Of wasps and boxes: what can a language look like?
A SHELF FULL OF BOXES
I must have been 9 years old, sitting on my bed with my homework, when I got stuck and turned to my older sister to ask “how do you say che in English?”. “What’s the context?”, she patiently replied. “Context? I just want to know how to translate che!” She rolled her eyes. “Look, English is not a big shelf full of boxes where you can just go, grab a word here and there and make up a sentence. You can’t learn it that way!”. I pictured that shelf full of boxes and I remember not really seeing how it differed from a dictionary. Disappointed and disgruntled, I figured she probably didn’t know to how to say che either.
Over the following years, I came to understand what my sister was trying to explain, even though I couldn’t find an image to replace those irritating shelves. If a language can’t be compared to a lot of well-categorised boxes, what else can it ‘look like’? My life is now divided between teaching English and following my passion for organic food growing and gardening. And it’s been this very hobby that’s helped me find a better image – that of a language as a thriving, healthy garden.
At the core of an organic approach to food growing is the necessity to look at the garden as a system of relationships where, with different degrees of flexibility, all elements are interdependent, and the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. While it’s important to research and appreciate each element individually, you really shouldn’t compartmentalise or isolate them too much from the bigger ecosystem they make up. So, for example, the third conditional is to the English language like the wasp is to the garden. Dependent on other structures and members; kind of scary, but an excellent pollinator and an indispensable predator, heavily and steadily interacting with the rest of the ecosystem.
Those relationships are not random, of course. There are rules and guidelines to follow. Great companion plants, cabbages and beans collocate with each other like ‘mowing’ and ‘the lawn’. But put some onions next to the beans instead, and you get a companionship that doesn’t really work, like ‘cutting the lawn’. Nourishing, supporting and cultivating the relationships that are most beneficial for our garden is an important part of the work. In the garden, we pile up some wood sticks to slowly rot at the edge, in order to attract beetles, whose larvae will help us manage slugs. In the classroom, we give a task with a set of words to use, and students will ask for verbs to connect them, motivated to know the language. They will form expressions, learn collocations, build relationships, and hopefully stay away from those shelves.
THE WONDERS OF ECOSYSTEMS
Looking at a language as an ecosystem is not unheard of. While language ecology is a field of study that examines how languages interact with each other and with the places where they are spoken, looking at a language as a “cultural ecosystem” allows us to see it as more than a tool to communicate, but as “one of the wonders of the natural world”, where relationships and connections are at the centre, in continuous evolution. These relationships constantly invite experimentation and playfulness; rhyme games and seeds we’ve never tried before; role plays and pH tests; board races and compost bins. Once we look at language without worrying, from a state of wonder and curiosity, everything changes. Just like when you look at a garden, where you are gently reminded to always look at the trees, as well as the forest.
Teacher, The London School, Schio, Italy
 Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994