The Language of Learning


Welcome to the website of Mary Mason, the author of Breakthrough to Learning. This is a linguistics – based course for secondary schools, which teaches the language needed for academic success. When used systematically in Wigan 1984-91, the program had the effect of doubling the percentage of pupils gaining five or more GCSE’s grades A-C across the curriculum. (See Mason, Mason and Quayle 1992 under downloads.) Continue reading

Guy Deutscher: Through the Language Glass

We are now halfway through this book and enjoying it very much, not least the malicious wit with which the author challenges received opinions in Linguistics.

On looking up the author’s background, it is clear that he has come to the study of language after a successful academic career in Mathematics, which is notoriously exigent in demanding evidence for any statement. He finds Linguistics lacking in academic rigour in this respect.

For example, it has been axiomatic in Linguistic studies that “all languages are equally complex”. When I learned this, I realised that the reason for this statement was to counter the popular opinion that technologically primitive people are cognitively and linguistically primitive.

However, it has been left to Deutscher to challenge this statement as a matter of fact. He shows in this book that, not only is there no evidence from real languages for this statement, but there is no measure of complexity in language. Some languages are more complex than others at the morphological level – German, with its case and gender endings is more complex that English in this respect, for example. Which language is more complex at the level of the clause? No-one has done this research or attempted to produce a measure of complexity.

It seems that isolated languages spoken by few people are less complex phonologically than more widely used languages, clearly because people who know one another well cut down on the sounds for communication (by the force of linguistic destruction described in Deutscher’s previous book i.e. laziness). Otherwise the field is wide open for research.

The Unfolding of Language: Guy Deutscher

Guy Deutscher: The Unfolding of Language

We have “finished” this book at last. That is, two of us have read and discussed it, chapter by chapter. The third has been visiting her eighteen-month-old grandson and bringing back to us fresh data on language acquisition. We have been highly satisfied with our reading of the book and even more delighted by Isaac’s miraculous move into language.

In this book Guy Deutscher has made a convincing case for using the processes of language change which we can see at work now to propose a theory as to how these same processes have shaped language over the four thousand years or so for which we have evidence in the form of written records. He makes the parallel with Geology, which also uses evidence from the present day to understand the historical processes which have formed the earth. He firmly leaves on one side questions, such as the relation between animal language and human language, for which we have no evidence. Continue reading

Daniel Everett: Language: The Cultural Tool

Having wrestled with Tomasello’s Constructing a Language for several weeks, my friends and I decided to choose something easier for our next book.

Tomasello’s book was difficult because it was, as the author notes, intended as a textbook which he could not manage to write. The ideas were not particularly difficult but readers like us needed more examples to understand what he was referring to. The main purpose of the book was to join the growing chorus of linguists putting forward a sociological approach to language learning in opposition to the psycholinguistic approach of Chomsky and his followers, which has dominated academic linguistics for half a century. To people like us, used to systemic linguistics, this is hardly a new idea. It still astonishes me that Tomasello (and now Everett) make no reference to Halliday’s pioneering work in the field. Continue reading

Good news

Two pieces of good news about Breakthrough to Learning

1.It appears as part of the curriculum followed at Matthew Moss High School. This can be accessed on Youtube. Particularly interesting is the site Innovation Unit, showing that the school is among the ten most innovative schools in the world.

It notes that the school has achieved a 28 point increase in the Best 8 Value Added measures since 2013. It is gratifying that BtL is playing a part in this.

The Head’s blogs on Ofstead make very good reading.

2.I received the email below:

Catharine Driver

Dear Mary,
I have been an admirer and user of your work for years. I am now
working for the National Literacy Trust and am in a position to
publicize some of your resources more widely. In the first instance,
could I use some of the Self Access Knowledge about Language course? I
want to produce an easy grammar self -audit for Secondary teachers (
whose grammar knowledge is even worse than Primary these days!) and
then refer them to your course if they want to do more work on this.
This would be published on line as part of our Literacy CPD offer. It
will only be accessible from our Network (Here is a link to our
thanks in advance.

Sent from (ip address): (
Date/Time: February 4, 2016 12:53 pm





Michael Tomasello: Constructing a Language

We are now studying chapter 7 of this heavy tome and have got the hang of what the author is doing. It is primarily opening up a new framework for research into language acquisition, one different from Chomsky’s Transformational Generative model that has dominated Linguistics for the last half century. Transformational Generative Grammar offers a mathematical schema for describing the syntax of language based on the idea that all languages can be described in the same way because they are the product of the innate system which all human beings share.

The new paradigm argues that the structure of language is determined by the social demands made on it and is learned by children from interacting with older members of the tribe. It is based on two capacities of the human being: one, looking for patterns and, two, communicating with another human being by pointing at something in the world. No other ape does this – Tomasello is Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and he should know! Continue reading

Language Acquisition

My friends and I have been meeting most weeks to study Cognitive Linguistics. It proved to be harder than we’d hoped, largely because the book we chose was not a teaching book but one written for scholars who already knew more about the subject than we did.

We’re now approaching the subject from another angle – that of child language acquisition. The timing could not be better, as one of us has a one-year-old grandson, who is ready to move into speech. His first word is /ka:/ for “cat”. My friend is technologically advanced and has taken some delightful video clips of Isaac for us to relate to the literature. We are all soppy about babies, so it is a huge pleasure to have this data to study. What is wonderful is to see Isaac’s total concentration and awareness as he tunes into the language around him and tries to become part of the speaking community.

We are using Tomasello’s Constructing a Language as our textbook, and we’re hoping to put some of his frameworks over data from Isaac – for example, rate of expansion of vocabulary over time and class of words understood and used.

We’ll keep you posted!

Sign Supported English

In my last blog I recorded my observations from regular visits to the Deaf Cultural Centre (for their excellent lunches). While some of the deaf people there were clearly using full BSL (British Sign Language) – quietly and undemonstratively communicating with their hands, others (including the friendly people who tried to teach some signs to my friend and me) were clearly using something quite different. These signs were not arbitrary but clearly related to the gestures and imitative movements that hearing people would use.

Alf Stewart, who fulfils various roles at the Centre, explained to me that this language is Sign Supported English, quite different from BSL but a lot easier to learn for limited everyday uses than BSL. It all goes to show how ingenious people are at overcoming handicaps to communication.

Afterthoughts on BSL

I am lucky enough to live almost next door to the Midlands Cultural Centre for the Deaf (which is open to the public for excellent lunches and snacks). The deaf and hearing people who run the centre are very welcoming and try to teach us bits of Sign. Contrary to what I was arguing in my last blog, most of the signs we try to learn are iconic (i.e. mimic the thing depicted) e.g. sausage roll, fish and chips. (Most of our vocabulary is food items.)

It is nice to see how relaxed and happy are the fluent Sign users – unlike our odd words, BSL is clearly a complex and arbitrary system, like any other language.

However, I sometimes watch the television programmes accompanied by an interpreter in BSL. It seems to me that they use a variety of semiotic systems, including lip-reading and finger spelling as well as BSL. I’d like to follow this up sometime.




British Sign Language

Dictionary of British Sign Language / English, produced for the British Deaf Association by Deaf Studies Research Unit, University of Durham, 1992

This is a huge brick of a book, necessarily so since it gives entries for the 1739 signs in British Sign Language (BSL). Each sign requires photos and a detailed descriptive entry. The bulk of the book is taken up with the signs of BSL.

About 160 pages of closely printed text at the beginning give a very clear outline of BSL as a language system. It is clear that at the time of making the dictionary (1992) there was still much linguistic analysis of BSL to be done (e.g. on categorising verbs). The book does not appear to have been updated, but there may well have been further work on a satisfactory description of sign language in the last twenty odd years. Continue reading

Pragmatics (continued)

We’ve had to take a couple of weeks off our study of pragmatics but resumed recently with chapters 5 and 6 of the book we are working through.*

Chapter 5 Speech Acts in Context brought us what we have been waiting for – a coherent framework for describing the interface between the language we use and the meaning we intend it to have in a social context. Several attempts at such a system are outlined, but none are an advance on the groundbreaking work of Sinclair and Coulthard in their 1975 book Towards an Analysis of Discourse.

They recorded lessons in primary schools and analysed them at the level of discourse, using a “rank-scale” of a social activity (in this case the lesson), which is made up of exchanges between teacher and pupils, which can be further sub-divided into acts (a single piece of dialogue). I remember how excited we all were in 1975  by this framework of analysis (especially those of us involved in teacher education). Continue reading