Thursday, 7 June 2012

Talking to real people

Today I gave a talk to some real people. Actual non-academic real people. Normally, we only ever have to explain our research to people who already have a good specialist (or at least basic) knowledge of our topic and the background and framework that underpin it all. Everyone understands the technical terms you use, and you can make certain assumptions and everyone will go along with them.

But it does one good sometimes to step outside the warm bath of academia and see what impression you can make on people who don't have a rigorous grounding in the niceties of Minimalist syntax (for example). How are you going to explain what the Final-Over-Final Constraint is to an audience if they don't know what a head is? Or a VP? Or what 'final' means?

NECLL Current BrochureI was participating in the Explore programme run by the Centre for Lifelong Learning. They ran a training day for postgraduates at universities in the region aimed at helping us to present our research to a public audience. This is something that I'm interested in, because linguistics is so hopelessly unknown and misunderstood in the popular media, and yet everyone is interested in it. Programmes and newspaper articles about language go down an absolute storm, but the only linguist anyone's heard of is David Crystal. Yes, they've heard of Chomsky too, but not for his linguistics. Your average person knows more about how the Large Hadron Collider works than their own language.

The interest that people have in language was illustrated today, after my talk, when the audience had a chance to ask questions and make comments. They all had something to say, offering interesting facts about other languages, or making observations about the way language is used now or might be at some other time. From their feedback it seems that they found my topic interesting. Wow. Some readers of this blog will be wondering how on earth I made my dry, dull, theoretical syntax PhD into a talk that didn't send them to sleep. It is of course all due to my captivating speaking persona.

But seriously, these are people that learn for fun, so they're willing to put a bit of effort in (although they don't want to feel like they're back at school). However, I knew that for an audience with zero assumed knowledge of syntax, I had to lose a lot of the technicalities but not lose the quality. From the practice run we did at the training day, I found that some people panic at the sight of anything vaguely technical-looking. They pretty much switched off when they saw trees and abbreviations, even though I did try to explain them clearly. For that reason, I did away completely with tree diagrams and replaced them with an analogy of a mobile. I've used that analogy for years, after pinching it from a lecturer, and it works well. Then I entirely removed labels like VP and TP and just did without them. It's convenient for linguists to use them but it turns out you don't need them. Then I filled the talk with cats. People like cats.

I followed the principle we'd learnt at the training day, that rather than start with the general background, it's good to dive straight in to the interesting fact and show some kind of visual (or otherwise memorable) prop. I showed maps from WALS illustrating different patterns of word orders, and how question particles don't look the way they're meant to. It's not the most fascinating graphic in the world, but it's better than a lot of text. I also tried to end on something that they could engage with, and compared my analysis to spurious claims about languages lacking some characteristic or other. I thought that was something they would likely have read about, and have thoughts about, and they did - that sparked some nice discussion. I wish I'd thought to use the Hopi example that came up in the questions, though.

Marcus du Sautoy looking all mathsy
I think that in the middle, some people still got a bit lost. Maybe I didn't explain everything as fully as I should have, or maybe I tried to cover too much and could have sloughed off a bit more syntax. But overall, I was pleased with how it went. I'll work on those things for next time someone's fool enough to put me in front of humans again, and this time next year I'll be the Marcus du Sautoy of linguistics.

Just nobody, not ever, suggest I host this gameshow (I would derail it with anti-prescriptivism):

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