Thursday, February 28, 2008

Her ways are high and steep

English Language mutation alert:

There's a buzz phrase that I've always pretty much disliked which appears to be changing meanings into something else I hate. The phrase is "learning curve".

A learning curve describes the "performance at the start of training, the rate at which learning occurs, and the flexibility with which the acquired skills can be used" (Koedinger and Mathan 2004). It's a diagram of the duration of learning plotted against the progress. A more nuanced way to describe it is to say it displays the rate of improvement in performing a new task as basic skills are acquired and practiced. It's a graph, one which is describing a dynamic process.

It's always been a problematic phrase because most people don't think in terms of charts or graphs and the concept of a "steep learning curve", has two opposite meanings. It originally meant quick progress as the basic skills are learned followed by some indefinite period of lesser improvements after practice. Nowadays, because "steep" sounds like "hard work", a "steep learning curve" is used to describe something that's hard to learn.

Here's an example, from the NYT, describing a TV show:
"Mr. Wolf said there were running plotlines involving the characters, most of whom are young and relatively new to prosecuting. "It's a learning-curve show," he said. "They're learning how to be what Sam is in 'Law & Order' "

And here the same article misuses "steep learning curve":
"The character with the steepest learning curve may be Nick Potter, a young lawyer from a well-off family who is giving the prosecuting life a try. "Each episode he's faced with some intense ethical or moral dilemma that he usually makes the wrong choice on.""

But that is not what I'm whining about. Oh, no. What I'm riled up about today is, I've recently heard "learning curve" used, as near as I can figure out, to mean "a body of knowledge", or perhaps "the tangible result of hard work or hardship". The association with progress and dynamism and the rate of change has disappeared. It's now a noun phrase with a definite implication that a process has finished.

Here's an example from an internet message board I read today:
Sometimes the most painful things can bring about great self revelation and learning curves.

Here's an English rock band called InMe describing sex and drugs and rock and roll:
"On our first tour we just went full on, drinking too much and smoking too much before the shows. But it's a learning curve. We now know our limits."

And here's Robert Plant, describing singing Bluegrass instead of Rock.


Interviewer: "Musically though, how challenging is it for you?"
Plant: "Well, it's just a learning curve. I mean, the music's beautiful. It's just learning how to sing demurely."

Of course, it's always difficult to keep a straight face when listening to Plant speak English. His choice of words is often so odd that fans give his speech snippets a new name – Plantations.

I know you're going to want to watch all of the Robert Plant interview, so here's the other parts.

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