BASIC ENGLISH: International Second Language
Section One, Part Two, p 58
4 . Basic as an Instrument of Thought
For the last thirty or forty years, teachers in English and American schools have been putting up a great fight against the old forms of ' Grammar ' -- against the learning of rules based on the structure of dead languages. By protesting against a book-knowledge with little or no relation to the needs and interests of present-day society, they have certainly taken a step in the right direction.
There was, however, an idea at the back of the old rules : the idea that because our thought is based on language, and because it is important for our thought to be clear, a great respect for form might be a help in the development of our minds. A good language is a machine for thought, and the delicate adjustment of words to changes of thought and shades of feeling is certainly dependent in some measure on attention to the parts and structure of the machine. But, by degrees, the machine became the manager of the man, and the cry went up for the right to be free from the dead weight of machine-made rules.
So far, so good; and more power to the supporters of brighter school books talking the language of the market place. But there is a great danger of turning out a mass of automatic talking- machines in a desire to get the ' right ' reactions to the sort of questions now common in school tests. The selection and learning by heart of words and word-complexes, for no other reason than that they are the most frequent, is a new form of the old idea of basing language-teaching on the structure of the machine. If the learner is made conscious of his instrument, not only will his power of thought be increased, but much memory-work will become unnecessary.
Education, for Basic, is the expansion of experience by experts. Even in the earliest stages of reading an important part may be taken by the Basic framework. The natural development of the material is from simple pointing, at the level of a sign-language, to the more complex needs of normal talk; and for this purpose stories about the doings of some improbable Landru from the Never-Never-Land are clearly out of place.44 In addition, the use of Basic is an insurance that the words most necessary to the structure will be worked in frequently enough for the learner to get them completely under control.45 Most simple word-lists for early reading and writing are not truly limited, but are increased, without system, at the pleasure of whoever is responsible for the teaching-material.
For those to whom it is only a first step, the expansion of Basic into normal English may be viewed as a natural growth, so that the learner goes from level to level as he would up this or that branch of a tree-and not from words to more words for no better reason than that some of the later words are less frequently used by writers of school books.
' Expansions ' are made clear from root uses, and ' idioms ' from the more regular and straightforward forms of the language. In the same way the senses of new words outside the Basic range will be put before the learner with the help of the 850, so that even the most complex ideas of science may come before the mind as parts of a shorthand system and not as fictions to be given substance in some structure of air.
The small word-list of Basic has a special value at all stages of word-learning. The list is representative of every sort of word, and gives us all the material necessary for a more detailed knowledge of the behavior of languages of unlimited range. it is a sort of instrument for testing the use of words in newspapers and the effects desired in verse. When we put a language such as Spanish or Russian into English there is a danger of going only from words to words, with the least possible adjustment. In Basic it is necessary to keep in mind all the time what is being said, so that we are never exchanging one fixed form for another at the same level.
This process is frequently a great help to those whose word- reactions are slow, and who may have a clear idea of the simple sense without the power of quickly pushing the right buttons in the delicate language-machine. And at the same time Basic will make teachers less surprised that those who seem when young to have the best minds so frequently do not come up to their hopes under conditions where words have to take second place.
To put the argument shortly, Basic at last gives us a chance of getting free from the strange power which words have had over us from the earliest times; a chance of getting clear about the processes by which our ideas become fixed forms of behavior before we ourselves are conscious of what history and society are making us say.
The words which give us this chance may themselves become a help to thought, and through Basic even the very young may be trained to a sense of true values; in fact, those with no education are frequently quicker in their reactions than persons who have been through the school-machine. In England and America, that machine is badly in need of attention today, and through Basic the teacher may give, and be given, a truer view of the relation between thought and feelings on the one hand and words and things on the other. It is wise to let experience be the only judge of the value of such suggestions; but if the attempt is not made, there will be no experience on which decisions may be based. In most countries the decision is being taken for international reasons; and everywhere science and common sense are working together for the development of an island language from which journeys may be taken with profit into that mist of words of whose dangers education is at last becoming conscious.
44, 45. Footnotes here had to do with reading books for use at different stages are now out of print and have been superseded by others. An up-to-date list of books is given at the end of this volume. -ED.
5. The Learning of Basic
To become expert in some forms of knowledge and behavior no teaching is needed ; in others a teacher may be a help for the early stages ; in others, again, the learner is dependent on the teacher till his education is almost complete.
Language-learning comes under all three heads ; but because the business of living and making a living takes up so much time in later years, it is very frequently limited to the school -- where the sort of knowledge and behavior which seems most necessary to the organization of society, such as the reading and writing of one or more languages, is forced on the young. In schools we
are up against special conditions, among which the mind and the training of the teacher are not less important than the stage of development of the learner, the size of the group in which he is a unit, and the tests by which knowledge is judged. The tendency is for schools to go at whatever rate may be necessary to let the slowest keep up with the rest ; but where the learner is in control, and is clear about his purpose from the start, the process may be much quicker.
Learners of Basic, old and young, will have no need for schools and teachers of any sort if they have the necessary books. This is true even of those languages in which there is still no special guide to Basic.
At the end of 1939 there were such guides, and one or more of the Basic books, in Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Czech, Polish, Danish, Swedish, Latvian, and a number of other languages. In The Basic Words are the French and German words for all the senses of the 850, and the ABC and Basic Step by Step have now been printed in French, German, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish.46
It is a good idea to get the senses of the 850 words for reading purposes before going on to talking or writing. With this general knowledge of the system, the private learner will be able to give special attention later to those parts of it which are of most interest to him -- for example, business, news, science, or a journey to England or America. It is a waste of time for those who are chiefly interested in writing business letters, or in reading and writing science, to give the same amount of thought to the sounds as if they were starting on a journey, where talking would be a pleasure.
For reading Basic, it is possible to take 30 words an hour after the first two or three steps. Some learners go much quicker than this (between 50 and 100), even without the use of the story form as a help to the sense. In Basic Step by Step and The Basic Way to English, the words in the earlier steps come in over and over again, where the sense of new words is being made clear, and in reading (though not in writing) the form-changes almost take care of themselves. After working, then, for between 24 and 30 hours47, or say, four hours a day over a week, the back of the system will have been broken.
Anyone who is learning a strange language seriously is ready to give it two hours a day for a month, and of the 60 hours 30 will be free for a serious start in writing and talking. Experience makes it quite certain that this is no theory, but a statement supported by solid fact. So even those who are working all day for a living, and have to go to bed before eleven to be up by seven, may get control of this international language of the future, without a teacher, by taking out their books from 8.30 to 10.30 P.M. every night for one month.
For talking, it is best to get by heart a number of statements, and a story or two, as early as possible, and to say them quickly enough to keep in the right rhythm those 12 words which are only weighted for some special reason.48
The directions generally given for getting a natural English rhythm are so complex that it might take years to get the secret; and much time may be wasted in the attempt. Here again, however, Basic has something new to say, though this is not the place to say it in detail. It will be enough to give those who are interested some idea of the lines on which an answer to the question "What is English rhythm ?" may be framed -- and of the reasons which make Basic the best guide to the more complex developments of the English language in its complete form.
In an English of 10,000 words -- or even 2,000 -- rules for what little is regular are not much help; and when the teaching of English has no special relation to its structure, or to the sense and purpose of every unit in that structure, the learning of unnecessary tricks gives the memory more than enough to do even without the addition of the current theories of rhythm. In Basic, the number of words is so small, and their behavior so straightforward, that rules are possible which would have little value, as such, for any other selection from the English language.
To get a natural effect, force or weight has to be put on the right words for the sense, and on the right division of the word for the sound. Every English word with more than one sound- division (let-ter, di-vi-sion) is weighted on one or other of these -- by force of breath or muscle. So first we have to give a rule for this.
Only 337 of the 850 have more than one division, and the Rule is : The weight is on the part before the last.
No less than 254 of the 337 are covered by this rule; and here are examples from every group (of two, three, and four divisions):
reason, simple, example, important, education, automatic.
All but 22 of the rest come under three simple heads ; and the 22 which might give trouble take less than half a minute on a record.
The first business of the learner is clearly to get the sounds of the words right. If the weight is not on the right part, the effect may be quite as unnatural as an error in the sound itself. But in addition to this there are two rules for weighting words when they are put together in statements. it is not enough to say the words one after another like a word-list, because (a) any word may be given special force to make the sense clearer, and (b) some very frequent little words are generally given much less force than is normal. So the Rules for weighting words in statements, to get nearer to the English way of talking, are:
I. Put force on at least one word in every 10-the word which the sense makes most important.
II. Let the 12 words which are only weighted for some special reason be joined in sound to the word which comes after them.
"I will give a good rule to the boy slowly." That is to say, I will give it to the boy and not to (as against) the girl.
Almost every statement of 10 words may be said in at least 10 different ways ; and the effect of the addition of force is chiefly to make the weighted word louder. Naturally, more than one word in a statement may be marked out in this way, but one will be enough to give quite an ' English rhythm ' to any statement. Certain ups and downs of the voice will probably be part of the effect, but we may let these changes take care of themselves as long as they are not the outcome of a sort of song-rhythm based on the special behavior of some other language. Such song- rhythms have to be watched and taken out if they are seen to be very strong; but there are no rules for English ' song ' which are important enough to be forced on the learner's attention -- at any rate at the early stages.
Learners who have no English or American friends will get the natural rate from the shortwave radio ; and when Basic is regularly used for news by shortwave stations in forward-looking countries, and for international talking pictures, there will be a new chance of learning the language of the future without a teacher.
The selection of international words which have so far been listed for use with the Basic system is at present small, but a further expansion of its range, with the authority of an International Radio Committee, may be looked for in the near future. The 50 about which experts have come to a decision are printed in The Basic Words.
Though some of these will come to the attention of the reader when he makes a start on the Basic books, there is no reason for making them a part of the learning system in the earlier stages. They have no place, for example, in The Basic Way, Books I-IV. Even less will his memory be troubled by the further 50 starred in The Basic Words which may be used with care in different sorts of material for testing reactions.
For writing, make a start by putting down the events of the day in a book, noting at the same time any uses which are markedly different from those in your natural language. Turning pages of your language into Basic is not so good for a start, because you will be giving attention to words, which may have no parallel form in Basic, and not to the things, thoughts, and feelings about which you are writing. These things, thoughts, and feelings covered in Basic, and if your mind is on them you will be certain of what you are saying and will see better how to say it simply and clearly.
The tendency to let our thoughts be controlled by words is very deeply rooted, and a month with Basic is much the best way of training the mind to put up a fight against it. When we have to do without a word, we frequently become conscious for the first time of what we were saying with it. And sometimes we see that we were saying nothing -- or nothing for which a special word was needed. So here is the great value of Basic for those who come to it with a knowledge of normal English.
It might seem at first as if they were being requested to put 10,000 or 20,000 words out of their minds for no better reason than that part of their language had become an international instrument. That, it is true, would be a good reason for making use of a smaller number of words when talking internationally, in the hope that most of them would be Basic ; and on this view, much may be done for the more general exchange of ideas. The addition of words to a telegram does not necessarily make it clearer, and in the same way the Basic part of what is said with the help of words outside the 850 might be clear enough for the exchange desired. Why, then, take the trouble to get the Basic right, or nearer to the rules ? The answer is that, as we have seen, the training is of great value in itself, and is very little
trouble if started in the right way. There is no question for the Englishman or American of learning the list by heart. He will be comforted to see that most of the words on which his normal talk is based are there. Let these be marked; and at the same time it will be seen that all the rest are very common-even those, from the last 50, which make the connection with science and are not needed by anyone under 14. He will quickly become conscious that the 100 words which are representative of ' prepositions,' ' pronouns,' ' conjunctions,' ' adverbs,' and so on, give him all the framework which is necessary.
But there are certain very common words which are not in the Basic list, and he will make a note of these and of the reasons why they are not there. Some, he will see, are covered by the names of acts and directions, which he will take through their tricks (every operation-word in turn with every direction) till he has listed one or two hundred of the ' verbs ' whose place is taken by them.49 To get a clear picture of the system at this stage he will be wise to go all through the ABC with care, taking at least two or three hours on the details and answering for himself the harder test questions at the end of every part.
A further step is to put ten lines from a newspaper roughly into Basic, noting which words were in Basic at the start, and underlining any word which will not go straight across into the simpler form of writing. By then turning to these underlined words in The Basic Dictionary for suggestions, he will be able to make the necessary changes. After that, things will go more quickly, and one by one his doubts and questions will be answered. The system is working, but it is a good idea to see it working smoothly in some book which has the full English on one page and the Basic opposite line by line.
A good example of this is International Talks, by Mr. Wickham Steed. Mr. Steed was for a long time in control of The Times, and his English is clear and straightforward. Reading the Basic first is not much help, but take Mr. Steed line by line with the opposite page covered over, turning to it only when a decision has to be made or there is a doubt as to how the Basic might go. Three or four pages will be enough to give a feeling of the Basic way of saying things.50
At this point we may say to the learner : You now have a working knowledge of the structure and the units of the system -- enough to make a test of where you are still going wrong. So now take anything you are reading, 1,000 words from the morning paper, for example, and put a line under every word which seems to you to be Basic. Then go through them with the Basic list, writing down every word about which you were wrong. Do the same the day after with the words which are not Basic, again making a detailed comparison with the list, if you make any error twice at this stage, put the word in a special list. This list -- possibly of not more than ten or twelve -- is a guide to your special tendencies (others would make different errors) ; and after a little more work with these words they will give you no further trouble. You will be stopping from time to time over a new word, but after a week you will be writing freely, and only looking at the printed list itself when you get in a hole.
When you go down the street or in trains, you will have a chance of putting advertisements and other signs into Basic ; and experience in talking may be got from an attempt to keep up with the radio news as if you had a Basic friend from China or the Hebrides in the room, and you were giving an account in clearer language of what had been said. And have a look at Brighter Basic, pages 28-44, to see if any of the words which do not come readily to your mind are fixed in the sayings made up of words starting with the same letter, as a help to the memory. Take note of the way the -er, -ing, and -ed endings are used,51 of the possible use of un- before the 50 names of qualifies which take it,52 and of the higher and lower limits for the special uses which have to be made clear to those whose natural language is not English.
The uses of more than 95 percent of the words are those which common sense would give them on first seeing them in the list. The only question is how far to go with possible expansions if you are to be clear to a Basic learner, and the rules on this point are based on the test of long experience. Every expansion in Basic has some connection with the root sense, but about 50 words have second senses in normal English needing special attention. A number of these are kept in Basic to make the system complete, though for some of them different words would be necessary in most languages ; the other half are not used because they give so much trouble to learners and the second sense is covered by other Basic words. A stick, for example, being a bit of wood, dearly has no connection with getting stamps fixed on letter-covers ; lead, as a substance, does not give us the ' leader ' of a group, and ' backing ' horses is clearly one step farther from the back of anything than is necessary in a language which naturally "puts money on" these animals. On the other hand, you would be safe in using arms as ' weapons,' a blow for a ' set-back,' carriage for ' transport charges,' change for 'money change,' common for 'vulgar,' company for 'companionship,' crying for 'weeping,' dear for ' beloved,' ice for ' ice-cream,' taste for ' good taste,' and waiter for the ' garçon' who is waiting on you in a restaurant.
Here, however, are 20 words which writers with a knowledge of English frequently take in wrong senses. Still is not used for ' quiet,' even for ' level,' that for ' who' and ' which,' or will for anything but future time. Among the names of things, a ball is not a dance, a balance is not scales, or a board a committee ; a box has no connection with a fight, or a fly with airplanes ; hard does not give us ' hardly,' light is not to be used of weight, or measure of laws, or net of prices ; a ring has nothing to do with a bell, or a scale with a fish, a start is not a jump, a match is not a competition, and base is not bad. Of the names of qualities, present is no help in giving.
And here are 20 which do more than they might be given credit for, so that there is a true stretch for any learner whose language makes use of a different word for the second sense, though the connection is clear enough. They are all so common that even the addition of a different word would not make them unnecessary. Chest has an expansion to chest for clothing, fall to the fall of the year, fire to gun-fire, interest to interest on money, join to joiner (in wood-working), key to music key, meal to meal from grain, nail to finger-nail, note to note of music, plane to the wing of an airplane, rest to the rest (what is over), right to the opposite of wrong, shade to shades of the dead, sign to signing letters, spring to the spring months and water springs, stage to the theater stage, and stamp to post stamp. And when the endings -er, -ing, -ed are used with train, unit, and watch, the senses of training, uniting, and watching almost put them in a group by themselves.53
With these examples, covering 99 percent of what is not regular, and noting the suggestions in this book, you may go straight forward with the word-list and the short rules given on the bit of notepaper. Thousands have done so, and have sent us their work.54
46. Basic, being only a selection from normal English, the learner who has no other guide will be able to put the words into his natural language with the help of any word-book. He will then have no trouble in reading Basic Step by Step, where they are grouped for learning purposes in the simplest possible way.
47. That is why it has been said that in theory (for example, on the condition that his head would be cut off if he was unable to get the sense of any straightforward Basic statement after 24 hours' hard work) any European language expert might be reading basic after a ' day.'
48. A, the, and, of, for, from, to, than, is, some, have, that. For other details see Basic Step by Step, pp. 52-55 [and "Word Stress and Sentence Stress." ED].
49. "See The ABC of Basic English [Section Two of this book, pp. 140-46. ED.].
50. Unhappily, this book is now out of print, and there is no other of quite the same sort at present available. Another parallel translation was Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, done by A. P. Rossiter. -ED.
51. That is, as ' nouns' and ' adjectives,' so that we may say "The book is printed," as we say "The book is small" or "The boy is tired"; but not "I printed the book," which would come under the quite different rules of ' verb' behavior as such. The reasons for this and for not using the word print itself as a ' verb' ("I print books") are given on p. 25, and further details are in the ABC [Section Two of this book, pp. 176-77, and 182].
52. See Section Two, p. 131. The learner who is uncertain which names of regularly take un- will keep to not for forming their opposites, till Basic is smooth enough to make use of the un- with profit.
53. For more details of this sort, see Section Two, pp. 183-91. -ED.
54. There followed an invitation to anyone desiring help with his Basic to send in a sample to the Orthological Institute. This service is not available at present. -ED.
6. The Teaching of Basic
The learning of Basic in schools is only one part, though a very important one, of the process by which a knowledge of its value may become general in all countries. Radio and the talking pictures will do much, but the schools have a better chance because they have more time.
It is not uncommon for five or ten years to be given to a language, and at the end, reading, writing, and talking may all be equally impossible.
This has been true of Latin and French in English and American schools for more than a hundred years. After five years' work the reading of French newspapers is still only possible with a word-book, and such talking as is attempted is certain to be a cause of amusement in Paris. In the same way, the English talked by our friends from other countries is not a good advertisement for any but their best schools; but the level of English in schools under English control overseas is even lower.
What is responsible for the present position of language teaching ? Chiefly, no doubt, a bad teaching system, in which attention is given to fixed forms of words -- 'idioms,' 'collocations,' and the like -- before the structure and the root senses have been made dear; but in addition, certainly, the dead weight of a mass of unnecessary words, chiefly 'verbs' whose behavior is not regular. The memory is over-taxed when English is given to the learner as if it was no more regular, and only a little simpler, than French, which is truly a language of complex forms and fixed uses at every turn.
English is the simplest of all languages in form and structure, but if a start is made with a limited word-list in which more than 100 'strong verbs' are given a place, it will never seem so. With this 100 go their 200 strange 'past definites' and 'past participles' -- and much more.
Take the word bear (bore, borne), used freely of parcels (carry), news (bring), fruit (produce), babies (give birth to), pain (tolerate), and so on. Even if these are kept separate in the word-list we have still to get away with
"I cannot bear him."
"He bears himself nobly.'
"Bear this in mind."
"He bore down on us.
"He lost his bearings."
His 'proud bearing' is as different from the 'lost bearings' as the 'bear ring' with fighting animals is from a 'bare ring' with no ornaments, or a 'bare baby' from a baby 'born' but 'unbearable.' Every word of this sort has its train of tricks, and the learner is certain to get it mixed up with other words of the same sound and much the same form.
The makers of 'simple' school books go happily through the range of senses, frequently without noting any change; and after the first 1,000 comes another 1,000 equally without reason or system. All this is done in the interests of a natural English which will never be natural as talked in China or Japan, India or Africa, even after ten years of school work. Such a process is only a way of humoring bad teachers, on whom the learner is made dependent-and the teacher is dependent on a book which gives no reasons for anything, but is full of tests by which the learner may be marked for memory-work and even more memory-work.
This may be seen by a comparison of Basic with any of the word-lists produced in competition with Basic. There have been a number of other attempts at limited word-lists for learners, a great number of them clearly copying, if not profiting by, the example of Basic. But these selections, when they have not been made without any system at all, have at best been based on simply noting the most frequently used words in newspapers, etc., which is a long way from noting those which are of most use.55
There is a tendency for those who have not given much attention to Basic to take the view that the learner might be happier to have two or three hundred more words than to get control of what in most language books are named 'prepositional phrases.' The answer to this is that all the uses of the names of operations and directions given in the early stages are needed for any purpose; that those which come in later are at least as necessary for reading and talking any sort of English as the new words would be, and are of value in building up a knowledge of the root uses; that every new word, however simple it may seem, is a new sound which may not be common in the learner's natural language, and may be a cause of trouble with other Basic words; that all common words have their tricks and special uses (like bear), of which teachers are generally quite unconscious; and that any such additions, outside a small number of 'strong verbs' which are the hardest of all, would be little help in covering the field till after the 850 themselves had done their work.
Basic is as much a protest against this new school which, with the 850 words before it, is attempting to make the first steps to English simpler without system, as against the old, which has no war-cries such as 'Correct English' but is at least wasting the learner's time with some belief of the value of hard work. Simple English as an instrument of education is something more than a short way to reading Tid-Bits, and Basic will only be of use to education authorities when they are conscious of the damage which is being done by viewing the schools as a forcing-house for hotel-porters. The porters may be able to say the right thing in three languages, but so are the birds at the Zoo who have been learning by the 'Direct Method' from sailors.
It is the business of the school to do something more than this; and a start may be made with The Basic Way to English, in which the 850 words are covered in four Language Books. All four have pictures on every page, with questions for testing the learner's knowledge at the end of every division. In addition, there are four Teaching Books for those who have no time for a complete training with the ABC. Simple reading-material goes with these.56
Before making a start it is important to give the learner a clear idea of the range and purpose of Basic. Even the very young do better when they have a bird's-eye view of the country through which they will be journeying by slow stages. They see that the end of the journey is not so far away, that there are good reasons for the rules, that there are no unnecessary details, and that if they are going on to an English of 10,000 or 20,000 words the 850 are an instrument by which new words may be controlled as they come in.
The list itself will be kept before the learner till the sounds and senses are clear and every word has been marked off in connection with the group in which it was first given. For learning and general use 'the bit of notepaper' is the right size for the pocket, and it is a common experience that even those who have never before done work out of school hours will come back with more in their heads than before.
Older learners who may have got a certain distance with some sort of English before attacking Basic will naturally be surprised if they are given something which seems to them to be designed for the first year's work only. The attraction of words is like that of money; more words seem to be a sign of power, and even if when we 'disembark' we only get off a ship, 'disembarkation' gives the simple-minded the same sort of feeling as the colored acqua pura which is so much used by medical men for other diseases of the mind. The teacher who is ready to keep away from complex and shorthand forms of language till the building of the framework is complete will be able to make the position clear. The learner has to be made to see that he will not be limited in any way after two or three months, that walking comes before running, and that he is certain to be making foolish errors all the time if he is unable to get control of the 850 words which are the key to the rest before airing his chance knowledge of additions from newspapers, verse, and the market-place.
The thought to keep in mind is that 850 words come before 851, and that the 851st word may be any one of those which, like other additions outside its list, Basic is able to put into operation. And if, as is clear, the 850 themselves make it possible to do all the work, even in business or science, for example, a discussion of the place of Basic in these important fields may be a further help to the teacher in getting his learners to see why they are taking the right first step.
55. Ogden here referred specifically, though without naming any names, to three or four rival systems which in their day had a certain notoriety. Today, this old history is long forgotten and the references would be not merely of no interest but quite mysterious to most readers. The general statement made in the last two sentences has therefore been substituted. -ED.
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56. The Basic Way to English, Books I-IV (Teaching Books separate) from Evans Brothers, "Our Changing Times" from The Basic English Publishing Co., and "The Basic Reading Books" from Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons. [The last two are now out of print. -ED.]