Saturday, February 13, 2010

Documenting My Thoughts on Intercultural Communications: Your "Big Words" Are Not My "Big Words" Part Two

In Documenting My Thoughts on Intercultural Communications: Your "Big Words" Are Not My "Big Words" Part One, I began my thesis on how speakers of English as an additional language (SEALs) and a native speakers of English (NSEs) have different definitions of what a "big" word is (whether or not they realize or admit it).

The idea which I had proposed -- albeit incoherently due to me getting sleepy half way through the composition -- is that when a NSE finds him/herself in a situation wherein s/he is communicating with a SEAL whose level of English is far from being near-native, s/he is often inclined to significantly dumb down his/her language in order to be accommodating. Most of the time, from my experience, the intention is good, but the way in which it is done is often misguided and consequently results in miscommunication.

If you can make something simpler, you certainly should. So I'm not suggesting that a NSE resist the urge to simplify the way s/he communicates to a SEAL. S/he just has to scratch where it itches. And where it itches for SEALs is often not where NSEs would normally think to scratch. Let's go back to what I mentioned before about how simple words make for the most innocent-looking landmine. As cited in Part One, the most commonly-used verbs, e.g. verb to be, are almost always irregularly declined. And here's one thing I have learned over and over and over these past several years of learning different languages:

The level of difficulty of a given word has more to do with the width of its semantic range and the number of ways the word can be used than the level of difficulty in spelling, pronouncing, or translating it. Certainly, it has very little to do with how frequently the word is used.

Of this I am confident. But feel free to disagree.

"Are you saying that the sentence 'His explanation discombobulated her," has better chances of being understood by a SEAL than, 'His explanation throws her off,"?

Well, yes and no.

I'm not saying that discombobulate is an easy word for a SEAL; it's not. But between "throw off" and "discombobulate," the former is more likely to cause miscommunication when a NSE is communicating to a SEAL with rudimentary level of English. Unless the SEAL is well-versed in all sorts of phrasal verbs, what they all mean, and how they're used, chances are s/he will think s/he understands what it means to "throw someone off." And "think" is the key word here.

You see, the best word to use is "confuse," but the second best isn't "throw off." In fact, of the three choices: confuse, discombobulate, and throw off, the last one is the worst.

Now I know that this seems counter-intuitive to most NSEs and it is. NSEs are familiar with "throw off" and have come to see "throw off" as easy. After all, even a first-grader understands words like "throw off." Right?

"Throw off" is not easy to SEALs, however. A SEAL may think s/he knows what it means, but oftentimes that is not the case. And what makes it complicated is the very fact that both the SEAL and the NSE think that the SEAL understands "throw off."

In any kind of communication, an ideal situation is for both parties to understand each other perfectly. The worst situation, most people think, is that one party doesn't understand the other and vice versa. I disagree. I think the worst situation is when an assumption of understanding or a false understanding occurs. Both parties are under a false impression that communication is successful, that understanding has taken place. Now, that, I think is the most dangerous situation.

This is why it's better to use a low-frequency word like discombobulate than a high-frequency phrasal verb like throw off. The SEAL knows right away, whether or not s/he admits it,* that s/he does not know what discombobulate means. A curious, enthusiastic SEAL learner will either ask the NSE to define or paraphrase it on the spot or make a mental note to look up that word to find out what it means. A more apathetic SEAL may not do anything for s/he does not care all that much. Nonetheless, one thing is certain: that SEAL realizes s/he doesn't know what combobulate means.

Only when one recognizes there's a problem can one think to find remedy.

That's very unlikely to be the case with throw off. The SEAL knows what "throw" means and chances are s/he also knows what "off" means. What s/he does not and cannot know unless s/he is properly educated in this matter is that the definition of "throw off" has little, if anything, to do with the primary definition of either throw or off. So s/he goes on thinking s/he knows what the NSE means when s/he doesn't.

A word like discombobulate, on the other hand, will cause a big red achtung sign to pop up in the SEAL's mind. A phrasal verb like "throw off" usually does not.

Hence the danger.

Think of other phrasal verbs:

She takes after her father.
Dude, check that girl out!
That jerk in the red truck cut me off, so I flipped him one.

The last example is my favorite. It's a little dialogue I made up myself to make a point when I conduct trainings in intercultural communications:

Boy: How did grandpa die, Mom?
Mom: He was old, honey. His heart just gave out.
Boy: Oh, so if grandpa's heart had given in, he wouldn't have died?

See? These things are easy to NSEs and that has led to a false assumption that they are also easy to SEALs. Not true.

Again: the difficulty of a word (or a lexical unit) has more to do with the width of its definition and usage than how long it is or how hard it is to spell/pronounce it.

Look up "emancipation," "interchangeability" or "infirmity" and you'll see that the semantic range is quite narrow. These words are not used to refer to a wide spectrum of things. Their equivalents in other languages aren't very fluid either.

Now look up words like "set," "put," or "pass" and you'll see that they cover much wider semantic ranges. Used in conjunction with different adverbs, they mean different things. These things present a bigger problem.

Example: Your friend set you up with a guy. On the fist date, not only did he make a pass at the waitress, he also said things to put you down. So you put on a smile and pretended you enjoyed the evening while thinking to yourself, "This guy? Nah, I'll pass." After a long evening of putting up with his behavior, you vowed to yourself that you would never again put your hopes up whenever that friend of yours sets you up with someone.

Another example is found in my previous post regarding how the use of the lethal phrasal verbs leads to miscommunication. In retrospect, had my supervisor used the verb "disarm" or "the alarm will sound," etc., chances are I would have understood.

Am I making sense? Or did I just discombobulate you?

*Ever heard of the concept of "losing face" in some cultures?