Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 3

Posted by Neal on September 7, 2010

For the last two posts, I’ve been reviewing Peter Culicover and Beth Hume’s Basics of Language for Language Learners, and now I’m ready to finish up with Part 3 of the book, “Acting Like a Native Speaker”. This last section contains three chapters, one of them a general chapter on language and culture, and the other two covering politeness and taboo. C&H sum up the reason for covering these by-and-large extralinguistic topics thus: “The better you understand the culture of the language you are learning, the better you will be able to interact successfully with native speakers” (p. 176).

Chapter 10, “The Link between Language and Culture”, begins by making the point that just as the connection between a word’s sound and its dictionary meaning is arbitrary, so is the connection between the forms used (i.e. the particular words as well as syntactic structures that speakers choose) and what they call social meaning. C&H observe that a culture (by definition) has norms for behavior, and since language is a part of behavior, some of these norms will be language norms. Areas to be on the lookout for these norms include formality, politeness, taboo topics, and how to conduct yourself in a conversation. As for why you should The better you understand the culture of the language you are learning, the better you will be able to interact successfully with native speakers. (p. 176)As in Parts 1 and 2, they give exercises to prompt the reader to think more carefully about their native English than they would probably bother to otherwise, and in so doing, prepare to make the same kind of analyses in the target language. A typical exercise is to write down the different ways you would ask someone to repeat themself because you haven’t understood them, depending on whether the someone is a younger sibling, a parent, a close friend, a teacher, or — and here’s where C&H subtly underscore the importance of these subtleties — a cop at a sobriety checkpoint.

But beyond simply being aware of potential differences in the target language culture, what can you do to discover them? C&H recommend keen observation. Instead of just noting that some phrase is used as a greeting, for example, they ask the learner to write down any overheard greetings, noting the age and sex of the speakers, and the situation. Then look for patterns; in other words, think like a linguist doing fieldwork. C&H make this recommendation after discussing two non-recommended methods. One is to ask your language instructor, but the trouble with that is that people might lie about sensitive topics, and it might even be taboo to discuss the rules regarding them. Here’s their wry presentation of the other non-recommended method:

An alternative means of learning whether or not something is a norm is to violate it and see what happens. The reaction of people around you will probably be a fairly good indication of whether or not the norm exists. Of course, the major drawback of violating a potential norm is that it may trigger discomfort, embarrassment, or any number of other negative reactions. (p. 179)

(Off topic: That passage reminded me of an old Ernie and Bert sketch; the relevant bit is about 30 seconds in.)

Next, the chapter discusses language varieties, pointing out that they exist in other languages just as they do in English, and discussing attitudes and stereotypes regarding speakers of “non-prestige” varieties of a language. Knowing that variety exists will, C&H hope, prepare language learners for experiences they’ll have hearing whatever variety of the target language is spoken where they visit, and allow them to appreciate each variety instead of assuming its speakers are ignorant or rude.

The last section of Chapter 10 covers gesture. C&H first discuss gestures that are familiar to English speakers, but whose usage in various situations may be different from their usage among English speakers; e.g., handshakes, kisses, or bows in greetings. Next they cover gestures that look familiar, but which can have dangerously different meanings in other cultures; for example, the “OK” gesture. This one, in fact, is often covered in books just about gestures in other languages, and C&H mention one such book by name. Finally, they mention a few sample gestures that don’t exist at all in English, just to give a taste of the kind of unexpected things you might have to look out for. But once again, how to learn these unwritten conventions? The exercises again involve observing speakers of other languages, but doing so with more attention and purpose than you might otherwise.

Chapter 11 focuses specifically on politeness. Whereas errors in grammar from a nonnative speaker are usually tolerated and forgiven, C&H write, errors where politeness is concerned usually aren’t. With that motivation established, C&H begin by introducing the ideas of positive politeness (striving to be friendly and inclusive) and negative politeness (striving not to inconvenience anyone, especially your superiors), which are actually useful concepts to know about even when you’re using just English. The next section shows ways in which politeness is expressed in English by way of grammatical forms: modal auxiliaries, choice of verb tense, the use of preparatory moves such as, “Is this a good time?” After the look at politeness in English, C&H move on to politeness in other cultures. They talk specifically about different cultural norms for giving and receiving compliments, and for making requests. Finally, C&H discuss languages in which politeness is built into the grammar, bringing up French and Japanese in particular. The exercises are similar to those in Chapter 10, involving introspection about English and directed observation for the target language.

Chapter 12, “Swearing, Insults, and Taboos”, starts off with a warning: You may be eager to learn the target-language equivalents of your favorite cuss words, but you can’t assume that the slightly impolite phrases in English will have slightly impolite translations, or that the really offensive phrases in English have really offensive translations. As different cultures assign differing importance to various societal taboos, the words that refer to these taboos will vary in offensiveness from language to language. How to learn these taboos? C&H recommend asking your language teacher (if they’re comfortable discussing it), or a good dictionary that goes into this kind of depth (if one exists). The rest of the chapter discusses some common bases for taboo in world cultures: sex, religion, your mother, social status, and animals. (A minor complaint about the last one: C&H mention humans’ “higher position on the evolutionary scale” (pp. 209-210), an outdated metaphor that I don’t expect to hear from college professors, even those in fields other than biology. And on that subject, way back on p. 6, they refer to “highly evolved creatures”. For more on this complaint, I recommend reading any book by Stephen J. Gould.) This chapter doesn’t bother with exercises, though at this point the learner who has diligently done the exercises in previous chapters should probably be able to learn a lot by careful observation.

These chapters are faster and easier reading than those in Part 2, but even so, occasional lapses in organization slowed my progress. For example, in Chapter 12, one paragraph about making requests is located in the section about compliments. So is a paragraph about adding disclaimers such as “if God wills it” when expressing wishes or plans (i.e., not compliments). These meanderings caused me to have to re-read sections, to make sure that the misplaced content really didn’t belong, and that I hadn’t just missed some connection.

Unlike the material in Parts 1 and 2, most of the material in these three chapters is available in other books for non-linguists; plenty of books for business travelers talk about politeness and taboo, for example. However, none that I know of situates these topics in the larger landscape of differences that learners of a foreign language should be on the alert for. Despite the problems in presentation in Parts 2 and 3, BLLL has a lot of good information and suggestions that will help the adult language learner — provided they have the discipline to follow through on them. I am reminded of my piano teacher telling me that I would show more and faster improvement on a song by spending some time concentrating on just the troublesome sections, instead of just playing through the whole song and continuing to stumble through the problem areas. He was right; the trouble was in marshaling the discipline to follow his advice.

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One Response to “Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 3”

  1. TJ said

    I have read your previous coverage of this book. This book will be of value to people to travel and meet people a lot. Would also make a good article to understand cultural diversity.

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