Real Language: Getting your hair cut

I find myself in Santiago, Chile again, taking a group of MBA students from McCombs at UT Austin on our annual Global Connections Trip.  We’ll spend one week in Santiago and another in Rio de Janeiro.  It’s been a great time to observe students as they interact with Spanish speakers and as I interact with them.  I wanted to share two examples of how the context of the moment affects language learning.

1.  Chotto mate kudasai.  We were walking down the street and one of my Japanese students nearly walked out on the street in front of a car, to which I blurted out “Chotto mate kudasai.”  Now I have no idea if a true Japanese speaker would ever say that in this situation, but what amazed me was the fact that somewhere in the back of my brain I had learned  the phrase “wait a sec” and at that very moment it came to the surface.  Chalk up one more language learning example to the importance of context (walking in front of a car) in bring back words from deep in our memory!

2. If you want real context for using a foreign language, try getting your hair cut.  There is something about the anxiety of getting a really bad haircut that makes the whole game of describing to the barber what you want just a delightful challenge.  I am happy to report that I got a good cut today.  So in this case I told the man that I didn’t want it cut too short.  And he responded that I just wanted “un orden.”   I had never used the word “orden” before  to describe a haircut, but the moment that he used the word “orden” it made sense to me that I wanted my hair “put in order.”  From that point on I was able to manipulate it, trying out things like “Sí, lo quería ordenado.”  What I just love about this is that no American-thinking brain would ever use the word “order” to describe a trim.  Now, for the rest of my life, at least here in Chile, I’m going to get a really good (and inexpensive) haircut.  More importantly, the context of the moment is going to make this word stick in my brain.

BTW, not long ago the folks at ChinesePod wrote some interesting observations about learning from context.  You might want to check that out too.

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3 Responses to “Real Language: Getting your hair cut”

  1. Tommy Says:

    Dr. Kelm,

    For the ‘almost walking in front of a car’ situation, I think 危ない! (abunai) would also work. It means “dangerous” but people use it for a lot of precarious situations.

    ちょっと待て下さい (chotto mate kudasai) has a lot of angles, too, but it has a “do me a favor” element to it, like “give me a sec” rather than in general “wait a sec for something to happen.” You also hear it in dramas when someone gets impatient or tense.

    But I agree that phrases like this should be learned in context, hearing them so much that the sense develops naturally, or by engraving the word/phrase into your memory with experience like almost stepping in front of a car.

  2. Tamara Says:

    a delightful challenge- that is a typical Orlando Kelm phrase.

    It isn’t language related, but I had a contextual learning experience at school this semester. Two years ago I was talking to a physical therapist about a stiff neck. She showed me an exercise where you bring your chin in like making a double chin, and then bring your head back and looking up. I have done it and it works. Well I was in an anatomy class and we were learning about capital extensors and cervical extensors. Cervical Extensors do the motion of making a double chin and captial extensors bring the tilt your head back. It suddenly made sense why I had been doing the stretches I was doing. The physical therapist wasn’t just giving me an exercise to see how funny I’d look with a double chin.

  3. Orlando Says:

    Somehow I knew that someone would give me the correct Japanese version of what I meant to say. Thanks Tommy!

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