Fastererer, bettererer, or wrongererer?

Advertising Copywriters and other Role Models in Language Teaching and Training

Beware: Satire

The other day, I noticed a new advertising campaign by a German airline. Linguistically genetically engineered, or rather maimed adjectives like the ones in the blog title were paraded on posters, which were strategically placed in Hanover’s underground stations and along major roads. Each poster featured a different bastardized, distorted and degenerated adjective in German which was positioned on top of a photograph of a smiling air hostess. I took the liberty of adapting them when I wrote this spoof and needed to come up with their equivalents in English. However, I managed to retain the intended “play” on the last syllables.

On the following day, about at the same time, I noticed a small group of migrants. This is what we call the people pertaining to this group because we do not have immigrants in Germany. They had assembled before one of these posters and were looking reverently upwards at this novel aberration of our language.

Then, the most astonishing thing happened. One of the girls stepped forward, turned around towards her group and began to recite rhythmically the subject matter of their admiration, clapping her hands as if to underline each syllable. All the time, she moved about like a cheerleader, while enunciating each syllable of the adjective of their choice with great precision and no small degree of enthusiasm. WRONG-ER-ER-ER, WRONG-ER-ER-ER, WRONG-ER-ER-ER, the group chimed in, chanting ecstatically with enraptured eyes.

The entire situation somehow reminded me of elocution classes pegged down a few notches. And at the same time, I was thinking of Dr. Joachim Grzega`s novel and daring concept of Basic Global English. Mr Grzega is a German linguist with a mission in that he has, like his copywriting advertising colleagues, maimed and mutilated a language, though in his case it is Standard English – a language which is not his native tongue. His novel and courageous invention is a Simplified-Simple-Speak version of the “Local English, German Version or German Chapter”.

What is most admirable is the fact that Dr. Grzega has boldly reduced Standard English grammar to 20 rules. He did not even bother to ask native speakers of English – the rightful owners of Standard English – whether a non-native speaker of English should be allowed to tamper with one of the most subtle languages of Europe, which has proven to be a tried and tested code of communication. His Basic Global English consists of a vocabulary of some 750 word and a bonus bespoke vocabulary of 250 words, tailored to the individual needs of his pupils. Dr. Grzega reckons that this Simplified-Simple-Speak vocabulary is good enough to explain our present day complex world with. And the perhaps teeny-weeny individual worlds of his learners with the help of the tailor-made 250-word bonus vocabulary. The only good news is that the adjectives used in the caption of this spoof are on his pitiful vocabulary list of 750 words which “BGE speakers” should know. Consequently, learners of Basic Global English and Basic Global Business English will at least be able to read the caption of this blog.

To revert to my small group of enthusiasts, I could not find fault with all this. They were just acting true to fashion. To them, it was good or correct German worthy of becoming part of their active vocabulary. After six months of intensive hypnopaedia – I am being awfully sarcastic here – in a free language course which migrants of German descent receive upon arrival in Germany and after passing a language test prior to being given a visa, many of these migrants can barely bid you good morning in German after completion of said course. A Polish colleague told me ten years ago that at most language schools, learners are advised not to study the language of their new home country but pick up the language “naturally”. This holds also true for present-day languages classes for migrants. If they come across a new word they do not know, they are advised not to consult dictionaries. With time, they will know, they are told. Many migrants I have asked ever since have confirmed this. By implication it means: don’t take the trouble to learn new words; do not enlarge your vocabulary; do not increase your power of thinking.

You are also likely to encounter the all too complacent advice by teachers “Do not worry if you don’t understand a word”, the implication being to take it easy, not to bother to look up words in a dictionary or even dictionaries, not to study how words and phrases operate in their contexts. Try telling that to your young children when they ask you about the meaning of a word when they begin to learn their native tongue. No one would ever dream of doing this. Why is it done when it comes to teaching a foreign language? Has nobody ever realized how incongruous or indeed absurd this instruction is?

In foreign language teaching you may even come across a native speaker of English giving learners expert advice like, for instance, not to bother looking up words but to pick up the language “naturally” without their ever having learnt a foreign language themselves. Likewise, they may never bother to teach words and phrases in a context. “Teaching English in contexts is considered time consuming in pedagogy”, a young teacher-student said in a lecture only two years ago. That is why you still find learners learning single words by heart, perhaps with one sentence to illustrate their meaning. It must be the same method used by Neolithic men when they were building up their vocabulary by looking at cave paintings and learning the animals` names by rote. But one needs more sentences or parts of them to anchor words in the memory, become more fluent and acquire a good grasp of any given language.

As a result, we have migrants living here “abroad” for a decade or two and they still do not know any German at all. Others have a working vocabulary of about 700 words or so and talking to them is a strain on anyone who takes a genuine interest in what is being said. If not and you just nod them off out of politeness, you are behaving “politically correct” but without the slightest genuine exchange of ideas. Is it any wonder that migrants are not fully integrated in our society?

You may even find many migrants who have lived here for 10 or even 20 years and who can barely speak the language but are, nevertheless in a state of blissful incompetence, believing that they do speak the language. Despite the fact that many of them have German colleagues at work and German friends, they have not improved their German one little bit. Watching TV regularly, but passively seems no solution either for most of them. I think it is high time that the fairy tale that one learns a language best by living in the country were put under close scrutiny. This myth will then probably be in tatters: living in a foreign country without getting involved in the language in one way or other does not guarantee success. People who can pick up a language only by ear and do not even need a native speaker spouse or friend they can consult on grammar and the meaning of words are as rare as chess-grandmasters, but the latter have to work very hard and train every day for hours on end in addition to being extremely talented.

Basically, living in the country of one’s choice, together with a multitude of learning aids, provides ample opportunities to learn a language. It would be interesting to find out why most people, migrants and learners of a foreign language alike, manage to communicate only at the “threshold level”. It is small wonder that too many migrants have difficulty in entering the “house” or, in other words, become integrated in society. Very little is known about how “very good” students learn a foreign language. Some of those who managed to acquire good language skills, be it when they lived abroad or in their country of origin, do not talk about it, but from my experience and modest “research”, I can say that most truly advanced students did, in one way or the other, work for it.

Almost 25 years ago there was a passage in a brochure issued by the either Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Science and Technology, I cannot recall exactly which, about prize-winning pupils in the annual foreign languages competition. It innocently stated that nothing at all was known about how those pupils learned their foreign languages, only one thing was certain: not in school. Looking at the latest PISA results, we may deduce that for some reason or other this state of “ignorance” has been perpetuated.

Way back in 1982, I took part in a conversation in which a friend of a friend claimed that he knew someone at a Regional Government Office whose job it was to convert A-Level results to those of 1953 and that a straight “A” achieved in 1982 was a humble “C” in 1953. Not surprisingly, standards have deteriorated further in the intervening 27 years and it would be interesting to know, what an “A” achieved in 2009 is really worth these days. Can one not infer that the poor PISA results German pupils scored did not come as a surprise to the authorities and why corrective action was not taken in time? In my opinion, it was easier to acquiesce in the situation brought about by the unconstrained application of the doctrines of a liberal and permissive society, rather than try to apply higher standards against the opposition of minority groups.

To answer my question in the caption of this satire, whether admen, or more politically correct, adpersons serve as role models in language learning: the answer is a resounding no. However, at least one creative mind of our nation’s best minds – so they say – must feel very proud now. Allegedly, the best psychologists work in PR, marketing and advertising. Had I not known, I would never have guessed. Perhaps the perpetrator of this linguistic crime will be nominated for the next “Advertising Oscar”, which ad people award each other at their annual binge.

There is no trick to being a satirist when you have so many people working for you.

About this posting

This posting is part of a series dedicated to topics dealing with various aspects of the English language which usually get short shrift on the internet and in other publications. It is, in a wider sense, concerned with the English language crumbling into incomprehensibility at alarming speed and how society is influenced by it. How do schools and universities react and in what way is literature affected by all this? Furthermore, how do people working in education and linguistics cope with this avalanche of “Local English neologisms”?

What often sounds like modern Pidgin English can generally be put down to neo-pidginicity. It is an artificially accelerated and manipulated process – or rather linguistic genetic engineering – of attempting to oversimplify Standard English, the result of which is in all cases some sort of Neo Pidgin English or Simplified-Simple-Speak. Four major fields of contact contribute to the gradual encroachment on Standard English: Basic Global English, as advocated by Dr. Joachim Grzega, machine translations of any kind, unedited documents and publications – frequently of international validity – being passed off as standard English but in fact written by non-native speakers of English, the acceptance of “Local English” and non-native speakers of English teaching their version of “Local English”. The result of the English “produced” in all these areas of contact is often, at best, a barely elevated Pidgin English.

And to compound matters, Globish appears to become a composite haphazard mixture of all about 180 Local Englishes and may for that very reason not be as easy as some people think once it has evolved into a sub-language of Standard English.

Finally, it would be interesting to see the first book written in Basic Global English, Dr. Joachim Grzega`s novel and daring invention and see in which section bookshops will display such a work of art.

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4 responses to “Fastererer, bettererer, or wrongererer?

  1. Brian Barker November 30, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    I think the choice of a future global language must be between English and Esperanto, rather than an untried project.

    It’s unfortunate however that only a few people know that Esperanto has become a living language.

    After a short period of 122 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the World CIA factbook. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, and is a language choice of Google, Skype, Firefox and Facebook.

    Native Esperanto speakers,(people who have used the language from birth), include George Soros, World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

    Your readers may be interested in seeing http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU . Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of this planned language can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  2. sanchopansa December 12, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Sorry for the late reply, but I have been busy researching material concerning Basic Global English in its role of contender for a global language and official recognition by the UN.
    Although Herr Grzega does not explicitly state that he is competing with Globish and Esperanto for such an ambitious undertaking, there are passages in his online PDF publications that may give rise to such speculation.

    I myself had a chance to see another “artificial”, easy to use language, Africans in this case, successfully implemented in a society. However, the attendant circumstances were deplorable at the time I was in South Africa but it shows that the idea is workable.

    It may be of interest to you that the much underrated online dictionary http://www.dict.cc/ added Esperanto only in November 2009 “at the request of many users”.

  3. ip camera February 6, 2011 at 6:50 am

    First of all, great looking site you have here and great post too. I would like to keep up with your posts but having problem subscribing to your rss.

  4. sanchopansa February 12, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    I have checked the rss function and it`s working fine. Perhaps you may try again.

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