Thursday, December 13, 2012

Plain Language in English Education

This text is from a radio website called Voice of America, which provides a variety of radio recordings for English-as-second-language learners, using materials that are quite simple and old-fashioned. It does not have timeliness which requires the materials to be in time, like CNN news, but does provide educational opportunities in English listening and reading for the second language learners who do not have to learn every seasonable thing. The text is a transcript of the radio program in the website called Special English. In this program, the hosts tend to speak much more slowly. The speaking speed is only two thirds of the normal speed. In this case, listeners can easily identify every word the hosts say. So basically, the transcript is only a supplementary material for the learners.

What makes this material valuable to be analyzed is not only the low readability level, but also some confusion among American readers when they read the text. In this article, I intend to compare specifically different contexts that this website focuses on and explore how the context influences the content.

Undoubtedly, the text I chose follows the plain style characteristics. It uses active voice in most sentences, and the sentences are really short. The words-per-sentence statistic is 10.4. Also, one sentence only contains one idea. It does not have very much abstraction in the sentences:

On stage, he became known for his wild performances, and his "duck walk" that many musicians copied. But his songwriting skills -- some call him a rock and roll poet -- and his guitar work really set him apart. 

When readers look at the word choice that this text uses, they will quickly identify that there is not any hard vocabulary in it. The words it uses are really simple. I assume that everyone who graduates from middle school can easily understand not only the sentence structure, but also the words of the sentence.

In this sense, I think the context of the text affects how the text is written. The text is written for English-as-second-language learners. They cannot use English as well as their mother language. They do not know very many words, or high level words. In this case, the composer of the text tends to write it in a simple way.

However, some parts of the text are confusing:

Rob Sheffield at Rolling Stone magazine wrote about baseball songs on his blog and had this to say: "The guitar speeds up as Chuck Berry heads into the climactic final verse, when that brown-eyed handsome man (Willie Mays? Hank Aaron? Jackie Robinson?) wins the game with a home run. Chuck would've made a lousy sportscaster ('two-three the count'?) but that just adds to the excitement."

The quote in this sentence seems really confusing, especially the words in parentheses. It does not make any sense to native-English-speaking readers. But when I listened to this radio, I found that the names in parentheses were examples that the hosts gave in the program. If we delete the content in the parentheses, the sentence becomes like this:

The guitar speeds up as Chuck Berry heads into the climactic final verse, when that brown-eyed handsome man wins the game with a home run. Chuck would've made a lousy sportscaster but that just adds to the excitement.

In this case, the sentence becomes clear and easy to understand.

I think most English learners will not read the transcript until they understand the listening part. In this sense, based on my personal experience of learning English, I assume that after the learners understand what they hear, they may not actually read the whole transcript, which means the confusion or mistakes in the transcript may be ignored for some reasons.

The reason why I make this assumption is because I interviewed a lot of friends, who are also English major students in China. As English majors, we need to strengthen our listening skill through listening English materials, but we tend to use other sources like CNN news, BBC news to strengthen our reading and writing skills. In this sense, most students will only listen to this recording without reading the actual transcript, because the transcript is used as a comparison when students do not ensure what words they are listening.

Based on the points mentioned above, I think this transcript written in plain language focuses on non-native English speaker, so it has to be easy to understand. Also, the person who types this transcript may make mistakes when he/she types the sentences.

By Ximing Yu

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