Sunday, September 09, 2007

traffic report

My theory of language is that it is similar to traffic: it is fundamentally thousands, or millions, of people, acting on the basis of their own perceptions, at any moment doing what they see as the easiest or best way of getting from point A to point B. And that this vast number of people essentially create the system, just as the people of a city create traffic patterns, which have a life of their own but which are fundamentally controlled by the individual decisions of the little people, acting in their own best interests.

And that, when you set off from point A to point B, whether it be in language or in your car, your decisions are made scientifically, though based upon your own perception. They are measurable and predictable to some degree; you do them for reasons; your reasoning is strongly influenced by others, to the point that you may occasionally follow some car, in an attempt to find an alternate route through a neighborhood. In large cities, people talk to each other about alternate routes; they listen to traffic reports; they fine-tune perceptions of the quality of different routes at different times of day. In the same way, fluent language learners develop alternate ways of saying things, and choose them carefully at appropriate times, but the novice language learner has fewer choices at his/her disposal, and may choose poorly, or choose correctly but for misguided reasons. In any case the behaviors of large numbers of people are of great interest and great consequence, though they are based entirely on the perceptions of individuals, which can in the end be manipulated or altered. They are not controlled by a central authority, though perception of the law and its requirements is usually part of the equation. For example, running stop signs would definitely make a ride through the neighborhoods faster, but it would also add considerable stress to the driver's morning, and it's debatable whether it is actually "fear of a ticket" that leads the driver to stop at stop signs, or more likely the norm: We generally stop at stop signs; it's safer, easier, and that's what everyone expects- so, it's more likely to result in successful and speedy passage...

Just outside of New York City they put a stop sign in front of the Lincoln Tunnel, not because there was another road feeding into it, but basically because human behavior is predictable and predictably erratic without it. People can and do manipulate these systems from above, hoping to alter human perceptions, and improve the flow of traffic or information. Nevertheless, people are guided by their own motivations; communication, like driving in traffic, is done for a higher purpose, without regard to what it does to influence the language (or traffic pattern) as a living, growing organism. This I learned the summer I lived in Chicago (1994), listening to the radio announcer, as he mentioned the Edens, the Dan Ryan, the Hillside Strangler, inbound on the Eisenhower. A novice, half the time I gave up and took the el. But, looking back, I remember the lessons I learned as if they were yesterday. I hear the traffic report, sometimes, especially if I'm caught by a train, which is our town's version of a traffic jam. Your life is, according to your perception. Yet you make life, as others perceive it, as you sit there, counting boxcars, and sipping American coffee.

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