Monday, July 05, 2010

traffic as a second language

My latest interest is something I've written about before but never explored entirely. My thesis is that language is a self-organized system, one in which the perceptions of the users play a key role: the "rules" which appear to govern everyone's behavior are actually a part of that perception, and play a role, but not a major role. In this respect language is a lot like traffic, and therefore I've been looking into traffic psychology. To this end I'd like to introduce a fascinating study I've found, but I'm not quite sure yet how it relates to language, so first I'll write a little about traffic and language: how are they similar? how different?

Both are everyday actions involving a large variety of choices; in both cases the choices are governed primarily by perception of how others are behaving. In both cases we are trying to get from one point to another: communicating meaning is ensuring that what we mean is in fact delivered to another spot. Many of our decisions are gambles, based on previous experience, and our theory about how something will be interpreted or received.

Here are the differences: in traffic, risk can be fatal; in language, the greatest risk is misinterpretation (of course, misinterpretation can be fatal, but generally it's not, and this is why traffic risk is studied far more carefully than language risk). Second, in traffic, each operator operates a car, which weighs tons, and has behavior patterns of its own, including the possibility of malfunction; in language, we deal primarily with our mouths, although a whole branch of language is communicated through the written word in venues such as this. The vowels that we make with our mouths change over time and occupy space in the mouth relative to each other, but there is no corollary to this in the world of traffic, except maybe cars occupying large spaces such as parking lots that are unmarked, yet still maintain a kind of order that allows for each member's ability to move. Finally, in the world of traffic there is an actual set of laws, which determines what is legal and what is not, whereas, in grammar, for example, we have good models, like the NY Times, but we don't really have laws, as such, or if we do, nobody knows where to find them (even we, the community of teachers best prepared to find something that resembles a law...would be hard pressed to agree on a single set).

So here's the reference:

Wilde, Gerald J.S. (1994). Target Risk: Dealing with the danger of death, disease and damage in everyday decisions. Accessed June 2010 from

I read part of this one night when, actually, I was preoccupied by something else; nevertheless, I got a number of things from it which stuck with me, and then, later, I had trouble finding it. So now I've gone back, found it, and documented a few interesting facts. Here they are.

First, our day-to-day decisions are based on the concept of "risk homeostasis," which not everyone agrees with, but which is laid out pretty clearly here and elsewhere. It's a kind of balance; we want to get the most possible, or the farthest, or the fastest, not without risk, but with as little as possible, so we seek the balancing point beyond which the risk becomes too much; below this, however, the risk is quite low but life is too boring.

Second, our most common perceptions about cause and effect are often misguided; for example, we believe that the more traffic stops the police make, the less accidents there will be. A famous Nashville study, reported here, discounts that; but, my wife the sociologist agrees. Deterrence theory doesn't wash, she says, because the people who commit crimes are not really thinking of the likelihood of getting caught. Mr. Wilde would agree with part of that: that though accidents are caused by risky behavior, and risky behavior is influenced by the possibility of being caught, that is only one, and a very small one, factor in the choice one makes.

The experiences of Iceland and Sweden in changing lanes was a story that stuck with me, for some reason. Everyone assumed the accidents would skyrocket on the day each country changed the lanes they would drive on; this happened in late sixties, by the way, when each country decided to "drive on the right." In fact accident rates went way down, because everyone was very alert; even the pedestrians got a break during this short period. But after a while, "driving on the right" became normal, and people began to focus on other things. Eventually, the accident rate came back to where it had been, more or less.

There's more to this than meets the eye. It's about how a system is composed of the perceptions of its individual operators, and those perceptions determine the amount of risk, etc., that is going to determine the statistics and the way things play out. The system has self-correcting tendencies, but the system can also be changed for good in certain ways, never to be able to return to what it was. The idea that our behavior is "controlled" by a law or by fixed rules even, is an illusion; it might be influenced by the law, or at least by our perception of the law, but isn't controlled by it. Finally, our behavior is specific to each interaction; thus, we can be more careful in some environments than others, or, given some facts, we might alter our behavior from one place to another. Linguists have noticed "register," or formal language vs. informal, and used it to point out that people are basically the same way. But the system is made up of the sum total of everything everyone does, so we have to find a way to express, or calculate, the different kinds of behaviors (and changes in them) that people show as they go about their daily lives.

This, more or less, is what I'm after.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home