A few years back I was taking a sociolinguistics class and heard the story of a factory foreman in St. Paul, Minnesota who was growing increasingly frustrated with some of his workers who were immigrants from Southeast Asia. These men seemed to him to lack interest, even to show disrespect whenever he would give them instructions for the day’s work. When he would talk with them, they would fold their arms and look down at the floor. No eye contact. No nodding heads.
To the foreman’s credit, he took it upon himself to investigate, even attending a local festival celebrating these men’s home culture. There he made a discovery – he saw groups of men standing around, deep in conversation with one another – all of them with arms folded and looking down at the floor. This was how they talked. A little further investigation led him to the discovery that in the men’s culture, direct eye contact was seen as aggressive, an affront even.
What the foreman had viewed as disinterest bordering on disrespect was actually this group’s attempt to honor their boss.
This is an example of sociolinguistic competence, what SIL International defines as the ability to interpret the social meaning of the choice of linguistic varieties and to use language with the appropriate social meaning for the communication situation.
Much of the communication of any language lies outside of the realm of words and grammar. Developing sociolinguistic competence then is an important part of any language learner’s journey toward mastering a new language. Without it we risk embarrassment or worse. David Broersma reminds us that:
Good sociolinguistic skills in a second language are important because if you make a serious mistake in this type of competence, people will not simply think that you are ignorant (which they may think if you have poor grammar); rather, they will think that you are ill mannered, dishonest, insincere, rude, pushy, etc.
These are not the messages we want our new friends to receive. And so even as we work to master the ins and outs of grammar structure and vocabulary, we must work equally as hard to master the ins and outs of the culture.
We must become sociolinguistic detectives.
The first key to mastering the cultural norms of the particular people whose language you are learning is to become a keen observer, a cultural detective, bent on discovering how interaction takes place in any and every communication situation.
We do this best by simply wandering out into the culture, observing others and taking notes. For this reason it is important to always carry a notebook in which you can record your observations, making notes about the nuances of the interaction, the expressions used or the body language you see in action.
If you have yet to arrive in the host culture of the language you are learning, work to find reading material on cultural norms, foreign language movies and by all means seek out communities of native speakers where you are at.
Movies can be a good place to start if you are still in your home country. Most nations have some sort of film industry and with a little searching, you should be able to find independent films made in the language you are learning. From these you can learn much about how native speakers interact, how they greet one another and take their leave, how they interact with the opposite sex and with their elders and can observe the many various gestures used to signal intent.
With movies, I tend to watch several times but then will return to certain scenes to study the sociocultural communication more in-depth. For example I may watch a scene in which a character enters a room full of friends and family. How does he enter? Who does he greet first and how does he greet those in the room? I watch for body language, for eye contact and for gestures that are used.
Observation in itself is the beginning, but to speed the process of incorporating what you are learning, you will want to find a cultural informant, that person with whom you can discuss your findings and tease out the nuances that inevitably exist. This is where a language helper can help speed the learning process.
As you explain certain situations with your helper, make sure to explore all the varied situations in which the communication could take place. For example, how does a particular greeting work with the opposite sex, with elders, with government officials or with children?
Testing out what your are learning is important. We all have friends who don’t quite get the cultural norms of their own culture after all. And movies – especially comedies – often capitalize on the complete lack of cultural awareness of some. Chris Farley would not be a good example to follow if you wanted to grow your sociolinguistic competence among Americans.
In the end, we need to continually observe and explore new understandings of cultural norms with a number of different native speakers in order to fully comprehend.
The final piece to mastering sociocultural competence is to practice. Many of the new skills you are learning will not come naturally and thus you must force yourself to practice, again and again, if ever you are to master these pieces to communication in the language.
In Turkish for example, saying no is not communicated with a side to side shaking of the head, but rather with a quick tilt of the head back, or more subtly with a raising of the eyebrows and a tut of the tongue.
It was only through forcing myself to practice saying no in this way – at home with my family, with my language helper and with my friends that it became for me natural. I was learning to say no. Not as natural as my six year old daughter who continues to confound her American grandparents with her tuts and raised eyebrows, but natural enough.
Sociolinguistic competence is an important factor in mastering – truly mastering – the language and must not be neglected. Through consistent observation, diligent testing and persistent practice, everyone can continue to grow in this area and to be better communicators.
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