It’s non-linguistics, and it’s under-taught.
By Antonio Graceffo
I was having lunch with an American friend back in September of 2008. Just as he took a bite of sandwich I asked, “So, who are you going to vote for in November?”
Through a mouthful of tuna and vegetables he said, “Ommmama.”
In American elections, we generally only have two serious candidates. In this election, they were Obama and McCain. So, I guessed he had said Obama.
I could just as easily have guessed that he said he was voting for my mama, but because she wasn’t running for office, I ruled her out as a possible candidate.
This minor exchange is typical of communications that you have all day with other native speakers of English. Your ability to understand them is not based on your ability to listen to English. You understand people because of a number of non-linguistic factors. It is arguable which of these is the most important, but I think we can all agree that prediction is one of the most important.
When someone speaks to you, your brain automatically goes through a series of predictions. What will this person say? Who is he/she? Why might they be talking to me? Based on this information, your brain lays out a limited number of choices and then narrows the field as new information comes in.
You are climbing out of a broken school window, at ten o’clock at night, carrying a computer. A nearby policeman shouts something at you, but because he is eating a donut, you can’t quite understand what he is saying. So, your brain lays out a multiple choice sample like this.
A. He is asking you something about the effects of anti-oxidants on the body.
B. He is curious why bad things happen to good people.
C. He is confronting you about stealing a computer.
You don’t need him to repeat himself in order to know what he wants or at least what subject he is speaking about.
Multiple choice, and how it applies to our linguistic reasoning and communication is so ingrained in westerners that we take it for granted. We don’t realize how powerful this type of reasoning is, or how many times per day our brain goes through this exercise. Furthermore, we forget that it is a learned skill, which people lack, who come from cultures which don’t use this method of teaching and reasoning.
Every ESL teacher has seen students leave questions unanswered on a multiple choice or true false test. To us, this makes no sense. But in their minds, if they don’t know the answer, they can’t answer the question.
Here is a sample test you can give to ten of your western friends and see if any of them get this one wrong. To be fair, eliminate any western friend who has a degree in British history.
Question: What year did Henry VIII die?
This is not one of those dates that I would consider part of general knowledge. In fact, I would expect that out of ten friends, chosen at random, zero percent of them would be able to answer that question. So, proceed to part two.
Multiple choice question:
What year did Henry VIII die?
A. 1945 B. Last Wednesday C. 1547
Of ten friends, I can’t imagine any of them would get it wrong. But if you gave a similar multiple choice to Chinese students, they would most likely give you an answer like, “I don’t know a lot about history.”
Nice people, enablers, and Canadians would defend this answer saying, “Henry VIII is not part of their culture, so how would they know?”
To head these do-gooders off, I actually gave a test like this to a class full of Asian college students, who were advanced students of English, preparing for the IELTS exam. I used questions which I knew they couldn’t possibly know the answers to and then gave them multiple chocie answers, two of which were so silly, that the real answer was obvious. What I was testing, was not their knowledge of world history, but their ability to predict what the answer might be.
Question: When was Abraham Lincoln killed?
A. Blue B. Russel Crow C. 1865
Who was the commander of Sky-Lab 2?
A. New York City B. Charles Conrad, Jr C. 1437
The rest of the twenty questions were equally silly. Of thirty college students who took the exam, only three got 100%. A significant number of students gave me answers such as, “I don’t know who Abraham Lincoln is.” Or, “Our country doesn’t have a space program.”
This type of predictive ability helps you to understand what someone is saying, without knowing or hearing the words he is saying. You know as soon as you see the word “when” that the answer must be a date or time. When you see “who” you know the answer must be a name. So, you listen for that type of information. A basic language student, in his first semester, should be able to pass that type of multiple choice test.
If a student can’t pass this type of test, he or she will NEVER be fluent in a foreign language. It is impossible to learn, memorize, and know in advance, every single possible question or conversation the student will encounter and prepare him or her for it. Instead, communicational fluency comes from the ability to deal with new situations.
In Asia, the Confucian education system has taught students that every question has exactly one correct answer. The purpose of a classroom is for a teacher to teach/cram questions and answers into the students. On the exam, the teacher will only ask questions which were taught in class. And the students will be graded on their ability to repeat the exact answers which were previously taught to them.
Many people who have read my books or seen my web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey” on youtube.com know that I have spent most of my life studying martial arts at a deep level. Every culture in the world has some form of martial arts. This means that by understanding a country’s martial art, we can understand a lot about the culture.
The predominant martial art in China, and Chinese culture countries, is Kung Fu. Kung Fu has thousands and thousands of techniques. They are taught in series called forms. The forms were developed hundreds or even thousands of years ago and have not changed since then. A master is the person who knows the largest number of these forms and can execute them perfectly. The best student is the one who most accurately copies what the master taught him. So, students spend hours and hours per day, for years and years, perfecting their execution of the set movements taught by their masters, and their masters’ masters, and their masters’ masters’ masters.
The predominant American martial art, until very recently, was boxing. Boxing has four basic punches. If we consider every variation and strange angle a punch can be thrown from, we could maybe say there are about twenty punches. I could teach you all twenty punches in an afternoon, or at least in a weekend. Beyond those basic punches there are no forms, no pre-ordained set sequences of movements. As a boxing student you will learn combinations, but they will be those combinations your teacher invents. And the goal in teaching you those combinations is to eventually lead you to developing your own combinations which work well for you.
For combat, or self-defense, Chinese Kung Fu says, “an attack can come this way. And when it does, you must react that way.” Once again, the masters, long ago, t thought out every possible angle and scenario by which an attack could come. Then they devised the appropriate or correct response to that attack. The most dangerous fighter was the one who memorized the largest numbers of possibilities, because he was least likely to encounter a situation he hadn’t prepared for. But if he met an attack or situation which wasn’t already in his repertoire, he was lost.
In American boxing, although you are also taught that an attack can come this way or that way. This helps you to predict what types of attacks can come and you prepare for the most common ones. But the goal is to create a fighter who can take his eight or nine techniques and mold them, bend them, and modify them to fit every situation that he encounters.
The American way, the Western way, basically says, “We can’t predict every situation which is going to arise, so we have to learn to adjust and adapt instantly to new situations.”
Chinese language works the same way as Kung Fu. The writing system is composed of thousands of characters. They must be memorized and dutifully repeated, through long hours of practice and repetition. There is only one acceptable way to write most of the characters. They have no inherent sound value, so if you see a character you have never seen before, there is very little you can do with it. You can’t even pronounce it. The best student is the one who knows the largest number of characters. That student is prepared to deal with the largest number of scenarios that might occur. Most Chinese native speakers peak in their ability to read their native tongue when they graduate university and will steadily lose characters for the rest of their lives. The obvious exception would be someone whose job it was to write on a daily basis.
English uses a phonetic alphabet with a limited number of letters. The entire alphabet can be learned in a day or a week or a month. After that you can combine and reorganize those letters to spell any of the one million words in the English language. As native speakers, we think it is completely normal to learn new words even as an adult. Sometimes you pick up a newspaper or open a book and encounter a word that you never knew before or maybe it is a new word just added to the English language. But you can read it, pronounce it and deal with it. And, you don’t feel shame. I usually say something like, “Wow, I have never heard that word before.” And I go on about my day.
When Chinese encounter a Chinese word they don’t know, or anything they don’t know, they feel shame. They will go to great lengths to avoid admitting that they don’t know something, which becomes one more, in a long list, of barriers to learning English.
As for predictive ability, the ideal of the Western education system is to provide students with standard models or what we call general knowledge, first, and then to help them develop into free-thinking people who can adapt and apply their knowledge to new situations, situations that your teachers could never have predicted when you were in school.
Did my third grade teacher know that I would one day be attending paramedic school in the Philippines and have to deal with medical lectures that were half in Filipino, a language I don’t speak? Mrs. Compass was pretty smart, but I don’t think she knew that. And there was no specific information my school teachers gave me which prepared me to deal with that situation. But, because I was taught to think, predict, and adapt, I was able to deal with it.
Foreign English teachers complain that when they ask their students, “How are you today?” They always respond with, “I am fine, thank you. And you?” and this is the only possible answer they can give. It is also the only answer they can understand. So, when they ask me, “How are you teacher?” When I answer, “I’m good.” They just stare blankly, because this deviates from the dialogues they have memorized.
Memorization replaces prediction or reasoning. Rather than using logical thinking to help him interpret what the speaker is saying, the Chinese student is looking for questions or English phrases, which fit exactly, into the molds he has memorized.
There is no prediction in the Chinese education system. As a result, the students lack the ability to predict in English. They also lack the ability to predict when you are attempting to speak Chinese to them. Speaking Chinese, I told my Chinese teacher I was going to Burma. I didn’t know how to say Burma in Chinese, So, I began describing, in Chinese, “It is a country in Asia, next to Thailand. They have had a war for forty years. Aung San Suu Kyi was elected prime minister. Then she was placed under house arrest. People all over the world support her.”
“Holland?” she suggested.
None of the information I gave matched Holland. If she had said Philippines, at least that is in Asia, so it matches part of what I said. But Holland is not even remotely related to what I described.
As a side note, I told this story to an enabler who said, “Maybe your Chinese pronunciation was off.”
So, when I was saying, “they have had a war,” because of my bad pronunciation, the teacher thought I said, “you can smoke hash in coffee houses.” And when I said “next to Thailand,” she understood, “they produce chocolate.”
I don’t think this was the problem.
Another time, I was going to Cambodia. And I even knew how to say Cambodia in Chinese, but they still didn’t understand what I was saying. It may have been because of my bad pronunciation of the word in Chinese. But it may also have been because of the ethnocentric nature of Chinese education. It is possible they had never heard of Cambodia. Most likely, it was a combination of the two.
So, I said, “It is a country next to Thailand.”
In my mind, apart from Cambodia, Thailand only has three neighbors, Lao, Burma, and Malaysia. Since none of the other three countries sound remotely like Cambodia, then even with my bad pronunciation, a native speaker should be able to predict or deduce what I was saying.
In Chinese, the word for “next to” “pang bien” and convenient, “fang bien” sound a little bit alike, but no matter how bad your pronunciation is, I don’t see how “Pang” could be confused for “Fang.” But, the listener came back with, “Oh, I see, Thailand is very convenient.”
If we went by strict mathematical probability, what is the likelihood that in trying to explain which country I was going to, I said “Thailand is very convenient” vs. “It is next to Thailand?”
With this inability to predict, we have a double barrier to communication. The Chinese student can’t understand your English, unless it fits EXACTLY the patterns he has memorized. And, if you switch to Chinese, the listener can’t understand or even hear anything that differs from accepted responses.
The ability to predict, interpret, analyze and deduce meaning is extremely powerful. On the English teaching side, we can keep developing ways to teach this skill to students. But for those of us learning Chinese, we are never going to change the established patterns of thinking in the greater Chinese society. So, we just have to do what Chinese students do. Learn everything, and learn it perfectly, or else, you will be dead in the water.
Because I am both the eternal student and the eternal teacher, the homework assignment I will give you is to take my two predictive multiple choice questions and ask as many native and non-native speakers as you can and report back to me by email.
Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His areas of expertise are applied linguistics and second language acquisition. See is video on “Picture Story” applications on youtube.com
His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books are available at amazon.com. See his martial arts and adventure videos on youtube.
His website is speakingadventure.com
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Contact Antonio: email@example.com