Thoughts on Phase 4

Thoughts on Phase 4 (aka Greg Writes re: Phase 4)

(Deep Life Sharing) part 1

I’ve just started trying to write a new handbook to Phase 3, and look forward to an eventual one on Phase 4. But since that is some way off, I thought I would do a bit of thinking out loud right now.

Originally, we simply thought of Phase 4 as the phase of ethnographic interviewing a la James Spradley’s book The Ethnographic Interview. That goes back to the days of a four stage programme that I used to teach before the current Six Phase Programme took shape. I know of one team in West Africa who took me up on my suggestion, and made the steps in Spradley’s book to be the main design of their advanced language learning, which went on for many months. They really did all twelve steps in the process, and considered it extremely useful for advanced language learning. It’s a simple solution, as Spradley does offer a complete system that is easy to learn and follow.

We now have Phase 4 much more naturally integrated into a more continuous picture of sociocultural and cognitive growth that goes on around and within the growing participator. In the older, four-stage approach, learning “the culture” was presented as a key principle for all four stages. However, I felt it could really start to take off at the point when one is able to talk in depth with host people about their life, in their language. And I still think that! Before we reach such a level of ability, whenever we think and talk about what we think is “the host culture,” we are really just making up “they stories”: using the concepts of our own culture to describe what we are seeing among host people. For more thoughts on “culture learning” in the early Phases, see my June, August and September messages on not separating the langua from culture in languaculture. That’s an ongoing theme, and your thoughts are always welcome.

I have long resisted talking about “language and culture learning” rather than simply “language learning”. It seems to me that people who feel the need to add the words “and culture” after “language” just don’t know what language is! More recently, I have found the idea of languaculture appealing, not because my understanding of language has become that much more cultural than it already was, but because my understanding of culture became more language-like—not in the sense you are probably thinking, but in the sense that we experience and live life as a story (and/or as an ongoing conversation). The objects and actions of one’s life flow along as a “discourse” partly spoken and partly not spoken, in a continuous single flow. Still, if we remove the TALKING part of life, and its impact on all the rest, removing it from history, from societies, and from individual lives, not much is left of what gives life all it’s enormous meaning. Learning culture is learning to participate in the discourses of life, spoken and otherwise acted out. And that is a tall order.

Well, becoming a participant in host discourses can’t even get off the ground without the sort of building blocks that go into discourse making, and so our basic story-understanding ability (Phases 1 to 3) and abstract explanation-understanding ability (Phase 3) are urgently needed if we are to start participating in those host discourses as early as possible. Also by Phase 4, growing participtors will have experienced enough of life in the host world (using local services, etc.) to have some shared background to build on, and much of this will have been discussed already somewhat in Phase 3. (It’s not that it is truly shared experience, because there can only be truly shared experience to the extent that we share the same languacultural system of creating experiences. But at least, in all we’ve experienced of the host world, there is a growing basis for developing those shared understandings with host people.)

Sometimes people who don’t understand the word “sociocultural” in the Vygotskyan sense protest that Phase 1 is not “sociocultural”. They say, “If this were a sociocultural approach in Phase 1, the nurturer would spend a lot of time teaching us about the society and culture, and that isn’t happening.” Now of course that teaching would have to be in English (or another common language). The parts of the session done in English are what they would consider the sociocultural parts! (In the Vygotskyan sense, Phase 1 is sociocultural in that a host nurturer is meeting us in our ZPD, and taking the first steps of nurturing or apprenticing us into her world.)

Phase 4, then, Deep Life Sharing, is the phase at which we can start moving truly deeply into the host languaculture. Before that, we’re just edging into it little by little. It’s GROWING participation, after all. I say all of this as a lead in. It is reinforcing what I wrote in September. We mean Phase 4 not to be a quantum change in our “culture learning” but simply the next natural steps in a steady, continuous process of growing participation. Let’s keep working on making that the case. In a future bulletin (hopefully not too far into the future), I’ll talk more about the activities of Phase 4 as such.

Thoughts on Phase 4 (continued)

I’ve just about got a good first draft of the new “Guide to Phase 3”. And so I’m thinking more and more about Phase 4. It is the rewarding Phase where growing participation starts to bud and blossom. It’s a great phase. It ought to be, as it took 500 hours of supercharged participation activities to get there. (Some research has shown that many people have unrealistically short expectations about how long it takes to learn a language well.)

We’ve chosen to emphasise ethnographic methods in this phase, or I should say, ethnography-like activities, among other things. We find that anthropologists have learned a lot that can help to condition growing participators for healthy growth. However—and this is a key point—we do not intend for growing participators to all be “little anthropologists”.

Anthropologists, like workers, have often sought to live among other people groups than their own, and to build close relationships of the sort that workers also wish to build. This distinguishes anthropologists and workers from most people in many other common cross-cultural roles, such as merchants, bureaucrats, health workers, etc. who relate “cross-culturally” or “inter-culturally,” but may not cross over into the other world so deeply. Anthropologists have put enormous effort into trying to achieve insightful understandings of other peoples. So I think it makes sense to think that some of their ways of doing things will be useful to us.

Anthropologists have talked about gaining the “insider’s perspective”. However, anthropologist Clifford Geertz made a strong point that that is not really what they are doing. Rather, they are trying to get as close to host people’s experience as they can, but then mainly understand it by analysing it (or by analysing the “symbols” that people live by) from the standpoint of outsiders. By contrast, I would say that growing participators, unlike anthropologists, are indeed seeking to grow into the insider’s perspective as far as they can. That really distinguishes them from anthropologists, and if to the extent they succeed, will have no hope of adequately explaining it to others.

Now if all growing participators were to be actual anthropologists they would try to get close to host people’s experience by analysing the symbols they live by, and they would also work within some particular theory or other of anthropology. That is exactly what students did in the programme described in the book Language Learners as Ethnographers by Michael Byram at el. Chapter 3 is about choosing from the available theories the one that you want to work within. Then, according to Wolcott in his book Ethnography: A Way of Seeing, a truly anthropological approach would be holistic (understanding each part of a culture within a sophisticated and technical understanding of the framework of a whole), it would be cross-cultural (done by outsiders to the group being studied, so that the see things that insiders miss because of their familiarity) and it would be comparative (coming back to the big picture of what commonalities and variation among cultures tell us about the nature of humankind). In those terms, growing participation is cross-cultural and does aim to be holistic (though not in a technically sophisticated way), but is not necessarily concerned with being comparative. If growing participators were anthropologists, their learning of the host world would also be focused on some topic or issue, and although it would begin with some broad data-gathering, this would then lead to a focusing in on some narrow area about which to form and evaluate hypothesis so that the research will have an impact on the level of theory and possibly on some practical problem the group is facing. In addition, the write-up of the research will play an enormous role for the anthropologist (or language learner as true ethnographer) in the discovery and analysis process. Growing participators, by contrast, have a very broad interest in understanding the host world, and so will keep pushing for breadth more than depth, for the most part, though some may choose a narrower focus as well.

Now I wish SOME of us were actual anthropologists doing anthropology! One LLAW alumnus has a Ph.D. in Anthropology. I don’t recall whether any others of us have majored in anthropology at the B.A. or M.A. level, but the number can’t be large. So we need more anthropologists to help us develop a better understanding of growing participation, but we don’t need them to make us into anthropologists! However doing some of what anthropologists do will, I believe, serve us well. By the way, if you have a lot of background in anthropology, I’d like to hear about it.

If you’ve never had a full university course in anthropology, or the equivalent in personal study, then I recommend that as an LLA you consider doing some basic reading in this area. You could start with a standard introduction to cultural anthropology and then read a book on ethnographic methods.

Here are some of the features of ethnographic work that I believe should be helpful for all growing participators:

1) Starting with as few assumptions as possible about what you are going to find, and being sensitised the assumptions that you do hold.

2) Taking in as much detail as you can—being a radical, highly detailed observer. 3) Recognising that you cannot make “naked” observations, but are always already interpreting what you see in the very act of observing.

4) Talking with host people extensively in an attempt to replace YOUR interpretation of what you see with THEIR interpretation of it.

5) Becoming increasingly sensitised to noticing specific role your own cultural background, attitudes, etc. is playing in your interpretation of your experiences (this is called “reflexivity”), developing a new ability to examine your own culture “from a distance” because of your participation in the other culture. Always attempting to remain sensitive to the human dynamics going on between you and host people, and place a high value on those relationships.

6) Desiring to see positive benefits for the host people as a result of what you are learning.


Classical anthropology provided us with a much richer set of expectations regarding how radically cultural worlds can differ in ways we never would have imagined. But then that rich, technical picture of cultures of the world found in classical anthropology can also get in the way of purer understanding, and so ethnoscience, represented in Spradley’s Ethnographic Interview and Participant Observation, taught anthropologists to try hard to set aside that technical picture of culture in an effort to know the world more as host people know it. So the level of awareness that comes to us from classical anthropology, and the interest in the insider’s perspective from the ethnoscience approach can help us to be better at learning much of what growing participators need to be learning.

In our LLAWs though, we do little justice to anthropology. But then we do little justice to linguistics, either. We hope that the LLAW leadership will be able to draw a certain amount from anthropology, and use it to help LLAs help growing participators. That is the spirit in which I try to approach Phase 4 in particular. I’d also like it to influence Phases 1 through 3 much more than it does so far (and in fact we continue to work on that). We need to keep coming back to what that means. For now, though, I want to think about a Phase 4 that is helpfully influenced by anthropology, but still very different from DOING anthropology. The influence of ethnographic methods can take off in a big way in Phase 4, because it is the first point at which growing participators are able to understand explanations on a large scale. We can make all kinds of observations earlier, but remember that there are no “naked” observations—only observations that are heavily interpreted right as they are being made. We can’t really fix that problem on any real scale until Phase 4. Just having someone from the host group talk about their culture to us in our home language is likely to be misleading, as they will be working hard at “image management” for the sake of relations between their group and yours. In any case, it wouldn’t take us any distance at all into understanding of the sort that growing participators should be concerned about.

It is recommended that 500 hours be devoted to supercharged growing participation in Phase 4. Now I’ve never been able to do the whole, idealised 1,500 hour programme straight through from start to finish myself, though I’ve done all the different parts of it in different languacultures to a reasonable extent. With Kazakh, we did about a hundred and fifty hours of “life history” interviewing. In Urdu, we did a lot of Spradley-style ethnographic interviewing. In both cases, I never reached the point where the horizons for “what to investigate next” started shrinking. They just expand and expand, so that 500 hours seems like quite a small (and arbitrary) amount of time for these activities, if a growing participator happens to be blessed with the freedom to be a “full time language learner” for a year or two. The question is, can we make it possible for all of our co-workers to get the hang of carrying out these activities to the extent that they too will see ever expanding horizons drawing them on to every richer and enjoyable learning of host life. Right now, I think some people may try, but report, “I’m running out of things to talk about.” With better training, that could never happen.

The next time I address this topic I’ll reflect more on the specific Phase 4 activities. But keep in mind that although we try to learn from ethnographers some ways to supercharge our growing participation, we don’t generally try to BE ethnographers.

Here’s a note from a LLA in SEAsia:

Hi, I’ve been meaning to tell LLAs in Thailand and others in regions about these lovely newly wordless books with Thailand illustrations.

A family friend who is an artist is a personal friend of the artist, Holly Meade, and she introduced me to these beautiful books:

Hush! A Thai Lullaby (Paperback)
by Minfong Ho, Holly Meade (Illustrator) web link:
(this one has a “look inside” function so you can view some of the pages on Amazon)

Peek!: A Thai Hide-and-Seek (Hardcover)
by Minfong Ho, Holly Meade (Illustrator) web link:


Phase 4 brass tacks

Let’s go on with thoughts about Phase 4. Now with all that comes to mind, I realise that we need to write the guide to Phase 4! In this message, I can just touch on these things, but I hope it will be of some benefit.

Phase 4 represents quite a change in the style of supercharged participation activities. The overwhelming activity at this point will be interviewing, and massaging the recorded interviews. Anthropologists call the person who is interviewed an “informant”. (I wonder if they ever massage their recordings with their informants). I’m a bit uncomfortable with the term “informant” for our purposes, but can’t think of another one, so I’ll use it for now.

An ethnographic researcher is concerned to find those host people who are naturally good informants. Not everyone is. Good ones pour forth speech. Ones who aren’t so good don’t have much to say. Good ones find it easy to reflect on their culture, and find that enjoyable. Not-so-good ones can’t see what there is to talk about. It may be that the person who has been a GP’s nurturer in Phase 3 will be an adequate informant when that GP is just starting Phase 4, but Phase 4 is also a chance to branch out, talk to a lot of people, find some who really enjoy the role, and who are naturally good at it, and then spend a lot of time with them. Those relationships will also tend to go especially deep on a personal level.

Now let’s talk about the Phase 4 activities. I feel that every LLA should read Spradley’s book, The Ethnographic Interview. (So that’s a second reading assignment, in addition to reading an introductory anthropology text.) It is too bad that it is so expensive (over sixty dollars). There are a lot of books on ethnographic methods. For those who really want to do ethnography, not just use ethnography-like activities to supercharge their growing participation, we can think about some of those other resources at some point. But I’ve looked through a lot of things, from the slim book, Field Projects in Anthropology, by Crane and Angrosino to the seven-volumne boxed set Ethnographer’s Toolkit, edited by Schensul and LeCompte. I still haven’t found anything that is as rich and at the same time practical and easy to follow as Spradley’s book. Others may disagree.

A basic principle is that we don’t bring our own list of topics to explore. Classical anthropologists did that. There was a book for example, Notes and Queries on Anthropology that provided lots of questions to ask in any culture. And there was Murdock’s Outline of Cultural Materials—a long checklist of topics to discuss. We, by contrast, want to explore the topics that the host world presents to us. We are discovering another world that can only be truly known from the inside. The topics we discuss grow out of our interviews, and provide topics for more interviews. They also grow out of our experiences in the host community.

Here are some examples of sources of topics that a GP might explore:

1) Have People Tell You the Story of Their Lives

These are full of topics to explore, and they are all topics that our host friend has considered worthy of mention, or at least alluded to, hinted at, or assumed we already knew. After recording the initial life story, you ask the person to expand on each bit that they told about, and to fill in parts they have obviously left out. You can also ask what Spradley calls experience questions: “Tell me about some of the most interesting experiences in your life?” “Have you ever been in great danger?” “Tell me of a time when you were especially happy (or sad)”. But we find that such examples are brought out anyway, as we keep getting people to expand their life stories. I find that this approach provides an endless stream of topics that can be explored, and those topics bring up additional topics. However, the riches that pour forth may depend on how natural an informant the particular host person is.

2) Ask for Explanations of what we have observed

Some aspects of a culture are “tacit” (not things people think about or talk about normally). So you aren’t just limited to things people have mentioned. In any case, activities, places, objects that you observe provide a rich avenue into the host world. Anything you observe is a possible topic for discussion. If you are paying attention, you will notice many things that puzzle you. Explore them by discussing them with an informant. You can ask about obvious things you have observed, like a game you sometimes see children playing; or you can develop a special awareness of all you see, noticing many details that most people would ignore in everyday situations, such as watching people cross a street, and later telling your informant in great detail all that you observed.

3) Give Special Attention to Recurring Situations that Cause You Stress

What situations really “bug” you in the host community? Do you get into conflicts with local people in certain situations? Do certain recurring experiences make you tense or unhappy? These are important topics for discussion. Often deeper understanding will decrease the stressfulness of the experiences, or eliminate it altogether, as you learn to see the situations from the host perspective, and to act appropriately in them.

4) Notice Anything that Local People Know About and You Don’t Know About

For example, you notice that people are aware of music, artists, athletes, etc.

5) People Mention Their Recent activities and Experiences that are Unknown to You

Your informants have ongoing lives, and they often will mention something they did yesterday, or a few days ago. Many of these experiences will provide rich topics for exploration. We can make a point of asking, “What did you do yesterday?”

6) Do Spradley-Style Interviews with People from Various Walks of Life

This is the heart of Spradley’s approach. You can seek out people from various professions: a shopkeeper, a taxi driver, a mullah, a child or adolescent in school. Based on the job you do or will be doing in the host context, you can choose relevant professions to learn about. If you do agricultural development work, interview farmers. If you teach English, interview language teachers.

7) Do What Spradley Calls Guided Questions

Have the informant take you to places and show you what goes on there and discuss it. You can continue the Phase 3 activities of going out for shared experiences and later reminiscing together about them. You can also bring objects to talk about to your interview. You may have done this in Phase 3, for example bringing local tools or implements. You can also bring local forms that need filling out from various sources and discuss them. Or a T.V. schedule. There may be a wide variety of objects from life that you can bring to interviews for discussion.

8) Talk about what is in the News These Days that Local People are Aware of

This may be in the T.V. or radio news, or newspapers, or it might just be the current gossip. You might ask, “What are some things that people are talking a lot about these days?”

9) Ask if there are Stories that all Host People Know

You may have done this in Phase 3, but you can continue it in Phase 4. Massaging popular stories will bring up many areas of life that are unknown or little known to you, and that  you can discuss and explore.

10) Learn and Discuss Local Songs

Find out especially what songs are widely known. Learn them. You’ll find they also bring out topics for discussion.

11) Collect and Discuss Local Wise Sayings, such as Proverbs

Again, especially find out ones that everyone knows. They too will raise topics for discussion, and help you learn about host values.

Some Pointers in Interviewing:

Get good at spotting “mini-tour question” possibilities. In telling of yesterday’s activities, someone says, “We went shopping”. You later ask them, “Tell me everything you did in getting ready and leaving your house to go shopping… What else did you do?” (Blackfoot people, if they left their house with no one left at home, would close the curtains in the windows, so that anyone looking would know at once that they were not home, and not bother coming to the door.)

Watch for key events and topics. Key events are events like births, weddings, funerals. Discussion of them can lead into deep and wide exploration of values and worldviews. We don’t bring a list of such events to the field with us to ask about, but as people talk to us, we try to be highly sensitive to what may be key events, and then we ask them to tell us more about those events.

Be on the alert for other experiences that reflect values. For example, if  someone says he got in trouble for something he did as a child. Ask what happened to him, what happens to children who get in trouble, what are some things children get in trouble for, and so on.

Be on the alert for possible cultural domains.

Things children get in trouble about might be a cultural domain, if it generates a list of things. In general, listen for lists of objects (say, a list of things a person collects when preparing to go on a journey) and lists of qualities (You are told that someone was “mean and lazy”. What kind of person is mean and lazy? Suppose the answer is “a bad person”. Then you ask, “A bad person is mean, lazy, what else?” You get a list of traits of a bad person.)

Needless to say, in interviewing informants, we don’t want to become pure cognitivists, focusing on information rather than growing in relationships. Phase 4 provides the opportunity to grow very deeply into a number of host lives. Growing participators grow into host life by growing into host lives.

A Couple of More Thoughts on Phase 4…

I thought I’d share another thought or two on Phase 4. I mentioned that anything we observe is fair game for inquiring about, since that means that our explorations are growing out of the host world, rather than our own (which is what we try to minimise). Well, ONE THING I NOTICE in the host world all the time is people leaving their apartments and going places. Now how is that for a topic to enquire about: What are all the places people might be going when they leave their homes, and what might they do in those places? We can then ask our host friend, “What are the places you have gone to this past week, month, year?”

That should generate quite a bit of discussion! You can also make maps of your area, and of your city, and of some of its important locations, like the market, and talk about what goes on in all of the places you put on the maps.

I think I mentioned that Phase 4 is also the phase where you can spend some time on Chronological Bible Storytelling. You probably did lots in Phase 3 that prepared you for that.


You can download the original here — Thoughts on Phase 4

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