Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Nuances and nods

Language is a complex combination of written, read, heard  & spoken structures. To be fluent you need to, 'be able to express one]
yourself easily and articulately', ' to speak or write language easily & accurately'; but the key is in the word  'fluent' itself; from the Latin 'fluere', fluency should be flowing & smooth.

Getting that flow, is bigger than the nuances of the individual components of a language, greater than just the structure, the spelling, grammar or pronunciation. Its primarily about its communication and for that you need empathy.

You can know all the words, have a grasp of the grammar and understand the written & read text, but without empathy for that language & its culture, your communication will not  ' flow'.

One of the best examples of this is in the use of body language which communicates the meaning, not just directly, but   also indicates you have a knowledge beyond the actual words.

 Travelling in India some years ago the men in the group became fascinated with the head actions of Indian males towards them. In the male world misinterpreting body language is potentially a dangerous activity and, if not read correctly, can end up in a fight. Described as drawing a figure of eight whilst your head is suspended from a fixed point, each guy in the group was intent to master this, so as to fit the cultural norm & stay safe. Turns out it is done increasingly when the person is anxious or nervous, but a lack of this action shows a lack of understanding on the part of the listener.

So it was a few years ago in rural France when there was a minor dispute about who was entitled to put animals on our land. Based on confusion  between the local farmer and a French horse breeder, both of whom believed  they could put their respective animals on our land, my husband Ron set about resolving this potential dispute. It was not an insolvable problem, but in dialect French  and French body language, not easy. 
It went like this:
  • Farmer & Horseman stand facing each other, closer than English norm.
  • Ron stands equally close feeling uncomfortable.
  • Two Frenchman put their hands on their hips & continue talking.
  • Ron copies the action looking confused.
  • Frenchmen's voices get louder & arms are crossed.
  • Ron slowly, uncertainly crosses his arms.
  • Silence!
  • Ron attempts to intercede.
  • Silence!
  • More loud French upward turned palms & classic shrug.
  • Ron stands still, unsure.
  • Frenchmen shake hands vigorously clap each othe on the back & done!
  • Ron laughs nervously, deal done, not sure what!
  • Two Frenchmen, resolved, "Calvados monsieur,ah oui"

 It turns out that they simply agreed to share the land & put both cows & horse on the land. It wasn't a problem, but it wasn't just the words that communicated the interaction it was the actions and it only flowed in French.

People often refer to the Gaelic shrug but like all languages there are so many degrees of any one action & so many possible actions, your fluency depends on your imitative skills. 

I found this out  recently, because I am very good at mimicking facial & body actions, I don't think about it I just find myself doing them & have become quite proficient in female French body language. Problem is my actual spoken language does not always match my non verbal communication, so fellow conversationalists will often assume I know much more than I do & talk even faster, assuming complete comprehension. Suddenly the conversation came to a question, there was a silence, all eyes turned to me! I shrugged as best I could and uttered the cover all local phrase, 'bah non', it seemed to work, but I was left only half sure what I'd disagreed with.

You need all the aspects of communication to be fluent. Unfortunately in my case recently I was more, 'going with the flow' than 'flowing'.Still, as the advert advises, 'Every little helps' and I do love France!
 'bah oui...exactement...bah oui'

Positively Speaking

My latest lesson  teachingEnglish and  I am left pondering how to encourage more speaking, how I can get the French children to venture into the vital world of verbal communication,

There's something about the formality & grammatical correctness of teaching in France which means the children are fine with the written or read word / with the convergent and single answer response, but struggle with choice or possible different answers. They are used to everything being marked, its right or wrong; no maybe, no nearly and certainly no points for initiative or effort.

So today I began to wonder if their system & way of working was making me adapt my teaching; was I asking for one word answers, expecting single correct answers? I was trying to get them to remember and talk about the days of the week and latterly the concept of 'next' as in the next day or the person next to you, but because they didn't want to make a mistake verbally they were hesitant. They knew the names & order of the days, they knew the concept of  'next / prochaine ', but choosing to take a chance and answer, no thank you. Better if they could take turns or be chosen to speak.And then there were the multiple choice questions, now they're a nightmare!

Our previous 'Let's Speak' language students (French wishing to improve their spoken English) had told us that every error was marked even if the sentence worked, if it was not formally the 'one correct' answer, then it was wrong. Hence for them, written grammar or read prose with closed (single answer) questions were easy to score highly, but they felt inadequate orally because they misused a word, shortened a phrase or mispronounced a.... But language is about communication, getting the message across and 'guessing', 'having a go', trying to put words together, even reading inflection & body language are all vital facets to fluency.

Strange then that in the teaching of a language in France more emphasis seems to be put on correctness and less on actually getting the meaning across.After all we don't normally assess oral / aural communication by how correctly its written or spelt. That would be like measuring land in fathoms or the sea in acres. So most French people pass through the education system with a good grounding of grammatical English but no confidence to speak it, afraid that if its not perfect it will be wrong & ridiculed.

This concept of failure is,it seems, deeply woven into the education system. Children pass  through the primary school system ('marernalle' & 'primaire') in descending numerical order, unlike their UK counterparts who ascend in order. However if they do not make their grades for that year, they fail the year  and have to repeat that year. This is not an uncommon event and is accepted by students who then must repeat the year with children younger than them. Akin to the Victorian 'Standards', whereby you only passed through the standards if you achieved the grade and passed the tests, this is a system which, from the very start acknowledges failure and advances success.  

So when it comes to getting the children to take a risk, have a go the failure is not just a fear of, but a probable reality. So I wonder what those children & their families would make of a letter  recently sent by a Welsh school to all their pupils about to take Standard Attainment Tests. All credit to the school in question, this is a brilliant piece of positivity and I thoroughly approve.