Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sociolinguistic Journals- Part 4

Contextual or Cultural?

Chapter 14 of Holmes discusses interviews, within the context of misunderstandings. Discourse is analyzed constantly by the participants, even while they are speaking. This analysis is how a participant decides what to say. When I was about 16, I went in for my first formal interview, without any job coaching at all. When I was asked why I wanted to work in that company, I told them I just needed a job. When they asked me what strengths and weaknesses I brought to the table, I listed them out with brutal honesty. As the reader can imagine, I bombed that interview. Although I answered the questions in the most appropriate way I knew how, given my knowledge of English as a native speaker, the interviewer was not actually asking for the information I gave him. If I, a native speaker, had such trouble understanding the contextually informed meaning, how much more would a non-native speaker? Holmes discusses this very situation, and outlines a case in which a man immigrated from Nepal blindly took an American interview for all its literal questions. I would like to present another case of similar situation, and discuss an ethical question we have often encountered as interpreters for the Deaf. Not only are Deaf clients working in the context of a second language, they are working through an interpreter, which further separates them from the interviewer, and also are dealing with a huge cultural gap. Deaf culture, as a rule, is a very straight forward culture, and its language- ASL- does not have much structure to allow for naturally evasive or circumvention communication. Due in part to the visual/spacial nature of the language, ASL is very literal, and although it is fully capable of discussing abstract ideas, does so explicitly. This concept of asking for one thing but desiring and expecting another is foreign to ASL. So when an interpreter is in this environment, mediating culturally and linguistically between a hearing English speaker, and a Deaf ASL signer, how much mediation can take place? If the hearing interviewer asks "What strengths and weaknesses will you bring to our company?", do I sign "STRENGTH WEAKNESS YOU BRING WHAT?", and elicit a literal response? Or do I sign "SKILL YOU HAVE CONNECT WORK HERE WHAT? SKILL IMPROVE YOU WANT WHAT?" and illicit the response the interviewer is expecting? How much of this misunderstanding is contextual (aka- because we are in an interview) and how much is cultural (aka-because one is Deaf and one is hearing)? If the difference is solely contextual, do I leave the responsibility on the Deaf interviewee, to learn his/her lesson the hard way, like I did at my first interview? The mere fact that I am there standing (metaphorically and somewhat physically) between them makes it more difficult for the Deaf person to get a read on the interviewee. He/she may find it impossible to discern why the interview went awry. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Sociolinguistic Journals Part 3

Language Planning & Deaf in America

In Deaf education around the country, language planning is creating a dichotomy between two schools of thought. First, there is "oral" education, that prioritizes English for all their students. Aiming to provide independent access to the American world, they train their students in speech, reading, English (generically) and sometimes even lipreading. The other approach is more accepted by the culturally Deaf ('Deaf and proud of it'). This is education in full ASL for any and all students in their school. This provides the students with full access to language from the start. Both approaches are examples of language planning; both channel all students into the same 'language corral'.

I want to suggest a scenario in which language planning is entirely absent, but the students are still given access to their environment's languaculture (a new term referring to both language and culture, as they are tied together). In (select) public schools today, when a student turns up with anything outside of normal- anything that can't be handled in a cookie cutter classroom setting- they are referred to the Special Education department. Now, this may create a stigma, a negative one, for nobody likes being labeled as special ed. But this is where the magic happens. Specialists of many fields within this department will meet and discuss the individual student's situation and needs. Conferences take place with the student or parent (if the student is not a legal adult) and as many professionals as possible. At this meeting, an agreement is is found, a plan made. A student may be provided with hearing aids and a mic/speaker system in the classroom. Or a full ASL interpreter. Or maybe both, depending on what the student needs. They can get private tutoring in whatever language is preferred, and can even specify their preferred sign system for the interpreter to use. Surely, individual needs are better met without language planning

Gender Stereotypes in Language

Historically, all (as far as I know) cultures of the world assign dominance to one gender or another; most assign it to males. This turns up in language, a reflection of the culture in which the language developed. I decided to look into ASL, to see what kinds of gender marking shows up. Starting with the following sign pairs, what is noticed? MAN/WOMAN HUSBAND/WIFE BOY/GIRL GRANDPA/GRANDMA SON/DAUGHTER BROTHER/SISTER

Each of these sign pairs is identical except for the gender marker. The gender marker for female is sign initial, on the side of the chin. For male, it is on the side of the forehead. 'Sign initial' means that these signs start in those places, and continue with the sign appropriate for that pair. It is interesting to me that the gender marker for male is higher relative to the gender marker for female. This suggests male dominance. However, gender neutral signs, like PEOPLE CHILDEN NATION etc do not bear any gender marking and are truly neutral. There is never an appropriate situation in which a gender marked sign would be understood as neutral (as is with "mankind" in English).

I hypothesize that the distinction between neutral signs and gender marked signs is because of the state of the culture ASL developed in. ASL developed in a culture that supported diversity, success of the underdog, and equality. Although male dominance is hard to erase completely (placement of the gender marker), the playing field was much more level when ASL came into being.

Sociolinguistic Journals: Part 2

English Variations

Reading the section in chapter 4(Holmes) about World Englishes got me thinking: what about generational changes in English? There are about as many differences between the African English and the American English as there are between the 1600's English and the 2013 English. A prime example of this came up when discussing a Christian tract my colleague was writing. He was using the King James Version Bible for all his references to the Scriptures. He and I had debated if certain terms and phrases could be understood by the common man, or if they should be revised or explained. But that particular afternoon, we were dealing with a phrase that said "Know ye not...?" We discussed the appropriateness of such a high dialect. He opted to change it to "Do you not know...?" I didn't stop there though. Concerned with cross-cultural and cross-generational language changes, I wanted to be away of the shift. I wanted to acknowledge that the generation we are trying to reach is using a different heart language than we or our parents did. I do not want to assume that comprehension means the impact will be the same. Even if you can understand something, the way it affects you can be dampened by the syntax. So, I recommended using a contraction: "Don't you know...?" My colleague was hesitant to make that further change, but it got me thinking about these language changes.

English Variations Cont

Although I have a relatively small number of international friends, I learn a great deal from those I have. One particular friend is from Great Britain. He and I have found dialect sparring to be a diverting activity. I want to share a few examples of our dialogues, before I comment on them.

"Something you might find humorous... I was reading along in "one World Two Minds" and came across  the phrase "Blinkered thinking is dangerous thinking." I drew a blank, completely. I had no idea what it meant by "blinkered thinking". Then I had a flashback to Mark sitting in the trunk of Robin's car and the three of us discussing terminology. You guys call those things on horses eyes "blinkers". The lightbulb went on, and I had to laugh. I didn't realize Denis Lane was a brit :)

"Him: My book arrived on Thursday, so let me know when yours arrives and we can make a start.">Me:"make a start" :) We say "get started" haha.">You're gonna get me talking like you pretty soon."In both of these samples, notice how we compare the differences in our variety of English. These are just two from hundreds of dialogues, contrasting word choice, lexical appropriateness, word order, idioms, and even pronunciation. Of course, he claims to be 'right' purely because he is British, and we are an off-shoot of his variety. Discussions like this are enjoyable because we are from two different geographical regions. If, on the other hand, we had been from two different classes or levels of a system, this conversation would likely not have been appropriate or humorous.Incidentally, during a discussion on this topic, I was reminded of the movie "My Fair Lady". The very issue of class variations is the whole basis of the movie. The doctor (speech therapist) took a low class woman and trained her to fit the upper class. Interestingly, her speech wasn't where the training could stop. There is a cultural separation between classes as well, and that came into play later in the story. As with all other topics, we can't discuss one dimension without touching others.

Sociolinguistic Journals; Part 1

Fun House Mirrors

In Norway (and New York), interviews were held with women on the topic of standard and vernacular speech (Holmes, ch7). When women were asked explicitly about the level of (or amount of) standard speech they used, they reported a higher level than what they were actually using in the interview. Men in Norway did the same thing, but in the reverse. They claimed more vernacular use than they actually used. Is this because they (and we) view ourselves in a skewed perspective? How we view ourselves, or how we wish others would view us, can change our choices of speech even when we are not conscious of it. Interviews held in Australia revealed that boys would increase their vernacular when being recorded, showing a desire for distinction between themselves and the interviewer.

Descriptive vs Prescriptive Grammar

In grammar school, students are taught the rules for their first language. The students are already using this language deftly, so the training at that point is perhaps to instruct students in the terminology and equip them to discuss it academically. It also gives them the tools to put sentences together "correctly". There is a problem, though, when a student is taught a grammar rule that is broken in his home regularly. This is where we face the difference between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar. For example, we say that in English, sentences must have a noun and a verb, must not end in a pronoun, and a noun must be a person, place, or thing. This is prescriptive grammar. It does not accurately reflect how we actually use English. If we wrote a descriptive grammar, we would acknowledge that subjects and verbs can be dropped if there is mutual understanding, sentences end in prepositions all the time, and we can make up words, or noun-ify other parts of speech if we want! Examples: "Where is that book?" "Under the chair." (Lacking a noun AND a verb) "Hers is the only party we went to." (Preposition ending) and "Skating is what I want for Christmas" (noun-ify a verb). When we use descriptive grammar, it validates, not contradicts, what the children of learning. Now then, do we each children rules straight up textbook style, or teach them how to identify what we do when we use English? We want to validate their language, as they did in that school from Southern California(a reference to a video shown in class). But they also need to know how to write academically. I would recommend, then, teaching children the difference between informal and formal register. When speaking, this is the register we use. When writing a journal, we use a similar register. When writing a research paper, however, we must use a formal register. Grammar rules are different between each, and so they would have to be learned. I think children are capable of learning the difference. I would be hard-pressed, however, to tell a native speaker that they are not speaking their own language correctly.