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

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Drafty

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

Background

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

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

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

What should linguistics teach us

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

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

Summary of key principles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principle 3: We are all multilingual in many different ways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principle 5: Language is more than words and rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other things to know

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

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

Why we should not teach grammar in schools

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

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

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

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

My argument is with his interpretation of his claim that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post script: Minimalist metalinguistic curriculum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Why Chomsky doesn’t count as a gifted linguist

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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.

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