Pragmatics (continued)

In my blog of 30th November, I shared my first thoughts about the book my friends and I were studying (Jean Stilwell Peccei: Pragmatics). I commented that, unlike syntax and phonology and even certain approaches to discourse analysis, semantics still seems to be a hotchpotch of disconnected attempts to impose a meaningful framework on language and its relation to the real world.

Having worked and argued our way through the book, it is clear that this first impression was well-founded. Historically, language study has always been part of philosophy and philosophers have made several critical contributions to the new discipline of pragmatics.

Peccei draws on the work of the philosophers Grice, Austin and Searle in chapters 4-7 of her  workbook on Pragmatics. In addition, the first chapters of the book come from another traditional area of Philosophy, that of Logic. I shall return to the example in the earlier blog: Continue reading

Seeing Voices

This is the title of a book by Oliver Sacks (1989) about the history of deaf people learning to communicate.

I first became interested in the topic when a former student rang me up: she had found herself teaching the deaf without any training, and she asked me what Linguistics had to offer on the subject. I had just happened to read an article in one of the journals, which supported the use of sign language, rather than the received wisdom of the time, which insisted on deaf people trying to learn to speak and lip read. While this worked for some people, many deaf learners were cognitively impaired because they never learned any full language. Sign language apparently offered full cognitive development because it is a complete language, one which uses the eyes rather than the ears for communication. (Hence Sacks’s title Seeing Voices.) Continue reading


Neither my webmaster nor I can find the blogs I claim to have written about the work my friends and I have been doing on the language of the law (Forensic Linguistics) and the language of medicine, so I shall leave them for the moment and consider our current preoccupation, which is pragmatics.

We made a wise decision to work through a workbook on the subject.* Many of insights we are familiar with (e.g. speech act theory) but we have no systematic knowledge of the area.

The first distinction we had to make was that between semantics and pragmatics. Briefly, semantics deals with the meanings encoded in the language system itself; pragmatics describes the use of language in making meanings in the world. Continue reading

Applied Linguistics

When I did my M.A. in Applied Linguistics in the 1970’s, the term “Applied Linguistics” meant the application of new linguistic insights into the burgeoning world of Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Courses were springing up everywhere in response to the worldwide demand for teachers of English, then already clearly established as the world language. Continue reading

Forensic Linguistics

My friends and I have now read and discussed the first part of Introducing Forensic Linguistics by Malcolm Coulthard and Alison Johnson.

It is written by Alison Johnson, who is a senior police officer as well as a linguist. This part describes and explains the peculiar qualities of the language used in legal institutions, arguing that what seems to the layman to be unnecessarily complex and verbose language has to be so, as the law has to cover all the possibilities.

One of the most interesting points to come out of the analysis of the language used in all stages of the legal process is the “hybrid” nature of many the texts, both written and spoken. Continue reading





A friend recently shared with me a reflection on learning by a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, Ken Holmes. I was struck by how well it describes how I learn in the modern world and how unsatisfactory I often feel it to be. I have the author’s permission to reproduce it here:

Listening, Reflecting, Cultivating


I’ve come to notice more and more the power of word “interesting”—in Britain and France at least— and the way it reflects on our modern mentality. It has become the guideline of evaluation, a key factor of measurement. Something or, worse, someone, can be rather interesting, quite interesting, really interesting, not very interesting at all and so forth. When it comes to giving dharma talks, you are better off making them “interesting” for people otherwise you soon lose them, one way or another. Their mind wanders or, with time, they find other teachers. People like the charismatic speakers, with the clever ways of putting things, new buzzwords or phrases or perhaps those who come up with original examples or metaphors that keep the listener’s mind “interested”. The spiritual quest is mixed with a quest for entertainment and one has to learn to live with that.
This is surely in part due to the conditioning of TV and cinema, where the audience needs to be held captive in order to watch the adverts. It is doubtless also to do with the easy availability of information nowadays. Gone are the days when a spiritual seeker needed to risk life and limb travelling the world to find the rare holy person who would impart the sacred knowledge. The wise words are nearly all just a click or a Youtube away. Their value has plummeted due to market surplus…In-Your-Face-book. If we consider the acquisition of information as being the key point of study, in Buddhism’s famous study-reflection-meditation three steps to wisdom, then this impinges very much on step one-study. There used to be only an oral tradition, in which one listened so, so carefully to what one was being told and tried to commit it to memory; to learn it by heart. Very often these days, people feel this first step—study—to have been accomplished if they have attended a teaching once, or seen the video or read the book. To have encountered and received a first impact of the idea suffices, because one knows it can always be Googled later or found on the hard drive where it has been archived. That is delusion. It is a vital task to study and study and study again, to a point where the knowledge has been properly conceptually mastered and is now inside oneself (in the mind) and not in an object. You can’t take the hard drive into the bardo.

The second stepreflection on the facts acquired—was traditionally where the “interest” came in. It is, in fact, the story of deepening and deepening that interest. It becomes a fascination, just like artists or scientists or other people have who are passionate about their subject, the reward for us Buddhists being for more and more truths to emerge from those basic, acquired ideas. Ones eyes open and open even further. The words which had originally been thought to have been understood now take on much more significance and a real appreciation of the depth of the Buddha’s understanding arises. One peels off layer after layer of the onion (sometimes bringing tears to the eyes). The etymology of the word “interest” comes into play here: the Latin meant “what matters”, “what makes a difference” or “what is of concern”.

The fast-moving mind of today keeps wanting to find new things of interest, to meet new and interesting people. It quickly loses interest. It is interesting (!) to listen to the conversations around one to realise the importance of things being superficially interesting, just enough to amuse the mind for a little while or to titillate the fancy of one’s friends. Deep interest is something else and one hesitates to venture into someone else’s territory of deep interest for fear of being suffocated.

The third step—usually titled “meditation”—is actually one of familiarisation. The Tibetan term sgom which can mean “meditation” more generally means “becoming familiar with” or “becoming habituated to”. The practice of meditation on the cushion is just that—a process of giving oneself the time to discover and become habituated to new states of mind. Here, sgom does not mean what many people assume, i.e. that one has gained deeper understanding through reflection (stage two) and then, in this third stage, one sits down on a cushion and meditates on those, in some quiet, deep calm state—kind of “going cosmic” on the understanding. It means, on the contrary, integrating the insights acquired into one’s everyday world, all day long in all situations, because now they are becoming familiar. It was a long journey to get there. What started out as a search for truth-and a whole process of unveiling it-has led to a state where the truth is blatantly obvious, unavoidable and could not be anything else. At this point, disinterest is natural. What was an extraordinary discovery has become “normal”, almost boring.

A final note of caution. The boredom and the disinterest will come naturally, just like facial hair comes to a man with growing up. Those who read the texts of yogis and enlightened beings and who are trying to jump to the stage of disinterest without having gone through the interest, deepening interest, deep interest and so forth are like little children painting beards with felt pens. The very fact of doing that does not make them grown-up but proves they are children.

I hope this was interesting.



Critical Discourse Analysis

Some months back I reported that my linguistic friends and I planned to read and discuss The Practice of Critical Discourse Analysis by Meriel Bloor and Tom Bloor.

Since then, we have been working our way steadily and enjoyably through the chapters. Unexpectedly, we found that the book forced us to make explicit our own basic beliefs and, therefore, to confront them. It was great fun challenging our friends’ beliefs but quite surprising and uncomfortable to face up to our own. As we are in our sixties, seventies and eighties respectively, we have got out of the habit of questioning our assumptions. Particularly on ethnicity and consumerism, we found that our underlying attitudes were very different from one another’s and this led to some hard-hitting arguments. Continue reading

Learning journeys

I’ve recently been reading some papers in Educational Sociology that make use of biographical narratives in order to understand the experience of “non-traditional” students in Higher Education. “Non-traditional” students are those who, by class, ethnicity and/or gender, are under-represented in university courses. They are usually the first person in their family to enter Higher Education. One of the articles seeks to explain why a disproportionate number of such students drop out: this is a European phenomenon. (1) Continue reading

Resurrection of a Great Idea

Just a brief note this week: I’ve finished the article for Creative Teaching and Learning on the progress of Breakthrough to Learning at Matthew Moss High School 2012-14. It will be appearing in the next issue due out in March.

You can download a draft from this site. The published article will be briefer and more coherent.

You can order it from

Critical Discourse Analysis

I’m dismayed to find that I have not blogged for over two months! There’s been plenty going in my work with the school using BtL and also in my studies with my friends, but I have forgotten to share it with the world.

My friends and I have chosen a new book to work through and it has proved a winner. It is The Practice of Critical Discourse Analysis by Meriel and Tom Bloor.  I was recommended to it by an MA student in Applied Linguistics and it is excellent. Briefly, it makes the reader aware of how all the attitudes and beliefs about ourselves and others  that we take for granted are not natural but socially constructed largely, though not entirely, by language. Continue reading