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3.3. Survival expressions


As noted above, people often feel a need to know how to use certain expressions in the new language right away. This includes greetings (Hello) and leave-takings (good-bye). One speaker of an African language informed me that the way to greet someone in his language is to tell the person what s/he is doing at the time you meet him or her. Obviously, you would need to know a lot of the language in order to be able to greet people appropriately regardless of what they happen to be doing. But usually, there will be simpler means of greeting people. You may learn other expressions which serve to grease the social gears. A good way to get these is to have two native speakers do brief role-plays. For example, they can pretend they are strangers meeting for the first time, and they can pretend that they are good friends meeting in the market. The first several things they say in each case will probably fall into the category of things that grease the social gears. Another thing language learners are anxious to learn is ways to say thank you. But as to when is it necessary or appropriate to thank people, that will vary from culture to culture. And saying thank you may not be as important as you think. It may be that gratitude is shown in other ways, such as by facial expressions. It is also helpful to know simple ways to say I'm sorry, though again, each culture will define the exact circumstances under which such expressions are used.

Other survival expressions are ones you need in order need to get around. This might include expressions you need to use in order to use public transportation, to purchase goods in a shop, to eat in a restaurant, to rent a hotel room, to ask directions, etc. A common strategy, which I don't really recommend, is to memorize fifty or a hundred, or perhaps two hundred, survival expressions as your first effort toward language learning. I recommend, rather, that you learn the bare minimum initially. That is because when you don't yet know much of the language, you don't really know what you are memorizing. You just learn to repeat a long stream of sound like a parrot, but you are not really using the words and phrases in the way that a true speaker does. If you really like memorizing, why not wait until you are clearly hearing the words within the sound stream and hearing them with some comprehension? Then your memorizing will be meaningful.

There are two alternatives to memorizing. One alternative is to record your fifty or one hundred survival expressions on tape, each one preceded and/or followed by the English (or other language) translation, and listen to it often. As the language starts becoming more meaningful to you, so will these expressions. You can later make a new tape without the English translation and perhaps relate each expression to a simple drawing that reasonably reminds you of the meaning. You can shuffle the drawings so that it takes some processing effort to relate each taped expression to the appropriate drawing. This will stimulate your mental language processor, and you'll absorb a lot of the detail of the survival expressions. When you need to use the expressions in real life, you may end up using a chopped down version, but it will be a chopped down version that is your very own, and this will probably contribute more to the development of your speaking ability than just spouting a flowery expression like a parrot, not knowing exactly what you are saying. If you follow the procedure I am suggesting, you will quickly acquire a lot of survival language, in synch with your gradually evolving speaking ability.

The other alternative to memorizing survival expressions is to learn them through role-play. That is what was going on in the example above where you set up the model of several city blocks and pretended you were a taxi driver, and that your LRP was a customer giving you instructions. This is reverse role-play. You want to learn expressions a customer would use to talk to the taxi driver. But you do not pretend that you are the customer, even though that is the role you need to be able to function in. The reason you don't pretend you're the customer, is that you wouldn't know what to say. So you take the role of the driver, and thus you get to hear what the customer says, and in the process you learn what customers say. In the pretend driver role you can hear, process, and respond physically by moving the car about the model town. With suitable props you can use reverse role-play to learn expressions which will be useful in just about any communication situation which you face during your early period of language learning. For example, what props might you use with your LRP in performing a role-play aimed at helping you learn how to talk to waiters in restaurants?

One special group of survival expressions are sometimes called power tools. These are expressions in the language that help you to learn more of the language. Examples are “What is this called?”, “What is that person doing?”, “What is that thing used for?”, “How do you say X”, “Could you repeat that?”, “Could you say it more slowly?”, “Could you say it a few times in a row?”, “Could you say it into the tape recorder?”, etc. You may be surprised to learn that you can acquire these entirely through comprehension activities. You use reverse role-play. You pretend that your LRP does not know English and that you are her LRP, helping her learn English. She asks you the power tool questions in the language you are learning, perhaps in connection with pictures, and you respond by telling her how to say things in English. She says (in the language you are learning), “What is this called?” and you respond (in English), “It's called a hammer.” She says (in her language), “Could you say it more slowly?”, and you respond (in English) “ It's a h-a-a-a-mer-r-r.” Follow the familiar principles of comprehension learning activities: only introduce one new power tool at a time; use lots of repetition of each new expression, randomly dispersing it among already familiar expressions, etc. It will be good if you do this role play before your first hour of heavy duty two-way communication.

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