Posts Tagged ‘language’

E-Prime: The Invented Language That Has No Verb To Be

15 Jul

To be or not to be ... is not a question in the invented language of E-Prime. TopTenz explains:

Another language constructed to make a philosophical point, E-Prime is simply a version of English that forbids all forms of the verb ‘to be’ (is, was, were, etc).

According to Alfred Korzybski, who promoted the language in his 1933 book Science and Sanity, E-Prime can be used to sharpen critical thinking and make ideas clearer. For example, in E-prime a person can’t say ‘This is an awful movie’: it must be rephrased as ‘I dislike this movie.’ ‘You’re wrong’ is also impossible: instead he must say ‘I disagree with you.’ Because of this, it’s easier for speakers and listeners distinguish fact from opinion.

On the other hand, following E-Prime to the letter becomes burdensome: ‘This is a flower’ must become something like ‘English speakers call this a flower.’ Today, E-Prime remains popular, but mostly just as an interesting thought exercise to improve clarity.

Read more about the Top 10 Invented Languages: Link


It’s time for English teachers to stop teaching that the earth is flat

18 Mar


By Dennis Baron

When I asked a class of prospective teachers to discuss the impact on students of prescriptive rules like “Don’t split infinitives,” “Don’t end sentences with prepositions,” and “Don’t use contractions,” one student ignored the descriptive grammar we had been studying and instead equated correctness in language with intelligent design:

I think I support prescriptivism. I believe that some words are absolutely unacceptable in any situation. I think there should be an accepted way of speaking and deviation would not be tolerated. I believe in a set of absolute values. I believe there is one right and wrong for everyone. Perhaps what I think is right is not what you think is right but in the final analysis that isn’t going to matter. What God thinks is right is what really matters and He doesn’t have one right for you and one right for me.

Her faith-based answer, God speaks standard English so you should too, may be extreme, but her emphasis on correct language is one that too many English teachers accept without question. So far as grammar lessons go, it’s time they stopped teaching that the earth is flat.

Even though creationists attack evolution as “just a theory,” high school biology covers the origin of species, along with DNA, microbes and the circulatory system. Physics teaches the big bang, subatomic particles, and as even Galileo knew 400 years ago, an earth that moves around the sun. And students in chem labs aren’t turning lead into gold, except perhaps at Hogwarts. There are no fundamentalist wingnuts enforcing the view that the rules of English are written in stone, yet English teachers act like the study of language hasn’t advanced since eighteenth-century grammarians started making lists of good grammar and bad or decided that a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing.

It’s not that English teachers don’t know that linguistic knowledge has progressed over the past 250 years. Prospective teachers get a healthy dose of sociolinguistics, transformational grammar, and the history of English. They study the emergence of dialects and the social contexts from which language standards grow. And they learn that unlike the standard meter or kilogram, which can be measured with scientific precision, there is no single, objective standard language which everybody speaks. They study language contact, assimilation, and heritage language loss, and they learn that when schools abandon bilingual education and leave non-English-speaking students to sink or swim in English-only classes, most sink. And last but not least, they’re taught to regard their students’ language not as something to be constantly graded and corrected, but as an energetic, highly-competent, continually-evolving form of language, complete with its own standards and variants.

But when they get their own classrooms, many of these same teachers reject such knowledge in favor of the simplistic language model they absorbed when they were in school, a model that ignores the complexities of the language people use every day in favor of a few prescriptive rules that can be memorized and tested, but that have little connection with what really happens when we talk or write.

Galileo, sitting in a science class today, would be mystified by a curriculum that has gone way beyond his experiment with an inclined plane, but Apollonius, the 2nd-century CE Greek grammarian who was one of the first to write about the parts of speech, would be perfectly at home with a modern grammar lesson, assuming he could follow it in English. And speaking of immigrants, if we could actually transport Apollonius and Archimedes, the Greek mathematician who first described the principle of buoyancy, to the local high school, they might find themselves sinking in an English-only immersion program.

For years linguists have been trying with little success to bring school grammar back to the present. We’re not proposing to do away with notions of correctness — ideas about appropriate usage form an important part of the way that English speakers function. Instead, we’d like to transmute the conventional right-wrong language dichotomy into a contextually-dependent sliding scale of language that works in particular situations, and language that may not work so well, demonstrating that there are many varieties of standard English, not just one. Plus, we’d like to point out that even in an English-speaking country, the language people use doesn’t always have to be English.

Unfortunately our schools have always been too focused on enforcing and testing a monolithic model of standard English to encourage teachers and their students to explore the language phenomena that surround us. As a result, teachers find it easier to tell students simply to avoid the passive voice than to get them to understand that although the passive can be problematic, it’s often useful and sometimes mandatory.

But even with the simplistic rule, “the passive should be avoided,” it turns out that many students can’t figure out the difference between the passive voice and the past tense. So in the end, standard English, which may or may not actually exist, often remains a mystery, and too many students leave school convinced that whether or not language is the product of intelligent design, its design is far from intelligible to them.

Luckily, outside the classroom things linguistic are neither obscure nor monochromatic. It’s true that when put on the spot, most people will parrot what they learned in school, that there’s a right and a wrong way to speak or write. But mostly people take a practical approach to correctness in language, recognizing as correct what works in a given context, not what’s categorically good or bad.

Perhaps the most important grammar lesson to learn, then, is to trust our language instincts instead of mimicking some ideal which turns out to be a moving target. We need to finally leave the eighteenth-century prescriptions behind and aim for language that is simply good enough to do the job of expressing whatever it is we need to say. And when we study language, we should study what it is, not what someone thinks it should be.

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language, where this article originally appeared. Until next time, keep up with Professor Baron on Twitter: @DrGrammar.


Postcard from Language Camp

28 Jul
langcamp.jpg Greetings from one of the best places in the world to learn foreign languages! DLI, CIA University? No, a small town in Vermont that hosts an annual summer language institute: Middlebury. To call the Middlebury language schools a camp is like calling a hurricane a rain shower.

At the core of the language program here is the contractual agreement of all participants to only use their language of study for the duration of their stay. The "language pledge" is in effect 24-7 and contributes to the full-immersion environment. In many ways, you are exposed to more of the language than in a country where it is spoken. There is simply no escape from the language outside of withdrawal from the program, resulting in a strange environment in this small Vermont town near the Green Mountain National Forest. Pictured above is Sunday morning at the library where students pore over word lists, prepare for the upcoming week, and listen to audio files to improve their listening comprehension.

Giving up English for 7-10 weeks has a strange, Kafkaesque effect on the brain. You live in a heterotopian space, one that makes you question where and when you exactly are, and how you came to be there. Time seems to stand still in this environment as the new language permeates you, even as an instructor. The frustration of not being able to express yourself in English either gives way to creative uses of the new language, or a bout of 'language breakdown' when students are incapable of any form of communication. This intense committment to staying in the language has resulted in the occasional call from the local hospital asking for a translator for an injured student who is 'stuck' in the language.

I am teaching beginning German this summer to students who have had almost no exposure to the German language. They too sign away English for seven weeks, and of course they often make the most progress of all students. It is a testament to the hard work of the students and to the human brain's ability to acquire languages.

Middlebury started with a school of German in 1915, when Vassar professor Lilian Strobe thought that Middlebury's isolated geography would make an ideal place to allow students to focus on language learning. Today, Middlebury teaches 10 languages and on any Friday night, the town pub becomes an even more surreal place. As you walk in you can hear a table of German speakers, a table of French, a table of Spanish, etc. If you passed through town accidentally and did not know what was going on, you might question where in the world you were. If you try to speak to the students, you would only get a strange look or an answer in the language they study. The motto of the Language Schools is "No English Spoken Here".

Teaching a language without the aid of any English explanations or translations is an interesting challenge, but the challenge forces both me and the students to strain our minds to comprehend and communicate. It forces a more efficient, comprehensive teaching and learning style that manages to promote quick and effective language acquisition.

Students from a variety of backgrounds come here, including many graduate students who need a language for their research, government types whose first phrase in the language is "I'm not permitted to tell you what I do for a living," and students who are preparing to move abroad and need to learn as much of a language as possible in a short period of time.

The program runs from June-August only and is roughly the equivalent of two years of instruction. The real trick is the constant immersion and steady interaction with other speakers. Contrary to popular belief, there is no way to 'pick up' a language quickly with self-study. Languages are spoken among people and that spoken interaction is critical to learning. Here, students only sit in classes 3-4 hours daily. The rest of the day is spent doing other activities involving high frequency vocabulary such as working out, playing teams sports, yoga, singing in a choir, eating, drinking, putting on a play, playing billiards, and hiking in the nearby forests; all in the target language. Often, these seemingly superfluous interactions outside of the classroom prove to be the most beneficial way to solidify what one has learned in the classroom earlier that morning.

I have long lamented the state of language education in the United States, but I see change and improvement in foreign language education every year. Middlebury reflects this trend and has shown a steady increase in demand. Overall applications for admission to the program have increased 120% over a ten-year period. For Arabic, applications are up 375% and this increase has prompted the program to move the Arabic school to Mills College in Oakland, California. For my passion, German, applications are up a significant 75% with steady enrollments over a ten- year period, countering the trends of decreasing interest after the fall of the Berlin wall.

For a realistic look at the amount of progress made, you can view the before and after videos on the Middlebury web site.