by Greg Thomson
Imagine yourself crashed on a desert island, all alone, with nothing but a radio and, fortunately, a solar powered battery charger and a good supply of rechargeable batteries. The only station you can get on the radio is in Mandarin Chinese. Having discovered and read the journals of several others who were stranded there before you, you realize you may be there for the rest of your life. You’ve always wanted to learn a foreign language. This is your big chance. Any other pastime available to you seems boring by comparison. So find yourself a cozy sand dune, hunker down, and turn your radio on.
1.1. Learning a language means becoming part of a speech community.
I can think of two good reasons you are not going to learn any Chinese. Probably the most obvious reason is that although you hear plenty of Chinese being spoken, you have no way to find out what anything means. The second reason is closely related to the first. It is, I believe, more basic. You cannot learn Chinese because you have no relationship of any sort with anyone who uses Chinese.
1.1.1 No relationships—no language!
Language implies relationships. The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein reasoned that there can be no such thing as a private language, meaning a language which belongs to a single individual (Wittgenstein 1953). His reasons are rather philosophical, and his claim has been, like everything in philosophy, rather controversial. But I have my own (nonphilosophical) reasons for agreeing with Wittgenstein. A language is a means of communication between people. Suppose I see someone stealing your car, but you are looking the other way. What I see is now a part of my experience but not of yours. Language enables me to describe my experience to you with a statement like, “Hey, that guy is stealing your car”. There may be other uses of language, but they are all derivative on this basic one: language lets me make my experience available to you. What would it mean then for me to have a private language, that is, a way of making my experience available to myself? As soon as I have experienced an experience, indeed, while I am in the process of experiencing it, it is available to me. I can’t make myself aware of what I’m already aware of by telling myself about it.
So when you talk about language, you’re talking about community. You learned your first language within a community, and you learned it as a means of participating in community. The famous linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure compared language to a contract between the people who use it (de Saussure 1959). If I secretly decide to mean cat whenever I say the word dog, I will be misunderstood by all members of the English speaking community whenever I use the word dog. The word dog stand for dogs, but it doesn’t stand for dogs in the abstract. It stands for dogs in that it is used by people to talk to other people about dogs. Take away other people, and you take away language. Language is an interpersonal thing, a shared thing, a communal thing. No community, no language.
Now, you want to learn a language. I hope you can see that what you are saying is that you want to become part of a community and function in that community by means of its language, which is its primary means of being a community.
(If you’re the argumentative type, you’re probably thinking of scenarios where everyone but you has been killed by a meteor, or perhaps you’re thinking about people who learn a “dead” language from written documents. If I were argumentative, I’d convince you that even in these cases, language only exists through participation in communities. Good thing I’m not argumentative. Instead, I’ll move right ahead with the discussion of what this all means for us as language learners.)
Think of how you learned your first language. A very small number of people interacted with you. This probably included your mother, and may have included other caretakers and older siblings. They were part of a larger language community, but at that point you did not have a lot to do with that larger community. There may have been a period of several months where your mother and siblings were the only ones who could easily understand what you were saying. As you ventured out farther into the world, your speech had to become more and more like that of the larger speech community.
Let’s agree then, that learning Mandarin means (among other things) becoming part of a community which uses Mandarin as its main means of interaction. That community contains hundreds of millions of people. Do you enter into a relationship with hundreds of millions of people? The answer is yes. Recall that a language is like a contract between the people who use it. Everyone in that community accepts certain rules and plays by those rules. Though most of the members of the community will never meet one another; nevertheless, should they meet, they would at once recognize that they are members of the same community insofar as they recognize that their behavior is constrained by the same rules (or at least reasonably similar rules).
1.1.2 Doing unto others, with others also doing unto you
For communities to exist, people must share certain rules, or norms, of behavior. People don’t usually think about most of the norms that they share with others in their communities. They may think about some of the norms, as when a parent tells a child, “You’re supposed to say ‘thank you’ when someone does something nice for you.” However, that same parent may not realize that moments earlier, someone did something nice for her, and she didn’t say “Thank you,” but instead said, “ You’re too kind,” or perhaps, “How thoughtful of you,” or maybe, “You’ll never know how much I appreciate that,” or possibly, “Hey, great!”. In those cases, the parent is following much more detailed, fine-tuned norms for expressing gratitude than the four-year-old who says “Thank you” is aware of at this point. The overwhelming majority of the norms which unite a community are ones that are rarely or never thought about consciously or discussed.
The main purpose of the community-wide norms is to ensure that the behavior of one person does not adversely affect other people. Therefore, someone who is seen to be a non-follower of the community norms is seen to be a potential threat to the community. Of course, in some cases it is clear that someone is still learning the norms. That implies the person is new to the community. That new person may be a baby. Or it may be you.
The norms which define a community become particularly important in the context of transactions. A transaction occurs when two people interact. If I sell you a used car, that is a transaction. If I meet you in the hall and smile, that too is a transaction.
For you to learn your new language is going to require that people talk to you, and listen to you, for thousands of hours. That will involve a very large number of transactions! A popular approach to understanding transactions is called the exchange theory (Homans, 1958, discussed in Milroy, 1987). Accordto the exchange theory, in every transaction there is a cost and a benefit. If I sell you a used car, you will receive something of value (the car) and so will I receive something of value (the money). (Likewise, we’ll both be giving up something of value.) If I give you a ridiculously good deal, say, charging you only half of the true value of the car, and we are both aware that I have given you a ridiculously good deal, then sometime in the future when I ask a “small favour” of you, you may feel obliged to grant me the favour. That is because when the exchange is uneven, it creates a sense of indebtedness, called an obligation in the exchange theory. If I give you a smile, you can give me a smile in exchange. We both made each other feel warm and fuzzy. No obligation was created because we each gave something of equal value to the other.
The implications of this concept for language learners are enormous. Right now you have zero Mandarin Chinese (or Chukchee, or whatever) in your head. That is, there is an incomprehensibly large goody, i.e. the Chinese language, which you need. It is entirely in the possession of other people. The only way you will get it is if they give it to you. If you are going to be in the process of becoming a functioning part of a community of Chinese speakers, then something equal in value to what you are going to receive (the language, among other things) in the course of countless transactions will need to pass in the opposite direction, that is, from you to them. That should give you something to think about.
And to make matters worse, you’ll start out as a potential trouble maker. Spradley and McCurdy (1984) gave the title Conformity and Conflict to their collection of readings in cultural anthropology. They explain that the very set of shared norms which makes it possible for a community to function smoothly (conformity) can become a destructive force when two communities come into contact (conflict). That is because those shared norms define what is good and bad in the eyes of the people who share them. Here you come, into the midst of conformers, a ready made source of conflict, since you operate by different standards of good and bad. You need a massive transaction to occur if you are to learn the language, but the deck is clearly stacked against your being able to hold up your end of the exchange. It will be very kind of them if you end up learning their language!
2. Your entry point into the speech community
Relax. You will be glad to learn that you don’t have to cope with all of that all at once. You might learn to swim by jumping into the rapids where the water is over your head and icy cold. But that is not the only way to learn to swim. Nor is it necessarily the best way.
What if there is a warm, calm, shallow pool with a soft, sandy bottom where you can get your feet wet and then your knees, etc. And you can try to swim, and make mistakes, and then get the hang of it. Later you can venture into deeper and deeper waters. In the end, you find out that the river wasn’t really all that swift, or deep, or cold—just swift, deep and cold enough for a non-swimmer to drown in!
You are going to become part of the new speech community. For you, starting at the shallow end means structuring your own gentle little speech community in which you can learn to dog-paddle. From there you can venture out little by little into a bigger world.
2.1 Finding a mediating person
You can begin with just one or two people. People like linguists and anthropologists approach a community through a relatively small number of people. Such people have traditionally been called informants. Most linguists and anthropologists quickly discovered that inside every informant there lurked a friend, waiting to emerge.
There is a reason for this. People aren’t forced to be informants. Rather, they want to be. I once wished to learn about the subculture of motor-rickshaw drivers in Hyderabad, Pakistan. I always get stressed out over recruiting an informant. But I recalled a driver who struck me as unusually educated for his profession (I later learned he held a degree in English), and the next time I saw him I told him that I wished to learn of the world of rickshaw-driving from him. He seemed hesitant but agreed to come to my house at a specified time. That time came, and the gate-bell sounded. I went out and down to the gate, to find a man I did not recognize, standing beside a rickshaw. He told me that his friend was nervous about coming and talking to me, and so he was volunteering.
This man turned out to be a very special person indeed. I recorded about two hours of interviews with him and went over the recordings and asked some questions. He had loads to share on any point I would ask about. After the interviews, he continued to visit and provided us with new entrance ways into Pakistani life.
The key point I want to make here is that this informant was self-selected. If you seek help from within a group, and out of several people, one or more appear to really want to help you, then you are witnessing this self-selection process at work. Self-selection tends to result in wonderful helpers.
The man I have just described could not speak English and was not widely traveled. But within his peer-group, he was an outward-reaching, open-minded individual. Everyone is different. Some people are tightly bound into a spot near the center of their peer-group and do not like to venture near the edges. There is nothing wrong with that. They may be major contributors to the community’s welfare. But their place is right near the middle of their group. Some day, you may be deeply inside that group, and then such people may become wonderful friends. But your very first friends will be people who are more comfortable moving at the periphery of the group, where that group interfaces with outsiders. You’ll start out as an outsider. People like my rickshaw driver friend are human bridges. Some time after our interviews he asked me to accompany him and a couple buddies to visit his wife in the hospital. As we rode in the back of a covered Suzuki pick-up (public transportation), two young mothers sat across from us wearing burqas (large black over-garments worn for modesty by Muslim women). As is frequently the case, their veils were flipped back, exposing their faces, but not their hair. Their interest was piqued by this obvious foreigner who appeared to be a local insider. This so validated me in their sight that they asked if I would come to their home in the countryside and visit them. They had their elderly father dictate his address to me, which I wrote down with his pencil. He then insisted I keep the pencil. I stood there with my mouth hanging open as I watched these women flip their veils down over their faces and head for a bus to continue their journey. I previously had the impression that rural women in burqas didn’t relate comfortably to men other than close relatives. My rickshaw driver friend didn’t know where I got that idea. The fact is, he had validated me and led me in a bit more deeply into the larger Pakistani society.
So, as you seek to wade into the shallow water, you’re looking for a person who is comfortable at the edge of his or her community and culture. My rickshaw driver friend was the perfect person at the point when he came along. However, he would not have been the perfect person two years earlier. And since we are concerned with your very first contacts, we need to consider people who are even further from the center of their group.
The kind of person I have in mind has been called a mediating person (Bochner, 1981). Taft (1981) describes a variety of people who are near the edge, psychologically speaking, of their society or subculture. Not all of them qualify as mediating persons. Some people may wish they could move away from their culture and adopt yours and some may already have done just that, at least as far as they are concerned. Taft refers to theirs as peripheral membership in the community you are hoping to join. Worse yet, from the standpoint of your needs, are those who Taft calls isolated. These extrememarginalized people have a negative attitude toward their own culture, and toward other cultures as well. Once some strangers standing beside me at a newsstand in Pakistan commented “There is one of those capitalist pigs we were talking about”. I suspect these were marginalized individuals, and they would not have been the ideal choice for my initial entry point to the larger Pakistani community. A better choice would be people who belong to what Taft calls a marginal group. These would be people who have moved out into a different culture (yours in this case), with which they now identify, while retaining a group identity based on their common background. The Chinese community in Calgary would be an example.
True mediating persons, in Taft’s typology, are people who remain active in their own culture and are also completely at home in the other culture and have positive attitudes toward both cultures. I met people like that in Pakistan, people who lived part of the year in Canada and part of the year in Pakistan and were happy in both places.
2.2 The mediating person as a Language Resource Person
Ideals are rarely achieved, but it is good to think about them as we seek the to find best options available. We come back now to the fact that you need to become part, not just of a new community, but of a new speech community. That is central to what is meant by learn a language. Let’s picture the ideal person to serve as your point of entry to the new speech community. Call her Noju. Noju’s language and culture of origin are the language and culture you wish to learn, and she also speaks your language with ease. She has participated extensively in your culture and feels at home in it. She has positive feelings about both societies, and, for that matter, she would enjoy exploring additional new cultures herself if the opportunity arose. She is a true mediating person. But since we have a special focus on language, we also want her to be a person who is enthusiastic about her mother tongue. She’s not a trained linguist (I mean, even ideals aren’t that ideal), and so she may not have given much thought to the structure of her language, but when you point out a structural observation you have made, such as, “Did you ever notice that no words ever end with b, d, or g,” she replies “Wow, that’s really interesting”. She is not familiar with the latest concepts of second language learning (not that ideal), but neither does she have strong opinions as to how it should be done. She is adventurous, and willing to try whatever language learning methods you wish to use, even if they seem a little silly to her at first. Not only is she an ideal mediating person, but she is an ideal Language Resource Person (LRP).
Now ideals are ideals. You may not be able to get very close to this ideal in every respect, though you may get close to it in many respects. The helpful thing about having an ideal in mind is that it will encourage you to avoid making matters worse for yourself than you need to. For example, someone might think there is a special advantage to begin learning the language from the most conservative, monolingual member of the community. Not recommended. That person may later become your best friend, but you need to prepare for that. Otherwise, you could end up making a worst enemy instead of a best friend.
If at all possible, your first LRP should be someone who shares a language with you. For example, if your mother tongue is English, and your LRP is fluent in English, you will be able to use powerful language learning techniques, because you can clearly explain those techniques to your LRP in a language you both know well. In addition, you can concentrate on rapidly learning to comprehend the language, using appropriate techniques, without feeling a lot of pressure to speak the language before you have some familiarity with it. This can greatly reduce the stress of early language learning.
It is also important that you begin working with monolingual LRPs fairly soon, say after one to four months of initial language learning. If no monolingual LRPs are available to you, then you will need to begin working monolingually (in the new language, not in English!) with your bilingual LRPs. At the point where you can function somewhat in the language you may find it less stressful to work with monolingual LRPs rather than forcing yourself to work monolingually with bilingual LRPs, since that may tend to feel artificial.
Our focus right now however, is on your very first LRPs, and you will prefer that they be bilingual. You will prefer that they not be overly marginalized with regard to their own culture. Hopefully they will be cross-culturally open-minded, outward-reaching people, but nevertheless people with strong and healthy links to many other people within their own community.
How do you find such people? Recall the self-selection process. It may be that the right people will emerge quickly. If not, you will need to employ the network building techniques discussed below until you arrive at the right people. For now, let’s assume that you have found them.
2.3 Language learning at the entry point: no free lunches
So here you are. You have located someone who is willing to be your point of entry into the new speech community. I have suggested that initial recruitment may be a simple matter of making your need known and seeing who is interested in helping. There is more to consider. An easy mistake is to make a long-term arrangement with someone who subsequently doesn’t work out very well. In working with LRPs in a number of languages, I have noticed that some people catch on really quickly to what I need to do, while others are never going to catch on. If I’ve made a long term arrangement with someone who doesn’t work out, then what do I do? Better to ask someone to help me “for one hour this afternoon” than “for the next three months”. Then I can ask, again, and again. Soon I will be able to decide whether a long term arrangement with a particular person will be a good idea. If possible, I should begin with more than one person, so that whoever I work with expects me to work with others and doesn’t feel personally rejected if I end up not working with him or her all that much. Bear in mind also that someone who is not ideal for my initial language learning may come to be very helpful at a later stage.
Next comes that troublesome exchange theory we discussed before. Every transaction (including every interaction between you and your LRP) involves something of equal value going in both directions, or else the party who contributes less to the transaction incurs indebtedness to the other. One of my very first LRPs listened to my request that he help me regularly. I clearly remember his response: “What’s in it for me?” A fair question. You might ask what’s in it for you, but it is better to ask whether, from your LRP’s standpoint, the amount of effort is worth the amount of reward.
In my case, I had a simple solution: minimum wage. But I rushed into that a bit precipitously. I wasn’t really giving the guy a job. And he was later to become a real friend. If I could go back and start over I might well do things differently. First of all, I wouldn’t propose it as a job offer. Rather than, “Will you be my main language teacher?”, I would have asked, “Can you help me for a few minutes?” Once he was comfortable with what we were doing, I would say, “Any chance we could do this for a couple hours next Saturday morning?” I would have incurred indebtedness. In that situation, I now realize that opportunities would have quickly arisen for me to reciprocate. Whenever he bought his groceries, he might easily end up paying five dollars to someone to take him home (this was awhile ago), unless, that is, he met someone who had an obligation to take him home. My paying him minimum wage for helping me learn the language sure made it easier for me to refuse him rides. But that risked creating hard feelings anyway.
And just the other day, a member of that same culture reminded me, “You know how it is when a friend asks you to lend him money. If he’s really your friend, you’re not going to be thinking ‘that guy owes me money’. If he thinks of it some time, he might pay you back, but you’re not going to mention it to him.”
How I wish I could go back and start over, knowing what I know now. I had the opportunity to participate in a rich system of rights and obligations, and I opted to pay minimum wage as the easy way out. Mind you, I’ve known people who didn’t want to pay their LRPs minimum wage, but neither did they want to give rides or make “loans”. I suspect if I had done things the way I should have, it would have cost me more than paying minimum wage, but it also would have “bought” me far more than I got by paying minimum wage. There is no stingy way to become part of a new speech community. It costs what it costs. And it’s worth what it costs.
This is not to say that there will not be times when paying a fixed hourly amount will be desirable or necessary. I find it easiest to have a scheduled daily time with an LRP. In many cases, this may best be remunerated by direct cash payments. It may still be possible to start out as though your LRP is doing you a favour, but then at the end of the first week to say, “Here, take this. You’ve been such a great help. I’d feel guilty not to give you something. It’s not much.” But be sure that “not much” is at least minimum wage (according to local standards)!
On one occasion, when I wanted to improve my fluency through eight hours per day of semi-structured conversation practice for a whole month, there was no choice but to make it a work-for-wages arrangement. Every case is different. In the end, doing something that works, but is less than ideal is to be preferred over giving up on learning the language because the ideal is unachievable.
It should go without saying that you do also need to take into account the actual value of the exchange to you personally, and be fair from your standpoint. I’ve been envisioning a situation where the payoff to you is that you get to be part of a new community. For some people there will be other rewards, such as an M.A. degree or a Ph.D. partly as a result of the help you are getting. Or perhaps your work will lead to published journal articles, with the accompanying increase in the your professional standing. In such cases you need to be sure that the people who help you receive what will be of comparable value from their perspective. This could indeed be wages, well above minimum wage, as well as other career benefits, along with benefits to the community as a whole which result from your work.
Even if your main payoff lies simply in becoming part of the new community, you must bear in mind that there is going to be a considerable cost to others. Recall what it is like for you to communicate with someone who is just beginning to learn your native language. It is hard work. So if you are going to become fluent in someone else’s language, lots of people are going to work very hard at communicating with you. They must receive something equal in value to the effort they expend. The principle is, something that is perceived by both parties to be of equal value must travel in both directions, sooner or later. You are not allowed to incur a permanent imbalance of payments in your own favour!
Fortunately, material value is not the only value. Milroy (1987) includes such things as “greetings, civilities, jokes, information,…child-minding services, or assistance in times of sickness or poverty” as typical exchange commodities and refers to exchanges in which the LRP’s speech is traded for “sympathy and a boost to the informant’s self-esteem”. Your friendship and time can be an important reward to others, as theirs is to you. It was obvious that my rickshaw driver friend found a variety of rewards in his relationship with me.
2.4 Language learning at the entry point: time to think about doing something
It may sound as though I am assuming that you are a self-directed, independent language learner, learning the language from friends and neighbors, but not taking a formal course. I need to say a word about where formal courses fit in. If a formal language course is an ideal one, it will be your entry point into the new language community. The methods used in the course will involve you in actually using the language creatively from the outset. Some learning activities will focus on comprehension. A native speaker will communicate with you in the new language in ways that require you (and enable you) to process the language (that is, to figure out what is being said) and respond in some way. For example, the native speaker could instruct you to arrange a group of objects in a particular way and you respond by arranging the objects as instructed. As you learn to comprehend more and more, your ability to speak also increases, and you interact in the language with other learners and native speakers, doing role-plays which deal with typical communication situations that you are facing or will face in real life outside of the formal course. The course will also help you to become aware of cross-cultural friction points, and again you may use role-play as a means of gaining the social skills which you need in order to begin functioning acceptably in the new society. From the standpoint of the language, there are two broad challenges in the real world: you must be able to understand the barrage of speech that will come your way, and you must be able to make up new sentences on the spot. An ideal language course will concentrate on developing these two skills.
But some language courses are far from ideal. I can hear at least ninety percent of those readers who are taking formal language courses exclaiming, “But my language course is nothing like that.” Just the other day I heard two students preparing for the mid-term examination of their introductory German course. Said he to her, “Do you know the second person plural form of möchten?”. Welcome to the dark ages. Modern language departments still teach “languages” as though a language were a body of facts, hundreds if not thousands of facts such as “The third person plural subjunctive of X is Y” and “The verb meaning ‘to eat’ is Z”. It is odd that the same modern language departments often offer courses on second language learning theory and practice, in which they describe the what-is-the-second-person-plural-form-of-möchten approach to language teaching as something belonging to the 1940’s. Well, welcome to the 1990’s. In Pakistan I met people who had been “learning the language” for over a year but who were still not becoming part of a speech community to any extent. A language course does not have to be like that. A language course can give you your very first, sheltered entrance into the speech community and guide you as you begin to venture farther afield. But if this is not the case with your course, then you will need to work at becoming part of a speech community on your own.
You may not have enrolled in a formal course, but you may have a formal textbook, perhaps with tapes, which you plan to follow. Once again, there is no guarantee that a textbook and tapes will provide an entry into a speech community. You may indeed learn a lot from a formal course or from a textbook with tapes which will speed your early acquisition of the language and assist your entry into the speech community. But it is important that you realize that you will only learn to communicate by communicating, and the work of entering the speech community still lies before you.
So whether you are taking (or using) a formal course, or have already done formal language study, or are starting from scratch all on your own, your reason for meeting with your LRP is the same: you want to develop communication skills. If you have already done formal study, you have a head start in some ways. You may be able to get right on with conversational practice using pictures or objects of various kinds as focuses of discussion, or struggling to discuss specific topics of interest to you, noting where you get stuck and making a point to learn what you lack that causes you to get stuck.
If you are starting from scratch on your ow, without formal course materials, you can begin with very rudimentary communication skills, exploring the grammar as you go. If formal linguistic descriptions of the language are available to you, they may not make a lot of sense to you at first. If not, don’t waste too much time trying to learn and remember everything in them. You can return to them again and again as your comprehension ability and speaking ability continue to grow. Each time you will understand more. You may also find that they are incorrect in some points, unless the linguist who wrote them was a native speaker or someone who learned the language very well.
So let’s say you are learning the language from scratch, on your own, without the aid of any linguistic descriptions. This is not the place for a detailed description of all activities you might engage in to start developing communication ability . But here are some suggestions. (See Thomson, 1993a, where I deal with this in detail, as well as Larson, 1984, especially Part III, Stage I.)
You want your LRP to understand that you are mainly going to be learning to communicate, and you will learn to communicate by using the language, and you will provide the needed structure for your language sessions; s/he shouldn’t “come prepared”. How are you going to communicate when you don’t know any of the language? No problem. Your LRP knows plenty of the language. S/he will be the first one to communicate in the new language, albeit under your guidance. One of the best techniques for getting started is the so-called Total Physical Response (TPR) method (Asher, 1982). You begin by having your LRP tell you to do things. S/he can demonstrate what she means by doing the things herself. Better yet, s/he can issue the commands to another speaker of the target language first, and you can learn to comprehend the commands by observing the responses. Then s/he will instruct you to do the same things, and you will respond by carrying out the instructions.
You begin with very simple instructions like “stand”, “walk”, and “sit”. Unfortunately, that is about as far as some people ever go in using TPR. The key is to keep building. You can learn all sorts of complex formations through TPR. Eventually the LRP will be able to tell you something like “If you are holding three dollars, place them in front of him, but if you are only holding two dollars, put them into your pocket.” (You can use play money.) That may not seem like very meaningful communication, but you may be surprised to find that it is fun and interesting for both you and your LRP, and that you really do develop the ability to process speech through such activities.
At this stage you want to learn to understand the words for hundreds of common actions and objects. What objects? You can begin by looking around you. Any object which you are likely to want to be able to talk about within the next few months is fair game. ( A sample instruction from your LRP to you for learning to understand the word for “stove” is “Walk to the stove”; you respond by walking to the stove.) To get other ideas for objects, visit the market, buy one of everything, and bring it home (sample instruction from your LRP to you: “Pick up the cucumber”). Using TPR you can learn to recognize not only the names of the objects, but other properties of objects, such as size, shape, colour, and quantities, including numbers, and relative locations (sample instruction: “Place two green bananas in front of me, and put a yellow banana between them”). Using a family tree diagram (with photos or drawings of people standing for maternal grandmother, father’s brother, etc., etc.) you can learn to recognize kinship terms (sample instruction from LRP to you: “Show me the little boy’s sister”). And don’t forget body parts. You can hardly call yourself a “speaker” of even “broken Chukchee” if you don’t recognize the word for “nose” (sample instruction: “Point to your nose”).
Then there are words for actions. Some action words were used in the examples above (“Walk to the stove”, “Pick up the cucumber”, and so forth). Everything (just about) that you can do with your body is worth learning. And you can also learn expressions for anything that you can do with all those hundreds of objects that you have learned the names of in the previous paragraph! What can you do with a piece of cloth, a rope, a glass of water, a carrot? (Sample instruction: “Wad up the piece of cloth, and break the carrot into three pieces”). And try to think of everything a person in that community might do in a typical day, from rising until retiring. Any of these actions can form the basis of TPR activities, even if you have to pretend, e.g. that you are shaving.
One of the most powerful aids to communication at this stage is pictures, either photos or drawings (or even videos). Many scenes from everyday life can be used. (Sample instruction: “Show me the picture of someone who is dressed-up.”) In addition to TPR activities, your LRP can simply describe the pictures at a level that you are capable of understanding. At the outset, this may simply be “This is a man, This is a woman, This is another man. This is another woman. This is a woman and this is a man. This is a boy. This is a girl. This is a girl and a man.” You can build slowly from day to day. As your recognition of basic vocabulary grows, the time will soon come when your LRP can give you detailed descriptions of various aspects of pictures, and you can respond by pointing to the picture you believe s/he is describing. Or she can tell you how the people in the picture would describe what they are doing, or what they might be thinking, and you try to guess which picture she has in mind.
You are probably thinking, what about grammar? Good thought. In your TPR activities, and in your use of pictures, you will plan to emphasize specific sentence patterns and get a lot of repetition of those specific patterns. For pictures, I have described how you might do this in another paper (Thomson, 1989, 1993a).
One thing you will want to learn to comprehend right away is the pronoun system. This may consist of separate pronoun words, like I, you, he, in English. Or there may be special endings on the verbs (suffixes) or special beginnings on the verbs (prefixes) which carry these meanings. For example, if you say hablo, in Spanish, the meaning is “I speak”, but the part that carries the meaning of the English word I, is the o. Often there will be both separate words, and prefixes or suffixes on the verb. Thus to say “I speak” in Spanish one can also say, Yo hablo, where the word yo is also translated I. You’ll want to learn to understand such pronouns functioning as subject (“If I am eating peas, pick up a carrot.”), as object (“Pat me”) and in other roles (“Put the pencil near me”; “Write your name for me”; “Pick up the rope with me”). Be prepared for surprises. For example, there may be no difference between “him” and “her”, and there may be differences you are not used to. In Arabic there is a special plural form for two people as opposed to more than two. I cannot begin to prepare you for every possible surprise. This is where published descriptions of the language (or training in linguistics) can be a big help.
Using pictures and physical response drills you can learn to comprehend statements about things in the past, present and future. (Sample instruction: “Show me a picture of a man who is going to sell something.”)
You can learn a variety of complex sentences including those with relative clauses (sample instruction: “Show me a woman who is walking”), conditional clauses (sample instruction: “If you have more money than me, give me some of your money”), purpose clauses (sample instruction: “Draw a man to show to her”), etc. Other examples are to be found in Thomson (1989, 1993a), Asher (1982), and Silvers (1985). Winitz (1982) is a source of ideas for pictures. (Paste blank paper over the English sentences so that they are not a distraction to you or your LRP. You can use the pictures for more purposes than are suggested by the English sentences printed there.) The best source of pictures is pof everyday scenes and activities in the community you are entering.
If it is not clear already, you need to carefully prepare for your sessions with your LRP. You will do well to spend at least an hour in preparation for each one hour session with your LRP. The one hour session can then be tape recorded, and you can listen to it several times before the next session and later on for review.
If you are learning a language for which no written grammars exist, or perhaps even if they do exist, you will probably benefit a lot from organizing your observations and thoughts regarding the grammar and sounds of the language. Your own observations, organized your own way, may be more useful to you than the observations of others which may be written in some dense technical jargon. Spend some time each day writing out any new observations. This can be included in your regular journal writing in which you may describe many aspects of your experience as a language learner working with your LRP or using the language in the community. Your journal should also include daily observations of the new culture.
So far I have been concentrating on learning to comprehend. The advantage of concentrating initially on learning to comprehend is that you can make very rapid progress. In a month or two you will be able to comprehend hundreds of the most essential vocabulary items and enough sentence patterns to form the basis of functional speaking ability. If, instead, you concentrate on memorizing whole sentences or dialogues, along with lists of vocabulary, I can just about guarantee you two things. First, you’ll learn a lot less in the same amount of time. Second, you won’t be very good at understanding real speech, even when it employs a lot of the items that you have memorized from word lists or in sentences you memorized whole hog. You may be able to say “Where is the bathroom?”, only to find that you have no hope of understanding the answer you are given.
But you ask, while I am barreling along learning to comprehend so much, when do I start learning to speak? Personally, I think it is a good idea to start speaking when you have something to say and feel like saying it. You may feel a need to memorize a few sentences lock, stock and barrel fairly early. These would be things that you frequently need to say (“Can you tell me where there is a bathroom?”), but which are beyond what you could make up for yourself on the basis of your current ability. These are sometimes called “survival expressions”. These will probably include greetings and leave takings, and may include information about yourself, where you are from, and what you are doing.
Once you are well under way in your comprehension learning, you can structure many of your TPR activities around the communication needs you face in real life. For example, if you need to use taxis, your LRP can give you the kinds of instructions you might give a taxi driver, and you can carry them out (charade style, or using a toy car and a home-made map of the city). You’ll probably find that the next time you ride in a taxi, you’ll just start using some of what you learned to comprehend in your language sessions. It will come out naturally, and you will feel like you are speaking the language genuinely, rather than parroting something that you have memorized lock, stock and barrel. After all, your goal is to be able to make up whatever sentence you need as you need it, not to memorize enough sentences to cover every possible situation you might encounter. If you want, you can use role-play with your LRP to practice what you will say to the taxi driver. So far, your LRP has played the role of the passenger while you, as driver, responded to her instructions. You now change roles with your LRP and pretend s/he is the taxi driver. Now you give the instructions. But don’t try to be fancy. You’re a brand new speaker of this language, so speak like a brand new speaker of a language! Don’t try to be an unrealistically good speaker for the stage you are at. That may confuse people. You utter an exquisitely memorized sentence, and you get back a torrent of exquisite speech which you can’t understand. Utter a halting, simple sentence, and people will speak simply to you, so that you have a chance to understand them and perhaps learn something new at the same time.
So, now you’re (barely) a member of your new speech community. You may not have communicated with many people yet. The overwhelming majority of your actual communication experiences have been with your LRP (or LRPs) in the sheltered environment of your structured language sessions. Time to think about leaving the nest. To use our earlier metaphor, it’s getting hard to remain in the shallow water, because you’re trying to dog paddle, but your feet keep bumping the bottom. It’ s time to spend more time where the water is deeper. As a matter of fact, you have designed your language sessions with this in mind, getting ready for life in the big world.
3. Branching out: getting a network
Furnham and Bochner (1986) surveyed a wide range of research that had been done on the problems people face when they move into a new culture. They refer to this movement as “culture traveling”. I’m really impressed with what they say about the attrition rate among one group of culture travelers, the Peace Corps volunteers:
“The figures are quite startling. The world-wide attrition rate exceeded 40 percent in seven of the years listed…an overall figure of 50 percent probably reflects the real situation. Given that the participants were volunteers, mostly young and imbued with a spirit of idealism, these data provide clear evidence that culture traveling was not meant to be easy. (p. 137)”
And in their concluding chapter they observe:
“…the consensus seems to be that in general terms the negative psychological consequences of culture travel outweigh the positive ones for most categories of travelers…”(p. 245)
Hey, don’t be a dead hero. Some people really do think they have to jump into those rapids right off the bat. Furnham and Bochner feel you are better off if you initially have a support group consisting of people of similar backgrounds to your own. They admit that such people can be a very poor source of information about the new culture. From my own observations, I would have to warn you that if you allow fellow expatriates (i.e. people like you) to pass on to you negative attitudes toward the society you are trying to enter, it may ruin your whole experience. So you need the support of fellow expatriates who have a positive attitude toward the “host culture”. At the same time, having the support of people from your own cultural background clearly reduces the initial stress. Just make sure they are people who love the host society and culture.
At the same time, Furnham and Bochner feel that it will be psychologically damaging to go on and on living in a foreign ghetto (i.e. a ghetto of people like yourself, which might be a physical ghetto, such as a foreigners’ compound where you reside and work, or it may be a psychological ghetto, where you depend on foreigners for most of your social support). Personally, I would say that if your only two choices are either to live long term in a foreign ghetto, or else to jump right into the rapids without any support group, then go ahead and jump into the rapids, unless you have no desire to learn the language and become part of the culture. But then, why would you be reading this?
So the ideal, for the non-heroes among us, as well as other people who value their long term mental health, is to begin with a good support group of people who have positive feelings toward the host culture. Immediately, however, you start developing the communication skills and social skills you need to wean yourself from this support group. You develop your early skills in a protected, secure setting with the help of your mediating person cum LRP. Little by little, with the help and encouragement of your mediating person and your support group, you will move farther and farther out into the new culture. Eventually, you will develop a new support consisting of members of the host society, and you will largely wean yourself from your old support group of fellow-foreigners.
But I warn you once more, if the “support group” you start out with turns out to consist of fellow foreigners who sit around and ridicule or run down the host culture, flee for your life. That sort of spirit will kill you dead in your tracks in terms of your cross-cultural effectiveness.
Once again, I’m emphasizing the ideal. Suppose you are learning Mexican Spanish. You might do well to live in a U.S. border town and recruit a bilingual LRP on the Mexican side. Of course, you’ll be having a fair number of contacts with other Mexicans while going back and forth, but you’re not yet attempting to be a full-blown participant in Mexican society. You are, however, building the skills you need to start branching out. Or to take another example, you are planning to learn a minority language in an Asian country. You can already speak the major national language, and participate in the general urban national culture. You are able to live in a town which borders the rural area where the language you wish to learn predominates. You may find an LRP who lives in town, or recruit one from a nearby rural village to come into town each day and help you develop the communication skills you need for branching out.
So what you have done so far is to learn a thousand or so basic vocabulary items. You have learned to construct a variety of basic sentences. You have developed some skills for coping with the communication situations you commonly face. You may have been at it for a month, or for two or three months. From the outset, you have been preparing yourself to live in the target language community. As time goes on, you need to think about preparing the community for you. Once people are used to you, and you have acquired some minimal communication skills and social skills, you will be ready to move into the community. One of the ways you will prepare the community for yourself, and help the people to feel comfortable and secure with you in their community is to begin systematically expanding your social network.
Again, your situation may deviate from the ideal. It may be necessary for you to jump right in, without a lot of opportunity to prepare either yourself or the community. At the other extreme, it may be difficult for you to spend time in the homeland of the language you wish to learn. Whatever the case may be, having an effective strategy for expanding your social network will be to your advantage.
3.1 Introduction to social networks
What’s a social network you ask? The easiest way to understand this concept is for you to draw a diagram of your present social network. (See See Boissevain, 1974, or Milroy, 1987 for more details.) Begin by writing your name in the center of a blank piece of paper:
[picture of name written on piece of paper]
Now, think of all of the people you interrelate with on a regular basis, and place their names around the same page. (Your full network would include all the people with whom you associate at all, but that would be unmanageable for our present purpose.)
[picture of other names on paper, with lines going from each name to the first name]
The lines indicate that you associate with each of these people. Now, if that’s all there is to it, then it means that you associate with all of those people, but none of them associate with each other. Otherwise, in addition to the lines connecting you to them, there would be lines connecting them to each other. Such a network, in which you are connected to people who are not connected to each other, is referred to as a diffuse network. However, it is unlikely that your network is that diffuse. The next thing you need to do is to connect all the people who regularly associate with each other:
[Picture now has lines connecting different sets of people.]
If you haven’t guessed, the cluster of people at the top is your family. The lower left hand cluster is the people you work with, and the lower right hand cluster is some people you hang around with on the week-ends.
No doubt I’ve omitted a number of other clusters, like the people you go to church with. And I’ve omitted unclustered separate individuals, like people you do business with. A real network of a single individual (which is only part of a bigger network involving the whole society) might contain a thousand individuals. But you now have the idea of what a social network is. If your social network has lots of interconnections, like the one above, it is said to be dense as opposed to diffuse. The separate clusters are called—you guessed it—clusters.
We could make it more complicated by indicating on each connecting line the nature of the relationship, e.g., boss, mother, tennis partner, etc. And you might have several relationships with a single person. For example, your mother might be your boss, and she might also be your tennis partner. Then you have three relationships with her, and your relationship is said to be multiplex.
If your network is generally dense and multiplex, then it is considered close knit. Close knit networks are great. Everyone in them feels a strong sense of obligation to everyone else in them. After all, if you hurt Earl’s feelings, you don’t just risk your relationship with Earl. You also may affect the way Polly, Nina and Millie feel about you. So you’re going to be decent to Earl.
3.2 Your new social network at the outset
Now so far, your social network in your new language community may look something like this:
[Picture of name in center, with lines drawn to captions “Various shopkeepers”, “next door neighbor”, and “LRP”]
Realistically, there may be more to it than that already, but let’s keep things conceptually simple. Let’s assume you only regularly associate with two people in the new language community at this point, not counting the various shopkeepers with whom you do business. I am happy to inform you that you already have more of a social network than you realize. That is because all that is shown in the diagram is your first order zone. Those are the people who you associate with. But you have a second order zone! Everyone that your LRP associates with is in your second order zone. So is everyone that your next door neighbor regularly associates with, and everyone that your shopkeepers regularly associate with. I’ll just illustrate the case of your LRP. Again, we will limit ourselves to your LRP’s most regular associates, rather than with the whole thousand associates she might actually have.
[Picture with several lines coming out of “LRP”, going to various family members and friends, with additional lines connecting some of the family members and some of the friends]
Look at all those people in the second order zone of your social network. Imagine what the third order zone must be like. For instance, it will include all the associates of your LRP’s brother, and all of the associates of your LRP’s best friend, even though you have yet to meet your LRP’s brother, and your LRP’s best friend. Nevertheless, their associates are in the third order zone of your social network. (I won’t bother you with a diagram of your third order zone. But think how many people are out there in your fourth and fifth order zones. You already are connected to them by chains of people you have not yet met, apart from the very first people in the chains.)
3.3 Enlarging and strengthening your network
Your basic strategy for strengthening your social network is to move people from your second zone into your first order zone. You do that simply by establishing contact with them. And you do it in such a way that you become part of one or more clusters.
For example, suppose you were to become friends with your LRP’s best friend: Presto! Your LRP’s best friend is now in your first order zone, and you’ve just become part of a cluster. Now you should have some idea of how you are going to go on expanding your social network. You start from the links you have now, and you follow the links from those people to other people.
There is a good reason to proceed in this manner. Recall thesense of mutual obligation that exists within clusters. If you just go off and start relationships with a whole bunch of people that have no relationships with each other, then their sense of social obligation to you will be weak. But if you find out who the main people are that your LRP (or some other friend) relates to, and get her to introduce you to some of them, then you inherit a lot of the strength of their relationship with your LRP. If they aren’t nice to you, their best friend (that is, your LRP) may find out, right?
It may seem selfish to try to force people into being socially obligated to you. But it’s not—because you become obligated toward them at the same time. Remember the exchange theory? You enter into a system of rights and obligations which are shared by the members of the clusters you belong to.
Face it. You only have time for a finite number of relationships. While you are network building, you’ll be devoting a lot of time to visiting. You can’t visit everybody. So why not approach the task systematically? You visit your LRP’s best friend. Perhaps your LRP introduces you, or perhaps you just show up and you say, “Hi. You know Noju. She’s a good friend of mine.” (Noju is your LRP’s name, in case you forgot.) Presto! A second order relationship just became a first order relationship in your social network. Your LRP’s friend mentions that her own mother is in the hospital. Now you like to visit the sick. You could visit any old sick person. But can you see that it will strengthen your relationship with your LRP’s friend if you visit your LRP’s friend’s mother? If you are important to your LRP’s friend’s mother, then you are all the more important to your LRP’s friend. Try to become important to the people who are important to the other people who you are already becoming important to.
Given the fact that your LRP was a near ideal mediating person, it may be that she has less dense links to her own society (and more links to people outside of the society) than average. Thus, your first good cluster may be two or three steps removed from your original LRP. Eventually you would like to participate in clusters which are very deep in the society, where you are the only foreigner with whom the others in the cluster are linked. This is because people like your LRP may already have a fixed concept of “a foreigner” which is hard for you to overcome. The members of clusters which are deeply embedded in the society may have no fixed concept of the role of a foreigner, and thus it is more likely that they will simply include you as one of them. In that way you’ll become a true participant in the society, rather than a hybrid person on the fringe.
This concept of network building is simple enough, but if you don’t approach it systematically, you may well use up all your social time forming a very diffuse network of a whole bunch of people who have little or no significance to each other. Better to relate to the same number of people, but choose them strategically so that they form a dense network.
You can also work at making your network multiplex. That is, now that your LRP’s best friend is your friend, you have the relationship of friend with that person. It may also happen that she is your neighbor, which means that you stand in two relationships to her, friend and neighbor. Suppose you learn that she belongs to a knitting club. You might join it. Now you have the third relationship of fellow-club member. The point is, besides building your relationships around people who relate to each other, try to relate to some of those people in a variety of capacities. To some extent this follows automatically from spending a lot of time with people.
If you end up belonging to two or three clusters, with a variety of types of relationships in each one, then you have a close-knit network, which means that you are a true insider in the community. You’re a belonger. You’re extra important to people because you’re important to people who are important to them independently of you. Nobody’s going to take you for granted. Even people that aren’t in your first or second order zones will see that you’re a belonger and will feel more of a sense of responsibility to accept you and protect you than they otherwise might. And they’ll be more secure in their recognition that you accept them. I also think that you will find this approach to network building interesting and enjoyable. If you’re not very outgoing, you’ll probably find this to be a less traumatic approach to building relationships than certain alternatives such as just going out and knocking on doors and saying, “Hi. You don’t know me, but can I be your friend?”
We often think of the stress of culture traveling only in terms of what we experience as the culture travelers. You also cause stresses to the community you enter. The metaphor of jumping into the rapids breaks down here, because it is not just hard on the jumper. It is also unkind to the rapids. While you are learning your early language skills and social skills under the shelter and protection of your mediating person, not only do you have a chance to prepare for the community. You also give the community a chance to become aware of you and start getting prepared for your presence.
4. Coping with some less than ideal situations
Perhaps you would like to begin learning your new language by finding a bilingual mediating person who will later help you to systematically build a dense and multiplex network somewhere near the core of society, except for one small problem: you find that it is impossible.
4.1 Learning in a truly monolingual society
It may be that you have no choice but to jump in at the rapids. That is, you are unable to contact any bilingual mediating person and unable to remain on or near the fringe of the community while preparing both yourself and the community for your fuller participation in its life. You should still be able to apply many of the principles I have been describing, if you give it some thought. You will still expect that your first LRP(s) will be people who live nearer the edge of their society, or at least are temperamentally so disposed, being open-minded, outward-reaching individuals. You can also do a lot of comprehension learning, starting with the names of simple actions and objects and using photos or drawings. If you must be exposed to a whole community all at once, you might as well meet everybody. You’re probably less of a threat, and source of stress, if you are a known (albeit strange) quantity than if you are some mysterious figure lurking in the shadows. In such situations you need all the preparation you can get in terms of linguistic and anthropological training.
A word of warning is in order. I have seen people behave as though they faced such a situation when they really did not. Some people may believe that it is preferable to live in a monolingual immersion situation from day one. I have seen it done both ways, even by different people learning the same language. The person who worked for several weeks with a bilingual LRP on the fringe of the community and then moved into a monolingual setting had a dramatic advantage over the person who jumped right into the monolingual situation. Now there is a third possibility: you might remain in the bilingual, fringe situation forever and never move into the monolingual situation. That would be tragic indeed. If the only choice were between this tragic third possibility and the first possibility of immediate monolingual immersion, by all means, go for the immediate monolingual situation. But if you have the opportunity to start out with a bilingual LRP, and you have a definite strategy for moving into the monolingual community in due time, then you have the best possible situation, assuming you don’t get cold feet when the time comes to move into the monolingual community. If you make yourself accountable to someone, and take that accountability seriously, you will overcome those cold feet.
4.2 Learning in a totally bilingual society
Another difficult case is the one where there simply is no monolingual community available, period. You mawish to learn the language of a community that is totally, or at least largely, bilingual. Perhaps they are far more proficient in their first language than in the language which you share with them, but it will take you a long time to reach the point where you can communicate more comfortably with them in their first language than in their second language which may be, in the worst possible case, your mother tongue. In this case especially, you may appreciate the possibility of doing extensive comprehension learning (learning to comprehend a wide range of language related to a wide range of topics as used in a wide range of functions). Thomson (1992, 1993a, 1993b) contains some suggestions along these lines.
Once you know a thousand or so basic vocabulary items and are familiar with a range of basic constructions in the language, you will want to have specific times in which you behave monolingually with your LRP. Initially, this might involve a “monolingual hour” once or twice per week, and later it might involve a “monolingual week” once in awhile, and eventually, “a monolingual month”. Your LRP will have a much easier time being “monolingual” with you than anyone else, since she has the best possible feel for your current level of language ability, and can gear herself to it. It may be best to do your serious network building after you have reached the point where you can get along (by hook or by crook) entirely in the new language. It may be hard to change the language in which a relationship is conducted once the relationship is well established. Once you are functional in your early “broken” form of the new language, you can build perfectly fine relationships in it. This may make you uncomfortable at first. You may feel that you are making a fool of yourself conversing in the new language when you could be being your old familiar groovy self by speaking your stronger language (which may even be your mother tongue), since they speak your stronger language better than you can even dream of speaking their language at this point. You may have a strong feeling that you are not putting communication first when you struggle to communicate in a language you hardly know rather than easily expressing yourself in a language you both know well. What you need to bear in mind in this situation is that learning a new language means becoming a new “you”. The “you” that speaks broken Navajo may be the only you that most of your Navajo friends will ever meet. That does not make you any less of a genuine person. But becoming someone you have never been before may make you awfully uncomfortable! How badly do you want to learn this language?
4.3 Language Learning when there is limited access to the society
The third less-than-ideal case I want to address is the one where you must learn the new language at a great distance from the homeland of that language. Suppose your LRP and you live thousands of miles from any significant segment of the language community. If you are serious about learning the language, you will want to plan forays into the homeland. Now the matter of timing becomes crucial. Suppose that in terms of time and finances you can only afford a three month foray into the homeland of the language you are learning. Later on you hope to make additional forays, but the future is not at all clear in that regard. Want to waste most of the potential benefit of those three months? Then why don’t you just go on over there before you’ve even learned the first bit of the language. That way you can spend a good part of your three months grunting and pointing and writing things down in your little notebook. Want to get a lot of benefit out of those same three months? Then before going, make a point of learning to use a couple thousand vocabulary items, both as a comprehender and as a producer of sentences. And perhaps you can learn to communicate (by means of role-play with your LRP) in a wide range of communication situations before you make the trip. In other words, by working with your LRP to develop basic communication skills—i.e., the ability to understand and produce sentences you have never heard before—you can prepare yourself for three months of meaningful communication, during which you can get to know a lot of people and participate in the culture first hand with a lot of understanding.
The point is, you can develop a lot of real communication ability before you go, as long as you have at least one person to communicate with in your cozy little speech community of two people. Don’t spend your preparation time mainly reading about the language if you can be learning to use it. And learn about the culture in the language, as you are learning the language, rather than just reading about it in some other language (like English). When you arrive in that distant homeland, do you want to arrive as someone who knows a lot about the language, or do you want to arrive as a communicator (albeit a broken communicator)? So get busy using the language with your LRP. Then when you arrive on the scene you’ll be in a position to wring the maximum benefit out of the few weeks in terms of improving your fluency and experiencing the culture.
Besides poor timing, another easy error to make is to spend your time in the homeland of your new language doing things that you could do as well or better in your own homeland. This is not the time to start writing a book, for instance, or to write technical papers about the language or culture (or anything else). It is not even the time to start constructing a fancy dictionary of the language you are learning. If you are a linguist, this is not the time to start typing texts into your computer and interlinearizing them. (If you’re not a linguist, forget I said that). You have a few precious weeks to experience the language and culture in its proper setting. Don’t get sidetracked. There will be plenty of time later for those other worthwhile projects.
In any of these less-than-ideal situations you can apply the principles of network-building, starting with whatever contacts you have or are able to make and attempting to work out from there. You meet Joe. You learn that Joe has a friend named Bob. Just being able to tell Bob, “I know your friend Joe” is enough to validate you and give you an entrance into Bob’s life. At the same time, entering Bob’s life strengthens your relationship with Joe. Then you work outward from Bob and Joe, or any other starting points you might have. Don’t be afraid to get new, independent contacts as new starting points. But don’t spend all your time pursuing new, independent relationships, or you will end up with a diffuse network, rather than ending up as a belonger in the new society.
5. My network is growing and strengthening—now what?
Getting back to your social network, recall that what you are doing is becoming part of a speech community. You need to keep in mind both the community part, and the speech part. In Thomson (1993b), I point out that getting to know the people whose language you are learning, including learning their deep seated feelings of what constitutes right and wrong behaviour, is actually a central part of learning the language.
5.1. Bootstrapping your way to good behaviour
In a way, learning to behave in your new community is like lifting yourself by your own bootstraps. The bull needs to follow the rules of the china shop community, but can only learn the rules by first being a part of the community! Poor china shop!
Think about what it means to participate in a community. It means that, to a reasonable extent, you operate according to the unwritten contract that defines membership in that community. You and others in your community share many values and assumptions. For example, you may all share assumptions about which side of the road people will drive on. Someone who follows different assumptions regarding where to drive cannot be considered to be a smoothly functioning participant in the community. There are countless assumptions of less obvious sorts which are shared, usually at a subconscious level, by members of the community. These assumptions form therules of the game for participation in the social life of the community. The language of the community is a special case of these shared rules. Not only are there rules related to how to form different types of phrases and sentences; there are rules about how and when to use particular types of sentences. In my current community, for example, I can make a statement such as “I’ll visit you on Tuesday evening.” In some communities such a blunt prediction of the future may be a violation of the rules, especially if I am talking about the distant future, as in, “Next year, I will build a new house.”
How do you learn the thousands of rules of the game which make you a participant in the new community? That is where your bootstraps come in. You can only learn the rules through extensive participation. But to participate you are supposed to follow the rules. Fortunately, in most cases, this isn’t as difficult as it sounds. When you started participating in your first culture as a baby, no one expected you to behave like an adult from the outset. Early on you learned to get by with some bare bones, like “please” and “thank-you”. You’d probably be surprised at how little you actually say “please” and “thank-you” now. In place of “thank-you” as we noted earlier, you have numerous expressions of gratitude: “You shouldn’t have!”; “How nice of you!”; etc. The use of these different politeness formulas is finely tuned to factors such as who you are talking to, their status in relation to yours, the nature of the act of kindness, and so on.
The rules of social interaction, like the rules of grammar, go far beyond what you or anyone else can hope to consciously analyze and understand. For the most part you will simply absorb the rules through extensive participation in the community. To the extent that you can make conscious discoveries of the rules, you will benefit from doing so. The same applies to reading (with a measure of caution) about the rules, especially in the works of anthropologists, sociolinguists and intercultural communication experts. That may help you to get your initial bare bones, and then some. Learning several formulas for making polite requests, for example, will help you to demonstrate to people that you really do intend to be a properly behaved participant in community life.
But like a new child, you won’t start out acting like an adult member of the community. You’ll start out acting like a foreign weirdo. A basic rule of culture learning is that you will never be present in a new culture as a normal person unless you are first willing to be present as a weirdo. Weirdness is the only path to normalcy. But you do want to minimize the damage. Minimizing the damage was part of the reason you started learning in the sheltered context of private language sessions with your LRP. You have now developed some communication skills. People can now talk to you with some hope of being understood, at least if they work at it. In addition you know various ways to signal that you do indeed intend to be friendly and polite. But you have a long way to go to reach the point where you seldom or never act weird.
5.2. Systematic language learning in your new speech community
You’ll want to continue formal language sessions even while you are branching out in your social life. In addition, you will be able to use some of your social visiting as a means of formally or semiformally working on language and culture learning. However, much of your visiting and participating in daily life should be just that. So then, as you are enriching your social life, you have a three-fold language learning strategy: 1) learning more in formal sessions with your LRP; 2) getting specific help from friends in the context of social visiting; 3) learning through social visiting and otherwise participating in community life.
How do you decide what to learn with your LRP as you keep progressing? First, you will want to put a lot of thought into your specific communicative needs. Second, you will want to continue working on your general communicative ability. 2
5.2.1. What should I learn next?
Get a pencil and paper. Think of all the communicative needs you have experienced in recent weeks. In what situations have you needed to be able to comprehend the language? In what situations have you needed to speak the language? What topics have you needed to understand? You may find that you have listed things like “dealing with requests for bribes; explaining my reason for being here; listening to political speeches”, and so forth. Brainstorm with fellow language learners if possible. Make your list of communication needs as long as you can. Now, having listed your past needs, see if there are any additional communication needs that are currently coming up. Finally, add any needs to the list which you see arising in the intermediate or distant future. Once you’ve made an extensive list of your own past, present, and future communication needs, make a note for each need as to how serious a need it is in your life at this time. Some needs may not be all that serious, strictly speaking, but they may nevertheless be important to you personally. So for each need, make a second note as to how important it is to you personally. Finally, for each communication need in your list, make a note as to how much communication ability you have already developed in that area. For any area that constitutes a pressing need, or a strong personal desire, and where your current ability is clearly limited, you then design a plan of attack, which may involve activities in your sessions with your LRP, or during social visits, or in other contexts. (This basic approach to needs analysis is found in Dickinson, 1987.)
For example, suppose one of your needs is to read the newspaper in the new language. As you reflect on it, you feel it is not a really pressing need. That is, nothing in your life or work requires that you read the newspaper. At the same time, it is something that is important to you personally, for whatever reasons. You note that at the present time you have very little ability in this area. For your plan of attack you decide that for the next little while you and your LRP will use part of each language session to read the newspaper together. You find that quite a bit of vocabulary is specific to newspaper language, and so you work at using this vocabulary with your LRP in discussing the articles you read. In addition, while visiting socially, you plan to take a few minutes to discuss certain news items with various friends. Finally, you spend time in the evenings reading the newspaper on your own. Of course, this is a hypothetical example. You may never need or wish to read the newspaper in the language you are learning, particularly if there are no newspapers. The point is, identify your needs, plan your attack, and carry it out.
Your communicative needs may relate to situations in which you need to communicate: funerals, feasts, meeting a stranger on the path. Or they may relate to topics that you need to be able to comprehend and talk about: farming, hunting, trips to the city. As you redo your needs analysis once in awhile, you will discover that you have developed some ability in certain areas, but are feeling increased need in other areas. This will help to guide your ongoing language learning activities.
5.2.2. Carrying the language sessions into real-life encounters
Whatever you learn with your LRP, you now reinforce in your social visiting. Suppose you are learning to talk about farming, or perhaps some small aspect of one type of farming. You have taken appropriate photos and discussed these in detail with your LRP. You now go on social visits planning to reinforce what you have learned. It will not be good to give the impression that this is all you have come for. Remember the exchange theory. You are building relationships. As you give of your time in normal social visiting, there will be intangible benefits to the people you visit. The very interest you show in people’s lives and needs can be one of these intangible benefits to them. You may also provide tangible benefits. Atthe same time, you will make it clear that you are receiving benefits from them whenever they help you to learn more of the language and culture, and during most visits you devote some time to this. This might mean getting out those farming photos and discussing the things you have just learned to discuss with your LRP. As you become really thick with people and incur lots of obligations, you should be more daring in getting help with your language learning from your friends. For example, you might find two of your friends together and clip a lapel microphone on each of them, attached to your pocket stereo recorder, and get them to discuss the pictures. You can make a game of it, for example, where one person “thinks of a picture” and the other tries to guess which one. In this way you can expand your collection of tape recorded conversations which you can listen to privately to reinforce what you are learning. The point is, be a friend. Give a lot. Get a lot (including a lot of help with language and culture learning).
5.2.3. Learning to communicate in general
In addition to working on the specific areas where you know you have special communicative needs, you must also be concerned with your general communicative ability. When I have helped language learners do needs analyses in the manner described above, I have commonly found that people express a certain need which they variously verbalize: ability to chit chat; ability to make small talk; ability to participate in general conversations; ability to socialize with neighbors. This doesn’t exactly qualify as a “specific” need. How do you learn to talk with people in general on any of the topics that people generally talk about? That would appear to mean being able to talk about “all of life”. How do you get on with learning to talk about “all of life”?
To some extent, you develop this ability through thousands of hours of being with people who are talking about whatever things people talk about, assuming you can understand them if you try hard enough. For a long time, once you can understand people at all, you can only understand when they make a special effort to include you in the conversation. Remember, it costs other people something for you to learn their language. As time goes on, less and less effort will be required for people to include you in conversation. Eventually you will be able to readily follow many conversations which you merely happen to overhear. Extensive exposure to people’s ordinary conversations is essential if you are to become an ordinary conversationalist. To the extent that you can tape record people’s speech for repeated listening you can accelerate your learning significantly since you can spend many hours listening to the tapes when you are not able to be listening to people, and some tapes will become increasingly intelligible to you on each hearing.
There are also more specific strategies for improving your ability to deal with “all of life”. Much of people’s ease in communication derives from the fact that they share a huge bank of common knowledge and experience which is specific to members of that community. You need to accelerate your acquisition of that knowledge bank. This means going beyond your specific (and narrow) communicative needs as discussed above and doing a survey of general areas of knowledge in the community. What geographical knowledge do people have? What knowledge do they share regarding the organization of people into groups and the relationships between people? What religious beliefs are widely shared? What are the major events in a day, week, year, and lifetime? What occupational or recreational skills are generally known to members of the community? There will also be areas of specialized knowledge. For instance, motor-rickshaw drivers have a body of shared knowledge that may not be important to me unless I wish to hang around with rickshaw drivers. By contrast, everybody may share a more restricted body of knowledge regarding the use of rickshaws.
5.2.4. Systematically expanding your cultural knowledge
One helpful concept in tackling the general knowledge bank is the social situation, as described in Spradley (1980). A social situation consists of a place, the actors who act in that place, and the activities those actors perform in that place. An example is boarding a rickshaw. The place is in a street, at a rickshaw. The actors are the driver and the (potential) passengers. The activities include the driver and passenger establishing contact, the approach, the driver stopping the motor (if it’s going), the statement of the desired destination, the driver’s indication of willingness to go to that destination, the negotiation of the fare, the invitation to board, the actual boarding, etc. If you take a tour around your community you should be able to identify scores of social situations which you can then learn to discuss.
Spradley (1979) nicely complements Spradley (1980). I consider these two books to be among the most helpful for intermediate and advanced language learners. Spradley (1979) describes the types of questions which you can ask of your LRP or friends which will generate a lot of discussion of cultural knowledge. For example, in asking a grand tour question of the rickshaw driver, I asked him to tell me everything he did in a typical day. Then I asked him to tell me everything he could remember having done on a recent day. Many of the events he referred to formed the basis of further questions. Some of these were mini-tour questions, such as “What are all the steps in starting the rickshaw?”
I suggested before that this brought out the specialized knowledge of rickshaw drivers, rather than general knowledge shared by all members of the community. In fact, however, I did acquire considerable general knowledge. For example, I learned why some drivers refused to give me a ride, which I’m sure everyone else already knew. In addition, I found that much of what I learned carried over from rickshaws to a variety of other modes of public transportation (horse drawn tongas, minitaxis, Suzuki pick-ups, taxis, vans, and three kinds of busses). Suddenly I could make intelligent small talk with Suzuki drivers. My new share in the local knowledge bank was paying off in my general conversational ability.
5.2.5. Focusing on social skills
A special group of social situations are the ones which you find particularly stressful or anxiety-provoking. This may include situations in which you have gotten into conflicts, or experienced unpleasant friction on one or more occasions, or situations in which you have felt especially awkward or embarrassed. Furnham and Bochner (1986) trace the experience of culture-shock to such situations. They suggest that culture-stress or culture-shock results from the fact that the culture traveler is lacking in specific social skills. Working with your LRP or friends, you can go over such situations in detail. A useful technique is to have two friends role-play that they are in the situation that causes you stress. Tape-record (or video-record) them. Listen to the tape a number of times. Then do the role-play yourself with your LRP or a friend. We have moved back into the area of more specific communicative needs, but in the context of discussing social situations, it is important that we highlight this special variety.
5.2.6. Focusing on language functions
Another aspect of general communicative ability is the ability to use language for a variety of functions. Moran (1990) includes the following examples of language functions: greetings, leave takings, interrupting, apologizing, answering the door, begging, refusing, declining an offer, offering help, requesting help, consoling, thanking, warning, making an introduction, responding to an introduction, asking directions, complimenting, expressing condolences, extending an invitation, expressing distaste, answering the telephone, expressing delight, expressing displeasure, congratulating, expressing pain, expressing fear, requesting permission, getting someone’s attention, asking for repetition, expressing ignorance, encouraging, accusing, seeking reas, expressing fear, remembering, welcoming, asking about health, requesting permission to speak, reprimanding, expressing disappointment, expressing affection, calming someone down. (For these and other language functions Moran presents comic style story strips with the speech bubbles empty so that they can be used for any language.)
5.2.7. Avoiding fossilization
A final important aspect of your general communicative ability has to do with your language ability in the narrowest sense. How’s your Chukchee? Think of people who have learned your native language as adults. Let’s say that is English. There is a general impression that new speakers of English speak “broken English”. What is the opposite of broken English? I want to say that the opposite of broken English is “fluent English”. Ideally, a new speaker should start out speaking broken English and end up speaking fluent English. Unfortunately, there is a third possibility. Many adult learners of English will end up speaking what we might call “fluent broken English”. That is, native speakers of English can generally understand them without difficulty, and they themselves can rattle on in their limited English a mile a minute. In technical terms, such people have fossilized. They have become very fluent in using very limited resources. You can fossilize in your new language if you wish. All you have to do is learn a few hundred of the most frequent vocabulary items and a few dozen basic sentence patterns. You can then develop a special genius for using those limited resources to communicate almost any conceivable meaning. You find roundabout ways to express most meanings, and simply avoid talking about other things, or get people to help you when you get stuck. (These are examples of communication strategies; see Bialystok, 1990.) Since you’re using so few words and even fewer sentence patterns, you use them zillions of times, and thus become very “fluent” in your use of them. You really can speak quickly. Since I don’t know the language at all, I’ll conclude from listening to you that you are very fluent indeed. Native speakers will know otherwise, though they may claim that you speak their language better than they do. People are so kind.
The alternative to fossilizing is to become truly fluent in the best sense of the word. If you are pressing on, learning to talk about all of life, and more importantly, learning to understand most of what is said around you in most situations (assuming you are in a lot of speech situations), you have not yet fossilized. But one special area of concern is learning to speak the language accurately. Early on, it is hard enough to speak the language at all, without worrying too much about speaking it perfectly. It is widely believed by experts that it would be counterproductive at that stage if all of your friends tried to correct or improve upon everything you try to say. It would be discouraging, if not debilitating. You need the rewarding feeling of successful communication experiences to keep your morale and motivation up. So in many situations it is best to concern yourself with what you want to say rather than to get hung up on exactly how you are saying it. But then, how are you going to learn where your mistakes are and overcome them?
For this I have two suggestions. One useful technique is to record your own speech from time to time. For example, you may tell a story to your LRP. Your LRP listens politely and interacts normally. All of this is captured on tape. Then you go over the tape with your LRP and she points out places where your speech could be improved. This could involve pronunciation or grammar or vocabulary. I find it helpful to write out each instance, placing what I said in one column, and the LRP’s corrected version in another column. The other approach to improving your accuracy in grammar and vocabulary is to work on writing, that is on composition. The things that you write sit there forever and stare you in the face. Your LRP can point out errors or suggest improvements. You can keep a log of these errors and suggestions. As you keep at it, your writing will become more and more accurate with respect to grammar and usage.
5.3. But it sounds so hard.
As I have been describing your language learning activities, I have been envisioning you as a deliberate, reflective language learner. Now alternatively, you can just barrel on into the community and let whatever happens happenand live with the results. It should be clear that you are much better off if your life as a language learner is governed by frequent planning, evaluation and strategizing. In closing, I would like to highlight some key aspects of this deliberate, reflective approach to becoming part of a new speech community, including learning its language.
5.3.1 Your time commitment
First of all, it may have sounded as though I thought you had nothing to do but learn the language. Good. That’s how it should have sounded. “Help!” you exclaim. The world doesn’t work like that. If not, then do the best you can. In the ideal situation you would spend two full years concerning yourself with nothing except becoming a member of that new speech community. That may be possible if you’re planning a long career in that location, and being fluent in the language and comfortable in the culture are essential to your career. But if you only plan to be in the situation for five years, it may be difficult to spend two years doing language and culture learning. A second ideal to fall back to is to use the first one fifth of your projected time in the situation for language and culture learning. Your increased effectiveness and happiness during the remaining four fifths of your time will more than repay the initial time investment. The 1/5 : 4/5 rule would seem to me to be valid whether your total stay is going to be for five years (one year of full-time language and culture learning), for two years (five months full time), for one year (ten weeks full time) or for a month (one week full time language learning at the outset). Of course, if you only plan to be there one month, and have only a week for full-time language learning, you won’t be trying to rapidly develop comprehension ability for a thousand words! More likely, you’ll mainly memorize a bunch of useful sentences and some of the most essential vocabulary. If you have two or three months for full-time language learning, you can proceed pretty much as I have suggested. If you are really serious, your full-time language learning will be followed by regular part time language learning.
5.3.2 When to start
It is extremely important that your concentrated language learning period begin as early as possible during your sojourn. The longer you wait, the more you find ways to function without using the new language and the more you become comfortable as a nonspeaker. It takes tremendous motivation and enthusiasm to conquer a new language. Once you are starting to become comfortable in the new context without the language, your motivation may no longer be strong enough to carry you through to successful language learning. And after culture-stress has had several months to wear you down, your enthusiasm will become hard to muster. When you first arrive in the situation you are on a language learning adrenaline high. Cash in on it. Let the momentum from your early energy carry you as far as possible. This is your best chance. Things will only get worse. Go for it.
Keep in mind that when I say “full-time language and culture learning”, I am including your network building and extensive social visiting and other participation in the culture as part of what fills the full time. Socializing is not something in addition to your work. It is a crucial part of your work.
5.3.3 Staying encouraged
Now even if you do have several months available for full-time language and culture learning, you may find it hard to imagine yourself exercising the self-discipline to carefully plan all of your language sessions, and regularly do your needs analysis, and come up with new plans of attack for new needs, and carefully build your social network, and iyour learning into your social visiting. You may even cringe at the idea of doing a lot of socializing (or maybe at the idea of doing a lot of planning). How will you ever pull all that off? If you think you are going to go it alone, you may well lose heart fairly quickly. You need encouragement and accountability. You can arrange this with a fellow language learner who shares some of the basic concepts you are employing. Better yet, you could arrange to make yourself accountable to someone who specializes in encouraging language learners. You will share your plans and goals with this person and get feedback. Your goals will be specific ones, such as “This month I am going to start spending time with these three people, so that I will have a second clear cluster of relationships in my social network.” Then you will report on the steps you took to achieve this goal.
5.3.4 Don’t get stuck on your way to first base
Commonly, the recruitment of the initial LRP can be a big hurdle. If the right person does not easily emerge (or if no person easily emerges), you may need to begin by doing a bit of network building and creating some initial sense of mutual obligations with a number of people. I personally find a lot of internal resistance to doing all I should to recruit the necessary help that I need, and I have observed this same problem in many others. This is another area where specific accountability and even outside intervention can be crucial. Oddly, I would love to recruit the necessary help for you. I only hate recruiting help for myself. I know I am not alone in this.
Believe me, if you have the right help and encouragement and apply yourself to regular planning, you’ll find it isn’t as hard as you might think. Once you get good at it, you may never want to do anything else, which would raise other problems. Learning a language is exciting. When you are first exposed to the new language, it is like a movie that is so out of focus that it is a meaningless gray blur. As you keep learning, it is as though someone is turning the lens, and the pictures start to appear and be recognizable, until you are able to follow everything going on in the movie. It really is fun. You just can’t do it by yourself. You don’t just learn a language. You become part of a human social organism for which the language is the life blood, and then you live as part of that social organism by means of that language.
I’ve urged that you let a segment of your old community launch you into your new community and become part of the new community in a sane and gentle manner. You are gently pushed and gently pulled, and you do your part as well. There is no such thing as lonely language learning. Language learning starts with community and ends with community. Each language and culture is a marvelous expression of humanity, another facet of the same jewel. It is an awesome privilege to be able to express one’s humanity in new ways. Culture travelers, especially long-term sojourners who learn new languages, are a privileged lot. If you have the opportunity, make the most of it.
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