Monday, February 17, 2014

Speaking Language vs Communicating

We use language to describe the world around us. We tell each other how things are, and this is one of the important functions of human language. We name things, put labels on them and thus reconstruct our immediate reality in our speech. However, language does much more than that. It helps us to express our wishes and dreams to others. We tell each other how we want things to be or how things could be. We describe desirable and possible realities with our language. If you record your talks with other people, you will find that telling others how things are takes a tiny part of your communication. You convince, demand, persuade, beg, insist – you communicate with others to change something in your status quo rather than simply informing about things.

Language courses and text books for non-native speakers usually start with describing reality. We first learn how name things and state facts. This approach, quite justified and rational in many points, has one significant drawback: grammar works differently when we use language differently. This is why when a student first visits a country of a language she's been studying for a while, she finds it extremely difficult to imply her knowledge to real life. She was taught to speak, not to communicate in a language (this implies to he-students too, of course).

In Russian, the gap between the standard grammar and its communicative implementations is huge. For example, the phrase “Пошли в кино?” is technically a question, and the verb here is in the Past tense, however, in reality, this is not a question about something in the past. It is a politely and informally expressed desire/ request or an offer to go to the cinema. This is how a girl may let her friend know that she wants to go to the cinema, without sounding too pushy or demanding. Formal grammar here has nothing to do with the real meaning of the message. Another example: “Готовим документы,” (Get your documents prepared) a border control officer may say to tourists in a bus when they cross the border. Formal grammar sees the verb готовим as 1 person, plural, we. Literally, this phrase could be translated as “We are preparing our documents”. Of course, the officer doesn't mean 'we' here, he is not going to prepare his documents, he is going to check yours. By using the imperfective verb in the form of the first person, plural, present the officer makes a powerful command. He demonstrates his power, he convinces you that you have to obey his order. He sounds slightly impolite, but not rude. The rude form of the same command would be “Документы приготовили” with a perfective verb in the past. Again, the formal grammar here is helpless.

Odds are you won't learn about those nuances from your textbooks. You can learn it by communicating with native speakers, watching movies and reading good fiction books. These are the more reliable sources of the information about how people use their language. Quite often, students think that they may get frustrated and lose their motivation by dealing with real life conversations. “I'm still at the beginning of my studies, it would be too hard for me to dive into the real things now,” they say. The truth is the more you delay this moment, the more you'll get frustrated. Hard is good, because by pushing yourself to the very edge of your abilities, you speed up your progress and save a lot of time for things much more interesting than repeating a meaningless “My little dog eats nothing*”.

* This is an actual example from my French textbook. Duh!


Photo by Dan Mason