Category Archives: Education


What does it mean when words ‘really’ mean something: Dismiss the Miss

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A few days ago, I tweeted a link to an article in TES:

Today, I got the following response back:

@lizzielh is absolutely right. As the title of an as yet unpublished blog post of mine goes: “Words don’t mean things, people mean things”. I even wrote a whole book chapter on that with the same title as this post.

Indeed, if it had been me writing on the topic, I would have chosen a more judicious title. Such as “The legacy of discrimination behind the humble Miss” or “Past and present inequalities encoded in the simple Miss”.

In fact, the only reason I tweeted that article in the first place was because it was making a much more subtle and powerful point than simple etymology (as you would expect from one based on the work of the eminent scholar of language and gender Jennifer Coates). Going all the way back to Language and the Woman’s Place and even before, people have been trying to peg the blame on simple words. All along the response has been, but these are just words, we don’t mean anything bad by them. Or, these are just words, the real harm is done in the real world.

Many women I meet continue to like the Miss/Mrs distinction despite the long availability of the now destigmatized Ms. It was not too long ago that I set up a sign up form with only Prof Dr Mr Ms and got lots of complaints from women who wanted to keep their Miss or Mrs. So restigmatizing Miss is actively harmful to the self-image of many women whose identity is tied with that label. Feminist tend to make light of the ‘unfeminist’ cry of “I like it when men open the door to me”, or “Carrying my bag for me just shows respect”.  Or going back even further, “I don’t need a vote, I exercise my influence through my husband.” But change is literally hard, it takes time and effort, so an attempt at making the world better will always making temporarily worse (at least for some people).

The fact is that Miss is a bound in a network of meanings, interactions and power relations. And even if it takes some mental pain, it’s worth picking at all it covers up.

But not every minute of every day. Sometimes, we need to say something to get from conversational point A to conversational point B and even a laden word may be better than no word. As one of the respondents in the article says:

My response is always that my name isn’t Miss; it’s Mrs Coslett. But if I’m in a school where students don’t know me and they call me Miss, I’m fine with that. They’re showing respect by giving me a title, rather than ‘hey’ or ‘oi, you’ or whatever.

Most of the time contentious words are used, challenging them is not feasible. But she’s wrong in her conclusion:

That’s just the way the English language works.

That’s absolutely not true. Just like words don’t mean anything on their own, language does not just work. It’s used to do things (to riff on Austin’s famous book) by people. It is not always used purposefully but its use is always bound in the many ways and means of people. The way we speak now is a result of centuries of little power plays, imitations of prestige, prescriptions of obedience. When you look closer, they’re all easy to see.

Things have let up considerably since the 1970s. Many fewer people are concerned about how language encodes gender inequality and it’s worthwhile reminding ourselves that many of the historical unfairnesses hidden in word histories are still with us. Just like you can’t get away with saying “I didn’t mean anything by the ‘n’ word”, you can’t just shrug off the critique of the complex tapestry of gender bias in ‘Miss’.

Miss does not “really mean” anything. It’s just a sequence of letters or sounds. And most people using it do not “really mean” anything by it. Or it does not “really mean” anything to them. But context is everything.

It is a truism to say that racism will be done away with when people don’t dislike each other because of the color of their skin. But the opposite is the case. The sign that racism has disappeared is when I can say “I really don’t like black people” simply because I don’t like the color of their skin in the same way I may prefer redheads to blondes. Preference for skin colour is then just a harmless quirk. But we’re centuries away from that because any such preference is tied to a system of discrimination going back a long way.  (BTW: just to avoid misunderstanding, I personally find black skin beautiful.)

The same thing applies to “Miss”, we can’t just turn our back on its pernicious potential. Most of the time it’s hidden from sight but it’s recoverable at a moment’s notice. Because we live in a world where male is still the default position. We have to work to change that. Change our minds, hearts, cognitions and languages. They don’t  just work on their own. We make them work. So let’s make them work for us. The ‘us’ we want to be, rather than the ‘us’ we used to be in the bad old days.

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5 things everybody should know about language: Outline of linguistics’ contribution to the liberal arts curriculum

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This was written in some haste and needs further refinement. Maybe one day that will come. For now, it will be left as it stands.


This post outlines what I think are the key learnings from the output of the research of the field of linguistics that should be reflected in the general curriculum (in as much as any should be). This is in reaction to the recent posts by Mark Liberman suggesting the role and form of grammar analysis in general education. I argue that he is almost entirely wrong in his assumptions as well as in his emphasis. I will outline my arguments against his position at the end of the post. At the beginning I will outline key easily digestible lessons of modern linguistics that should be incorporated into language education at all levels.

I should note that despite my vociferous disagreement, Mark Liberman is one of my heros. His ‘Breakfast Experiments(tm)’ have brought me much joy and his and his fellow contributors to the Language Log make me better informed about developments in linguistics outside my own specialty that I would otherwise not know about. Thanks Mark for all your great work.

I have addressed some of these issues in previous posts here, here and here.

What should linguistics teach us

In my post on what proponents of simple language should know about linguistics, I made a list of findings that I propose are far more important than specific grammatical and lexicographic knowledge. Here I take a slightly more high-level approach – but in part, this is a repetition of that post.

Simply, I propose that any school-level curriculum of language education should 1. expose students (starting at primary level) to the following 5 principles through reflection on relevant examples, and 2. these principles should be reflected in the practical instruction students receive toward the acquisition of skills and general facility in the standards of that language.

Summary of key principles

  1. Language is a dialect with an army and a navy
  2. Standard English is just one of the many dialects of English
  3. We are all multilingual in many different ways
  4. A dictionary is just another text written in the language, not a law of the language
  5. Language is more than words and rules

Principle 1: Language is a dialect with an army and a navy

This famous dictum (see Wikipedia on origins ) encapsulates the fact that language does not have clear boundaries and that there is no formula for distinguishing where one language ends and another begins. Often, this disctinction depends on the political interests of different groups. In different political contexts, the different Englishes around the world today, could easily qualify for separate language status and many of them have achieved this.

But exploring the examples that help us make sense of this pithy phrase also teaches us the importance of language in the negotiation of our identity and its embeddedness in the wider social sphere. There are piles and piles of evidence to support this claim and learning about the evidence has the potential of making us all better human beings less prone to disenfranchise others based on the way they speak (in as much any form of schooling is capable of such a thing). Certainly more worthy than knowing how to tell the passive voice.

Principle 2: Standard English is just one of the many dialects of English

Not only are there no clear boundaries between languages, there are no clear principles of what constitutes an individual language. A language is identified by its context of use as much as by the forms it uses. So if kayak and a propos can be a part of English so can ain’t and he don’t. It is only a combination of subconscious convention and conscious politics that decides which is which.

Anybody exploring the truth of this statement (and, yes, I’m perfectly willing to say the word truth in this context) will learn about the many features of English and all human languages such as:

  • stratification of language through registers
  • regional and social variation in language
  • processes of change in language over time
  • what we call good grammar are more or less fixed conventions of expression in certain contexts
  • the ubiquity of multiple codes and constant switching between codes (in fact, I think this is so important that it gets a top billing in this list as number 3)

Again, althoguh I’m highly skeptical of claims to causality from education to social change, I can’t see why instruction in this reality of our lives could not contribute to an international conversation about language politics. Perhaps, an awareness of this ‘mantra’ could reduce the frequency of statements such as:

  • I know I don’t speak very good English
  • Word/expression X is bad English
  • Non-native speaker X speaks better English than native speaker Y

And just maybe, teachers of English will stop abusing their students with ‘this is bad grammar’ and instead guide them towards understanding that in different contexts, different uses are appropriate. Even at the most elementary levels, children can have fun learning to speak like a newscaster or a local farm hand, without the violent intrusion into their identity that comes from the misguided and evil labeling of the first as proper and the second as ‘not good English’. Or how about giving the general public enough information to have judged the abominable behavior of the the journalist pseudo elites during the ‘Ebonics controversy’ as the disgraceful display of shameful ignorance it was.

Only and only when they have learned all that, should we mention something about the direct object.

Principle 3: We are all multilingual in many different ways

One of the things linguistics has gathered huge amounts of evidence about is the fact that we are all constantly dealing with multiple quite distinct codes. This is generally not expressed in quite as stark terms as I do here, but I take my cue from bilingualism studies where it has been suggested (either by Chaika or Romaine – I can’t track down the reference to save my life) that we should treat all our study of language as if bilingualism was the default state rather than some exception. This would make good sense even if we went by the educated guess that just over half of the world’s population speaks regularly two or more languages. But I want to go further.

First, we know from principle 1 that there is no definition of language that allows us draw clear boundaries between individual languages. Second, we know from principle 2 that each language consists of many different ‘sub-languages’ or ‘codes’. Because language is so vast and complex, it follows that knowing a language is not an either/or proposition. People are constantly straddling boundaries between different ways of speaking and understanding. Speaking in different ways for different purposes, to different people in different codes. And we know that people switch between the codes constantly for different reasons, even in the same sentence or just one word (very common in languages with rich morphologies like Czech – less common in English but possible with ‘un-fucking-convinving’). Some examples that should illustrate this: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re screwed” and “And then Jeff said unto Karen”

We also know from all the wailing and gnashing of teeth derriving from the ignorance of principle 2, that acquiring these different codes is not easy. The linguist Jim Miller has suggested to me that children entering school are in a way required to learn a foreign language. In Czech schools, they are instructed in a new lexicon and new morphology (e.g. say ‘malý’ instead of ‘malej’). in English schools they are taught a strange syntax with among other things a focus on nominal structures (cf. ‘he went and’ vs. ‘his going was’) as well as an alien lexicon (cf. ‘leave’ vs. ‘depart’). This is compounded with a spelling system whose principles are often explained on the basis of a phonology they don’t understand (e.g. much of England pronuncing ‘bus’ and ‘booss’ but using teaching materials that rhyme ‘bus’ with ‘us’).

It is not therefore a huge leap to say that for all intents and purposes, we are all multilingual even if we only officially speak one language with its own army and a navy. Or at least, we enagage all the social, cognitive and linguistic processes that are involved in speaking multiple languages. (There is some counter evidence from brain imaging but in my view it is still too early to interpret this either way.)

But no matter whether we accept the strong or the weak version of my proposition, learning about the different pros and cons would make students’ lives much easier at all levels. Instead of feeling like failures over their grammar, they could be encouraged to practice switching between codes. They could also take comfort in the knowledge that there are many different ways of knowing a language and no one person can know it all.

If any time is left over, let’s have a look at constituent structures.

Principle 4: A dictionary is just another text written in the language, not a law of the language

The defference shown to ‘official’ reference materials is at the heart of a myth that the presense of a word in a dictionary in some way validates the word as being a ‘real’ word in the language. But the absolute truth about language that everyone should know and repeat as a mantra every time they ask ‘is X a word’ is that dictionaries are just another text. In fact, they are their own genre of a type that Michael Hoey calls text colonies. This makes them cousins of the venerable shopping list. Dictionaries have their own conventions, their own syntax and their own lexicon. They have ‘heads’ and ‘definitions’ that are both presented in particular ways.

What they most emphatically do not do is confirm or disconfirm the existence of a word or its meaning. It’s not just that they are always behind current usage, it’s that they only reflect a fraction of the knowledge involved in knowing and using words (or as the philosopher John Austin would say ‘doing things with words’). Dictionaries fullfil two roles at once. They are useful tools for gathering information to enable us to deal with the consequences of principle 3 (i.e. to function in a complex multi-codal linguistic environment both as passive and active participants). And they help us express many beliefs about our world such as:

  • The world is composed of entities with meanings
  • Our knowledge is composed of discrete items
  • Some things are proper and others are improper

Perhaps this can become more transparent when we look at entries for words like ‘the’ or ‘cat’. No dictionary definition can help us with ‘the’ unless we can already use it. In this case, the dictionary serves no useful role other than as a catalog of our reality. Performatively assuring us of its own relevance by its irrelevance. How about the entry for ‘cat’. Here, the dictionary can play a very useful role in a bilingual situation. A German will see ‘cat = Katze’ and all will be clear in an instant. A picture can be helpful to those who have no language yet (little children). But the definition of ‘cat’ as “a small domesticated carnivorous mammal with soft fur, a short snout, and retractile claws” is of no use to anybody who doesn’t already know what ‘cat’ means. Or at the very least, if you don’t know ‘cat’, your chances of understanding any definition in the dictionary are very low. A dictionary can be helpful in reminding us that ‘cat’ is also used to refer to ‘man’ among jazz musicians (as in “he’s a cool cat”) but again, all that requires existing knowledge of cat. A dictionary definition that would say ‘a cat is that thing you know as a cat but jazz musicians sometimes use cat to refer to men’ would be just as useful.

In this way, a dictionary is like an audience in the theatre, who are simultaneously watching a performance, and performing themselves the roles of theatre audiences (dress, behavior, speech).

It is also worthwhile to think about what is required of the dictionary author. While the basic part of the lexicographer’s craft is the collection of usage examples (on index cards in the past and in corpora today) and their interpretation, all this requires a prior facility with the language and much introspection about the dictionary makers own linguistic intuitions. So lexicographers make mistakes. Furthermore, in the last hundred years or so, they also almost never start from scratch. Most dictionaries are based on some older dictionaries and the order of definitions is often as much a reflection of a tradition (e.g. in the case of the word ‘literally’ or the word ‘brandish’) as analysis of actual usage.

Why should this be taught as part of the language education curriculum? Simple! Educated people should know how the basic tools surrounding their daily lives work. But even more importantly, they should never use the presence of a word in a dictionary, and as importantly the definition of a word in a dictionary, as the definitive argument for their preferred meaning of a word. (Outside some contexts such as playing SCRABBLE or confirming an uncertainty over archaic or specialist words).

An educated person should be able to go and confirm any guidance found in a dictionary by searching a corpus and evaluate the evidence. It’s not nearly as hard as as identifying parts of speech in a sentence and about a million times more useful for the individual and beneficial for society.

Principle 5: Language is more than words and rules

Steven Pinker immortalised the traditional structuralist vision of what language consists of in the title of his book “Words and rules”. This vision is almost certainly wrong. It is based on an old articulation of language as being the product of a relatively small number of rules applied to a really large number of words (Chomsky expressed this quite starkly but the roots of this model go much deeper).

That is not to say that words and rules are not useful heuristic shortcuts to talking about language. I use this metaphor myself every day. And I certainly am not proposing that language should not be taught with reference to this metaphor.

However, this is a very impoverished view of language and rather than spend time on learning the ‘relatively few’ rules for no good reason other than to please Mark Liberman, why not learn some facts we know about the vastness and complexity of language. That way instead of having a completely misguided view of language as something finite that can be captured in a few simple precepts (often expressed in one of those moronic ‘Top X grammatical errors lists’), one could actually have a basic understanding of all the ways language expresses our minds and impresses itself on our life. Perhaps, we could even get to a generation of psycholinguists and NLP specialists who try to deal with language as it actually is rather than in its bastardised form that can be captured by rules and words.

Ok, so I’m hoisting my theoretical flag here, flying the colors of the ‘usage-based’, ‘construction grammar’, ‘cognitive semantics’ crowd. But the actual curricular proposal is theory free (other than in the ‘ought’ portion of it) and based on well-known and oft-described facts – many of them by the Language Log itself.

To illustrate the argument, let’s open the dictionary and have a look at the entry ‘get’. It will go on for several pages even if we decide to hide all its phrasal friends under separate entries. Wiktionary lists 26 definitions as a verb and 4 as a noun which is fairly conservative. But each of these definitions also comes with usage examples and usage exceptions. For instance, in ‘get behind him’, it is intransitive but in ‘get Jim to come’, it is transitive. This is combined with general rules that apply across all uses such ‘got’ as the past tense and ‘gets’ as the third person singular. Things can be even more complex as with the word ‘bad’ which has the irregular superlative ‘worst’ when it is used in a negative sense as in ‘teaching grammar in schools is the worst idea’ and ‘baddest’ in the positive sense as in ‘Mark Liberman is the baddest linguist on the internet’. ‘Baddest’ is also only appropriate in certain contexts (so my example is at the same time an illustration of code mixing). When we look at any single word in the dictionary, the amount of conscious and unconscious knowledge required to use the word in our daily speech is staggering. This is made even trickier by the fact that not everyone in any one speech community has exactly the same grasp of the word leading to a lot of negotiation and conversation repair.

It is also the sort of stuff that makes understanding of novel expressions like ‘she sneezed the napking off the table’ possible. If we must, let’s do some sentence diagramming now.

Some other things to know

I could go on, some of my other candidate principles that didn’t make this list either because they could be subsumed by one of the items, or they are too theory laden, or because I wanter a list of 5, or because this blog post is over 3,000 words already, are:

  • All lexical knowledge is encyclopedic knowledge
  • Rules of the road like conversation repair, turn taking or text cohesion are just as much part of language as things like passives, etc.
  • Metaphors (and other types of figurative language) are normal, ubiquitous and necessary for language
  • Pretty much every prejudice about gender and language is wrong (like who is more conservative, etc.)
  • No language is more beatiful or amazing than any other, saying this is most likely part of a nationalistic discourse
  • Children are not very good language learners when you put them in the same learning context as adults (e.g. two hours of instruction a week as opposed to living in a culture with no other obligation but to learn)
  • Learning a language is hard and it takes time
  • The etymology of a word does not reflect some deeper meaning of the word
  • Outside some very specific contexts (e.g. language death), languages don’t decline, they change
  • Etc.

Why we should not teach grammar in schools

So, that was my outline of what linguistic expertise should be part of the language education curriculum – and as importantly should inform teachers across all subjects. Now, let’s have a look, as promised, at why Mark Liberman is wrong to call for the teaching of grammar in schools in the first place.

To his credit, he does not trot out any of the usual utilitarian arguments for the teaching of grammar:

  • It will make learning of foreign languages easier
  • It will make today’s graduates better able to express themselves
  • It will contribute to higher quality of discourse
  • It will stop the decline of English
  • It will improve critical thinking of all students

These are all bogus, not supported by evidence and with some evidence against them (see this report for a summary of a part of them).

My argument is with his interpretation of his claim that

a basic understanding of how language works should be part of what every educated person knows

I have a fundamental problem with the very notion of ‘educated person’ because of its pernicious political baggage. But in this post I’ve used it to accept the basic premise that if we’re going to teaching lots of stuff to children in schools, we might as well teach them the good stuff. Perhaps, not always the most immediately useful stuff but definitely the stuff that reflects the best in what we have to offer to ourselves as the humanity we want to be.

But if that is the case, then I don’t think his offer of

a modern version of the old-fashioned idea that grammar (and logic and rhetoric :-)) should be for everyone

is that sort of stuff. Let’s look at what that kind of education did for the likes of Orwell, and Stunk and White who have had the benefit of all the grammar education a school master’s cane can beat into a man and yet committed such outrageous, embarrassing and damaging transgressions against linguistic knowledge (not infrequently decried on the Language Log).

The point is that ‘grammar’ (and ‘logic’ and ‘rhetoric’) do not represent even a fraction of the principles involved in how language works. The only reason why we would privilege their teaching over the teaching of the things I propose (which cover a much larger area of how language works) is because they have been taught in the past. But why? Basing it on something as arbitrary as the hodgepodge that is the treebank terminology proposed by Mark Liberman only exposes the weakness of the argument – sure, it’s well known and universally understood by professional linguists but it hides as much about language as it reveals. And as Mark acknowledges, the aim is not to educate future linguists. There are alternatives such as Dickson’s excellent Basic Linguistic Theory that take into account much more subtly the variation across languages. But even then, we avoid all the really interesting things about language. I’m not against some very basic metalinguistic terminology to assist students in dealing with language but parsing sentences for no other reason than to do it seems pointless.

The problem with basing a curriculum on old-fashioned values is that we are catering to the nostalgia of old men (and sorry Mark, despite my profound appreciation for your work, you are an old man). (By the way, I use ‘men’ to evoke a particular image rather than to make any assertions about the gender of the person in question.) But it’s not just nostalgia. It’s also their disorientation in a changing world and discomfort with encountering people who are not like them – and, oh horror, can’t tell the passive voice from the past tense. Yes, it would be more convenient for me, if everyone I spoke to had the same appreciation for what an adverb is (particularly when I was teaching foreign languages). But is that really the best we have to offer when we want to show what should be known? How much of this is just the maintenance of the status of academics who want to see their discipline reflected in the cauldron of power and respectability that is the school curriculum? If the chemists get to waste everyone’s time with polymers, why not us with trees and sentence diagrams? In a follow up post, Dick Hudson claims that at present “we struggle to cope with the effects of [the disaster of no grammar teaching]“. But I don’t see any disaster going on at the moment. Why is teaching no grammar more disasterous than the teaching of grammar based on Latin and Greek with little connection to the nature of English? Whose rules are we after?

The curriculum is already full to bursting with too much stuff that someone threw up as a shibboleth for being educated and thus eligible for certain privileges. But perhaps our curriculum has now become the kind of stable that needs the janitorial attention of a modern Heracles.

Post script: Minimalist metalinguistic curriculum

I once analysed the Czech primary curriculum and found over 240 metalinguistic terms. I know, riddiculous. The curriculum was based on the work of eminent Czech structuralists (whose theorizing influenced much of the rest of the world). It didn’t make the Czechs any more educated, eloquent, or better at learning foreign languages – although it did make it easier for me to study linguistics. But as I said above, there is certainly some place for metalanguage in general education. Much of it comes from stylistics but when it comes to grammar, I’d stick to about 15. This is not a definitive list:

  1. Noun
  2. Verb
  3. Adjective
  4. Adverb
  5. Preposition
  6. Pronoun
  7. Prefix
  8. Suffix
  9. Clause
  10. Past form of verb
  11. Future form of verbs
  12. Present form of verbs
  13. Subject
  14. Object
  15. Passive

Languages with rich morphology might need a few others to cover things like case but overall in my career as a language educator, I’ve never felt the need for any more, and nor have I felt in the presence of uneducated people of people who couldn’t tell me what the infinitive was. In fact, I’d rather take some items away (like adverb, prefix, suffix, or clause) than add new ones.

Sentence diagramming is often proposed as a way of instilling some metalinguistic awareness. I don’t see any harm in that (and a lot of potential benefit). But only with the enormous proviso that students use it to learn the relationship between parts of their language in use and NOT as a gateway to a cancerous taxonomy pretending to the absolute existence of things that could easily be just artifacts of our metacognition.

Things are different when it comes to the linguistic education of language teachers. On the one hand, I’m all for language teachers having a comprehensive education in how language works. On the other hand, I have perpetrated a lot of such teacher training over the years and have watch others struggle with it, as well. And the effects are dispiriting. I’ve seen teachers who can diagram a sentence with the best of them and are still quite clueless when it comes to understanding how speech acts work. Very often language teachers find any such lessons painful and something to get through. This means that the key thing they remember about the subject is that linguistics is hard or boring or both.

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Three books of the year 2013 and some books of the century 1900-2013

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I have been asked (as every year) to nominate three books of the year for Lidové Noviny (a Czech paper I contribute to occasionally). This is always a tough choice for me and some years I don’t even bother responding. This is because I don’t tend to read books ‘of the moment’ and range widely in my reading across time periods. But I think I have some good ones this time. Additionally, Lidové Noviny are celebrating 120 years of being a major Czech newspaper so they also asked me for a book of the century (since 1900 till now). It makes no sense to even try to pick ‘the one’, so I picked three categories that are of interest to me (language, society and fiction) and chose three books in each.

The Colorful Library of an Interaction Designer (Juhan Sonin) / 20100423.7D.05887.P1 / SMLCreative Commons License See-ming Lee via Compfight

Three books of 2013

Thanks to the New Books Network, I tend to be more clued in on the most recent publications, so 2 of my recommendations are based on interviews heard there.

A Cultural History of the Atlantic World, 1250-1820 by John K. Thornton is without question a must read for anyone interested in, well, history. Even though he is not the first, Thornton shows most persuasively how the non-Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic (Africa and the Americas) were full-fledged political partners of the Europeans who are traditionally seen simply as conquerors with their dun powder, horses and steel weapons. Bowerman shows how these were just a small part of the mix, having almost no impact in Africa and playing a relatively small role in the Americas. In both cases, Europeans succeeded through alliances with local political elites and for centuries simply had no access to vast swathes of both continents.

Raising Germans in the Age of Empire: Youth and Colonial Culture, 1871-1914 by Jeff Bowersox. This book perhaps covers an exceedingly specific topic (compared to the vast sweep of my first pick) but it struck a chord with me. It shows the complex interplay between education, propaganda and their place in the lives of youth and adults alike.

Writing on the Wall: Social Media – the First 2,000 Years by Tom Standage. Standage’s eye opening book on the telegraph (The Victorian Internet) now has a companion dealing with social communication networks going back to the Romans. Essential corrective to all the gushing paradigm shifters. He doesn’t say there’s nothing new about the Internet but he does say that there’s nothing new abou humans. Much lighter reading but still highly recommended.

Books of the Century

This really caught my fancy. I was asked for books that affected me, but I thought more about those that had an impact going beyond the review cycle of a typical book.


Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure published in 1916. The Course (or Le Cours) Published posthumously by Saussure’s students from lecture notes is the cornerstone of modern linguistics. I think many of the assumptions have been undermined in the past 30-40 years and we are ripe for a paradigm change. But if you talk to a modern linguist, you will still hear much of what Saussure was saying to his students in the early 1900s in Geneva. (Time to rethink the Geneva Convention in language?)

Syntactic Structures by Noam Chomsky published in 1957. Unlike The Course, which is still worth reading by anyone who wants to learn about language, Syntactic Structures is now mostly irrelevant and pretty much incomprehensible to non-experts. However, it launched the Natural Language Processing revolution and its seeds are still growing (although not in the Chomskean camp). Its impact may not survive the stochastic turn in NLP but the computational view of language is still with us for good and for ill.

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published in 1980 while not completely original, kickstarted a metaphor revival of sorts. While, personally, I think Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things is by far the most important book of the second half of the 20th century, Metaphors We Live By is a good start (please, read the 2003 edition and pay special attention to the Afterword).


The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir published in 1949 marked a turning point in discourse about women. Although the individual insights had been available prior to Beauvoir’s work, her synthesis was more than just a rehashing of gender issues.

Language and Woman’s Place by Robin Tolmach Lakoff published in 1973 stands at the foundation of how we speak today about women and how we think about gender being reflected in language. I would now quible with some of the linguistics but not with the main points. Despite the progress, it can still open eyes of readers today.

The Savage Mind by Claude Levi-Strauss published in 1962 was one of the turning points in thinking about modernity, complexity and backwardness. Strauss’s quip that philosophers like Sartre were more of a subject of study for him than valuable interlocutors is still with me when I sit in on a philosophy seminar. I read this book without any preparation and it had a profound impact on me that is still with me today.


None of the below are my personal favourites but all have had an impact on the zeit geist that transcended just the moment.

1984 by George Orwell published in 1949. Frankly I can’t stand this book. All of its insight is skin deep and its dystopian vision (while not in all aspects without merit) lacks the depth it’s often attributed. There are many sci-fi and fantasy writers who have given the issue of societal control and freedom much more subtle consideration. However, it’s certainly had a more profound impact on general discourse than possibly any piece of fiction of the 20th century.

The Joke by Milan Kundera published in 1967 is the only book by Kundera with literary merit (I otherwise find his writing quite flat). Unlike Orwell, Kundera has the capacity to show the personal and social dimensions of totalitarian states. In The Joke he shows both the randomness of dissent and the heterogeniety of totalitarian environments.

The Castle by Franz Kafka published in 1912 (or just the collected works of Kafka) have provided a metaphor for alienation for the literati of the next hundred years. I read The Castle first so it for me more than others illustrates the sense of helplessness and alienation that a human being can experience when faced with the black box of anonymous bureaucracy. Again, I rate this for impact, rather than putting it on a ‘good read’ scale.

My personal favorites would be authors rather than individual works: Kurt Vonnegut, Robertson Davies, James Clavell would make the list for me. I also read reams of genre fiction and fan fiction that can easily stand up next to any of “the greats”. I have no shame and no guilty pleasures. I’ve read most of Terry Pratchett and regularly reread childhood favorites by the likes of Arthur Ransome or Karl May. I’ve quoted from Lee Child and Tom Clancy in academic papers and I’ve published an extensive review of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction novel.

Finally, for me, the pinnacle of recent literary achievement is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve used this as an example of how TV shows have taken over from the Novel, as the narrative format addressing weighty issues of the day, and Buffy is one of the first examples. Veronica Mars is right up there, as well, and there are countless others I’d recommend ‘reading’.

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Do we need a gaming literacy: Literacy metaphor hack

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I am a gaming semi-literate!

I was listening to the discussion of the latest BioShock game on the latest TWiT podcast when I realized that I am in fact game illiterate. I am hearing these stories and descriptions of experiences but I know I can’t access them directly without a major investment in knowledge and skill acquisition. So, this is what people with no or limited literacy must feel like in highly literacy-dependent environments. I really want to access the stories in the way they are told by the game. But I know I can’t. I will stumble, be discouraged, not have a very good time before I can have a good time. I will be a struggling gamer, in the same way that there are struggling readers.

Note: When I say game, I mean mostly a non-casual computer game such as BioShock or War of Worldcraft or SimCity.

What would a game literacy entail?

What would I need to learn in order to access gaming? Literacy is composed of a multiplicity of knowledge areas and skills. I already have some of these but not enough. Roughly, I will need to get at the following:

  • Underlying cognitive skills (For reading: transforming the sight of letters into sounds or corresponding mental representations. For gaming: transforming desired effects on screen into actions on a controller)
  • Complex perceptual and productive fluency (Ability to employ the cognitive skills automatically in response to changing stimuli in multiple contexts).
  • Context-based or task-based strategies (Ability to direct the underlying skills towards solving particular problems in particular contexts. For reading: Skim text, or look things up in the index, or skip acknowledgements, discover the type of text, or adopt reading speed appropriate to type of text, etc. For gaming Discover the type of game, or gather appropriate achievements, or find hidden bonuses, etc.)
  • Metacognitive skills and strategies (Learn the terminology and concepts necessary for further learning and to achieve the appropopriate aims using stratgies.)
  • Socialization skills and strategies (Learn to use the skills and knowledge to make connections with other people and exploit those connections to acquire further skill, knowledge as well as social capital derriving from those)

Is literacy a suitable metaphor for gaming? Matches and mismatches!

With any metaphor it is worth to explore the mapping to see if there are sufficient similarities. In this case, I’ll look at the following areas for matches and mismatches:

  • Skill
  • Mode
  • Status
  • Socialization
  • Content
  • Purpose


Both reading/writing (I will continue to use reading for both unless I need to stress the difference) and gaming require skill that can become automatic and that takes time to acquire. People can be both “better” and “worse” at gaming and reading.

But reading is a more universal skill (although not as universal as most people think) whereas gaming skills are more genre based.

The skill at gaming can be more easily measured by game achievement. Quality of reading measures are a bit more tenuous because speed, fluency and accuracy are all contextual measures. However, even game achievement is a bit more relative, such as in recommendations to play at normal or easy to experience the game.

In this gaming is more like reading than for instance, listening to music or watching a skill which do not require any overt acquisition of skill. See Dara O’Briain’s funny bit on the differences between gaming and reading. Of course, when he says “you cannot be bad at watching a film”, we could quibble that much preparation is required for watching some films, but such training does not involve the development of underlying cognitive skills (assuming the same cultural and linguistic environment). Things are a bit more complex for some special kind of listening to music. Nevertheless people do talk about “media literacy”.


Reading is mostly a uni-modal experience. It is possible to read out loud or to read while listening but ultimately reading is its own mode. Reading has an equivalent in writing that though not a mirror image skill, requires relatively the same skill.

Gaming is a profoundly multimodal experience combining vision, sound, movement (and often reading, as well). There are even efforts to involve smell. Gaming does not have a clear expressive counterpart. The obvious expressive equivalent to writing would be game design but that clearly requires a different level of skill. However, gaming allows complex levels of self-expression within the process of game play which does not have an equivalent in reading but is not completely dissimilar to creative writing (like fanfiction).


Reading is a neutral to high status activity. The act itself is neutral but status can derrive from content. Writing (expressive rather than utilitarian) is a high status activity.

Gaming is a low status to neutral activity. No loss of status derives from inability to game to not gaming in a way that is true of reading. Some games have less questionable status and many games are played by people who derive high status from outside of gaming. There are emerging status sanction systems around gaming but none have penetrated outside gaming, yet.


Reading and writing are significant drivers of wider socialization. They are necessary to perform basic social functions and often represent gateways into important social contexts.

Gaming is only required to socialize in gaming groups. However, this socialization may become more highly desirable over time.


Writing is used to encode a wide variety of content – from shopping lists to neuclear plant manuals to fiction.

Games on the other hand, encode a much more narrower range of content. Primarily narrative and primarily finctional. Although more non-narrative and non-fictional games may exist. There are also expository games but so far, none that would afford easy storage of non-game information without using writing.


Reading and writing are very general purpose activities.

Gaming on the other hand has a limited range of purposes: enjoyment, learning, socialization with friends, achieving status in a wider community. You won’t see a bus stop with a game instead of a timetable (although some of these require puzzle solving skills to decipher).

Why may game literacy be important?

As we saw, there are many differences between gaming and reading and writing. Nevertheless, they are similar enough that the metaphor of ‘game literacy’ makes sense provided we see its limitations.

Why is it important? There will be a growing generational and populational divide of gamers and non-gamers. At the moment this is not very important in terms of opportunities and status but it could easily change within a generation.

Not being able to play a game may exclude people from social groups in the same way that not-playing golf or not engaging in some other locally sanctioned pursuit does (e.g. World of Warcraft).

But most importantly, as new generations of game creators explore the expressive boundaries of games (new narratives, new ways of story telling), not being able to play games may result in significant social exclusion. In the same way that a quick summary of what’s in a novel is inferior to reading the novel, films based on games will be pale imitations of playing the games.

I can easily imagine a future where the major narratives of the day will be expressed in games. In the same way that TV serials have supplanted novels as the primary medium of sharing crucial societal narratives, games can take over in the future. The inner life novel took about 150 years to mature and reigned supreme for about as long while drama and film functioned as its accompaniment. The TV serial is now solidifying its position and is about where the novel was in the 1850s. Gaming may take another couple of decades to get to a stage where it is ready as a format to take over. And maybe nothing like that will happen. But if I had a child, I’d certainly encourage them to play computer games as part of ensuring a more secure future.

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Pseudo-education as a weapon: Beyond the ridiculous in linguistic prescriptivism

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Teacher in primary school in northern Laos

Teacher in primary school in northern Laos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of us are all too happy to repeat clichés about education to motivate ourselves and others to engage in this liminal ritual of mass socialization. One such phrase is “knowledge is power”. It is used to refer not just to education, of course, but to all sorts of intelligence gathering from business to politics. We tell many stories of how knowing something made the difference, from knowing a way of making something to work to knowing a secret only the hero or villain is privy to. But in education, in particular, it is not just knowing that matters to our tribe but also the display of knowing.

The more I look at education, the more I wonder how much of what is in the curriculum is about signaling rather than true need of knowledge. Signaling has been used in economics of education to indicate the complex value of a university degree but I think it goes much deeper. We make displays of knowledge through the curriculum to make the knowledge itself more valuable. Curriculum designers in all areas engage in complex dances to show how the content maps onto the real world. I have called this education voodoo, other people have spoken of cargo cult education, and yet others have talked about pseudo teaching. I wrote about pseudo teaching when I looked at Niall Ferguson‘s amusing, I think I called it cute, lesson plan of his own greatness. But pseudo teaching only describes the activities performed by teachers in the mistaken belief that they have real educational value. When pseudo teaching relies on pseudo content, I think we can talk more generally about “pseudo education”.

We were all pseudo-educated on a number of subjects. History, science, philosophy, etc. In history lessons, the most cherished “truths” of our past are distorted on a daily basis (see Lies My Teacher told me). From biology, we get to remember misinformation about the theory of evolution starting from attributing the very concept of evolution to Darwin or reducing natural selection to the nonsense of survival of the fittest. We may remember the names of a few philosophers but it rarely takes us any further than knowing winks at a Monty Python sketch or mouthing of unexamined platitudes like “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

That in itself is not a problem. Society, despite the omnipresent alarmist tropes, is coping quite well with pseudo-education. Perhaps, it even requires it to function because “it can’t handle the truth”. The problem is that we then judge people on how well they are able to replicate or respond to these pseudo-educated signals. Sometimes, these judgments are just a matter of petty prejudice but sometimes they could have an impact on somebody’s livelihood (and perhaps the former inevitably leads to the latter in aggregate).

Note: I have looked at some history and biology textbooks and they often offer a less distorted portrayal of their subject than what seems to be the outcome in public consciousness. Having the right curriculum and associated materials, then, doesn’t seem to be sufficient to avoid pseudo-education (if indeed avoiding it is desirable).

The one area where pseudo-education has received a lot of attention is language. Since time immemorial, our ways of speaking have served to identify us with one group or layer of society or another. And from its very beginning, education sought to play a role in slotting its charges into the linguistic groups with as high a prestige, as possible (or rather as appropriate). And even today, in academic literature we see references to the educated speaker as an analytic category. This is not a bad thing. Education correlates with exposure to certain types of language and engagement with certain kinds of speech communities. It is not the only way to achieve linguistic competence in those areas but it is the main way for the majority. But becoming “educated speaker” in this sense is mostly a by-product of education. Sufficient amount of the curriculum and classroom instruction is aimed in this direction to count for something but most students acquire the in-group ways of speaking without explicit instruction (disadvantaging those who would benefit from it). But probably a more salient output of language education is supposed knowledge about language (as opposed to knowledge of language).

Here students are expected not only to speak appropriately but also to know how this “appropriate language” works. And here is where most of what happens in schools can be called pseudo-education. Most teachers don’t really have any grasp of how language works (even those who took intro to linguistics classes). They are certainly not aware of the more complex issues around the social variability of language or its pragmatic dimension. But even in simple matters like grammar and usage, they are utterly clueless. This is often blamed on past deficiencies of the educational system where “grammar was not taught” to an entire generation. But judging by the behavior of previous generations who received ample instruction in grammar, that is not the problem. Their teachers were just as inept at teaching about language as they are today. They might have been better at labeling parts of speech and their tenses but that’s about it. It is possible that in the days of yore, people complaining about the use of the passive were actually more able to identify passive constructions in the text but it didn’t make that complaint any less inaccurate (Orwell made a right fool of himself when it turned out that he uses more passives than is the norm in English despite kvetching about their evil).

No matter what the content of school curriculum and method of instruction, “educated” people go about spouting nonsense when it comes to language. This nonsense seems to have its origins in half-remembered injunctions of their grade school teacher. And because the prime complainers are likely to either have been “good at language” or envied the teacher’s approbation of those who were described as being “good at language”, what we end up with in the typical language maven is a mishmash of linguistic prejudice and unjustified feeling smug superiority. Every little linguistic label that a person can remember, is then trotted out as a badge of honor regardless of how good that person is at deploying it.

And those who spout the loudest, get a reputation of being the “grammar experts” and everybody else who preemptively admits that they are “not good at grammar” defers to them and lets themselves be bullied by them. The most recent case of such bullying was a screed by an otherwise intelligent person in a position of power who decided that he will no longer hire people with bad grammar.

This prompted me to issue a rant on Google Plus, repeated below:

The trouble with pseudo educated blowhards complaining about grammar, like +Kyle Wien, is that they have no idea what grammar is. 90% of the things they complain about are spelling problems. The rest is a mishmash of half-remembered objections from their grade school teacher who got them from some other grammar bigot who doesn’t know their tense from their time.

I’ve got news for you Kyle! People who spell they’re, there and their interchangeably know the grammar of their use. They just don’t differentiate their spelling. It’s called homophony, dude, and English is chock full of it. Look it up. If your desire rose as you smelled a rose, you encountered homophony. Homophony is a ubiquitous feature of all languages. And equally all languages have some high profile homophones that cause trouble for spelling Nazis but almost never for actual understanding. Why? Because when you speak, there is no spelling.

Kyle thinks that what he calls “good grammar” is indicative of attention to detail. Hard to say since he, presumably always perfectly “grammatical”, failed to pay attention to the little detail of the difference between spelling and grammar. The other problem is, that I’m sure that Kyle and his ilk would be hard pressed to list more than a dozen or so of these “problems”. So his “attention to detail” should really be read as “attention to the few details of language use that annoy Kyle Wien”. He claims to have noticed a correlation in his practice but forgive me if I don’t take his word for it. Once you have developed a prejudice, no matter how outlandish, it is dead easy to find plenty of evidence in its support (not paying attention to any of the details that disconfirm it).

Sure there’s something to the argument that spelling mistakes in a news item, a blog post or a business newsletter will have an impact on its credibility. But hardly enough to worry about. Not that many people will notice and those who do will have plenty of other cues to make a better informed judgment. If a misplaced apostrophe is enough to sway them, then either they’re not convinced of the credibility of the source in the first place, or they’re not worth keeping as a customer. Journalists and bloggers engage in so many more significant pursuits that damage their credibility, like fatuous and unresearched claims about grammar, so that the odd it’s/its slip up can hardly make much more than (or is it then) a dent.

Note: I replaced ‘half-wit’ in the original with ‘blowhard’ because I don’t actually believe that Kyle Wien is a half-wit. He may not even be a blowhard. But, you can be a perfectly intelligent person, nice to kittens and beloved by co-workers, and be a blowhard when it comes to grammar. I also fixed a few typos, because I pay attention to detail.

My issue is not that I believe that linguistic purism and prescriptivism are in some way anomalous. In fact, I believe the exact opposite. I think, following a brilliant insight by my linguistics teacher, that we need to think of these phenomena as integral to our linguistic competence. I doubt that there is a linguistic community of any size above 3 that doesn’t enact some form of explicit linguistic normativity.

But when pseudo-knowledge about language is used as a n instrument of power, I think it is right to call out the perpetrators and try to shame them. Sure, linguists laugh at them, but I think we all need to follow the example of the Language Log and expose all such examples to public ridicule. Countermand the power.

Post Script: I have been similarly critical of the field of Critical Discourse Analysis which while based on an accurate insight about language and power, in my view, goes on to abuse the power that stems from the knowledge about language to clobber their opponents. My conclusion has been that if you want to study how people speak, study it for its own sake, and if you want to engage with the politics of what they say, do that on political terms not on linguistic ones. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t point out if you feel somebody is using language in a manipulative or misleading ways, but if you don’t need the apparatus of a whole academic discipline to do it, you’re doing something wrong.

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21st Century Educational Voodoo

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Jim Shimabukuro uses Rupert Murdoch’s quote “We have a 21st century economy with a 19th century education system” to pose a question of what should 21st Century Education look like ( “what are the key elements for an effective 21st century model for schools and colleges?”.

However, what he is essentially asking us to do is perform an act of voodoo. He’s encouraging us to start thinking about what would make our education similar to our vision of what the 21st Century Economy looks like. Such exercises can come up with good ideas but unfortunately this one is very likely to descend into predictability. People will write in how important it is to prepare students to be flexible, learn important skills to compete in the global markets, use technology to leverage this or the other. There may be the odd original idea but most respondents will stick with cliches. Because that’s what our magical discourse about education encourages most of all (this sounds snarky but I really mean this more descriptively than as an evaluation).

There are three problems with the whole exercises.

First, why should we listen to to moguls and venture capitalists about education? They’re no more qualified to address this topic than any random individual who’s given it some thought and are more likely to have ulterior motives. To Murdoch we should say, you’ve messed up the print media environment, failed with your online efforts, stay away from our schools.

Second, we don’t have a 19th century education system. Sure, we still have teachers standing in front of students. We have classes and we have school years. We have what David Tyack and Larry Cuban have called the “grammar of schooling”. It hasn’t changed much on the surface. But neither has the grammar of English. Yet, we can express things in English now that we couldn’t in the 1800s. We use the English grammar with its ancient roots to express what we need in our time. Likewise, we use the same grammar of schooling to have the education system express our societal needs. It is imperfect but it is in NO way holding us down. The evidence is either manufactured or misinterpreted. Sure, if we sat down and started designing an education system today from scratch, we’d probably do it differently but the outcomes would probably be pretty much the same. Meaning, the state of the world isn’t due to the educational system but rather vice versa.

Third, we don’t have a 21st century economy. Of course, the current economy is in the 21st century but it is much less than what we envision 21st century economy to imply. It is global (as it was in the 1848 when Marx and Engels were writing their manifesto). It is exploitative (of both human and natural resources). It is in the hands of the powerful and semicompetent few. Just because workers get fired by email from a continent away and stocks crash in matter of minutes rather than hours, we can’t really talk about something fundamentally unique. Physical and symbolic property is still the key part of the economy. Physical property still takes roughly as long to shift about as it did two centuries ago (give or take a day or a month) and symbolic property is still traded in the same way (can I interest you in a tulip?). Sure, there are thousands particular differences we could point to but the essence of our existence is not that much changed. Except for things like indoor plumbing  (thank God!), modern medicine and speed of communication – but the education system of today has all of those pretty much in hand.

My conclusion. Don’t expect people to be relevant or right just because they are rich or successful. Question the route they took to where they are before you take their advice on the direction you should go. And, if you’re going to drag history into your analogies, study it very very carefully. Don’t rely on what your teachers told you, it was all lies!

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