Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Failure to communicate?

Failure to communicate - The Boston Globe

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This article on the poor writing skills of younger people these days is subtitled " The inability of many students to write clear, cogent sentences has costly implications for the digital age." Unfortunately, it really doesn't go into what those costs are. It focuses on the shortage of English teachers and the lack of instruction in writing in our schools. I wish it had focused more on what it means that "Johnny can't write." Does the inability to write a coherent English sentence mean that Johnny can't communicate?

There's so much more to communication than grammar skills and paragraph construction. Good communication also involves listening, organizing, critical thinking, expressive abilities, and maybe even empathy. The mechanics of grammar and writing are the tools we use to put all of those skills and qualities together. Unfortunately we don't do any better with teaching thinking or listening than we do with grammar.

Two college students are sitting at a nearby table in the coffee shop where I'm writing this. One is working on one last paper he needs to hand in. The other offers to help edit. She reminds him how important it is to have correct grammar. I jump into the conversation, explaining that I'm trying to write about "why Johnny can't write" and what this means. They enthusiastically inform me about how reliance on spellcheckers and the MS grammar checker prevents them from learning to write and how they are were not taught to think critically in high school. They both tell me that the ability to communicate clearly and think critically is essential for a functioning democracy. Wow! I couldn't have expressed it better myself.

They are about to leave. The young woman offers me her copy of Lives on the Boundary by Mike Rose. It's a classic on education and the underprepared, focusing on those who have trouble reading and writing in our schools and workplaces. I'm looking forward to reading it.

The two students have left. There's only one other customer in the place. He's reading a newspaper: the printed kind. I have a lot more reading and thinking to do before I will be truly able to write thoughtfully about the state of literacy and its implications for then workplace.

Stay tuned.

Friday, May 7, 2010

English is impossible or is it translation that is impossible?

This isn't exactly a technical writing issue unless you're writing about striped bass. However, I've meant to blog about it for awhile anyway. Here in the Merrimack Valley, the word schoolie refers to young, small, striped bass. It can also mean young fish in general. In the rest of the world, or so I thought, schoolie apparently means students in their last year of school (school leavers) or students in general.

I first discovered that schoolies doesn't necessarily mean fish when I was trying to find an article about a UMass scientist who tagged schoolies in Plum Island Sound a couple of years back. Naturally I googled schoolies. All the hits on the first page referred to Australian students -- not a single reference to stripers. Once I did find the research I was looking for, I got to wondering how on earth that research could ever be translated either by google translate or even by human technical translators. I imagine there are scientists in China wondering why on earth somebody in Massachusetts is tagging Australian students and for that matter what Australian students are doing in Plum Island Sound. OK, so context counts for a lot.

My point is that much translation does not take context into account. It's not just English either. I remember reading a French language web site about snowy owls (they nest in Quebec) that said: "Les juvéniles sont uniformément bruns, avec des restes de duvet blanc éparpillés." Google translated that as "The youthful ones are uniformly brown, with scattered remainders of white sleeping bag." Though I had fun fun picturing baby owls in sleeping bags up there in the frozen north of Quebec, I was pretty sure duvet meant down not sleeping bag. Then again we're back to the impossibility of English because down can mean a direction or fluffy feathers or a rolling upland. That's even leaving out football and depression. :-)

Back to schoolies in my digressive rambling style of today. My original thought was that schoolies as fish must be unique to the Merrimack Valley. Then I saw references to them all along the east coast of the US. OK, must be an east coast term. Then I got really confused when I found this UK news article from the Thurrock Gazette, which refers to fish. Evidently the difference is not geographic. The first dictionary that comes up when I try schoolie definition in google is Lo, and behold, the first meaning they list is young fish.

English is an impossible language in which to communicate, let alone translate. So, when writing about striped bass, I will continue to use the word schoolies. And I will write a more coherent entry about the pitfalls of context some other time.