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

Footnote to last bloc

It is a great relief to anybody who values democracy to find that the revelations in the Observer of 26th February are being followed up by responsible public bodies.

The Observer of 5th March reported that the Information Commissioner’s Office (the privacy watchdog) had instigated an inquiry into how Cambridge Analytica had used voters’ personal date to influence the referendum.

The Guardian of 22nd April reported that the Electoral Commission has launched an  investigation into the undeclared help given to the pro-Brexit body Leave.EU by the data company Cambridge Analytica.

Further, the Observer of 12th March published an open letter from Tim Berners-Lee putting forward proposals for changing “the mathematical heart” of the web to prevent the undermining of democracy by the use of data harvesting and fake news.

Since linguistic analysis must have played a part in the programme to influence voters, I hope linguists will contribute to the defeat of the right-wing conspirators whose activities have led to the election of Trump and the Brexit vote.



Trump, Brexit and Breakthrough to Learning

Breakthrough to Learning is based on a linguistic description of the abstract language used by educated people trying to make sense of the world. This layer of abstract language is on top of the everyday language used by everybody, educated and uneducated alike, in setting up social relationships and the norms of their culture

This extra layer of language enables educated people to consider the world in terms of interacting and ever-changing variables. It is indispensable, for instance, in conceptualising the water cycle by giving words to such processes as evaporation, rising, condensation, precipitation. People without abstract language are trapped in the literal concrete descriptions of their everyday experience – it’s going to rain tomorrow.

The scholars and teachers who worked on Breakthrough to Learning were interested primarily in the application of this new knowledge about language to improving the educational achievement of young people. Some of us were also aware of the political importance of enabling the majority of the people in a democracy to make informed and considered choices. This demands abstract language – such as democracy, accountability, economic downturn etc. rather than paying more money to Europe or fake news.

Our vague unhappiness and bemusement about the use of computers exploded into an all too lucid fright on 26th February this year with the appearance of Carole Cadwalladr’s article in the Observer (26//02/2017):







The answer is Robert Mercer, an extreme rightwing hedge fund billionaire, who funded the Trump and Brexit campaigns.

Cadwalladr shows how a group of interlinked extreme rightwing politicians, billionaires and thinktanks are using the unregulated power of Facebook and Twitter to influence elections, including the American Presidential election and the Brexit referendum. Most scary is their computer experts’ access to “big data”, enormous amounts of information about themselves which people unsuspectingly make available online. This enables the computer whizzes employed by the extreme rightwing to target their weak spots and appeal to the emotions of voters unprotected by the rational abstract language which educated people have access to.

The academics contributing to this new consortium are not only computer experts. You can bet that linguists have also been heavily involved. “Cognitive linguistics” has relevance not only to education, it seems, but also to politics.

Cadwalladr’s article exposes why the present political world feels so strange and frightening compared with even a few years ago. It was an educational tragedy that Breakthrough to Learning was not taken up by the educational establishment, when its claims to improve performance were validated in 1991. The failure to extend the power of abstract language to the whole population has resulted in the potential catastrophe of fascism using technology to usher in a new Dark Age.



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.