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).

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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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