We all know by now that information is beautiful. There is even a website that says so. This is an
age that is characterised, if nothing else, by its worship of information.
I found myself teaching the verb ‘quantify’ a couple of days ago, and stressing that it was one of the central words of the language. You don’t really get anything done these days if you’re not quantifying it. I have quantification stories I tell my students; I like to talk to them about Moneyball, show them a bit of Billy Beane duking the stats and signing Scott Hatteberg on the basis of his on-base percentage, and so on.
And all this was in an attempt to clarify one sentence, from an article we were reading about the Apple Watch: that there was a need to bridge the gap between quantifying something and actually doing something about it.
The Apple Watch, like all smart watches and phones, can track your health and fitness metrics. It can measure your steps, the minutes you spend sitting, the number of steps you climb, your cardiac response, how far you are from an asthma attack, and on and on. We have access to all the numbers we could possible wish.
But to get from there to actually being fit is a different matter. We might see that we have to climb another three flights of stairs to hit our ‘target’, and might therefore just go ahead and take the stairs; but for most people, most of the time, the numbers are just a form of punishment. To see clearly is to see your shortfalls, not your accomplishments. To get beyond that and actually address those shortfalls is another matter entirely.
And so it is with language. We like to test it, and to test it, and to test it. We like to estimate levels, and shortcomings. We like to fret about our TOEFL score. But to actually up your level you need to do some hard, painstaking study. There is no way around it. You need to memorise, and forget, and memorise again; you need to study form. You brain needs to ache, for at least some of the day. The numbers, in the end, are not important. Your IELTS score is going to look pretty thin when you find yourself, for example, trying to read Paradise Lost, or to get your hair cut in Glasgow, or talk to Scarlett Johansson in the elevator. Anxiety and failure and stress, in the end, are hard to quantify.