Towards a confusion of tongues (why a common language isn’t always helpful)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel (1563)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Tower of Babel (1563)

There sometimes exists in schools a cognitive dissonance that appears to hold these three theories as truth:

  1. Learning other languages is beneficial to pupils.
  2. Developing a wide English vocabulary is beneficial to pupils.
  3. Creating a common language across subjects is beneficial to pupils.

The reason I think this represents cognitive dissonance is because the third theory seems to want to reduce the language pupils use in school, whereas the first two seek to increase it.

It would be very hard to argue against the first two ideas. Learning a second language (or more) has obvious benefits in terms of communication in an increasingly global community, but there have also been neurological benefits identified too. And the importance of developing a wide vocabulary within English is uncontested (unless we count some pupils’ protestations: “I know all the English I need. I speak it already. This is pointless.”)

Despite this understanding that increasing the language of our pupils is a good thing, the idea does seem to exist, if not pervade, that we should create or rely on a reduced, common language to use across the various subject domains.

Most recently with the removal of National Curriculum levels, I have seen numerous people suggest that the levels and language of SOLO taxonomy could be a suitable replacement. This was notable during last Thursday’s #UKEdChat.

This is quite bizarre: one of the complaints about NC levels was that they were vague. I find it odd that some feel that moving to an even more equivocal set of levels and descriptors is the answer. Like Bloom’s taxonomy, SOLO uses descriptors which are open to a wide range of interpretations, even within a single subject area.

And this is the other problem with assuming that a common language is helpful to pupils: words have different (usually polysemous, but sometimes homonymous) meanings in different contexts. Surely when words can shift in meaning depending on context, the language is no longer a common one? As each subject area presents a different context, the ‘common language’ gets taken in different directions by its different speakers. It’s analogous to the dialects of England and America and George Bernard Shaw’s observation that the two countries are “separated by a common language”: both England and America use the same words, they just don’t always mean the same thing.

But we don’t have to look at different dialects to see how meaning shifts. Standard English is a minefield of ambiguity. For example, the word ‘bank’ has a number of meanings. Ignoring the many definitions of the verb form, here are just a few definitions of the word as a noun (but by no means all of them):

  1. A financial establishment
  2. A stock of something available for use when required
  3. A receptacle where something may be deposited for recycling: ‘a bottle bank’
  4. The land alongside or sloping down to a river or a lake
  5. A set of similar things, especially electrical devices: ‘a bank of monitors’
  6. The cushion of a pool or snooker table

So if I said, “I took off my trousers by the bank”, the context in which I said this would certainly change the meaning of the word bank. You’d hope that I was stood by the side of the lake, replete with a bathing suit and not lining up a shot in the final frame of the World Championship at the Crucible.

It is therefore much more efficient for me to use a more domain-specific word (or words) other than bank to ensure the meaning I wish to convey is clear and precise: “I took off my trousers by the embankment,” or “I took off my trousers by the Abbey National.”

Likewise, if we have to rely on the vocabulary of a school’s common language, we are avoiding the more domain-specific vocabulary that would make meaning more precise.

So when I ask my pupils to analyse a text in English, it is a fundamentally different thing to when they are asked to analyse a chemical compound in Chemistry. Just look at this enormous list of applicants of the term analysis across a large number of disciplines. And even within disciplines, there are different meanings to the word. If analysis had one fixed meaning, there would be no need for the numerous collocations (‘aura analysis’, anyone?) in that list.

This means that if we try to establish a common language across schools, the words we use will have no meaning until they are applied to each subject. At this point the language is vague, at best. And as they have different meanings within each domain, the language isn’t a common one. It becomes more confusing and less helpful for pupils. Put simply:

I would always argue the case for schools to allow subject areas to establish their own,  domain-specific language for practice and assessment. Why assume that our students need a reduced, catch-all vocabulary in order to make sense of their learning across subjects when it is more likely that such a vocabulary will obscure the understanding process.

When it comes to world globalisation, we are always reminded of the importance of the plurality of languages and heed warnings to protect them. Are we as defensive of our domain-specific language when it comes to ‘globalising’ schools and blurring the boundaries between subjects?

As Mark Liberman, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, says of globalisation and language:

“If you’re going to combine many countries with different national languages — and do it by political compromise rather than by military conquest — then you can’t impose any single national language on the result.”

Likewise, if we are going to combine many subjects with very different vocabularies, we shouldn’t impose any single language across all of them.

9 thoughts on “Towards a confusion of tongues (why a common language isn’t always helpful)”

  1. Great post, thank you.

    I think a couple of (fallacious) ideas drive this:
    – ‘it makes it easier for students if we all use the same key learning words.’ As you’ve pointed out, it makes life more confusing, not less, because words like analyse don’t mean the same thing.
    – ‘standardisation helps ensure all teachers are doing certain things’ (marking and feedback, or teaching key words). Instead, teachers misapply or don’t apply common language demands while resenting being fitted into inappropriately shaped holes…

    That said, where we are all doing the same things, I think a common language can be helpful – Doug Lemov talks about how useful it is not to have to explain teaching actions every time, and just use a tag phrase or an abbreviation.

    1. Thanks Harry. I agree with you on the drivers.

      I also agree, and should really have said so in my post, that a common language can often be useful. I have no problem with, say, a common language describing the attributes or attitudes to learning that we want our pupils to have across a school (like the KIPP Charter Schools’ strengths and behaviours). That kind of common language can help build a school’s ethos.

  2. Surely any decent educator / school would spend time ensuring that there are shared *understandings* of common terms? I think that – as said above – not having to define every nuance of terms used is of course beneficial, but it would start with ensuring that all involved are on the same page.

    1. But my point is that many common terms don’t have shared understandings across subjects.

      Also, the “any decent educator” premise is a “no true Scotsman” argument.

  3. Interesting piece. I’m not sure I agree, but it’s good to see it from another perspective. You seem to be arguing that because subject-specific terminology exists, any attempt to define generic processes of learning would be of no educational value. However I don’t see that one precludes the other – rather, they can be seen as mutually enriching.

    To take the generic definition of “analyse” – to “break a complex topic or substance into smaller parts to gain a better understanding of it” (which is sensibly provided at the top of the Wikipedia page). Surely an understanding of this generic definition would only deepen a student’s understanding of what it is to analyse something within a given subject domain – even if the type of analysis necessarily differs from one subject to another (and even within subjects)?

    It seems to me that schools – decent, true or otherwise – should publish both generic and subject-specific learning terminology in student planners. Students should be tested on these, e.g. in tutor time, and the glossaries should be updated each year, e.g. in a twilight toward the end of the school year. However I do agree it’s extremely important to provide detailed definitions in each case. Your post has clarified my thinking on this point, for which I am grateful.

    (By the way we don’t analyse chemical substances in schools in any meaningful sense – if only there were time to indulge in such “discovery” approaches to learning ;-))

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