Being Understood And Nothingness

A spectre is haunting Europe (and everywhere else). A new zELTgeist has been born. Everywhere I look, I see it. ELF, native and non-native speakers (NSs and NNSs), non-native English speaking teachers (NNESTs), language use… it’s all out there. The blogosphere throbs and we may be on the cusp of an Event Horizon. Laura Patsko has recently returned to the blogging world with three posts on language use and empathy; Laura Phelps (because everyone called Laura blogs) wrote recently about a similar topic; Cinzia Guerriero posted her experience of being a NNEST in Japan; ELF Pron continues apace; Damien Williams is conducting a survey of NNESTs for his IATEFL talk; Marek Kiczkowiak continues his good work on TEFL Equality Advocates; Silvana Richardson entered the fray with a webinar aimed at NNESTs and will do so again with an IATEFL plenary; I turned up in the EFL Magazine and said something; the latest TEFL Show podcast is on which pronunciation models to teach and an itinerant trainer I know in Bangkok ranted for a long time in bar.

I have nothing of any real use to add to the debates of course and I do not want to be accused of bundling the very separate issues of ELF, NSs/NNSs, NNESTs and language use together into one ‘oh bless’ package, but something positive is afoot when dominant paradigms are challenged. Things fall apart; the Centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. And we should celebrate it.

Accommodation (not that kind)

So what can I contribute? Why would I want to scrawl one more post on the internet’s vast and crowded canvas? Because I’d like to tell you a very short story about a situation in which I recently found myself and what that might or not mean; however, before I get there, here’s something neatly simple that Laura Patsko wrote on her recent blog post (see above):

“It’s quite obvious that he [a glaciologist, no less – Laura moves in high circles] chooses to phrase and deliver the same information differently according to his audience — if he actually wants to be understood, of course.”

This is a form of language grading, which in turn forms part of a larger concept of Accommodation Theory. According to the theory, you’ll either want to converge with your interlocutor to lessen the social distance between you (which will mean being understood) or diverge from your interlocutor to widen the social distance between you (which might mean not being understood), due to such issues as identity and context. To give a somewhat simplistic example, I might want to sound more Scottish to show I’m different to you in some way (divergence), or you might go on a date which goes really well and want to ‘neutralise’ some regional features of your accent to be more like your potential new beau (convergence). I might modify my choice of words, my accent, the language I’m actually speaking, the speed of speech, my mannerisms, my grammar and so forth, much of which will be unconscious (see more here). But here’s where I recently came unstuck (and to think I’ve actually advocated for native speakers to have international communication classes!).

On Causing an Awkward Situation at a Beach but not in a Phone Shop

2016-02-13 18.06.46.jpgI was enjoying a very pleasant sojourn at an idyllic spot in Thailand with three friends. Of these three, two are NSs and one is a NNS. I found this situation rather awkward at times as I was continually plagued by the fear that NNS did not understand what I was saying. Then one evening, the NNS turned to one of the NSs after I said something and asked: “what did he say?”. I feel mortified quite often, but this was a Top 5 Moment. I, an English teacher, a teacher trainer, someone who’s lived in Foreign for the last ten years, had managed to cause confusion or discomfort to such a level that rather than asking me what was said, the questioner turned to someone else. It turned out too that this question was often asked and things I’d said explained, but only when I’d left the room. Reader, I’d harried him.

The reason I describe the above scene after talking about accommodation is that I genuinely did not know how to handle this situation. I evidently got my accommodation all wrong, but why? I mean, I managed quite well earlier today when I cancelled my mobile phone contract, with exchanges like:

“Sawat di Khrap. Er, can I cancel my phone [shows phone] contract here?”

“Sorry, you can say again?” [leans forward over desk]

“Can I cancel my phone [shows phone] contract here?”

“Sorry, no understand”

“Can I finish phone contract here, thi nii, finish phone dai mai?”

“Ah, you want finish contract [kɔːntak̚ʔ]?” – [k̚ʔ] denotes an unrealised /k/

“Yes, finish [kontak̚ʔ] please, khrap”

“Ah yes dai khaaaa. [broad smile] You want finish [writes phone number on a piece of paper]”

“Yes! [smile the size of your bedroom, nodding like a Chinese lucky cat’s left paw]”

Etc.

Some people will hate reading the above and perhaps accuse me of ‘Tarzan-ing’ the poor patronised member of staff, but frankly they’re wrong. There I was in a transactional situation in which I needed a given outcome and so I convergently accommodated my English (including adding some Thai words too) to accommodate as much as I possibly could to my interlocutor’s level (short of actually learning Thai in that 40 seconds) and, waddaya know, it worked. Phone contract cancelled, smiles all round. But then what had gone wrong on holiday with my friends?

Language (obt)Use, Language Barriers?

One can always spin a personal fiction to explain oneself, but I’ll keep it brief. Perhaps I fear that so much of my identity, character or humour comes from my use of language and that to accommodate it too much in mixed groups in social conversation might jeopardise this. Perhaps I was too keenly aware that if I speak in a noticeably different manner to one member of the group (as I did when the NNS and I were talking alone), I could be construed as seriously patronising.  And so perhaps I was probably somewhere in the middle, with extreme leaps towards no real grading when I got going. It’s as if I needed a third pill, an Accommodation 2.0 to manage the different necessary means of interacting. I was in this person’s (the NNS’s) country and so it is my duty to make myself understood in the lingua franca, no? But then they were with three NSs, so maybe it is their responsibility to try to understand me (asking clarification questions, etc.). Or is it both of us and a complex situation with no real easy solution? A necessary two-way accommodating process of give and take between NS and NNS in an unevenly balanced social situation?

To turn to this very post for a moment, and think again about what Laura wrote: who is my audience and why am I writing? If you’ve read this far (or this blog before), you’ll undoubtedly have come to conclusion that anyone under a B2 level of proficiency would seriously struggle and that I’m clearly writing for my own enjoyment/amusement at times. In using the language in this way, am I thus a barrier to participation in the online ELT community? Is my language use here even permissible for a blog which is supposed to inform and contribute to debate? Do I cloud the issues when what I should be doing is shedding light? Am I catering to a small (you should see the hits on this blog), highly-proficient NS and NNS elite? Is it hypocrisy to tell CELTA candidates to grade their language, when I myself can’t be understood on the beach or the internet?

Or am I just neurotic and need to chill out? It’s no big deal, just be yourself? But show a little more of Laura’s empathy.

As usual, I have no answers, and so leave you to your own opinions. Feel free to leave those in the comments.

Endnote

Also, thank you very much for reading this post and this blog over the years. There has always been the real ELT Reflections (by Nathan Hall, someone able to actually type a URL properly) and so I have decided to finally sign off here on this one. Breaking down barriers, one blog at a time – I’ll be in touch if I put up another one.

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6 thoughts on “Being Understood And Nothingness

  1. A sad/sneaky end note. Considering I started my own blog in large part out of professional envy for yours, this marks the end of a (incredibly niche) era for me.

    Oh well, if you ever want to rant under your ELT pseudonym, Guy de Brebeoeuf (softest hands in ELT), you’re welcome to do a guest post on mine, which would double the output for 2016.

    1. Chris Ożóg

      Your niches really are niches within niches. But if you want my soft hands to grace the fabric of your blog, you might be able to persuade me when I’ve got over the exhaustion of writing this post. I’d expect a six month convalescence at least. And thank you for the kind words.

  2. Another entertaining and thought-provoking post, Chris. And thanks for the plugs to my blog!
    When I’ve found myself in similar situations (because of course it happens to everyone – language teachers/trainers are immune to communication problems), I’ve ended up analysing it in a similar way to you:
    “Perhaps I fear that so much of my identity, character or humour comes from my use of language and that to accommodate it too much in mixed groups in social conversation might jeopardise this. Perhaps I was too keenly aware that if I speak in a noticeably different manner to one member of the group (as I did when the NNS and I were talking alone), I could be construed as seriously patronising. And so perhaps I was probably somewhere in the middle, with extreme leaps towards no real grading when I got going.”
    That bit about so much of your identity being wrapped up in language is, I think, a definite factor in this topic being so popular and so often revisited with so much gusto from those involved in the surrounding debates. It’s just not possible to disentangle identity from language – and I choose that verb very consciously, as the connections we’re speaking of really are so messy and fluid!

    1. Chris Ożóg

      Disentangle is a good choice of verb too! In interactional settings, language is the means to express identity, but this isn’t necessarily the case in transactional interactions. As Cinzia Guerriero noted on my Facebook, perhaps part of my identity is to NOT be understood by those less proficient at English in certain situations. That is not to say that I don’t want to be understood, but I that my way of expressing myself will naturally not be in many cases. I guess it’s like if you’re French and think part of your identity is being French; well, part of that is not being understood by a non-French speaker and that’s just the way it is. That changes if both interlocutors have to negotiate the discourse towards a defined and mutually understood objective, but in a relaxed social setting is quite different.

  3. Wait – don’t go! Change URL if you must but let us know…Was just talking about what you describe above this very evening with Actual Non Teachers and said the same thing as Laura – purpose and audience is The Thing…Thanks for posting, will pass it on!

    1. Chris Ożóg

      Thanks for the comment, Sophia. Just one thing – you know Actual Non Teachers (ANTs)?! I thought they were mythical. What did they have to say about the situation? Was there awareness of accommodation (not the terminology, obviously) or any thought to employ communication strategies other than speak loudly and slowly/repeat?

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