On knacks and tranquillos
Saturday 11 September 2010
On the beach ... just enough breeze to take the oven out of the heat ... there's three boys playing with a surf board (or is it 'bodyboard' - broad and sort of ovoid?). They sling the board across the shallows, sprint after it and jump aboard, trying to plane. They look like brothers, and the eldest (10 perhaps?) and the youngest (7?) do it well - but the middle one (8?) tries and tries again, but he just hasn't got the knack. "No coge el tranquillo" says my partner (and in-house Spanish teacher), Julita.
They're both lovely words, 'knack' and 'tranquillo', in their respective languages - 'knack' has that no-nonsense crispness of anglo-saxon, and 'tranquillo' has that elaborate roll of Spanish. But they both refer to something mysterious, fascinating, and deeply important - the ability to absorb the idea of how to do something. Julita and I agreed that 'trick' and 'truco' miss the point - both words suggest something misleading, some way of by-passing the difficulty and so making it less than what it appears. But if you finally get the knack of something, it's still an achievement ... you've found the key to the door, but it's still an impressive door.
Having the knack means that you've grasped the essence of something. The essence may be something very simple. In the case of surfing a bodyboard, it seems to have something to do with timing and weight in just the right place - something that I can analyse well, lying watching, but I bet I couldn't actually do it! Knowing is not the same as doing. And perhaps (again thinking of the boys and their board), perhaps having the knack is profoundly connected with believing you can do it. The middle brother has lost confidence, feels humiliated, and he's dying to stop but daren't give up ... it's painful to watch ... The other two fail sometimes, fall off, look silly - but that's OK, because they know that they'll get it right next time. And they do.
Learning to do a language is like that, and I've always believed that a significant part of being a good language teacher - aside from all the clever plans and tricks for teachers - is about instilling confidence in ability to speak. About teaching the knack.