Friday, April 18, 2008

Research question

Today we got totally off track in pronunciation class, and dealt with some real world issues. My Iranian student has noticed that people think he's angry when he has to repeat himself. He said he doesn't think he's angry. An Arabic speaking student said much the same thing. My Spanish speaking students had a different experience, but tend to feel shyer and less confident when someone doesn't understand them.
We talked about changing our perspective. Rather than thinking the problem of not being understood lies with the speaker, think of it as being on the listener. Then we can repeat ourselves without losing our confidence.
The Arabic student also expressed that he feels like people devalue him because he doesn't speak English well. Again, I asked him to refocus his perspective. I challenged all of the students to speak with the expectation that they would be understood and the belief that they had something important for their listener to hear. And that their listener wanted to hear it.
The research part of this comes in with why are different cultures perceived differently? People don't seem to perceive Spanish speakers as angry, but they do perceive Arabic and Persian speakers that way. (For example, my pharmacist is Persian, and I don't find her easy to talk to. She seems annoyed by my questions. However, this may just be the issue that we are talking about in class today, and not her basic attitude.) I suspect that part of this may have to do with the languages the students are coming from. Spanish is a relatively soft language, and the words do not need to be completely enunciated to be understood. Arabic, on the other hand, has stronger syllables and harsher consonant sounds. (I'm assuming Persian is much the same based on my one student's agreement.) Perhaps the response then to needing to repeat something is to get louder and clearer for Arabic/Persian speakers, and quieter, less enunciated for Spanish speakers. Or it could have a cultural component that is not linguistic at all.
I think this also ties into the syncing that Edward T. Hall talks about in Beyond Culture. He suggests that cultural misunderstandings between different ethnic groups in the United States arise out of different rhythms. The cultures do not sync with each other, and thus cannot communicate at a level below language (where much communication occurs.)
I try to get my students to do this by having them speak their language with the accent of an American. I always thought that this just helped them to make vowel and consonant sounds more American, but I think it may also have to do with syncing.

1 comment:

Kimberly said...

This was a very interesting post for me. The whole concept of why we perceive people one way or another based on HOW they sound rather than WHAT they say.
I'm going to be moving to Argentina in a few months. I've taken 2 years of college Spanish but feel woefully inadequate. Hubby, who is fluent because he grew up there, says I have the book learning and now just need to be immersed. But it's pretty intimidating, especially since I'm almost 50 and this is NOT coming easy. Have you noticed that your older students have more trouble? Is it an age thing I wonder? Or maybe I wouldn't have been any better at it if I'd tried learning it 20-30 years ago.