Say WHAT? Run that by me again…

Archive for the tag “Listening and Speaking”

Intrinsic Motivation and Thoughtful Corrections (Class Ten)

Last night’s listening and speaking class with Dr. Jim was lively, in spite of the fact that Chunmei had not slept a wink, Hiroko had walked over 20,000 steps across Tokyo during the day, and Paul and I had spent an exhausting weekend attending a two-day vocabulary acquisition seminar with Batia Laufer. There were three presenters, and the topic was a continuation of the Task-Based Learning theme, with a twist. I’d like to talk about two of the articles presented, one of which I had engaged with since reading the title, and another which looked to be uninspiring, but proved to be surprisingly useful and enlightening.

Steven Sadow

Steven Sadow

I’ll begin with the article we all thought sounded appealing: “Concoctions”, by Stephen Sadow, a professor of romance languages and literature at Northeastern University. It’s not often that we get to read an article written by someone outside of the field, and I viewed it as a treat rather than an assignment from the first. Happily, the article–found in Foreign Language Annuals 27(2) did not disappoint.

By Sadow’s own definition, “concoctions” are tasks that students find absorbing because they stimulate intrinsic motivation. But ho-hum, that definition is yawn-inducing, so let me go a bit further. Psychologist Teresa Amabile, whom Sadow quotes, defines intrinsic motivation as, 1) having love for and even an obsession with the task at hand, 2) having a sense of dedication to the work over time, 3) having a view of the project as combining work and play (are you waking up yet?) and 4) marked by a concentration on the activity itself.  Dr. Jim’s study sheet for the article had asked us to recall an intrinsically motivating projectand I knew the answer: this blog, of course. It’s a requirement, but it’s also an obsession, and these blog posts get written before reading or writing assignments for other courses. I am one of those women who do not hesitate to indulge in dessert before a meal. 

So more about concoctions. They are tasks which are performed not just for the sake of the outcome (which had been my impression so far from reading Willis and Skehan), but for the sake of the process itself. These are tasks involving ambiguity, open-endedness, and instability. They make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. They involve unexpected, unusual, or even startling associations, and curiosity is the key. If students are not intensely curious–if they are not driven to think in new and different ways–Sadow would not consider the task a proper concoction. He also goes so far as to speculate that, “…the ability to grab and hold student attention may be more important than the practice of specific language points.” In designing a concoction, Sadow suggests: Avoid problems that have already been solved and design new problems. Let students brainstorm for solutions and re-arrange their existing schema (he calls this “breaking frames”).

In discussing the Dada and Surrealist influences on Sadow’s thinking, Chunmei showed us a clip of a Luis Bunuel film involving the juxtaposition of an eyeball and a razor as an example of a “frame-breaking” experience. Having been through three laser surgery operations on my eyes (and lasers and razors are one and the same in Japanese), I could not watch, but I did lift my head up in time to enjoy Chunmei’s final slide, entitled “Stairway to Heaven” by Jim Warren. “It’s Surreal, but it’s also romantic, and I just like it,” she pronounced, and we were able to forget the eyeball clip and end the presentation on a positive note.

Well. After Chunmei’s presentation, there were a few awkward minutes where we tried to picture ourselves as creators and implementors of such ambiguous and appealing tasks, with our intrinsically motivated students begging for more class time to finish the project, please! Some of us ventured to say that this was all very exciting, but not realistic or practical for our teaching situations. And I’m sure that many of us felt, at that point, about as interesting as dishrags. What bearing could this article by a crazy Harvard-educated literature scholar possibly have on our daily working lives as teachers of shy Asian EFL students?

Then Doug, who teaches classes for Japanese businessmen, spoke up. “You’d think that guys in suits are really serious,” he said, “but we do some crazy things in our lessons. I’m basically mocking the textbook dialogues a lot of the time, and those businessmen love it. If I tried to teach everything straight from the book, we’d all die of boredom and no-one would learn anything.” Aha. Then I remembered, “Yeah, I do something similar with my kids’ classes. I have to teach endless chunks of language and phrases using these cute little Kumon cards showing boring well-behaved children. So I always re-arrange the order of the cards to purposely put the boring, predictable children in interesting or unexpected predicaments.” And from there, most of us could think of ways that we tweaked tasks or drills to give them unexpected or humorous outcomes. And Dr. Jim wrapped things up by reminding us that challenging learners to “think differently” can be as simple as changing the perspective. Trees, eyeglasses, shoes–even objects can have a perspective or a voice (said the professor whose doctoral dissertation involved puppets) and students can willingly suspend their disbelief to imagine the world seen through different eyes. Ha! As I wrote that, an image flashed through my head of shoes with eyes, alert to impediments or obstacles that their near-sighted owner might not have noticed. “Look out for the snail!” “Whooooa, that’s dog poop!”  Maybe an idea for a concoction-influenced task? I believe I will file it away for future reference.

Finally, I’d like to talk about the last presentation, on an article entitled Teaching Speaking: Suggestions for the Classroom (found in The Language Teacher 21-1) by Robert S. Brown and Paul Nation. This was the article I wasn’t overly excited about; it had a mundane title that did not sound like an alcoholic beverage, and I was in the mood to talk more about concoctions. The presenter was Robert, who began, as many of us have thus far, with an apology: “I’m really sorry, but my presentation’s going to be straightforward and boring. I’m just not good at this stuff.” …….and then he went on to speak confidently, smoothly, engagingly and enthusiastically, as most of us do. After all, we’re teachers, and performing is part of our job on a daily basis. Perhaps the tendency to apologise before beginning our presentations reflects our comfortableness in speaking in front of peers; in front of our own students, any little anxieties are instantly repressed, and bright smiles belie none of the worries that make us human. Whatever the reason, Robert’s modesty was soon tossed aside as he launched into the heart of the presentation and became teacherly in the best sense.

Paul Nation

Paul Nation

The first half of the article covered speaking: how to encourage students to do more and how to improve their fluency and accuracy. Okay–pretty good stuff, and Robert was interesting. Then my ears really perked up near the end when the subject of error correction was introduced. We’ve discussed the subject often, in different classes and different contexts, but there are always new angles to consider. I thought that Brown and Nation (as represented by Robert) did an excellent and thoughtful job of analysing why L2 learners make errors and how we as teachers can respond both effectively and sensitively. For those of you who are familiar with these principles, it’s probably worthwhile to read them again, and for those of you who haven’t yet encountered them, here they are:

If your learner makes an error because they have not yet come into contact with the correct language form.…….don’t correct. Show them the correct form and give them chances to practice.

If your learner errs because they have not observed the form correctly………correct by showing the difference.

If your learner errs because of nervousness…….do NOT correct. Lighten the mood, relieve the tension!

If your learner is suffering from cognitive overload due to task difficulty, do not correct. Make the task easier, or give more chances to practice.

If your learner is confused due to task difficulty (tongue-twisters are the example given), do not correct. Again, tweak the task to make it easier.

If your learner’s error is based on the transfer of a pattern from their first language, do correct, or learners may continue to make the same error, leading to what some linguists call “fossilization”. If the learner’s error has not yet become a habit, it’s time for “consciousness-raising” to help make them aware of correct patterns.

If your learner has copied an incorrect model (which can happen when L2 learners use their interlanguage together without a L1 interlocutor), do point out the correct model.

In short, EFL and ESL teachers should be wary of rushing in to correct learner errors. In some cases, correction can do more harm than good, and often it would simply be a waste of time. On the other hand, it’s also a waste to let a potential consciousness-raising opportunity slip by, so when the circumstances are right, we need to find a way to make learners aware of the much-discussed gap between the target phrase and their developing interlanguage.

“And don’t forget,” said Dr. Jim at the close of the class, “that error correction often works over time. While you may think a simple re-cast of the learner’s error goes unnoticed, that might not be the case And sometimes, learners do the re-cast themselves….. Ruthie! Ask me a question!” Startled, I opened my mouth and said what was uppermost in my mind: “Don’t you think it’s time for a little haircut, Dr. Jim?”

Dr, Jim

Dr, Jim

The good Dr. looked a bit startled, his hand flew to his head, and Hiroko sitting next to me scolded, “Ruthie!! That’s not a QUESTION! That’s a hidden request!” Hahaha—never mind that mentioning the state of your professor’s hair is not an appropriate topic, Hiroko was remembering the article by Zoltan Dornyei, urging teachers to train their students to recognize all manner of complex “questions”. She immediately substituted, “What did you do last weekend?”, while both Dr. Jim and I recovered our composure (to be honest, I had startled myself by saying what I was thinking). And then Dr. J. showed us what he meant. “What did you do last weekend?” he repeated in a small voice to himself thoughtfully. “See?” he said. “The learner is repeating the phrase, thinking about it and re-casting it for himself. That happens!” We all said, “aaaaah! yes!” then put away our pens and notebooks, unplugged our iPhone chargers, and called it a night. Another Listening and Speaking class checked off the syllabus, and–as always–some good things to ponder before next Monday when we meet again.

Mechanics and Organics: The Power of Output (Class Eight)

Last week, inspired by Levelt’s language acquisition model, I wrote about the tension between complexity, accuracy, and fluency experienced by second language learners, and about Peter Skehan’s proposition to include lexis in the trio of characteristics of a competent speaker. The topic of this week’s class with Dr. Jim was practice, and two of the three articles we read dealt with the role of output and interaction in second language acquisition. The Levelt model  of speech that I am still enamoured of re-appeared in an article by Tohoku Gakuin University’s Hitoshi Muranoi, and I will paste the model here once again for reference: recall the different roles of the Conceptualizer (conceives the utterance itself and processes it as a pre-verbal message), the Formulator (takes care of the grammatical and phonological encoding), and the Articulator (retrieves the utterance from the mind and transmits it into audible sounds). Like this:

Here's the Levelt model.

Here’s the Levelt model.

Now notice that the model is actually cyclical, with the spoken utterance (“overt speech”) proceeding to the “speech comprehension system”, and from there travelling as parsed speech straight back to the Conceptualizer. When I first saw the Levelt model, I assumed that the speech comprehension system belonged to a second participant–a

listener. But looking at it once again after yesterday’s class, I realized that no, the listener and speaker are one and the same in this model, and that’s the beauty of how it works. The speaker hears his own utterance, checks for meaning and grammatical accuracy–that’s the monitoring part–and if seems in some way incorrect, the

Willem Levelt: the man behind the model.

Willem Levelt

Conceptualizer will get back to work on re-formulating the message. Merril Swain calls that “noticing the hole” in one’s own language production. It makes perfect sense, and we do it unconsciously all the time even as native speakers, especially when faced with the challenge of putting something very difficult or delicate into words. It doesn’t sound right to us or isn’t clear enough; we stop mid-sentence, go back and try again, creating a cycle in which output influences input. I must be getting academic-nerdy, because I find that really cool.

So output influences input. By producing imperfect speech, language learners notice the holes in their own interlanguage (that special imperfect and constantly changing working model of the language being acquired) but they can’t yet do the repair work. That’s where interaction comes in. Perhaps the learner’s interlocutor (speech partner) is a native speaker, and consciously or unconsciously happens to use just the phrase that the learner has been struggling to produce. “Aha! That’s it!” says the learner to himself, assiduously comparing the correct version to his or her own imperfect one and plotting to produce the phrase correctly next time, gosh darn it. If context allows, the highly-motivated learner will bring the conversation to a screeching halt and try out the new phrase then and there, hopefully meeting with encouragement and kind words from the patient interlocutor. This, of course, is called “noticing the gap” (Schmidt, 1990), and the process is known as cognitive comparison.

 Now let’s look at another model, designed by H. Douglas Brown, Professor Emeritus at San Francisco and the author of Teaching by Principles: an interactive approach to language pedagogy. Are you ready? Here it is, and there’s a world of difference:

And here’s what the author, Brown, has to say about his eco-model:

One day, in a rebellious moment of simultaneous frustration and inspiration, I was moved in a second language acquisition class I was teaching to create a different “picture” of language acquisition: one that responded not so much to rules of logic, mathmatics, and physics as to botany and ecology…..in a burst of wild, artistic energy, I went out on a limb to extend the flower-seed metaphor to language acquisition. (from a book chapter published as part of the Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics in 1993)

H. Douglas Brown

I’m sure that Brown’s students thought their teacher was awesome and inspired. And before I proceed any further, I’m not ashamed to admit that I too have a soft spot for this kind of model: it’s warm and nurturing, it’s visually appealing, and it’s more “likeable” than a flow chart featuring boxes with names that sound like cold, linguistic super-hero robots: Formulator smashes Conceptualizer! Articulator crushes Audition! Lexicon caught in the middle! Brown’s model, on the other hand, is mellow and groovy.

But as much as the organic model appeals to my sense of aesthetics, it’s flawed for me, because, unlike the Levelt model, it’s not cyclical. Although this was a language acquisition model and Levelt’s was a model of speech production, I would argue that both the act of speaking and the act of acquiring language are cyclical in nature.

According to Levelt, learners’ own output influences their input, and vice-versa. According to Brown, the seeds of language acquisition are sowed, watered, nurtured (and all those details are all right on the mark), and finally bear the “Fruit of Performance”, or output. What’s missing is that the leaves and fruits on the “Output Tree” need to fall to the ground, turn to compost, feed the roots of the tree, and produce still more output. That could easily be taken care of by drawing a big old compost pile off to the right of the tree, but then what about the role of interaction in language acquisition? It appears that learner’s “production” doesn’t really mature until the end of the natural cycle, with no representation of interaction along the way or of attempts to use language imperfectly (hypothesizing how language works). I tried to think of how to re-work the model to include interaction, but the best I could do was to envision a flock of birds sitting on the tree branches, doing their best to act as interlocutors and spurring the buds on to full bloom. Aviary-locutors, in constant motion.

Six short months ago, I might have been satisfied with the Brown model, so I guess that my education is progressing. That’s a good feeling: I found something cool on the internet, scrutinized it, compared it with the theories I’m learning and with another model, and found it sadly lacking. Although it’s not groovy, the Levelt model still comes out on top for me because it works so brilliantly, even as a model of first language acquisition. A bit of searching on the side reveals that it has been re-designed by Kees de Bott as a model for bilingual speakers….and I think I just may have found a good article to review in a future post. Stay tuned, and thank you for reading!

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. 

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