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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On Being Corrected… When You’re Right

Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers

There is a remarkable passage in Anthony Burgess’ brilliant novel Earthly Powers in which the protagonist, a successful English author named Kenneth Toomey, is discussing matters religious with a local person of seemingly great import called Mahaligham, who’s a Tamil speaker (the interaction takes place in what is now Malaysia though, at the time this conversation takes place, it was a British colony known as The Federation of Malaya, and Toomey is there to do research for his work). It goes as follows:

“You may say my religion is personal and electric”

“Surely you mean eclectic?”

“I mean what I mean”, he said loudly. “Because you are an Englishman does not mean you have a monopoly of the language” (1)

What is remarkable is how (the insane – you’ll see if you read the book) Mahaligham reacts to being corrected. It turns out that he did mean “eclectic” as the conversation develops (or so it seems to me) and he keeps mentioning it, but he clearly did not like being corrected. Not only that, he links this correction to a greater question of who ‘owns’ English, which in the late 1940s or early 1950s (when this was), was very probably considered by most people to be ‘the British” (whoever they are), or the English (from England, which is simply a “conspiracy of cartographers” anyway).

Now, as proponents of ELF (English as Lingua Franca) or EIL (English as an International Language), amongst others, will tell you, nobody ‘owns’ English, particularly the British (as might have been traditionally assumed: RP as prestige form and all that – perhaps my own interpretation there). Indeed, nowadays, most English interaction will take place between people for whom English is a learned language of communication, not a first language. However, even so, there is still a tendency for many learners of English to regard native speakers (don’t think too hard about that term) as somehow in command of it, experts, consultants on acceptable use, etc. As Barbara Seidlhofer describes this “paradox”:

“…on the one hand, for the majority of its users, English is a foreign language, and the vast majority of verbal exchanges in English do not involve any native speakers of the language at all. On the other hand, there is still a tendency for native speakers to be regarded as custodians over what is acceptable usage” (2)

As usual in one of my posts, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with, well, anything. So I’ll tell you. All this reminds me of a strange correction situation I was

Muscat from the B&B (run by a brilliantly mad Swede)
Muscat from the B&B (run by a brilliantly mad Swede)

recently in in Oman. My girlfriend (a celebrated ELFer no less, and Jane to my Dave Willis) and I were in a bar in Muscat, where we met one of a number of very friendly Omanis. He was particularly talkative and took a shine to Katy, so we ended up talking for about 12 minutes and 26 seconds (roughly). Our new friend, who was maybe called Khalid (well, he is now), was very well-travelled and knew the UK well (the very definition of well-travelled..), including Edinburgh (near where I’m from), as well as Katy’s neck of the woods. I’d say his English was about B1+, though my memory is fading slightly on that point. He was also speaking to two native-speaker English teachers, something he was effusively happy about, and Katy and I were doing that accommodation thing I’ve written about before (a talk here and post here). So there’s the background.

At one point in the conversation, the following dialogue took place:

Chris: “did you go to the festival [in Edinburgh]?”

Khalid: “did I went to the festival?”

Chris: “Yeah, did you go and see it?”

Khalid: “did I went? Yes, I went to it. August.” [Katy and I share a look]

What you want to read into reformulation as a correction technique is up to you, but notice who corrected who: he corrected me. I wasn’t correcting him in this interaction – I was just speaking the English I know, use and, well, speak in bars (and elsewhere, I should add) – but he was definitely correcting me. This was the first time I think I’ve ever had my English grammar ‘corrected’ by pretty much anyone, but I’ve definitely never been corrected by someone of level B1+ in a bar!

So, what does this tell us? Probably very little in the grand scheme of things (has anyone ever seen this putative ‘grand scheme’ anywhere?), but it does highlight some interesting points that  the gregarious Khalid probably didn’t know he was making. For instance, Khalid would surely be in disagreement with Tricia Hedge’s approach, were they to meet in a bar (one day it will be me..), which Li summarises as “only ‘global’ errors (those which cause communication problems) [should] be addressed, but not ‘local’ errors (those which do not)” (3). Khalid seems to be from a more Behaviourist school of error-avoidance and explicit recasts.

Coming back to the original thread of this piece (for one should), for Khalid, native speakers clearly do not own English, as Mahaligham most forcefully points out to Toomey in the quotation at the start of this post. Nor are they experts or consultants, but are simply interlocutors of equal weight (not in the BMI sense) in a conversation – after all, in the above conversation, he was telling me he was right. It seems Khalid would agree with Widdowson when he says:

“How English develops in the world is no business whatsoever of native speakers in England [surely the UK, Henry?], the United States, or anywhere else. They have no say in the matter, no right to intervene or pass judgement. They are irrelevant… [English] is not a possession which they lease out to others, while retaining the freehold. Other people actually own it” (4)

Moreover, for Khalid, so what if I’m an English teacher and teacher trainer. So what?? He had no fear in correcting me, regardless of the different ‘status’ we might be seen to have as regards whose English is ‘correct’. Because what does that even mean any more?

So, what should I have done? If we believe that successful communication is the ultimate end, then possibly I should have done what I did: nothing. However, is Khalid going to continue in his English-speaking ways to make that error, one which is clearly not a slip or mistake, but an error based on a lack of linguistic knowledge (another consideration for the Hedge)? If he does that, does it even matter? After all, he communicated fine and most of his interaction in Muscat will be with other non-native English speakers, which will make Seidlhofer happy at least. But then, does this (Khalid’s error, not Seidlhofer’s happiness) diminish ELF as a concept, ‘reducing’ it to a simplified ‘English’, a a pidgin contact language? Why would that even be a problem? Or is it potential evidence, if it were to be repeated in many different bars across the globe, of an ELF grammar developing its own internal logic? And then what?!

Or, y’know what, maybe Khalid had just had one too many bottles of Peroni and I should get out more. Or stay in. I stand to be corrected.

References

(1) Burgess, A. Earthly Powers. Vintage Digital; Kindle Edition. 18 Oct 2012.

(2) Seidlhofer, B. (2005). English as a Lingua Franca. ELT Journal, 59/4. October 2005.

(3) Li, S. (2013). Oral Corrective Feedback ELT Journal, 67/4. First published online 13/12/13.

(4) Widdowson, H. (1994). The Ownership of English, in Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: OUP. 

Reading and Listening Lesson Musts

Why are reading and listening lessons often treated as procedural, formulaic and possibly even dull? Do learners actually get a chance to develop their skills in such lessons, or are they just given opportunities to read or listen in class? If the latter, is that a valuable use of time? Is skimming always the first thing we should do with a text?

Below is a talk I gave for IHWO a few weeks ago that tries to address the above questions. I’ve shared it here so you can see the slides too, which are below, and which might be helpful as the video lags slightly at points.

Many thanks to Neil McMahon for inviting me to speak and for all the technical wizardry, as well as everyone who attended the talk over the two days.

The Accommodating Teacher

I was inspired to write this attempt at a post by recent posts by Laura Patsko, Katy Davies and Steve Brown, all of which concern, to a greater or lesser degree, the way we use language and what this means. It takes a different route to these posts, but there’s occasional points of convergence (more on that later).

An Enquiry into Scottish Understanding

Question: what do me and David Hume have in common? No, it’s not that we’re both great philosophers, as my work is clearly superior to his… Yes! Got it. We come from the same country. That country is Scotland. And so one could posit that Hume and I probably have (adjusting for the passage of time and many many changes, of course) Scottish accents.

Having a Scottish accent is a funny thing. While we come near the top of rigorously scientific and useful polls on who has the sexiest accent, we are often portrayed as unintelligible (with thanks to Laura for the link). I am routinely told (by both native and non-native speakers), in tones of delightful surprise, that I am remarkably easy to understand as my accent is “so clear”. As it seems Scottish people are completely unintelligible to the rest of the world, it’s apparently quite a shock to many a non-Scot that they can understand me without having to really make an effort (as an aside, I’ve never found Scottish people particularly difficult to understand…).

But I digress. Coming back to Hume, he  famously (as well as wearing suspicious hats and wigs) could not abide the thought of “Scottishisms” in his written work and sent it to friends so they could find any and remove them (and told off other philosophers for not doing so). Why would he do that? The reason was for clarity on behalf of the reader, it seems. In other words, he was doing something that all language teachers should: accommodating (which is probably where Hume and I’s common bonds end).

Defining Accommodation

Accommodation is an idea from sociolinguistics that involves processes with which speakers change their way of speaking to be more or less like their interlocutor (see Dimitrios Thanasoulas for an accessible and complete description of Accommodation Theory and Scott Thornbury for further discussion more relating it to teaching). It can be verbal or non-verbal and is often subdivided into the two categories of:

  • Convergence – involves speaking more like your interlocutor to make yourself understood due to factors such as attractiveness, charisma, higher social status and so forth. As such, it involves a desire for social acceptance, but also for intelligibility.

  • Divergence – the opposite of the above, asserting your identity and difference between you and your interlocutor to signal group identity, for example (q.v. Steve Brown for an example of this).

Note that in my definition of convergence, I mention intelligibility. For my purposes here (and Hume’s above), I’ll be using accommodation in this convergent sense, to mean making yourself understood to those with whom you are speaking.  So, I seem to be rather good at convergence, as my learners can understand me (a facet of “language grading” in ELT terms), Americans I meet in the pub can and when I’m with other Scottish people I (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) become more Scottish. But it’s not all about me; it’s about us all as teachers.

Teachers and Learners: Separated by an Accommodating Language?

The language we use in the classroom is a thorny issue. Whether you’re an ELF (yes, that is the appellation for a proponent of ELF..), a new teacher, a non-native English-speaking teacher (NNEST) or just some bloke that turned up in Costa Rica looking for money for sustenance and beer and then ended up teaching English, the language you use in the classroom is critical. And I mean use, not teach (whether those two things should be distinct is another debate). In Laura’s post, she deplores courses featuring “accent reduction” for NNESTs and Steve Brown laments “accent neutralisation”. These terms are loaded and not particularly helpful descriptions of exactly what courses along these lines might actually do, but interestingly they are for NNESTs and aim at making their accents more native-like. After all, surely these are the people who need to develop their pronunciation to be more native, right?

Wrong.

I work with a lot of trainee teachers on a pre-service course like CELTA and, eight times out of ten, the people with the biggest problems accommodating are the native speakers. This is both in terms of speaking to other trainees and to their students. And why? Because the majority have spent their entire lives accommodating only with other native speakers and so think nothing of idiomatic lexical choices when talking to an elementary level class, for example, not seeing that that’s not helping them be more intelligible. Add to this suspiciously complex grammar choices (clefts with modals, anyone?), more connected speech than you’d find in a law firm called “Assimilation, Elision and Co.” and cultural references to, Ireland, say, because that’s really obvious and everyone knows about it (yeah, not your average Bangladeshi learner in Dubai – what do you know about Chittagong?) and you’ve got a heady mix of unintelligibility going on there.

Y’see, making yourself understood is not just about your accent; it encompasses linguistic choices across all the systems (grammar, lexis, phonology, discourse). So, like, accent reduction completely misses the point. This isn’t the problem. The problem is a lack of awareness of how to accommodate your speech to your learners. There are strategies that can be used to do this and these will be based on listening to the learners and working out what you can and cannot say to be intelligible. This is such a big issue for a language teacher who teaches in the target language as, without some successful accommodating, there ain’t gonna be no mutual intelligibility and then, ultimately, what’s the point? Where’s the course for NESTs on how to accommodate better? In fact, regardless, where’s the course for language teachers on how to accommodate better, whatever your accent?

The Accommodation Enlightenment

So, my line here is that, while terms like “accent reduction” are highly prejudiced and really not very useful (and yet, to get that job in an American call centre in Costa Rica, your learner has to take this course), an idea like accommodation is powerful and very important for a language teacher. It should inform completely the way you use language in the classroom (and not just to be understood, but to build successful rapport too!). If I am teaching people who have recently emigrated to being a new life in Scotland, I will be more Scottish as it would be a disservice to them to be more neutral; however, if I am teaching Iranians in Dubai who don’t even know where Scotland is, it would be a disservice to them to be overly Scottish and so I should be more neutral. I can’t completely neutralise my accent (does such an accent even exist?), but I can make informed choices about what I say and how I’m doing it.

And so where does this leave us? It means that as teachers, whether NNESTs or NESTs, we all have a duty to convergence, to make ourselves understood by our learners to help them learn better. And if that means you have a strong French accent  and some people can’t understand you (as happened on a recent course of mine), you have the responsibility to change that; likewise, if your strong native accent is causing your learners problems (as is more likely to be the case, for me) then you too must do something about that.

Take a leaf out of Hume’s weighty book and be more aware of how you say what you do.

C is for Contrafibularities, Context, Co-text and Big Blue Wobbly Things

Let’s start off with Ferdinand de Saussure’s second favourite Youtube clip (he details his favourite videos in in his seminal paper Les Clips, Le Signifié et Le Signifiant: Quelque Chose que Je Viens d’Inventer (unpublished), page 3). Your pre-listening/watching task is to find it amusing.

So, why would I be sharing this with you? The reason is to talk about how you make sense of it. After all, the humour is based on, among other things, some excellent neologisms, so there’s a lot going on when you process what Blackadder says (for the purposes of this post, let’s pretend there was no video and this is an extract from a reading lesson). Here’s the transcript (the reading text) from 49 seconds in:

Dr. Samuel Johnson: Here it is, sir. The very cornerstone of English scholarship. This book, sir, contains every word in our beloved language.

Blackadder: Every single one, sir?

Dr. Samuel Johnson: Every single word, sir!

Blackadder: Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities.

Dr. Samuel Johnson: What?

Blackadder: “Contrafribularites”, sir? It is a common word down our way.

Dr. Samuel Johnson: Damn!

Blackadder: Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I’m anispeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused you such pericombobulation.

Bottom’s Up (or “How I Learned to Love Christine Nuttall”)

One way of looking at ways of interpreting meaning from a text is to think in terms of what is often called “context”. However, this is a rather woolly term, applied by different people to different things in different disciplines and rather inconsistently at that, so we can further break it down into:

  • The co-text: the linguistic features of an unknown item, such as its place in the sentence or the morphemes of which it is composed
  • The context: what Scott Thornbury calls the “physical and temporal setting” in which discourse occurs and which requires a knowledge of its purpose, participants and whether it is written or spoken.

A further way of looking at how this text might be interpreted is to to examine different processes which readers employ when we try to comprehend something. These can be grouped as follows:

  • Bottom-up Processing: involves making use of linguistic clues (letter recognition, affixes, syntactic categories, etc.) present in the text and building meaning up from these components.
  • Top-Down Processing: involves using existing schemata (world knowledge) to aid comprehension and treating text as a whole, rather than a series of individual words.

This rather neat distinction is, of course, a bit too clear-cut to really tell the whole story. It would be rather naive to expect a reader to simply employ one set of processes in interpreting a text and so more modern approaches to talking about receptive skills work posit an interactive model of textual interpretation whereby both these sets of processes occur more or less simultaneously and, well, interact to help us achieve comprehension.

Both Top-Down and Bottom-Up processes can function at various levels when working with text i.e. at word level, sentence level, text level or even, say, an entire novel. For example, if you were reading a noir detective novel, the top-down processing would involve knowledge of noir conventions (genre), expectations of plot, character, etc., while the bottom-up processing would be actually working with the words and clauses to build up the meaning as you go. At word level, on the other hand, bottom-up approaches would be to look at combinations of letters, affixes, and so forth to build up meaning, while top-down processing might check this by activating existing knowledge of what kinds of word/letter combinations are permissible in English (this is extra-textual, after all), allowing you to work out that ‘krk’ is not a valid English word (it means “neck” in Czech).

The next section is “like fitting wheels to a tomato – time-consuming and completely unnecessary”

Ok, so that’s all very well, but how does all the above relate to Blackadder? Well, let’s make a good joke really quite un-funny by deconstructing it co-textually to work out what “contrafibularities” means.

First of all, taking a step out of our reading lesson, note how I’ve spelt it. How do I know that the plural form ends “-ies”? After all, it’s a made-up word, which I’ve never seen written down. The reason for that is my knowledge of general English word patterns/spelling conventions, which dictates that a noun which sounds like it ends in a “-y” in the singular would be “-ies” in the plural. But that’s not the co-text, despite being at the morphological level; rather, it is my extra-textual knowledge – implicit or explicit – that comes into play (here, more exactly, my knowledge of English as a system – though plenty people disagree with me there and would class it as co-text).

Getting back to co-text, I wrote above that “contrafibularities” is a noun. Well, how do I know? I know because it occurs as the head of a complex noun phrase introduced by a determiner (“my”) and because it seems to be in the plural. If that’s a bit much, it means that it comes after an adjective (“enthusiastic”), which is what nouns tend to do when adjectives are around, and my brain extra-textually knows this. It also knows that “offer” is a ditranstive verb (takes two objects) and so if I offer something to somebody, then that something is the direct object which, again, tends to be a noun phrase: co-text being interactively checked by my knowledge of English syntax.

Ok, so I’ve worked out the part of speech, but what does it mean? Again, the co-text helps here. If it’s modified by “enthusiastic”, “contrafibularities” is likely to have a positive meaning. Likewise, the nearest verb is “offer” and you tend not to offer negative things to people. Combine this with our knowledge of how humans conduct their affairs (context) and we see that someone having completed a groundbreaking project is likely to be lauded by someone else and it all starts to add up to a positive word in some way. Then, it even sounds a bit like “congratulations”, which would fit – “offer” would collocate with “congratulations” too – so we arrive at our idea of the meaning. And we all this did this in .06 of a second (I know; I timed it) and with a lot of interactive processes going on.

Above the level of the word

The preceding discussion has focused on an example of what’s often called “deducing meaning from context” or “inferring lexical meaning” or other similar appellations. This is a commonly discussed subskill in the teaching of reading and one you’ll find a few Delta background essays on. It’s also something you can help your learners develop in by working on it in class, showing them how to do it and providing practice in order to help them become more autonomous readers who don’t need to translate every word they don’t know, but who can develop a greater tolerance for ambiguity (though you must still remember those learners who only read to increase their vocabulary). However, when we interpret the meaning of a text, there’s much more going on above the level of the individual word.

Let’s look again at this sentence:

Blackadder: Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities.

On its own, out of its context within this piece of discourse, this sentence seems to suggest that someone is offering someone else something positive, but we have no idea what that might be or why it might be so. No amount of co-textual, bottom-up processing can help us work out its meaning without the rest of the discourse: its context (including knowledge of this TV show). And yet, when we hear Blackadder say it, we immediately know he is being sarcastic. How can we help our learners know the same?

Going deeper, we have:

  • a situation whereby a servant is more intelligent than his really quite stupid master (yes, actually taking that old conceit from Roman Comedy and making it funny – they did only have one joke, the Romans, and they weren’t even very good at that, but I digress)
  • Said servant is prone to entertainingly sarcastic outbursts.
  • Into this walks a famous intellectual who’s just written the first ever dictionary
  • we would expect him to be congratulated for this

Before Blackadder even speaks, those familiar with the above are ready to top-down interpret the exchanges therein in this context. So where does the humour actually come from?

The most important aspect, for me, would be the word “contrafibularities” again. To congratulate the man who just wrote the first ever dictionary with a word he does not know is somewhat ironic and then you add to that that Blackadder just made that word up and you have a double helping of irony served with extra sarcasm and drizzled in some quintessentially Blackadderian disdain. And you know this and interpret it as such, but you’ve put together your context and your co-text to get there, to infer the speaker’s attitude and interpret the humour, but can you expect your learners to (not that I’d really suggest working with this text in most learning contexts)?

The answer would be probably not, as they will likely lack a good bit of the background to the context. A better argument for presenting reading text in context i.e. activating schemata with some pre-reading work, and helping learners use contextual clues to interpret text, I really cannot think of. Present that text to a native speaker with no idea about Blackadder and you would get similarly blank looks of incomprehension (as my current Delta group now knows..). Then, of course, many learners would tend to treat “confibularities” as if it were a real word that they simply don’t know, rather than applying their co-textual strategies to deduce a likely meaning, so helping them with this subskill can aid them here too.

Reading Lessons vs the Complexity of it all

Assuming the teacher follows a ‘standard’ format in class and introduces the context (‘the first dictionary’?!), maybe pre-teaches some lexis, perhaps sets up a prediction task, then has a gist task, then a detail one and then moves on to a follow up productive activity, then it’s hard to see how the learners really get anything out of this. They may have practised reading, but have they really developed it? Have they thought about how the comprehended (or didn’t) the text? Have they examined lexis they didn’t know and tried to deduce its meaning? Did they interpret any attitude in the text? Did they see how contextual clues can help them with comprehension? Did they think about strategies they can employ to deal with difficult text? Or did they just get the five detail questions right and we moved on? And do they even have to do this? This might well be the subject of a future post.

(And finally, for those who made it this far and are wondering about De Saussure’s favourite YouTube clip, it’s the first minute or so about the C)

The Spanish Acquisition

I’m just back at work after a wonderful three week break. The first 9 days of this brief sojourn to pastures greener were in Spain, first Valencia for a couple of days and then a week in Andalucía. I was confronted for the first time with prolonged exposure to Spanish Spanish, in its various forms, (let’s not get into the politics of that here) which, for someone who learned their Spanish primarily in Costa Rica, was a fascinating linguistic adventure (isn’t this why everyone goes on holiday..?). However, it brought to my attention once more something which I’ve pondered before: the difference between learning a language and actually using it (I use myself as an example in this post simply as I have much more evidence about myself than anyone else – skip the next five paragraphs if that interests you not!).

A short anecdote

During my brief trip to Spain, I experienced something I’ve often struggled with in the past: Spanish. Ok, that’s not quite right. Using Spanish would be more accurate. I think I’m pretty good at learning Spanish: I know my subjunctives from my imperfects, notice things people say all the time, pick up on collocations, like the grammar and enjoy reading. My problem comes when I try to use the damn language (the same used to happen to my French too). It doesn’t happen all the time, but often when I try speaking Spanish I can become completely tongue-tied (or brain-tied), despite having passed the DELE C1 exam (which suggests I should be better than I am). I often just can’t think of how to begin to say the simplest thing and can’t quite seem to get over this in the moment.

In Sevilla, I had to buy an adaptor for my phone charger so I could plug it in. More specifically, I had to buy a USB adaptor which would then allow me to connect it to the mains. Having got to the centre of the city, I set of in search of one and within 5 minutes had stumbled across a small electronics shop. In I went and spoke to the man behind the counter, explaining what I needed.  He got an idea of what I wanted and then, when I said “I’ll show you it [the USB cable]”, he simply stared at me blankly. After eventually completing the transaction for a bargain 1.50, I left the shop and wondered why the breakdown in communication occurred.

Now, I hadn’t really spoken Spanish for about 6 months, but still, I should have the necessary lexis or ability to paraphrase my way out of most given situations. The grammar isn’t difficult for this type of description or request.  I was at a bit of a loss. I hadn’t been at my most fluent, but was out of practice with the language and felt a bit nervous due to this. Then it dawned on me, or rather, smacked me in the face so hard I could have been in Monty Python’s fish slapping dance. Instead of saying to the man “te lo muestro” (I’ll show you it), as intended, I actually repeated 3 times “te veo” (I see you), which makes so little sense in this situation as to be absurd.  Oddly enough, he was somewhat confused by my telling him in mid conversation about an adaptor that I could see him. Why did this happen?

Using Spanish?
Using Spanish?

The situation is made all the more frustrating for me by the fact that there are times when I’m really very fluent and have no problems at all speaking. I have puzzled about this a lot, trying to find reasons or spot a pattern and one or two things have suggested themselves. I principally have problems when I’m nervous or unsure, when I think a lot, with certain individuals,  when I’m with people I perceive to speak the language better than me, with L1 Spanish speakers who speak English to a high level. All of this really does point towards some sort of psychological/affective issue, but for the sake of writing something, let’s look at some other ideas.

In the following paragraphs, I’ll outline some potential theoretical accounts of why I might have the problems I do. This is not intended to be exhaustive or authoritative, merely some ideas that might be a useful introduction to such things for DELTA module 1 candidates.

Not So Smooth Operator

One of the aspects of speaking in an L2 which is difficult for learners is that, outside the contrivance that is the language classroom (to paraphrase Ellis), speaking takes place in real-time conditions or real operating conditions; that is to say, that instead of having time to prepare what I’m going to say about a given topic, for example, I’m thrown head first into the cut and thrust world of a real conversation in which, amongst other things, the topic may suddenly change, lexis I do not know may be used/needed, I may have to suddenly respond to something said, the grammar might be quite complex or there may be a group of native speakers having a good chinwag and I get lost. There is also the element of listening to consider, for spoken interaction wouldn’t really work without it (see ‘mansplainer’). In real operating conditions, there’s a lot for your brain to handle and so sometimes it’s just overload and you lose fluency or accuracy or both.

“I can’t control the way I’m movin my lips… it’s automatic, it’s automatic”

In order to cope with the above, learners have to develop a degree of automaticity. This lovely combination of six syllables basically means that, when speaking, the learner does not need to focus their attention on putting the language together, but rather can devote a greater degree of brain power to getting their point across i.e. they are what is perceived to be fluent. There are numerous aspects to this, such as relying on chunks, fillers and other discourse features, as well as having had enough practice at actually speaking to make it more automatic (like riding a bike, say).  If you think about recounting an anecdote in an L2, for example, you probably don’t do it so fluently the first time you find yourself doing it; however, by the fifth time, you’re probably regaling everyone as if you were a native. Why? You’ve thought about it, practised it and started to make the things you had to think about before more automatic; in other words, you’ve developed that degree of automaticity.

Performance Anxiety

Most teachers (and many learners) will be familiar with the problem I outlined above: the learner knows the language quite well in class and on paper, but when it comes to using it, it just doesn’t work out for some reason.  This seems to me to mirror what Ellis in SLA Research and Language Teaching, following Chomsky and Sharwood Smith, describes as the difference between “linguistic competence” (knowledge of the formal properties of the language) and “performance 2” (actually using the language receptively and productively). Thus, a learner may have a reasonable degree of linguistic competence i.e. I know the ‘rules’, lexis, quite well, but a low performance ability i.e. I can’t always turn that knowledge into successful language use to communicate, and hence comes across as not fluent to some degree.

Krashen Burn

Krashen proposed five hypotheses for SLA (Second Language Acquisition). I’m only going to discuss three here, as I feel these are the most germane to the topic of this post, but the other two are but a Google search away.

The first of these hypotheses is that there is a distinction between “acquisition” (all quotations from The Natural Approach pp26-27) and “learning”; that is, the former is “natural”, “unconscious” and achieved through “using language for real communication”, while the latter is “conscious, “formal knowledge of a language” aided by formal instruction (or ‘teaching’, to you and I). Krashen uses this distinction to suggest that fluency would be directly linked to acquisition, not learning, and so only that which has already been acquired would be used fluently in a given situation. How this is measured is anyone’s guess, but that’s more or less what he says.

The Medium is not the Monitor

Another hypothesis, the third, was that of the Monitor. This proposes that what we have learned in the L2 is only really useful in terms of monitoring what we have acquired and is thus not particularly useful for fluency, which relies on the acquired system. In other words, this implies that our fluency is directly related to what we’ve acquired and that our learning only comes in to check this (for Krashen, this can happen before, during or after an utterance – make of that what you will). So, if I over-use the Monitor, I will be thinking too much about being ‘correct’, this disrupting my fluency and, possibly, communicative success; if I under use the Monitor, I won’t be focussed on accuracy at all, but distinctly on the message. Furthermore, I have to be aware of any rule to monitor before I even use it i.e. I haven’t studied or been exposed to the present continuous at all, so I ain’t going to be using the Monitor to check my accuracy with it. However, for the purposes of this post, the thing to take away is that Monitor over-use can have a very negative effect of fluency.

Personal Affects

An affective filter?

The fifth hypothesis was the Affective Filter. Here, Krashen describes how affective factors i.e. factors linked to feelings or emotions, can affect language acquisition. His basic point is that if the learner is motivated, has a positive self-image and is relaxed, there will be “deeper” language acquisition if there is sufficient input as the Affective Filter will be low to allow the language in; conversely, if the learner is incredibly nervous, in no way open to learning or lacking in self-esteem (these can of course all be linked), then the Affective Filter will be high and the chances of acquisition severely dented.

Krashen is talking about SLA, but I see no reason why the same should not apply to performance (and indeed often see the term low Affective Filter used to describe having a good classroom rapport so that learners aren’t afraid to speak). You could then extrapolate that if a learner is nervous in any given situation, than their chances of being able to speak fluently will be severely dented due to a high ‘Affective Filter’. So, a learner may be very well aware of the language they need to communicate their message, but unable to access it and perform due to affective factors such as self-esteem, nervousness or pressure.

In Conclusion

So, there’s some ideas to think about next time you have a learner who’s having problems with their fluency. There are others and so why not mention one in the comments below. My own idea about my problems is that it is something affective and thus very much out of my language learning control. Perhaps NLP is the answer… or perhaps not.