Saturday, July 3, 2010

Slowing Down for Foreigners

There are people who are able to slow down and simplify their speech for foreigners, while others simply can't.

If you're the outsider, it can strike you as a lack of sympathy or patience when people rattle on in spite of your obvious language limitations. Or else you might chalk it up to sheer stupidity. But, with experience, it becomes apparent that plenty of nice, sympathetic, patient people - as well as highly intelligent people - lack the ability to adjust their speech for foreigners.

This appears to be a cognitive move which people either can or can't do; I haven't seen a murky grey area. And it's surprising that no one talks about this, because it may be an entry point for understanding deeper things about the human psyche. Plus, there are all sorts of interesting related issues. For example, why are some scientists able to explain their work to layman while others cannot?

I think it boils down to one of two issues: flexibility with language (language patterns are habitual, and some people have more trouble altering habitual patterns than others), or empathy (the ability to anticipate how another person will experience something). I'm not really sure which. But I'll be writing more about this, because I've just discovered an interesting connection....

Update: Rereading my own thoughts, it's got to be empathy. People's flexibility with language should be evenly distributed throughout the range from "real flexible" to "real inflexible". So if that were the underlying issue, there would be many people in the murky grey area...but, again, there are not. Empathy strikes me as more polar. Either you are inclined to inhabit the perspective of others, or you are not. So that would explain the black-and-whiteness of people with regard to this faculty.

I don't mean "empathy" in terms of emotional resonance. Consider: some people speak (and, even more commonly, write) as if no one is listening. They just send their words out there as best they can, and hope for the best, as a blind broadcast (and the comprehensibility can actually be quite high; the difference is in the perspective, not in the quality). Others have the ability to flip places and hear themselves as a listener hears them...even in real time, while they speak. I suppose that's an awfully tricky move, but while I happen to be able to do it, I certainly can't explain how. It's a faculty, that's all. But it's pretty much required if you want to say things in different ways to suit different listeners, all on the fly.


Chuck said...

Hi Jim,

I imagine there is work in cognitive science that addresses some of these very questions.

It might be worth a look if you have access to a good enough library.

Tom said...

I often wonder if those who can't are even aware that they can't, or if it's a case of anosognosia.

Sort of related--usually the singers with the nicest, clearest diction don't necessarily possess a special talent for language, or an ability to wrap their tongues around difficult pronunciations. It's mainly a matter of being able to sing the text with true empathy for the listener.

Jim Leff said...

Well, it's not anosognosia (a condition in which a person who suffers disability seems unaware of or denies the existence of his or her disability), because this is not yet considered a disability. I've never really heard anyone talk about it before. So it may, at this point, just be "another one of those things".

The concept of empathy is way interesting and under-explored. Unfortunately, the word's gotten a bit cloudy, since it's come to mostly be used in an emotional, touchy-feely way (i.e. "empathy" is represented by Oprah clasping the hand of a distraught guest on her TV show). Empathy's actually a lot more interesting in its purer meaning: the ability to perceive things as others perceive them - even (somewhat miraculously, if you'll think about it) in real time as you yourself supply the input.

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