Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cultural Flexibility

I've written a little about this before, but I'm about to begin a serious inquiry and have lots of preliminary thoughts to put down before I start.

First, I was heavily influenced by a book on motivation that I reviewed for TESL-EJ. To me the essence of the book, my walk-away tip, was that motivation, or pure desire to learn a language, wasn't worth anything until it could be translated into measurable outcomes. For example, you would like your language class more if you were motivated to learn a language, and this could be measured, simply by asking you if you liked to go to that class. You would do more studying of that language, because your motivation had been converted, so to speak, into the juice that ran the engine, and that juice was measurable, in the sense that if you did more than you used to, or more than the next guy, you were clearly more motivated. Your motivation had converted successfully into useful, measurable units of juice.

Now I didn't quite buy this at the time, and I still have trouble with it, a little, because in fact I believe you can really want something and still be unable to convert it, and then, in that case, what do you call the desire? You can be crying inside to learn a language and still be unable to sit in a class, for example, or learn your vocabulary words. Ah, but skip that argument. When it comes to cultural flexibility, the problem is the same, but it's much more fun to worry about. For example, some things about a language are more unpalatable than others. And, that unpalatable-ness (unpalatability?) can be measured, right? So, you learn to use a, an, or the, but you never quite bought into the idea that you should have to be bothered with such a thing. This would be unpalatable, and your cultural ability to bite the bullet, or just say to yourself, look, this is something I have to learn for cultural reasons, is going to determine your success. If you are stubborn in the sense that your feeling about the unpalatability of that characteristic of language is stronger than your cultural need to fit in, get along, do as everyone is doing, you will have more trouble with getting your articles right, and this will be one of the last features that you master.

Now, in the world of features, first, there are several kinds. There are unpalatable sounds, (like th) which can be distinguished from sounds that are merely difficult to make (zh as in measure). AE as in bat or hat is another example; it may sound unpleasant, or you may know that people in England don't have to bother with it, or are able to make it in a slightly less offensive way. Sometimes the grammar, as in a/an/the/0, is routine, and you'll bump into it twice per sentence; other times it's a little more rare. Sometimes you can get away with errors a lot longer in certain areas, than in others, because certain mistakes are more repairable on the part of the listener (or the reader as the case may be). So errors or features have characteristics of their own: frequency, importance, etc. that influence the necessity of learning them first, later, or not at all.

In Korean you actually speak a different language to people who are older than you, people who are the same age or level as you, people who are below you, and children; this fundamental division of the human race before one opens one's mouth is unpalatable to democratic Americans who basically use the same language for everyone, and are proud of it, although sometimes they're fooling themselves. Nevertheless one would have to admit that this is a fundamental characteristic of the Korean language; you won't go far if you don't master it. You'll be corrected in a fundamental kind of way, and that's because you have violated a very important rule. That's not to say this can't be done; English speakers eliminated the thee/you distinction at one time, but it could be called a social revolution and was no small deal. What I'm saying is that features of a language can be foundational, or more of whatever the opposite of foundational would be.

Now I'm inclined to say that one of the primary considerations here is that often what we are watching here is subconscious. People detest the a/an/the situation because it seems so trivial, yet they know it causes problems, and they have trouble integrating the awareness into their systems so as to correct the problem. When it is subconscious, I like to bring it to the front and ask them about it. For example, I have high-level students who never make a th correctly and I know they can do it, so I'm in the habit of asking them if it's just too embarrassing to stick their tongue out in public, and are they really unable to do that just because they are stubbornly cultural about doing something that, back in their home culture, one would never do. By the way, I feel this way about walking around someone's house in my socks; I really don't want to do it. I kind of feel like feet stink, especially when they're in socks, and it's better just to keep one's shoes on, as dirty and muddy as they might be. But the question of cultural flexibility is simple: how much are you willing to give up, just because you know that it's what is done, it's what this culture has decided is necessary, it's what you do to become "fluent"?

What I am trying to prove is that, first, the sense of discomfort you feel with customs (like leaving one's shoes at the threshold, or sticking one's tongue out to make a th) can be measured. Your cultural flexibility, therefore, can also be measured. We should be able to predict how well you will do with learning a language by measuring your cultural flexibility, in the same way that if we could measure the size of your memory, or your ability in retrieving what you want out of it, we could measure your success in mastering vocabulary. These are characteristics that make good language learners. Pure intelligence, I am convinced, is not really one of them, because we are not really talking about rocket science, as puzzling as another language's grammar may seem. It is not made to be too complex for the average person to figure out...on the contrary, languages must be accessible, or they would be virtually useless. That doesn't mean they're easy, though. Geniuses have trouble with them. And I intend to get to the bottom of what is most difficult in mastery of them.

Here are some research questions that I would like to explore, refine, and/or answer:
1. Language features clearly can come in different kinds: grammatical or phonological, to start with. But what about semantic? Are there more? What am I missing?
2. So we test you, and determine that you are quite stubborn, unwilling to stick your tongue out, so to speak, so you are doomed to years of trouble mastering any given language that requires this or that cultural concession. Are you doomed to failure because of your basic nature, or can you actually teach yourself to be more flexible? I suspect the latter. I suspect that it is difficult, but it is the key to language learning.
3. OK, so we set about making subconscious problems conscious; for example, I point out that the reason you are having such trouble with a/an/the/0 is that deep down, you feel that it's a pile of horse pucky and you shouldn't have to be bothered with such triviality. You readily agree, and now realize why you've had such trouble for so many years mastering such a trivial feature. Does your awareness of your own feelings help you master the problem? Is this a useful teaching tool? I can ask everyone about the relative unpalatability of various features of English or the language that they are embarking upon learning, but will that matter?

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