I have come to a simple but far-reaching conclusion.

Modern universities, and the courses and books they create, cannot teach business English, or colloquial English, or “English used in the real world.”

To begin with, universities are not intended for any such thing.

795px-Brueghel-tower-of-babelUniversities focus on the “meaning” of words. In other words, they view words as simply a set of sounds and symbols that are not important except for what they “mean.” The way the words are written is of secondary importance; everything must be reduced to an idea.  English is analyzed to extract the meaning from the original source.

This is like extracting dye from flowers with no appreciation of the beauty of the flowers themselves.

This process strips the English language of all nuance and reduces the language to a single meaning; many variations are reduced to one distilled thought. All subtlety, all variety, and all originality, is lost in this process.

As a translator, I am familiar with this process. Therefore, I feel qualified to say this:

This is translating the English language – the real English language – into “Academic English,” with all the loss of detail this implies.

This process destroys the flavor of a language. Nuance is lost across the language barrier, just as happens when people below the highest caliber of translator skill practice their skills upon foreign languages.

When A Language Loses Its Soul

In times past, languages such as Latin and ancient Greek were taught using a method called grammar translation. Students were taught to translate these languages word for word into English for the purpose of translating formal, written works; spoken Latin (for example) was never taught. Thus, the greater flow of Latin, the beauty and elegance of the language, was lost upon them. Latin was turned into a series of disconnected words. Mottos were translated into English, but the language lost its soul.

This is how a language “dies.” This is why Latin is a dead language.

When I first heard of this method, my reaction was: “No wonder Latin is a dead language! If English was taught like this, English would be a dead language too!”

I spoke too soon, for I now realize universities transform the English possessed by students into the same soulless structure.

Yes, the “method” is different; the students are hearing the words, rather than simply reading about them. Thus, this soulless English is instilled with a higher level of mechanical efficiency.

By reducing the English language to a set of “meanings,” and banishing from thought and debate any possible meaning of words besides the meaning that has been assigned to them (like, you know, nuance), English words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and even entire essays, papers, and books, are reduced to cogs in a larger machine: tools with which to build something greater and grander according to a blueprint that permits no deviation.

English is thus reduced to the building blocks with which to build an ivory tower: a Tower of Babble.

This is where the English language goes to die.

This tower must fall.

It Takes An Author

In all my years as a translator, I never surrendered my ambitions to become a writer in general, and an author, specifically. In fact, I have written a book that takes the Lionel Giles 1910 translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and makes it more legible and understandable for modern audiences.

In hindsight, I now understand what I was trying to do; I wanted to drag the material out of the realm of academia and place it squarely in its proper context: warfare, management, business; strategy. I wanted to take a translation of a book on strategy and make it into a book on strategy. I wanted to return the material to its proper roots.

I appreciate the value of being capable of reducing words to a single meaning. Nonetheless, this is simply not how the English language operates in the real world. Perhaps it takes an author to see that, and thus, an author to tear down the Tower of Babble.

Language is about nuance.

No one can go from the end result of this analytical process – a distilled, meaning-oriented version of English deprived of nuance – and add the nuance back with any kind of natural feel. This is precisely why language that comes from academics sounds stilted, remote, and indecipherable to ordinary speakers of modern English. Even those educated and intelligent enough to easily understand the words feel frustrated at the lack of nuance and… art, if you will.

Neither business English nor general English can be taught like this. You cannot go from academic-ese back to “real” English and not have all sorts of problems, because academic-ese is not the same language. “Academic English,” which has already been deprived of nuance, cannot gain nuance when it is translated into a foreign language: real English.

A Better Way

I intend to use Learn Out Live as a platform for showing you the real English language. This is my plan:

  • Audio, so that you can hear English spoken in the correct way: not stilted, and not drowning in slang.
  • Transcripts, so that you have a visual reference for what you hear.
  • Explanations, so that you can understand what you see and hear.
  • A Natural Feel, so that you understand the flow and nuance of the language.

Many people learn English as a Foreign Language by studying vocabulary in isolation, and rules of grammar in isolation. This is not enough.

English can only be learned in full by hearing, seeing, and really, feeling examples of the flow of the language.

In a more poetic sense, if you understand not only the words of English, but its soul, your English will be excellent.

I intend to focus on these particular areas:

  • English Idioms/ Expressions. (Including American-specific Expressions)
  • Phrasal Verbs.
  • Natural Usage of Verb Tenses.
  • Prepositional Phrases.

More details will be coming in the near future. Thank you for reading.

– Jeremiah Bourque