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Insight on the Listening Process from John Field: article review

Article title: An insight into listeners’ problems: too much bottom-up or too much top-down?

JournalSystem 32 (2004)

Author: John Field, professor at University of Leeds, UK. Teaches psycholinguistics, child language, and English grammar. His widely-used textbook, Listening in the Language Classroom, won the Ben Warren International House Trust Prize. A teacher trainer, materials writer, and syllabus designer as well as practitioner, Field travels widely lecturing on L2 listening.

Doi: 10.1016/j.system.2004.05.002

Type of Study: Empirical study based on observations gleaned from an analysis of three related experiments.

Purpose: To clarify the relationship between L2 listeners’ use of top-down and bottom-up listening strategies.

Research questions:  1) If top-down and bottom-up information are in apparent conflict, which one prevails? and 2) How do learners deal with new items of vocabulary when they crop up in a listening passage?

Procedure: 47 NNS students from a leading British EFL school were given listening tests in a classroom with good acoustics. The tests were designed to reveal learners’ listening strategies by presenting them with a series of problematic items, forcing them to choose between semantics (representing top-down listening strategy) or phonology (representing bottom-up). Each test was slightly different, and designed to explore different aspects of the research questions.

Results: The experiments produced both expected and unexpected results. Fields found that L2 learners often do re-interpret or misinterpret words to fit their own schema (relying on top-down, rather than bottom up processing), but also that they accurately perceive other words by relying on the onset sound. Lastly, he found that learners rely on a third strategy as well, which he calls a “lexical strategy”; in this case, learners bypass the top-down strategy in favor of matching an unknown word with a similar-sounding familiar word, regardless of the word’s semantic appropriateness.

My thoughts: First, let me pat myself on the back for choosing such a brilliant and easily comprehensible article to review. Now, let me see if I can elaborate a bit on the design, and its simple elegance.

Field begins with a history of the opposing views of bottom-up-influence versus top-down-influence proponents; midway into the discussion, in a section labeled “The legacy of scripted materials“, he points out an interesting connection that I hadn’t realized before: many L2 learners have developed an expectation of understanding everything in the text, since listening materials have traditionally been heavily scripted (contrived for the learner’s benefit, rather than reflecting natural spoken language) and graded according to level. Think about that: understanding everything in the text. That means doing the kind of precise and accurate bottom-up processing that is almost impossible for L2 listeners to do in a real-world context. Is it any wonder, then, that some learners panic when they’re exposed to the unpredictability of real conversation occurring at normal speed? Since the EFL world has become more “communicative”, learners must now rely more heavily on their top-down processing skills to hypothesize and compensate for the bits of language that they cannot fully process in the speech stream in real time. So while many scholars insist that L2 learners cannot focus on semantics when they’re unable to catch sounds and segment them into words, other scholars–such as Long (1989) and Field himself (1997)– counter that learners’ top-down processing ability is exactly what enables them to make sense of what they hear. This ability (they say) is what provides the support necessary to compensate for L2 learners’ imperfect decoding skills.

Moving on to the experiments themselves, I’ll briefly explain the design:

The first experiment: This test consisted of groups of four to six high-frequency words likely to be familiar to the learners ( all high elementary or low intermediate level). Sometimes the words all belonged to the same lexical field (for example, desk, chair, lamp, computer), and sometimes only the two last words had a semantic connection (e.g. sunny, excited, bumpy, hot, cold). For the target items, Field changed the onset of the last word only, making a similar word which “didn’t fit” semantically (i.e. sunny, elegant, bumpy, hot, bold). Foils, or examples where the last words were not changed, were mixed in, giving learners examples of target patterns. Fields wanted to see whether what learners expected to hear would override what they actually heard. And what he found was…….the opposite! Out of 18 example sets, listeners only “re-interpreted” one answer to fit their expectations. Well, now, that’s discouraging if you thought you had a good case in favor of top-down processing skills. Field, however, re-assessed his test design and found an important flaw: he had chosen to change the onset–rather than middle or the offset of the target words. Native speakers attach great importance to the initial sound of words, and Field (cheerfully?) proclaims that this in itself is an interesting result, since it clearly shows that L2 speakers also pay great attention to the onset of words, to their obvious advantage.

John Field

John Field

As an aside, I do hypothesize that John Field is a cheerful person. I listened to a podcast of him speaking about his reception of a prestigious award; he describes himself as “gobsmacked” upon hearing the news, which I take to mean pleased and surprised. The surprise implies a very appealing modesty and genuineness. I wouldn’t mind having tea (or a beer?) with him.

So, on to the second experiment, which produced more expected, but this time positive results. This next test consisted of semantically constrained sentences marked by “acceptable but unpredictable” final words. For instance, “I couldn’t listen to the radio because of the XXX”. One might expect an appropriate answer to be noise, but the actual spoken answer is boys. Again, Field was curious to see whether learners would choose a more predictable answer over the what they actually heard, which was less appropriate or expected. This time, results showed that words in seven out of the twenty items were substitutions of “expected” words rather than the words listeners actually heard. But once again, there were unexpected results as well: an analysis of the words chosen showed that test takers tended to change to a word whose onset was similar to the target word (for instance, Field predicted that noise would be the preferred choice in the previous example about listening to the radio; learners, however, preferred to substitute voice, which shares a similar labial onset sound). Aha–further evidence of the importance of onset sounds, concluded Field.

Finally, on to the last and most interesting experiment. This time, subjects were presented with a sentence designed to provide a meaningful context for the very last word….which was a potentially unknown low-frequency lexical item. For instance….”They’re lazy in that office; they like to shirk“. Field hypothesized that learners might be tempted to substitute a more familiar and phonetically similar word, even if the context didn’t fit. In the case of the office question, learners might choose work, a word that didn’t necessarily make sense, but that sounded similar and was associated with offices.

So what happened? Well, as Field reports, “results were striking”. He found that 33.31% of the listeners did not accept the acoustic evidence of unfamiliar words, instead deciding on familiar and phonetically similar ones that often had very little connection with the sentence context. Eliminating those listeners who left questions blank, the number went up to 42.39%. Again, words that learners chose were often not those that Field had predicted. And not only did learners often choose semantically inappropriate words, but they sometimes chose words from different word classes! The trend, he found, did not vary according to individual either, as only one of the forty-seven subjects did not use this strategy at least once. And learners chose to match heard words with known words in each of the 20 test questions. There was no case of a question where a learner had not used this particular strategy. A significant result, right?

It all depends on how you look at it. Field admits that if the data for the third test (not adjusting for those who left questions blank) were to be calculated, it would show that learners’ choice of inappropriate words was not statistically significant (i.e. it was little better than chance) by quantitative standards. But, as he makes clear, such a pronouncement does not take into account “the most striking fact about the figure–that it was achieved despite the evidence of the listener’s ears and, in many cases, to the evidence of the contrary”. Learners, it seems, can sometimes ignore both top-down (the logical contextual choice) and bottom-up (the word as heard phonetically) evidence when faced with a difficult unknown lexical item. The tendency to substitute a known for an unknown word, then, is an entirely different phenomenon which he calls a lexical strategy.

In the end, Field provides insights rather than answers, and that, for me, is the beauty of this article. He hypothesizes, considers his results accurately and honestly, revises and expands his ideas, and finally sheds some real light on the process of listening for L2 learners. A must-read for all TESOL students and language EFL/ESL practitioners, Field’s article is also an interesting and accessible read for language lovers in general. Treat yourself to an enjoyable afternoon with John Field, and you’ll come away a little wiser.

 

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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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