Each time we start a communication, we have some more or less practical purpose in mind. We persuade, inform, ask, threat, lure, seduce, promise, entertain, and convince with words. Speech is action, and as such it is purposeful. By saying something, we do something. We acquire our mother-tongue by the age of 4-5, and spend another 10-15 years learning how to achieve our goals in the process of communication. We learn to express and hide our intentions according to social standards, we learn how to hear hidden intentions in speech of other people. We learn to recognize doubts, distrust, support and so on. It is called communicative competence.
In order to perform a communication successfully, i.e. to reach a pragmatical purpose, one has:
- to pronounce sounds distinctly so his or her speech can be understood by others
- to build phrases that are grammatically correct to the degree that allows one to be understood
- to express (mask) one’s intentions with the proper language means, so that the counterpart would be able to interpret the phrases correctly and act accordingly.
If my pronunciation is so poor that nobody can understand me, I won’t be able to communicate with people in general. If my grammar is horrible, I can hardly make basic conversation. If I don’t know how to express my intentions in this or that language, I’ll fail to reach my goals even if my speech is grammatically impeccable.
Language textbooks and grammar books help students gain vocabulary and grammar knowledge, but they don’t teach how to communicate in language. They don’t observe social rules, which can be very different in different cultures. Etiquette is only a small part of successful communicative behavior. Knowledge of etiquette won’t help you to scare or threaten people, but sometimes you need to know how to sound scary yet remain socially acceptable. For example, as a businessman, you may need to manipulate your partners or employees, and in some particular situations you may consider a threat as the most efficient tool.
Pop-culture provides us a wide range of samples of social behavior. By watching movies and reading books we can figure out how people react to different words, phrases and actions. However, there are two general problems with the pop-culture. First, movies and books often exaggerate everything. Art does not mirror reality, it interprets reality, so we can’t rely on movies and books completely. Probably, good TV shows and sitcoms are better source of samples of social behavior. Second, we may miss important social signs and signals, or misinterpret them. We see everything through the focus of our own culture, so we can easily overlook something important.
Living in a country where your target language is spoken gives some advantages. You have no choice but learn how to talk efficiently. Sometimes you learn the hard way. I believe many people with experience in cross-cultural communication have a couple of funny or tragic stories about this. However, being surrounded by the language is not an ultimate solution either. As I learned from my experience, people are too polite to correct other people and too busy to explain communicative mistakes.
What do you think could be a source of social and communicative knowledge? How do you learn communicating in a new language?
Photo by Dimitris Papazimouris