1.4. Principle III: Learn to know the people whose language you are learning.
It would be easy to think of a language as an isolated body of knowledge. The idea would be that you learn all about a large but fixed set of vocabulary items and grammar rules, and once you have done that, you know the language. Such a view would be sadly mistaken. Suppose you come from a place where Christmas is unknown, and you are learning English. This mistaken view of language learning implies that Christmas is simply a vocabulary item that you learn as one of many thousands of building blocks that you can then use to construct sentences. But what does it really mean to know the word Christmas? It means that you can relate the word to a very elaborate and rich area of the experience of members of the English speaking speech community. Merely sharing a lot of vocabulary items and grammar rules is not what enables members of the same speech community to communicate with one another. Of course, sharing the same vocabulary items and grammar rules is necessary. But successful communication is also based on people sharing a huge body of knowledge and beliefs about the world. Understanding the speech you hear around you, and speaking to people in such a way that they can easily and correctly understand you, requires that you come to know all that they know, or at least a lot of it. I don't mean that you come to know all that any single person knows. But there is a general body of knowledge that is shared by all members of the speech community, and you will not be able to properly understand normal speech until you acquire a large part of that body of shared knowledge.
Principle III says that you must learn to know the people whose language you are learning. All three principles are interdependent. Principle III, like Principle II, is closely related to Principle I (i.e., expose yourself to massive comprehensible input). Take vocabulary building. Other things being equal, if you have a large vocabulary, you will be able to comprehend more language than if you have a small vocabulary. In other words, increasing your vocabulary results in increasing the quantity of comprehensible input that you receive. But as we saw in the case of the English word Christmas, learning vocabulary means learning about the areas of human experience to which the vocabulary relates. Or take the word bottle. What if I say, “She screamed and screamed until her mother stuck a bottle in her mouth”? Or how about, “If my husband doesn't get off the bottle, I'm leaving him”? Or perhaps, “We found a note in a bottle”. What rich areas of cultural experience, knowledge and belief are linked to this word bottle! Even a simple word like rain is associated with the experience and beliefs of the speech community which uses the word. Knowing vocabulary, which is a key to comprehending input, cannot be separated from knowing the world of the people who speak the language you are learning.
Principle III is also relevant to Principle II, (i.e., engage in extensive extemporaneous speaking). You want to learn to talk about any topic that people talk about. The more you know the right words and phrases, the less you will have to rely on communication strategies. And it is not just a matter of knowing the right words and phrases, and the areas of human experience that these relate to. As you get to know the people well, you also come to know the sorts of things that people talk about, and the ways that they talk about those things.
In another essay (Thomson, 1993c), I explain how that to learn a language is to become part of a group of people. Every language defines group of people, namely, the group of people who accept that language as their contract for communication. When people share a language it means that they agree with one another on a grand scale, and in very deep rooted ways, with regard to how to communicate. Take words for colours. While one language may divide the spectrum into seven colours, another may divide it into only three. Thus while the colour of grass and the colour of the sky may be called by different words in one language, they may be called by a single colour word in another language. Of course, all normal people can distinguish the same hues of colour. Think of all the hues that you can refer to by means of the word green. If you need to make finer distinctions you can do so. Likewise, if a language uses the same word for the colour of the sky as for the colour of grass, the speakers are capable of distinguishing those hues if they need to do so. However, for most purposes they don't, just as for most purposes you don't distinguish between the hues of green. Now you belong to a speech community (the English speaking speech community) which thinks of the colour of grass and the colour of the sky as basically different. So that is how you think, as long as you are participating in that speech community. Suppose you are in the process of becoming part of a speech community which thinks of the colour of grass and the colour of the sky as basically the same. If you are going to use the new language in a way similar to the way its normal users use it, then, while you are using it, you too will be thinking of the colour of grass as being basically the same as the colour of the sky. You may feel that you could never think that. Then you are in for a surprise. You really are going to learn to think in new ways. In learning a new language, you learn to think the way the language's normal speakers think. In other words, coming to know a language means coming to know how people think, and being able to think like them at a very basic level.
Vocabulary involves idioms in addition to single words. A good example of an idiom is provided by Spradley (1979) from the language of tramps. The idiom make a flop might be translated into ordinary English as “bed down for the night.” However, the concept is much richer than this, as Spradley discovered. Tramps in Seattle shared the knowledge of more than a hundred ways to make a flop. Spradley found that to learn a language--in this case the language was a variety of English shared by the speech community of tramps--is to learn a culture, and to learn a culture is to learn a huge body of shared knowledge and experience, including strategies for surviving.
The collection of all the words and idioms known to speakers of a language is what linguists refer to as their mental lexicon. In everyday English, a lexicon is a book, but for a linguist, it is something in the human mind. In connection with the mental lexicon, Givon (1984) goes so far as to say,
“The bulk of generic ('permanent') cultural knowledge shared by speakers/hearers is coded in their lexicon, which is in fact more like an encyclopedia.” (p. 31).
So then, learning the lexicon means learning much of what people know and think about the world. I have not even begun to explore all the ways in which learning words and idioms will involve you in learning whole areas of local culture, knowledge and belief. There will be discoveries awaiting you at every turn.
Big as the issue of vocabulary learning is, there is more to getting to know the people whose language you are learning. It should be easy to see that in a more general sense, knowing what goes on in people's life experiences is essential to being able to understand their speech. Suppose I want to tell you of an incident in my life. Let's say it involved getting a traffic ticket. Here is an example of such an account of an incident that occurred in my life, told as I might tell it to a normal speaker of North American English.
One time a friend was driving my pick-up while I dozed off, and this cop stopped us because a tail-light was burned out. It wouldn't have been anything, except that my friend was so short that she couldn't see out of the rear-view mirror, and after several blocks he finally used his siren to get our attention, and he wanted to know what was going on. I apologized profusely, but he was still a bit on the grumpy side when he handed me the ticket, although, to my relief it was just a warning.
Imagine that you are a rural share-cropper in a third world country and have never driven a car, or been pulled over by a police officer. Suppose in addition that you have had some moderate opportunity to learn English, and that you know all of the words in my account (including profusely!), and suppose that I spoke slowly and clearly as I told you this account in these exact words. I can pretty well guarantee that the account will whiz by you in a blur, and you will not be able to make much sense out of it. That is because my story assumes that you share a whole area of life experience with me that you do not in fact share. Notice that in telling the story I left out many essential facts. As the reader, if you are a North American, or from another culture which is similar to North American culture in the relevant respects, you will have filled in the missing details, and will have created a complete picture of what had happened. In your picture, the police officer followed my pick-up truck with his coloured lights flashing. He became upset over the fact that the driver didn't pull over. The ticket might well have involved a fine, but fortunately, it didn't. None of these parts of your picture are mentioned in my story. Yet they are crucial to making sense of the story as a whole, and making sense of the story as a whole is crucial to making sense out of the sentences and words which make it up.
That is how stories work. If you are to understand a story, you must create the whole picture from whatever bits of detail you are given. Assuming you share my knowledge of how traffic tickets are given, as soon as you hear me say the words, “this police officer stopped us” a whole lot of additional detail becomes available to you, since you know what typically happens when a police officer stops a driver. The police officer followed my vehicle on a motorcycle or in a squad car with his lights flashing, and the driver pulled over. You can take all of that to be the case even though all I said was “this cop stopped us” You also assume that the police officer got out and walked to the driver's window of my pick-up. There are a whole lot of details that go into a typical incident of a police officer giving a motorist a traffic ticket. This typical sequence of events has been called a schema. You understand my story easily because you and I, as members of the same culture, share this schema. I take the schema for granted in telling the story, and you use the schema as an aid to understanding the story. This schema, which you can think of as a basic skeleton of the typical traffic ticket incident, is something that you and I share because it grows out of our common experience, either as ticket recipients, or as friends of ticket recipients who have shared their stories with us. As members of the same culture and speech community you and I share countless schemas which arise out of our shared experiences. Examples would be the schemas for a day in an elementary school class, a trip to the supermarket for groceries, a baseball game, and a wedding ceremony. It is widely recognized that the use of such schemas is essential to successful communication (see Rost 1990; Singer 1990).
Now, your new language belongs to a different speech community with a different culture, and different shared life experiences. You may share some of the schemas (or, if you prefer, schemata) which arise out of their life experience, but there will be many that you do not share. The more different the new culture is from your old one, the more serious this problem becomes.
In addition to schemas, there are other kinds of knowledge shared by everyone in the new speech community, such as knowledge of famous people, well-known places and events, etc. The fact that your past life experience is different from that of the speakers of your new language makes it difficult for you to make sense out of much of what you may hear being said around you. The only solution is for you to acquire a large part of the common knowledge that these people already share. This can be done partly through discussing their life experiences with them, but to be done effectively, you also need to share in that life experience.
Finally, learning to know the people whose language you are learning means learning what is appropriate behaviour, and what is inappropriate behaviour. This opens a huge area of complexity which I can't explore here. A trained anthropologist is an expert observer. But a trained anthropologist observing the culture is in the same position as a trained linguist observing the language. True, s/he will notice a lot which the rest of us will not notice. Nevertheless, what s/he can consciously observe and describe is far less than what s/he needs to acquire in order to behave appropriately. Like language, behaviour in general is too complex to learn by first understanding all the facts about it and then applying that knowledge of those facts as you consciously understand them. Here too, an input hypothesis must have some validity. As you are exposed to an enormous quantity of human interaction and behaviour, you acquire the complex cultural system which governs the behaviour.
Getting to know people means getting to know how they act toward one another, including how they act by means of language. Think for a moment about the following two sentences:
If I may make the suggestion, the ___________ is popular here.
Well there's the ___________.
These examples are adapted from Munby (1978), who provides twenty different ways to make a suggestion in English, of which these are two. In fact, there are a lot more than twenty ways to make suggestions in English, but let's just think about these two. Who would say each of them? To whom? In what setting? We might imagine the waiter in a fancy restaurant using the first one with a customer. The second one might be said in the same restaurant by one spouse to another. Or the second one might come from a waitress in a diner who has been asked for a suggestion. Isn't it interesting that we can work backwards from the form of a suggestion to an idea of who might have said it to whom, and in what setting?
This example falls into the category that linguists refer to as politeness phenomena (Brown and Levinson, 1978). Certain things people do with words involve some social risk either to the speaker, or the person spoken to, or both. People choose their words carefully based not only on considerations of social risk, but also based on considerations such as the relative social standing of the speaker and the one spoken to, the setting, the topic that is being talked about, and so forth. Thus to be able to speak well, you need to relate what you are saying to complex new facts about social relationships. You do it all the time in your mother tongue. You fine tune your speech depending on who you are talking to, how well you know them, their status relative to yours, etc. In your new language you do not yet have much of a feel for how to do this. Among other things, you need to develop a feel for how people view social relationships. Fortunately, this is another case of complexity which you mainly acquire through massive exposure to, and involvement in, social interaction. But it is another illustration of how learning the language means learning to know the people who speak it. You can also use role-play as a means of focusing on the appropriate use of language in specific situations, as we will see below.
There is much that people will tell you about how you should and should not behave. Be aware, that the cultural value system is more complex than those who follow it are aware of, and often the “rule” you are told will be an oversimplification. So you need to keep observing as well as listening. You should record your observations in a journal. Be very wary of learning clear-cut, simple rules of behaviour from fellow foreigners who consider themselves to be experts on the local culture. Your behaviour, like your speech, will start out strange and gradually become more native-like. Don't expect to behave like a native from day one. On the other hand, you need good friends who will speak up at times when you are being unacceptably weird by their standards. And whenever you experience friction or conflict, you will want to discuss it in detail with a sympathetic friend and find out how you might better have behaved in the situation.
This may seem to be getting away from the topic of language learning, but it really is not. The shared body of beliefs which is essential to understanding speech includes many assumptions about how people should and should not behave. If you reexamine my account of the traffic ticket, you should be able to discover examples of such assumptions.
So then, a basic ingredient of successful language learning is learning to know the people who speak the language, learning to know them in depth, and in detail, learning a large body of knowledge and belief which is shared by all normal speakers of the language, learning about the types of social relationships that exist, and learning values that govern behaviour, including speech behaviour. Some of the techniques and activities discussed below will be in part motivated by Principle III.
Context for this page:
Page content last modified: 10 July 1998
© 1999 SIL International