Language and empathy, Part 3: Making choices about language

This is the third and final post in a short series to restart my blogging for another year, and all relate to language learning and empathy. Each of the 3 posts will suggest a new year’s resolution for anybody hoping to develop their connections with others through language in 2016.

Resolution #3. Understand the choices we make when we use language.

Some months ago, somebody on Twitter was compelled to respond to a blogpost about whether native speakers of English could adapt their language effectively for international communication. He complained:

“Thanks. But I’ll pass on reducing a rich, vibrant vocabulary to fit into some imagined ELF ideal for equality.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard such an objection to the very concept of ELF (English as a lingua franca), and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But just a moment of closer scrutiny shows just how daft the complaint is in the first place.

To demonstrate, I asked a friend of mine to help me out. Below are two different ways he explains what he does for a living, aimed at two very different audiences:

Option 1: “I’m a glaciologist at BAS, specialising in ice flow modelling and use of satellite measurements.”

Option 2: “I study the movement of ice in Antarctica.”

Can you guess which of these reflects how he explains his job to me (I know almost nothing about glaciology), and which reflects what he would say when introducing himself at a conference full of fellow glaciologists?

It’s not hard, is it? It’s quite obvious that he chooses to phrase and deliver the same information differently according to his audience — if he actually wants to be understood, of course.

And why wouldn’t he?

Glaciology in action (image courtesy of Polargeo, via Wikimedia Commons)

Part of having a “rich, vibrant vocabulary” is having the ability to select from it what is most appropriate for a particular context and audience. It’s rare for any sane adult to just let random words flow freely from his/her mouth and hope somebody within earshot manages to divine some meaning (including, but not limited to, that meaning which the speaker actually intended to express).

By summarily rejecting the suggestions in the original blog post, this person dismisses as unreasonable and undesirable a suggestion which is actually very sensible: if we agree that speakers usually intend their audiences to correctly construe the messages they are trying to express, and if we agree that speakers can usually exercise some control over how these messages are communicated in order to achieve this goal, then it is clearly both reasonable and desirable for a speaker to make some effort to be self-aware when using language with an audience whose linguistic repertoire may not be the same as theirs.

Is this really a case of “some imagined ELF ideal”?

First of all, situations in which interlocutors’ linguistic repertoires are not wholly identical are certainly not “imagined”. Not by any stretch. They’re the norm. My language is not your language. How can any two people have precisely the same range of language when no two people have precisely the same range of linguistic experience? (Even conjoined twins couldn’t claim this.) Communities of practice get by, for the most part, by relying on a certain amount of shared background/world/cultural/linguistic knowledge to help them make shortcuts when communicating, but there are always some gaps and bumps in the knowledge we assume others to have.

Secondly, in this particular case, the blog post which inspired this exchange of views was focusing on ELF. And this is certainly the most common use of English in the world today. (This has interesting implications for the concept of “communities of practice” which I mention above. Some researchers at Roskilde University in Denmark have been studying this.) But speakers’ adapting their use of language to suit the audience and purpose they’re focusing on is not unique to the use of ELF. Look at the first example above, of my glaciologist friend trying to explain what he does to someone who doesn’t know anything about his field. This is not about being “reductive”; it’s about being selective.

And thirdly, is it really so “idealistic” to hope that people would make an effort to understand and be understood? Perhaps it is idealistic to assume that this would always take place without any effort, but it is quite realistic to assume that people usually want the communication they’re involved in to be successful.

Otherwise, why bother to speak at all?


About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. Pingback: Being Understood or Nothingness | ELT Reflections

  2. I like your point about “…relying on a certain amount of shared background/world/cultural/linguistic knowledge to help them make shortcuts when communicating…”. If that could be depended on in a standardized way, then a new invented “word” could represent a page. It would be interesting to increase the density of information contained in a single word by standardizing it. Some clichés are almost that way but they don’t seem to last very long before becoming dead metaphors or dead allusions. “Proving oneself guilty by one’s emotional reaction” is contained in the quotation “The play’s the thing.” (Hamlet: Act 2, Scene 2). I heard that but I never knew what it meant. If there were a way to standardize meaning it could be a word: Ha2. It’s a shame that a thought could take a page to capture when it could be a word if it were coined and standardized.

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