The Art of Imperfect Language

When I started blogging last year, I knew I wanted to embrace the language surfing concept, but I couldn’t summarize what I was trying to do very succinctly.

I use WordPress to maintain the site, and there’s a spot called “Tagline” in the settings, and for a long time I left it blank because I had no idea what to put there. Finally, after six months of writing, I figured out what to say:

The Art of Imperfect Language

I’d explain how I came up with this, but it’s probably just easier to let the story unfold below. This post is a little longer than my usual articles, but this is kind of the bedrock of my whole site.

(Total reading time: 8 minutes.)

The 7 Principles of Imperfect Language

Old Nice France
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1. The goal of language development is communication, not proficiency.

Why are you learning a language? I mean, really?

I’m guessing it’s for the usual reasons: to travel, to make friends, to hold conversations, to get work, to get by.

Maybe you’ll take tests and get your proficiency measured, which is great. But your ultimate goal isn’t to pass that test. It’s to use the language. More specifically, it’s to communicate in the language.

When I graduated from my Arabic course, I aced my exams and my certification test. I could discuss peace treaties and bilateral relations and complex technological subjects. But then I went to Egypt. Since I had learned in an artificial environment – the classroom – I had an extremely hard time communicating with people in Cairo, even though my tests told me I should have been able to.

It was humbling at first not being able to ask for change or give the cabbie directions, but I eventually picked up enough to get by, and the experience changed my whole outlook on language learning.

2. Perfect language is impossible.

Here’s my background in English:

  • I have a BA in English.
  • I’ve taken several graduate classes in English.
  • I was a writing tutor in college.
  • I’ve been a technical writer for 8 years.
  • Some of my writing has been accepted by several major publications, and my most popular articles have been viewed over 100,000 times.

So I’ve been speaking English for 30 years, I’ve studied it seriously, and I have a lot of external, objective validation of my skills.

And I still make mistakes all the time! In speaking, I hesitate, get tongue-tied, and get tripped up on what I’m trying to say. In writing, I misspell words sometimes and use the wrong punctuation. It happens.

But I mean, it’s no big deal.

First, language wasn’t designed to be perfect. It was designed to achieve communication. “Perfection” is an artificial goal that someone came up with and others spread.

Second, as your communication goals shift, so too do your language goals. What’s right in one situation is not right in another. Easy example: Let’s say you’re going to college. In class, your professors have certain expectations for your papers, so your vocabulary, tone, and style follow academic conventions. Then outside of class, you meet up with your friends. Knowing human nature, I’d say that if you communicated with your friends the way you wrote academic papers, you’d become ostracized:

Friend: Hey, man. We’re headed to the movies. You in?

You: Since you have posed that question, one would have to assume that the funds in your bank account have not been depleted. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same of my bank account. Perhaps you can loan me ten dollars, with the expectation that I will repay you at a later date.

Friend: Forget I asked.

3. Language is dynamic.

I’ve worked with computer programming languages and scripting languages, such as XML and html. They’re unforgiving. Even in maintaining this website, if I move a couple parentheses to the wrong spot, a whole page becomes unavailable.

But IT languages are (currently) static. Human languages are dynamic. We don’t just use words and grammar to understand meaning. We also use contextual cues, such as:

  • Tone of voice
  • Intonation
  • Body language
  • Facial expression
  • Urgency
  • Knowledge of the speaker

I regularly interact with non-native English speakers, and I rarely have trouble communicating with them, even if their grammar and pronunciation are off. With all of the contextual clues at my disposal, I have no problem figuring out their intent, and their lack of proficiency doesn’t prevent us from interacting.

4. Most rules are actually preferences.

As a technical writer, I have worked with a variety of people from different backgrounds. I absolutely cannot stand working with some technical writers who enforce language “rules” without realizing that they’re actually preferences.

Those particular colleagues, American English speakers, learned a lot of these stylistic preferences from their prior editors, who themselves had learned them from a book called The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It was written in 1910 and were based mostly on the personal preferences of the authors. But the book was influential, so now you have self-proclaimed experts tut-tutting everyone who puts “however” at the beginning of a sentence or putting a preposition at the end of the sentence.

But they’re not the only ones guilty of this. I go on the website iTalki and see people trying to help others with their English by correcting sentences they’ve written. And they’ll completely rewrite a student’s sentences instead of fine-tuning them. A student might compose a grammatically correct sentence with all the words spelled correctly, and someone else will come along and hack it to shreds just because he would personally say the same thing a different way.

Not only does that hurt the student’s confidence, but it makes the student think he’s making an error when he’s really not.

It’s the same with all language learning. If you start chasing some of these mystical rules based on a teacher or friend’s preferences, you’re not giving your mind the creative freedom it needs to identify patterns organically–that is, you’re not letting yourself get to real language learning.

5. Grammar describes more than it prescribes.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to grammar:

  • Prescriptivism – Grammatical rules are agreed upon by a community, they’re recorded in reference books by smart people, and teachers and editors enforce these rules.
  • Descriptivism – Grammatical patterns emerge naturally in communities, those patterns are recorded in reference books by smart people, and there is no need to enforce anything because these are patterns that people have already been using anyway.

With prescriptivism, grammar tells people how to communicate. With descriptivism, grammar describes how people communicate.

These days, most linguists (scientists who study language) promote descriptivism, and I would say that I do as well.

Still, I think there is value in learning grammatical “rules” for a couple reasons:

  • When you’re learning a language, those rules help you identify patterns you might not be identifying yourself.
  • If you’re trying to fit into a professional or academic community, not adhering to most of these rules would frankly make you look foolish

But at the end of the day, grammatical rules aren’t set in stone. They’re fluid. They evolve over time, and even in the same language they shift from one region to the next. To my knowledge, this is true of every single language in the world.

6. Language is vague.

Ask yourself this: How come when someone asks you what you’re eating, you might say “an apple” and usually not “a honeycrisp apple” and definitely not the more scientific “malus domestica“?

I mean, the second option is more precise, and the third option is more precise still. Why wouldn’t we use more concrete language?

I believe it’s because our brains actually prefer vague language. Most of the time, we just want the basic idea so that we understand what’s going on, and any more would tax our peanuts too much with details and distract us from the big picture.

Another example: color. You might hear someone say, “Could you hand me the blue pen?” but never “Could you hand me the cyan pen?” There are hundreds (thousands?) of colors on the color palette, but most people still only refer to a dozen or so colors in everyday speech.

But with our vague language, we leave the door open for miscommunication. If a boyfriend tells his girlfriend he loves her, his concept of “love” might be different from hers. Maybe he’s being completely honest, but since he and she have assigned different values to the word “love,” they might be proceeding with different expectations for the relationship.

You cannot possibly achieve perfection with languages, which almost by their design are meant to be imprecise and unclear.

7. You can enjoy benefits of language right away.

I am not fluent in Spanish, but I have been able to enjoy television shows, music, and morning radio programs even if I don’t understand everything.

I’m staying at a hotel for a couple weeks on a business trip, and since I’m here in Texas, some of the staff speaks Spanish. A housekeeper passed me today in the hallway and assumed I was Latino and said, “¿Como está?” and I was able to respond with “Muy bien” and then asked her how she was.

When I lived in Germany, I learned a little German, and even though I wasn’t fluent, I was able to read menus and talk to the neighborhood children and ask for help out in public.

My point with all this is that you can get so many of the benefits of language learning right away, well before you reach “fluency.” In fact, one of the biggest traps I’ve seen is that people think they have to be perfect before they use their language, when that’s just not the case.


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