Saturday, March 1, 2014

Languaging Differently

Reprint from Yes, That Too, closely related to the previous post here.

This is a thing I was thinking about, after my fun times with my teachers saying I don't use formal enough language when I write and speak in Chinese class. I'm actually way more formal in my writing and oral reports for Chinese than I ever was in classes conducted in English, since our classes have basically been “here have more formal words and here's how to use them” for the last few years. That said, I'm still nowhere near as formal in my speech as my classmates. I've been studying the language for sometimes twice as long, and I'm definitely more fluid with the words I'm comfortable with, but formality? Ha. That's basically not a thing.
And here's what I realized:
People still think I'm a good tutor and a good teacher. They do. In fact, what they usually say is that my explanation was the first one that made sense to them. Now, what's different about the way I explain stuff? Oh, wait. It's that lack of formal language again, isn't it? Yes, that's right, the same thing I'm getting in trouble with in my Chinese classes, the same thing that's gotten my essays marked down since at least the seventh grade? It's what makes me a good teacher.
Now why are we trying to change the weird language usage that makes me a better teacher? What is the advantage of changing it?
I've heard several things from teachers who are trying to change it.
“No one will take you seriously if you write like that.”
“It's not formal enough.”
“You need to learn to code-switch.”
“The words you're using are too simple.”
“Your sentences are too simple.”
“What will you do when you're writing about complicated things?”
Here's the thing. I have written about complicated things. I've used the technical terms when they make more sense, and I've used simple words when they are better words, and it works. Isn't the sign of a good teacher that they can take a complicated thing and make it simpler? Make it make sense? It seems to me that using simpler words to the extent that we can is a better idea, if the goal is to make people understand instead of being to show off how much you know.
My sentences aren't always simple. Sometimes they are. I don't understand why complicated is an end in it's own right, so “too simple” is something I'm just going to keep throwing out.
I do have some ability to code-switch. It's not much of a much, but it exists. I need a reason to use this ability, though. I'm not going to tire myself out code-switching for no good reason.
Formality is a social expectation. It really is. As such, if it has negligible effect (or maybe even helps) with functionality, fine, I'll go with it. When it actively impedes function, that's not cool. In this case, demanding formality does, in fact, actively impede function. It does this in multiple ways.
One is that it makes it harder for me to communicate the meaning I want to communicate. Sometimes that's because the more formal word doesn't have the same shade of meaning the less formal one does. Sometimes that's because I just can't think of the more formal one. Sometimes it's because nitpicking my vocabulary slows down my ability to come up with sentences to the point that my brain is way ahead of my speaking or writing and then I lose track of what I'm thinking. This leads to The Sads.
The other time formality causes a problem is when I'm teaching. A good teacher explains things in ways that their students will understand. That's not the same thing as explaining in the most formal way possible. In fact, my experience as a tutor and teacher tells me that those things are often opposites. The simplest, most conversational explanation is the one that my students tend to understand. At that point, yes, formality is impeding function. That means formality needs to go away.
Finally, the first reason. “No one will take you seriously if you write like that.” Is this my problem? I'd argue that it's other people having a problem with the packaging of an idea and therefore ignoring the idea itself. I'd also argue that it's a load of nonsense. If it were true, I wouldn't have readers who take my writing seriously. I certainly wouldn't have had a blog post of mine cited in an academic journal. I wouldn't be presenting at conferences and workshops. I wouldn't be getting pieces accepted in books. I am getting taken seriously while writing like this. I'm getting taken seriously by people who realize that not everyone is going to write the exact same way, and that that's fine. I'm getting taken seriously by people who care more about ideas being communicated than they do about how smart I can make myself sound while in the writing.
I really don't care how smart I can make myself sound in the writing. It's not the point. I care how well I can get the idea across. If my natural mode of speech and writing is one that works well for teaching beginners (I'm going to take beginners words for it over that of “experts” who might say it doesn't work,) I'm hanging on to that. I don't want to be the person who learns the fancy codes and finds that they've lost their personal voice. I don't want to be the person who needs to be re-taught to use words people know.
If the way my brain tends to bounce off jargon-heavy and meaning-light writing makes it harder for me to write that way and then I keep writing to explain, I'm honestly OK with that. (I'm fine with technical terms, but when they are strung together in ways that don't mean much or when the terms themselves are too broad, my mind starts bouncing. Academic papers tend to be bad, even when I understand the concepts. Being written by someone whose first language isn't English is generally OK- some of their issues are similar to my own, even. Not always picking the word that best suits the situation, even if the meaning is right? They'll do that, and I'll do that.)


  1. Your analysis of their words was dead on and completely irrelevant to the conversation and they are probably very frustrated with you because you do not understand what they clearly did not say.

    So how in the world are you supposed to understand what they mean when they will not under any circumstances say what they actually mean? This is the kind of thing that costs autistic people jobs and other opportunities all the time. I know it has cost me jobs and other opportunities and in my discussions with other older autistic persons I have heard many similar stories.

    I am pretty sure I made the same mistake when I was younger and learned through trial and lots of error how to translate what they are saying from NT into autistic.

    [Translation] The way you say things makes us uncomfortable because it is not how a professional talks. If you continue to do this in the outside world, there are a lot of other people who will be uncomfortable who will not be nice and will do things that will hurt you later. If you change this small thing (to them), it will make your life easier and better in the long run. [End Translation]

    They are from their perspective trying to be nice and look out for your future, but they come across as stuffy and nonsensical to to someone on the spectrum. I had to learn this kind of thing the (very) hard way. This kind of thing is incredibly important to NTs. I still have no idea why, but I have learned that it is that important to them.

    What you do next is up to you. My suggestion is that you learn to use formal language as a special dialect for speaking to professionals because they cannot really understand you unless you do. This is their limitation that you need to accommodate. My experience is that every language has hundreds of micro-dialects or "jargons" that are used simultaneously that NTs use to find out things about you. If the jargon you use does not match who you are and what you do, this makes them nervous and uncomfortable and they may discriminate against you because of it. Learning to speak a variety of jargons can be an advantage when getting to know NTs by making them more comfortable and this has real, tangible rewards even though it doesn't make any sense of any kind.

    John Mark McDonald

  2. Read through case briefs for Supreme Court cases. They use language that is actually very simple because it keeps the issues very clear. If the writing on this blog is an example of "too simple," I hope I never have to read a book your professors have written.

  3. interesting case