Writing What We Say: A Question of Authenticity

Let’s talk about writing what we say. Once, a friend told me that he enjoys reading my writing because he can hear my voice in his head when he reads my words on the screen.

That’s nice and all, but is it really true? Can written English really represent spoken English, especially when we’re trying to teach these two modalities to learners of the language? How can we match authentic contexts and modalities in teaching and researching?

These are some of the questions that came to mind as I sat listening to Dr. Nader Morkus’ presentation on refusals in American English and Egyptian Arabic. It was April 13, and I was back at my alma mater, The University of Northern Iowa, to speak in a panel discussion on “Exploiting Your TESOL Degree: Then, Now, and In the Future.” There were many reasons I was happy to be there–the honor of being asked to present, the joy of being reunited with dear friends, the excitement of learning about new topics in TESOL and linguistics. I’ll admit, though; I was especially happy to be listening to this particular presentation, for one reason: I was seriously into this topic. Studies on pragmatics are serious brain food for me.

In his 2014 article, Morkus explains the wonder of pragmatics as follows (p. 86):

Speech acts have been investigated in different languages and cultures over the past 30 years. The goal of investigating speech acts has been to understand how human communication is carried out through linguistic behavior, and to understand similarities and differences in how interactions are carried out in different languages and cultures (Olshtain and Blum-Kulka, 1985). Studying speech acts can also help identify the social and cultural norms and beliefs that govern speech act realization in a given speech community (Meier, 1995). In addition, findings from this research can be an important source of information for language teachers and curriculum designers (Bardovi-Harlig, 1996). Researchers have argued that teaching pragmatic aspects of language can minimize intercultural communication breakdowns and reduce cultural stereotyping (Meier, 1995).

This echoes what I always tell my students when they (rightly) get upset that what we’re learning in grammar class is sometimes different from what they hear in the real world: “Language is a tool. It’s just a tool. It’s something you use. So, sometimes, people use it in different and inconsistent ways.”

I’m beginning to recognize my axioms, those things that my students probably mock when it’s midnight, on a Sunday, and they’re cramming for a quiz the next morning. I can imagine them gesturing like mad as they deliver my line, then smirking like a weirdo (a.k.a. me) at the very end before dropping a pen on the floor. Whoops. My incessant talk about language-in-use has got to be one of those instant eye-roll inducers for students who find me tiresome. But I’m not going to apologize for it because language really is a tool, and that’s what research into speech acts highlights and investigates.

Here’s the problem with a lot of speech act research, though, and it’s a big one: Data is generally collected through written responses.

We’re in a world where written refusal often constitutes clicking “Decline” on a Facebook invitation. Yes, we do deal with refusal in email and text messages, but remember–these are studies that claim to give insight into speech acts.

A typical speech act study would go something like this:

The participant receives a sheet of paper with an invitation on it. “Hey, my dog and I are having a party on Saturday. It’s going to be a pretty good time. She’ll be having bacon-flavored Milk Bones; I’ll be drinking wine and eating Doritos. We will both be watching The Way We Were. Would you like to join us?”

Then, the participant writes a response.

That’s it!

First of all, most refusals involve more than one turn, right? You say, “Nope, sorry, I have plans with my cat. I’m going to put together a puzzle, and she’s going to knock it off the table.” Then you walk away? Of course not! Then, the interlocutor suggests something else you could do. Then you respond to that. Then the interlocutor expresses regret about the dog party. You say you’re sure someone else will be able to go–maybe Jen; she just has a fish, after all–and it’ll be great. And so on.

With writing, none of the richness of interactional data is accessed at all.

That’s why I love Morkus’ study so much, and also Lynda Yates’ work on intercultural pragmatics in the workplace. Spoken role-play research enables us to see how people actually talk, take multiple turns, and use nonverbal features, such as intonation and body language. The results of Morkus’ study are interesting, surprising, and relevant to anyone interested in how people from different cultures communicate. I encourage you to read his article, “Refusals in Egyptian Arabic and American English,” published in volume 70 of the Journal of Pragmatics.

I think, though, a detailed discussion of the study’s results are better left to another blog post because what really struck me about Morkus’ presentation was that it perfectly highlights the tension between written and spoken English, both in research and the classroom.

Take, for instance, the unit on modals that I just finished in my low-intermediate grammar class. One of the modals was have got to. That’s fine and good, but when I pulled up the Michigan Corpus of Spoken English (MICASE) in my class, my students seemed relieved to find that they had not failed to hear have in conversations with Americans. In fact, most of the transcriptions simple had the subject + gotta. So, what do I teach? Well, if you’re me, you explain that this modal won’t be on a written test because it’s not a written modal. That can feel a bit unsatisfying in the way of explanation, but I think it’s honest.

Another modal–would you mind–was equally frustrating. The textbook said that, when asking for permission, the following form should be used:

Would you mind if I fed your dog a Dorito?

Go, now. Type would you mind into MICASE. How many entries conjugate the verb in past tense? Oh, right, none of them. All of them have the verb in its present participle form–in this case, feeding–which means that all the examples constitute requests for someone else to do something. It appears that, first of all, would you mind doesn’t show up in the corpus much at all, which is surprising. It also appears that it’s much more common in requests, rather than permission.

Then, do something that I did in front of my class of fourteen students who were probably hating English at this moment. Type in do you mind. That just complicates things further. Again, there aren’t many examples at all, but there are requests in this data set. Here’s the kicker, though: Some of the examples have the verb in the dependent clause conjugated in simple present tense, as in this example:

why don’t you come on sit down and she’s like okay, do you mind if i eat?

What do we do? Earlier, I said that my students probably get tired of my jabbering on about language as a tool, as a set of resources, as a set of many, many viable options. But I’ll never stop jabbering about it. I want my students to be critical, creative consumers and users of their target language. I want them to know the rules and also know that it’s okay to break the rules, and I want them to know that people make the rules as they interact, so the rules are always changing. I mean, come on, my textbook actually wants me to teach them how to use shall in conversation, to which I say, “Umm. Okay, everyone, see this word? Don’t use it in conversation.” Let’s teach our students to use and understand real language. Let’s teach them that sometimes we write things that we wouldn’t say, and vice versa. Let’s teach them that all of this is going to be okay. And while we’re at it, let’s assess their spoken English through speaking, and their written English through writing. That’s a post for another day.

How do you deal with spoken vs. written English in your classrooms? How can we accurately assess students’ command of spoken grammar? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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