31 December 2009

HAPPY NEW YEAR (in different languages)

In a recent post, I suggested that Latin-based languages are inherently more longwinded than Nordic-Germanic languages, and that this may have a bearing on differences in the way we use gestures in conversation (HERE).

A comparison of the words used for saying "Happy Christmas" in different languages showed that Latin-based languages took an average of 0.75 more syllables to communicate the same greeting (HERE).

When it comes to wishing someone "Happy New Year", Latin languages have a more decisive lead in the syllable stakes, with an average of twice as many as in English, Danish, Swedish and German:

LANGUAGE

WORDS

SYLLABLES

English

Happy New Year

4

Danish

Godt Nytaar

3

Swedish

Gott nytt år

3

German

Prosit Neujahr

4

Average:

3.00

French

Bonne Année

3

Portuguese

Feliz Ano Novo

6

Italian

Felice Anno Nuovo

8

Spanish

Feliz Ano Nuevo

7

Average:

6.00

30 December 2009

Video clips of the year

Looking at other blogs has reminded me that it's the time of year for posting lists of the top 10 this or that, favorite posts of the year, etc.

As an avid student of video, who's managed to inflict an average of 10 clips a month on the blogoshere during 2009, I've picked out twelve that might amuse anyone wondering what to do between now and the arrival of 2010.

Top of the list for me the June entry - because the brevity and straightness of Mr Clarke's one word answer to the question makes it stand out as unique in my collection of interviews with British politicians - and is, alas, quite unlike anything we'll be hearing in the forthcoming general election.

28 December 2009

Putin's putrid prose

With the publication of a Russian translation of my book Lend Me Your Ears scheduled for early next year, I'm grateful to my brother for some encouraging news from a friend of his, a native speaker of the language who's been resident in the UK for a number of years.

She thinks there should be a 'healthy demand' for it in Russia, not least because of the unsophisticated language used by the likes of Mr Putin. If that's the good news, there's also some bad news that highlights just how little we know about Russian politics in the post-Soviet era.

According to her, "Russians are still desperate to put behind them politicians like Brezhnev, who could hardly put two words together, and Yeltsin who was a laughing stock."

Apparently there's a big difference between Putin and Medvedev: "The latter makes speeches in a Western style, complete with jokes, and is extremely smooth compared with Putin who, as an unreformed KGB man, speaks extremely crudely."

You can see a specimen of just how crude he can be in the following reply to a question from a French journalist.

He's also been known to make jokes about rape and, if you want to get really depressed about the prospect of his coming back as Russian president once he becomes elegible again, have a look at this:



P.S. Two years later
I've just noticed that the original YouTube video had been removed. Luckily, there are plenty of others of the same thing.

24 December 2009

Happy Christmas to all my readers - regardless of language & gestures!

I was just going to wish you all a Happy Christmas, until I saw that Marion Chapsal had made a comment on the previous post about the use of gestures and the number of syllables per-sentence in different languages - in which she rightly pointed out that there are the same number of syllables in the French and English versions of 'Happy Christmas'.

So I thought I'd check out how many syllables/beats are needed to get the same message across in a sample of Nordic-Germanic languages on the one hand and Latin-based languages on the other.

Given what I was suggesting in the previous post, the survey got off to a bad start with the discovery that the German version of Happy Christmas has 5 syllables.

But, as you'll see from the score card below, the brevity of Swedish, with only 2 syllables, came to the rescue and brought the Nordic-Germanic average down to 3.75 - comfortably fewer than the average of 4.5 syllables in Latin languages.

As for whether or not Latin speakers have to accompany such cheeriness with distinctive gestures must await further empirical research.

Meanwhile, a very happy Christmas to you all, whatever your native tongue - and regardless of how many syllables you need to say it!

LANGUAGE


English

Danish

Swedish

German


French

Portuguese

Italian

Spanish


WORDS

Happy Christmas

Glaedelig Jul

God Jul

Frohe Weihnachte

Average:

Joyeux Nöel

Feliz Natal

Buon Natale

Feliz Navidad

Average:


Syllables

4

4

2

5

3.75

4

4

5

5

4.5

21 December 2009

Linguistic differences and non-verbal behavior: the mysterious case of gestures

On a recent trip to Rome, I was reminded of the fact that it's commonly believed, at least by native speakers of English, that people who speak Latin-based languages seem to gesticulate more frequently and more vigorously than we do.

It wasn't that I saw lots of locals waiving their hands about, but I was struck by what a lot of writing there seemed to be on the road signs on the way into town from the airport.

Then, on entering the lift in the hotel, I was struck again by the length of the warning notice - so much so that I actually took a photograph of it (above).

The big difference between Italian and English isn't so much the number of words as the fact that the Italian version has twice as many syllables as the English translation:

IN CASO DI INCENDIO NON USARE L'ASCENSORE USARE LE SCALE (24 syllables)

IN CASE OF FIRE DO NOT USE THE LIFT USE THE STAIRS (12 syllables)

The point about syllables is that each one is a separate beat, so that the more beats there are in a sentence, the longer it will take to say it aloud.

This reminded me of some questions that originally occurred to me about thirty years ago as I was reading a notice about how to get into the lifeboats on a ferry between England and France - where two lines of English were translated into three lines of French.
  1. Are Latin languages inherently more 'long-winded' than English?
  2. If so, does this create problems for turn-taking that hadn't been noticed by research originally based on tape recordings of conversations between native speakers of English?
  3. If so, could a greater reliance on gestures be a practical solution to any such problems?
Combating the threat of an approaching bowl of potatoes
The reason why these questions occurred to me then was that I'd just returned from one of the first international conferences on conversation analysis at Boston University, where I'd taken part in a data session analysing a videotape of a dinner party at which a bowl of potatoes was being passed along the row of three diners on one side of the table.

A woman sitting opposite the man furthest away from the potatoes was telling him a story. When the potatoes reached the person next to him, she leant towards him and carried on with her tale. Then, a split second before the bowl reached the man being told the story, the speaker's hands suddenly came up from the table and she began to accompany her story with increasingly vigorous gestures.

The more the sequence was replayed, the more it looked as though her movements were precisely timed and choreographed with the movement of the bowl towards her listener. Leaning towards him came across as the first step in her bid to retain his undivided attention in the face of the growing threat of the approaching potatoes.

Her gestures, beginning as they did just before the bowl arrived in his hands, looked like an increasingly determined, if not desperate, effort to keep him listening.

So what?
If one of the things we do with gestures is to combat threats to the attentiveness of our listeners, this raises the question of whether speakers of Latin languages like Italian, Spanish and French have more reason to use them than speakers of a predominantly Germanic-Nordic language like English?

The number of beats/syllables needed to say the words in the Italian fire warning pictured above (or the lifeboat instructions on the cross-Channel ferry) points to a reason why the problem of holding attention may be greater in some languages than others - which would give speakers of those languages more of an incentive to use gestures.

Given that conversation depends on turn-taking, the longer a turn takes, the more of a challenge it is for listeners to remain attentive until the previous speaker has finished.

We know from some of the earliest work on turn-taking by the late Harvey Sacks that, if we're going to tell a story, we have to alert people to the fact in advance - so that they can prepare themselves for having to do more listening than usual.

So, if the production of sentences in language (A) requires more beats/syllables than the production of sentences in language (B), holding the attention of listeners will be inherently more of a problem for speakers of (A) than it is for speakers of (B).

And, if gestures help to hold attention, you would therefore expect speakers of language (A) to gesticulate more than speakers of language (B).

Culture, language or climate?
The standard way of explaining why Latin speakers are alleged to gesticulate more than English speakers is on the basis of ill-defined cultural generalisations along the lines that the Italians, French and Spanish are more 'emotional' and 'expressive' than people in Britain, North America and Australasia.

But there's an empirical vagueness to such claims that makes me rather more convinced by the idea that it has more to do with the way turn-taking is affected by inherent differences in the length of sentences in different languages (as measured by number of beats/syllables per sentence).

Or at least I was convinced until I mentioned the theory at another conference, where a Swedish delegate came up with a rather different, but nonetheless plausible, explanation:

"It's warm around the Mediterranean, but we native speakers of Swedish have to keep our hands in our pockets because it's too cold to waive them around all the time."

20 December 2009

Christmas circulars and the rise of undisciplined writing in the digital age

The mass availability of computers has brought about a new Christmas ritual, as more and more people use their recently acquired word-processing skills to insert family newsletters into envelopes that once conveyed nothing but a card and the occasional hand-written note about births, marriages and deaths.

But now we get extended boasts about the writer's children, exotic holidays, new cars, cats, dogs and grandchildren. As the years pass by, we've also noticed a depressing increase in the amount of news about illnesses and bereavements.

Length and lack of care
One thing these circulars have in common is that they're far longer than the hand-written notes they've replaced. They can go on for anything up to four pages. This year's verbosity victory went to one that looked like only two, but was printed in a font so small that the author managed to pack in 3,000 words that were unreadable without the help of a magnifying glass.

Another common feature is that the quality of writing leaves much to be desired. Elementary grammatical mistakes abound, as do apostrophe abuse and the curious but widespread belief that sentences should end with exclamation marks! One of this year's scribes seemed to think that one such mark is never enough and that there should be at least four of them!!!!

Worst of all, the writing is undisciplined, long-winded and shows little sign of any editing at all - even though the technology makes it so easy to delete words and sentences as you go along.

This brings me to why I think word processing has a lot to answer for when it comes to explaining why something that might have been expected to improve the way we write has actually had the opposite effect.

One step to the finished article
The trouble is that professional-looking fonts make a first draft look just as finished and professional as the final draft used to look after you'd been through quite a lot of stages - at each one of which there would be further scope for correction, editing and stylistic improvement.

As you went from one step to the next, the manuscript gradually looked better than it did earlier on, until you eventually reached publication day when the pages looked as pristine and professional as today's word-processed draft already looks at stage (1).

For those too young to remember the process, it went something like this:
  1. Hand-written version (for one particularly difficult chapter of a book I wrote 30 years ago, only about about one sentence a page survived without being crossed out or amended, which meant throwing out 19 pages for every one I kept), followed by
  2. the author's amateurishly typed version, with much Tippex and scissors & pasting before handing it to
  3. a secretary who typed a neat version which
  4. still needed further editing and amendments before
  5. the final typed version was submitted to publisher who would eventually send back
  6. galley-proofs for copy editing (with minor changes still possible) before
  7. PUBLICATION OF THE ARTICLE/BOOK
More means worse?
I realise that, in saying all this, it might look as though I'm taking a 'holier than thou' attitude towards writers who regard the Christmas circular as a practical way of improving their communication of family news to friends and relations.

But I'm not claiming to be immune from the negative impact that computers are having on the way we write - if only because I know that I rarely spend as much time, or take as much care, when writing posts for this blog as I do when I'm writing for a more traditional form publication.

But I do find it all rather worrying because of the way that computerised word-processing has reduced the amount of quality control that once went into what we wrote.

This, coupled with the seemingly infinite expansion of written information made possible by the internet, means that more very often does mean worse - which might not matter were it not for the fact that you have to plough your way through so much poorly-written prose to discover what's worth reading and what isn't.

17 December 2009

Why does a government department force visitors to watch Sky News in silence?

If you want to get really steamed up about 'scandalous wastes of tax payers money', you can't beat spending a day or two in a government department - as I did earlier this week.

Needless to say, I'm not talking about the extraordinarily worthwhile benefits they gain from paying modest fees to external consultants like me.

What does concern and baffle me are the two gigantic flat screen television sets that were mounted side by side on a wall in the reception area. At first sight, you might think, it's a nice idea to deploy top of the range TV sets to provide some entertainment for visitors as they wait to be allowed a little bit further into the building.

Why silent movies?
But just what is the point of wasting money on two identical TV screens showing the same programme with the sound turned off?

Are they trying to improve their visitors' lip-reading skills, or is visual wallpaper some kind of subliminal protest against the ever-more prevalent scourge of piped music?

Why Sky News?
Then there's the question of why the viewing of choice from a government department should be Sky News?

If the idea is that their visitors might be interested in the ticker-tape 'breaking news' captions, why don't they show us publicly-funded BBC News 24, which would at least spare us from having to watch commercials funneling yet more cash into the Murdoch family's pockets?

Or is it a last feeble attempt by a dying government to persuade the owners of The Sun to reverse their newspaper's support for the Conservative Paty at the forthcoming general election?

Whatever the answer is to these perplexing questions, would you spend thousands of pounds of your company's hard-earned money on state of the art television sets for showing silent (news) movies to your visitors?

Financial regulators were 'party poopers'

Economics is a highly technical subject that can make it difficult for anyone trying to explain things like the recent financial crisis to a general audience.

The previous post showed Vince Cable, former chief economist at Shell, talking about it as a heart attack still in need of steroids.

Here's another economist who knows how to make the most of imagery. Talking about the origins of the crisis, Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz is explaining the origins of the crisis - when there was a party going on that got out of hand because the regulators didn't want to be 'party poopers'.

Like all imagery, it's not literally true, but the point comes across with force and clarity.

video

13 December 2009

Dr Cable's 'medical' diagnosis of our economic problems

I've just been doing some homework preparing a course for some high-powered economists next week.

At the heart of the brief I've been given is that they want get better at communicating complicated technical material to non-specialist audiences.

The search for suitable examples took me to my collection of clips from Vince Cable, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, about whom I've already posted quite a few examples and comments:
'On the subject of 'boring subjects', one of the interesting things on the British political scene in the recent past has been the rising esteem for the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, whose star has risen on the back of his ability to sound as though he's talking more sense about complicated economic and financial topics than most of his competitors.

'However boring and incomprehensible such subjects may seem at first sight - or when coming out of the mouths of Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling - Cable talks about them with clarity and authority.

'And it's probably no coincidence that, unlike most of his political opponents, he's one of the ever-decreasing number of MPs who actually had a proper job outside politics before becoming a full-time politician.

'As chief economist at Shell, making economics intelligible to colleagues who weren't trained as economists must have been a routine part of Vince Cable's everyday working life - that has now, in his 'new' life, become his strongest 'political' asset.'

When it comes to making set-piece speeches, Cable is not the most brilliant exponent of the art, and his real forte is in unscripted Q-A sessions, whether on programmes like Question Time, Newsnight or in media interviews.

In this clip, after introducing the idea that the system has suffered a heart attack, he goes on to round off the point with a 3-part list - and it's worth remembering that his PhD was in economics, not medicine (or rhetoric):

CABLE: This was an enormous shock to the system - a big economic heart attack - so it's not surprising that a lot of damage has been done ...
[1] ... we've got a patient that's in intensive care,
[2] it's been rescued from a disastrous heart attack
[3] but it still needs the monetary steroids.

video

Some related posts on using imagery to get messages across:

10 December 2009

The Orwell Award 2010: Request for help from readers

After fifteen months of blogging, I've just had an unsolicited email that's made it all seem worthwhile.

It's from the people who run the annual Orwell Awards, one of which is for a blog. It's open to anyone to submit their blog - so if you feel like submitting yours, you can find further details of how to do it and what they're looking for HERE.

Like all the other candidates, I'll have to submit ten of the things I've posted between 1 January and 31 December, 2009, which poses the problem of how to select a top 10 from the 319 posts that have appeared (so far) during the year.

HELP PLEASE!
As those of us who write are the least well-qualified to evaluate what we've written, this is where I'm hoping you might be able to help.

If you've seen any posts on the blog during the year that you can still actually remember, and/or that struck you as being particularly interesting, novel or consistent with the 'values' of the Orwell Prize (for more on which, see HERE), I'd greatly appreciate it if you could let me know which ones they were - either in the comments below or by email to maxatkinson(AT)speaking.co.uk).

And if you've time to refresh your memory and select a top 10, there's full list of links to everything posted on the blog since it started HERE.

7 December 2009

Is there someone who doesn't want us to see 'Life After Death by PowerPoint'?

I've just discovered that an embedded link to a YouTube video on a post six months ago 'has been removed due to terms of use violation.'

This strikes me as being rather interesting, if only because I'd been writing about being under legal pressure to 'tone down' some of my comments on the pros and cons of PowerPoint before the publication of my book Lend Me Your Ears - and had pointed to this video as an example of something that was 'freely available on YouTube and, as far as I know, hasn't attracted any attention from Microsoft's legal department.'

The removal of the version on YouTube that I'd embedded suggests that someone somewhere isn't very happy about it.

But the good news is that, if you missed comedian Don McMillan's take on PowerPoint, you can still watch it by linking to YouTube from HERE or below:

video

6 December 2009

Phone box becomes the world's smallest library and a worldwide news story

We've just had a visit from a German television crew, who've latched on to a story about our village that's been brewing for quite a few weeks - and has already been reported on as far away as Wells, Russia and Canada.

It all started at a tea party in the village square at the end of August, where a main topic of discussion was what to do with the phone box, which British Telecom had offered to sell to the Parish Council for £1.

Jan Fisher (interviewed HERE) came up with the idea of a book-exchange, as the travelling library no longer comes to the village.

So that's what happened and, as well as receiving a special award of £500 from BT, we've also received a huge amount of publicity (e.g. HERE).

Apart from being a nice example of how media outlets feed on each other for news stories, it raises a couple of intriguing questions.
  1. Why has this seemingly trivial event attracted such widespread interest?
  2. If I put my books in the book exchange, would it damage sales or work like a loss-leader and encourage readers to buy copies for colleagues, friends and relations?

4 December 2009

Basil's book hits the headlines again



Basil catches up on the latest newspaper report about his school friends and new book, Basil's School Antics - a purrfect Christmas present for young and old, sponsored by Bristol Water in aid of Basil's village school and Water Aid.

Copies available (£4.99, including postage) from author Clare Blackmore (tel: +44 (0)1749 8704370 or email: cblackmore at educ.somerset.gov.uk) - and at least one copy to be won in our Christmas competition.

2 December 2009

Steve Jobs shows how to time the changing of slides in a presentation (and how not to)

A few weeks ago, I posted a video showing how effectively Steve Jobs used an object as a visual aid when introducing the MacBook Air, and hinted that there might be some more comments to come about his performance in the same presentation

In addition to showing how to make the most of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, Jobs also demonstrated how (and how not) to time the changing of slides with what you're saying.

1. Sooner rather than later
One very common habit in this slide-dependent age is that speakers can't wait to press the button to bring up a new slide or a new bullet point. This creates the impression that they don't know what to say until the prompt has appeared on screen to remind them. It also gives the game away to the audience before you've had chance to deliver the news to the audience from the horse's mouth (i.e. yours).

The advantage of saying something before it appears on screen is that it makes it look as though you're in charge, you know what's coming next and you're in control of slides that are merely supporting you (rather than being controlled or prompted by them). This is why my books and courses recommend that later rather than sooner is the safest guide to when you should press the button to bring on a new slide.

In this first sequence, Steve Jobs is going through the characteristics of note book computers before the super-thin MacBook Air that he's about to announce (here). But each of the bullet points appears before he makes the various points about them. Then, when he starts to allocate ticks and crosses to the list, the tick and crosses again come up on the screen before he pronounces verdicts on each one of them.

As you watch it, consider whether or not you think his performance would have improved if he'd waited to press the button later rather than sooner - and then compare it with what he does in the second clip.

video

2. Later rather than sooner
Shortly after the first sequence above, Jobs starts using the power of contrast to show how thin the MacBook Air is compared with the Sony TZ series notebook computers - and this time his timing is much better.

You'll see how the the green pictorial image of the MacBook Air appears just after he says "This is the MacBook Air" - prompting laughter, cheers and applause from the audience - after which he goes on to ram the contrast home with:

"The thickest part of the MacBook Air is still thinner than the thinnest part of the TZ series."

video

Speechwriters' Christmas drinks + a speech worth watching

I've just had an email from Brian Jenner reminding people that the UK Speechwriters' Guild Christmas drinks party will be held from 7.00 p.m. on Thursday 10 December in the Theatre Bar of the Victoria, 10a Strathearn Place, London, W2 (and to which members are invited to bring a guest).

Brain also attached a link to the best presentation he saw this year (below) and asks if anyone else has any other great speeches to which they'd like to draw attention - suggestions to him or in comments below.