Message Synthesis

Synthesis combines a set of symbols with the conceptual and grammatical logic required to create an understandable message.  Unlike analysis the message is not complete before we start.

comparison: On the one hand, synthesis is easier than analysis, because the form and substance of the message are determined by the sender — the same who performs the synthesis.  The vocabulary, the grammar, and the idea itself are all known by the sender by the time his message is expressed.  Unlike the second-language, listening or reading receiver, who could easily stumble on the vocabulary and the grammar of the sender, the adept, second-language speaking or writing sender restricts the vocabulary and grammar of his message to what he clearly knows.  On the other hand, many a sender complains, in contrast, that he can understand what someone else says or writes far more easily than he can say or write it himself.  This reflects, of course, the difference between passive and active command of a language and the kind of training received by the second-language learner.  Though both forms of knowledge are essential to good communication, whether our passive, listening and reading, language skills are better than our active, speaking and writing skills varies from one second-language learner to the next.

No matter one’s training, discovering the proper message to express one’s idea is, of course, more difficult for some than for others.  Is the difficulty, however, due to poor command of the vocabulary and grammar of the language, or is it due to the absence of a clear idea on the part of the sender?  Too often it is a problem of both.  Indeed, all of the grammar in the world cannot render clear a confused idea; good grammar, on the other hand, can render clear the presence of confusion in the confused idea.  In stark contrast, if the symbols are well chosen, and the idea is clear in the mind of the sender, even the grammatically worst-constructed message can eventually be made understandable to the receiver.  This is because there are usually any number of ways to “paint” the same picture in the mind of the receiver.  And, if the receiver is present while the message is begin created, he can usually help the sender find the way that finally works.  Thus, creating a good message requires first, that we have a clear notion of what we want to express; second, that we find the proper symbols to express the notion; and third, that we organize these symbols in a grammatically suitable manner that accurately reflects the sender‘s notion.

In effect, with synthesis we begin with the idea and end with the symbols and grammar used to express the idea, but with analysis we begin with the grammar and symbols and end with the idea.  These are two very different approaches to the use of language in the communication of a message, and should be kept in mind when distinguishing between active and passive language skills.

oral and written feedback:  Perhaps it is already obvious that how we create a message depends on the conditions in which it is created.  For example, face-to-face dialogue is very different from oral presentation before a large audience.  In both circumstances there is immediate feedback, but the nature of the feedback is different.  In the first instance, the feedback is likely to be informative and indicate clearly whether the message has been understood.  In the second instance, the feedback is likely to be emotive and offer only indirect and inconclusive clues as to whether the message has been properly understood.

When we write, in contrast, there is often no feedback at all, or alternatively, the feedback is received only long after the message has been sent and read by countless many.  Online text-chat is, of course, a clear exception to this rule.  Important is that, in the absence of clear and immediate feedback, we must anticipate all of the reader’s fears and objections as we write.  And, the more diverse our audience, the more difficult it is to create a document that can address all of these.

Finally, with analysis the message is already formulated.  We have only to make it understandable by listing the alternative interpretations and selecting the most likely given the message and the context in which it was formulated and delivered.  Alternatively, we abandon the message as poorly formulated and impossible to comprehend.  Or, in the case of many, unfortunately,  we simply supply our own interpretation.  With synthesis, in contrast, we explore the best possible way to express our thought whereupon we formulate the message and deliver it to the receiver.  With synthesis, it is the thought that gives rise to the problem of proper word choice and grammatical usage — and, not vice versa.  Those who allow their thoughts to be manipulated by proper usage place form above substance, and are either experimenting with the language or are disingenuous in their convictions.

The Method

who owns the message: Unlike analysis which is top down, synthesis is bottom up and is, in this regard, at least partially, generative in nature.  We begin first with what we want to describe (subject), the action (verb) that we wish to recount, the thing, person, activity, or idea (object) that is affected by the action (verb), some particular change in the state (predicate modifier) of the thing, person, activity, or idea (subject) that we wish to talk about, or the time and place where it all happen (prepositional phrase or adverbial clause), and so forth.

A Holy or Other Book of Your Choice

In general, we want to end our thoughts, as they begin, and to be able to do so no matter the starting point.  Starting the same thought more than once, or changing the initial thought before it is complete makes it difficult for the receiver to follow the stream of content that is the essence of the message.  This does not mean, however, that the entire thought must be formulated before we begin to speak or write.  Nor, does it even mean that the entire thought is completed alone by the sender.  All that is required is that the same thought appears simultaneously in the mind of both the sender and the receiver with reasonable accuracy.

As there is nearly always more than one way to express the same idea, the better his understanding of the grammatical rules and symbols of the language used to formulate the message, the easier it is for the sender to begin his thought wherever he like.  Alas, just how much grammar does he need in order to make himself understood by the receiver?  Surely, this depends on this latter’s prior information with regard to  the sender‘s message.  Indeed, the sender may not even need to “complete” his thought, should the receiver of the message have sufficient prior knowledge of the message‘s subject matter.

And, who defines what a complete thought is or is not, anyway?  Surely, it is not the grammarian; rather, it is the sender and the receiver of the message.  Thus, a teacher who encourages his students always to speak in full sentences is teaching his students to do something that they generally do not do, and often have no need to do, in their native tongue.  What could be more bizarre?  Still, the modern CLT methodology insist that we use complete sentences!

bad habits:  There is many a sender who is eager to talk and cares only that his message be understood.  And, there are many receivers who try only to understand and do nothing to help the sender with his delivery.  Indeed, many would think it rude for the receiver to correct the poor grammar of the sender.    Thus, the sender may not always get the linguistic feedback that he needs in order to improve his command of the target language.  It is in this manner that  innocent mistakes can easily give way to persistent bad habits that are difficult to make disappear once acquired.  It is no coincidence that bad habits abound among second-language learners.

what is a complete thought?: For the sake of argument, let us assume that a complete thought, as well as the message in which it results, assumes no prior knowledge on the part of the receiver — i.e., none, other than the grammatical rules and symbols employed by the sender to  construct his message and express his thought.  Would the best communicator not then be someone who understands how best to create a complete thought, but only utilizes it when it is necessary to do?

Language is just as much about efficiency as it is eloquence.  Furthermore, it is efficiency, not eloquence, that predominates in most one-on-one oral communication.  Is any party to the conversation likely to care that a  message is ever completed, so long as the conversation remains animated, and all parties to the conversation are respectful of each others’ well-being?  Indeed, it is in everyday conversation where the “rule of the complete thought” is most likely to be abandoned, but it is the complete thought that the modern CLT approach prescribes as the basis for good oral communication!

In an Olympic ice-skating competition, one is first tested on one’s ability to perform the classic turns and maneuvers before one exhibits one’s free-style routine.  This is because the classical maneuvers are fundamental to most free-style maneuvers.  In other words, without the knowledge of the former, the latter are unlikely to be executed very successfully.  Is it, then, not the same with language?  Should the sender not, at least, understand well how to formulate the bits and pieces that go into the making of a complete thought, before he takes on the larger task of making one?

In conclusion, we can easily challenge the notion that no message is complete without a subject and a verb, but defend with passion the need for subject-verb agreement, if both a subject and a verb are present!

Alas, CLT, you have the cart before the horse!

words and phrases:  As a learnéd university lecturer, I make every effort to express myself in complete thoughts.  If I am careful and observe myself closely, however, I rarely know the full extent of my message until I have completed it.  Further, I will cut my message short, if I believe my thought already complete and well-understood in the mind of the receiver.  Accordingly, it would not surprise me, if what I experience in this regard resembles closely the experience of many others, if not most.  In effect, we think in words and phrases, and how  and to what extent we combine these in our message depends significantly on the participation of the receiver in the understanding of the thought that we wish to express.

By way of example, suppose I begin my thought with a noun or noun-subject — namely, the thing, person, activity, or idea that has just come to mind.  If the noun is uncountable and singular, it automatically appears tagged as part of a larger noun phrase in my message.  This is because I know that good English grammar dictates the presence of an article or some other identifier such as a possessive or demonstrative adjective before the noun.

In effect, what likely took me many hundreds of hours of trial and error as a child to figure out, can easily be explained to, and be understood by, an adult or older-child in several tens of minutes!  Indeed, prior knowledge of the grammar of his target language is the advantage that second language learners have over first language learners, and it is this advantage that we should fully exploit both as teachers and students of a second language.  Those who would slight the importance of grammar in learning a second language are at best misguided and at worse misleading charlatans who promise miracles and deliver only entertainment and frustration.  This, however, is the current state of much of the English language profession;  it is where the CLT language profession has led us.

Will the aforementioned adult language learner continue to make the same error after his many-minute lesson?  Perhaps it goes without saying — of course!  Thereafter, however, he will be much easier to correct by his teacher, and he will likely find it much easier to correct himself.  For, now he knows the difference between right and wrong and even has a name for his transgression.  Indeed, should he forget the rule or need to review it for want of practice, he knows the terminology with which to look it up in a reference grammar.  The vocabulary of grammar is essential for independent study.

generating the message: Consider further the singular, countable noun that we just recalled as a phrase.  What is likely to happen when it enters into our conscious awareness?  Is there not a strong likelihood that we will want to talk or write about it in some way?  And, short of changing the initial phrase and confusing the receiver of our message, are not our options severely limited by grammatical convention?  Further, do not each of these compel us to treat the noun phrase as the subject phrase of our message.  For how often does an English speaker begin a sentence with a noun  or noun phrase that does not also serve as the subject of what follows?

Under the assumption that we wish to express a complete thought, there are only four real alternatives:  one, we could describe more fully our noun-subject before we insert a verb phrase; two, we could insert a verb of state followed by some sort of predicate modifier; three, we could follow with a verb of action and describe some action brought about by the subject; or four, we could think of the subject as the object of the action, use passive voice, and tell about the result of the action.

If we choose option one, our choices are once again limited.  For unless, we alter the phrase and insert adjectives between the article and the noun, we must place our additional modification after the noun.   We could do this with a prepositional phrase, an appositive, or an adjective clause, for example.  In any case, we will have simply expanded the length of our subject phrase and must still follow with a verb phrase or cut our message short.  Further, should we decide upon an appropriate verb phrase, we must insure that the verb contained therein agrees with our subject in person and number!  Yes, it is a lot of work to sort through all of the alternatives, and it takes much practice to make the sorting quick.  Memorizing the patterns with no comparative explanation as to how each is different, or translating, in isolation, each pattern into one’s native tongue is mostly what is done and only slightly beneficial.  These efforts simply do not eliminate the guess work in the making of a proper choice.

Surely, without the tens of thousands of hours of experimentation of a small child, selecting the proper alternatives is, indeed, a daunting task, and many mistakes will surely result.  Alas, much practice is needed.  That we do not, however, let the need for practice be an excuse to ignore the most valuable asset that a second language learner has at his disposal — grammar and its own vocabulary!

But, I am speaking to deaf ears, for this is not the way second language is taught today  — least of all, the English language.


Indeed, who would want to learn a second language were the truth about the task clearly explained at the beginning of the learner’s initial endeavor?  Surely, only the most highly motivated, and far fewer than those who do so today.  Now, tell this to those who make their living by awarding second-language teaching degrees and certificates, to those who profit from the publication of books whose primary goal is to provide entertainment for what finishes without doubt to be an exercise in futility for most who purchase the books, and to the government politicians who listen carefully with wallets wide open to lobbyists from the major English language publishing houses and to university professor who are told by government bureaucrats that translation is not original research and thus of no professional value.  These are the principal market agents, but the list of those responsible for the social and economic waste that results from mandated universal second language programs is much larger.

Like the pharmaceutical and banking industries, the English language industry is systemic crime that we have come to accept as normal behavior.  Tell the truth and see how far ahead you come in the profession?  You are stymied at nearly every turn.