Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by David Warr. He has taught English for 20 years, in Europe and the UK, where he currently resides. David set up the company Language Garden which is devoted to making quality language materials for learners of all ages and abilities. He regularly presents in schools, teaching teachers in the art of language gardening. You can follow David on Twitter @DavidWarr.
Standing in a warehouse recently in-between shelves packed to the ceiling with rolls and rolls of sinamay, the material produced by tens of thousands of small family-run enterprises in the Philippines and which takes three weeks from when it is first extracted from the inner bark of what, to the untrained eye, looks just like a banana plant, to the final interwoven lattice that is now the predominant material in hat designs for weddings all over the world, standing here, I was talking to the director of the company, a softly-spoken, upright honourable man who should have retired years ago, but who couldn’t help popping in to do a few jobs on the Saturday morning when my wife and I were visiting to buy stock for her business. He was telling me that when he first started importing and selling sinamay about 20 years ago, he was selling 2000 metres at a time, to large, well-established milliners who produced thousands of hats, all of the same design. He would never have imagined that now, his orders are for one metre of Cafe au Lait, two of Cranberry or Whispering Blue, bought by cottage industry hat-makers who specialise in custom-made designs for their clients.
Everywhere we look, the spirit of customisation is strong. As the dictum goes: we don’t want choice; we just want exactly what we want. It has been a strong motivator in the direction I have taken with my business, Language Garden.
I liked school, but it was not without its moments. One seems especially significant to me now, years on. My geography teacher – and I really liked geography, and still do, it’s how I became an English language teacher, I wanted to experience all these countries I’d read about in books – he showed me his folders from his university days. It was an attempt to make me pull my socks up, a call to arms. His folders were beautiful, and he was rightly very proud of them. They were A5 in size, so they had that dusty book feel. And his handwriting, it was so tiny, delicate but robust, slanting forwards like so many left-handers’ do, a dark blue fountain pen the tool of his trade, and it was all perfectly positioned kissing the lines. There were paragraphs and indentations, sub-headings and footnotes, all without a single mistake. Here I was with the Venerable Bede, for it was his Bible to the physical landscape, an uncorrupted, incorruptible temple to the cause and effect of river drainage systems and soil erosion.
It reminds me of an anecdote, the author of which I’m afraid I cannot recall, but it was told by a lady, a lady who had spent time in the company of Gladstone and Disraeli, two heavyweight British politicians, both prime ministers in their day, round about the middle of the nineteenth century, fierce adversaries who were always vying with each other for the upper hand.
“When I was with Disraeli,” she had said, “I felt I was with the most intelligent person in the world.” I admit, I didn’t feel my geography teacher was actually the most intelligent person in the world, but standing there in his office, being made to admire his perfect words, sitting pristinely on the lines, I knew I was a woefully inadequate school boy.
And then there I was, 6 years later, travelling and teaching English and swimming with dolphins, and I find this book, The Mind Map Book.
I once made up a joke:
I’ve read two life changing books. So now I’m back where I started.
But heavens! What a book. It’s where I first learnt about mind maps, like the one in this post, about things you can see in your garden, if you’re lucky enough to have one, or in someone else’s, if you’re nosy enough to peek.
Now this book did change my life. It activated a mental model in me that had been lying dormant, a way of looking at the world, in this case learning and pedagogy, which until this moment I was unaware existed. The superiority of linearity that I had been forced to laud was, I suddenly, completely and amazingly discovered, not the only paradigm of perfectionism.
The most extreme example of collocation I can think of is with the word “figment”. “Don’t be so ridiculous! It’s just a figment of your imagination.” You can’t have a figment of anything else, so language teachers should, cannot not, teach “figment” without reference to “imagination”.
“Collocation” refers to the relationships words have with each other, which words you would expect to find next to each other in a sentence. So although “figment” must be followed by “imagination”, this second term is far less monogamous. You can have a vivid imagination, fertile, or fantastic. I was reading about this subject in The Lexical Approach, a few years on again now, the other book that changed my life, but which took me on further still in my continual quest to improve my understanding and application of language and teaching practice.
This was the second piece of the puzzle, ready and waiting to be intertwined with the first.
Mind maps emphasise using key words, each packed with meaning, perfect for native or fluent speakers who can fill in the missing words to give a talk or present a piece of writing. The Lexical Approach sees language as being made up, not of words and grammar at separate ends of the spectrum, but as word grammar, somewhere in the middle, and stresses the importance of showing the relationships between words.
So, fortuitously it must be said – I was doing some teacher training on how to use mind maps in the classroom and simply started writing the words nice and close to each other, without lines – so I came up with language plants, best described as grammatical mind maps focused on language learning that fill in the missing pieces for students who need this help. You can see examples dotted around this post.
Children and adults love them alike. I always say they bring out the inner child in everyone. And by far the biggest reaction when people see them is “Ooh, that’s nice! Can we make our own?”
This is the direction I’ve gone in, giving people the tools to make their words flow and grow in directions they’d never imagined. Some of the language plants you can see in this post have been made by teachers and children from all over the world. I imagine they feel similar to how I felt when I first started making mind maps, the feeling of liberation that my right brain could finally be welcomed into the world of academic study.
It’s the same effect I witnessed in the sinamay warehouse, where his business now concentrates on individuals who help others express their individuality and personality through their attire. It’s about giving everyone a voice, about making them feel special.
That lady had it right, I think, the one who had spoken so highly of Disraeli all those years ago.
“When I was with Disraeli, I felt I was with the most intelligent person in the world.”
Because then she continued:
“Ah, but when I was with Gladstone, I felt I was the most intelligent person in the world.”
You are most welcome to pop over to Language Garden and engage with the materials I’ve made. But of course, these days, I’d fully expect you to want to make your own.