P is for Passive

18 07 2010

Obama: male or female?

In a recent article in the Washington Post, columnist Kathleen Parker adduces evidence from President Obama’s speech on the Gulf of Mexico oil-well blow-out to suggest that his speaking style is more female than male. Apparently Obama’s speech “featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century.” The use of the passive voice is, supposedly, a characteristic of female speech – the sort of gender myth that drives Deborah Cameron crazy (see my previous post G is for Gender).

In refuting Parker’s cod-linguistics, the Atlantic Wire quotes University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman, who “finds that Obama’s speech was only 11.1 percent passive, and that Bush used more passive voice anyway. Liberman finds that Bush’s Katrina speech was 17.6 percent passive”.

In any case, he adds, “there isn’t the slightest evidence that passive-voice constructions are ‘feminine’… The ‘passive is girly’ prejudice seems to be purely due to the connotations of (other senses of) the term passive.”

Newspaper columnists are not alone in misrepresenting the significance of the passive. Student grammars are also at fault. A trainee of mine recently brought to my attention the following explanation of the use of the passive in a reputable grammar reference text:

Active and passive sentences often have similar meanings, but a different focus.

Active sentences focus on the agent (the person or thing doing the action). Millions of people read the magazine. (The focus is on the people.)

Passive sentences focus on the object (the person or thing receiving the action).

The magazine is read by millions of people. (The focus is on the magazine.)

Assuming that by ‘focus’ is meant ‘the important information’, this is so wrong as to be the exact opposite of the case, and is a good example of what happens when you try to fabricate rules out of de-contextualised examples. So, let’s create a plausible context:

The National Geographic is an American institution. The magazine is read by millions of people.

In the second sentence, the magazine refers back to a previously mentioned topic (The National Geographic). In other words, it is “given information” (the definite article indicates as much, even in the absence of the context). The new information is everything that follows (is read by millions of people), and conforms to the convention in English (and in many other languages) that new information is placed towards the end of the sentence – what is called “the end-weight principle”.  The rule given in the grammar book – that “active sentences focus on the agent” and “passive sentences focus on the object” – wrongly implies that the so-called focus of a sentence is its subject. The focus (if by focus we mean ‘the important information’) is in fact everything that is not the subject, i.e. everything that follows the main verb. Thus, the passive is one of several devices available to move new information to the end of the sentence, even when that new information is the agent of the verb. Compare the following two ‘mini-texts’:

  1. Ludwig von Beethoven was a German composer. He composed the Pastoral Symphony.
  2. The Pastoral Symphony is a beautiful work. It was composed by Ludwig von Beethoven.

    Beethoven: active or passive?

In the second sentence of Text 2, a passive structure is enlisted simply to push the new information to the end of the sentence in order to ‘focus’ on it. (The end-weighted matter, incidentally, also receives the most stress when spoken – a further indication of its ‘focal’ value). Compare Text 2 above with the less convincing – albeit grammatically well-formed – alternative:

2a. The Pastoral Symphony is a beautiful work. Ludwig von Beethoven composed it.

Curiously, the same point came up in a teaching practice class this week. In her reflections on a lesson, a teacher recounted the following:

On the board I wrote:

In the 1880’s, the telephone was invented.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

The telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell.

I asked students, “What is the focus of each sentence?” They did fine on the first two, but answered, “by Alexander Graham Bell,” for the third.   At this point, I said well actually the focus is on the telephone.   The meaning of the structure is to place emphasis on the noun (subject) that fronts the sentence.  The students not knowing this, couldn’t make sense of the concept check question.

In fact, as I pointed out to the teacher, the students were right!

E is for Ecology

14 02 2010

… or Ecological Linguistics, or even Ecolinguistics. There’s no entry for any of these in An A-Z of ELT, but I think there ought to be. (There are entries for the related concepts affordance and emergence, however).

Why ecology? Since its first application to linguistics, two decades ago, the ecological perspective has offered an alternative to the somewhat mechanistic and de-contextualised ‘computing’ metaphor for language learning, with its inputs, outputs and feedback. The ecological perspective situates language and language learning, not in the head, but in its social and cultural contexts – the linguistic ecosystem, if you like.  Just as organisms adapt to their environments, and in so doing shape their environments, so to do speakers use language both to integrate into, and to influence, their discourse communities.  Through this reciprocal process of interaction and mutual adaptation, the linguistic system (both the individual’s and the community’s) evolves.

This, at least, is the view propounded in a number of recent publications, including Leo van Lier’s The Ecology and Semiotics of Language Learning (2004) and Larsen-Freeman and Cameron’s Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics (2008).

Van Lier, for example, identifies the following concepts that underpin an ecological approach to language and language learning:

1. Relations: “If we see language as a system of relations, rather than a collection of objects, a number of consequences follow in terms of… how we conceptualize learning” (p. 5) e.g. that it involves acquiring the capacity to relate more effectively to people in the world.

2. Context: Ecological linguistics (EL) “regards context as not just something that surrounds language, but that in fact defines language, while at the same time being defined by it” (ibid.).

3. Patterns, systems: “EL sees language as patterns of patterns, and systems of systems” (ibid.)

4. Emergence: “EL regards language learning not as gradual, linear acquisition, but as emergence. Emergence happens when relatively simple elements combine together to form a higher-order system” (ibid.)

5. Diversity:  “In biology, diversity is essential in an ecosystem” (p. 7) Van Lier argues for “the value of having different learners and teachers in a class (or school)” and that the target language should not be presented as “one monolithic standardized code, but a collection of dialects, genres and registers” (ibid.)

6. Activity: Language is activity, and emerges out of activity: “We visualize a community of practice in which learners go about the business of learning by carrying out activities of various kinds, working together, side by side, or on their own” (p. 8 )

Van Lier uses, as an analogy, the self-organizing nature of learning how to play a game:

How do kids learn the rules of playing soccer?  Certainly not by being lectured on them for several years.  They learn by participating in certain practices.  Two pivotal practices in this respect are a) playing the game; and b) participating in stories and comments about the game perhaps combined with watching games.  When they start playing, children tend to run after the ball in a single swarm, kicking it around in seemingly random directions.  Then at some point a ‘feel for the game’  emerges.  The game reorganises itself (not for all players at once, but for some) from ‘running after the ball where ever it rolls’ to ‘moving the ball around collaboratively in strategic ways.’  At that point the rules of the game become learnable, in an interaction between bottom-up discovery, and top-down instruction, within the social context of playing the game (p.81).

Arguably this analogy applies as much to language learning as it does to soccer. (In fact, playing games using language may be the best of both worlds).  In short, an ecological perspective argues that learning involves “aligning one’s resources with situational demands and shaping the environment to match the language resources one brings. …  In sum, acquisition is social practice” (Canagarajah, 2007).

This is all very well – in the kinds of non-classroom situations in which becoming socialized is a strong motivating factor. But how do you turn the classroom into an eco-system where “relating in a second language” matters? How, in short, do you create the conditions where language emerges in the way that football emerges in the playground?