A thousand words – a thousand leaves

The other day I watched a comedy movie, starring Eddie Murphy, which tells a story of a terribly vain and shallow man who speaks a lot and listens a little. One day, out of the blue, a beautiful tree appears in the midst of his luxurious garden. Every time the guy utters a word, the tree drops a leaf and the man feels worse than before. The same happens if he writes his words down. He pays no attention to this strange occurrence until there are just about a thousand leaves left on the tree. He suddenly realizes that from now on he has to stop wasting words, otherwise he’ll die. 

Although it was a crazy comedy, to me the story had a warm, spiritual overtone. And thus it gave me lots of food for thought. I pondered what I’d do if I had such a mysterious tree in my garden. Who would I choose to talk to and what would I say to save as many words as possible? The truth is that I tend to speak a lot. I have to speak a lot because I’m a teacher. I remember I once lost my voice due to a cold I had caught, and I had to stop using my vocal chords for some time to let them heal. I suddenly realized how many words I used every day. But as I could do without most of them pretty easily once I was forced to remain silent, I came to a conclusion that many of them were totally redundant.   

When watching the movie, I thought of social media and how they make us waste words. Well, an exception may be Twitter where you need to squeeze your idea into exactly 140 characters. For me this is a useful exercise because it makes me rephrase and reconsider my thoughts before I post them. Sometimes I even give up and post nothing in the end. As far as Facebook and blogging are concerned, they both encourage me to choose my words carefully because what I say will be read by many people, and thus I want to make sure that I will be understood. But generally I think that lots of stuff available online is just wasted words.

I also thought of my English classes, especially my senior students who I train to react spontaneously to random questions. They must answer at any cost, even if they have nothing to say. ‘I don’t know’ is never accepted as a response. Moreover, they are required to answer in a certain amount of detail; the minimum is usually three complex sentences (ideally four to five) because this is exactly what they will be expected to do during their final English exam. So if I ask them “Do you like poetry?” they need to respond, even if they’ve never read a single poem in their life. In case they can’t think of a meaningful response, they need to circumvent the question and simply say something related to the topic. This is pretty challenging, especially for students whose interest lies somewhere else, such as in science or computers. I basically train them to waste words, but no matter how absurd it appears, this is actually part of my job as an L2 teacher. 
What also came to mind was the word limits for written assignments which my students need to respect to meet the criteria of their final exams. On the one hand, it’s useful for them to be able to delete redundant words and elaborate on their ideas because these techniques make them choose their words carefully and focus on the language they are using. This, I believe, helps them improve their language accuracy. On the other hand, it terribly restricts their imagination and creativity. What if they have a lot to say about a topic they are into, and thus they are eager to write more than the limit allows? And what if they have nothing to say, yet they are forced to blabber on a boring subject just because the teacher asked them to? Don’t I actually encourage them to waste the leaves of their mysterious trees? 
The truth is that communicative language teaching is a way of making students waste words. Introverted students, those who are too shy to speak or who just want to keep their thoughts to themselves, often get worse grades. No matter how sad it sounds though, oral production is an essential part of the overall assessment – how could I ever assess a student who just sits quietly in the room, listening attentively to what others say? I’d really love to respect those taciturn students, but I need to give them grades, and to be able to do this I simply need some of their leaves to fall down …. 

803 words wasted
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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
This entry was posted in Just pondering ..., Speaking, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A thousand words – a thousand leaves

  1. Baiba says:

    You hit the nail on the head, Hana. The limit of words at the written exam ties the students' hands, especially of those who are eloquent and imaginative. I've had this problem with some of my students for years, and the only way I can help them is to say they need to PLAN PLAN PLAN their essays. But then what about those who are quiet by nature? It's the opposite problem. Even a good planning does not help them.
    Teacher's verbosity is another issue 🙂
    Thanks for writing this post.

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  2. Zhenya says:

    Hana, thank you so much for this post: I loved the movie for the very similar reasons you described! Also, it has been my dream to try and run a complete lesson, or a training session for teachers, using a specific word limit (for example, allowing myself to only speak 100 words, or 200) I wonder how it could go, and what the learning outcomes could be like.

    As for the 'wasting leaves' in teaching a language (or when someone is learning to speak and is experimenting with words and sentences, repeats the very same thing many times, retells a story, etc.): I wonder if this is 'wasting' words, or … something else?

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post (those words were not wasted!)
    🙂

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  3. Hana Tichá says:

    Absolutely, Baiba. On the other hand, those eloquent students you mention sometimes tend to say more than necessary. I’m not talking just about the content though. By being tied by a limit, they have to think of various ways of reduction, which gives them a great opportunity to practise some useful structures, such as non-finite clauses. English is very different from Czech – we use more complex structures, thus English may look totally alien to the less proficient learners. I totally agree that planning is an important phase of writing, although I feel bound to confess that I don’t plan at all 🙂 Anyway, thanks for reading, sharing and commenting.

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  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Zhenya,

    I’m happy to hear someone other than me liked the movie. 🙂 I’ve never been into Eddie Murphy comedies but this one was really worth watching.

    I love your idea of running a complete lesson using a specific word limit. It’d definitely be a challenging task because keeping the word count in mind may easily distract you from the content – I’d say that it’s harder to plan this kind of spoken discourse the same way you normally plan writing. But maybe I’m wrong – maybe it would make you focus your attention on what you’re saying more than if you ignore the amount of words you utter. But I this would undeniably be a great opportunity to give your trainees more time and space to express themselves. Anyway, I’m curious to hear about the learning outcomes if you decide to give it a go.

    To answer your question, well, I wouldn’t say that repeating the same words over and over again when learning a language is wasting words. Learning is learning and learning requires repetition. And I don’t even think that little kids ever waste words either. That’s what we adults do and sadly, we finally manage to teach the kids to do the same. By the way, my six-year-old son is allergic to all those ‘redundant’ adult questions which are not uttered to inquire about something but which are only a way of socializing. It drives me crazy because he can be really rude when saying things like: “I’m not going to repeat it. Why are you asking again? Haven’t I already told you? I’ve just said it”. Apparently, he doesn’t want to waste words 🙂

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

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  5. Chewie6577 says:

    Stimulating post! It seems to go along with this post about whether or not task based learning is the best way of teaching English: https://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/guest-post-ranty-thoughts-on-something-that-no-longer-matters-kotesol-int-conference-2014/

    “The truth is that communicative language teaching is a way of making students waste words. Introverted students, those who are too shy to speak or who just want to keep their thoughts to themselves, often get worse grades.”

    These are strong sentiments, Hana, but I'm inclined to agree with you. What you wrote reminds me of a line from a Drive-By Truckers song which goes “Just because I don’t run my mouth/Don’t mean I’ve got nothing to say.”

    Much as writers can overwrite* or musicians can overplay, speakers can overspeak. A dear friend likes to say she's not talkative enough because she feels she lacks what we call “the gift of gab,” yet to my mind, she's as talkative as she needs to be. She says what she needs to say and then she stops. And she stays that way until someone else says something. I admire her for her concision because I’m given to rambling on in conversation. I’ll play with phrases, restate things, and otherwise go on longer than necessary at times. And yet with writing, I tend to cut things to the bone. (Even this comment has been revised a few times so it stays on point.)

    Some of us are more inclined to talk than others are. This is neither a good nor a bad thing, but as you said, CLT tends to favor the talkative students over the quieter ones. It’s akin to the quality vs quantity debate.

    *I just finished Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, a prime example of an overlong and overwritten novel. She could told her story in half the amount of pages and I'd bet it would've been twice as effective if she'd done so.

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  6. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Chewie,

    Thanks for reminding me of Michael Chestnut's guest post. I actually read it some time ago but as it was late at night and thus I wasn’t fully concentrated, I decided to come back to it again later on. So I’m sorry for the delayed answer but I thought it’d be better to go over to Mike Griffin’s blog first before I replied to your comment.

    Yes, there’s so much food for thought in Mike’s post. We should definitely be careful what words we utter because even the greatest ideas can be lost in a wrongly chosen rhetoric. Yesterday I read another thought-provoking post where the author condemns dogmatic arguments and beliefs and I can’t but agree with his position except that to my mind he expresses his views in a somewhat dogmatic way too. The problem is that once we strongly believe in something, it’s hard not to sound dogmatic. A lot of debate related to ELT is about evidence or a lack thereof. But I think that possessing empirical evidence (or believing we possess it) may sometimes turn out to be more dangerous than our attempts at backing up our arguments with personal beliefs based on our own experience.

    I believe that listening to other people’s opinions – no matter how (un)convincing we consider them – is the key here. We can always err – we are humans after all. I mean, there’s no ultimate truth and the sands keep shifting so it’s pretty courageous to state that something is true just because it’s been proven with a few experiments. To sum up my somewhat incoherent reply, it’s wise to listen a lot and speak a little 🙂

    Sorry for not staying on the point. I hope I got my message across.

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  7. Hana Tichá says:

    Oops. I apologize for misspelling Michael Chesnut's name 🙂

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