David Crystal works as an editor, lecturer, broadcaster and writer. He is probably best known for his two encyclopedias: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Cambridge University Press. His many academic interests include English language learning and teaching, English genre, Shakespeare, indexing and lexicography, to name a few. David is Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Patron of IATEFL and the Association for Language Learning (ALL), President of the UK National Literacy Association and a number of other institutes. David will be discussing ‘The future of Englishes’ at our Better Learning Conference 2019. In this blog post, he demonstrates the part cultural knowledge plays in understanding a global language.
Here’s an extract from a post, taken randomly from an online forum in which the writer was complaining about traffic problems in Zurich and the surrounding area. It’s written in English, so I was expecting to be able to understand all of it. But I don’t. I’ve identified my lack of comprehension by inserting questions in square brackets.
Such things will occur more and more in the foreseeable future. For decades, roads in Switzerland were expanded long after the demand was there. Really courageous ideas like the change from the 30min “Takt” [what is this and why in inverted commas?] to the required 15min “Takt” were refused by an overcautious electorate. But only a train each 15mins is a real and viable alternative to private cars in quite many circumstances. What is described above is what Josef Estermann [who is he?] forecast more than a decade ago.
There also are silly steps taken by those in charge, like cutting back the S4 Sihltalbahn from Sihlbrugg to Langnau [why is a cut silly here?] instead of extending it over the hill to Zug. Delaying the necessary extension of Tram 7 to at least “Grüt” [what is this and why the inverted commas?] or even [why ‘even’?] down to Adliswil. Terminating the Tram 12 at Schwamendingen-Stettbach instead of it continuing over into Dübendorf [why is that a problem?].
Positive things of course DO happen like the extension of the tram from the Cargo Terminal at the airport to Bassersdorf [why was that good?], but such things take a long time. Already ex-Bundesrat [what is this?] Leuenberger [is he well-known?] opted in favour of A) adding a third lane on each side on major highway-stretches, B) building a highway from the Baden-area (S1) [a road name?] over towards Winterthur (without putting all motor-traffic to Zurich), C) completing the “Ostring” [what is this and why the inverted commas?] between Uster and Schmerikon. Positive is the construction of the new Bahnhofplatz-extension of Zch-HB [what is this?] plus the tunnel to Oerlikon and the expansion of Bhf Oerlikon [what is this?], but once again, all this takes quite a while still.
What is the problem?
I could make a guess at the answer to some of these questions and it would take only a short time living in the city for many of the questions to disappear. But my point is to draw attention to the amount of cultural knowledge assumed in an everyday piece of text. The place names, personal names and abbreviations are obviously the main difficulty, but there are also value-judgements that go over my head – such as the stories behind ‘silly’ and ‘positive’ and the issue which led to the use of ‘even’ – and the significance of the inverted commas totally escapes me.
There are 238 words in this extract and about 10 per cent of them are opaque to the outsider. This is quite high compared with what we might find in a discussion of, say, holidays, but quite low compared with what we would encounter in, say, a political discussion (where the names of politicians and parties, including their nicknames, would be bandied about). And the greater the cultural distance between the writer/speaker and the reader/hearer, the more these totals would increase. Nor must we forget the temporal dimension: this extract is synchronic in its focus, but when we include a diachronic dimension (such as in a story about a historical event or writer) we encounter an analogous cultural distance.
It’s easy to identify what the problem is. Mastering a language means much more than learning to be fluent in the pronunciation, orthography, grammar and vocabulary. It means becoming aware of the cultural background of the place where the language is used, so that we can recognise the various cultural allusions which speakers routinely introduce into their everyday conversation and which they assume their listeners will understand. One of the consequences of English having become a global language is that each of the ‘new Englishes’ that have emerged present learners with problems of the kind illustrated by my Zurich extract – and as the number of these Englishes is growing, the need for a well-grounded cultural perspective for English language teaching is becoming increasingly evident. My talk on ‘The future of Englishes’ explores the background to the phenomenon of cultural distance, gives some other examples and suggests how this perspective might be achieved.
If you’d like to explore the neuroscience behind learning a language, have a look at ‘What Game of Thrones could teach you about motivation and the brain’ and see how you get on with High Valyrian!