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/
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.
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.