Neil Oliver on Jeremy Vine. Thoughts from a Spanish teacher.

On Saturday night un amigo talked about a great bit of radio he had heard recently called “What makes us human.” So we listened to it on the BBC app, and I liked it a lot. Neil Oliver, the historian and archeologist who presenta el programa Coast was talking about how la percepción of time is what makes us humano.

One of the things Neil Oliver said was this: “By definition history is the written word: books, diaries, letters, gravestones … But that’s only 5, 6, 7 thousand years old. Our species alone is 200 thousand years old. So there’s 195 thousand years of homo sapiens that’s pre-literate.”

En español that is, más o menos: “Por definición, historia es la palabra escrita: libros, diarios, cartas, lápidas … Pero eso solo tiene 5, 6, 7 mil años. Nuestra especie tiene 200 mil años. Entonces hay 195 mil años de homo sapiens que no sabían leer ni escribir.”

I am a Spanish teacher y me interesa learning without papel, or at least, learning with great reduction in the dependencia on papel. I went to a singing clase con la fantástica Caro Fentiman and felt inspirada and uplifted, a feeling I put down in part to how little we used paper. Simplemente, it gives you la oportunidad to make más contacto con la gente, with the people. So I started to crear clases que no dependen de la palabra escrita, the written word.

Knowledge and learning are not the exclusive domain of those who feel cómodos con la palabra escrita, the written word. Schools and universidades are absolutamente dominated by personas who saben leer y escribir muy bien, who know how to read and write very well. But I have met adultos who are muy elocuentes, informados y persuasivos who did not do well in classrooms because they don’t like leer y escribir, reading and writing. They are skilled learners who speak and listen to give and recibir la información. They have low confianza about their abilities to learn from un profesor, basado on their experiencia en la escuela, at school.

Most of la existencia de los humanos has been without la palabra escrita, and those humanos, who did not know how to leer y escribir, survived. We can especular, speculate that they shared crafts, stories and songs. Their abilities as actors, songsmiths, playwrights, persuaders, pacifiers and politicians might have far outstripped our own. Our forebears’ memory skills might astound us. We will never know.

We can be pretty sure, though, that for 195 mil out of 200 mil years, humanos lived and learned without text. Now I teach español, and my question is:

Is reading and writing, leer y escribir, the best way to teach and learn lenguaje?

This is la cuestión that I want to address through my work as profesora and escritora (comprendo la ironia) and I want to considerar esa cuestión from una variedad de ideas.

  • Los niños learn their first lenguaje very effectively and rápidamente. They do this orally. Can we emulate esa experiencia in a non-immersion clase?
  • Leer y escribir is slow en comparación con thinking and speaking. Is it good to slow down la comunicación, or is it good to speed it up?
  • Most people pasan más tiempo listening and speaking every day than they do leer y escribir, reading and writing. Listening and speaking are older skills, more connecting skills, and they are the primary skills that learners of a second lenguaje want to be able to use.
  • Speaking and listening allows for a greater potential to conectar with estudiantes, which is why I find clases that don’t rely heavily on papel más inspiradoras. That, and the fact that when I have experienced “no paper clases” I leave con la impresión that I have really achieved en el presente. With learning on papel I sometimes feel that the learning has yet to be done, that I have been given a tool to take and learn from en el futuro.

We all learned to listen and speak. We learned to look at each other and smile. We learned to make friends. We learn new words by hearing them, often many times before we decidimos to use them for ourselves. Just like our ancient ancestors, our ancestros antiguos before us. Now I want to do that en mis clases de español. I am un poco nerviosa about los adultos because they will turn up with expectations, notebooks, pens and papel. I hope to win them over to el hábito of learning without these things. Por el contrario, I am completamente relajada about teaching los niños, the children this way. I have already comenzado clases con los niños and they seem completamente on board.

As a final thought, if we were able to meet a pre-historic, pre-literate persona, how would they teach us? Es obvio, right? And would it be wise for us to try to teach them the same way? What is your opinión?