Twenty things in twenty years Part Six: resistance is futile – but still remarkably widespread

When I was in my mid-20s living in Jakarta and trying to learn Indonesian, I reached a point where I felt I had to start reading more about Islam. Partly this was because so many of my students were – to varying degrees – Muslim; partly it was because the practising of the religion was so deep-rooted in the day-to-day life of so much of the country; and partly it was simply because I found it interesting to try and get my head round a worldview so incredibly different to the one I’d grown up with myself. Concepts and ideas from Islam were also obviously widespread in Indonesian itself, with the words for many more abstract ideas being derived from Arabic.


One of the more fascinating notions I grappled with was the idea that the word Islam itself originally means submission or surrender in Arabic, a fact more recently made more complicated and controversial by the Ayaan Hirsi Ali film Submission, and its subsequent enthusiastic promotion by those on the right. The root of the word Islam, though, is salaam, from which can also be derived the words for peace and safety. Now, many religions have a concept of surrender to God. In Jewish history, the ancient Hebrews had a long period of prosperity and stability when they obeyed God’s commands; in Christianity, surrendering to God is a way of putting your life into more capable hands. In this sense, the idea of obeying the commands and logic of a higher power and trusting in a wisdom that may not always be apparent to one can actually be a way of bringing about peace.

Now, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all of this, aren’t you? Bear with me, OK. Despite the fact that any discussion of submission and resistance feels decidedly dodgy in a post Jimmy Saville / post-Operation Yewtree world, where every week another of the creepy celebs that were all over the TV of childhood like a bad rash is arrested and charged with some form or other of unsavoury retrospective sexual coercion, these two concepts are actually at heart of language learning!

To this day, I can still remember the almost physical sense of relief and the easing off of tension once I finally just stopped fighting it, stopped trying to impose my own pre-programmed system onto it and simply gave in to Indonesian and its own weird internal logic. For maybe the first year or so of my time in the country, I’d been unconsciously bridling at what seemed to me to be the peculiar sentence construction, the language’s stubborn refusal to express itself in ways I expected it to, the different ways in which divided up the world, the three different versions of I and You, the way we-but-not-you was one word, kami, and we-including-you another – kita, and so on. And then one day, suddenly, luckily, the fight just fell away and I realised that there was no way i was ever going to be able to change the way things were and that either I’d have to ship on out of the kitchen or else simply embrace things as they stood, submit, surrender. And in doing so came a kind of peace. And considerably faster and less stressful progress.

Now, I see signs of this resistance all the time in my classes – and I’m sure you do too, whether you’re conscious of it or not. The questions are never-ending:

“But why is it a football PITCH? Why not football field? I mean, you call the position midfield, don’t you? Not midpitch. In my language, we use one word for these two ideas.”

“Why do you say my wife and my NEW son? This is so stupid. So if I have two sons, do I say my NEW son and my OLD son? No! You see! Stupid!”

“But it’s the same: It’s a long time I haven’t seen you and I haven’t see you for ages. Why I need to change it?”

” You mean I can’t say Alex Ferguson is A FLAG? Like a FLAG of Manchester United? No? But that’s crazy. In my language we say it like this!”


And on and on it goes. These ones are just from the last few days with my Upper-Intermediate group and so are fresh in my mind, but you’ll recognise the genre no doubt. And the stiffer the resistance, the less learning takes place, as the students are constantly waging war against an implacable, uncaring enemy that will never bend even an inch to their own futile requirements. There will only ever be one loser in this war of wills, and it won’t be the language, for sure!

As language teachers, we have a key role to play in this ongoing struggle, as our students rub up against the different, the unexpected, the inexplicable, the frustrating, the downright weird and simply wrong (to their minds). Our job is to provide the oil, to smooth the lurching uphill journey towards greater noticing, more acquisition, more (linguistic) assimilation, more acceptance of norms – and to lessen resistance at every turn. Our job is to smile and say:

“There’s no reason why we have two different words where you have one. It’s just the way it is, OK. We say MIDFIELDER, but we play on a PITCH. That’s just the way it is. We also say PITCH for cricket and rugby as well. yeah, yeah. I know! You think cricket’s crazy too. There you go. What can I say?”

“Because maybe in this context the son is very young, so he’s new to the world. How do you say this idea in your language? How would you express this concept? OK, so it’s different, but that’s how it is in English. You can also say my new job, my new girlfriend, my new flat and so on. Don’t you use NEW in these contexts? It’s the same idea.”

“Of course people will understand you if you say It’s a long time I haven’t seen you. They’d probably understand you if you say It’s a long time I didn’t see you! But it’s not English. Not really. It just sounds like you’re translating, like you’ve not learned how to say I haven’t seen you for ages. I thought you were here to learn how to say things better? Yeah? Right. So this one’s better, OK!”

“I don’t know if you’d noticed, but English isn’t Italian! Sorry to tell you, but that’s a sad fact of life. I know what you mean, though. You mean like he’s a symbol of the club or something, right? We just don’t use the word flag like that. It sounds funny!”

It never ends, and it’s essentially a million ones of saying “I know! It’s different! Ha ha. Crazy English! Who knows why? To make life hard for you – and to keep me in employment!”

Which, mercifully, it HAS managed to do thus far.




13 responses

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I had the same flash of insight myself, but I still catch myself occasionally wondering why a foreign language insists on seeing the world in any particular way.

    Now that I have been living in Brazil a while I try to show my students the absurdities that exist in Portuguese. Once they have accepted this they tend to accept the fact that English needn’t be much better.

    1. Hi Stephen –
      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to post.
      Glad this one struck a chord with you.
      I suspect that anyone who’s learned another language to any kind of serious degree has had these flashes of revelation . . . probably alongside continued gripes and frustrations that the language does its own strange, sweet thing!

  2. Actually, inPortuguese you can describe some who’s young as being ‘jovem’ (young) or ‘novo’ (new), which is the same as your interpretation of young meaning newer than others. (My keyboard keeps correcting the j to an i)

    1. Interesting. This particular student was Russian, but I guess it could also work in a similar way there. Often with these things, it’s down to L1 ‘interference’ / familiarity, obviously, and the deep-rooted belief that one’s own is by definition NORMAL.

      Always reminds me of this rather astute observation:

  3. I find that indignant comments about the strangeness of the English language, or just plain surprise, are particular common at lower levels when they’re having first contact. At higher levels they usually seem a bit more used to it, they realise how slippery learning a language is.

    But it still comes up, like just today we were looking at the word ‘contest’ as a verb and a noun: ‘to contest a decision’, ‘to win a contest’; totally different meanings and word stress. Odd.

    Like Stephen, I occasionally enjoy showing my students the peculiarities of their own language, Spanish in my case here in Madrid. It’s usually an eye-opener.

    1. Yeah, the old “the more I know, the less I know” syndrome.
      It’s one of the heartening things about teaching Advanced students: to have got to where they are, they’ve usually had to realise how high the hill they’re climbing is, how hard it is to get anywhere near the summit, and to be prepared for some graft and struggle.
      It’s drilling this into Intermediate students that’s the real challenge!
      I have a guy in my Upper-Int class at present who, at some point in almost every class, sighs and says something like “AI! In English is many vocabularies” – to which I usually reply “yeah, there are millions. You’d better start learning some of them. Why not begin with the word WORD!”

  4. Your example, David is similar to a ‘contranym’, where the same word can have two opposite meanings. See for some examples. That’ll get your students thinking!

    1. Blimey! I’ve got twenty years into this malarkey and I’d never knowingly encountered this piece of metalanguage – contranyms.
      Not totally convinced it’s not just a very clever spoof, but interesting nevertheless.

  5. I think everyone probably recognizes this! Personally, every time my higher level students do this, I say -‘exactly, that’s why you should be using English English dictionaries, remember that LT session where we talked about how most words don’t translate exactly…?’. Most of them still use translation dictionaries, but recommending them ad nauseum does eventually put the students off asking

    1. Hi Johnny –
      Yeah, I think that good monolingual dictionaries CAN help, obviously, especially at Intermediate and above, but in a sense the real root of the problem goes way past this because even when students are looking up words in an English-English dictionary, they’re still really only getting the meaning. They’re not necessarily being forced to notice much more around the word, and can still end up understanding the words studied but USING them in the way they would in L1, as the priming from L1 is far stronger, for obvious reasons. I think monolingual dictionaries help, but I think there’s more we need to do with regard to translating whole chunks / sentences, nagging students about different patterns, constantly drawing attention to features of the language as we board things up, etc. as well.

  6. Good stuff Hugh! In an academic article, I think there might be a few things we could pick you up on 🙂 but, as usual, your post makes entertaining and thought-provoking reading. When I was still teaching classes (when God was a boy) I used to say “Don’t ask me “Why” questions! If you want, I’ll try and explain, and then it’s just a question of who falls asleep last. Ask me “When?” and “How?” questions. Ask me “When do I say ‘He went’ and when do I say ‘He’s gone’? Ask me ‘How do you say ‘Ya voy’ in English”.

    How about using concordancers in class? Does that grab you?

    1. Hi Geoff –
      Well, in my defence, I’ve never actually claimed t be an academic!
      That said, I would be interested to hear what exactly you felt needed picking on from an academic point of view!

      The problem with WHY questions is that unless they’re about tense usage (and not always then, of course!), there’s basically no answer to them.
      When they’re about vocabulary, the only answer is basically “Because that’s how it is, folks!”

      As for using concordances in class, I’m in the anti camp myself, for reasons already gone into at some length in this post here – and in particular in the comments section.

  7. […] that adults thus end up using entrenched L1 processing habits is very much what I was getting at in a recent post here. What seems to counter this entrenchment is not simply further exposure and comprehensible […]

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