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Archive for the category “The Ear Book”

Pragmatics and Identity: Problems in Assessment (Class six)

Dr. Jim’s speaking and listening class covered two full chapters of the Ear book this evening; discussion time was generally lively–sometimes bordering on boisterous but never actually crossing that delicate line–and marked by moments of enlightenment, when some concept was either finally understood or found to bear some personal meaning for one of the group. Tonight “my group” was Chunmei ( from Taiwan ), Alan ( from China ), Yae ( from England and Japan ) , Tokiko ( from Japan ) and me ( from the U.S. ).  Hiroko ( in the picture below ) was in the group at the next table, but I wanted to show her bright smile here anyway.

Chunmei and Hiroko keep discussion lively in Dr. Jim's class.

Chunmei and Hiroko keep discussion lively in Dr. Jim’s class.

We had been plowing through different listening-related concepts and negotiating for meaning with mixed success, when near the end of class we hit on an interesting phenomenon that was directly related to the topic of the hour: assessment.

I’d like to elaborate on the interesting conversation that ensued, but first, let me activate your schemata and talk a little bit about assessment. We encounter it on a daily basis: our health is assessed by doctors, our cars are assessed by mechanics, our financial situation is assessed by city officials ( who will tax us accordingly ), our skin type is assessed by flawlessly groomed saleswomen ( who will sell us the appropriate beauty cream ), situations are assessed, damages are assessed, our personalities are assessed,  and so on. Assessment can be objective ( hopefully your doctor will do a thorough and professional examination before he pronounces you either ill or  healthy ) or highly subjective ( say you poke your head into a restaurant, assess the atmosphere, and quickly decide it’s not for you, based on the feel of the place ), and either method of assessment can be valid, depending on the context.

So let’s talk about assessing second language learners, and why it’s such a tricky business. First of all, assessment involves judgement, and judgement implies consequences. The results of high stakes tests  ( such as SAT and GRE exams, or TOEFL and TOEIC exams )  can decide learners’ educational or career paths, and the fair and accurate assessment of the exams is a huge–I would say grave–responsibility. At least once a year in Japan, there is a testing scandal involving students who actually pass their high school or college entrance exams, but are denied admittance. After the fact, it is discovered that the tests results had been wrongly calculated ( and the average listener never learns whether this was an accident or a deliberate mistake ), apologies are extended, and appropriate punishment is meted out. Again, the average listener never learns what happened to the ill-fated student in the end.  I always wonder where they end up, and what kind of emotional baggage they’re saddled with as a result of the “mistake”.

Outright mistakes in assessment–whether deliberate or otherwise–are one thing, but the assessment tool itself ( in most cases, a test ) must be valid for it to be an accurate reflection of the learner’s proficiency. Some believe that no test can ever accurately measure a language learner’s ability. Lee Cronback, known as the “Father of Construct Validity” argued that this was the case. Still, in most formal learning situations, learners must be assessed, and tests must be both valid ( defined as accurately measuring what they purport to measure ) and reliable— ( defined by fair and consistent testing conditions )— or at least as valid and reliable as possible. The tests that Japanese learners are most familiar with are called criterion-referenced: this means that certain scores are equated with certain standards of proficiency or behavior in the subject matter being tested. For instance, a learner who scores in the 9th band ( top  level ) of the International English Language Testing System is one who “has fully operational command of the language: appropriate, accurate and fluent with complete understanding.”  

Think about those four components ( appropriateness, accuracy, fluency, and understanding ) and what they mean for a second language learner. Accuracy, understanding, and fluency are, to me, are more straightforward than appropriateness, since the latter involves pragmatics, which is never straightforward. Some who define fluency as not just speed and facility of production but as “natural use of language” also include an element of pragmatics there as well. Here is where the class became interesting, as our group exchanged stories and gave some thought to the issue of pragmatics and assessment.

The first story that surfaced was my own, and here it is. Eight years ago, I received a call from a friend who had a part-time job with a testing company ( to my dismay, I cannot remember the name of his employer, but perhaps that’s for the best ). His mission was to track down Japanese speakers who would potentially fit the “top band” of his company’s speaking proficiency standard chart, interview them, and submit the results for assessment. The company was in the process of re-evaluating their standards and looking to see if, in fact, those standards were realistic for Japan. “How about your husband? Do you think he’s proficient enough? Would he do an interview?” my friend asked me with some hesitation. “Well, sure!” I said confidently, with all the faith in the world that my clever husband would ace the interview. My husband, one of those rare people who likes tests, was immediately agreeable, and the three of us met at my school on the appointed day.

The first half of the test went smoothly, as the questions were fairly innocuous. My husband was in his element, speaking confidently and accurately, and I was sure he’d pass with flying colors. My clever husband, and clever me, to have found and married such a clever man!  But then–but then–my friend the tester threw a curve ball. “Here’s the situation,” he said. “I’m your co-worker and friend, and I have a smoking problem. It really bothers you. I want you to convince me to stop smoking.” And everything fell apart. My husband is Japanese. Smoking was still not politically incorrect eight years ago in Japan, and even if it had been, one’s habits in this country are one’s own business. The workplace is not where men have heart-to-heart talks about alcohol or smoking habits. Most men here don’t have those talks anyway! I knew instinctively that things were not going to go well with this question, and I was dead right. My husband very compliantly said a few words, smiled, and dropped the ball. “No, no! Pick it up again! Don’t stop there, be persuasive!!” I thought, burning inside.

The interviewer was encouraging: “Oh, you can come at me stronger than that! The smoking really bothers you–come on!” But to no avail. At that point, my husband capitulated completely, proposing ( while still smiling politely ) that if the smoker really wanted to smoke it was okay, and he wouldn’t bother him anymore. And that was that. The interview ended, we ate a box of donuts together, and talked about our respective families. My friend called some weeks later to report that my husband had not fit the criteria for the top band of proficiency. And it was because of the smoking question. “He just didn’t use the language like a native speaker,” was the way my friend explained it.  As I understood it, then, he didn’t use his English appropriately.

And yet the problem was not my husband’s English skill. The problem was that he was put in the uncomfortable position of engaging in a culturally unnatural and unfamiliar type of discourse. He was sideswiped by his cultural identity rather than his lack of vocabulary, fluency, or comprehension. Literally left tongue-tied. Too bad, I say, but at least the situation was voluntary, with no “high stakes” involved. Not counting, of course, my husband’s pride and my own high expectations.

As soon as I had finished my story, Chunmei chimed in with her own. “I can never get my students to do role plays about smoking, either!” she exclaimed. “I ask them to persuade me to stop smoking and they clam right up and give me a funny look!” We then agreed that skipping the role play ( the book lesson ) and getting students involved in a discussion about the topic would be much more valuable. And we wondered about pragmatics and assessment.

In the case of my husband, meeting the criteria for a “top level of proficiency” required him to behave in a decidedly un-Japanese way. He was judged to be a non-native level English language speaker because his reactions were Japanese. And this, of course, is the heart of the matter: is such a language proficiency assessment valid? Recall the IELTS Band 9 criteria: appropriateness, accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. Again, “appropriateness” is the tricky component, and ( according to my friend ) it was a component of the test my husband took as well.  As I see it, his approach to the smoking question was perfectly appropriate within his own culture. The interviewer did not specifically say, “You’re in the U.S. Address this situation like an American!” Of course, if he had, it might not have made much difference in my husband’s answer, but at least the expectation or the context might have been clearer. And perhaps, given the ambiguity of the question and the informality of the interview in general, the problem was one of reliability rather than validity.

The Ear Book (chapter 10 ) presents a chart of assessment models that I found both interesting and enlightening. Specifically, Rost gives a visual overview of criteria for assessment according to the purpose of second language learning ( EFL vs ESL vs English for Young Learners vs English as a Lingua Franca ). According to this chart, my husband could probably get top scores in an assessment of English as a Lingua Franca, since this is the only category that specifies “expected to maintain national identity through English”. Still, if not for the pragmatic component, I believe he would qualify as a top-level speaker in an ESL assessment as well.

So what’s the moral of the story? I really don’t know. I consider my husband a native-level English speaker, but that’s my own subjective assessment. In the long run, I’m engaged in an ongoing attempt to understand the delicate balance between mastering a second language ( which means tackling the pragmatics and taking on a new identity ) and retaining the foundations of one’s own cultural identity at the same time. Happily, there’s no rush, because I think I’ll be busy with this one for some time to come.

Getting Intimate with Words (Class five)

“My child is only learning words–just words. How do I know that he or she is really learning to speak English?” I sometimes hear this concern from mothers of very young students in my private language school. Though it is hard not to feel defensive or anxious myself, I explain that their children are, in fact, doing their best to communicate in a manner that is appropriate to preschoolers. Their children know many words and chunks of language which they use to communicate in an abbreviated fashion, and this is normal. They are actually “speaking English” already. Most students will put their words together to form longer and more “correct” strings of language when they are developmentally ready, when they are motivated to do so, and when the timing is right. Some of them, unfortunately, will not. For now, they all know many, many words.

I am always patient and reassuring when dealing with parents, but sometimes what I really want to say is, “What do you mean, JUST WORDS?” Knowing words is a very big deal, and not just for me personally. In the field of linguistics, scholars have devoted their lives to and built their reputations on vocabulary acquisition research. Chapter eight of the Ear book contains a whole section on vocabulary and how absolutely essential it is for listening comprehension, so that will be the topic of today’s blog post: how knowing a word intimately can make you a better listener.

Let’s begin by considering the quantitative aspect of vocabulary acquisition: corpus linguistics studies show that to understand an everyday conversation, we need to know at least 3,000 word families. But on the other hand, and this is the most interesting part for TESOL students, there is the qualitative aspect: how deeply do you know those same words?  This is called depth of vocabulary knowledge, and it affects the saliency of words in our mind ( obviously, the deeper we know a word, the better it sticks ) and our ability to use them appropriately in their correct context ( pragmatics again ).

Let’s talk about knowing a word intimately. First, you need to recognize it when you hear it ( my four year old pre-readers are at this stage ). Some would even argue that true aural recognition would include hearing the word spoken in a variety of different accents. And then there is the problem of recognizing the same word as part of a spoken phrase, since issues like segmentation ( word boundaries ) and elision ( the omission of sounds ) come into play, adding to the learner’s already heavy cognitive load. A word may have an unfamiliar contracted version ( for instance “until” and “till” ) as well. And–just to make things trickier–there are plenty of homonyms: words with the same pronunciation but bearing a different meaning. Serious learners had better be familiar with those, too, or who knows what misunderstandings might ensue.

Enough of the aural challenges of knowing a word–let’s move onto recognizing it visually. Is that really so important for listening? I know that it is for me; there are many Japanese words that I know only “by sound”, never having seen them in writing, and I cannot seem to consistently catch them in conversation. As my friends and fellow students will tell you, I am a visually oriented person, and without seeing a word in print, it simply is not salient enough for me. While some learners might be satisfied with only an aural level of “knowing”, learners like myself realize that knowing the spelling of a word and recognizing it swiftly in print gives them a more solid foundation. And so, the formal study of spelling is part of most second language learners’ agendas. Certainly those receiving formal classroom instruction cannot avoid it.

In order to appreciate the challenge that L2 learners face, let’s begin by considering the problem of spelling from the native speaker’s perspective. While many native English speakers are actually poor spellers, they usually recognize in print the same words they cannot spell in an essay. Those native speakers who read widely as children often instinctively know how many words are spelled, simply from the hours of time spent in contact with the written language. Most second language learners, however, with no instinct to rely on or exposure to English books in their childhood, must wade into the muddy waters of orthography. Just how muddy are the waters? Look at the top half of the print below, which shows five different spelling combinations representing the same sound.

L2 learners struggle not just to spell words, but to recognize them in print. Learning words with similar spelling patterns together is one way of tackling the subject.

And then there are the aforementioned homonyms– words that sound alike but have different meanings–which must be mastered by explicitly learning the different spellings. Programs like Spellcheck or Autocorrect won’t help a learner make the right choice, since both words are spelled correctly and programs can’t advise one as to appropriateness. Those learners who are unperturbed when phonics rules don’t apply often learn to spell high frequency words fairly painlessly, and seeing similarly spelled words together in groups does help for many students. But the bottom line is hard work. As my talented former teaching assistant Satomi once told me, “I never got a bad grade on a spelling test. I knew how to get an A: just do the work and learn the words, that’s all. Grammar was another matter!”

And speaking of grammar, knowing a word’s grammatical function is part of knowing that word deeply. Second language learners explicitly learn not just content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs ) but the trickier function words ( those shorter bits of language that connect with content words to further clarify meaning ) as well.  Along with this comes word order, which is instinctively recognized by native speakers, but often different from the L2 learner’s own mother tongue. In short, it’s an exhaustive and often frustrating process to formally learn grammar…..but the benefits are undeniable, and they greatly ease the listener’s mental processing of speech. Here’s how it works, in a nutshell:  As the L2 learner listens, his or her brain busily constructs a rough grammatical framework ( as Rost explains it ) and fits the recognizable elements of speech into that framework, comparing them with semantic and morphological cues to establish meaning.  In cases where precise understanding is necessary, the brain will actually sort through individual heard utterances, sorting them into appropriate categories, dividing content and function words and checking for things like word order and subject-verb agreement. Of course, not everyone who speaks a second language has formally studied its grammar, and from what we’ve learned in class in the past five months, this is often reflected in their speech which, although communicative and comprehensible, is often riddled with errors. The point is that part of knowing a word is knowing its grammatical function, which allows us to both use the word correctly in speech and to identify and process it swiftly when we hear it.

And then there are collocations! What words frequently occur in combination with the target word, and is the second language learner able to recognize the same word when it’s embedded in chunk of language? Take the word “take”, which is my favorite example. Literally, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English, the most common meaning is “to lay hold of (something ) with one’s hands”. And then the fun starts, as students learn the million-and-one collocations that have nothing to do with the laying on of hands: take a bath, take a bus, take a test, take a trip, take a nap, take your time, take it easy, take a hike!, take care, take off, take in, take out, etc. etc. I was tempted to write “as students struggle to learn,” but actually, collocations don’t have to be a struggle. Of course, you can still buy serious books featuring exhaustive lists of collocations and idioms ( my Japanese husband bought plenty in his quest to master the English language ), but the world of online learning has other engaging and relevant resources for students who are motivated to search and teachers who are motivated to experiment with them in class. Collocations are chunks, they have rhythm and meaning, and the more you use them, the more salient they become. Take a listen to my friend Jase Levine ( a.k.a. Fluency MC ) who has literally made a career out of collocations. Students around the world find his chants highly motivating and just plain fun. It’s learning, Krashen-style: relax, enjoy, and acquire, rather than sweat and memorize.

So what else is there to knowing a word intimately? Learners should be aware of a word’s frequency in usage, especially in Asian countries where exam systems require students to memorize scores of very low-frequency academic words at the expense of “easier” but very high frequency ( i.e. commonly used ) words. Unless a learner has a specific need for difficult and rarely used vocabulary, they are better off spending their energy with the most frequently used words that will allow them to function communicatively outside of their own language community. Language students can now plug words into a corpus analysis tool and immediately see their frequency as well as their family and collocates. Like Fluency MC and his collo videos, corpus analysis tools are fun ( you’ll be mesmerized once you figure out how they work ) and useful, both for second language learners and native speakers as well. Here’s a screenshot of a lexical analysis of the first paragraph of this blog post.

All the words in blue are high frequency--that means reading my blog should be no sweat. : )

All the words in blue are high frequency–that means reading my blog should be no sweat. : )

The words in blue are all high frequency, found on the 1,000 most frequently used ( written, not spoken ) words list. Those in red occur so infrequently they are considered “off-list” words. Sometimes the results of an analysis can be surprising: apparently no-one writes about preschoolers? Maybe they write about pre-schoolers. : ) And no-one writes about “chunks”? No-one writes about timing? At any rate ( and most importantly ), this particular analysis shows that the words I’ve used in my blog are 89.7 % high frequency words, meaning that this post should be accessable to the average Joe, or even to a diligent second language student. I hope so. Analysis of spoken language is a still different matter, and even more relevant to the process of listening. Read about the compilation of a corpus of 100 million spoken words and its ongoing analysis here–it’s good stuff.

Let’s recap: to know a word intimately involves recognizing it aurally ( catching it in speech, in spite of accent or phonological variations ) and visually ( being able to read it automatically in spite of its seemingly irrational spelling ), knowing it’s syntactic function, its collocates, and the frequency of its use in both written or spoken language. There are also synonyms and antonyms, denotations and connotations ( slim has a more positive connotation than skinny, for instance ), and pragmatic restrictions. Many years ago, I remember our family wincing when my host sister Anja from Germany said matter-of-factly, “Give me the butter”–a direct translation from German, and not meant to be rude, but certainly not an acceptable use of “give” in a dinnertime context. We taught her, “Pass the salt, please,” laughed about it together, and she learned fast. All these aspects of vocabulary combine to form recognition vocabulary: words that are firmly ensconsed in the learner’s mental lexicon and easily accessed and processed in real time listening. 

So when students study a “word list”, remember the terms successfully, and score well on a test the next week, there’s a good chance that they haven’t learned the words at all. A post-test two weeks later would reveal that unless those words were used after the test in class, frequently and in a variety of meaningful ways, students would not be able to duplicate their former stellar scores. And even if they could, choosing correctly on a test shows that students recognize a word as it is used in that specific instance, not necessarily in other ( i.e. spontaneous communicative ) situations. Needless to say, because the word would not yet be salient enough, students might not recognize it in speech, either, no matter how clear their native teacher’s pronunciation might be. Got the point? Knowing a word intimately is no easy task, but discovering words in depth, rather than breadth, is also infinitely more rewarding than memorizing definitions.

You think your child is learning “just words” then? Think again. They’re building the framework for a house that will hopefully last a lifetime. Stop worrying!  Either lend a hand in the construction, or step out of the way and let them get to it.

“Keep the Change”: A Pragmatic Analysis of Victor Navorsky (Class four)

Tom Hanks fans ( and who isn’t one? ) know that Victor Navorsky is the lead character in “The Terminal”.  One of Hanks’ most beloved characters, Navorsky ( whose character is based on a real-life story ) also serves as the perfect subject matter for a language acquisition study. Since chapter four of the Ear Book just happens to deal with pragmatic processing, it only makes sense to combine business ( this blog is my homework ) with pleasure ( I get to watch a movie ) in the form of a brief-but-in-depth pragmatic analysis of Navorsky as well as his conversational nemesis, Frank Dixon. For the purpose of this blog post, I will define pragmatics as the context in which language is used, including the social framework, the speaker’s and listener’s intentions, and the appropriateness of the language chosen as well as its delivery. 

Newly-arrived Victor Navorsky gives himself a quick shave in the airport.

Newly-arrived Victor Navorsky gives himself a quick shave in the airport.

The movie begins with Victor Navorsky (Tom Hanks) arriving in New York’s JFK airport, wearing a wooly hat and clutching a can of what appears to be Planter’s Peanuts. Navorsky has come from the country of Krakozhia. Through a bizarre twist of fate, his government has been overthrown, its borders have been sealed, and passport and visas from Krakozhia are no longer valid until the “new government” is established. All of this occurred while Navorsky was on the NY bound flight, and he knows nothing of it. It is the duty of the immigration authorities of JFK to inform Navorsky that he will be confined to the airport’s “International Transit Lounge” until the situation is resolved; unfortunately, Victor does not speak English, and there is no Krakozhian translator available.

You might think that this is a semantic dilemma, and it certainly is. However, using the Ear Book to assess the pragmatics of the ensuing conversations, it soon becomes clear that even if Victor Navorsky had been able to speak a bit of English, the disadvantages he faced would have made communicative success highly unlikely. Let me begin my assessment with one of the opening scenes from the movie, where Victor is taken into a private room by an airport guard and persuaded to give up both his flight ticket and ( most unwillingly ) his passport. The guard is not a particularly unpleasant or threatening sort of character, but since Navorsky lacks any sense of context, the two are unable to communicate on even the most basic level.

What do I mean by “context”, and why is it so important? The Ear Book explains this in terms of “deictic elements“, or the co-ordinates that the listener needs to establish in order to concentrate on and process incoming information. For instance, on a very basic level, Navorsky does not know the identity of the speaker, since the guard has not introduced himself. He does not understand where he is, since he has simply been led into a private room with no explanation. He has no clue as to why he has been singled out, or even what the topic of the conversation actually is. Having no point of reference to relate to, he is at a loss of how to behave socially ( Is he in trouble? Is this part of the “welcome” to America? Is there some beaurocratic detail he has forgotten to attend to? ). At a disadvantage before the conversation even begins, he nervously clutches his guidebook ( Fodor’s ) and begins to sweat visibly. This is a terrible start to any attempt at communication, and the situation moves swiftly from bad to worse.

To begin with, both Victor and the airport guard both have urgent messages to communicate: Victor wants to get out of the airport and take a cab to his destination ( “Ra-mada Inn, 161 Lexing-ton” ), while the guard needs to get Victor’s personal details and confiscate his passport for safekeeping. Referring again to the Ear Book, this immediately sets up a difficult situation, according to the systems theory approach, which describes communication not as “comprehending messages”, but as “finding common ground and mutually moving toward goals”. Here is the conversation that ensues:

Guard: “What exactly are you doing in the United States, Mr. Navorsky?”

Victor: ( painfully reading from his notebook ) “Yellow taxicab, please. Take me to Ra-mada Inn. 161 Lexing-ton.”

Guard: “You’re staying at the Ramada Inn?”

Victor: “Keep the change.”

Guard: “Do you know anyone in New York?”

Victor: “Yes.”

Guard: “Who?”

Victor: “Yes.”

Guard: “Who?”

Victor: “Yes, yes.”

This strange exchange is followed by further confusion, as the guard announces, “I’m gonna need the passport, also…..”, stretching out his hand to take it. Assuming the interview is over and he is free to go, Navorsky happily grasps the guard’s hand and thanks him. Exasperated, the guard finally resorts to pointing and sputtering, “No-no-no-no! THAT! ( points to the passport in Navorsky’s breast pocket)  Passport! That!” At last, Victor understands, and slowly draws the passport out of his pocket, stubbornly clinging to it even as the guard, equally stubborn, tugs it away from him. Although the guard assures him, “This is just a standard procedure,” the words mean nothing to Navorsky, who has instantly been stripped of not only his dignity, but his legal identity. Furthermore, according to discourse analysis, he has failed in two respects: he has neither successfully communicated his own message nor successfully comprehended the speaker’s. The guard, although he does successfully confiscate Victor’s passport, has not successfully communicated his own message, and is unable to establish the details of Victor’s story. It’s a perfect two-way conversational failure, and there are many more to come.

Navorsky reluctantly hands over his passport.

Navorsky reluctantly hands over his passport.

Next, Victor Navorsky is led through a long, sterile hallway ( more disorientation and inability to establish context ) to the swank, modern office of Frank Dixon, the Director of Customs and Immigration at the airport. This, is fact, is how Frank introduces himself, but so swiftly that even I had to rewind the movie to catch his name and title. And here, in the office of the fastidious and condescending Dixon, Navorsky is told of the events that have transpired in his home country of Krakozhia. First, let us establish his position; as he is seated on the opposite side of Dixon’s large, gleaming desk, he would be described as the addressee, or, in Rost’s words, “a person in a discourse who is being spoken to directly and who has limited rights to respond.” Victor himself senses this, and sits politely and nervously, waiting to be “talked at”. The loquacious Dixon, clearly of higher social status and with his conversational goal firmly in place, assumes control of the conversational flow ( more like a torrent ) from the first, after tossing off a rhetorical question: “I hope you don’t mind if I eat while we’re talking?”

Rost states that, “How interlocutors in a conversation define their status relative to the other will determine a great deal about how they will communicate with each other, the style they will adapt in the conversation,” and, in a single status-defining move, Dixon opens his well-stocked shiny metal lunchbox in front of Navorsky and pulls out an impressive array of snack foods. In fact, he is sending a message: I am a very busy and important man (and you are not ), so I must combine my lunch hour with our little interview. Navorsky ( who must be exhausted from his flight and potentially hungry himself ) has no choice but to accept this breach of manners, as he is outranked and lacks “linguistic currency”. With his affective filter steadily rising, he sits anxiously, trying to orient himself to the context of the conversation while grasping for any familiar words ( bottom-up processing ). He is also, incidentally, sprayed with potato chips, in a bizarre incident that adds insult to injury.

In analyzing Dixon’s speech to Navorsky, it is useful to refer to Paul Grice‘s conversational maxims (1969) , which are discussed in some detail in the Ear Book. To begin with, there is the maxim of quantity that states ( and the paraphrasing is my own ), “Don’t be a blabbermouth.  Say what you need to say, and don’t waste words”. This is difficult for some people even in daily conversation, and Dixon’s challenge is much more formidable. He must explain a mind-bogglingly delicate and complex situation to a non-native speaker in a manner that is succinct and comprehensible. Incredibly, he seems unaware of both the delicacy and the complexity of the information, as well as the linguistic gap between himself and his listener. Biting into his juicy apple with gusto, he rattles on and on, discussing visas being revoked, travelling privileges suspended, military coups occurring, and civilian casualties ( “very few, so I’m sure your family was fine,” he adds, as an afterthought ). When it is clear that nothing has sunk in, the guard adds to the confusion by further elaborating, using phrases like “annexed from the inside”, and “The Republic of Krakozhia”– and at last, a light goes on. “Krakozhia!!” says Navorsky happily, giving the thumbs up sign—it is the single word that he has recognized in the entire speech. Too much quantity, and zero comprehensibility. 

There is also a conversational maxim of manner, which states, “Avoid obscurity and ambiguity. Don’t go off on a tangent!” I am sorry to say that Frank Dixon is guilty of flouting this maxim as well, in his attempt to explain that Navorsky’s government has been overthrown and his visa suspended. “Currently, you are a citizen…..of nowhere!” he announces. And then “nowhere” reminds him of one of his favorite TV shows: The Twilight Zone. “Yeah, it’s like the Twilight Zone. Do you get that show over there?” And as Navorsky sits in puzzled incomprehension, Dixon goes on to name characters from the show, at one point being corrected by the guard, who is also a science fiction fan. At this point Navorsky has completely given up on attempting to follow the conversation; his level of engagement has dropped off the charts and he has redirected his mind to his own personal goal, which is getting into the city. His response, therefore, to the Twilight Zone digression is, “Where do I buy the Nike shoes?” Hey, that’s getting to the point. No tangents for Navorsky!

Here's the villain: Frank Dixon.

A close-up of the villain.

A third conversational maxim is that of quality. Basically, it states, “Don’t Lie. And don’t go around spouting nonsense that you can’t back up with facts and evidence.” Although Dixon doesn’t outright lie to Navorsky, I say he’s guilty of flouting this particular maxim by the very smugness of his manner, which exudes a kind of sinister normalcy. His continual smirk, along with condescending attempts at humor and the enthusiastic apple-crunching, send a signal to Navorsky that what’s happening is no big deal. “A bit of bad news” is how he puts it. In fact, it is a very big deal, and Dixon himself has never dealt with such an unusual situation. When he assures Navorsky that, “I’m sure that Uncle Sam will have this all sorted out by tomorrow…”, he is certainly guilty of providing false assurance, since he has no idea how or when the problem will be resolved. I say he clearly flouts the maxim of quality, and sets himself up as the villain from the movie’s very first scene.

How on earth will the vulnerable Navorsky do battle with Dixon, who appears to have all the pragmatic advantages? By fighting fire with fire, and flouting a maxim as well, that’s how! Though he is unaware of doing so, Navorsky continually ignores the maxim of relevance, which means ( as you would expect ) that his conversational responses seemingly come from outer space, bearing no direct connection to the questions asked. Since Navorsky cannot comprehend the stream of language directed at him, his replies are what the Ear Book refers to as dispreferred responses: they do not comply with the speaker’s expectations, and, in fact, have great power as a tactical weapon. Rost writes that, “By flouting the maxim of relevance, the speaker may derail the interlocutor’s intentions”. This truth is brought to life as time and again we see that Navorsky’s innocent but inappropriate responses have the power to irritate, and even infuriate, the pompous Dixon, who is unable to steer any conversation toward a successful conclusion. Navorsky, an inherently well-mannered fellow, is also skilled at backchannelling ( the comments, noises, or physical signals that signal a listener’s reception and comprehension of a message ). While Dixon pontificates, Navorsky smiles pleasantly, nods, and repeats, “yes, yes” in a polite feigning of comprehension. This, too, unnerves Dixon, when it soon becomes apparent that Navorsky has not, in fact, understood a thing.

And so, from the first ten minutes, the scene is set for an ongoing confrontation between two men who have not just different native languages, but differing social ranks and communicative roles, differing schema, differing conversational purposes, and differing styles of communication. Those of you who have seen the movie know that in spite of his disadvantaged position Navorsky wins the day, managing to acquire an impressive level of communicative English while setting up housekeeping in the airport. He even wins the heart ( though not the hand ) of the ravishing Catherine Zeta-Jones. Dixon, on the other hand, comes perilously close to a nervous breakdown, eventually admitting defeat–gracefully but somewhat unconvincingly–and allowing Navorsky to leave the airport terminal to complete his personal mission involving the empty can of Planter’s Nuts. There are a myriad of hilarious and enlightening conversations throughout the movie that beg to be analyzed, but in the interest of brevity ( again, the maxim of quantity ) , I will halt my own analysis and encourage those who are interested watch the movie for themselves. 

The moral is that communication is not so much about “speaking the same language” as it is “being on the same page”. If you want true communication, it’s a two way street; you and the listener must align your goals and expectations from the start, obey the conversational maxims, check for comprehension and provide constant feedback, and behave as respectable human beings, so that no-one’s dignity is trampled and no face is lost in the process. If all else fails, smile sweetly like Victor Navorsky, tell the speaker you’ll wait, and give it another shot tomorrow. In the meantime, here’s the trailor. 

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. 

Crown Prince Akihito and Michiko Shoda in Karuizawa, 1959. (Photo from Sankei Archive)

Crown Prince Akihito and Michiko Shoda in Karuizawa, 1959. (Photo from Sankei Archive)

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! ).

Neural Committment, Perceptual Goodness, and Updating our Schemata (classes 1 and 2)

An hour or so of class discussion time didn’t really do justice to the first two chapters of Michael Rost’s Teaching and Researching Listening (which will be referred to from here on in as The Ear Book). At a recent JALT conference, I saw a teacher reading this text “for fun”–his own words– and I now understand why. It IS fun, not just because it’s extremely readable, but because it connects language acquisition theories and experiments with biology and neuroscience. Every TESOL student studies experiments related to critical or sensitive periods in language acquisition and discusses “plasticity”.  It’s interesting, then, to read about the process of neural commitment on page 23 of the Ear Book: 

As basic linguistic functions develop, they become confined to progressively smaller areas of neural tissue, a process called neural commitment. This leads to a beneficial increase in automaticity and speed of processing, but it also results inevitably in a decline in plasticity……It appears that the process of neural commitment leads to a neural separation between different languages in bilinguals and second language learners. The plasticity or neural flexibility required for language reorganization declines progressively through childhood and adolescence and may be the primary cause of some of the difficulties that adults face in second language learning.

What this means to me is that we do lose plasticity as we age, but hey, it’s a trade-off: we gain automaticity and speed (which means greater fluency). That’s pretty important, and actually a good consolation prize; whether the fluency referred to is in one’s mother tongue or in multiple languages, our brains are wired toward fluency, and decline in plasticity is simply an unfortunate result of that process. I also like the image of bilinguals’ different languages as being neurally separated ( like an obsessively neat person’s sock drawer, I imagine ). Mothers of my students would be relieved to know this, since many of them imagine English as something that will interfere with their child’s Japanese learning process ( imagine all the socks unballed and in a colorful mess in the drawer–that’s what they envision ). My husband and I are both late and successful second language learners who raised two fully bilingual children; between the four of us, we’ve had no trouble using either Japanese or English or mixing the two when necessary. The different language systems are firmly established in our minds; they don’t interfere with each other and they often combine to make for a more colorful style of communication.

On to chapter two of the Ear Book, which reveals that a linguist’s favorite snack is full of Perceptual Goodness. No, not really, but that’s the first thing I thought when I saw the phrase used on page 27: it sounds like a TV commercial. Actually, it refers to sound. I learned that phonemes have “identities” that clearly define them, as follows: “…..each individual phoneme of a language has a unique identity in terms of frequency ratios between the fundamental frequency of a sound…and the frequency of the sound in other harmonic ranges.” So, as I understand it, in pronouncing certain phonemes we are unconsciously manipulating sound frequencies. Although there’s a broad range of acceptable ratios between frequencies for each phoneme, if we move out of that range, the phoneme loses its identity (becomes unrecognizable or unintelligible). In other words? When a non-native speaker’s pronunciation is so far off that the listener can’t decode certain words, it’s a matter of mathematics. The ratio of the sound frequencies produced by the speaker is mismatched (not purposely, of course), and the listener must resort to guesswork or hypothesis (top-down processing) to comprehend what’s being said. It’s a very physical explanation for what defines phonemes and how we identify them. 

There are numerous blog-worthy topics detailed in chapters one to three of the Ear Book, but I particularly enjoyed thinking about Schemata. That’s one of those words that we’re familiar with, but perhaps in a fuzzy way. Well, no more fuzzy thinking now that I have Rost’s definition to work with. Here it is: “A schema is a figurative description for any set of simultaneously activated connections (related nodes) in the vast frontal cortex of the brain.” Schemata, then, refers to a set of “memory nodes” that are activated constantly as we attempt to understand the world around us, make decisions, and communicate with others. Read the morning newspaper? You’ve probably created a new schema by processing new facts and linking them together. Just met your new neighbor and exchanged greetings? In that short time, you’ve put a simple schema in place. Even more interesting is the fact that our existing schemata are constantly being undated as we read more, see more, hear more, experience more, and revise our former schema. In linguistic terms, this is being “parsimonius” (following the principle of Occam’s razor), since it is obviously a pain in the neck for your brain to be constantly creating entirely new schemata, and updating is much more efficient. I’m fairly certain that my mother-in-law is constantly updating her schemata in regards to me, her son’s American wife. And that is for the good, since her first schemata was rather alarming and not at all positive: the image of an American bride (she has since confessed to me) triggered fears of early divorce, wild and crazy spending, and greasy, unhealthy cooking. 

And that is enough reflection for now. I vow to not let my schemata get rusty, but to continue updating and creating nice shiny new ones.


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