Posts Tagged ‘Real Language Use’

Miscommunications in a foreign language

April 15, 2013

IMG_0096I just returned from a trip to Teresina, the beautiful capital city of the Northeastern state of Piauí. It is my first chance to be here in this part of Brazil.  I have been here visiting some dear old friends, Alvacir and Aurea Siedschlag, who is serving as the mission president for the LDS church in this part of the world.  Alvacir and Area actually live in southern Brazil, so they are just as much “foreigners” here in the NE as I am.  And that is the linguistics feature that I wanted to write about in today’s post.  The whole time I have been here, it has been fun to compare the linguistic experience that Alvacir and Aurea (as native speakers of Portuguese) have had in Teresina with that of my (non-native speaker) experience.

I believe it is normal for us non-native speakers of a language to always blame our non-native proficiency on all of our miscommunication problems.  The truth, however, is that we all go through thousands of miscommunications every day.

For example, Aurea mentioned to me that when she first arrived in Teresina, she went to the checkout line at Bom Preço, and they asked her if she would be using her Bom Preço discount card.  Since she had never heard of such a card, she basically didn’t understand and didn’t know what the girl was talking about.  I have had a similar experience of entering a supermarket in another country and being asked a similar question.  Unprepared for that question, when I didn’t understand, I blamed it on my non-native proficiency.

A second example, Alvacir and I had “sapoti” juice for lunch.  Sapoti is not a common fruit in the southern part of Brazil, and even Alvacir had never tasted it before.  After lunch we were talking about things, and neither of us could remember the name of the fruit juice we had just ordered at lunch.  My natural tendency was to assume that I didn’t remember the word because I am a non-native speaker of Portuguese.  Turns out, even native speakers have a hard time remembering new words.

At one point I was looking for a music store in downtown Teresina, which had actually moved to a new location.  I was near where the store used to be located, and I asked someone on the street where the “casa de regentes” was located.  The response was something like, “Oh, they’ve moved.  They are now past the “calçadão” near “Babylândia”.  Since I had never been in downtown Teresina before, I had no idea where the “calçadão” was and I have no idea where “Babylândia” was located.  Consequently most of his instructions ended up sounding like garbled noise.  What I basically understand was that it was somewhere that a way. So I walked in the general direction and then asked somebody where “Babylândia” was located. Once again I got garbled descriptions, which most assuredly contained local reference points that I was unaware of, which meant that I didn’t really understand.  It was also interesting to realize that the people that I had been talking to on the street had no way of knowing that I was unacquainted with that area of town.  For them there was no reason to provide me with anything other than local reference points.

All of this has confirmed to me again that a gigantic part of what we understand is based on the context, what we already know, and what we assume that we are probably going to hear.  It was almost refreshing to hear of the miscommunications that my native Brazilian friends had experienced when they first came to this new area.


I dare you to say “restaurant” in French!

January 25, 2013

IMG_2294As I write this post, my wife and I recently returned from a brief trip to Montreal, Canada.  I know, it sounds crazy to go to Montreal in January, but we found out years ago that we enjoy going to cold places when there are almost no other tourists, things are cheaper, more available, and less crowded.  We had a great time, what a marvelous city!

Anyway, as to language learning, I really don’t speak French, but of course it was fun to pretend like I do in Montreal.  During this trip I felt something that was totally new in my language learning experience.  That is, you have to have guts, an outgoing personality, and fearless social comfort levels to actually say French words out loud and in public.  In French there are hundreds of cognate words, words that are even spelled exactly the same in both English and French, but their pronunciation is totally different.  Look at the phrase, “J’ai une réservation.”  You know, it takes courage to actually try to imitate a french accent and  say “réservation.”  Let’s try another one: “J’aime ce restaurant.”  It takes guts to actually say out loud and in public, “restaurant” with a French flare.  How about another, “Où est le plus proche station de métro?”  One has to muster courage to say in a clear loud voice, “station de métro.”

I am not a shy person.  In fact, I actually love talking to strangers in a foreign language.  Usually I have no problem blurting out my limited and incorrect Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Catalan, Japanese, and Chinese, as lowly as my proficiency may be.  French, however, was different.  This was because it just felt strange to say these cognate words with a French accent.  Somehow I felt goofy, silly, or maybe like I was mocking French speakers (when I really was not), or teasing them about their pronunciation (when I really was not).  Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time trying out my limited French, but I simply have never spoken a foreign language that made me feel so self-conscious about what I was saying.

It has all left me wondering about what linguistics call “affect.”  Affect involves those personality issues that help or hinder language learning: being shy, reserved, anxious, nervous, outgoing, motivated by love, etc.  Previous to my experience in Montreal, I would have suspected that affect is based on the individual, but now I also believe that affect is influenced by the language that one is studying.

If you relate to what I’m talking about, I’d love to hear from you.

Non-native speakers talking to each other

October 25, 2012

In my previous post I mentioned that we’ve been in Brazil traveling with our Korean executives from SK Holding.  Since then we returned to Austin for additional training and then we moved on to Lima, Peru.  In this brief post I just wanted to add to the comments from my previous comments about the use of English as a lingua franca, non-native speakers of English who use English with other non-native speakers.

Sure enough, as soon as we arrived in Lima, once again I saw the Korean executives as they used English, and once again they relaxed, talked more, asked more questions, and specifically mentioned when they didn’t understand things.  It was amazing.

Scholars sometimes talk about ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) and some also add a “B” to create BELF (Business English as a Lingua Franca).  In the case of our Koreans, not only did they share the “E” (English) with the Peruvians, but they also shared the “B” (Business).  That is to say, they were comfortable with their roles professionally (marketing, finance, engineering, etc). What they have in common is the English and the Business.

What they don’t have in common are the intercultural differences.  As a result, once again I was reminded about the importance of learning and training people in the intercultural issues that come up in international business.

PS  If you are interested in BELF, I recommend:

Kankaanranta, Anne & Louhiala-Salminen, Leena. (2010). “English? – Oh, it’s just Work!: A study in BELF users’ perceptions.” English for Specific Purposes 29: 204-209.

PSS The picture was taken at the central plaza in the old downtown.  There was a fear of protests from striking teachers and the policia were hanging out that afternoon as well, nice photo op.

Expanding your circle of experiences

September 5, 2011

During the 7 weeks that I have been in Argentina, it has been fun for me to test the Argentine-Spanish world.  This is the first time for me to be in Argentina (hard to believe, but I finally made it).  My own level of Spanish is such that I can easily slide by and not actually learn more.  So, the secret for me is to put myself in new situations, ones that force me to use words and hear new forms.  Two brief examples:

First, a few months ago I cut my foot on a piece of glass.  Over the past few weeks it as become infected and a weird growth has begun to grow.  I was going to just wait to have it looked at when I return to Austin.  But then I realized that this gave me a chance to go to a clinic and see a doctor.  (My wife Tonia thinks that I am crazy.  It’s not the condition of my foot that convinced me to see the doctor.  It is the chance to experience a doctor’s visit in Argentina that got me to go to the doctor.)  I won’t bore you with the details about my foot, but I will say that it was a great chance to learn new vocabulary, talk to the office staff, the nurses, and the doctors.  Great language learning experience.

Second, our light switch in our apartment broke the other day.  “Yes,” I thought,  a perfect chance to go to the ferretería and have to buy the parts and together with the apartment doorman, replace the light fixture.  Once again it was a great chance to learn some new vocabulary, and force myself to talk about new topics.  BTW, the joke at our home in Austin is that no home improvement project can be completed with just one trip to Lowe’s (or home depot).  The same is true in Argentina!  We had to return to get more parts.

I do not wish ill health on you, and I hope that your apartments function properly.  If not, however, I encourage you to take advantage of these moments to improve your foreign language experience.

Riding the metro in St. Louis

January 17, 2011

Tonia, my wife, and I have been spending a few days on a vacation in St. Louis.  I can’t say that we’ve been practicing our foreign language skills a lot, however there has been something that once again reminds me of context and background knowledge and how it affects our listening comprehension.  We’ve been riding the metro around and before each stop the driver announces the connecting bus lines.  Tonia and I keep looking at each other with a sense of “Was that English?”  We simply don’t understand a word that the driver is saying.  Why is that?  It’s because we are unfamiliar with the neighborhoods in St. Louis.  So, what comes out is something like, “Bus 57 to blah blah blah, bus 34 to blah, blah, blah, bus 78 to blah, blah blah.”  So much of our listening comprehension is tied to our previous knowledge of the context or situation.

I know that if I were in a foreign country, going through the same experience, I would be blaming my lack of listening comprehension on my limited proficiency in a foreign language.  However, this trip to St. Louis has been a good reminder that often it isn’t my limited proficiency in a foreign language, but my limited background knowledge. That is what affects our ability to understand.

The picture:  Out at the Cahokia Indian Mounds.

Psyching myself up to practice Chinese

July 13, 2010

I just got back from Beijing, having spent 6 weeks there.  As soon as I got back, the next day I was participating in a video conference with an amazing group of language experts (more details on that another day) and as part of the discussion they asked me how my Chinese language progress was during my stay.  We ended up talking about how sometimes people emotionally get ready for language practice and how other times people check out emotionally.

Case in point:  As I mentioned in the previous post, while in Beijing I spent part of the time with a host family.  I recall one afternoon when I was about to go home for dinner, but I was emotionally worn out that day and so I decided that it would be easier to go get some dinner somewhere else.  Dinner at home would have meant that I would have had to speak Chinese the whole time and that day I had reached my limit of “daily practice.”  Sure enough, I grabbed a little dinner somewhere else and arrived home that night late enough that there wasn’t much more time for extra conversation.  It was weird because the exact reason that I had decided to stay with the family was to get personal practice time and here I was “avoiding” the situation.  On the other hand, I remember another evening when I knew that I’d be home in time to watch the cooking show.  My host family loves to watch the cooking channel and it was alway a good time to chat with them about food.  I found myself rushing home to make sure that I was there in time to watch TV with the family.  So one day I avoided going home to get out of practicing and another day I rushed home to made sure that I’d have time to practice.

As we talked during the video conference about how disappointed I was at myself for not taking advantage of every opportunity to practice Chinese, one of my colleagues said, in essence, “Give yourself a break Orlando.  You’re just human. We don’t learn languages like machines.”  It sounds like pretty good advice in general.  Learning to speak a foreign language is not like turing on the ON button.  Give yourself a break every so often.  When your daily limit is reached, it’s OK to check out for a while as well.

Freaking out my host family in Beijing

June 20, 2010

As I write this post I am in Beijing.  I’m staying with a delightful retired couple where they are giving me tons of chances to practice Chinese.   Some days we communicate great, other days it’s a total breakdown.  They have been very gracious to me and patient too.  BTW, this picture was taken of Lu Ayi as she made zongzi, which is a traditional food during the Dragon Boat Festival.

For a change of pace, instead of writing about language per se, today I’ll write about some of the cultural things that are happening with the family.

There are tons of things that I do that seem weird to my Chinese family.  In may case, my Ayi is great at observing and commenting on things that I do that freak her out.  For example, the first day Lu Ayi noticed that I am left-handed.  I can tell that older generation Chinese still react to seeing left-handers, especially when they use chopsticks with their left hand.   Next, I was thumbing through a book and to turn the pages, every so often I licked my finger.  Bad form, turns out that’s a big no no with my Ayi (ironic considering how often old people here cough and spit).  Third, you’d think that it’s easy to put on slippers, but it took days for me to get it right.  Turns out that I would take off my shoes, step on the floor, and then step into the slippers.  It would be better for me to directly step into the slippers.  I just couldn’t understand if the family was upset with me or what.  I think, however, they were just concerned that I not get dirty.  Fourth, for breakfast I usually have dou jiang (soy bean drink) and you tiao (donut-like fried item).  I actually find them to be a bit tasteless so I like to dip my you tiao into my yogurt. I think it gives the you tiao a little more flavor, but it definitely freaks out Lu Ayi, and even I can understand why that would be weird to her.  Fifth, I also drink a lot of water with my meals.  Chinese people don’t generally drink a lot of liquids as part of their actual meal.   Lu Ayi was amazed that I would have yogurt and drink water at the same time.  (BTW, language wise, Chinese “drink” their yogurt, while in English we “eat” it.)  Sixth, this one isn’t me, but more related to my observation of them.  OK, I know that Chinese are adverse to drinking cold things (bad for your general health), but really folks, how in the world do they drink things that are so piping hot? It’s amazing, simply amazing to see them slurping away at super hot liquids.  And finally, another observation about them.  I have enjoyed watching what old people do in China that is supposed to improve health.  For example, I see a lot of them walking backwards, slapping themselves while walking, pulling on their fingers, etc.

All of this has reminded me how much it wears me out to be out of sync with my life.  Our “normal” life has a comfort pace and behavior.  Experiencing a new culture drains us of energy because of all of the little things that remove us from automatic pilot.  With time, however, we start to understand the new rhythm and pace of things.  For example, I now feel normal shaving and bathing in the smaller bathroom.  I’ve got that new sync down.  I also feel normal in the subway now.  I’ve got that new rhythm down too.  To be honest, adapting to a new pace and rhythm it’s part of what I love about being in another country… but it does wear a person out.

Keeping up with native speed

March 25, 2010

I have spent the last 2 and a half weeks traveling in China with a group of our MBA students here at the McCombs School of Business at UT, Austin.  We’ve had a great trip (hence the photo of the terracotta warriors in Xi’an).

Language wise, I have “enjoyed” the frustration of communicating with Chinese at native speed.  As an elementary-level speaker of Chinese, it always amazes me how native speakers seem to be speaking 100 miles an hour.  We sometimes forget this as language teachers, and the reminder is always humbling.

It is something that I knew before, but have been reminded again and again on this trip.  So, here is my basic philosophy on listening comprehension:

-Don’t worry about understanding every word that people say.

-Keep on listening and you will get the general overall meaning of what they are talking about.

-Little by little the garbled stream of speech starts to make sense.

-First you will go through a phase of understanding the general meaning even when you cannot identify the specific words being said.

-Little by little, you start to hear individual words and phrases too.

To me listening comprehension is one of those areas that you cannot go around, you’ve got to hit it head on, full speed, and in natural everyday situations.  Here are a couple of examples.

1.  I was ordering food at KFC and the girl (who muttered phrases with the same lightning fast slurred speech of any teenager at any KFC in the world) basically asked if I wanted to eat my meal to stay or to go (zheli chi or daizou).  I didn’t actually “hear” the exact words, but I got the flow enough to tell her that I wanted to eat the meal there.  After answering her, my mind kind of replayed the phrases in my head and I was able to reconstruct her original sentence. Bingo, I got that one right!

2.  I was talking to someone who found out that my name is Orlando and asked if I was from Orlando, Florida.  I don’t think I have ever heard the name Orlando Florida in Chinese before, I can’t even repeat it now, but there was enough context to the situation that I was able to appreciate her attempt at humor, and were were able to continue on with the conversation.

So to all of you beginning and elementary language learners out there, start listening fast, because they are going to talk to you fast!

Practicing for Real

November 25, 2009

It’s hard to believe, but it was a year ago that I took my first foreign language case competition team to compete at Brigham Young University (see the “case competition” tag for last year’s entry).  This year I accompanied another team made up of Daniel Heron, Diana Martinez, and Sandra Kostadinova.  They were fantastic and performed super.  It was cool to watch.

As to foreign language learning, once again I was impressed with how much a student can learn when the content becomes real.  Because the students were preparing for a case competition, they seemed to retain vocabulary words, phrases, and even intonation, almost effortlessly.  It was impressive because in many ways the task was actually more difficult than their overall language proficiency.  That is to say, because their focus was on getting their message across and defending their points of view, the “language” portion was secondary, simply a necessary tool.  The whole process brought home to me once again the importance of having our students use their foreign language in real situations.

So congrats to Daniel, Diana, and Sandra.  Ya’ll did great, and a hunk of language acquisition went right along with the experience.  (It also didn’t hurt to have a gentle powdery snowfall at Sundance Ski Resort and it made for excellent snow balls.)


Cleaning products, brand names and language learning

May 26, 2009

limpezaI write this post from Salvador, Bahia, Brazil where I’ll be spending the next month.  I am teaching a course in Brazilian/American culture to a group of students from the University of Texas, Kansas, and Illinois.  It has been a very enjoyable time with them so far, despite the rain that has fallen.

The picture here is of a message that Lúcia, my housekeeper here in Salvador, left yesterday.  It says: Gentileza providenciar os materiais para limpeza: Agua sanitária, sapólio limão, limpa vidro, veja limpeza pesado, veja.

The problem is that not even my wife Tonia likes to send me to the store to buy things, much less Lúcia, who is soon to discover my inability to purchase the correct things.

As to learning a foreign language, my first challenge was to figure out Lúcia’s handwriting, no easy task.  Linguistically I was impressed to see a new way of making a command form: “gentileza” (which means “kindness”) followed by a verb in the infinitive “providenciar” (to provide).  Second, I had to figure out what sort of cleaning products she was looking for.  Third, I ended up showing the note to some Brazilian friends of mine, basically asking to help me understand what was a brand name (e.g., sapólio) versus what was a product (limpa vidro).  Fourth, I had to go the the store and actually find the items (and this is where I run into problems in Texas too).

I’m happy to report that I have returned home with a general disinfectant – água sanitária and a general window cleaner – limpa vidros.  Turns out that sapólio is a powdered cleaner.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find lemon scented, I hope that pine scented won’t throw the universe into some crazy funk.  I wasn’t as lucky with the veja. Veja is actually a brand name, and there were a lot of different veja products, not to mention a magazine by that same name.  I grabbed one that has “multi-uso” and figured that was as close as I was going to get.  I’m pretty sure it isn’t what Lúcia needs, but we’ll try phase 2 of this purchase story soon.

Buying cleaning products in Brazil is a new experience for me.  Along the way I have learned new vocabulary, had a chance to manipulate the words by talking to friends about them, went through the experience of actually spending real money based on those new words, and soon I hope to have an interesting conversation with Lúcia as we clarify the things that I didn’t get quite right.

All in all, it was a fantastic language learning experience and has given me new ideas for assignments for my students as well.  If any of you have similar language learning stories, I’d love to hear them.