The Drama of Semantic Processing (Class 3)
Dr. Jim’s–he said we can call him whatever we want– third class was about semantic processing. For me, it was all about the drama of everyday communication. For instance, you think you’re just chatting with a friend, but actually you’re uttering intonation units referring to either given information ( which you assume is currently active in the listener’s memory ) or new information ( which might in fact exist in the speaker’s working memory, but you assume is NOT currently active ). This is interesting, but not so amazing. What’s amazing is this: according to chapter 3 of the Ear Book, we signal whether information is given or new by using our voices, with rising tones signalling given, or background information, while falling tones signal new, or focal information. After testing this in class by attempting to tell Hiroko a story involving facts she knew ( about my daughter, Sumire ) and facts she didn’t yet know ( about my cousin Cathy ), both of us decided that if such tone variance exists, it must be extremely subtle, and difficult to consciously reproduce. Try it and you’ll agree.
Taking the subject of given and new information a bit further, we know, of course, that the speaker’s assumptions about what is or isn’t active in the listener’s memory are not always correct; this results in one of two equally frustrating situations. The first would be the speaker who laboriously and painfully explains every twist and turn of a story whose details you are actually quite familiar with ( unnecessary background information ). The other extreme would be the over-excited speaker, jabbering away at top speed and unaware that you lost the thread of the story a full five minutes ago ( unwarranted assumption of a familiarity with background information ). The lesson to be learned? Do not pontificate, do not babble, and do not charge full speed ahead without verifying that your assumptions about the listener’s degree of comprehension are correct. The well-mannered speaker is advised to confirm his own comprehensibility. I recommend pausing to ask, “Do I need to tell you this or are you up to speed?” or “Hey, buddy, your eyes are glazing over….are you following?” On the listening end, things might be facilitated by a bold-but-polite interruption: “Errrr….you told me that story last week, remember?” or “Whooooooah, Nellie! Slow down and back up to the part where your cousin ate what she shouldn’t have and All Hell Broke Loose. I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about!”
And since the topic of communication is far from exhausted, let’s continue with “types of understanding”, six of which are neatly analysed by Rost. From a linguistic point of view, it’s all about how our schemata match up. The best case scenario would be complete understanding ( the listener activates schema that are completely shared with the speaker ), and the worst would be not a “mis” understanding, but a non-understanding ( the listener cannot activate any schemata at all to understand the speaker ). A misunderstanding, then, is when there’s a mismatch between the listener’s and the speaker’s schemata. Here’s an example: before my husband and I were married, he took me on a trip to a resort town in Japan called Karuizawa. “It’s just like camping out in the forest!” he said confidently, sure that I would love it. My “camping” schemata activated, I pictured nothing but trees and worried that we did not have the proper gear. But no worries–when we arrived, I saw that Karuizawa was full of fashionable women in white tennis skirts, bars and restaurants, and even an amusement park! “Just like camping” for my husband meant that it was a cool, pleasant place to relax away from Tokyo. He had actually never been camping in the wild, and our schemata were wildly mismatched.
There are also degrees of partial, plausible, and acceptable understanding, depending on how much overlap is shared by the speaker’s and the listener’s relative schemata, but let’s return to the state of complete understanding. We all have friendships where communication is so easy it’s like play; according to prototype theory as explained in the Ear Book, this is because we share common activation spaces in our memories. No two friends can share exactly the same schemata, but two friends who share similar world views can easily understand and empathize with each other because they share a similar neurological programming. And when the speaker’s words activate relevant knowledge in the listener’s memory, there’s actually a cognitive commitment involved, which produces an empathetic response and further connects speaker and listener. We don’t just listen to our best friends, we make a cognitive commitment, and I like that thought.
As a matter of fact, some of my classmates are not so thrilled with all the detail in the Ear Book. I can understand why it makes some folks tear their hair, but so far I’m liking it. I enjoy picking things apart and breaking down concepts, and it looks to be a steady diet of this kind of reading until mid-book, when it gets “more practical for teachers”, according to Dr. Jim. The next chapter I’ll be writing about is on pragmatic processing, which looks to be pretty juicy. If it’s not, I’ll do my best to spice it up, so no worries. Good night, from the Godzilla Hotel in Tokyo (really! ).