountered and understood a particular word or grammar point (which we might call intake).  The latest example is やんちゃ,  or “rambunctious”, which the lady who runs the dog park used about a group of pro-wrestling dogs.  There is very little in the English language I have these kinds of memories for.  I don’t remember what it was like not to understand “giraffe”, “deadline” or how to use would.

Hopefully I’ve done a decent job explaining my thoughts on the subject.  It’s hard for me to tell because I don’t remember what it was like not to have them.

So add this to the pile of evidence against preference for native speakers in language teaching.


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