April 01, 2006

The LMU: A New Formula for Measuring Effective Writing

Language Log Plaza has been the source of a couple of recent posts concerning rude and disagreeable English (here) and (here). In stark contrast with these rants about how bad things are these days comes some good news about rudeness as a promising tool for diagnosing language learning. Linguists at Orizen Technical University in Canada have isolated a new way to assess language fluency--students' ability to use rudeness effectively. This discovery challenges the long-standing notion that mean length of utterance (MLU) is the most useful indicator of language ability.

The researchers began their study with the belief that a student's ability to write English functionally matters far more than how long their utterances turn out to be. "New learners can write long sentences that produce a high MLU score without saying anything worth reading," reports the Director of the project. "We find that more advanced language learners have shown a highly developed sense of meanness in their texts."

The research team, which included a classroom teacher, first investigated various speech acts, excluding agreeing, requesting, giving opinions, etc. before hitting on those speech acts that came closest to reflecting real fluency-the students' ability to communicate effectively their wrath, meanness, ill-temper, rudeness, insults, and disdain.  

Thus, the researchers came up with the length of mean utterance (LMU) to replace the mean length of utterance (MLU), suggesting that it should be used in future studies of written language fluency. According to this study, students who remain focused longer on meanness and rudeness invariably display the greatest progress in their ability to produce effective written texts.

Finding it difficult to simulate real life rudeness through experiments (after all, the research was done in Canada), the research team rejected controlled experimentation in favor of a more ethnographic approach. From students in the English teacher's class, they collected writing samples from ten adolescent language learners during the 2005 school year.

A total of 480 really mean utterances were recorded, distributed as follows:

  • 1-2 word utterances 10%        
  • 3-5 word utterances 40%        
  • 6-10 word utterances 40%
  • over-10 word utterances 10%

At first the team members were puzzled by this perfect bell-curve distribution, so they set about to discover which students fit into each of these four categories. Not surprisingly, the most effective language learning correlated with the length of the writers' mean utterances (LMU). Closer examination of the data is illustrative, including the following examples:

1-2 word utterances:
You jerk!
Hell no!
Drop dead!

3-5 word utterances:
Go to hell!
Man, you're really stupid!
This is utter nonsense!
Get out of here!
Like you bore me silly!
This is crap!

6-10 word utterances:
All year long you've said absolutely nothing to convince me.
I've been more impressed by a blank wall.
Your dress looks like a raggedy brown potato sack.
I'll never take your courses again in my life.
This year was one of the dullest in human history.
Here's that damn who/whom rule again.

Over 10 word utterances:
This is, beyond question, one of the most boring courses I have ever taken in my life.
There are few, if any, teachers at (name of school deleted), or any other school, who could qualify as well as you for the title of Miss Emptyhead of 2006.
Whatever else might be said, this research study sucks worse than anything ever concocted by human beings and it ought to be outlawed, if possible, in the future.

These sentences made it patently clear to the research team that students who produced  3-5 word LMUs had not yet mastered English properly. Those who wrote longer, really mean sentences, however, developed their insults thoughtfully, elaborated on their basic nastiness, gave rude specifics, used ugly comparisons, and even created some syntactic embedding.

 It was also noted that neophytes used exclamation marks while experts did not, a result that the research team plans to examine next. "We will really need to explore this!" explained the director.  

The discovery of the length of mean utterance (LMU) as an indicator of written language fluency holds great promise for future studies of language acquisition. Not surprisingly, the research project was amazingly well received by the subjects.* Even beginning level students displayed positive attitudes toward the program, especially when told that they were free to use any expletive they wished.

    *It should be noted that some of the example sentences above were found in the course evaluations.    

Posted by Roger Shuy at April 1, 2006 08:03 AM