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  • Basic English in Secondary SchoolsVol. 2, No. 5, May 1940
  • I. A. Richards

It is a commonplace that we cannot teach people to read or to write satisfactorily unless we can at the same time teach them to think. Complaints that we are doing none of these things are not new. Aristotle in his day declared that the teaching the Schools gave to their pupils was ready but rough, because they thought they trained people by giving them the products of an art, not the art itself. It was, he said, as if a man should set up to teach an art of obviating pain in the foot and then—instead of teaching shoemaking—should just throw them a few pairs of shoes. He might have helped their poor feet but he wouldn't have taught them to be shoemakers.

It is still true that we will not teach the growing generation to think effectively with words by just throwing ready-made thoughts at them in sentences however well-made or by cobbling their gaping sentences for them however assiduously. Can we not instead find a way of making them see for themselves how thoughts are made in sentences and giving them the right practice in making, picking to pieces, and remaking the sentences—in seeing how they work and thereby how, too often, they do not?

The group who are working with the Committee on Communication at Harvard think that Basic English, used in certain ways, can help—that it can become an important instrument, and its use a contributing discipline, in teaching this art of thinking with words both in reading and writing and equally in listening and speaking.

Basic English was designed in the first place to be an international language. It is a language of 850 ordinary every-day English words, using normal English syntax, with which you can say anything—make as near an approximation as you please to the meaning of any sentence in complete English. As an international language it provides that general medium of communication which, sooner or later, our planet as it becomes wiser will have to have. Its use as an instrument in the school work in English (complete English) of English-speaking pupils seems a different thing. But its powers here come from the very same principles which give Basic English its astonishing covering power. The vocabulary of Basic consists chiefly of the words most needed in explaining what the rest of the words in Complete English can say. Faced with any word not in the Basic list you have first to make up your mind what that word is saying there (as it comes in the sentence) and then of finding out how to say that—as nearly [End Page 136] as you can—with words in the Basic List. This exercise does two things. It makes you consider the sentence you are to translate into Basic much more carefully than we usually do. You have to take it in its setting and be very much clearer than we usually are about just what it is doing or trying to do. As a rule you discover that it could mean several different things which in Basic would have to be said differently. Then you have to decide which of them you will make it say. If you can't decide that, then you will at least be abnormally clear about the different possibilities and how they are related to one another.

I suppose it is generally agreed that translation into and from another language, Latin or French or German, is an extraordinarily valuable training in interpretation. Without for a moment dissenting from that, I may perhaps mention some advantages which translation into Basic English possesses which may in part compensate for the obvious fact that it can only improve ability in the mother tongue. First, it is often easy to find in the other language some sentence which has, or is supposed to have, very much the same ambiguity (but it is better to call it resourcefulness) as the English. If so, translation will not necessarily make anything clearer. The translator may find the right version without...


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