This and that…

October 9, 2008

What gets in the way…language and story

Filed under: education,Post-secondary,Support Services,Vermont Tech — learningspecialist @ 3:25 pm

Communication with others is a complicated thing.  Communication with someone from another culture who speaks a different language is even more complex. Communicating with someone from another culture, who speaks a language similar to your own can be a  nightmare, all the more because both sides think they are being clear and should be understood .

When we talk about language, we generally think about three major aspects: register, discourse patterns, and story structure. Register refers to the tone of language, and there are five descriptive categories (Joos 1967). Frozen Language refers to language that is always the same. Wedding vows and the Pledge of Allegiance would be good examples. Formal Language is the standard of work and most schools. Sentences are complete and there are some specifics understandings around word choice. Consultative Language refers to formal register as it is used in conversation and is slightly less rule bound.  Casual Register refers to the language used between friends. The vocabulary tends to be much smaller and less specific. Gestures , facial expressions and body language are important tools to support understanding. Syntax is often incomplete. Intimate Language, the final category, is the language used between lovers and twins. It is also, predictably enough, the language of sexual harassment.

Why is this important? Think of Mark Twain.

“In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language”
Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

Formal Register is the language of the middle class and the preferred register for work and school. Many individuals who grow up in poverty, especially those in minority groups, do not have access to formal register use at home.  One of the hidden rules of the middle class is the ability to communicate in the formal register. Those who cannot do not do well on standardized exams like the SAT, nor are they successful in activities such as job interviews. Communicating in writing,  always done in this register, can be an overwhelming and ultimately meaningless task.

Register is connected to the other aspects of communication, patterns of discourse.  One key aspect of discourse is the way in which information is organized. The formal register requires that the speaker get straight to the point. Casual register, on the other hand, is more meandering and inclusive of the listener. Formal register stories go from one point to the next and on to the next until the conclusion is reached. Casual register story telling expects and relies on audience participation and commentary.  When we are working with students who have had limited access to formal register and the attending patterns of discourse, it can be very frustrating to wait for them to wend their way to the point. It is equally frustrating for the students, who need audience feedback to move their story along.

What does this mean for us?

Awareness for one thing. It is not safe to assume that because you are saying something in what feels like plain English, it is being understood. Communication between human beings has layers of levels, many of which have nothing to do with the words themselves. We want to be understood. So do they. The Mark Twain model (see quote above) is not enough of a response.

Understanding formal register is important for student academic success. If we have students- and we do- who are not growing up immersed in the language of the middle class, then we need to teach it to them. Learning language is easier when it is motivated by relationships ( think about the urgency that wanting to talk with some who only signs provides to learning sign language) but it can also be directly taught. Formal instruction in discourse and story structures will help students to mediate their environment more effectively- including the working world. Part of our mission as educators is to encourage students and give them the tools they need to aspire to be something more. Language is one of those tools.

At the same time, we need to recognize that casual discourse has a valid place. It is not less than more formal language- only appropriate in different situations. Part of the journey is to recognize what those situations are. Our students will find themselves in many places as they acquire the skills they need to have the choices they want. Understanding, in a conscious and deliberate way, the role language plays, empowers them.



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