Stating the obvious – language as a tool of communication

Yes it might sound rather too obvious to write about, but often language isn’t quite as hard and definite as we might think.  How often have you left a business meeting or a discussion with friends or family, only later to wonder whether you have interpreted what was said correctly or encountered a creeping feeling that you, or they, have been misunderstood?

It’s just this kind of area that, my Finnish colleague, Pasi Kirkkopelto, and I are pitching into with the photographic project we are running between our art classes in Finland and the Netherlands.

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Photograph by Suzanne Jongmans

A couple of weeks ago I had my fourth year classes (aged 14-15) write short 200-250 word descriptions of an image from a set of photographic portraits made my Dutch photographers.  My pupils approached it in a quite nonchalant way, of course they could describe a portrait in such a short text. Even after completing the task they were quite confident of the quality of the description that they had produced. To them, working in small groups as they were, they had the feeling that they had produced a ‘bullet-proof’ description. They’d covered everything, it was clear, they had considered everything. I’m guessing that in Finland there was a similar feeling, maybe the Scandinavian counterparts were slightly less confident with their use of English than my bilingual Dutch pupils, but I suspect there was a comparable feeling of having covered all the necessary detail.

We subsequently swapped the descriptive texts over, without passing on the actual photographs to the pupils. The task that followed was then to produce a photograph of their own that was based on the text.  A direct copy was never likely to be the result, our aim and hope as teachers, was for a set of technically well made photographs, that had an interesting and engaging relationship with the original source image.

In this situation, the use of language is very much as a filter. In 250 words, a certain amount of information can be passed, but a very long way from the text covering every last detail. With the new descriptions in their hands my pupils soon started to discover for themselves the limitations of language and how it can fail to be an accurate and precise tool of communication.

Before they even picked up a camera for themselves I had them work on a simple composition sketch of the photograph to work out for themselves how the various elements fitted together. In no time there were puzzled faces, not because the English was poor, it was just that their interpretation of the text just didn’t quite seem to add up. I haven’t spoken to Pasi in Finland about his experiences with my pupils’ descriptions yet, but my guess is that he’ll have encountered comparable puzzles.

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For our art project this is an interesting way of diverting away from just making a reconstruction of an existing photograph. But there is also perhaps a more serious and important language issue at a stake here. Language is not as concrete as we might like it to be. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations continually interrupt and effect everyday life. Problems can of course arise when language is used by someone who does not yet have a full mastery of it. But equally difficult is when someone’s use of language is overly (and maybe unnecessarily complex) leading to problems of interpretation for others.  I read an article about just this point recently highlighting the problems of over complexity among native speakers of English in a university setting.

Native Speakers….always the right choice?

The message seems to be, keep it clear, keep it concise. But I would also say, in terms of expressive and descriptive content, overly basic use of language comes with its own set of risks!

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