First published on the ELT News website, Japan in January 2004.
The contributors were asked for suitable quotes and slogans which might inspire them if pasted on their computers, or inspire students if posted on classroom walls.
I’ve never gone in for teaching proverbs and clichés, because they remind me too much of the little inspirational pieces in Readers Digest, and by extension dentists’ waiting rooms. I have no such thoughts as “THINK!” pasted around my computer. That grey apple with a chunk out of the side is inspirational enough. A proverb or cliché makes us think we’ve discussed a truth when we are merely repeating a wordplay. Maybe we should be looking for “ELT soundbites”? But I get enough of that when checking out publicity copy.
We do have a few fridge magnets, but the content bears no relevance to ELT. We have:
Boring women have immaculate homes.
That caused one hell of a fuss when my wife’s aunt saw it and asked, ‘Does that mean I’m boring?’
Be Alert. This country needs lerts.
which means approximately nothing. My daughter added one with:
I saw my mother yesterday. Thank God she didn’t see me!
but again the relevance is missing. Then there’s the “Advice on life” which can be found on the label of a bottle of toilet bleach:
STAND UPRIGHT IN A COOL PLACE
I’ve racked my brains to think of a meaningful ELT one.
I guess I’ll have to repeat stories / anecdotes that stuck in my mind at conferences instead. Robert O’Neill told this one at JALT around twenty years ago, and I like it:
A young man wanted to become a Zen archer. He walked many miles through the mountains to meet the greatest master of Zen archery.
‘Master,’ he said, ‘I want to learn Zen archery. How long will it take me?’
The master replied, ‘My son, if you practise three hours a day, five days a week for twenty years, you will become a Zen archer.’
The young man was horrified, ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I haven’t got twenty years. If I practise eight hours a day, seven days a week, how long will it take me?’
The master smiled sadly, ‘Forever.’
Now that has educational relevance, does not need further explanation, and has stayed with me. Robert O’Neill was the source of another soundbite in the title of an ELTJ article: ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’ which was a comment on the lack of attention to structure in functional syllabuses of the era. I’ve seen it quoted many times since.
After those feeble attempts, I have to say that all the other quotes that are stuck inside my head are lines from rock songs and several quotes from Mark Twain.
Due to my early days in ELT, I actually have a deep loathing for proverbs and sayings as teaching material (which was not being suggested in this month’s title), dating back to the days when ELT materials above intermediate level were fond of teaching the things. When I started doing teacher training for non-native speakers, you could tell in advance which nationalities had endured such material because they would cunningly try to work them into “casual” conversation, as in:
“I must say it was raining cats and dogs this morning. But this is not a criticism of your English weather. I myself come from a somewhat damp region of (enter country*) and those of us who live in glass houses should not throw stones, as you English are always so fond of saying. To throw stones in such a manner is certainly not cricket.”
The attempt to impress is so palpable and so misguided that you can’t say ‘Sorry, foreigners using sayings like that sound like complete a***holes,” which is the sad truth.
* Enter country: the students most likely to do this came from Greece, Germany, Austria and Italy. A Greek teacher, who turned out to be the author of a translation book on proverbs, once managed to greet me with ‘I am delighted to say that it is not raining cats and dogs today.’ I gazed out at the shimmering heat-haze. The temperature was 90 degrees. It hadn’t rained in months. You had to admire the creativity in forcing that one in!