“Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.” — Stephen Krashen
While high school geology, biology, calculus and drivers and sex education may have been courses you were forced to take and then forgot, language learning is all about communicating.
Communication, almost by definition, requires that the learner be focused on what he is saying, rather than on how he is saying it.
This week, in Tainan, Taiwan, I was assaulted by the English-language rapists. A group of college kids stopped me on the street and asked me, in Chinese, if they could interview me for their English class. I agreed. We sat down, and the boy who was interviewing me pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and began to read.
“My name is Jay-Ming. I am an English student from Taiwan.”
I was instantly angry. My new friend Jay-Ming had obviously lied to me. He told me that if I sat down, we were going to have an English conversation. But conversations are not pre-prepared. They are not planned or written out. They aren’t read. They are spontaneous interactions between two people, who have a genuine interest in speaking to one-another.
“I need to interview foreigners in Taiwan for my university project,” continued Jay-Ming. “Would you help me?”
“I already said that I would,” I answered. “Why are you asking me again?”
“Yes,” answered Jay-Ming.
“When did you come to Taiwan?” he read.
“How long have you been in Taiwan?”
“Since June. You do the math.”
“Oh….What did you come to Taiwan?”
“I don’t understand the question.”
“W-H-A-T did you come to Taiwan?” repeated Jay-Ming, painfully enunciating each letter so I would understand.
“I don’t understand the question,” I repeated.
My anger was rising because this interaction didn’t even approach a conversation. It was much closer to an interrogation. But even in the case of an interrogation, the interrogators care about your answers. I don’t believe for a moment Jay-Ming cared “what” I came to Taiwan. I also don’t think that when I told him I arrived in June that he couldn’t figure out how long I had been in the country. If stereo-types are to be believed, Asians are good at math. So, why was he asking me?
Earlier, I had seen Jay-Ming talking to his Taiwanese friends, in Chinese. He didn’t read a prepared statement. The conversation flowed naturally.
So, why did he treat English differently than he treated Chinese? Is English different than Chinese? Do English native speakers read prepared statements to each other? I am learning Chinese. When I talk to Chinese people I don’t ask them asinine questions which I myself find disinteresting. I also don’t read prepared statements.
I had a theory that Jay-Ming didn’t care about my answers at all. But, wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt, I continued with the interview.
“Where do you come from?”
“The moon,” I answered, but without even blinking an eye, Jay-Ming continued on to the next question. “How old are you?”
“How long have you studied English?” I asked him.
“Me?” He was shocked that I asked him a question. But again, conversations, real conversations, go in both directions. So, where was it written that I couldn’t ask a question? In business training, we were taught that if the person you were speaking to answered your questions but didn’t ask you any questions back, it meant he was bored.
When Taiwanese speak English, they don’t care about the listener at all. The fact that a list of questions may not be interesting for me didn’t enter his head.
“How long do I study English?” he repeated, confirming. He put the emphasis on “I” in case he had misheard.
“No, me. Yes, you. How long have you studied English?”
“Yes, English.” He answered.
“No, how long have you studied English?” I asked, switching to Chinese.
“Well, a long time…ugh…” he stammered in his native tongue.
“You wasted your time,” I said.
It turned out that Jay-Ming was less than one year away from graduation. His English was at the peak, the absolute best that it was ever going to be, and yet he, like many Taiwanese, couldn’t communicate in English.
I received a letter from my cable company, which I couldn’t quite read. My Chinese reading is not quite at a point yet that I am functional, but it is getting closer. So, I showed it to a Taiwanese coworker.
“Would you mind telling me if this note from my cable company is a bill, which needs to be paid, or, is it a receipt for last month’s payment?”
She looked at the note a long time and finally said. “This is about your TV.”
“No, it’s about my cable.”
“It is from the company which provides cable to your apartment.”
“Yes, I know. I already told you that. I just need to know, is this a bill or a receipt?”
“If you wish to cancel the cable, you need to call this number.”
“Uhm, hum,” I said, hoping she would get to the question I actually asked, as opposed to the one she wished I had asked.
“Do you want me to help you call this number and cancel your cable?”
“No, I don’t want to cancel. I just want to know if I need to go pay this.”
“This can be paid at 7-11.”
“Yes, I know. I do all my bill payments at 7-11, as does everyone else in Taiwan. But I still don’t know if this is a bill.”
“There is a 7-11 in front of our office.”
“Yes, there is.”
“Do you want me to go with you to pay it?”
“So, this is a bill?” I asked for confirmation. My coworker just smiled.
Vowing, once again, to never try and get Chinese information from a local again, I walked across the street, and handed the letter to the 7-11 guy.
“You already paid this,” he said, instantly. “It’s a receipt.”
The coworker who I showed the bill to is a Taiwanese English teacher with years of experience, and a vocabulary of thousands of words. Why couldn’t she communicate at all? Why couldn’t she engage in a meaningful two-way dialogue?
Anyone who has ever taught in Taiwan knows that students are taught to memorize lists and lists of vocabulary and spit them back out on exams. All questions on tests have exactly one correct answer, and all answers are given to students before the exam. There is no thinking, no interacting and no fluidity.
“As you train, so shall you perform,” is one of the basic rules of martial arts. The way you train in the gym is the way you will react in a fight. If you practice wrong, you will react wrongly. The same applies to linguistics. If students are taught to memorize and regurgitate language-babble in the classroom, how could they be expected to behave differently under the pressure of conversation with a native speaker?
Some linguists and nice people break their head over wondering where these problems of learners and speakers originate from. As for me, I just don’t want to be regurgitated on.