Tag Archives: Scott Thornbury

Reading Finnegans Wake – A Guide to Student Thinking

Obviously, if you want to get a better idea of what is going through your students’ minds when they are given something difficult to read, like a Cambridge exam, simply look at your own language learning.  This is relatively simple and I’m sure most of us have endeavoured to learn a second, third or even fourth, fifth or sixth language – indeed English may not be your first language.

However, if you are not learning a new language at the moment (1) (2) or have just about mastered the language you are currently studying then you might have already started to forget some of those feelings of frustration and despair as you spent 10 minutes reading a small article in the newspaper and you still didn’t understand what it was talking about.  If this is the case, or you just want to try something different, then may I suggest Finnegans Wake by James Joyce.  You will quickly remember the frustrations and empathise with your students a little bit more.

To say I’m having some trouble with it would be an understatement – I picked it up about 5 minutes after finishing The Girl Who Played with Fire so it had some big shoes to fill in terms of readability.  But, I wanted to share my experiences of the first two paragraphs and how it suddenly made me stop and think of my students.

My Kindle edition has a long and detailed introduction to the text and the man – I skipped it.  There is also a section entitled “The Writing of Finnegans Wake” – I skipped that too.  That is followed by “The Structure of the Wake” – skipped it – and this is finished off by a piece entitled “A Babelion Act of War”, which I also skipped but for the sake of this piece I looked through it and saw it seems to be a short composition about how Finnegans Wake is regarded by other literary giants, such as T.S. Eliot and Umberto Eco.

And then, at last, I hit the first two paragraphs and so far I haven’t got any further.  This is not for lack of trying but lack of motivation – I’m not motivated to read further because I don’t feel I’ve understood the first part and don’t see much point in continuing until I feel comfortable with what I’ve already read.  I’ve already read it five times and every time feels new because none of it is ‘going in’.  None of it is going in because little of it is being understood.

So immediately I understand my students better – I recognize and understand most of the words (not all, some are made up) but when put together I get to the end of the 2nd paragraph and I feel like a total idiot for not understanding a single clause.  I suppose in this respect we could substitute Joyce’s odd yet critically praised composition with various student compositions I read from time to time which are complete gobbledygook.

But let’s consider my process, shall we?  I skipped all the instructions – I just wanted to get started with the reading.  This is natural yet, in the case of Finnegans Wake and many pieces of reading we give our students, important contextual, cultural knowledge is missing.  It will be some struggle but I’ll need to go through the first 6% of the book (the Kindle doesn’t work in pages) and get an idea of the background and a framework with which I can better understand the composition.

We then come to another point where I can sympathize with the students – the pre-reading, while almost always necessary, can sometimes really suck the fun out of reading.  At the moment Finnegans Wake hasn’t proved itself to me to be worth the several thousand words of pre-reading I seem to need to do before I can really sink my teeth into the story itself.  I will persist, in no small part, due to the recommendations of people in my PLN (3) however this stubbornness on my part is not something we can expect from most of our students.

In re-reading the first two paragraphs of Finnegans Wake – now for a sixth time – I’m taken back to the despair of my secondary school French and German classes: reading comprehension, 5 minutes and 10 questions.  Two or three would go unanswered and then three or four of my answers would be wrong.  How demotivating!

I may not get much further into ‘the Wake’ before I declare myself a lost cause, give up on it and move on to something easier (Stieg Larsson’s final part of his trilogy is calling to me even now).  Nonetheless, I am glad I spent the time and money on Joyce’s work because it has, quite inadvertently, reconnected me with language learning as I saw it as a student – something I’d lost being so connected and enthused as a teacher.


  1. And if you aren’t then you should be for two reasons, the first of which is a quote by Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”  I love this quote and I see evidence of it daily when I realize something in my own language when I am studying another language and when my L2 provides me with a conversation or friendship that I would otherwise have missed.
  2. The other, more practical, reason for learning another language is laid out very clearly by Scott Thornbury in an interview he did for the British Council (see below).
  3. I was first got attracted to this by Mark Andrew’s excellent blog post about James Joyce’s work as an English Language Teacher in Trieste and Yssel.  Highly recommended reading.
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Posted by on June 23, 2011 in Recommendations, Reflections, Review


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