Monthly Archives: December 2009

Basically Debased? Language Simplification in Action

How do Basic Global English, Globish, machine translations and other contributory factors to neo-pidginicity compare?

Basic Global English – A runty, genetically modified language?
When describing his Basic Global English, Herr Dr. Joachim Grzega sweepingly claims “that English words and phrases do and must differ from Standard English when English is used in intercultural situations.” Arguing from his non-native speaker position, Herr Grzega thinks that “we need a new concept of English as a foreign language. Several analyses of non-native/non-native discourse have shown that non-native forms are actually sometimes quite intelligible and do not impede communicative success, while other
non-native forms may cause communicative breakdown.” However, Herr Grzega regrettably fails to look into other causes for said communicative breakdowns, such as lax and low standards and benign teaching methods, pandering to learners who may be unwilling to improve their communicative skills.

Talking about his Basic Global English in action, Herr Grzega says: “In fact, there were only problems when a native speaker was present, as their nuances, metaphors, humorous asides and double entendres confused the non-native speakers,” says. Although it can be seen that these are not my words, I hasten to add that I do not support any notions of discrimination or even apartheid – English native speakers should not be excluded from discussions held by any group in whatever sort of English. But this is not all. Because “metaphorical expressions are often problematic, speakers, including native speakers, are advised to abstain from using them”, asserts Herr Grzega. Furthermore, he wonders how helpful expressions are “that cannot be interpreted word-for-word in lingua-franca communication.” Instead, apart from those considerations just mentioned, his advice to native speakers of English is: “use standard speech or general colloquial speech. Speak slowly and distinctly. Your sentences should not be too complex. You may support your utterance with body language… […] but without switching into foreigner talk”. All limitations described here also apply to Globish-Speak, Basic Global English’s older, yet stunted business-speak brother.

Last but not least: “Don’t make unexplained utterances that require insider knowledge”. Now then, if English native speakers should wish to acquire these apparently esoteric communication skills like body language [I think Mr Grzega means gesticulating, pantomime, and grimaces] and grimaces as a prerequisite to successful communication in Basic Global English and Globish, this would be no small feat.

When one compares the level of his Basic Global English with the quality of translations made by translation software, we find a common characteristic. Texts suitable for 10 to 12 year olds, which is about the level of Basic Global English and also Globish speakers, are easier for machines to translate. Does this mean that when we talk in Basic Global English or Globish that we use bot-like, factual and neutral words or catch-alls which have been emptied of dictionary meaning so that they might fit any experience the speaker would not take the trouble to define? Yes and no. Herr Grzega suggests that we also use body language to make up for the paucity of our Basic Global English diction. There is a lot of educational material available online, millions of pictures with a great variety of body signals and telling grimaces. And why not use my “Smiley-Speak”, which I was so facetious as to suggest in a blog not long ago to replace Basic Global English and Globish with. https://sanchopansa.wordpress.com/2009/07/22/will-smiley-speak-soon-be-all-the-rage/

Machine Translations
Being biased towards AI in speech and translation programs, I will, for the time being, not delve too deeply into machine translation software and confine myself to summarizing the most salient points:

• Machine translations are still in their infancy and just like children, they deserve our indulgence. They are bound to become better and better over time.

• There are different approaches to machine processing of written human language. I favour Google’s method because – be tolerant with my oversimplification – they try to imitate what is going on in a human’s mind by using as many human translations as possible as sample translations for their database together with other methods. In the long run, this combination of methods is likely to “yield” translations which are indistinguishable from human translations. By that time, they will also be able transfer connotational meaning, which is, according to its propagator, a major deficiency in Basic Global English Speak.

• As to the future development of the quality of machine translations, AI experts think that low-level, algorithmic mathematical languages will be succeeded by high-level modular, intelligent languages which, in turn, will finally be replaced by heuristic machines. They would be capable of learning by mistakes, through trial and error, of operating like human beings. Moreover, I think that together with Google’s approach, this will make machine translations second to none over time.

Way back in 1983 I had the opportunity to test a translation software program at Hanover Fair, the world’s biggest industrial fair. The hype machine was in full swing and the software company boasted itself on having George Orwell’s “1984” translated by one of the first commercial translation programs. The samples distributed were impressive, however, they did not show the corrections made by human translators during the editing process. A proud and patronizing assistant asked me for a sentence I wanted to be translated.
“AI steckt noch in den Kinderschuhen”, said I rather self-confidently. “AI is still in its infancy“, would have been the correct translation. This is what I got: “AI is still in its child’s shoes”.
Having a probing mind, I was curious to find out how programming AI software has progressed in the past 27 years. I chose one of the many translation programs at random and had it translate that very same sentence again. This is what it came up with in 2009: “Ai still is in the child’s shoes.”

Microsoft’s grammar correction feature included in MS Word:
A contribution to changing natural speech patterns?

Generally speaking, any tools which may help to make life easier are a welcome relief from tedious work. One of these functions is the Microsoft Grammar Correction feature, which can be activated in addition to the spell checker (setting-option: Grammar & Style). I use this program because of my interest in AI or artificial intelligence, although it can sometimes be fun, too. In “Are you cross with me?” the program insists on “Are you crossing with me?” I am not sure if this is a machine’s way of asking me, “Are you on my side when it comes to crossing the difficult bridge from human to machine translations?” Well, that would be far too early to say but I am prepared to watch the progress of AI software with the open, yet critical mind of a discriminating end-user.

In order to make suggestions, and likewise, translate text into another language, a program needs to “understand” and “interpret” human language. All too often, appropriate and established usage of the English language seem, when put into programming rules, difficult and therefore hard to “understand” for machines. Naturally, the question arises whether it is legitimate to simplify any given language to accommodate the needs of hitherto imperfect interpreting and translation software.

Some suggestions made by this apparently smart grammar correction tool, however, are in direct conflict with long-established, naturally evolved language structures or patterns (rules). The novel rules suggested often seem to be a simplification of language and some suggestions to edit one’s text according to MS Word recommendations are rather striking in that they may change the very nature of the English language over time. The most non-natural rules are those concerning defining and non-defining relative clauses. These are difficult to master by most foreign language students – and in all probability by translation software, too. Whenever you write a sentence with “which” when it has the function of a defining relative clause, this message pops up:

„That or Which“
If the marked group of words is essential to the meaning of your sentence, use “that” to introduce the group of words. Do not use a comma.
If these words are not essential to the meaning, use “which” and separate the words with a comma.
• Instead of: Did you learn the dance, that is from Guatamala?
• Consider: Did you learn the dance, which is from Guatamala?
• Or consider: Did you learn the dance that is from Guatamala?

• Instead of: We want to buy the photo which Harry took.
• Consider: We want to buy the photo, which Harry took.
• Or consider: We want to buy the photo that Harry took

Both clauses, “We want to buy the photo which Harry took” and We want to buy the photo that Harry took imply that there are other photos for sale taken by other people than Harry. The two sentences are perfectly correct and limit our choice while the recommendation “We want to buy the photo, which Harry took” means that there is only Harry’s photo for sale; its essential meaning is not changed when the omit the non-defining relative clause.

There is also a recommendation as to the use of the passive voice. According to MS Word’s Grammar Correction feature, sentences written in the passive voice are to be rewritten into active ones without exception. “Passive Voice (Consider revising)” is the message popping up.

Both defining relative clauses with which and the passive voice are intrinsic parts of the English language. Their usage has grown naturally over centuries. It is almost impossible to do without these structures as a “truly advanced” non-native speaker of English, as they are among the most frequently used structures used by English native speakers. Only recently, I read a book on politics, written by two Englishmen and published in 2005. I was not surprised to find defining which clauses still alive and kicking while in academic papers in the “German Chapter of Local English” that clauses are generally used instead.

Regarding the “emphasizing –self” pronoun and reflexive verbs, MS Word Correction Program often changes them to normal personal pronouns without -self or –selves, blindly oblivious to the grammatical differences in meaning they have. “Emphasizing –self -/selves” pronouns are always strongly stressed and they are used for the sake of emphasis; generally to point out a contrast such as:
You yourself (i.e. “you and not anyone else”) told me the story.
compared with:
You told me the story.
If humans uttering a sentence like this think it important to lay emphasis on the doer of an action, why should machines not keep the original idea when “interpreting” and “correcting” language?

For the time being, it is beyond the grasp or analytic or interpretational power of machines, be they grammar correction software or translation machines, to consistently distinguish between such shades of meaning let alone connotational meaning. However, machine translations will become better in time, if not human-like, while Herr Grzega and other non-native speakers of English are making every endeavour to simplify the English language into a mutilated, indistinguishable and incomprehensible mass. The same holds true for Jean-Paul Nerriere`s Globish-Speak. He is author of the book “Don’t Speak English – Parlez Globish”. In theory, both sorts of genetically modified corruptions of Englishes are not Pidgin Englishes, so the theory goes. But as it is often the case, theory and practise differ substantially in the day to day interaction among interlocutors. Both, Basic Global English and Globish are runty forms of Standard English; two kinds of immature-speak full of words and passages which are frequently hard to understand. Just like in present-day machine translations, connotational meaning cannot be conveyed in Basic Global English and Globish, while the latter have the advantage of integrating body language and grimaces into their semantic structures.

Herr Grzega considers his Basic Global English to be a minimum requirement of linguistic skills for “global peace and global economic growth”, and if I may ask: global brainpower as well? However, in his noble attempt at promoting global and cross-cultural language competence in an “atmosphere of trust, tolerance, empathy and efficiency so that information can flow without obstacles”, he seems sublimely unaware that it is his runty form of English, his mutilated Basic Global English with a paltry vocabulary of 1000 words and grammar reduced to a measly 20 rules which constitutes this very obstacle.

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.

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All Fun and Games? The Fun Factory in Foreign Language Education

A giant playground for giant kids?

In an age, where financial wizards, bankers and business persons are called “players” or even “global players”, top manager or market-leading companies “key-players”, and an almost bankrupt company “is suddenly back in the game”, one is inclined to speculate about the origin of these voguish words. The latest coinages are “theatre” to describe the battlefields in Afghanistan, and “decompression time” – just like after a pleasurable dive in some exotic place – to explain the short time soldiers spent between a season (in keeping with the idea of leisure time) in a “theatre” to chill out before returning to their home countries.

What may be the causes of these ever-present and verifiable symptoms? Playing computer games indiscriminately may be one. Excessive game playing in language education and often, as a result of this, a lack of seriousness may be another. But in what way may other educational tools such as computer software, which all too often appears to be still in its beta-stage, with error messages popping up most of the time, generally contribute to fostering a rather lax attitude? In what way does this affect the pliable minds of the young when they grow up with imperfect hard and software? Do these mistakes, errors, flaws, faults or whatever we may chooses to call them, take on a different meaning and we come regard them as natural, unavoidable occurrences? And how does an all too easy-going attitude generally impair our ability to predict, analyse and pre-empt problems? How do games in language teaching mould the characters of learners or students? How does a generation fare when it has grown up with computer games and lots of “gaming experience” in and outside the classroom when they enter the job market?

Developmental and educational games in foreign language education
How effective are they? That would obviously depend on the sort of questions one is prepared to ask. My criteria have not changed over the years:
How much time is spent on playing games? What do I get out of them in terms of quantity and quality? How many contextual phrases and other meaningful, contextual fragments, and synonymous expressions etc. have become part of my active vocabulary? And, if no hand-outs are provided, have I had a chance to copy down those words, phrases or fragments or even entire interesting sentences for future reference to work with at home in my own time instead of relying solely on the elusive spoken word in class?

One of the most useless games in language learning I have ever taken part in was about 25 years ago. What was the point of cutting up a newspaper article, distributing the clippings to the students, making them read out the snippets and having them put the newspaper article in its original sequence? Not one single new word was discussed and not one single definition was given from this difficult and otherwise suitable article from the London Times. And what bearing has this sort of exercise on the acquisition of a foreign language, of what goes on in our minds when we want to increase our vocabulary? I would expect to find this sort of game in an assessment centre to test participants for characteristics like leadership qualities or their ability to fall into line in a hierarchical set-up but not in a language class. Incidentally, none of the participants complained about this novel idea of doing vocabulary work and I am not sure how many were aware of this and preferred to suffer in silence.

Another high-light was when a native speaker of English handed out about 15 idioms, in this case pertaining to one group – duly cut up –, asking the class to match the definitions with the idioms. No hand-outs were given to us and I had to hurry to copy down those three idioms I did not know. What a waste of precious 45 minutes! I almost forgot to mention the fact that students were supposed to discuss their viewpoints among themselves with the “supervisor”, or rather holiday camp animator, exercising utmost restraint all the time. I was under the impression the supervisor was having a good time in abiding by the rules of a theoretical model which, together with peer editing, group discussions and any other forms of error swapping, fosters a kind of “local linguistic inbreeding” and deludes learners into thinking that they are learning Standard English.

In order to give students an opportunity to pass away the time in the class room, text book publishers changed the format of many text books and made them unnecessarily larger, catering for a need learners did not know they had: full-colour editions of text-books with lots of empty space to scribble onto. Although the latter can be fun, too, especially when you are the ambitious type and design your own Rorschach tests. I guess that the print normally used in, for instance pocket-book sized text books, would make them balk at reading altogether, or in other words, it would remind them of „serious work or study”, which seems not the fashionable thing to do and above all, do not hold any promises of “fun”. It is no surprise to see these books with cartoons in adult education and I wonder, how many trees could have been saved in the past 30 years.

One result of “creative” games may be that games help to make anything which is uttered “ingrained”. Yet, little control of “quality input” is exercised due to the nature of games. Evermore games are invented as if the novelty factor were the decisive criterion. One sometimes gets the idea that there is a never-ending competition of inventing ever new games going on among educators while the number of games really useful have long been exhausted. A native-speaker friend of mine who had worked as a teacher of English in Hannover for several years told me that weekend seminars for teachers were held on the North Sea coast for the sole purpose of learning new games for use in the classroom. It must have been great fun for the participants, adult-sized-kids as it were. One has to concede, however, that useful games may have their place in pre-school education.

Only recently, an acquaintance of mine who has no formal teacher’s training told me that he had volunteered to host a discussion group for migrants. The fun-factor was important, he had been given to understand. And the most important thing was to just make the participants talk without talking too much himself, he told me with a smile of resignation. He had been admonished not to interfere in the free flow of ideas exchanged among the participants only to find that his charges conversed in a mutilated, difficult, hard to follow and often incomprehensible Pidgin sort of German. As a result, he sat there all the while, reluctantly nodding in agreement the gibberish emitted from eager, yet incompetent mouths. They did not know otherwise.

No wonder that he threw in the towel out of frustration after about four weeks. It was simply beyond him why it was perfectly acceptable to subject learners to bad language, to bad model-sentences, to bad snatches of speech, to bad pronunciation, to bad collocation, to very bad grammar and to an extremely poor vocabulary and style. In fact, so bad, no parents would subject their children to it, if there native-tongue were concerned. And he concluded that, up to a certain level, one would probably find this in almost any classroom you might care to visit. I hasten to add that “bad” is used here, of course, in a sense of “a strain on the interlocutors, hard to follow, difficult or even impossible to understand.”

As we have seen, playing games and other modern methods can be fun for the learner and be the source of great hilarity to the critical observer. It would be remiss of me not to mention one incident when native-speaker text book authors wanted to have some fun too. On a work-sheet containing idioms and colloquial expressions to be imparted to eager students, wanting to learn idiomatic or natural English, it said with great pedagogic conviction: “You may sound odd if you use them”. Printed by the publisher, mind you, not a hand-written note by some disillusioned teacher. Not a word of criticism was heard at such balderdash. I, however, presumed to disagree, suggesting that it was not a very encouraging remark to put on worksheets to be distributed to students of English, especially not since the copy was taken from a text book published in England.

You would expect this sort of comment in support material for Basic Global English, which is, according to its inventor Dr. Joachim Grzega, not suitable for communication with native speakers of English. Generally, learners think that UK and US English is taught here in Germany throughout and many pupils and students would be very disappointed to learn if “Basic Global English” and its somewhat older relation “Globish” were introduced on the sly through the back door.

“Use your own words”, said in a minatory voice, as if it were an offence to use newly acquired vocabulary is another rule straight from “The Book”. Using ones` own words must be more fun, I concluded, because of the implicit “seriousness” (equals absence of fun) inherent in building up a large diction. By implication this rather arrogant instruction means: don’t take the trouble to employ those words you might have just learned, if I had not prevented it, that is, do not enlarge your vocabulary, do not increase your power of thinking.” It is common knowledge that every single word is a tool to do your thinking with, the more tools you have at your disposal the more powerful your thinking will become. Conversely, reducing and limiting one’s vocabulary would be a retrograde evolutionary step.

The following example is about a foreigner who made other peoples` words his own and who did seem to get a certain degree of fun out of it. When I was about 14 years old, I met one of the so-called “guest-workers”. He was Italian and must have been about 40 years old. Apart from his open-minded relations with Germans, which was very unusual at the time, I was struck by his excellent German. He spoke with great precision, had a large vocabulary, impeccable grammar (hold your horses, I know what you are thinking) – that is, qualities contributing to clarity. In the course of our talk, he pulled a notepad and pen out of his pocket and asked me about the meaning and spelling of a word I had just used. He then wrote the word into his notepad with great precision and care. Oddly enough, it did seem like “fun” to him and I asked him, what else he did to improve his excellent German. “It’s great fun listening to the radio. I like reading newspapers as well, not the tabloids, though”, he told me with great conviction.

As to the taboo word grammar, I once met a German who was a very fluent, a fast talker with a large vocabulary. All the while he was churning out his words, he seemed to have great fun. But not those interlocutors of his who took an interest in what he was saying and did not just nod him off in the right places without understanding much. My complaint may not be politically correct but listening to him was a terrible strain because he made so many grammatical mistakes that they were actually an obstacle to comprehending what he was trying to say. According to the doctrines of the modern pedagogy, he must have been a one-off because “The book” says that with time and practice, mistakes will disappear. With him, they had become ingrained – a fact that is frequently overlooked. Now I dare ask a bold question: if you say something grammatical wrong over and over again, how can it ever become right?

To most questions posed at the outset of this post, I can offer no answers. And those I offer, tentative as they may be, probably fall short of general approval. The moderate use of games in the classroom can be useful, especially as a break from long hours of learning. However, in most cases games are time-consuming and yield little measurable results. As to the problem of how a game-playing “culture” may affect society on a wider scale in terms of its brainpower and economic performance, ex-chancellor Kohl put the dilemma very succinctly about fifteen years ago:
“Germany is a huge amusement park”.
One is inclined to add now: operated by professional teenagers.

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.

The Taboo-Side of Group Work in Foreign Language Teaching

Group work at universities: a peremptory demand by industry and commerce

In 1982, when I was a guest reader at Hannover University, I was struck by the so-called “group work”. The way it was done did not make any sense to me. The answer to this riddle I got straight from the horse’s mouth, when I asked a native-speaker lecturer about it. She had been a witness of the times, saying that industry and commerce had asked all universities to implement group work in order to better prepare students for their future jobs. The curricula in all disciplines were obligingly changed in a rush and no-one has ever bothered to look at the way group work is actually done.

Putting the cat among the pigeons, I will start my discussion with a rather contradictory sentence I found a few years ago in the classified ad section of a broad sheet newspaper:

“Employees of the sales department have the opportunity to prove themselves on their own in a highly competitive market while aware that success can only be achieved as a team.”

I must confess I am guilty of palliating the rather harsh sounding German original, which is:
“As employee of … you are an individual fighter in a highly competitive market…”

This statement reflects the whole fundamental dilemma of “group work” as it has been practiced in preparation for occupational and professional careers all over the world in schools and universities for more than 30 years. However, in the mid-seventies – shortly after the implementation of group work in schools and universities, a devastating study was published in the “Harvard Business Review” by two scientists, purporting that in the business world or in management starting at supervisory level, hardly any work was done in groups in the way it was practiced in schools and universities.

The most striking difference between theory and practice is that at schools and universities, groups are peer groups, that is, group members forming a group are all of the same rank, trying to solve problems in a “democratic” way. Interminable discussions often go on in round-about ways about incidental issues. In foreign language classes, error-swapping becomes the most notable of all activities and, together with peer editing, group discussions and game playing contributes to a phenomenon I have dubbed “local linguistic inbreeding”. In task-oriented group work,  none of the group members has the formal authority to assign tasks, follow up on them, discipline laggards, and evaluate the individual group member’s contribution to the project work. The role of the professor or teacher is in most cases reduced to handing out the task to the group and making sure that only the target language is spoken throughout with some of these teachers engaging in the latter with a kind of pathetic rigour. The group will then divide the task and sort out the details among themselves without further follow-ups or close supervision by the professor or teacher, giving spongers ample opportunities to reap the benefit of the groups` achievement without ever doing a single stroke of work at home. Conversely, in class, some basic grasp of core issues and key phrases enable them to pass themselves off as diligent and expert students on the subject without the professor ever noticing.

Group work is often used in assessing leadership potential of participants or their ability to get along with people in assessment centres where it has its justified due place. However, in the day to day operation of companies, subordination rather than creative contributions is more likely to be expected from the individual group members or staff.

Apart from this, in the real world, there is always a manager or department head in charge whenever he or she calls a meeting for any purpose. This superior head of department has the formal authority to give direction if not plain orders. Subordinate group members, to use this term for the sake of comparison, have a predefined area of work for which they have been hired and are solely responsible for. Tasks are assigned by unconcealed instructions by the group member of the highest rank and not by discussing endlessly who is going to do what and how it should be done. Every single subordinate group member has to rely on him- or herself when it comes to accomplishing a particular task with the exception of the odd non-committal peer consulting.

Following-up on assigned tasks, controlling, and final evaluation of the individual group member’s contribution is done by the manager by virtue of his formal authority he has been invested with. He ensures that only the individual is finally held responsible for the quality of any work assigned to him or her rather than punish the group summarily for the poor performance of one or two underachievers. Conversely, high achievers do not need to share their success with those who do not merit it.

I think that it was rather the communication skills managerial and supervisory staff need in meetings which had been mistakenly dubbed “group-work” way back in the seventies. To me it is not surprising that no one ever seems to have questioned “procedures”. Maybe it is to do with the “authority-syndrome” and I cannot help thinking of Dr. Fox, the actor who had been hired to deliver speeches which did not make any sense without anyone noticing.

Today, you find group work in both schools and university across the board in all disciplines. Not surprisingly, also in foreign languages. It is the mainstay of the Communicative Teaching Method or CTM is group work and plays an important part in Dr. Joachim Grzega`s artificial and mutilated invention, namely his Basic Global English method. For the past three decades, almost everything is done in groups, be that discussions, joint writing of texts of any kind or communal text appreciation; cooperative poetry analysis or collective grammar and vocabulary exercises. What the heck have group-work and the ensuing discussions with non-native speakers of English got to do with the acquisition of a foreign language when there are much better role models and methods around?

There are other downsides to group work, as well. For instance, when doing work in a group that requires your utmost attention, you may get distracted by frequent and often superfluous interruptions or overbearing interferences. Or oneself feels obliged to consult the other members of the group for the sake of asking a question or the opinion of the others just because this is what is expected of you in group work. My observations made over many years seem to confirm my assumptions.

In order to illustrate my arguments, I can give a few examples from the vast storehouse of my experience. The daughter of an acquaintance of mine had been a straight “A” student for four consecutive terms. When she could no longer put off attending university courses which required her to do group work, she was alarmed, fearing that her good performance might be tarnished by a mediocre “B” grade the group might receive for the plain fact that spongers, less interested and also average students might bring down her impressive performance. Fortunately, it did not turn out that way in this instance, but the following example is a convincing case in which a teacher was unable to judge the individual group members` performances because most preparatory work had to be done at home.

I remember a case when a professor made some deprecating remarks about one of our group members. She wrongly assumed that the student in question had hardly done any work while in fact the student was the key player in that she had prepared all the nitty-gritty work of research and summarized her findings expertly and handed them to two spongers on a platter. If I had not had the chance to point out that it was in fact that very student who contributed to the group’s success the most, the student’s final evaluation would most likely have been downgraded because of this mistaken perception on the part of the teacher. Go-to guys sometimes remain behind the scenes out of modesty, as in this case, which can lead to devastating assessments by professors and teachers. Oral activity in the classroom is not necessarily an indicator of a group member’s true contribution to the work of the entire group.

Another example is the case of a group of about ten people, which had been formed impromptu during a literature class at university. One student was to hold a short lecture on the outcome of our discussion on a set of questions, which proved to be a sort of “mission impossible”. Nevertheless, no-one realized this. The student in question was to take minutes of the individual contributions to the group discussion while guiding the group through a set of questions. Then, she was to analyse her minutes on her own for a couple of minutes before presenting the consensus ideas to the whole class. No one realized that she presented her own ideas prepared in some detail at home against said set of questions.

During the group discussion, she would steam-roll across all ideas which deviated from those she had prepared. After a couple of minutes of refreshing her memory, she read her notes off three closely written pages – those notes she had entirely prepared at home. None of the arguments put forward during the group discussion by participants – some of these differed widely from hers – was mentioned in her oral summary to the entire class. Since ideas on literature tend to be highly subjective, no-one actually realized that the excellent lecture she delivered was solely her work, her very own analysis. If someone else noticed what she had actually done, he or she kept quiet with the professor beaming as she had gone by “The Book” and “made the group talk”. You cannot blame the student who delivered the lecture, resolute as it was. If your marks or evaluation were dependent on this “sort” of group work, would you have done otherwise?

Peer editing is another common group activity although in this case it is done on a smaller scale, namely in pairs. There is no denying that your non-native editor may spot the odd awkward passage or the odd mistake. But in most cases, he or she may not be very helpful in remedying fundamental short-comings. Rather, error swapping among the non-native participants is more common. If the students are lucky, a native speaker teacher checks and prepares the text so that it can be saved on your “brain-hard-disk-drive”.

Generally speaking, there is a dangerous implication in the failure to recommend native-speaker editing in that language students are made to believe that their English is a native-speaker-like UK or US English and does not need editing.

To revert to the two distinguished scientists who had established that group work did not actually happen in companies in the same way it was done in the classroom: their finding did not surprise me at all. It coincided with my experience that the only time two or more heads of department ever worked together on a joint project on equal footing was when it came to organising the annual Christmas binge party.

Come to think of it: What might Sigmund Freud have said about the educators` preoccupation with “group work”? I would not be surprised if he had diagnosed “group work” as a sort of sublimation, the sort you would think he might be interested in.

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.