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

Dan Everett: Dark Matter of the Mind (2016

This I found a hard book, as I do not automatically recall the theories of every Western philosopher, linguist, anthropologist and psychologist who has ever lived! Dan Everett relates his sociolinguistic explanation of the structure of language to its derivation from not only the whole history of Western thought but also refers to parallels in Buddhist explanations of human behaviour. His bibliography includes, moreover, a work by Carl Rogers, who founded a school of counselling based on a recognition of the emotional nature of human beings. I happen to be aware of this work as my brother has counselled damaged and difficult teenagers very successfully using this school of counselling.

However, in spite of the overload of philosophy, the new material in this book is, as far as I know, original and very convincing. The title encapsulates the metaphor used for constructing this theory. Astro-physicists tell us that the universe is made up largely of “dark matter” which is (at present at least) inaccessible to human senses and gadgetry. (Presumably, mathematics leads them to believe in its physical presence.) Everett argues that the human mind is similarly largely made up of patterns of behaviour and ideas which we have acquired from the people we live amongst and of which we are normally unaware. Some of this can be accessed through introspection and therapy, and some is forever ineffable. For instance, when we can ride a bike, we forget the sequence of skills which we learned when we started and take it for granted. Basic attitudes on such matters as religion, gender roles, race and political allegiance also drop into the cavern of the unconscious but they make us what we are.

Very telling is the description of his experience as a Christian missionary among various remote tribes of Amerindians in the Amazon particularly the Piraha. Everett flushes out the largely unconscious beliefs of the would-be converters and the convertees and it is all too clear that the incompatibility between the two world views makes it impossible to reconcile them. My life has been full of arguments which, I now comprehend, got nowhere because of basically incompatible “dark matter” (e.g. Marxism and Catholicism, or people who know something of the former Soviet Union and those who know nothing.) In the chapter Dark Matter and Hermeneutics Everett flushes out the implicit knowledge which underlies all human speech and writing through the close examination of texts.

What I found surprising is that Everett’s list of the differences between the Piraha and Portuguese languages includes an absence of phatic communication in the former. I hope he will write more about this at some point. It seems that mothers do not talk baby talk to their infants, which is amazing to us. However, they do use “hum speech” in communicating with babies, so this may be an equivalent. Fascinating is his detailed description of the way grammar and phonology are used for different purposes in the two languages. I met this myself when I was living in Bulgaria and trying to learn the language. There is in Bulgarian a whole group of verb forms which look like the perfect tense in English. Many years after I ran down a grammar of Bulgarian which explained that they in fact indicate that the authenticity of the information is not guaranteed. This is also an important feature of Piraha grammar.

This book for me opens a new chapter in the expansion of understanding about language. I just wish I were a young linguist starting on a career of research!




How Language Began (continued)

The very title of Dan Everett’s book is a challenge to more than what, since the 1960s, has become linguistic orthodoxy. In 1866 the French Academy of Sciences forbade further discussion of the subject rightly arguing that there was insufficient evidence to make discussion anything more than wild speculation. How Language Began surveys the many subjects that now have a contribution to make to this ever-fascinating topic. Particularly interesting is the research in the field of Evolutionary Biology, which leads Everett to postulate that speech did not spring whole from the brain of homo sapiens but may well have been developed by our cousins on the evolutionary tree homo erectus.

Where Chomsky’s exploration of language is psycholinguistic, examining and attempting to describe the emergence of language in the individual human brain, Everett’s is a more generous sociolinguistic approach. He attributes the structure of language to the demands of culture and the need of the members of all societies to communicate. It is, he argues, an evolutionary process not one that is biologically programmed into all human brains (Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device). Everett is drawing, of course, on a knowledge of more than European languages. The Pirahas of the Amazon jungle, whose language Everett described, do not have tense markers because life is so precarious that they live in the present.

Most cogent (and difficult) is a large section on new knowledge about the human brain produced by the use of recent technology such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging. This indicates that, when people speak, many areas of the brain are shown to be active. Language, he argues, is intimately connected to other cognitive functions, including gesture. There is in the brain no one place, as was supposed in the last century, for language. Chomsky’s hypothesis is simply wrong.

It is disappointing that Everett not only does not refer to alternative sociolinguistic descriptions of language like that associated with MAK Halliday and the Australian school of linguistics, but does not seem to know about the fascinating work of Guy Deutscher, who has put forth exciting hypotheses about the emergence of grammatical features based on his study of ancient Akkadian documents. (See earlier blog.)

I see Everett has already (2016) published another book, which sounds pretty challenging – Dark Matter of the Mind: the Culturally Articulated Unconscious. I look forward to moving on to that.




Daniel Everett: How Language Began

Daniel Everett: How Language Began (2017)

This is the promised blog on the book which encapsulates the current revolution in the approach to the study of language.

When I was lucky enough to be sent off to the University of Essex to do an MA in Applied Linguistics in 1976, the core of the course was the then revolutionary approach to language study of Noam Chomsky. He had thrown down the gauntlet to the previous paradigm of Skinner and the behaviourists by proposing that language, especially the grammar, was too complex to be learned by small children and therefore had to be innate i.e. programmed into the human brain. This idea, known as Transformational Generative Grammar, has dominated the field of the scientific study of language for the last fifty years. It has got increasingly mathematic and esoteric.

I never found it useful for my own purposes, which was, first, the description of the language of literature and, secondly, the description and teaching of the abstract language of school discourse. I used Systemic Linguistics, the traditionally based analysis of language, brilliantly developed and refined by the English linguist, MAK Halliday (since developed in Australia).

When trying more recently to catch up with developments in Linguistics, I was surprised to find that research workers like Tomasello, needing a system that described varieties of language, automatically turned to Transformational Generative Grammar as the only possible descriptive tool and, not surprisingly, found it inadequate.

Disquietude with Chomskyan Linguistics has been evident in many quarters and, finally, Daniel Everett, the linguist who made his name by recounting his hands-on experience in the field of recording and analysing the language of remote tribes in the Amazon rainforest, has thrown down the gauntlet to Transformational Generative Linguistics by his 2017 book How Language Began.

I find it fascinating to behold another paradigm shift in action!



Books for the blog

I have been dilatory in keeping up with this blog but I have been reading several books which are very impressive. Above all, I have just finished a book which was what my friends and I started looking for ten years ago. We wanted to catch up with what has been happening in linguistics since we were professionally engaged with the subject. It is:

Daniel Everett: How Language Began.

To summarise it is a formidable task and I will embark on it soon. It has been worth waiting for!









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