Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.

Edward Thomas

Cambridge has finally thawed. When the wind blows now it does not bring ice and perishing cold. It might blow you off your bicycle, but you will be warm enough.

And so the birds are nesting. In the garden at OISE Cambridge we have nesting pair of long-tailed tits. The nest is neat and small, with a suitably tiny aperture, and an elongated for to accommodate the birds’ absurd tails.

The tits are on to something. Leaving aside for a moment whether the tail can be said to be efficient or not, an efficient form will ultimately follow function in some way. With language, for instance, the brain will not let you learn what is not relevant to you. The language you have at your command will, in the end, accurately map the use you have for it. You will not spend resources which your brain does not think necessary.

This partly explains the plateau – the tendency of language learners to stop learning at a given level of competence, suitable to their needs. It also explains why some learners can make sudden dramatic progress, if their needs change. If all your meetings and telephone calls are, overnight, in English, with native speakers, you will sweat profusely for a few months, and then settle at a new, much higher, but still adaptive, level.

Creating that need in the classroom is part of the expertise of teachers – forcing students not to be content with what they can currently accomplish. But it is a tricky business. Humans are easily scared. They resist. Their brains are out of their conscious control. Half the time they’re looking out of the window, thinking about something completely different (which is of course another well-worn survival technique), such as why a long-tailed tit wants such a long tail in the first place.

Stage of Fools

Last week I taught my students everything they need to know about phrasal verbs. Here is the gist of it:

…a small subset of 20 lexical verbs combines with eight adverbial particles (160 combinations) to account for more than one half of the 518,923 phrasal verb occurrences identified in the megacorpus. A more specific analysis indicates that only 25 phrasal verbs account for nearly one-third of all phrasal-verb occurrences in the British National Corpus, and 100 phrasal verbs account for more than one half of all such items. Subsequent semantic analyses show that these 100 high-frequency phrasal verb forms have potentially 559 variant meaning senses.

Gardner and Davies

That’s it, in a nutshell. 20 lexical verbs (set, get, be, put, pick, point etc.) and 8 particles (off, on, up etc.) are all you need, pretty much, to speak English (the purist might want to add a few pronouns and perhaps a few nouns, but if you have mastered the art of pointing with your finger (in shops, at menus etc.) you probably don’t need to bother much with nouns either).

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Of course, the sting is in the tail. That handful of phrasal verbs generates a vast array of meanings and idioms. Today in class we found ourselves being drawn into the vortex of put off, which, at a lowly 82 on the list of most frequently used phrasal verbs, resolves into a fragrant soup of polysemy on even cursory inspection (put off a meeting, put you off your dinner, put me off my stroke; and so on); not long before that we had steered deftly around the reef of set up (no.3 on the most frequent phrasal verbs list), during which I made the mistake of mentioning that set has more definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary than any other headword, and yet we rarely teach it.

When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools, says old King Lear. So must our students feel, sometimes, when we lift the lid of the chaos of language for them.

Ides of March

Soothsayer: Beware the Ides of March
Caesar: He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.

Today is the Ides of March, by reputation a fateful day.


While I am not particuoarly concerned about the Ides of March this year (it is sunny; my students are pleasant enough, I get to knock off a bit early etc.), I do have reason to be worried that this year is not going to be a good one for me. A Chinese soothsayer of my acquaintance (all right, a Chinese student of my acquaintance) informed me a month or so ago that this year being my Chinese animal year, I stand to suffer more than my fair share of slings and arrows. Even though I’m not Chinese.

I put no store in it, needless to say, but I do find myself collecting instances of good fortune in order to refute my soothsayer’s belief system when I next see her. Which would argue if nothing else that my own irrational belief system is in good working order. We like prognosticates. Bioluminescence on the Tasman Sea warns of climate change; cows lying down speak of the weather; a grumbling in our bones tells us what sort of morning we can expect if we bother to get out of bed. Prognosticates, then: some rational, some irrational, all answering to our need to know what the coming weeks and years will bring.

So too with an English course. An English course can start auspiciously or inauspiciously (jet-lagged students underperforming on entry-tests, for instance); early student indicators will set our benchmarks and anchor points for a given student, and presumably the same thing happens in reverse: it is hard to come back from bewildering a student in the first five minutes. If we could only wait and see, and not feel the need to draw a full conclusion from a sliver of evidence, life would be, if nothing else, a bit more balanced, and there would be no reason to fear the Ides of March, or the year of the Cock.

Madonnas and Miracles

Yesterday, for one very good reason or another, my mid-morning student and I found occasion to pop over to the Fitzwilliam Museum for a spot of intensive culture, with a focus on the somewhat niche language for linear perspective (orthogonals, vanishing point, volumetric, and so on). 

Leaving aside the irrelevance that it was sparkling early-spring day, and a crying shame to be sitting in a classroom, we made a profitable trip. We had a look at the gallery of Italian art, and got about as far as the Titian and Veronese; then we wound around to the new exhibition they have on, Madonnas and Miracles, and pogoed rapidly but happily through that. To repeat, all very intensive and instructive.

We had spent a portion of the first lesson looking at a video on Khan Academy about Brunelleschi’s invention of linear perspective, and the exhibition provided a series of counter-examples to those we found in the permanent collection: any number of meditative devotional panels, their madonnas and children floating in abstract volumes of dark space, very unlike the coordinate location system of linear perspective. And very appropriate too, for icon-like works designed for private contemplation.

The exhibition focusses on religious imagery in domestic spaces, and comprises not just works of high culture (Filippo Lippi, workshop of Botticelli, etc.), but a good deal of demotic or low-grade devotional art, whether sculpture, illumination, painting, drawing or print. More of historical-sociological interest, then, than strictly aesthetic appeal.




Crowd Control

If a crowd is heading one way down a street, what percentage of it needs to change direction before the whole crowd changes direction?

The answer is surprisingly precise: 6%. If 6% of people in a crowd change direction, the whole crowd changes direction.

And this is not just true of people. If 6% of a shoal of fish changes direction, so does the whole shoal; if 6% of a flock of starlings changes direction, so does the whole flock. And so on.

Crowd behaviour works to surprisingly simple rules. The quickfire evolutions of those starlings, in which they seem to change direction as though possessed of a single will, are governed by a very rudimentary algorithm, the inputs to which are merely the behaviour of the bird in front and each of the two birds to the side. No one starling is deciding anything, and no one starling is doing more than watching the starlings to the left, right, and in front of it.

I know how they feel. One of the great dangers of any group activity is group-think, and while this does not seriously affect a group of four, there is, inevitably, a move to consensus, particularly when groups are newly formed. In terms of total body-mass, 6% of a group of four is roughly two students’ brains. Enough to move the group in a given direction.

One of the hardest skills in any language, native or otherwise, is to say to a person you do not know very well, I do not understand, or I do not agree or quite simply I think you are wrong. We are social animals, and we tend to want to converge. But when a student does get the bit between his or her teeth, and stand up in defiance of the (almost always very genial) group opinion, then things get interesting.

Power Pointy

“Before there were presentations, there were conversations, which were a little like presentations but used fewer bullet points, and no one had to dim the lights.”

Ian Parker writing in The New Yorker (2001)

I am well-aware that I’m not the only declared enemy of PowerPoint™ and its progeny (I’m not a huge fan of the presentation, either, but we might save that for another post). I sometimes point my students towards a Guardian article pointing out the cognitive costs of the ubiquitous software, especially as used in academic contexts, and laying out (not in bullet points) how it has infected our thinking.

The PowerPoint presentation evolved as a tool for use within large corporations, as a way of making internal pitches. Departments inevitably compete for resources, and the silo-nature of very large entities dictated that any pitch should include a brief ‘presentation’ of key ideas and concepts, since no one department properly understood the work of any other. The presentation is therefore modelled on the advertising or sales pitch, and tries to highlight a few key flashpoints which might whet the appetite of a potential ‘customer’. It is a way of packaging and selling ideas.

Quite incapable, then, you would think, of handling the cognitive load of, say, a lecture in philosophy. Where once the key units of thought might have been the proposition and the paragraph, the key syntactic units of the PowerPoint presentation are the bullet-point list and the slide – the former a series of radically unconnected propositions the complexity of whose interconnections is implied, at best, and the latter an advertising hoarding rather than a parcel of thought.


Down with Bullet Points: Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law – Rembrandt

The article notes with guarded approval, however, Steve Jobs’ approach to the presentation. Jobs used only visuals – pictures, short videos – not words, in his keynotes. I am pleased to say that encourage my students to make similar use of visuals in their Thursday presentations. For different reasons, however: the temptation to read whatever it is you have put on the slide is overwhelming for a language student. Much better to generate or recall language from a simple visual prompt.

I suppose it is inevitable that new technologies will alter the way our minds work and handle information, over time. When print culture emerged in the sixteenth century there were fears that knowledge would be vulgarised, and indeed the emergence of widespread literacy was considered a danger to memory and hence to rhetoric and to thought itself in the classical world. It does not follow, however, that a new technology is beneficial and interesting, merely because other technologies at other times have been beneficial and interesting. In the words of Jeremy Corbyn (not a natural friend, I would think, of the PowerPoint presentation), there was nothing wrong with the Luddites.


I promised a post last week on the pleasures and benefits of incomprehension, which, my students will probably attest, is what I most like to teach. And in doing so, I stand upon firm pedagogical ground: even simplistic teaching methods (and mine is anything but) recognise the cognitive and psychological benefits of a little frustration. Moving from incomprehension to comprehension is, in a sense, the whole point of language-learning.

But some students, unaccountably, do not like it, which is strange when you consider that some of the most interesting areas of human endeavour – quantum physics, serial music, post-structuralist philosophy, the poetry of John Donne and the presidency of Donald Trump  – are fundamentally rooted in incomprehension. To get anywhere with them takes brain-work, and lots of it, and even then, in the words of one quantum physicist, you never really understand quantum mechanics (or serial music or post-structuralist philosophy etc. etc.) you just get used to it.

So it is with languages. A second or third language will always be full of blind spots. There is no such thing as ‘mastery’. Certain structures will persist in seeming illogical, alien, foreign. You never really profoundly understand them: you just memorise examples, get used to them, and finally learn when and how to deploy them. You might never fully comprehend inversion after negative adverbials, but you might, like a Turing machine, learn accurately, to use it, in a stimulus-response sort of fashion, like an automaton.

This, anyway, is what I like to tell my students. Do not fret over your incomprehension, but embrace it. Whichever scrap of language you truly do not understand, cannot comprehend, find elusive, find to lie forever beyond your grasp; that scrap is no longer mapped to your mother tongue, but is floating free, a vision of honest-to-god actual English you see before you. Congratulations.