I have always loved language.
When I moved to California, I made the conscious decision that I would speak American while I was there - recognising it as a different language from my native British English. This allowed me to fully embrace taking the elevator up to my apartment to see my roommate. When I came back to the UK after a year, it felt strangely twee to call a car’s hood a bonnet.
Having never progressed beyond school-girl French, I thought at the time that this was the closest I had ever come to being bilingual. But I have come to realise that, in a way, most of us are bilingual without even realising it. And we may often be using the wrong language when we communicate with our audiences.
We are all bilingual
One of the languages in which I am fluent is this one. It is the language commonly used in English newspapers, text books, in novels, and when giving speeches or formal presentations. The language that invisible narrators use in documentaries, and which you find in Wikipedia.
The problem is that many of our audience are not fluent in this form of English, which I’m going to call written English. Written English may be spoken, but somehow it will always sound like it is being read out loud, rather than coming straight from the mind of the speaker.
This language is markedly different from spoken English. For a start, I cannot remember ever saying “markedly” in normal conversation, despite having just typed it without a thought.
This is why reading to children from books is so important. It gives them the opportunity to learn this other form of English; its rhythms and vocabulary. Familiarising them with the form of the language makes it easier for them to learn to read. And this is true not only when they are young, but as they grow older and tackle more-complex texts.
We may all know a person who habitually mis-pronounces words. Often these will be words that appear often in written English but rarely in speech. These are people who have learned the written form of language while reading. Imagine the concentration and patience required to not only decode letters into words, but then also to have to decode the meaning of the words, and this all within an unfamiliar sentence structure.
When I was a child, my parents read to me every day. Our home was full of books; my father and elder brother were avid readers. The written language was all around me. But what about children who live in an environment where the language around them is entirely spoken?
How do you learn to read a language that you have never heard?
And how do you drag meaning even from familiar words if they are formed into unfamiliar structures and sentences?
From Newton’s Principa:
“Quantities, and the ratios of quantities, which in any finite time converge continually to equality, and before the end of that time approach nearer the one to the other than by any given difference, become ultimately equal. If you deny it, suppose them to be ultimately unequal, and let D be their ultimate difference. Therefore they cannot approach nearer to equality than by that given difference D; which is against the supposition.”
Suddenly, things are a lot more difficult.
Cognitive load theory states that working memory has limited capacity. If additional effort is required to internalise the information, then less working memory is available for mentally completing the task itself. And so if a student is struggling to read, they will have less capacity to understand.
Reading unfamiliar language is hard; it requires more effort for diminished returns, and so is less attractive as an activity. Less reading means less practice means less fluency. And less-fluent reading throws up multiple barriers to education in a society where reading and writing are central to communication.
But unfamiliarity with written English not only makes it harder to read or write; it also impacts the ability to access information from the spoken word in educational settings. With a smaller vocabulary, centred on everyday speech, even older children may struggle to interpret words like ‘accurate’, ‘frequent’ and ‘significant’.
Whereas topic-specific ‘tier-3’ vocabulary (eg ‘orbit’, ‘photosynthesis’) is explicitly taught, this more general ‘tier-2’ vocabulary can too-easily fall through the cracks.
What is a planet?
Remember how you felt reading the above quote from Newton?
Now imagine trying to understand what a planet is, when the language being used to explain it to you contains words that you struggle to interpret. The more difficult it is to follow the language, the less capacity you will have to focus on the actual content.
Here’s an example from the NASA website. I’m going to presume the target audience has heard of Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Pluto, but knows very little about them.
NASA education website (https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/in-depth/):
“What is a planet? This seemingly simple question doesn't have a simple answer. Everyone knows that Earth, Mars and Jupiter are planets. But both Pluto and Ceres were once considered planets until new discoveries triggered scientific debate about how to best describe them—a vigorous debate that continues to this day.”
The above may be interpreted by a young listener [with internal monologue] as:
“What is a planet? This xxxxxxxxx simple question [I didn’t think it was simple, after all I was looking for the answer] doesn't have a simple answer. Everyone knows that Earth, Mars and Jupiter are planets [Everyone? I barely knew that, I’m so stupid]. But both Pluto and Ceres [what is Ceres?] were once xxxxxxxxxx planets until new discoveries xxxxxxxxx scientific xxxxxx about how to best xxxxxxxxx them—a xxxxxxxx xxxxxx that continues to this day.”
A more accessible version might read:
“What is a planet? There is no simple answer. Most people would agree that Earth and Jupiter were planets, but it’s less obvious for objects like Pluto and Ceres. At first they were called planets too, but new discoveries made things less clear. After much argument, it was agreed not call Pluto or Ceres planets any more, although people still argue about this today.”
But I’m not saying you shouldn’t use these words at all - just that you should consider them to be a form of jargon, to be used with care. If you can help people increase their vocabulary then that is a great thing.
The Big Questions
As so often in science communication, it all comes down to two questions:
Who is the audience
What do you want to achieve.
1. Who is the audience?
If you have a general public or non-selective classroom audience, then you will inevitably have people with very different vocabularies and literacies. And that’s not even considering those people who are not native speakers.
It’s important to be aware that most audiences include people who smile and nod along despite having not understood a single thing. Some will be passively enjoying letting words wash over them. Others will be playing along as a form of social protection.
Some of the people who act up and make a show of not wanting to learn may similarly be protecting themselves from being outed as unable to follow the language being used.
(I assumed my audience for this blog are fluent in written English, although I now worry about non-native speakers!)
2. What do you want to achieve?
If your primary aim is to maximise access to the ideas that you are communicating, then you should simplify your language as far as possible. Use words that are common in speech, and avoid less-familiar words, idioms, metaphors and structures.
The ideal is that yours words should slip into people’s minds without any conscious effort, leaving them free to focus their cognitive efforts on understanding the meaning.
Only use more complex words if you want to teach their meaning. Treat tier-2 words with care. Reduce use of tier-3 (topic-specific jargon) words to those that you really want them to know, and repeat each one at least three times in different sentences and/or contexts.
On the other hand, if your primary aim is to communicate that you are educated and cultured, then using elegant and complex language constructions can help you achieve this … But perhaps you might consider other methods to achieve this which don’t compromise the educational impact of your work.
I enjoy working on fulldome film storyboards and scripts. I find it utterly fascinating.
Most educational films are narrated by a narrator. I think this is a problem.
Narrators read text aloud, clearly and pleasantly. They speak in written English and do it very well. But we know - because it is written English - that they are not speaking from the heart. We know that they are reading, and that any supposed emotion was from the time it was written, not from a spontaneous reaction to what is happening on screen. Any nascent emotion in the text is stomped upon as it is clearly spoken.
Narrated shows tend to have lovely, elegant language. The form almost demands it.
Some of these scripts explain things with elegance and clarity in a beautiful way that, however, only makes sense if you already understand the concept. They elegantly state, rather than lead a way to understanding. But anyway, the smoothness of it all means the words can pleasantly slide in and out of one’s ears without troubling the listener with any need to think.
Now compare this to actors.
An actor can read a script and make it sound like their own. This means that the script – even for a traditional documentary - can now be more like spoken language. It sounds entirely natural for them to use those more-familiar words and constructions.
Because it is now a real person speaking, the words do not represent the film production company as such, and can be more raw and immediate. They can be more personal, more natural, familiar. There can be pauses, moments where the speaker is grasping for the right words, where they are slightly overcome by the emotion of the moment, even surprised by what they are telling you.
There is nothing humans enjoy more than witnessing other humans having emotion. Think of the popularity of soap operas. Of Jeremy Kyle. We want to imagine what they are thinking, which means we are spurred to think ourselves. And it is through thinking that we create memory.
Of course the actor need the right words for all this to work. If they are reading written language then at best it will sound like a polished lecture. To get the emotion in there, they will need the type of language that looks wrong when written down. Eg:
Narrator says: “It is the most powerful rocket ever to have been launched”
Actor says: “It’s the most powerful rocket ever launched”
I love writing elegantly grammatical prose with interesting vocabulary. Project reports and funding applications are a pleasure. But if I’m trying to communicate science to a wide range of audiences, then I need to rein myself in to serve their needs.
I once hosted a very engaging lecture about space, given by a proper, old-fashioned English gentleman. He took over a hundred 10-11yr old children on a tour of the solar system, visiting a variety of bodies like the Sun and planets. At the end of the lecture, a child put their hand up and asked:
“Why do you call them bodies?”
And I realised from the feel of the room that a large number of children had spent much of the lecture unable to help but to visualise corpses floating in space.
If we want to communicate clearly, we need to fit our language to the audience.