Things language teachers know #1 – impermanence

A truth you’re exposed to pretty early on in your training in SLA is that correctness is a matter of making your utterances target-like rather than meeting some objective standard.  This is because those who insist on a purer, correcter version of their language that nobody happens to speak are, well, incorrect – the rules of languages are defined by the people who use them.  Target-like means similar to the community that you want to be a part of, and if that community changes its mind, then what is “correct” changes too.  We EFL/ESL teachers help our students to be members of new language communities, not learn objective facts.  What appears objective and true about the rules of English only lasts as long as English speakers’ belief in or maintenance of them.  That’s right, languages and Tinkerbell have something rather crucial in common.

I understand the need to feel like you’re part of something permanent, or are playing by rules that are not just someone else’s opinion or the product of consensus.  If it bothers you, it’s best not to think about it, but impermanence is the law to which all the things we experience are temporary exceptions.  The groups at various levels of abstraction that you consider yourself part of, the morality you espouse and sometimes observe, and the language you speak are all are.. well, you know who said it best.

The dust and the wind are also impermanent.

This doesn’t depress me at all.  It’s a rhetorical trick employed by theists to argue that if morality isn’t objectively true and human life isn’t objectively valuable, nothing is really true or valuable.  But valuable or true to God isn’t objective either; it’s just the legally enforced opinion of a celestial politician.  Things that we value on our human or personal scale are valuable enough, and it doesn’t make them more so to imagine that not only we but also the universe sees them that way.  After all, we and not angels are the ones whose heads we have to live in.  I don’t see any point in conjecturing what morality might make sense to an omnipresent being who is capable of thinking on the level of quarks or nebulae, or what such a being might have to say about which political units are best or which languages are the most beautiful.

When the epiphenomenon of your consciousness stops emerging from whatever it’s emerging from, you also stop.  When people stop agreeing on what order words should come in, languages disappear.  When dwellers of a particular piece of real estate stop imagining they have more in common with one another than with anyone else, countries dissolve.  When people stop thinking moral wrongs are wrong, they’re not wrong anymore.  There is no galactic chart of absolutes to check our current state against and see how far we’ve fallen.  None of them are bedrock for people to stand on, just byproducts of people clinging to each other.

We in the language teaching business are not sharing hard-won insights like universal gravitation whose truth value can be demonstrated equally well by anyone in the universe.  We are inviting people to be in on a conspiracy whose truth value depends on numbers of people believing it to be true.  I may have extrapolated this principle beyond what most language teachers are comfortable calling the foundations of their profession, but in fact the conspiratorial, socially constructed nature of standards in language holds true for everything.

5 thoughts on “Things language teachers know #1 – impermanence

  1. Interesting. I wonder where the Universal Grammar Theory would stand in relation to your arguments? What about the innate, genetically determined language faculty which, allegedly, knows the rules?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, it would establish a floor on how much of any particular language remains when all its speakers die off or stop speaking it. Of course that floor would be composed of parts so abstract (X-bar?) that no one but linguists would see it as something of note to begin with, and it would be (as is the point of UG) something universal to all human languages. I suppose it’d be analogous to the smallest components of physical matter, what exists when our ability (or requirement) to see it as larger confabulations is excluded. So you’re right, some parts of the things I describe as impermanent objectively outlive the instances of them that are important and valuable to us. In the case of UG of course they don’t outlive the human species.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. By the way, what just came to mind in relation to UG and your point was the Alien movie. If there are no speakers left, something latent might still be waiting silently until a host comes back and makes it fully alive again. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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