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Teachers straining Halliday: hot air balloons from Montebelluna

By Domenico Pacitti

Linguistica sistemica e educazione linguistica [Systemic Linguistics and Linguistic Education] by Carol Taylor Torsello. Published in 1992 by Unipress, via Pietro Canal 13, 35137 Padua, Italy, 178 pages, €12.00.

Carol Taylor Torsello has been teaching teachers in Italy’s Veneto region how to teach other teachers to teach modern languages and literature to pupils in Italian schools employing a methodology imported from systemic linguistics.

Mrs Taylor Torsello's book is a collection of five articles based on her encounters with such teachers of teachers in the picturesque holiday town of Montebelluna near Treviso. This somewhat dubious multiple teaching enterprise has been cheerfully funded by the Veneto regional institute for education services (IRRSAE) as an in-service teachers’ training course.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, systemic linguistics was developed by the London linguist M.A.K. Halliday. It stresses language as a social function and analyses it in terms of phonology, grammar, semantics and context. Context, which interests Mrs Taylor Torsello to the point of neglect of the other three sectors, subdivides into field, tenor and mode. These concern, respectively, general action, participant roles and manner of communication.

Mrs Taylor Torsello begins by stating the momentous commonplace that linguistic systems “vary even notably from one language to another” and that individual speakers “vary a great deal” (p.9). What was heralded as a study relating to modern languages plural turns out to address but a single language, namely English.

Now safely in automatic and armed with symbols, diagrams and a distorted caricature of Halliday’s work, Mrs Taylor Torsello proceeds to feed language and literary texts mindlessly, mechanically and indiscriminately through her “field, tenor and mode” mincing machine. Texts which are thus vilified and reduced to absolute banality for pupils in Italian schools include: “The Garden of Love” (William Blake), “The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” (Dylan Thomas), The Portrait of a Lady (Henry James) and a magazine advertisement for a chain of hotels. We are light years away from the sort of teaching that could genuinely help pupils develop their sensitivity to a literary text and articulate a coherent response.

Yet all the while Mrs Taylor Torsello takes herself to be carrying out profound, pathbreaking research as is attested by her statement:

“It is probable that the applications made by people like ourselves in refining, adjusting and extending this theoretical framework will turn out to be of great importance.” (p.21)

Regrettably, as it turns out, Mrs Taylor Torsello’s book falls miserably short of these absurdly high aims, betraying an imperfect knowledge of both elementary English and Italian and thus slotting nicely into the “English for semiliterates” category. For example, Mrs Taylor Torsello appears to be ignorant of the Italian grammatical rule whereby the indefinite article does not take an apostrophe when followed by a masculine noun beginning with a vowel. She thus writes “un’emittente” (p.145), meaning a broadcasting network, instead of “un emittente”, meaning a (neutral) speaker. But Mrs Taylor Torsello is equally efficient at making errors in English. She thus succeeds in misspelling “accommodations” (p.33) despite the fact that her cut-and-paste job of a hotel advertisement on the opposite page contained the correct spelling.

It emerges that, like many other Italian academics especially in the humanities, Mrs Taylor Torsello has an over-exalted vision of her own work that is at dramatic variance with the reality. It would be interesting to know whether the course participants perceive this discrepancy and, if so, whether they view it as tragic or comic. But this turns out to be rather difficult to gauge since Mrs Taylor Torsello succeeds in presenting her participants as constantly expressing their unreserved gratitude and esteem.

It would also be interesting to assess the exponential damage which Mrs Taylor Torsello has wrought on Italian school pupils on the receiving end of her misguided mincemeat as it is duly channelled downwards through the teaching hierarchy. The Veneto IRRSAE would do well to fund an impartial and objective evaluation of such damage, provided, of course, that this was carried out by competent researchers from outside Italy.

The blind application of oversimplified theoretical criteria to texts for classroom pupils may give the superficial impression that something “scientific” and “technical” – and therefore implicitly worthwhile within the Italian academic logic – is being undertaken. The plain truth is that all of this is counterintuitive to language pupils, inculcating at best the illusion of concrete learning and at worst confused and offputting indoctrination.

This raises the obvious question of the relevance of teaching theory to practical teaching. Prospective and in-service teachers should bear in mind above all that teaching is a sort of craft, even an art, but not a science, far less the uncritical transmission of stale, third-hand doctrine. Even experienced teachers who understand the overriding importance of intuition in this regard nevertheless risk stultification through religiously attempting to implement the new doctrines instilled on such in-service courses. Some useful thoughts on the subject are expressed in the article Chomsky offers advice to teachers on the use of science.

The reader may be wondering whether there is anything positive at all that can be said about Mrs Taylor Torsello’s book. It does after all have a dark blue textured cover which bears a strong resemblance to that of the first paperback edition of Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures. In both cases the paper has been so well attached to the covers that the pages do not fall out in the course of reading. Moreover, the two books greatly resemble each other also in style of print, size of letters and spacing between chapter titles and opening paragraphs. When held upside down and read back to front, they seem to be on an obvious par and quite indistinguishable. They even have a similar smell.

Italian academic adjudicating commissions wishing to award Mrs Taylor Torsello, rather than Noam Chomsky, a tenured university post would no doubt pounce on the fact that Linguistica sistemica e educazione linguistica actually physically outweighs Syntactic Structures, which comes in at a meagre 0.208 of a kilo. Again, they would surely favour Mrs Taylor Torsello on the grounds of her superior “bookmaking” ability to reproduce a variety of texts in her book using the cut-and-paste method.

However, this does not mean that cut-and-paste should be derided. For it takes pride of place in the elementary school classroom where it is admirably utilised in the composition of Xmas cards alongside other formative pursuits such as the choral recital of nursery rhymes, classroom decoration and the inflation of balloons – a didactic domain perhaps more consonant with Mrs Taylor Torsello's abilities.

Carol Taylor Torsello holds a senior post in English linguistics at the University of Trieste's school for translators and interpreters.

Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on January 20 2005.