The linguist Eric Hawkins once compared MFL teaching in our schools to “gardening in a gale”. Whatever seeds are “planted” risk getting blown away the moment a pupil leaves the classroom and is surrounded by the “gale” of English. It’s an apt, if depressing, metaphor, although clearly there are ways in which to challenge it. After all, learning a foreign language doesn’t have to be anything like using English. You use the second language in different ways and in different contexts. It enhances rather than undermines your experience of English. The truth is, while the cultural dominance of English does make things harder for MFL teachers, things could be a lot worse.
I’m thinking of the “gardening in a gale” image now in light of recommendations that children as young as five should be given body image lessons. I read this and find myself thinking “yeah, Mrs Parkin who’s teaching adjective endings to Year 10, you think you’ve got it bad? Try doing this!” Because while a second language is a second language, you only get one body. It’s either acceptable or it isn’t. What they tell you in the classroom is either true or false. And they can tell you to accept yourself as many times as they like. None of this matters if the moment the bell rings you’re back in the real world, struggling against the “gale” of diets, size zero celebrities and fat girl jokes.
As you may have guessed, I’m not particularly in favour of these lessons, mainly because I suspect they’d be a bit useless, what with them not getting anywhere close to the root of the problem. Not that I know how one would get to the root of the problem. Feminism is probably a good start. Perhaps, if we’re using language metaphors, feminism provides the “second language” which, eventually, we should all be speaking. It requires a development of our critical consciousness and a new way of valuing others, women and girls in particular. But all this is a bit poncey and theoretical, certainly if at the end of the day you’re faced with the Special K girl in her red dress insisting that no, you can’t really be hungry now you’ve had one of my mini-breaks. Au contraire, you’re just a weak-willed loser.
Do you know what else pisses me off about these lessons, though? This might sound ridiculous but I suspect that, deep down, there’s something quite sinister at work, regardless of whether it’s intentional or not. It might feel well-meaning but ineffectual, but to me, lessons in self-acceptance just scream “know your place!” A politician preaches “self-acceptance” and this is what I really hear: Being thin and beautiful – it’s not for the likes of you. So yeah, accept yourselves, little people. Be happy the way you are and don’t aspire to be any more. Meanwhile watch the thin people continue to claim the prizes. We’ve no intention of doing anything to counter that.
Perhaps we should be encouraging people to “accept” everything else in their lives which doesn’t measure up to the ideals thrown in their faces. How about “poverty acceptance”? “Inequality acceptance”? Why don’t we just encourage young people to grow up without any hopes and dreams? Won’t that make them happier, given that we can’t be arsed to make their lives better in any real, meaningful sense? After all, this is what we’re doing with body image. We don’t attack the diet industry; we just tell children to get over themselves. Is it me, or is this not grossly unfair?
Well, I’m finishing this post because I need to get on with some language-y stuff. Then I’ll leave the study, chat in English to my partner and kids and stuff my face on a lunch about which I’ll later feel guilty. Brilliant. Gardening in a gale. That metaphor is my life (fortunately, I never bother to do any actual gardening. God knows what metaphor I’d have to find for that).