Pragmatics and Becoming Fluent


The fourth chapter of the book Becoming Fluent by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz is about a branch of linguistics called pragmatics, which analyzes how language is used in social situations, not just to convey information, but to convey emotions, to establish or development relationships, or on the dark side, to lie, cheat and steal.

The reason why they discuss pragmatics goes back to one of the three myths that people have about learning foreign languages, namely, that children learn foreign languages better than adults.    The only area where this would seem to be true is in the area of phonetics, because children have a superior ability to pick up foreign accents compared to adults.

But everything else, adults are not only not disadvantaged, but have unique advantages.   Pragmatics is one such area, because the social relationships and environment that a language exists in are literally beyond the child’s mind, because the child hasn’t even become acculturated to his or her own culture yet.

When you start learning a foreign language, you are using it in a straightforward manner to convey information.   But as you get more sophisticated in your understanding of a foreign language you can use it in more sophisticated ways.    One time when I was riding the subway in Tokyo, there was an elderly Japanese couple seated in front of me as I stood with the rest of the strap-hangers.   The man looked down towards my feet and said in a conversational tone to his wife, “have you ever seen feet that big in your entire life?”  Well, I wear a size 13 shoe according to U.S. measurements, so they are big even for an American.   I was amused by the brazenness of their comment with the underlying assumption that no foreigner could POSSIBLY understand a difficult language like Japanese, so I looked down at my feet and said, “soo ieba ookii desu nee” which means “now that you mention, they are kind of big!”   I derived a certain sadistic pleasure at seeing their reddened faces avoiding my eyes during the rest of the trip.   I was later pleased with myself not just because I hopefully taught the Japanese couple a lesson about making facile assumptions about the linguistic ability of foreigners, but also because I had demonstrated the ability to use the Japanese language in a way that was humorous (to me at least, not to the Japanese couple, I’m sure).

Now, I have to say that much of the humorous use of a foreign language was inadvertent, like the time I was at a Bierstube in Munich waiting with my German friends for a waitress who was taking a long time to bring the venison stew I had ordered.   I tried to be funny and I said what I thought was “well, she has to shoot the deer to death first” and my friends HOWLED with laughter.   At first, I thought I was successful at making a humorous remark, but the laughter seemed out of proportion to my meager attempt at humor.   I played back in my head what I said in German, and I realized that instead of using the verb erschiessen, which means “to shoot to death”,  I had switched the “i” and the “e” and said the verb erscheissen which means “to shit to death.”    No wonder they were laughing so hard!    But they knew what I was trying to say, and so were both laughing with me and at me at the same time.   One thing’s for sure:  I never made that mistake again!

It’s a winning stroke of course to be humorous on purposeand I was able to do this when I went out with my Japanese friend from work to celebrate the completion of a project.   We went to a shabushabu restaurant which kind of reminded of the fondue restaurants that were popular a while back in the states.   My friend said, “let’s try some Kobe beef” and I saw that the price was something like the equivalent of $100 or so (this was back in 1992) which was three times the price of the regular beef.    I was skeptical about laying out that much money for a simple steak, but he was trying to convince me of the merits of Kobe beef saying that the cows are massaged and given beer to drink to make their meat more tender.   I said in Japanese, “I don’t care if they graduated from Tokyo University, I still think it is a little expensive!”    He laughed and I was pleased with having said something funny in Japanese.   But it required not just the words to be able to say what I said, but the cultural knowledge that Tokyo University is the top university in Japan just like Harvard University is considered the top university in the United States.

This kind of sophisticated blending of cultural knowledge and linguistic ability is what can easily set an adult learner from a child learner.   And in retrospect it made sense of the requirements I had when I got my Masters degree in Asian Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  I originally wanted to become a technical translator, but the university insisted that I take courses in Japanese culture in addition to my language courses.   At the time, I didn’t understand the connection between learning about Japanese history, literature, and philosophy had to do with the ability to say “handootai” (semiconductor) in Japanese.   But when I actually LIVED in Japan I understood how using a language effectively with native speakers required my having knowledge of its cultural context.   In fact, I learned that I passed the employment interview precisely because I had a knowledge of Japanese culture that I had learned in my studies in graduate school.   They wanted to hire someone who was fluent and who was familiar with technical vocabulary (which I was able to do since my undergraduate degree was in physics), but they were concerned about how well a foreigner would do in a Japanese work environment.   My knowledge of Japanese culture convinced them that I could fit in.   And I did–I worked in Tokyo at Mitsubishi Motors Corporation for five years in the regulatory compliance department.   So learning culture as well as language may not seem practical at first to a language learning, but it will turn out to be a very pragmatic decision indeed.

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