Those reviewers on Amazon are ____________ [fill in the blank]

As Tom Lehrer famously said, “the reason most reviews on Amazon are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.”

Actually, that’s not quite what he said. He actually said “the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.” But it’s exactly the same idea; there’s no editorial eye on members of the general public who write reviews on Amazon, Google, and Yelp. So it’s not just Amazon, but I’ll use that as my example.

Yesterday I reviewed Babel by Gaston Dorren. My review was positive — enthusiastic, in fact. Now of course opinions differ, and de gustibus non est disputandum, so it doesn’t bother me if you dislike a book I like, or if you like a book I dislike. You can even think Dan Brown is a good writer for all I care. But some things about non-professional reviews do bother me. Let’s use the Amazon reviews of Babel as an instructive example. Half of the reviewers gave 4 or 5 stars, so obviously those people are discerning and thoughtful.😉 What we want to do is look at the reviewers who gave 1–3 stars. Maybe they were discerning and thoughtful too, and all we have is a difference of opinion.

In some cases that was indeed what was going on. Several readers objected to Dorren’s organization and varied style. His chapters — one per language — are sorted in order of number of speakers of the language, from 20th to first, just like announcing the winners of a contest. Each chapter starts with a one-page listing of some basic information about the language, such as the language family, its name in the language, loan words, exported words, writing system, and so forth, with the choice of information depending on the language. And then the chapter itself might be written in one of several different styles, from a conversational dialogue to a didactic lecture. As a result, here’s one reader’s comment:

There is no consistency from chapter to chapter. I recommend a rewrite using all the information he has, but fleshing out each language fully so you know all of these characteristics of it, and not just selected ones. I wanted to have my 15 year old read the book because she loves languages, but decided not to because of the organization of it.

OK, that’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it — but please don’t be so rigid! If your daughter loves language, she should definitely read this book. The joy of discovering new ways of thinking is much more important than having identical organization for 20 chapters in a row! I suppose you’re the sort of teacher whose lesson plan is structured identically for class after class after class, but loosen up!

A couple of other reviewers have similar complaints. For instance:

Part of the problem is that the book didn’t feel like a cohesive whole.  The chapters varied in style and focus.  There were often long tangents, that while interesting, made following the arguments being made difficult.

I’m glad this reviewer was never one of my students! (Actually, maybe they were. How would I know?) Varying style and focus, and taking interesting tangents, will make learning more enjoyable and therefore more comprehensive.

Then there are the reviewers who give up. It’s OK to stop reading a book after a chapter or two, but in that case don’t write a review! And Amazon shouldn’t publish reviews by readers who didn’t actually read the book. Here are a couple of examples:

The first chapter (each chapter covers a language) was quite interesting. The 2nd chapter started to blur into what I’d read in the 1st. I didn’t finish the 3rd. Maybe I’m not cut out to be a linguist, lol.


Unfortunately I got a bad taste in my mouth in the very first chapter and had to put the book down.

We also have reviews with fundamental misunderstandings. For instance:

I was disappointed that it addressed mostly spoken language, while I was curious about how they are written.

There are two difficulties with this comment. First is that it demonstrates a misunderstanding of what a language is: language is speech, not writing, so the emphasis should always be on the spoken language. Second, the reviewer must not have read the book very carefully, as Dorren pays a lot of attention to how the languages are written; it’s just that it is (and should be) secondary to speech.

And how about this?

Mr. Dorren begins with his failure to learn Vietnamese. Yes Vietnamese is a difficult language but people do learn it reasonably well and I kept wondering why a person who has studied so many languages had so much trouble with the structures. Pronunciation yes, the tones and all that, but why the structures when the language is written in a Latin script. A mystery.

People who study many languages learn each one faster than the one before if they have a good teacher and are motivated to learn. (I can’t tell you how often I’ve played with French, lacking as I do a good teacher and propermotivation.) Sir Richard Francis Burton, the explorer, is said to have known 29 languages and could pick up a new one in a week. I’m not that good, but I can do a lot in 3 weeks immersion with a good teacher. I haven’t tried Vietnamese though and so I’ll give Mr. Dorren some leeway.

Where can I start with this one? If you’ve never tried to learn Vietnamese, don’t criticize someone who has! Secondly, the script that a language is written in has nothing, absolutely NOTHING, to do with how difficult its structure is! Third, the story about Burton is an anecdote, not a fact. Fourth, maybe you need to learn humility as well as linguistics from Dorren. I could go on…


I enjoyed learning new things about the history and grammar of these different languages. However, I felt that at some time the book became too technical about linguistics and at other times would go off on tangents. It felt like the author was trying to pour all of his knowledge out of his head into one book. The chapter were in such different styles that the book lacked unity. Overall, I am glad I read it.

By this point I think I’ve dealt with all the issues I have with this paragraph.


Categories: Books, Life, Teaching & Learning