'Talk Given at the
at the University of Kentucky'
Prof. John Lihani
"Talk, talk, and more talk is good for international relations," said William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd President of the United States of America, speaking in Shanghai, Peoples Republic of China, 30 June 1998. Many people consider this to be a truism. My own studies fall in this field of talk, which produces and of itself is a product of language.
My hobby is the study of languages, and my Fulbright Research Project in 1996 was to experiment with simplified English in the classroom, to see if simplification would hasten and improve the learning process of English as a foreign language.
Ever since the collapse of the biblical tower of Babel and the subsequent linguistic debacle, people have tried, without much success, to undo the chaotic linguistic geography.
Over a thousand planned and artificial languages have been invented to overcome this linguistic chaos, again, with no success. The problem is that planned languages are more difficult to learn than are natural languages, and if anyone learns an artificial language, he has hardly anyone to talk with. That is not the case with natural languages. Although no language is easy to learn, some are easier than others.
Earlier in this century, some language planners began to devote their energies to simplifying natural languages. In the 1930's C. K. Ogden created Basic English, which gained the support of the World War II leaders like Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin and Nehru. After WWII, Basic English revolutionized the teaching of foreign languages by giving rise to texts that used basic vocabulary which was taught with the audio-lingual method.
Yet despite the simplification of vocabulary, little had been done in simplifying grammar and syntax, which are more difficult to learn than is vocabulary. This has changed in the last 30 years. Hundreds of linguists have published their research on pidgin-creole languages, and they have tried to relate the simplified grammar of pidgin-creoles to second language learning. In our research we are also seeking a simplified method of face-to-face communication that can be understood globally, across cultural barriers.
Our activity is concentrating on simplifying English. English is now spoken around the world by more people than speak any other of the more than 6700 languages that exist on the face of the earth today. Though there are those who do not particularly care for some of the politics behind the English language, the language itself, nevertheless, has great prestige around the world.
Twenty percent of the world's population speaks English. We could say that English is doing very well spreading on its own, and needs no help from anyone. But there is an awareness that many more people would like to learn English. They constitute much of the 80% of the world's population that is interested in learning enough English to satisfy their basic human and social needs wherever they may find themselves in the world. These cosmopolitan people are the target of simplified English.
As we approach the new century, it appears that the world is on the brink of charting new paths in intercultural communication. The new approach to improving global, interpersonal discourse lies not in creating artificial languages, but in simplifying the most popular, and most widely spoken natural languages like Chinese or English, and using modern technology to make them available to large numbers of people.
These two superlanguages have a much simpler grammar than most other languages. But even some of my Chinese friends say that English, because of its less complex writing system, is a better choice of the two to serve as a global lingua franca, a global common language.
Six years ago, I felt compelled to simplify English to make it easier to learn. In a year we produced the very first text, anywhere, of simplified English grammar and combined it with Ogden's "Basic Vocabulary." We then needed to experiment with this revolutionary text. The Slovak Republic and the Fulbright Research Award gave us that opportunity in September and October of 1996.
We flew from Atlanta to Vienna, Austria, where we were picked up by a Slovak driver and a military interpreter. In half an hour, we were driven directly to our apartment across the Danube in Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak Republic. The next day we met with the Major General in charge of the foreign affairs section of the Ministry of Defense of the Slovak Republic, who showed us the classrooms and the brand new language laboratory, which became the home of our experimental Transitional English class.
In Slovakia, we taught two classes of English. One was the experimental class in simplified English, for which we provided the newly written unorthodox texts. The other class we taught was in advanced standard English, for which we used the standard texts of the U. S. Air Force Language School.
After eight weeks of instruction, for comparison purposes, we gave both classes the same final examination. The exam had been prepared by a British Council representative. We felt that the results of the exam were significant, because the neophyte class in simplified English scored 80% of the average grade achieved by the advanced class members who had from four to eight times as much study of Standard English.
As a result of this experiment, we felt that the simplified English approach supported the theory, proposed by linguists, like Braj Kachru of the University of Illinois, and Joshua Fishman of Stanford University, that beginning instruction in a simplified English may be much more efficient and effective than instruction in Standard English, and that, moreover, it is theorized that not only will students learn quicker on the beginning level with simplified grammar, but will also subsequently acquire the standard language more rapidly.
Through the experiment, we also discovered some deficiencies in our Transitional English text, which we are now trying to rectify. There's half a dozen of us here at the University* working on the simplified English project, which we call Transitional English, and we are anxious to undertake further experimentation on the new simplified English text with the help of the World Wide Web technology. By the year Two Thousand we hope to have Transitional English available on the Internet, without charge, for speakers of Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and Hindi.
Along with the work in the Slovak Republic, we had a lot of enjoyment. We ate meals at the officers' dining hall at the Ministry of Defense, and we were taken on three different tours of Slovakia. We found the Slovaks to be very cooperative; they are fond of the United States, very well educated, and they are eager to become a military ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Their troops already form part of the United Nations' forces enforcing peace in the former Yugoslavia. Slovakia is full of tourist attractions, like the imposing Tatra mountains, that rival the American Rockies and the Swiss Alps. There are many popular health and hot springs spas, and Slovakia remains a great bargain for the tourist.
Before I close, I would like to point out that in the next century, there will be a much greater emphasis placed on global, intercultural, interpersonal, face-to-face communication.
It is anticipated that contemporary thought in the new millennium will concentrate on the global social interplay of culture, economics, and politics. This, we believe, will cause the emergence of a natural language as a simplified means of global communication across cultural boundaries.
"Talk is good" not only for international relations, but for all human relations, and we believe that a form of simplified English, perhaps Transitional English itself, will be that means of cross-cultural, global communication in the next century. Nevertheless, if our current experiment proves to be unsatisfactory in the long run, then other people, possibly more experienced than we are, will generate a better idea. The collective human mind ultimately will find a solution to the linguistic chaos, and permit an asymptotic approach to a desired universal means of communication.