Why We Should Change the English Language and Promote the New Version in Video Games

One Saturday afternoon, after managing to convince Vera, my lovely, wild three year old daughter to stop pretending to teach her dolls about dinosaurs, and lay down for her nap, I settled onto the couch to read the New Yorker.  I got really into an article by Elizabeth Kolbert  called “Going Negative” about carbon removal science, and how it might be able to rapidly eliminate greenhouse gasses, and thus, global warming.  According to Kolbert, Carbon removal science owes it’s origins to a physicist named Klaus Lackner, who came up with the concept after a few beers with a fellow physicist, and a long debate over why “nobody’s doing these really crazy, big things anymore”.

It got me thinking.  What really crazy, big things are happening with the English language?  Sure, there are crazy big concepts about language acquisition, and the philosophy of language, but what about the language itself?  Why is the English language so sacrosanct? Has anyone ever thought seriously about changing it?  Yes, I know, the spoken language changes daily, with many fascinating variants that count as languages in themselves, but that is largely an involuntary, evolutionary process.  But what if we were to deliberately take a variant of English, perhaps standard American English, and change it?  So here’s my big idea: I think we should create a simpler, truncated, more phonetic version of English, and promote this simpler form in cartoons and video games (and by “we” I mean anyone who loves the English language).

Do you know that the English language is one of the world’s least phonetic languages? There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet, but nearly forty-four sounds.  NOBODY knows this.  Most native speakers of English are not aware of this, and many non-native speakers of English aren’t aware of it either.  When my daughter goes to preschool, she is taught the written language first, and a simplified, piecemeal variant of the spoken language second.  She is taught about the letter “O”, and the long and short versions of the sound for “O”, but not all the pronunciations that can be associated with the letter “O”.  She will never be taught the “shwa” sound because there is no symbol for that sound.  She will be able to intuit the sound as she is surrounded by the language on a daily basis, but what about a teenager in Lebanon who spends a good deal of time at an internet cafe?  If she is interested, how will she learn these subtleties?  If the connection between the spoken and written language is hazy to teachers of English, how can we assume that non-native speakers of English, with perhaps a high barrier of entry, will understand the connection, and speak English clearly?

They can’t.  In third world countries, and developing nations, the resources for proper training in English are limited, and many teachers skip over the written-spoken language gap and teach a form of English that is a combination of their local dialect and the English language.  But what if we were to shrink the number of spoken sounds in English from forty-four to thirty-four, and work to make the language more phonetic by spelling out English words and phrases phonetically in easily accessible mediums, like video games and cartoons?  There is precedent for this.  Mandarin has over ten thousand characters, so a simplified version was created called “Simplified Chinese” which utilizes much fewer characters.

So which character’s should be dropped, and why video games?  Let’s start with doing away with the “th” sound.  It has been argued that it is going the way of the dinosaur owing to the fact that it is so difficult for non-native speakers of English to pronounce.  Let’s fold it into the “d” sound for our new “Simplified English”. Yes you will need context clues to distinguish whether a non-native speaker of English is talking about a “din” or someone who is “thin” but it seems a small price to pay for a higher degree of global fluency.

And what about this crazy idea of promoting “Simplified English” to gaming companies? Well, to start with the video gaming market was worth close to $100 billion dollars globally in 2016, up 8.4% when compared to 2015. And guess which country dominated that market? China, the world’s fastest developing nation.  Why not persuade gaming companies to create “Simplified English” gaming subtitles and transcripts?  Why not create simple visual intonation patterns at the bottom of the screen and encourage players to speak or sing along with the characters?  Every international student of a certain age knows how to say “hasta la vista, baby”.  Why?  Simple. Because it’s fun to speak outside your language, and to watch movies or play video games, and pretend. Why not mash up the three?

Obviously this is not a fully baked concept, but why wait to put it out there in a world in which misunderstandings build upon themselves?  When I was at a social event not too long ago I met a young man from Iraq who had immigrated to New York City around ten years ago.  His English was flawless, and being a speech coach, I wanted to know how someone from a war torn country with a fractured relationship to the U.S. had come to speak English so well.  “I watched American cartoons”, he said.  Religiously. Every day. Over and over.  A free, immersive, interactive, fun, ubiquitous tutorial.

wat r ur eyedeeyas for a moar fonetik inglish langwij ikspeereeyuhns? #simplifiedenglish

What Do You Do If You’re Heckled During a Major Speech?

It all started out so well. She was firing on all cylinders; strong voice, good eye contact, inspired writing with a personal touch, a couple of good self-deprecating jokes. However, Theresa May, giving a conference speech aimed at revitalizing her standing after a disastrous few months, found herself seriously derailed when a heckler handed her a “P45” form which is the British equivalent of a “pink slip”. What went wrong?  

My feeling is she didn’t handle this guy quickly and firmly enough. Let’s see some fire, Theresa! This heckler is making a mockery of you in public, and stealing a crucial moment from you (not to mention creating a major security risk). Maybe say something like, “you may think the problems of income inequality, affordable housing, and the sinking pound are laughable, but I assure you I do not. Get off my stage, young man.” Instead, Prime Minister May takes the P45 when it is handed to her, as if she is obligated to do so, and tries to continue as if nothing has happened. After a moment or two, she makes a nice joke, and hits back a bit, but not before her momentum is lost.

What do you think is the best way to handle a heckler?

How to Make a Great Speech About a Simple Subject

It’s hard to make a great speech about grain, but Pierre Thiam has managed to do so in this wonderful TED talk. He starts with a simple opener: “I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal”. By signaling that this will be a “personal creation” story at the start, he has us hooked. Storytelling is the lifeblood of any good speech, and personal storytelling is king.  

As he reveals his story, he eloquently weaves in his argument for a solution to desertification in Africa. His speech overflows with rigorous research and startling stats about migration patterns, immigration, and food sustenance in Sub-Saharan Africa, but we never really lose the sense that this is a personal journey. It’s this combination of careful research, intellectual rigor and personal revelation that makes this simple topic dynamic.

I’d like to call attention to Mr. Thiam’s articulation. Clearly, English is not his native language, but he is able to get his points across (despite some mispronunciations) for a few simple reasons. First, he is taking a clear and deliberate pause at the end of each phrase. Second, he highlights one focus word per thought group with his intonation, and finally, he uses proper intonation on “road sign” words that signal a change in thought like “however”, “then again” and “although”. Mr. Thiam’s articulation is clear because he prioritizes proper rhythm, stress, and intonation.

How to Organize Your Stories in Your Speech

Every once in a blue moon, a speaker does everything right. Such is the case with Rita Pierson’s gem of a speech on the need for school reform.  She has a powerful, expressive voice and an actress’ touch with language.  She utilizes gesture effectively, effortlessly timing her movements with her content.  But what works best in this speech are the stories.  Well told stories are the lifeblood of any good speech.

I’d like to call attention to the way she builds her stories.  Her initial stories are about her students, and the way she interacts with them, but the most powerful story, the story of her mother’s impact on the lives of her students, comes at the end of her speech, just before her call to action.  With each story, she takes us deeper into both her thesis, and her own emotional life.  The speech builds both intellectually and emotionally.  Just beautiful.

 

 

Two Small Nuances that can Make or Break a TED Talk

I recently poised the question, “is it possible to speak too slow while presenting“?  My answer was “no”, but Brian Little’s pace of speaking would challenge that assumption. I think he picks up the pace adequately around the middle of his TED Talk, but I found my mind wandering off at the beginning.  This is because he is speaking just a bit too slowly, and because he doesn’t have a good story up front in order to attract the audience’s attention.

This changes dramatically half way through the speech. At about the ten minute mark, we get a series of wonderful, hilarious stories, starting with this gem, and the speech really comes to life. Its amazing how a few small changes can lift a speech from good to great. When it comes to presenting, the devil is in the details.