Thursday, October 19, 2017

I Was Caught In A Facebook Witch Hunt

To pass the time
(if you don't know your subject and can't teach it.)
It's no secret that I love facebook. For all the great reasons we know about. But sometimes there are the most enormous bust ups where someone picks on some ambiguous statement, takes it out of context, and blows it up into the most offensive thing they've ever heard. 

Before I explain in detail, I want to tell  you what I once learned in a linguistics class about interlocution. There are four basic factors that are needed to facilitate flowing and comprehendible conversation. Four factors which we all accept. They are: 

1. That the person you are talking to isn't lying or knowingly misleading you. 

2. That they understand your meaning even if you don't use the exact words. So if a child says, "I'm thirsty," we understand that he is asking for a drink and not just telling you for no reason. 

3. That the length of an answer will be appropriate. Not too long as to be irrelevant or too short as to miss out important information. If you ask what a word means you just want the meaning of the word and not its etymology from Indian Sanskrit through the Romance languages to English, with all the similar word families along the way. On the other hand, if you ask how and why WWII started, the answer needs more precise detail than, "Germany and Japan wanted to take over the world." 

4. Relevance and context. So if you say you don't want milk in your coffee, you don't expect a lecture about the rural economy and how you're undermining the dairy farmers and endangering the whole future of the countryside as we know it. And if you're arguing about right of way with another driver, it's not appropriate to say, "your car's rubbish anyway." 

If I were to be allowed a fifth factor I would add giving your interlocutor the benefit of the doubt. 

And yet on facebook sometimes all five of the above factors are thrown out the window and people will fight to the death over a misplaced word that becomes the difference between you being a decent person and a judgemental, arrogant bitch who insults and disrespects everyone. 

So here was the context. We were talking about EFL teachers and whether they had to be native English speakers or not. Someone said that it's impossible for native English speakers to know English grammar as well as non-native speakers who learned it in school. This was my reply: 

ME: Any Native English speaker who can't get her head around the finer points of English Grammar is just not intelligent enough to be a teacher. It's not hard, especially if you understand all the words. I learnt the tenses etc, at age 27. It took me one afternoon to know what they mean and what they are used for. It took a year of teaching experience to be able to explain it in Hebrew. People learn new things all the time - languages, computer coding, new professions, they take additional degrees..... It is insulting to English speakers to say we can't possibly know English Grammar as well as Hebrew speakers who learnt it in school. That's just ridiculous

BOOM! I'd ignited the flames of fury under Mr and Ms Angry from Israel. 

I got a load of abuse about how I was being judgemental by saying that if someone cannot learn something it does not make them unintelligent. And how I was insulting people with learning disabilities. 

Um yes I agree about not being unintelligent if you can't learn something specific. I find it extremely difficult to learn listening skills in another Language. Even in Hebrew I still need the speaker to speak slowly and clearly. But I was specifically talking about English Teachers learning English. Who in their right mind would want to teach a subject they couldn't learn themselves? That would seriously bring their intelligence into question. And I said as much. Of course I was being flippant but my entire point had been missed. 

I used the words 'not intellligent' to signify how easy it is for a native English speaker to understand the rules of English grammar that we need to teach foreign students. For example, we all use the present simple tense and the present continuous even if we don't know why because, as native speakers, we have never had to consider why. However, if I were to ask you to consider when you say, "I drink coffee," and when  you would say, "I am drinking coffee," it's not hard to see the difference. 

In my opinion, if you are a native English speaker and have all the other attributes necessary to be a teacher, it's not hard to understand what you are saying and how you use English (which are the rules of grammar) if you sat down to learn it. Even if you have dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, ADD, HFA, hypersensitivity, over anxiety, or any other condition that would make it harder for you to become a teacher if you really wanted to, you could still learn that in English we say the adjective before the noun.

Never mind what I had meant. The witch hunt was on. I was accused of being the most vile and judgemental person. I was asked who I think I am to decide who is intelligent and who isn't? (Oh perleeeaze, *eyeroll and *headpalm) Someone couldn't believe I was qualified to work with children (he explained to me that children are human beings - thanks for that) because I didn't know how to treat human beings with any respect. 

Someone told me that my students must love it when I explain to them how smart I am and how unintelligent they are. How we went from talking about what teachers need to know to how I treat my students I don't know. The funny thing is, this man has never been inside one of my classrooms. How does he know all this? Does he also know that I make my students clean the toilets with their toothbrushes if they can't say the difference between their and there? (Btw, my school has a policy of 'integration' throughout the school so I wouldn't last long if I wasn't sensitive to learning difficulties).

I wrote: "I did not mention learning disabilities at all because I thought it obvious that you cannot be a teacher if you cannot learn the material you have to teach."

That was the wrong thing to say because it apparently meant that anyone with a learning disability cannot be a teacher. Which is not what I meant at all but you need to be so precise in your wording on facebook sometimes because once enraged, people won't come an inch towards giving you the benefit of the doubt and try to understand what you really mean

Several people announced they were leaving the conversation because I am so evil. And they stormed off. But they came back later because facebook sort of draws you back. You can't help it.  

I asked, because this was really the only point I was trying to make, "is it really judgemental to say if you can't learn a subject to the level necessary to teach it you should either teach something else or not be a teacher?"

The reply was that, no that's just sensible. Followed by another lecture about all the things they thought I said but, despite me trying to explain that I didn't mean any of that, they would not budge from their initial reaction.

This went on for the best part of two hours. I didn't mind as I was stuck supervising an exam. In between each comment I got up and walked around the room to check all was ok. Apart from that I just had to be there and not disturb the students. If I'd had anything else to do I'd have let it go, but after a while it actually became an interesting study in human-rottweiler behaviour. (As in the rottweiler doesn't let go.)

I still say that for a native English speaker wanting to be an EFL teacher, learning the grammar is not hard. That's my opinion and no one has to agree but otoh, not one native English speaking teacher said they'd found it hard to learn once they knew what material was involved. I take that as a confirmation even though I was told I had insulted everyone on the thread who may not have found it easy to learn it. (That's no one by the way.)

But then I was going by the rules of interlocution above. They usually really do apply, except not on facebook apparently. Even when the conversation is between English teachers, the rules of interlocution seem to be trumped by facebook's own culture. 

N.B. This is an edited version of my original post as it was pointed out to me that the group is a closed group so I shouldn't paste quotes outside the group, even anonymously. I am grateful for the chance to edit because a night's sleep and answering some of the comments below, gave me more clarity about the issues mentioned. 


  1. Hmm, it sounds like a very 'interesting' afternoon. I agree that people become incompletely bizzare on FB and speak in ways they never would in real life. Things get taken completely out of context but I also admit that when I first read your initial statement I found it quite shocking that you say a person is not intelligent enough to be a teacher if they can't get their head round grammar. Probably because I find grammar completely confusing (it was so badly taught in England in the 1980's) but I could teach at many levels, just probably not at secondary and certainly not EFL. Just my POV but said respectfully I hope. Mich x

    1. That's the point. As soon as someone questioned what I'd written, I explained that I meant you shouldn't be an EFL teacher, not that you shouldn't teach anything. That word intelligent was not meant to apply to anyone who can't learn something. However, the grammar I'm talking about is something you use all the time and write perfectly so you actually know it. It's just a matter of putting names to the types of sentences you use. I could explain it to you in a couple of hours and you'd get it. It really isn't that difficult. It's not about parts of speech like we learnt in school. It's, eg, knowing when and why you say "I drink coffee" and when you say "I am drinking coffee." For a native speaker you just have to think about for a moment and you get it.

  2. And this is one of the reason why I am no longer on Facebook! It's a minefield out there! Intelligent discourse and even a "good argument" has gone out the window. I see this all the time when reading newspaper comments after an article - people fixate on a couple of words or one sentence out of the whole article and attack! It is often quickly apparent that a) they never actually read the article or b) they don't actually understand what was said. And the fact that the commentator can often hide under a cloak of anonymity just seems to make it even more vicious!
    I truly despair some days. You were a brave soul to event attempt a discourse.

    1. That's exactly it, the fixation on a word rather than focussing on the point being made. I have a couple of personal rules for dealing with it. I never get angry and I never resort to flinging back personal slurs. Stick to the point and ignore all the personal insults. It's not a very sophisticated to way to argue anyway.

  3. I read it out to my husband and his comment was that people say nutty things everwhere now and it's not just on FB that they've gone mad. He totally got your point and I think I was only a bit shocked by it as I took it personally.

    When you explain the type of grammar you mean I totally get that. It's using the more complex forms of punctuation I get confused with.

    1. I also thought about it in bed last night and what I should have explained was that I was just using 'intelligent' as an expression because it is such an easy concept for a typical English speaker (assuming you have all the other attributes necessary to be a teacher). Of course you'd have to go away and learn the labels for each type of sentence but understanding it is easy because we know it already.

  4. "You cannot be a teacher if you cannot learn the material you have to teach." I cannot see any problem with that statement, except that it is very black and white, and perhaps there are some exceptions that I cannot think of right now.

    The problem with social media seems to be that whatever you say, someone may think that it implies something else that you never intended - as a result I am very careful these days x

    1. Yes t your second point - see my answer to Michelle above. I can't see how you can teach something if you don't know it. It might take you more time and effort to learn it and you might be teaching only the theory of something (like art appreciation but you can't draw) but how can you teach something you don't know? Maybe there are some trendy situations where the teacher says, "We'll learn this together as we go along."? But then I wouldn't call him a teacher of that subject.