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Learning language from the student poet

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

Sometimes a poetic mistake will come from the way things are done in a mother tongue, or come less than poetically from a mother's tongue when we have made a mistake. 😊

Sometimes the poetry will come from an unhinged creative flow. Whichever traceable or mystical place it comes from, a language student can give us a fresh outlook on our own language in the most wonderful ways.

A yet-to-be-mastered language can be so beautifully poetic in ways unheard and unexplored that I often want to use students’ answers in my own lyrics – okay, so you’re thinking mine need improving. 😊

Our students may regularly use sentence structure and word order that would be unlikely-to-impossible for a mother tongue speaker.

Yes, we learn accepted order for cultural agreement, standardization, and ease of communication, but it could be argued that the poetically gifted run riot through this place of rules, exceptions, mistakes and corrections. What else is poetry but a mellifluously fresh fashioning of words and the meanings they convey? Hmm, that was quite poetic 😊

There are rare and gorgeous gems to be found within the styles and structures gifted by the student we’re nurturing. Whilst there isn’t much to correct in the following example, it is a piece with elements I could never have thought up.

My Mum is Ling Wing.

My mum is gentle like sheep.

She is good for me.

My Mum love me forever.

by Jasmine, a Secondary 1 student, 16th December 2019.

I was transfixed with Jasmine’s detail as I watched this poem unfold, noting the care and the time that she put in. The simile using sheep to describe her mother’s gentle nature allows us to pause and to think on what sheep look like; sheep can take the look and the pace of clouds, often viewed as though static in idyllic surroundings, and on what sheep feel like: tender, cozy, soft and warm. We may be reminded of the W.H. Davies poem that begins: “What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare. No time to stand beneath the boughs And stare as long as sheep or cows.”. If we can shift our perception to that of a child observing sheep, soft and woolly, present and calm with all the time in the world to just look at things, then we might shed some further sentiment on what the child means in the line: “My mum is gentle like sheep.”. This is not empty lexis. This is poetry.

In the next line, “She is good for me.”, we see an enhanced perspective from the expected “She is good to me.”. It hints at the mutual benefits of solid family connections and valued relationships. Greater than the individual acts and the gifts, the precision in that one replaced word gives us more ideas of what’s truly gained from her mother’s love. Abilities passed on, growth, unwavering support in paving their way to a successful future. A teacher may use such glimmers of grace as an opportunity for correcting the writing and handing it back. An astute teacher may further explore and discuss the differences in meaning with the student, praising their use of poetic language and affirming their rightful confidence in expressive writing and the poetic worth within their word selection.

The collective mind of any class will regularly throw up concepts, relevant or irrelevant–yet-interesting answers, points of view that you have not and would not come up with alone as a language teacher. I like to embrace the ways in which unique answers enrich lessons and make them all-the-more memorable. I also like to embrace the learning by showing respect for learners who do the teaching.

This has been particularly noticeable during my time teaching children in Hong Kong. From a Secondary 5 student running me through how to use the visualizer in his classroom, to a Primary 3 student offering a solution to a baffled technician to get our Zoom class up and running; the same applies to the technology we use along the way. We must continually remember to value the wealth of intelligence and ideas we have among us, regardless of role.

It is refreshing to see Talent Shows where students we’ve supported through struggles in a particular subject get the opportunity to show us an area that they own. Students who you may know to be shy and slim on output will suddenly shine. Each time I witness this reminds me of just who I’m dealing with on a day-to-day basis here in a language other than their own, in a world that is other than mine. 😊 Sure, corrections are an important and natural part of a teaching job; corrections in the appropriate way, at the right time. This doesn’t mean they are always merely accepted replacements without due acknowledgement. Some of the most enjoyable and hilarious moments can come from errors within a fun, engaging and low-stress atmosphere that welcomes mistakes as part of the learning process and sees the positive angles, the humour or the beauty in their expression. It could be argued that as much praise should be given out for hard-earned mistakes as is given for evidence of progress.

So, when you next see the non-standard in language, look for the meaning, not the deviation from the standard, and find the path to the poet in the students you are teaching.

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