Monday, February 13, 2017

You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you

During the 2016 American election campaign elite opinion was both shocked and amused by the simplified language found in Donald Trump’s speeches. They noted the low frequency of polysyllabic words, the frequent repetition of vague descriptors like “marvelous” and the lack of concrete ideas and substance. The vlogger "Nerdwriter" made a report on the problem that is really tremendous. He shows that Donald Trump speaks at the level of a fourth grader, and that other politicians speak only at a slightly higher level.

This phenomenon raises some questions about what this trend could lead to. Will political discourse eventually devolve into short bursts of sentence fragments and grunting, like the language use displayed by the president, lawyers and doctors in the film Idiocracy? The passage below is an imagined speech of a post-Trump candidate in the next election. In the language of this imagined candidate, polysyllabic words have been entirely eliminated. This change imposes interesting limitations on thought processes and content.

Make this place great one more time
Trump. What a fag, with all that fag talk. Big words like mar... mar... marvulus. I can’t say it. Can’t spell it too. Can you? No? Who cares?! Who needs those big words with all their parts with sounds like “ay” or “ee” or some such in each one... Ah, Trump. He tried to build a wall, but he failed. He failed. It’s true. That’s it. What can I say? That dream is no more. But we will do more. Yes, we will. We will dig a hole. A great hole. A huge hole. And we’ll put all those folks in it. You know the ones. Yes, Trump and all those jerks who let you down. That’s right. And we’ll get folks from some place else to pay for it. Yes, trust me. They will pay. Trump failed to make them pay for the wall, but I will make them pay for the hole. I can do it. Just me. No one else. With you all, we will make this place great one more time, for real this time.

Simplified, “dumbed-down” political rhetoric should not, however, be confused with condescension toward a particular group. In general, the people Trump targeted with his middle school English can deal with higher level language when they want to, and let’s not forget that much of the language in the canon of American literature drew from rural America. The purpose of dumbed-down political rhetoric, rather than condescension and pandering, is to get an idea into as many heads as possible, as quickly as possible, and that is very hard to do when your slogan is “expropriate the means of production.” If that were the goal, it would be easier to conceal it under a simple slogan like “make America great again” and just leave it unsaid that it will be made great by the aforementioned expropriation.
This propaganda technique was artfully illustrated many years ago in a film that takes place “about the time of our conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis,” during the presidency of GHW Bush. The protagonist in The Big Lebowski has been a committed pacifist since his days in the 1960s anti-war movement, but by 1990 he has been worn down, marginalized and alienated. He self-medicates with booze and marijuana, and hangs out with war veteran and gun-toting supporter of military intervention. Lebowski has let down his guard. As soon as he is provoked by a random act of violence, he succumbs to the dumbed-down political slogan that has been repeated endlessly in the media in recent weeks. He finds the president’s words flowing out of his own mouth when he faces his adversary: “this aggression will not stand...., man.”
So the phenomenon applies to the entire population, not just supposed dupes and bumpkins in the flyover states. In 2008, Barack Obama’s slogan “hope and change” was actually simpler and more vague than Trump’s slogan “make America great again.” The former consists of only three monosyllabic words, while the latter consists of four words and a total of eight syllables. Both were used in bait and switch con jobs. Fool you once, fool you twice: the city slicker lawyer from Chicago followed by the real estate tycoon from New York.

You might be asking what my point is here with all this talk about syllable counts and simplified language. First of all, let’s define our terms. What’s a syllable? Every English speaker knows in an intuitive way. They can count the syllables in a word correctly, but when asked to define the term precisely they might be stumped.
In my day job I teach English to native speakers of Japanese, and I always have a lot of trouble teaching them how the language works “under the hood.” They want me to correct their mistakes but not explain them, and because they lack proficiency with the necessary metalanguage (language about language), I can’t give explanations even if they want them.
When they mishear a word or place the accent on the wrong syllable, they don’t know what I mean by “syllable” when I point out the problem. Even if they look up the word in their bilingual dictionaries, and they get the word onsetsu, that still doesn’t help very much. They “know” that word, but they still don’t understand the concept. This is true even though Japanese is a syllabic language, with each letter of the hiragana syllabary (not alphabet) representing a consonant followed by a vowel, or a vowel by itself. There are no letters for consonants, no syllables ending in consonants, and no consonant clusters. Because their language is made up of a simple set of syllables, they have to think about syllables even less than English speakers. Because English allows for consonant clusters in its syllables, there are thousands of possible syllables, whereas there are only a few hundred possible in Japanese. This is one of the factors that make it so difficult for Japanese learners of English to comprehend spoken English if they are not exposed to it during a critical period for acquisition during childhood. Helping language learners see these differences leads them to a better understanding of where they need to focus their efforts.
So what is a syllable? Anyone who pursues the question for a while could come up with a good answer, but it has been the fashion for many years in education to avoid lengthy analysis and instead keep things simple because, it is assumed, teachers are working in a mass education system that has to aim for the lowest common denominator. Few children, supposedly, are capable of or interested in analysis. We’re not all eggheads and brainiacs, right? This is what I was always told when I suggested to peers that we should get back to analytical methods. However, in communicative language teaching, which was driven by the demands of mass education and market demands to make learning emotionally satisfying in the short term, it was assumed that everything could be learned through practice, exposure to input, “natural” methods, and intuitive understanding.
I’ve always thought this approach sells people short and defeats the purpose of formal study, and my disagreements with it led me to move overseas many years ago and pursue career alternatives elsewhere.
So while you were reading the above paragraphs to yourself, perhaps you were thinking about the syllables in the words and you realized a syllable consists of...

... a vowel by itself or
... a vowel preceded by one or more consonants or semi-vowels or
... a vowel followed by one or more consonants or semi-vowels or
... a vowel preceded and followed by one or more consonants or semi-vowels

If I can lead my students to this understanding, we are still faced with another problem. We need to define vowel, consonant and semi-vowel. They check their bilingual dictionaries and see familiar words they learned in their high school English classes. They think they know now, but of course they don’t. We have to start thinking consciously about what is going on in our mouths when we say various words. We pay attention to our voices and all the speech articulators. Any idiot can do this and get to the correct understanding, but teachers rarely make their students do it, unless they are teaching a university course in linguistics.
After reflecting a while on how the mouth articulates various speech sounds, the average person can figure out that a consonant is a speech sound made with or without the voice which involves contact between speech articulators such as the lips, teeth, palate and so on.
A vowel is the opposite of a consonant. There is no contact between the speech articulators, and the vowel sounds are distinguished from each other by the position of the tongue, shape of the mouth opening, and slackness of the jaw.
Readers may notice at this point that this description goes far beyond what they learned in school, where teachers probably talked about “consonant letters” and “vowel letters” and left it at that, confusing the matter further by suggesting that these building blocks of spoken language are the visual representations of them—a confusion of shadows on the cave wall with reality, so to speak. In fact, this explanation could be more granular, describing all the fine details of manner of articulation, so I too am guilty of simplification.
Many explanations in textbooks also gloss over an important distinction between semi-vowels and vowels, classifying them as consonants. But of course any child could notice that when one makes the sound usually denoted by the visual symbol r, there is no contact of speech articulators. There is near-contact, and air flow is partially blocked, but there is no contact. Other semi-vowels appear for example in the initial sound of uniform and water, and in the last sound of full.
When you analyze to this level and assure that you have defined your terms thoroughly, you’re not glossing over and simplifying things for learners whom you assume can’t handle the truth or are not interested in it. If you make learners do this kind of analysis, you build a foundation for later mastery of the subject. If you don’t do it, you set up the learner for that stage of surrender later on that many people are familiar with: giving up because everything seems random and senseless. The learner quits, feeling like an idiot because his process hasn’t involved mastery of the successive steps in it.[1]
Now I hope I can make a tenuous connection between language education and education in political rhetoric and discourse. Just as we fail to teach children how to investigate and analyze the building blocks of language, we fail at the task of teaching what is perhaps the highest-order language skill: using language to collectively create a just society. If we could do both types of education better, we would be able to evoke a sense of wonder about the process by which a set of forty or so distinct speech sounds forms the sonic alphabet of a language which in turn is used to ask such questions as whether true democracy has ever existed. Without an awareness of our innate capacity for language, and without having learned how to analyze our political language and our institutions, without having learned our history, we are lost in this confusing moment of early 2017 when some kind of revolution and resistance to it is happening, but no one understands what it’s all about. C.J. Hopkins describes the two-fold quandary as:

(1) how to oppose the Trumpians, and other neo-nationalist insurgencies, without serving the interests of Neoliberalism; and (2) how to oppose Neoliberalism without serving the interests of the Neo-nationalists. Which is more or less a classic Zen koan designed to make one’s head explode.[2]

We are unprepared and uneducated when it comes to facing this dilemma. The opportunity to learn never comes from the mass media, nor in public education, and certainly not in the adult lives of people who have to work to live or live precariously looking for work. The result was political rhetoric that became monosyllabic, vague and empty. One candidate labelled her opponents as “deplorables” while the other talked about making America great again and building a wall. Little else from this campaign will be remembered in years to come. All we have now is the resulting chaos made up of a revolution coming from within in the executive branch, a resistance, and counter-resistance. In all of these the ideology, funding, goals and the lead actors are unclear to almost everyone involved. Is it coming from the bottom up, or are the masses just being swept up in a family feud within the clans that run the show—the duopoly-corporations-pentagon-intelligence agencies complex? As I contemplate the Zen koan mentioned above, I’ll keep in mind the words of an American poet laureate who very long ago was wise enough not to let himself be turned into a celebrity spokesman for political causes:

See the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns...
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you

Vania Heymann: Bob Dylan Like a Rolling Stone (interactive)


[1] Sal Khan, “Let’s teach for mastery—not test scores,” TED, November 2015.

[2] C.J. Hopkins, “The Resistance and Its Double,” Counterpunch, January 30, 2017.

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