Schema Theory in Language Learning, Examples

In my previous post on General principles in learning a foreign language (May 14) I mentioned schema theory and how some feel that learning a language relates to learning certain “scripts.”   We don’t just learn the vocabulary and the phrases, but we also need to learn to follow a given script that people normally use.

I am writing this post from Brazil, a country that I visit often, usually once or twice a year.  I’ve been speaking Portuguese off and on for about 30 years and I get by pretty well.  Here are three examples of situations where I didn’t understand what was said because of my lack of understanding the “script.”

1.  I was in line to buy some food at a supermarket and when I got to the cashier she asked if I had a discount card for that store.  I wasn’t prepared for that question and so I didn’t understand what she said.

2.  I was in line to buy food at a different supermarket and the cashier asked me for my zip code.  Again I wasn’t prepared for that question, didn’t understand what she said, and I needed her to repeat it.  When I finally understood what she wanted, I wasn’t sure what to say.  What does an American tourist say when the cashier wants your local zip code? (I have been told that this was for tax reasons).  I ended up blabbing something about being from Texas and how she probably didn’t want my zip code.

3.  Two days ago I was at the bus station, getting a ride back to São Paulo.  “When does the next bus leave for São Paulo” I asked.   She said, in essence, “The next leaves at 3:00 o’clock and then at 15:20.” Although I am used to military time, the switch between “three” o’clock and “fifteen twenty” through me off, I didn’t understand what she said and so I had to have her repeat it.

In each of these examples it was impressive to notice how I went from understanding 100% of the Portuguese to a whole series of garbled sounds that I didn’t understand at all.  In each case I believe I lacked the “script”  Next time I go to that supermarket, however, I’ll be ready when the cashier asks for my CEP or if I have a discount card.  I think I know the script now.  In terms of language learning, it’s important that we listen for, and practice doing, different types of exchanges (scripts).



One Response to “Schema Theory in Language Learning, Examples”

  1. Scot Waye Says:

    This totally makes sense. I often wondered about what you call scripts as well as the contextual situation. I think in a broader sense, we hear what we are expecting and don’t understand what we aren’t expecting. I found that sometimes when someone wasn’t expecting me to speak spanish, no matter how clearly or proficiently, if they were expecting something else, they would have no idea what I was saying.

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