An exhausting day yesterday. 0900 to 1645 with just one student, a sales manager for an engineering company. He flies to Australia on Saturday, to sell, or try to sell, cutting rings and what not and what not. We spent most of the time going through a 117 page presentation, checking the English. i learnt a great deal about passivization, dimensional tolerances, cutting rings, dynamic loads, zinc, zinc and nickel, salt fog corrosion, carcinogenic chromium plating, pain. It was simultaneously interesting and exhausting. At first i simply noted typos or weird grammar, but (by lucky chance) realised some grammatically okay sentences were in fact incorrect, so we had to go through everything, with me asking “what does ‘dimensional tolerance’ mean?” Some of it was almost impossible to explain, and after 15 minutes of analogies and descriptions, he would draw something and i would say “ah! i see…that’s totally different.” Then i had to think, how could one say this in English?

He remarked, of English: “it is not logical”. i shrugged in agreement, for it is not, or rather whatever logic it obeys is not apparent.

Lessons fall into three general types:

1. Chatting with higher-level students, in a reasonably structured way. They are often totally uninterested in the tedious materials, and so i just feed them the minimal grammar and vocab, and the rest of the time we chat about whatever they want.

2. Doing badass grammar with lower level students. With smarter students, even those with little English, it’s exhilarating and demanding – teaching the Present Perfect to a class of engineers, so they half-understand it, is a great experience. However, with dullards it’s almost impossible.

3. Dealing with the Ausbildung bastards, engineering apprentices in their teens and early 20s, average age 19. This was also the average age for American soldiers in Nam and in a just world these little bastards would be shipped off to the jungle and left to fight their way through a thousand VC. There is no point trying to teach them anything. All one can do is grit one’s teacherly teeth and fantasize about murder.

With badass grammar, and my engineer’s presentation, i have to really think my way through language; and this is not easy, nor really natural. i could take Saint Augustine’s words for my motto, for when i don’t think about English i understand it, but when i think, then i do not understand. My great bugbear is the Present Perfect, a tense of such evil subtlety that one can only teach the main uses, and hope something sticks. Grammar books are no use. They say we use the Past Simple for finished actions, the Present Perfect for actions with some continuing relevance, but this is next to useless. After all, why should i mention a past action at all, were it not relevant? i teach four main uses of the Present Perfect but regularly encounter special cases, demonstrating again and again the endless complexity of English. For example, if Einstein and Dawkins both tried to turn lead to gold, i would say:

Einsten tried to turn lead to gold


Dawkins has tried to turn lead to gold.

It took me a while to understand why – because Einstein is dead but Dawkins is alive. However, i cannot proffer this as a rule, for i could also say “David drank too much sherry last week” and David is still alive. Can i make a distinction here, that in the sherry sentence i specify a time (last week), but in the case of Dawkins and Einstein i do not? – so Past Simple for David and his sherry, but Present Perfect for Dawkins, because i do not specify a time in the case of Dawkins? But of what use is this to my students? Could they really apply such a rule in actual living speech, without lengthy cogitation before each utterance?

Another student told me we use one part of the brain for grammar (logic) and another for actual speech, hence the difficulty in teaching language by grammar rules, by logic. i often wonder how we come to use language without elaborately mechanical cogitation. i can teach the various conditionals, but in truth could a student really think “is this a habitual action, or something likely but not certain to happen, or something unlikely to happen, or something that cannot happen” before using them, in real speech, without, that is, exceedingly prolonged cogitation? But we do not cogitate. We feel. Our native language fits us, as a perfect glove – or rather, as our skin, for there is no separation.  One can learn other languages, as one may buy gloves, but they cannot replace the native language (or languages). Rather, they overlay it.

i had a blind student when i came to Kassel, one of the Arbeitsamters. He interpreted Braille; it was a code he could translate into – what? what is this sense we have, that the words ARE the world, or at least a faithful representation of the world? For we do not have to translate, it is rather that we become accustomed to the code, and it is how we encounter things. As i react instinctively to the world, so i react to words.

i am not interested in biological (neurological) explanations. How i can use the Present Perfect – how i used it for about 3 decades before i even knew “what it was” – that is the puzzle. And any answer must be profound, as language is profound, as is our world – anything less is mechanical, superficial. If language was superficial my job would be much easier.

Perhaps that should be “if language were superficial, my job would be much easier.” But i feel both work.