Category Archives: Linguistics

The complexities of simple: What simple language proponents should know about linguistics [updated]

Share
Send to Kindle

Update

Part of this post was incorporated into an article I wrote with Brian Kelly and Alistair McNaught that appeared in the December issue of Ariadne. As part of that work and feedback from Alistair and Brian, I expanded the final section from a simple list of bullets into a more detailed research programme. You can see it below and in the article.

Background: From spelling reform to plain language

Simple

Simple (Photo credit: kevin dooley)

The idea that if we could only improve how we communicate, there would be less misunderstanding among people is as old as the hills.

Historically, this notion has been expressed through things like school reform, spelling reform, publication of communication manuals, etc.

The most radical expression of the desire for better understanding is the invention of a whole new artificial language like Esperanto with the intention of providing a universal language for humanity. This has had a long tradition but seemed to gain most traction towards the end of last century with the introduction and relative success of Esperanto.

But artificial languages have been a failure as a vehicle of global understanding. Instead, in about the last 50 years, the movement for plain English has been taking the place of constructed languages as something on which people pinned their hopes for clear communication.

Most recently, there have been proposals suggesting that “simple” language should become a part of a standard for accessibility of web pages along side other accessibility standards issued by the W3C standards body. http://www.w3.org/WAI/RD/2012/easy-to-read/Overview. This post was triggred by this latest development.

Problem 1: Plain language vs. linguistics

The problem is that most proponents of plain language (as so many would be reformers of human communication) seem to be ignorant of the wider context in which language functions. There is much that has been revealed by linguistic research in the last century or so and in particular since the 1960s that we need to pay attention to (to avoid confusion, this does not refer to the work of Noam Chomsky and his followers but rather to the work of people like William Labov, Michael Halliday, and many others).

Languages are not a simple matter of grammar. Any proposal for content accessibility must consider what is known about language from the fields of pragmatics, sociolinguistics, and cognitive linguistics. These are the key aspects of what we know about language collected from across many fields of linguistic inquiry:

  • Every sentence communicates much more than just its basic content (propositional meaning). We also communicate our desires and beliefs (e.g. “It’s cold here” may communicate, “Close the window” and “John denied that he cheats on his taxes” communicates that somebody accused John of cheating on his taxes. Similarly chosing a particular form of speech, like slang or jargon, communicates belonging to a community of practice.)
  • The understanding of any utterance is always dependent on a complex network of knowledge about language, about the world, as well as about the context of the utterance. “China denied involvement.” requires the understanding of the context in which countries operate, as well as metonomy, as well as the grammar and vocabulary. Consider the knowledge we need to possess to interpret “In 1939, the world exploded.” vs. “In Star Wars, a world exploded.”
  • There is no such thing as purely literal language. All language is to some degree figurative. “Between 3 and 4pm.”, “Out of sight”, “In deep trouble”, “An argument flared up”, “Deliver a service”, “You are my rock”, “Access for all” are all figurative to different degrees.
  • We all speak more than one variety of our language: formal/informal, school/friends/family, written/spoken, etc. Each of these variety has its own code. For instance, “she wanted to learn” vs. “her desire to learn” demonstrates a common difference between spoken and written English where written English often uses clauses built around nouns.
  • We constantly switch between different codes (sometimes even within a single utterance).
  • Bilingualism is the norm in language knowledge, not the exception. About half the world’s population regularly speaks more than one language but everybody is “bi-lingual” in the sense that they deal with multiple codes.
  • The “standard” or “correct” English is just one of the many dialects, not English itself.
  • The difference between a language and a dialect is just as much political as linguistic. An old joke in linguistics goes: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
  • Language prescription and requirements of language purity (incl. simple language) are as much political statements as linguistic or cognitive ones. All language use is related to power relationships.
  • Simplified languages develop their own complexities if used by a real community through a process known as creolization. (This process is well described for pidgins but not as well for artificial languages.)
  • All languages are full of redundancy, polysemy and homonymy. It is the context and our knowledge of what is to be expected that makes it easy to figure out the right meaning.
  • There is no straightforward relationship between grammatical features and language obfuscation and lack of clarity (e.g. It is just as easy to hide things using active as passive voice or any Subject-Verb-Object sentence as Object-Subject-Vern).
  • It is difficult to call any one feature of a language universally simple (for instance, SVO word order or no morphology) because many other languages use what we call complex as the default without any increase in difficulty for the native speakers (e.g. use of verb prefixes/particles in English and German)
  • Language is not really organized into sentences but into texts. Texts have internal organization to hang together formally (John likes coffee. He likes it a lot.) and semantically (As I said about John. He likes coffee.) Texts also relate to external contexts (cross reference) and their situations. This relationship is both implicit and explicit in the text. The shorter the text, the more context it needs for interpretation. For instance, if all we see is “He likes it.” written on a piece of paper, we do not have enough context to interpret the meaning.
  • Language is not used uniformly. Some parts of language are used more frequently than others. But this is not enough to understand frequency. Some parts of language are used more frequently together than others. The frequent coocurrence of some words with other words is called “collocation”. This means that when we say “bread and …”, we can predict that the next word will be “butter”. You can check this with a linguistic tool like a corpus, or even by using Google’s predictions in the search. Some words are so strongly collocated with other words that their meaning is “tinged” by those other words (this is called semantic prosody). For example, “set in” has a negative connotation because of its collocation with “rot”.
  • All language is idiomatic to some degree. You cannot determine the meaning of all sentences just by understanding the meanings of all their component parts and the rules for putting them together. And vice versa, you cannot just take all the words and rules in a language, apply them and get meaningful sentences. Consider “I will not put the picture up with John.” and “I will not put up the picture with John.” and “I will not put up John.” and “I will not put up with John.”

It seems to me that most plain language advocates do not take most of these factors into account.

Some examples from the “How to write in plain English” guide: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/files/howto.pdf.

Try to call the reader ‘you’, even if the reader is only one of many people you are talking about generally. If this feels wrong at first, remember that you wouldn’t use words like ‘the applicant’ and ‘the supplier’ if you were speaking to somebody sitting across a desk from you. [emphasis mine]

This example misses the point about the contextuality of language. The part in bold is the very crux of the problem. It is natural to use a different code (or register) with someone we’re speaking to in person and in a written communication. This is partly a result of convention and partly the result of the different demands of writing and speaking when it comes to the ability to point to what we’re speaking about. The reason it feels wrong to the writer is that it breaks the convention of writing. That is not to say that this couldn’t become the new convention. But the argument misses the point.

Do you want your letters to sound active or passive − crisp and professional or stuffy and bureaucratic?
Using the passive voice and sounding passive are not one and the same thing. This is an example of polysemy. The word “passive” has two meanings in English. One technical (the passive voice) and one colloquial (“he’s too passive”). The booklet recommends that “The mine had to be closed by the authority. (Passive)” should be replaced with “The authority had to close the mine. (Active)” But they ignore the fact that word order also contributes to the information structure of the sentence. The passive sentence introduces the “mine” sooner and thus makes it clear that the sentence is about the mine and not the local authority. In this case, the “active” construction made the point of the sentence more difficult to understand.

The same is true of nominalization. Another thing recommended against by the Plain English campaign: “The implementation of the method has been done by a team.” is not conveying the same type of information as “A team has implemented the method.”

The point is that this advice ignores the context as well as the audience. Using “you” instead of “customers” in “Customers have the right to appeal” may or may not be simpler depending on the reader. For somebody used to the conventions of written official English, it may actually take longer to process. But for someone who does not deal with written English very often, it will be easier. But there is nothing intrinsically easier about it.

Likewise for the use of jargon. The campaign gives as its first example of unduly complicated English:

High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.

And suggests that we use this instead:

Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.

This may be appropriate when it comes to public debate but within the professional context of, say, policy communication, these 2 sentences are not actually equivalent. There are more “learning environments” than just schools and the “learning process” is not the same as having learned something. It is also possible that the former sentence appeared as part of a larger context that would have made the distinction even clearer but the page does not give a reference and a Google search only shows pages using it as an example of complex English. http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/examples.html

The How to write in plain English document does not mention coherence of the text at all, except indirectly when it recommends the use of lists. This is good advice but even one of their examples has issues. They suggest that the following is a good example of a list:

Kevin needed to take:
• a penknife
• some string
• a pad of paper; and
• a pen.

And on first glance it is, but lists are not just neutral replacements for sentences. They are a genre in its own right used for specific purposes (Michael Hoey called them “text colonies”.) Let’s compare the list above to the sentence below.

Kevin needed to take a penknife, some string, a pad of paper and a pen.

Obviously they are two different kinds of text used in different contexts for different purposes and this would impinge on our understanding. The list implies instruction, and a level of importance. It is suitable to an official document, for example something sent before a child goes to camp. But it is not suitable to a personal letter or even a letter from the camp saying “All Kevin needed to take was a penknife, some string, a pad of paper and a pen. He should not have brought a laptop.” To be fair, the guide says to use lists “where appropriate”, but does not mention what that means.

The issue is further muddled by the “grammar quiz” on the Plain English website: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/quiz.html. It is a hodgepodge of irrelevant trivia about language (not just grammar) that has nothing to do with simple writing. Although the Plain English guide gets credit for explicitly not endorsing petty peeves like not ending a sentence with a preposition, they obviously have peeves of their own.

Problem 2: Definition of simple is not simple

There is no clear definition of what constitutes simple and easy to understand language.

There are a number of intuitions and assumptions that seem to be made when both experts and lay people talk about language:

  • Shorter is simpler (fewer syllables, charactes, sounds per word, fewer words per sentence, fewer sentences per paragraph)
  • More direct is simpler (X did Y to Z is simpler than Y was done to Z by X)
  • Less variety is simpler (fewer different words)
  • More familiar simpler

These assumptions were used to create various measures of “readability” going back to the 1940s. They consisted of several variables:

  • Length of words (in syllables or in characters)
  • Length of sentences
  • Frequency of words used (both internally and with respect to their general frequency)

Intuitively, these are not bad measures, but they are only proxies for the assumptions. They say nothing about the context in which the text appears or the appropriateness of the choice of subject matter. They say nothing about the internal cohesion and coherence of the text. In short, they say nothing about the “quality” of the text.

The same thing is not always simple in all contexts and sometimes too simple, can be hard. We could see that in the example of lists above. Having a list instead of a sentence does not always make things simpler because a list is doing other work besides just providing a list of items.

Another example I always think about is the idea of “semantic primes” by Anna Wierzbicka. These are concepts like DO, BECAUSE, BAD believed to be universal to all languages. There are only about 60 of them (the exact number keeps changing as the research evolves). These were compiled into a Natural Semantic Metalanguage with the idea of being able to break complex concepts into them. Whether you think this is a good idea or not (I don’t but I think the research group working on this are doing good work in surveying the world’s languages) you will have to agree that the resulting descriptions are not simple. For example, this is the Natural Semantic Metalanguage description of “anger”:

anger (English): when X thinks of Y, X thinks something like this: “this person did something bad; I don’t want this; I would want to do something bad to this person”; because of this, X feels something bad

This seems like a fairly complicated way of describing anger and even if it could be universally understood, it would also be very difficult to learn to do this. And could we then capture the distinction between this and say “seething rage”? Also, it is clear that there is a lot more going on than combining 60 basic concepts. You’d have to learn a lot of rules and strategies before you could do this well.

Problem 3: Automatic measures of readability are easily gamed

There are about half dozen automated readability measures currently used by software and web services to calculate how easy or difficult it is to read a text.

I am not an expert in readability but I have no reason to doubt the references in Wikipedia claiming that they correlate fairly well overall with text comprehension. But as always correlation only tells half the story and, as we know, it is not causation.

It is not at all clear that the texts identified as simple based on measures like number of words per sentence or numbers of letters per word are actually simple because of the measures. It is entirely possible that those measures are a consequence of other factors that contribute to simplicity, like more careful word choice, empathy with an audience, etc.

This may not matter if all we are interested in is identifying simple texts, as you can do with an advanced Google search. But it does matter if we want to use these measures to teach people how to write simpler texts. Because if we just tell them use fewer words per sentence and shorter words, we may not get texts that are actually easier to understand for the intended readership.

And if we require this as a criterion of page accessibility, we open the system to gaming in the same way Google’s algorithms are gamed but without any of the sophistication. You can reduce the complexity of any text on any of these scores simply by replacing all commas with full stops. Or even with randomly inserting full stops every 5 words and putting spaces in the middle of words. The algorithms are not smart enough to capture that.

Also, while these measures may be fairly reliable in aggregate, they don’t give us a very good picture of any one individual text. I took a blog post from the Campaign for Plain English site http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/news/chrissies-comments.html and ran the text through several websites that calculate ease of reading scores:

The different tests ranged by up to 5 years in their estimate of the length of formal education required to understand the text from 10.43 to 15.57. Read-able.com even went as far as providing an average, coming up with 12. Well that doesn’t seem very reliable.

I preferred http://textalyser.net which just gives you the facts about the text and doesn’t try to summarize them. The same goes for the Plain English own little app that you can download from their website http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/drivel-defence.html.

By any of these measures, the text wasn’t very simple or plain at all. The longest sentence had 66 words because it contained a complex embedded clause (something not even mentioned in the Plain English guide). The average sentence length was 28 words.

The Plain English app also suggested 7 alternative words from their “alternative dictionary” but 5 of those were misses because context is not considered (e.g. “a sad state” cannot be replaced by “a sad say”). The 2 acceptable suggestions were to edit out one “really” and replace one “retain” with “keep”. Neither of which would have improved the readability of the text given its overall complexity.

In short, the accepted measures of simple texts are not very useful for creating simple texts of training people in creating them.

See also http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Readability&oldid=508236326#Using_the_readability_formulas.

See also this interesting study examining the effects for L2 instruction: http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/EJ926371.pdf.

Problem 4: When simple becomes a new dialect: A thought experiment

But let’s consider what would happen if we did agree on simple English as the universal standard for accessibility and did actually manage to convince people to use it? In short, it would become its own dialect. It would acquire ways of describing things it was not designed to describe. It would acquire its own jargon and ways of obfuscation. There would arise a small industry of experts teaching you how to say what you want to say or don’t want to say in this new simple language.

Let’s take a look at Globish, a simplified English intended for international communication, that I have seen suggested as worth a look for accessibility. Globish has a restricted grammar and a vocabulary of 1500 words. They helpfully provide a tool for highlighting words they call “not compatible with Globish”. Among the words it highlighted for the blog post from the Plain English website were:

basics, journalist, grandmother, grammar, management, principle, moment, typical

But event the transcript of a speech by its creator, Jean-Paul Nerriere, advertised as being completely in Globish, contained some words flagged up as incompatible:

businessman, would, cannot, maybe, nobody, multinational, software, immediately

Globish seems to based on not much more than gueswork. It has words like “colony” and “rubber” but not words like “temperature” or “notebook”, “appoint” but not “appointment”, “govern” but not “government”. But both the derived forms “appointment” or “government” are more frequent (and intuitively more useful) than the root forms. There is a chapter in the eBook called “1500 Basic Globish Words Father 5000″ so I assume there are some rules for derivation, but the derived forms more often than not have very “idiomatic” meanings. For example, “appointment” in its most commons use does not make any sense if we look at the core meanings of “appoint” and the suffix “-ment”. Consider also the difference between “govern” and “government” vs “enjoy” and “enjoyment”.

Yet, Globish supposedly avoids idioms, cultural references, etc. Namely all the things that make language useful. The founder says:

Globish is correct English without the English culture. It is English that is just a tool and not a whole way of life.

Leaving aside the dubious notion of correctness, this would make Globish a very limited tool indeed. But luckily for Globish it’s not true. Why have the word “colony” if not to reflect cultural preference? If it became widely used by a community of speakers, the first thing to happen to Globish would be a blossoming of idioms going hand in hand with the emergence of dialects, jargons and registers.

That is not to say that something like Globish could not be a useful tool for English learners along the way to greater mastery. But it does little for universal accessibility.

Also we need to ask ourselves what would it be like from the perspective of the users creating these simplified texts? They would essentially have to learn a whole new code, a sort of a dialect. And as with any second language learning, some would do it better than others. Some would become the “simple nazis”. Some would get jobs teaching others “how to” speak simple. It is not natural for us to speak simply and “plainly” as defined in the context of accessibility.

There is some experience with the use of controlled languages in technical writing and in writing for second language acquisition. This can be done but the universe of subjects and/or the group of people creating these texts is always extremely limited. Increasing the number of people creating simple texts to pretty much everybody would increase the difficulty of implementation exponentially. And given the poor state of automatic tools for analysis of “simplicity”, quality control is pretty much out of reach.

But would even one code/dialect suffice? Do we need one for technical writing, govenment documents, company filings? Limiting the vocabulary to 1500 words is not a bad idea but as we saw with Globish, it might need to be different 1500 words for each area.

Why is language inaccessible?

Does that mean we should give up on trying to make communication more accessible? Definitely not. The same processes that I described as standing in the way of a universal simple language are also at the root of why so much language is inaccessible. Part of how language works to create group cohesion which includes keeping some people out. A lot of “complicated” language is complicated because the nature of the subject requires it, and a lot of complicated language is complicated because the writer is not very good at expressing themselves.

But as much complicated language is complicated because the writer wants to signall belonging to a group that uses that kind of language. The famous Sokal Hoax provided an example of that. Even instructions on university websites on how to write essays are an example. You will find university websites recommending something like “To write like an academic, write in the third person.” This is nonsense, research shows that academics write as much in the first as in the third person. But it also makes the job of the people marking essays easier. They don’t have to focus on ideas, they just go by superficial impression. Personally, I think this is a scandal and complete failure of higher education to live up to its own hype but that’s a story for another time.

How to achieve simple communication?

So what can we do to avoid making our texts too inaccessible?

The first thing that the accessibility community will need to do is acknowledge Simple language is its own form of expression. It is not the natural state we get when we strip out all the artifice out of our communication. And learning how to communicate simply requires effort and practice of all individuals.

To help with the effort, most people will need some guides. And despite what I said about the shortcomings of the Plain English Guide above, it’s not a bad place to start. But it would need to be expanded. Here’s an example of some of the things that are missing:

  • Consider the audience: What sounds right in an investor brochure won’t sound right in a letter to a customer
  • Increase cohesion and coherence by highlighting relationships
  • Highlight the text structure with headings
  • Say new things first
  • Consider splitting out subordinate clauses into separate sentences if your sentence gets too long
  • Leave all the background and things you normally start your texts with for the end

But it will also require a changed direction for research.

Further research needs for simple language language

I don’t pretend to have a complete overview of the research being done in this area but my superficial impression is that it focuses far too much on comprehension at the level of clause and sentence. Further research will be necessary to understand comprehension at the level of text.

There is need for further research in:

  • How collocability influences understanding
  • Specific ways in which cohesion and coherence impact understanding
  • The benefits and downsides of elegant variation for comprehension
  • The benefits and downsides of figurative language for comprehension by people with different cognitive profiles
  • The processes of code switching during writing and reading
  • How new conventions emerge in the use of simple language
  • The uses of simple language for political purposes including obfuscation

[Updated for Ariadne article mentioned above:] In more detail, this is what I would like to see for some of these points.

How collocability influences understanding: How word and phrase frequency influences understanding with particular focus on collocations. The assumption behind software like TextHelp is that this is very important. Much research is available on the importance of these patterns from corpus linguistics but we need to know the practical implications of these properties of language both for text creators and consumers. For instance, should text creators use measures of collocability to judge the ease of reading and comprehension in addition to or instead of arbitrary measures like sentence and word lengths.

Specific ways in which cohesion and coherence affect understanding: We need to find the strategies challenged readers use to make sense of larger chunks of text. How they understand the text as a whole, how they find specific information in the text, how they link individual portions of the text to the whole, and how they infer overall meaning from the significance of the components. We then need to see what text creators can do to assist with these processes. We already have some intuitive tools: bullets, highlighting of important passages, text insets, text structure, etc. But we do not know how they help people with different difficulties and whether they can ever become a hindrance rather than a benefit.

The benefits and downsides of elegant variation for comprehension, enjoyment and memorability: We know that repetition is an important tool for establishing the cohesion of text in English. We also know that repetition is discouraged for stylistic reasons. Repetition is also known to be a feature of immature narratives (children under the age of about 10) and more “sophisticated” ways of constructing texts develop later. However, it is also more powerful in spoken narrative (e.g. folk stories). Research is needed on how challenged readers process repetition and elegant variation and what text creators can do to support any naturally developing meta textual strategies.

The benefits and downsides of figurative language for comprehension by people with different cognitive profiles: There is basic research available from which we know that some cognitive deficits lead to reduced understanding of non-literal language. There is also ample research showing how crucial figurative language is to language in general. However, there seems to be little understanding of how and why different deficits lead to problems with processing figurative language, what kind of figurative language causes difficulties. It is also not clear what types of figurative language are particularly helpful for challenged readers with different cognitive profiles. Work is needed on typology of figurative language and a typology of figurative language deficits.

The processes of code switching during writing and reading: Written and spoken English employ very different codes, in some ways even reminiscent of different language types. This includes much more than just the choice of words. Sentence structure, clauses, grammatical constructions, all of these differ. However, this difference is not just a consequence of the medium of writing. Different genres (styles) within a language may be just as different from one another as writing and speaking. Each of these come with a special code (or subset of grammar and vocabulary). Few native speakers never completely acquire the full range of codes available in a language with extensive literacy practices, particularly a language that spans as many speech communities as English. But all speakers acquire several different codes and can switch between them. However, many challenged writers and readers struggle because they cannot switch between the spoken codes they are exposed to through daily interactions and the written codes to which they are often denied access because of a print impairment. Another way of describing this is multiple literacies. How do challenged readers and writers deal with acquiring written codes and how do they deal with code switching?

How do new conventions emerge in the use of simple language? Using and accessing simple language can only be successful if it becomes a separate literacy practice. However, the dissemination and embedding of such practices into daily usage are often accompanied by the establishment of new codes and conventions of communication. These codes can then become typical of a genre of documents. An example of this is Biblish. A sentence such as “Fred spoke unto Joan and Karen” is easily identified as referring to a mode of expression associated with the translation of the Bible. Will similar conventions develop around “plain English” and how? At the same time, it is clear that within each genre or code, there are speakers and writers who can express themselves more clearly than others. Research is needed to establish if there are common characteristics to be found in these “clear” texts, as opposed to those inherent in “difficult” texts across genres?

All in all, introducing simple language as a universal accessibility standard is still too far from a realistic prospect. My intuitive impression based on documents I receive from different bureaucracies is that the “plain English” campaign has made a difference in how many official documents are presented. But a lot more research (ethnographic as well as cognitive) is necessary before we properly understand the process and its impact. Can’t wait to read it all.

Send to Kindle

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

Share
Send to Kindle
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.

Send to Kindle

The death of a memory: Missing metaphors of remembering and forgetting?

Share
Send to Kindle

Memories

I have forgotten a lot of things in my life. Names, faces, numbers, words, facts, events, quotes. Just like for anyone, forgetting is as much a part of my life as remembering. Memories short and long come and go. But only twice in my life have I seen a good memory die under suspicious circustances.

Both of these were good reliable everyday memories as much declarative as non-declarative. And both died unexpectedly without warning and without reprieve. They were both memories of entry codes but I retrieved both in different ways. Both were highly contextualised but each in a different way.

The first time was almost 20 years ago (in 1993) and it was the PIN for my first bank card (before they let you change them). I’d had it for almost two years by then using it every few days for most of that period. I remembered it so well that even after I’d been out of the country for 6 months and not even thinking about it once, I walked up to an ATM on my return and without hesitation, typed it in. And then, about 6 months later, I walked up to another ATM, started typing in the PIN and it just wasn’t there. It was completely gone. I had no memory of it. I knew about the memory but the actual memory completely disappeared. It wasn’t a temporary confusion, it was simply gone and I never remembered it again. This PIN I remembered as a number.

The second death occurred just a few days ago. This time, it was the entrance code to a building. But I only remembered it as a shape on the keypad (as I do for most numbers now). In the intervening years, I’ve memorised a number of PINs and entrance codes. Most I’ve forgetten since, some I remember even now (like the PIN of a card that expired a year ago but I’d only used once every few months for many years). Simply, the normal processes you’d expect of memory. But this one, I’ve been using for about a year since they’d changed it from the previous one. About five months ago I came back from a month-long leave and I remembered it instantly. But three days ago, I walked up to the keypad and the memory was gone. I’d used the keypad at least once if not twice that day already. But that time I walked up to the keypad and nothing. After a few tries I started wondering if I might be typing in the old code since before the change so I flipped the pattern around (I had a vague memory of once using it to remember the new pattern) and it worked. But the working pattern felt completely foreign. Like one I’d never typed in before. I suddenly understood what it must feel like for someone to recognize their loved one but at the same time be sure that it’s not them. I was really discomfitted by this impostor keypad pattern. For a few moments, it felt really uncomfortable – almost an out of body (or out of memory) experience.

The one thing that set the second forgetting apart from the first one was that I was talking to someone as it happened (the first time I was completely alone on a busy street – I still remember which one, by the way). It was an old colleague who visited the building and was asking me if I knew the code. And seconds after I confidently declared I did, I didn’t. Or I remembered the wrong one.

So in the second case, we could conclude that the presence of someone who had been around when the previous code was being used, triggered the former memory and overrode the latter one. But the experience of complete and sudden loss, I recall vividly, was the same. None of my other forgettings were so instant and inexplicable. And I once forgot the face of someone I’d just met as soon and he turned around (which was awkward since he was supposed to come back in a few minutes with his car keys – so I had to stand in the crowd looking expectantly at everyone until the guy returned and nodded to me).

What does this mean for our metaphors of memory based on the various research paradigms? None seem to apply. These were not repressed memories associated with traumatic events (although the forgetting itself was extremely mildly traumatic). These were not quite declarative memories nor were they exactly non-declarative. They both required operations in working memories but were long-term. They were both triggered by context and had a muscle-memory component. But the first one I could remember as a number whereas the second one only as a shape and only on that specific keypad. But neither were subject to long-term decay. In fact, both proved resistant to decay surving long or longish periods of disuse. They both were (or felt) as solid memories as my own name. Until they were there no more. The closest introspective analogy to me seems Luria’s man who remembered too much who once forgot a white object because he placed it against white background in his memory which made it disappear.

The current research on memory seems to be converging on the idea that we reconstruct our memories. Our brains are not just some stores with shelves from which memories can be plucked. Although, memories are highly contextual, they are not discrete objects encoded in our brain as files on a harddrive. But for these two memories, the hard drive metaphor seems more appropriate. It’s as if a tiny part of my brain that held those memories was corrupted and they simply winked out of existence at the flip of a bit. Just like a hard drive.

There’s a lot of research on memory loss, decay and reliability but I don’t know of any which could account for these two deaths. We have many models of memory which can be selectively applied to most memory related events but these two fall between the cracks.

All the research I could find is either on sudden specific-event-induced amnesia (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1961972/?page=1) or senescence (http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/89/3/539.extract). In both cases, there are clear causes to the memory and loss is much more total (complete events or entire identity). I could find nothing about the sudden loss of a specific reliable memory in a healthy individual (given that it only happened twice 18 years apart – I was 21 when it happened first – I assume this is not caused by any pathology in my brain) not precipitated by any traumatic (or other) event. Yet, I suspect this happens all the time… So what gives?

Send to Kindle

Comedian identifies a critical flaw in structuralism: Are distinctive features like leather sleeves

Share
Send to Kindle

I always thought this little bit by Demetri Martin highlights a crucial deficiency in any distinctive feature analysis.


Demetri Martin: “I was at a party, and I saw a guy with a leather jacket, and I thought, ‘That’s cool’. Then I saw a guy with a leather vest and I thought, ‘That’s not cool’. It was then that I realized what coolness is all about… leather sleeves.”

Is phonology all about leather sleeves?

 

Send to Kindle

The brain is a bad metaphor for language

Share
Send to Kindle

Note: This was intended to be a brief note. Instead it developed into a monster post that took me two weeks of stolen moments to write. It’s very light on non-blog references but they exist. Nevertheless, it is still easy to find a number of oversimplifications,  conflations, and other imperfections below. The general thrust of the argument however remains.

How Far Can You Trust a Neuroscientist?

Shiny and colored objects usually attract Infa...

Image via Wikipedia

A couple of days ago I watched a TED talk called the Linguistic Genius of Babies by Patricia Kuhl. I had been putting it off, because I suspected I wouldn’t like it but I was still disappointed at how hidebound it was. It conflated a number of really unconnected things and then tried to sway the audience to its point of view with pretty pictures of cute infants in brain scanners. But all it was, is a hodgepodge of half-implied claims that is incredibly similar to some of the more outlandish claims made by behaviorists so many years ago. Kuhl concluded that brain research is the next frontier of understanding learning. But she did not give a simple credible example of how this could be. She started with a rhetorical trick. Mentioned an at-risk language with a picture of a mother holding an infant facing towards her. And then she said (with annoying condescension) that this mother and the other tribe members know something we do not:

What this mother — and the 800 people who speak Koro in the world — understand that, to preserve this language, they need to speak it to the babies.

This is garbage. Languages do not die because there’s nobody there to speak it to the babies (until the very end, of course) but because there’s nobody of socioeconomic or symbolic prestige children and young adults can speak the language to. Languages don’t die because people can’t learn them, they die because they have no reason (other than nostalgia) to learn them or have a reason not to learn them. Given a strong enough reason they would learn a dying language even if they started at sixteen. They just almost never are given the reason. Why Kuhl felt she did not need to consult the literature on language death, I don’t know.

Patricia Kuhl has spent the last 20 years studying pretty much one thing: acoustic discrimination in infants (http://ilabs.washington.edu/kuhl/research.html). Her research provided support for something that had been already known (or suspected), namely that young babies can discriminate between sounds that adults cannot (given similar stimuli such as the ones one might find in the foreign language classroom). She calls this the “linguistic genius of babies” and she’s wrong:

Babies and children are geniuses until they turn seven, and then there’s a systematic decline.

First, the decline (if there is such a thing) is mostly limited to acoustic processing and even then it’s not clear that the brain is the thing that causes it. Second, being able to discriminate (by moving their head) between sounds in both English and Mandarin at age 6 months is not a sign of genius. It’s a sign of the baby not being able to differentiate between language and sound. Or in other words, the babies are still pretty dumb. But it doesn’t mean they can’t learn a similar distinction at a later age – like four or seven or twelve. They do. They just probably do it in a different way than a 6-month old would. Third, in the overall scheme of things, acoustic discrimination at the individual phoneme level (which is what Kuhl is studying) is only a small part of learning a language and it certainly does NOT stop at 7 months or even 7 years of age. Even children who start learning a second language at the age of 6 achieve a native-like phonemic competence. And even many adults do. They seem not to perform as well on certain fairly specialized acoustic tests but functionally, they can be as good as native speakers. And it’s furthermore not clear that accent deficiencies are due to the lack of some sort of brain plasticity. Fourth, language learning and knowledge is not a binary thing. Even people who only know one language know it to a certain degree. They can be lexically, semantically and syntactically quite challenged when exposed to a sub-code of their language they have little to no contact with. So I’m not at all sure what Kuhl was referring to. François Grosjean (an eminent researcher in the field) has been discussing all this on his Life as Bilingual blog (and in books, etc.). To have any credibility, Kuhl must address this head on:

There is no upper age limit for acquiring a new language and then continuing one’s life with two or more languages. Nor is there any limit in the fluency that one can attain in the new language with the exception of pronunciation skills.

Instead she just falls on old prejudices. She simply has absolutely nothing to support this:

We think by studying how the sounds are learned, we’ll have a model for the rest of language, and perhaps for critical periods that may exist in childhood for social, emotional and cognitive development.

A paragraph like this may get her some extra funding but I don’t see any other justification for it. Actually, I find it quite puzzling that a serious scholar would even propose anything like this today. We already know there is no critical period for social development. Well, we don’t really know what social development is, but there’s no critical brain period to what there is. We get socialized to new collective environments throughout our lives.

But there’s no reason to suppose that learning to interact in a new environment is anything like learning to discriminate between sounds. There are some areas of language linked to perception where that may partly be the case (such as discriminating shapes, movements, colors, etc.) but hardly things like morphology or syntax, where much more complexity is involved. But this argument cuts both ways. Let’s say a lot of language learning was like sound development. And we know most of it continues throughout life (syntax, morphology, lexicon) and it doesn’t even start at 6 months (unless you’re a crazy Chomskean who believes in some sort of magical parameter setting). So if sound development was like that, maybe it has nothing to do with the brain in the way Kuhl imagines – although she’s so vague that she could always claim that that’s what she’d had in mind. This is what Kuhl thinks of as additional information:

We’re seeing the baby brain. As the baby hears a word in her language the auditory areas light up, and then subsequently areas surrounding it that we think are related to coherence, getting the brain coordinated with its different areas, and causality, one brain area causing another to activate.

So what? We know that that’s what was going to happen. Some parts of the brain were going to light up as they always do. What does that mean? I don’t know. But I also know that Patricia Kuhl and her colleagues don’t know either (at least not in the way she pretends). We speak a language, we learn a language and at the same time we have a brain and things happen in the brain. There are neurons and areas that seem to be affected by impact (but not always and not always in exactly the same way). Of course, this is an undue simplification. Neuroscientists know a huge amount about the brain. Just not how it links to language in a way that would say much about the language that we don’t already know. Kuhl’s next implied claim is a good example of how partial knowledge in one area may not at all extend to knowledge in another area.

What you see here is the audio result — no learning whatsoever — and the video result — no learning whatsoever. It takes a human being for babies to take their statistics. The social brain is controlling when the babies are taking their statistics.

In other words, when the children were exposed to audio or video as opposed to a live person, no effect was shown. At 6 months of age! As is Kuhl’s wont, she only hints at the implications, but over at the Royal Society’s blog comments, Eric R. Kandel has spelled it out:

I’m very much taken with Patricia Kuhl’s finding in the acquisition of a second language by infants that the physical presence of a teacher makes enormous difference when compared to video presence. We all know from personal experience how important specific teachers have been. Is it absurd to think that we might also develop methodologies that would bring out people’s potential for interacting empathically with students so that we can have a way of selecting for teachers, particularly for certain subjects and certain types of student? Neuroscience: Implications for Education and Lifelong Learning.

But this could very well be absurd! First, Kuhl’s experiments were not about second language acquisition but sensitivity to sounds in other languages. Second, there’s no evidence that the same thing Kuhl discovered for infants holds for adults or even three-year olds. A six-month old baby hasn’t learned yet that the pictures and sounds coming from the machine represent the real world. But most four-year olds have. I don’t know of any research but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. I have personally met several people highly competent in a second language who claimed they learned it by watching TV at a young age. A significant chunk of my own competence in English comes from listening to radio, audio books and watching TV drama. How much of our first language competence comes from reading books and watching TV? That’s not to say that personal interaction is not important – after all we need to learn enough to understand what the 2D images on the screen represent. But how much do we need to learn? Neither Kuhl nor Kandel have the answer but both are ready (at least by implication) to shape policy regarding language learning. In the last few years, several reports raised questions about some overreaching by neuroscience (both in methods and assumptions about their validity) but even perfectly good neuroscience can be bad scholarship in extending its claims far beyond what the evidence can support.

The Isomorphism Fallacy

This section of the post is partly based on a paper I presented at a Czech cognitive science conference about 3 years ago called Isomorphism as a heuristic and philosophical problem.

IMG_7845The fundamental problem underlying the overreach of basic neuroscience research is the fallacy of isomorphism. This fallacy presumes that the same structures we see in language, behavior, society must have structural counterparts in the brain. So there’s a bit of the brain that deals with nouns. Another bit that deals with being sorry. Possibly another one that deals with voting Republican (as Woody Allen proved in “Everyone Says I Love You“). But at the moment the evidence for this is extremely weak, at best. And there is no intrinsic need for a structural correspondence to exist. Sidney Lamb came up with a wonderful analogy that I’m still working my way through. He says (recalling an old ‘Aggie‘ joke) that trying to figure out where the bits we know as language structure are in the brain is like trying to work out how to fit the roll that comes out of a tube of tooth paste back into the container. This is obviously a fool’s errand. There’s nothing in the tooth-paste container that in any way resembles the colorful and tubular object we get when we squeeze the paste container. We get that through an interaction of the substance, the container, external force, and the shape of the opening. It seems to me entirely plausible, that the link between language and the brain is much more like that between the paste, the container and their environment than like that between a bunch of objects and box. The structures that come out are the result of things we don’t quite understand happening in the brain interacting with its environment. (I’m not saying that that’s how it is, just that it’s plausible.) The other thing to lends it credence is the fact that things like nouns or fluency are social constructs with fuzzy boundaries, not hard discrete objects, so actually localizing them in the brain would be a bit of a surprise. Not that it can’t be done, but the burden of evidence of making this a credible finding is substantial.

Now, I think that the same problem applies to looking for isomorphism the other way. Lamb himself tries to look at grammar by looking for connections resembling the behavior of activating neurons. I don’t see this going anywhere. George Lakoff (who influenced me more than any other linguist in the world) seems to think that a Neural Theory of Language is the next step in the development of linguistics. At one point he and many others thought that mirror neurons say something about language but now that seems to have been brought into question. But why do we need mirror neurons when we already know a lot of the immitative behaviors they’re supposed facilitate? Perhaps as a treatment and diagnostic protocol for pathologies but is this really more than story-telling? Jerome Feldman described NTL in his book “From Molecule to Metaphor” but his main contribution seems to me lies in showing how complex language phenomena can be modelled with brain-like neural networks, not saying anything new about these phenomena (see here for an even harsher treatment). The same goes for the Embodied Construction Grammar. I entirely share ECG’s linguistic assumptions but the problem is that it tries to link its descriptive apparatus directly to the formalisms necessary for modeling. This proved to be a disaster for the generative project that projected its formalisms into language with a imperfect fit and now spends most of its time refining those formalisms rather than studying language.

So far I don’t see any advantage in linking language to the brain in either the way Kuhl et al or Feldman et al try to do it (again with the possible exception of pathologies). In his recent paper on compositionality, Feldman describes research that shows that spacial areas are activated in conjunction with spatial terms and that sentence processing time increases as the sentence gets removed from “natural spatial orientation”. But brain imaging at best confirms what we already knew. But how useful is that confirmatory knowledge? I would argue that not very useful. In fact there is a danger that we will start thinking of brain imaging as a necessary confirmation of linguistic theory. Feldman takes a step in this dangerous direction when he says that with the advent of new techniques of neuroscience we can finally study language “scientifically”. [Shudder.]

We know there’s a connection between language and the brain (more systematic than with language and the foot, for instance) but so far nobody’s shown convincingly that we can explain much about language by looking at the brain (or vice versa). Language is best studied as its own incredibly multifaceted beast and so is the brain. We need to know a lot more about language and about the brain before we can start projecting one into the other.

And at the moment, brain science is the junior partner, here. We know a lot about language and can find out more without looking for explanations in the brain. It seems as foolish as trying to illuminate language by looking inside a computer (as Chomsky’s followers keep doing). The same question that I’m asking for language was asked about cognitive processes (a closely related thing) by William Uttal in The New Phrenology who’s asking “whether psychological processes can be defined and isolated in a way that permits them to be associated with particular brain regions” and warns against a “neuroreductionist wild goose chase” – and how else can we characterize Kuhl’s performance – lest we fall “victim to what may be a ‘neo-phrenological’ fad”. Michael Shremer voiced a similar concern in the Scientific American:

The brain is not random kludge, of course, so the search for neural networks associated with psychological concepts is a worthy one, as long as we do not succumb to the siren song of phrenology.

What does a “siren song of phrenology” sound like? I imagine it would sound pretty much like this quote by Kuhl:

We are embarking on a grand and golden age of knowledge about child’s brain development. We’re going to be able to see a child’s brain as they experience an emotion, as they learn to speak and read, as they solve a math problem, as they have an idea. And we’re going to be able to invent brain-based interventions for children who have difficulty learning.

I have no doubt that there are some learning difficulties for which a ‘brain-based intervention’ (whatever that is) may be effective. But it’s just a relatively small part of the universe of learning difficulties that it hardly warrants a bombastic claim like the one above. I could find nothing in Kuhl’s narrow research that would support this assertion. Learning and language are complex psycho-social phenomena that are unlikely to have straightforward counterparts in brain activations such as can be seen by even the most advanced modern neuroimaging technology. There may well be some straightforward pathologies that can be identified and have some sort of treatment aimed at them. The problem is that brain pathologies are not necessarily opposites of a typically functioning brain (a fallacy that has long plagued interpretation of the evidence from aphasias) – it is, as brain plasticity would suggest, just as  likely that at least some brain pathologies simply create new qualities rather than simply flipping an on/off switch on existing qualities. Plus there is the historical tendency of the self-styled hard sciences to horn in on areas where established disciplines have accumulated lots of knowledge, ignore the knowledge, declare a reductionist victory, fail and not admit failure.

For the foreseeable future, the brain remains a really poor metaphor for language and other social constructs. We are perhaps predestined to finding similarities in anything we look at but researchers ought to have learned by now to be cautious about them. Today’s neuroscientists should be very careful that they don’t look as foolish to future generations as phrenologists and skull measurers look to us now.

In praise of non-reductionist neuroscience

Let me reiterate, I have nothing against brain research. The more of it, the better! But it needs to be much more honest about its achievements and limitations (as much as it can given the politics of research funding). Saying the sort of things Patricia Kuhl does with incredibly flimsy evidence and complete disregard for other disciplines is good for the funding but awful for actually obtaining good results. (Note: The brevity of the TED format is not an excuse in this case.)

A much more promising overview of applied neuroscience is a report by the Royal Society on education and the brain that is much more realistic about the state of neurocognitive research who admit at the outset: “There is enormous variation between individuals, and brain-behaviour relationships are complex.”

The report authors go on to enumerate the things they feel we can claim as knowledge about the brain:

  1. The brain’s plasticity
  2. The brain’s response to reward
  3. The brain’s self-regulatory processes
  4. Brain-external factors of cognitive development
  5. Individual differences in learning as connected to the brain and genome
  6. Neuroscience connection to adaptive learning technology

So this is a fairly modest list made even more modest by the formulations of the actual knowledge. I could only find a handful of statements made to support the general claims that do not contain a hedge: “research suggests”, “may mean”, “appears to be”, “seems to be”, “probably”. This modesty in research interpretation does not always make its way to the report’s policy suggestions (mainly suggestions 1 and 2). Despite this, I think anybody who thinks Patricia Kuhl’s claims are interesting would do well do read this report and pay careful attention to the actual findings described there.

Another possible problem for those making wide reaching conclusions is a relative newness of the research on which these recommendations are based. I had a brief look at the citations in the report and only about half are actually related to primary brain research. Of those exactly half were published in 2009 (8) and 2010 (20) and only two in the 1990s. This is in contrast to language acquisition and multilingualism research which can point to decades of consistently replicable findings and relatively stable and reliable methods. We need to be afraid, very afraid of sexy new findings when they relate to what is perceived as the “nature” of humans. At this point, as a linguist looking at neuroscience (and the history of the promise of neuroscience), my attitude is skeptical. I want to see 10 years of independent replication and stable techniques before I will consider basing my descriptions of language and linguistic behavior on neuroimaging. There’s just too much of ‘now we can see stuff in the brain we couldn’t see before, so this new version of what we think the brain is doing is definitely what it’s doing’. Plus the assumption that exponential growth in precision brain mapping will result in the same growth in brain function identification is far from being a sure thing (cf. genome decoding). Exponential growth in computer speed, only led to incremental increases in computer usability. And the next logical step in the once skyrocketing development of automobiles was not flying cars but pretty much just the same slightly better cars (even though they look completely different under the hood).

The sort of knowledge to learn and do good neuroscience is staggeringly awesome. The scientists who study the brain deserve all the personal accolades they get. But the actual knowledge they generate about issues relating to language and other social constructs is much less overwhelming. Even a tiny clinical advance such as helping a relatively small number of people to communicate who otherwise wouldn’t be able to express themselves makes this worthwhile. But we must not confuse clinical advances with theoretical advances and must be very cautious when applying these to policy fields that are related more by similarity than a direct causal connection.

Send to Kindle

Literally: Triumph of pet peeve over matter

Share
Send to Kindle

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] have a number of pet peeves about how people use language. I am genuinely annoyed by the use of apostrophes before plural of numerals or acronyms like 50′s or ABC’s. But because I understand how language works, I keep my mouth shut. The usage has obviously moved on. I don’t think, ABC’s is wrong or confusing, I just don’t like the way it looks. But I don’t like a lot of things that there’s nothing wrong with. I get over it.

Recently I came across a couple of blog posts pontificating on the misuse or overuse of the word literally. And as usual they confuse personal dislike with incorrect or confusing usage. So let’s set the record straight! No matter what some dictionaries or people who should know better say, the primary function of the word “literally” in the English language is to intensify the meaning of figurative, potentially figurative or even non-figurative expressions. This is not some colloquial appendage to the meaning of the word. That’s how it is used in standard English today. Written, edited and published English! Frequently, it is used to intensify expressions that are for all intents and purposes non-figurative or where the figurative nature of the expression can be hypostesized:

1. “Bytches is literally a record of life in a nineties urban American community.” [BNC]

2. “it’s a a horn then bassoon solo, and it it’s a most worrying opening for er a because it is. it is literally a solo, er unaccompanied” [BNC]

3. “The evidence that the continents have drifted, that South America did indeed break away from Africa for instance, is now literally overwhelming” [BNC, Richard Dawkins]

The TIME magazine corpus can put pay to the non-sense about “literally” as an intensifier being new or colloquial. The use of the word in all functions does show an increase from the 40s, peak in the 1980s and 2000s returning to the level of 1950s. I didn’t do the counting (plus it’s often hard to decide) but at a glance the proportion of intensifier uses is if anything slightly higher in the 1920s than in 2000s:

4. This is almost literally a scheme for robbing Peter to pay Paul. [TIME, 1925]

5. He literally dropped the book which he was reading and seized his sabre. [TIME, 1926]

6. The Tuchuns-military governors are literally heads of warring factions. [TIME, 1926]

But there are other things that indicate that the intensifier use of literally is what is represented in people’s linguistic knowledge. Namely collocations. Some of the most common adverbs preceding literally (first 2 words in COCA) are graded: 1. quite (558), 2. almost (119), 5. so (67), 7. too (54),  9. sometimes (42), 12. more, 15. very, 16. often.

7. Squeezed almost literally between a rock and a hard place, the artery burst. [COCA, SportsIll, 2007]

Another common adverbial collocate is “just” (number 4) often used to support the intensification:

8. they eventually went missing almost just literally a couple of minutes apart from one another [COCA, CNN, 2004]

Other frequent collocates are non-gradual: “up”, “down”, “out”, “now” but their usage seems coincidental – simply to be attributed to their generally high frequency in English.

The extremely unsurprising finding is that if we don’t limit the collocates by just 2 preceding words, by far the most common collocate of literally is “figuratively” (304). Used exclusively as part of “literally and figuratively”. This should count as its own use:

9. A romantic tale of love between two scarred individuals, one literally and one figuratively. [COCA, ACAD, 1991]

But even here, sometimes both possible senses of the use are figurative but one is perceived as being less so:

10. After years of literally and figuratively being the golden-haired boy… [COCA, NEWS, 1990]

11. Mercy’s parents had pulled the plug, literally and figuratively, on her burgeoning romance. [COCA, Fic, 2003]

This brings us to the secondary function (and notice I don’t use the word meaning, here) of “literally”, which is to disambiguate statements that in the appropriate context could have either figurative or literal meaning. Sometimes, we can apply a relatively easy test to differentiate between the two. The first sense cannot be rephrased using the adjective “literal”. However, as we saw above, a statement  cannot always be  strictly categorized as literal or figurative. For instance, example (2) above contains a disambiguating function although it is not between figurative or non-figurative but rather between two non-figurative interpretations of two situations that it may be possible to describe as a ‘solo’ (one where the soloists is prominent against background music and one where the soloist is completely unaccompanied.) Clear examples are not nearly as easy to find in a corpus, as the prescriptivist lore would have us believe and neither is the figurative part clear cut:

11. And they were about literally to be lynched and they had to save their lives. [COCA, SPOK, 1990]

12. another guy is literally a brain surgeon [COCA, MAG, 2010)

Often the trope does not include a clear domain mapping, as in the case of hyperbole.

13. I was terrified of women. Literally. [COCA, LIFE, 2006]

This type of disambiguation is often used with numerals and other quantifiers where a hyperbolic interpretation might be expected:

14. this is an economy that is generating literally 500,000 jobs because of our foreign trade [COCA, SPOK, PBS, 1996]

15. While there are literally millions of mobile phones that consumers and business people use [COCA, MAG, 2008]

16. “Then literally after two weeks I’m ready to come back,” he says. [COCA, MAG, 2010]

Or sometimes it is not clear whether some vague figure is being intensified or a potential trope is being disambiguated as in:

17. He was the man who lost his wife when his house literally broke apart in the storm. [COCA, CNN, 2005]

These types of examples also sometimes occur when the speaker realizes that what they had previously only intended as an intensified use is an actual disambiguating use:

18. will allow us to actually literally X-ray the universe using these distant objects

Another common usage is to indicate a word for word translation from a foreign language or a component analysis of an etymology of a word. E.g.

19. theory of  revolution (literally,  an overturning) [BNC].

Sometimes this explanation includes side elaboration as in

20. “Ethnography – literally, textual description of particular cultures” [BNC].

“Literally” also has a technical sense meaning roughly “not figuratively” but that has nothing do with its popular usage. I could not find any examples of this in the corpus.

The above is far from an exhaustive analysis. If I had the time or inclination, we could fine tune the categories but it’s not all that necessary. Everyone should get the gist. “Literally” is primarily an intensifier and secondarily a disambiguator. And categorizing individual uses between these two functions is a matter of degree rather than strict complementarity.

None of the above is hugely surprising, either. “Literally” is a pretty good indicator that figurative language is nearby and a less good indicator that strict fact is in the vicinity. Andrew Goatly has described the language of metaphor including “literally” in his 1997 book. And the people behind the ATT-META Project tell me that they’ve been using “literally” as one of the indicators of metaphoric language.

Should we expect bloggers on language to have read widely on metaphor research? Probably not. But by now I would expect any language blogger to know that to look up something in a dictionary doesn’t tell them much about the use of the word (but a lot about the lexicographer) and the only acceptable basis for argumentation on the usage of words is a corpus (with some well recognized exceptions).

The “Literally Blog” that ran out of steam in 2009 was purportedly started by linguistics graduates who surely cannot have gotten very far past Prescriptivism 101. But their examples are often amusing. As are the ones on the picture site Litera.ly that has great and funny pictures even if they are often more figurative than the phrases they attempt to literalize. Another recent venture “The literally project” was started by a comedian with a Twitter account on @literallytsar who is also very funny. Yes, indeed, as with so many expressions, if we apply an alternative interpretation to them, we get a humorous effect. But what did two language bloggers think they were doing when they put out this and this on “literally”, I don’t know. It got started by Sentence First, who listed all the evidence to the contrary gathered by the Language Log and then went on to ignore it in the conclusion:

Literally centuries of non-literal ‘literally’ « Sentence first. Few would dispute that literally, used non-literally, is often superfluous. It generally adds little or nothing to what it purports to stress. Bryan Garner has described the word in some of its contemporary usages as “distorted beyond recognition”.

Well this is pretty much nonsense. You see, “pretty much” in the previous sentence was a hedge. Hedges, like intensifiers, might be considered superfluous. But I chose to use that instead of a metaphor such as “pile of garbage”. The problem with this statement is twofold. First, no intensifiers add anything to what they intensify. Except for intensification! What if we used “really” or “actually” – what do they add in that “literally” doesn’t? And what about euphemisms and so many other constructions that never add anything to any meaning. Steven Pinker in his recent RSA talk listed 18 different words for “feces”. Why have that many when “shit” would suffice?

Non-literal literally amuses, too, usually unintentionally. The more absurd the literal image is, the funnier I tend to find it. And it is certainly awkward to use literally and immediately have to backtrack and qualify it (“I mean, not literally, but…”). Literally is not, for the most part, an effective intensifier, and it annoys a lot of people. Even the dinosaurs are sick of it.

What is the measure of the effectiveness of an intensifier? The examples above seem to show that it does a decent job. And annoying a lot of prescriptivists should not be an argument for not using it. These people are annoyed by pretty much anything that strikes their fancy. We should annoy them. Non-sexist language also annoys a lot of people. All the more reason for using it.

“Every day with me is literally another yesterday” (Alexander Pope, in a letter to Henry Cromwell)

For sure, words change their meanings and acquire additional ones over time, but we can resist these if we think that doing so will help preserve a useful distinction. So it is with literally. If you want your words to be taken seriously – at least in contexts where it matters – you might see the value in using literally with care.

But this is obviously not a particularly useful distinction and never has been. The crazier the non-intensifier interpretation of an intensifier use of “literally” is, the less of a potential for confusion there is. But I could not find a single example where it really mattered in the more subtle cases. But if we think this sort of thing is important why not pick on other intensifiers such as “really”, “virtually” or “actually” (well, some people do). My hypothesis is that it’s a lot of prescriptivists like the feeling of power and “literally” is a particularly useful tool for subjugating those who are unsure of their usage (often because of a relentless campaign by the prescriptivist). It’s very easy to show someone the “error” of their ways when you can present two starkly different images. And it feels like this could lead to a lot of confusion. But it doesn’t. This is a common argument of the prescriptivist but they can rarely support the assertion with more than a couple of examples if any. So unless a prescriptivist can show at least 10 examples where this sort of ambiguity led to a real consequential misunderstanding in the last year, they deserve to be told to just shut up.

Which is why I was surprised to see Motivated Grammar (a blog dedicated to the fighting of prescriptivism) jump into the fray:

Non-literal “literally” isn’t wrong. That said… « Motivated Grammar Non-literal literally isn’t “wrong” — it’s not even non-standard. But it’s overused and overdone. I would advise (but not require) people to avoid non-literal usages of literally, because it’s just not an especially good usage. Too often literally is sound and fury that signifies nothing.

Again, I ask for the evidence of what constitutes good usage? It has been good enough for TIME Magazine for close to a century! Should we judge correct usage by the New York Review of Books? And what’s wrong with “sound and fury that signifies nothing”? How many categories of expressions would we have to purge from language, if this was the criterion? I already mentioned hedges. What about half the adverbs? What about adjectives like “good” or “bad”. Often they describe nothing. Just something to say. “How are you?”, “You look nice.”, “Love you” – off with their heads!

And then, what is the measure of “overused”? TIME Magazine uses the word in total about 200-300 times a decade. That’s not even once per issue. Eric Schmidt used it in some speeches over his 10-year tenure as Google’s CEO and if you watch them all together, it stands out. Otherwise nobody’s noticed! If you’re a nitpicker who thinks it matters, every use of “literally” is going to sound too much. So, you don’t count. Unless you have an objective measure across the speech community, you can’t make this claim. Sure, lots of people have their favorite turns of phrases that are typical of their speech. I rather suspect I use “in fact” and “however” far too much. But that’s not the fault of the expression. Nor is it really a problem, until it forces listeners to focus on that rather than the speech itself. But even then, they get by. Sometimes expressions become “buzz words” and “symbols of their time” but as the TIME corpus evidence suggests, this is not the case with literally. So WTF?

Conciliatory confession:

I just spent some time going after prescriptivists. But I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with prescriptivism (even though their claims are typically factually wrong). Puristic and radical tendencies are a part of any speech community. And as my former linguistics teacher and now friend Zdeněk Starý once said, they are both just as much a part of language competence as the words and grammatical constructions. So I don’t expect they will ever go away nor can I really be too critical of them. They are part of the ecosystem. So as a linguist, I think of them as a part of the study of language. However, making fun of them is just too hard to resist. Also, it’s annoying when you have to beat this nonsense out of the heads of your students. But that’s just the way things are. I’ll get over it.

Update 1:

Well, I may have been a bit harsh at the blogs and bloggers I was so disparaging about. Both Sentence first and Motivated grammar have a fine pedigree in language blogging. I went and read the comments under their posts and they both profess anti-prescriptivism. But I stand behind my criticism and its savagery of the paragraphs I quoted above. There is simply no plausible deniability about them. You can never talk about good usage and avoid prescriptivism. You can only talk about patterns of usage. And if you want to quantify these, you must use some sort of a representative samples. Not what you heard. Not what you or people like you. Evidence. Such as a corpus (or better still corpora provide.) So saying you shouldn’t use literally because a lot of people don’t like it needs evidence. But what evidence there is suggests that literally isn’t that big a deal. I did three Google searches on common peeve and “literally” came third: +literally +misuse (910,000), preposition at the end of a sentence (1,620,000), and +passive +misuse writing (6,630,000). Obviously, these numbers mean relatively little and can include all sorts of irrelevant examples, but they are at least suggestive. Then I did a search for top 10 grammar mistakes and looked at the top 10 results. Literally did not feature in either one of these. Again, this is not a reliable measure, but it’s at least suggestive. I’m waiting for some evidence to show where the confusion over the intensifier and disambiguator use  has caused a real problem.

I also found an elluminating article in the Slate by Jesse Sheidlower on other examples of ‘contranyms’ in English showing that picking on “literally” is quite an arbitrary enterprise.

Update 2:

A bit of corpus fun revealed some other interesting collocate properties of literally. There are some interesting patterns within individual parts of speech. The top 10 adjectives immediately following are:

  1. TRUE 91
  2. IMPOSSIBLE 24
  3. STARVING 14
  4. RIGHT 9
  5. SICK 8
  6. UNTHINKABLE 8
  7. ALIVE 6
  8. ACCURATE 6
  9. HOMELESS 6
  10. SPEECHLESS 6
The top 10 nouns are all quantifiers:
  1. HUNDREDS 152
  2. THOUSANDS 118
  3. MILLIONS 55
  4. DOZENS 35
  5. BILLIONS 17
  6. HOURS 14
  7. SCORES 14
  8. MEANS 11
  9. TONS 11

The top 10 numerals (although here we may run up to the limitations of the tagger) are:

  1. ONE 25
  2. TWO 12
  3. TENS 9
  4. THREE 8
  5. SIX 8
  6. 10 7
  7. 100 7
  8. 24 6
  9. NEXT 5
  10. FIVE 4

There are the top adverbs:

  1. JUST 91
  2. OVERNIGHT 24
  3. ALMOST 19
  4. ALL 17
  5. EVERYWHERE 14
  6. NEVER 13
  7. DOWN 12
  8. RIGHT 12
  9. SO 11
  10. ABOUT 11

And the top 10 preceding adverbs:

  1. QUITE 552
  2. ALMOST 117
  3. BOTH 91
  4. JUST 67
  5. TOO 50
  6. SO 38
  7. MORE 37
  8. VERY 31
  9. SOMETIMES 30
  10. NOW 26

One of the patterns in the collocates suggests that “literally” often (although this is only a significant minority of uses) has to do with scale or measure. So I was thinking is it possible that one can use the intensifier literally incorrectly (in the sense that most speakers would find the intensity inappropriate). For example, is it OK to intensify height of a person in any proportion? Is there a difference between “He was literally 6 feet tall” (disambiguator) and “He was literally seven feet tall.” (intensifier requiring further disambiguation) and “He was literally 12 feet all” (intensifier). The corpus had nothing to say on this, but Google provided some information. Among the results of the search  “literally * feet tall” referring to people, the most prominent height related to literally is 6 or 7 feet tall. There are some literally 8 feet tall people and people literally taller because of some extension to their height (stilts, helmets spikes, etc.) But (as I thought would be the case) there seem to be no sentences like “He was literally 12 feet tall.” So it seems “literally” isn’t used entirely arbitrarily with numbers and scales. Although it is rarely used to mean “actually, verifiably, precisely”, it is used in proportion to the scale of the thing measured. However, it is used both when a suspicion of hyperbole may arise and where a plausible number needs to be intensified. And most often a mixture of both. But it is not entirely random. “*Literally thousands of people showed up for dinner last night” or “*We had literally a crowd of people” is “ungrammatical” while “literally two dozen” is OK even if the actual number was only 18. But this is all part of the speakers’ knowledge of usage. Speakers know that with quantifiers, the use of literally is ambiguous. So if you wanted to say “The guy sitting next to me was literally 7 feet tall”, you’d have to disambiguate and say “And I mean literally, he is the third tallest man in the NBA.”

Send to Kindle

Why Chomsky doesn’t count as a gifted linguist

Share
Send to Kindle

Somebody commented on the Language Log saying “of course [...] Chomsky was a massively gifted linguist” http://j.mp/9Q98Bx and for some reason, to use a Czech idiom, the handle of the jar repeatedly used to fetch water just fell off. Meaning, I’ve had enough.

I think we should stop thinking of Chomsky as a gifted linguist. He was certainly a gifted mathematician and logician still is a gifted orator and analyst of political discourse (sometimes putting professionals in this area to shame). But I honestly cannot think of a single insight he’s had about how language works as language. His main contribution to the study of language (his only one really) was a description of how certain combinatorial properties of English syntax can be modeled using a particular formal system.  This was a valuable insight but as has been repeatedly documented (e.g. Newmeyer 1986) its runaway success was due to a particular historical context and was later fed by the political prominence of its originator. Unfortunately, everything that followed was predicated on the model being isomorphic with the thing modeled. Meaning all subsequent insights of Chomsky and his followers were confined to refining the model in response to what other people knew about language and not once that I can think of using it to elucidate an actual linguistic phenomenon. (Well, I tell lie here, James MacCawley who worked with GB – and there must have been others – was probably an exception.) Chomsky’s followers who actually continued to have real insights about language – Ross,  Langacker, Lakoff, Fillmore – simply ceased to work within that field – their frustration given voice here by Robin Tolmach Lakoff:

[Generative approaches to the 'science' of language meant] “accepting the impossibility of saying almost everything that might be interesting, anything normal people might want or need to know about language.“ (Robin Tolmach Lakoff, 2000, Language War)

So who deserves the label “gifted linguist” defined as somebody who repeatedly elucidates legitimate language phenomena in a way that is relevant across areas of inquiry? (And I don’t mean the fake relevance followers of the Universal Grammar hypothesis seem to be finding in more and more places.)

Well, I’d start with MAK Halliday who has contributed genuine insights into concepts like function, cohesion, written/spoken language, etc. Students on “linguistics for teachers” courses are always surprised when I tell them that pretty much all of the English as first or second language curriculum used in schools today was influenced by Halliday and none by Chomsky – despite valiant efforts to pretend otherwise.

But there are many others whose fingerprints are all over our thinking about language today. The two giants of 20th century linguistics who influenced probably everyone were Roman Jakobson and Charles Fillmore – neither of whom established a single-idea school (although Jakobson was part of two) but both were literal and metaphorical teachers to pretty much everybody. Then there’s William Labov who continues to help shift the “language decline” hypothesis on which much of 19th century philology was predicated. And, of course, there are countless practicing linguists who have interesting things to say about language every day – one needs to look no further than the contributors to the excellent Language Log. I don’t want to list any others of the top of my head lest I forget someone important, but here some of my favorites:

My personal favorite linguist has long been Michael Hoey whose “lexical priming” hypothesis deserves more discussion and a lot more following than it has received. I got a real chill of excitement reading William Croft’s “Radical Construction Grammar”. It is probably the most interesting and innovative view of language that has come about since de Saussure.

Most of my thinking about language has been influenced by George Lakoff (so much I translated his thickest book into Czech – http://cogling.info) and Ronald Langacker who could both be said to be ‘single-theory’ thinkers but are actually using this theory to say interesting things about language rather than using language to say interesting things about their theory.

I have said to people at one point or another, you should read one of these linguists to understand this point about language better. I have never said that about Chomsky. Not once. I have said, however, you should read this thing by Chomsky to understand Chomsky better. (Not that it always helps, I’ve come across a book called Structure of Language whose authors’ sparse reference list includes all of Chomsky’s books but who refer to his work twice and get it wrong both times.) There is no denying Chomsky’s multi-disciplinary brilliance but a particularly gifted linguist he is not. He is just the only one most people can think of.

BTW: Here’s why I think Chomsky’s wrong. But that wasn’t really the point. Whether he’s right or wrong, he’s largely irrelevant to most people interested in language, and the sooner they realize they’re wasting their time, the better.

Send to Kindle