A is for Accuracy

31 05 2015
from The Visual Thesaurus

from The Visual Thesaurus http://www.visualthesaurus.com/

Accuracy and fluency: it used to be the case that, of these two constructs, fluency was the one that was the most elusive and contentious – difficult to define, difficult to test, and only rarely achieved by classroom learners.

It’s true that fluency has been defined in many different, sometimes even contradictory ways, and that we are still no nearer to understanding how to measure it, or under what conditions it is optimally realized. See, for example F is for Fluency.

But I’m increasingly coming to the view that, of the two constructs, it is accuracy that is really the more slippery. I’m even wondering if it’s not a concept that has reached its sell-by date, and should be quietly, but forcefully, put down.

Look at these definitions of accuracy, for example:

  • “….clear, articulate, grammatically and phonologically correct” (Brown 1994: 254)
  • “…getting the language right” (Ur 1991: 103)
  • “…the extent to which a learner’s use of the second language conforms to the rules of the language” (Thornbury 2006: 2)

Correct? Right? Conforms to the rules? What could these highly normative criteria possibly mean? Even before English ‘escaped’ from the proprietorial clutches of its native speakers, by whose standards are correctness or rightness or conformity to be judged?

at the weekend

“[preposition] the weekend” from The Corpus of Global Web-based English CLICK TO ENLARGE

Take my own variety of English for example: I was brought up to say ‘in the weekend’. I found it very odd, therefore, that the coursebooks I was using when I started teaching insisted on ‘at the weekend’. And then, of course, there were all those speakers who preferred ‘on the weekend’. It was only by consulting the Corpus of Global Web-based English (Davies 2013) that I was able to confirm that, in fact, of all the ‘preposition + the weekend’ combos, ‘in the weekend’ is significantly frequent only in New Zealand, while ‘on the weekend’ is preferred in Australia. OK, fine: as teachers we are sensitive to the existence of different varieties. But if a learner says (or writes): ‘In the weekend we had a barby’, do I correct it?

Moreover, given the considerable differences between spoken and written grammar, and given the inevitability, even by proficient speakers, of such ‘deviations’ from the norm as false starts, grammatical blends, and other dysfluencies –  what are the ‘rules’ by which a speaker’s accuracy should be judged?

In fact, even the distinction between written and spoken seems to have been eroded by online communication. Here, for example, are some extracts from an exchange from an online discussion about a football match. Ignoring typos, which ‘deviations’ from standard English might be attributed to the speaker’s specific variety?

>I don’t care about the goal that wasn’t given; I care about how bad we played particularly when under pressure. Base on the performance from last three games we will be hammered when we play a “proper” decent side!! People think we are lucky to aviod Spain and get Italy but lets not forget the Italian draw Spain so they are no pushovers.

> yes we was lucky, but all teams get lucky sometimes. thats football, you cant plan a tactic for good or bad luck.

> Devic was unlucky to not have the goal allowed and the official on the line needs to get himself down to specsavers but as Devic was offside the goal should not of counted anyway. Anyway I pretty fed up with all the in fighting on here so I am not bothering to much with these blogs for the foreseeable future.

> also on sunday night i will be having an italian pizza i think it will suit the mood quite nicely

I think that the point is here that nit-picking about ‘should not of’ and ‘base on’ is irrelevant. More interestingly, it’s virtually impossible to tell if the deviations from the norm (e.g. ‘the Italian draw Spain’;’ we was lucky’; ‘I pretty fed up’…) owe to a regional or social variety, or to a non-native one. The fact is, that, in the context, these differences are immaterial, and the speakers’ choices are entirely appropriate, hence assessments of accuracy seem unwarranted, even patrician.

Unless, of course, those assessments are made by the speakers themselves. Which one does. Following the last comment, one of the commenters turns on the writer (who calls himself Titus), and complains:

>Titus. Please, please, please go back to school. Have you never heard of punctuation? What about capital letters? How about a dictionary? Sentences? Grammar?

It’s as if Titus is being excluded from membership of the ‘club’, his non-standard English being the pretext. To which Titus responds, with some justification:

> didnt know this was an english class? i am very intelligent and do not need to perform like its a spelling b on here

Which is tantamount to saying: accuracy has to be judged in terms of its appropriacy in context.

All of this has compelled me to revise my definition of accuracy accordingly. Here’s an attempt:

Accuracy is the extent to which a speaker/writer’s lexical and grammatical choices are unremarkable according to the norms of the (immediate) discourse community.

Thanks to corpora, these norms can be more easily identified (as in my ‘in the weekend’). A corpus of ‘football blog comment speak’ would no doubt throw up many instances of ‘we was lucky’ and ‘should of won’. ‘Unremarkable’ captures the probabilistic nature of language usage – that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, only degrees of departure from the norm. The greater the departure, the more ‘marked’.

The problem is, of course, in defining the discourse community. Consider these two signs, snapped in Japan last week. To which discourse community, if any, is the English part of each sign directed? Assuming a discourse community, and given its membership, are these signs ‘remarkable’? That is to say, are they inaccurate?

keep off from herewe have a maintenance


Brown, H.D. (1994) Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Davies, M. (2013) Corpus of Global Web-Based English: 1.9 billion words from speakers in 20 countries. Available online at http://corpus.byu.edu/glowbe/.

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A – Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan.

Ur, P. (1991) A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

L is for Language

31 03 2013

fayruzAt Easter it’s our custom (more out of nostalgia than out of any sense of religiosity, it has to be said) to listen to the Lebanese singer Fayrouz singing traditional Easter songs from that region.

Here’s a taster:


What language is she singing in, though?

Reading the comments thread on the YouTube site is revealing:

Fayrouz comments 01Fayrouz comment 02Fayrouz comment 03Fayrouz comment 04

In a new book, Suresh Canagarajah (2013) reminds us that this blending, mixing and meshing of languages, rather than being the exception, is the norm. Quoting Pattanayak (1984), he cites the example of south Asia, to the effect that, ‘if one draws a straight line between Kashmir and Kanyakumari and marks, say, every five or ten miles, then one will find that there is no break in communication between any two consecutive points.’ That is to say, a message passed down the line would reach its destination, irrespective of all the languages it traverses.

Nor is this linguistic intermingling and hybridization a purely Asian or Middle Eastern phenomenon. ‘All spaces are contact zones’ says Canagarajah (2013: 26), a view echoed in a recent article by Sewell (2013: 6):

It is important to appreciate that all language use – among whatever combination or grouping of native and non-native speakers – is situated, variable, and subject to hybridizing influences.

This has never been more true than now, where immigration, tourism, and globalization, among other influences, coerce communication between speakers of different languages, with all the blendings, fusions, pidgins and macaronics that result. However much the ‘language police’ struggle to enforce the integrity of languages like (to choose a local example) Catalan, their efforts are foredoomed.

It’s not just that languages vary from region to region; they vary from person to person – and even within one person. As Labov (1969, 2003: 234) long ago pointed out:  ‘One of the fundamental principles of sociolinguistic investigation might simply be stated as: There are no single-style speakers. By this we mean that every speaker will show some variation in phonological and syntactic rules according to the immediate context in which he is speaking.’

The fact of the matter is that none of us speaks the same language. Nor even a language. As Pennycook (2012: 98) argues,  ‘None of us speaks “a language” as if this were an undifferentiated whole. We do not learn languages as if these were discrete listings of syntax and lexicon (despite what years of schooling and tests may try to tell us). Rather, we learn how to do certain things with words, and with varying success.’

And, from a psycholinguistic view, too, as Block (2003: 39) argues, all is flux:

Linguistic competence is not stored in the mind in neat compartments with clear boundaries; rather, a more appropriate image is that of a mass with no clear divisions among parts.  Nor is linguistic competence in different languages stable over time as there is constant bleeding between and among languages as well as additions and losses in terms of repertoires.

Thus, the idea that we are primed to speak a preordained language from birth has given way to the ‘complex systems’ view that language acquisition is the ‘soft assembly’ of meaning-making resources, or what Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008: 17) call ‘a “statistical ensemble” of interacting elements… constantly changing’.  They add that ‘learning is not the taking in of linguistic forms by learners, but the constant adaptation of their linguistic resources in the service of meaning-making in response to the affordances that emerge in the communicative situation, which is, in turn, affected by the learners’ adaptability’ (2008: 135).

By these accounts, is it any longer valid to talk about ‘a language’ or ‘languages’ (countable) as opposed to simply ‘language’ (uncountable)? Canagarajah (2013: 6) thinks not:

“Languages” are always in contact with and mutually influence each other. From this perspective, the separation of languages with different labels needs to be problematized. Labelling is an ideological act of demarcating certain codes in relation to certain identities and interests.

So, to fence a language off and give it a name (Aramaic, Chaldean, Assyrian, Syrian, and so on) is less a linguistic decision than a political one, although, as Bourdieu (1992: 45) warns, linguists are often complicit:

To speak of the language, without further specification, as linguists do, is tacitly to accept the official definition of the official language of a political unit. This language is the one which, within the territorial limits of that unit, imposes itself on the whole population as the only legitimate language.

And, in order to legitimate it, squadrons of lexicographers and grammarians are recruited, not only to describe and prescribe the language, but to circumscribe it. But where do you set the limits? Where does one language end and another begin?  In a recent review of a history of the Oxford English Dictionary (Hitchings, 2013: 7), the reviewer notes that

When [the dictionary’s editor, James Murray] asked members of the Philological Society, ‘At which Englishman’s speech does English terminate?’, he drew criticism for his unwillingness to provide an exact answer. One reason for doing so was his awareness that the British Empire was expanding. Murray and his paymasters differed on the question of how this should be recognised.

The same question might well be asked of any so-called language. At which Spaniard’s speech does Spanish terminate? At which Croatian’s speech does Croatian terminate? And so on.

So, if there are no languages, only language, what is it that we teach? Or, as Pennycook (2010: 132) puts it, ‘The question to ask is what language education might look like if we no longer posited the existence of separate languages.’

The short answer, perhaps, is that we would facilitate a kind of creative DIY approach – semiotic bricolage, perhaps – by means of which learners would become resourceful language users, cutting and pasting from the heteroglossic landscape to meet both their short-term and their long-term goals. Maybe it also means that we can dispense with the need to ‘teach the grammar’ of the language: if the language does not have a fixed shape, neither does the grammar that infuses it.

Or, as Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008: 198-9) sum it up:

Language as a separate entity is a normative fiction…; it only exists in the fluxes of language use in a given speech community. For the language classroom this implies that what has previously been taken as the goal of learning, the “target language”, ceases to exist in any simple form…. Inside the language classroom, the dynamics of language-using by teachers and students leads to the emergence of individual learners’ growing language resources and of classroom dialects, and, beyond the classroom, to the emergence of lingua franca varieties.

No longer are we Teachers of English as a Foreign Language. Rather, Teachers of Language as a Semiotic Resource, perhaps.


Block, D. (2003) The Social Turn in Second Language Acquisition, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Canagarajah, S. (2013) Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and cosmopolitan relations, London: Routledge.

Hitchings, H. (2013) ‘At which Englishman’s speech does English terminate?’, a review of Ogilvie, S. (2012) Words of the World: A global history of the ‘Oxford English Dictionary,’ Cambridge, in London Review of Books, 7 March 2013.

Labov, W. 1969. ‘Some sociolinguistic principles’. Reprinted in Paulston, C.B., & Tucker, G.R. (eds.) (2003) Sociolinguistics: The Essential Readings. Oxford: Blackwell.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pennycook,  A. (2010) Language as Local Practice, London: Routledge.

Pennycook, A. (2012) Language and Mobility: Unexpected Places, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Sewell, A (2013) ‘English as a lingua franca: ontology and ideology’, ELT Journal, 67/1.

V is for Variability

17 07 2011

“O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.”

(Romeo & Juliet)

I have Shakespeare on the brain at the moment, having splashed out on tickets for three of the five shows that the Royal Shakespeare Company is putting on in New York this summer.

And, just by chance, I came across a fascinating book on Shakespeare’s grammar, first published in 1870, which details not only the differences between Elizabethan and modern grammar, but also documents – even celebrates – the enormous variability in the former. As the author, E.A. Abbott notes, in Elizabethan English, at least on a superficial view, “any irregularities whatever, whether in the formation of words or in the combination of words into sentences, are allowable” (Abbott,  1870, 1966, p. 5).

He proceeds to itemise some of the inconsistencies of Shakespeare’s grammar: “Every variety of apparent grammatical inaccuracy meets us. He for him, him for he; spoke and took, for spoken and taken; plural nominatives with singular verbs;  relatives omitted where they are now considered necessary; … double negatives; double comparatives (‘more better,’ &c.) and superlatives; … and lastly, some verbs apparently with two nominatives, and others without any nominative at all” (p. 6).

As examples of how this variability manifests itself even within the same sentence, consider the following:

None are so surely caught when they are catch’d  (Love‘s Labour Lost)

Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers? Where are thy children? (Richard III)

If thou beest not immortal, look about you (Julius Caesar)

I never loved you much; but I ha’ prais’d ye (Anthony and Cleopatra)

Makes both my body pine and soul to languish (Pericles)

Is there not wars? Is there not employment? (2 Henry IV)

Part of the RSC's summer season in NYC

Of course, we can attribute a lot of Shakespeare’s ‘errors’ to the requirements of prosody or to the negligence of typesetters. But many more may be due to what Abbott calls “the unfixed nature of the language”: “It must be remembered that the Elizabethan was a transitional period in the history of the English language” (p. 6). Hence the seemingly free variation between is and be, between thou forms and you forms, and between ye and you.  Likewise,  do-questions freeely alternate with verb inversion:

Countess. Do you love my son?
Helena. Your pardon, noble mistress!
Countess. Love you my son?
Helena. Do not you love him, madam?

(All’s Well That Ends Well)

Elizabethan English was clearly in a state of flux, but is English any less variable now than it was in Shakespeare’s time, I wonder?  Think of the way adjective + -er comparatives are yielding to more + adjective  forms (see this comment on a previous post), or of the way past conditionals are mutating (which I wrote about here), or of the way I’m loving it is just the tip of an iceberg whereby stative verbs are becoming dynamic (mentioned in passing here). Think of the way the present perfect/past simple distinction has  become elided in some registers of American English (Did you have breakfast yet?) or how like has become an all-purpose quotative (He’s like ‘Who, me?’) or how going forward has become a marker of futurity.

That variation is a fact of linguistic life has long been recognised by sociolinguists. As William Labov wrote, as long ago as 1969:

“One of the fundamental principles of sociolinguistic investigation might simply be stated as There are no single-style speakers. By this we mean that every speaker will show some variation in phonological and syntactic rules according to the immediate context in which he is speaking” (1969, 2003, p. 234).

More recently, as seen through the lens of complex systems theory, all language use – whether the language of a social group or the language of an individual – is subject to constant variation. “A language is not a fixed system. It varies in usage over speakers, places, and time” (Ellis, 2009, p. 139).  Shakespeare’s language was probably no more nor less variable than that of an English speaker today. As Diane Larsen-Freeman (2010, p. 53)  puts it: “From a Complexity Theory perspective, flux is an integral part of any system. It is not as though there was some uniform norm from which individuals deviate. Variability stems from the ongoing self-organization of systems of activity”. In other words, variability, both at the level of the social group or at the level of the individual, is not ‘noise’ or ‘error’, but is in integral part of the system as it evolves and adapts.

If language is in a constant state of flux, and if there is no such thing as ‘deviation from the norm’ – that is to say, if there is no error, as traditionally conceived – where does that leave us,  as course designers, language teachers, and language testers? Put another way, how do we align the inherent variability of the learner’s emergent system with the inherent variability of the way that the language is being used by its speakers? If language is like “the inconstant moon/that monthly changes in her circled orb”, how do we get the measure of it?

In attempting to provide a direction, Larsen-Freeman (2010, p. 53) is instructive:

“We need to take into account learners’ histories, orientations and intentions, thoughts and feelings. We need to consider the tasks that learners perform and to consider each performance anew — stable and predictable in part, but at the same time, variable, flexible, and dynamically adapted to fit the changing situation. Learners actively transform their linguistic world; they do not just conform to it”.


Abbot, E.A. 1870. A Shakespearean Grammar: An attempt to illustrate some of the differences between Elizabethan and Modern English. London: Macmillan, re-published in 1966 by Dover Publications, New York.

Ellis, N. 2009. ‘Optimizing the input: frequency and sampling in usage-based and form-focused learning.’ In Long, M. & Doughty, C. (eds.) The Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Labov, W. 1969. ‘Some sociolinguistic principles’. Reprinted in Paulston, C.B., & Tucker, G.R. (eds.) (2003) Sociolinguistics: The Essential Readings. Oxford: Blackwell.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 2010. ‘The dynamic co-adaptation of cognitive and social views: A Complexity Theory perspective’. In Batstone, R. (ed.) Sociocognitive Perspectives on Language Use and Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.