Michael Swan, co-author of the new three-level Oxford English Grammar Course, introduces his upcoming talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton, entitled ‘Where grammar and reading meet’, with this article about why written English can be so hard to understand.
Why do people have difficulty understanding written texts?
There are various possible reasons.
For example, they don’t know the language.
Agresti, kunsti sifnit, votrin khaleddanou kaltrop. Vjux snjor!
Or they do know the language, but it’s gibberish.
Garlic and sapphires in the mud
clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
sings below inveterate scars
appeasing long-forgotten wars.
(Eliot, Four Quartets)
Or it may not be gibberish, but it’s outside their conceptual comfort zone.
The resulting structure will then be merged with a null declarative complementiser,
and BE will ultimately be spelled out as the third-person-plural present-tense form ‘are’.
As required, all uninterpretable features have been deleted, so only the interpretable
features are seen by the semantic component.
None of these problems, however, are really our concern as language teachers. What does concern us is another kind of difficulty. Written English can put quite special grammatical obstacles in the way of a foreign reader, so that sentences which are relatively unproblematic for us may be surprisingly hard for our students to decode.
Money makes money, and the money money makes makes money.
The instructions for the Pin Ball Plinko game Bill Francis has been given say it can
be played by ‘one person or two or an infinite number of people take it in turns’.
(From a note in New Scientist)
What’s the problem? Quite simply, it’s to do with embedding. The main sentence has other material embedded in it, and this has two effects.
1. The subject and verb are separated:
the money [money makes] makes money.
the instructions for the Pin Ball Plinko game [Bill … given] say
2. Words which don’t seem to belong together are put side by side:
money moneymakes makes
game Billgiven say
Both of these sentences have embedded relative clauses, and in both of them the relative pronoun (that) has been dropped – something that doesn’t happen in most of our students’ languages. If the relative pronoun is there, the embedding is signalled, and a fluent reader will probably grasp the sentence flow without having to think about it.
and the money [that money makes] makes money.
The instructions for the Pin Ball Plinko game [that Bill Francis has been given]
say it can be played.
If the structural signals are absent, a fluent native reader can still supply them unconsciously: he/she is used to embedding in written language, and knows that there is a relative clause even if that has been dropped. For the less fluent native or non-native reader, however, sentences with heavy embedding may already be quite problematic; if relative pronouns and other structural markers are not there, reading can become very difficult indeed.
Michael will be talking about all this at the 2011 IATEFL Conference in Brighton.