Excuse me?

For me and my family, Easter holidays were celebrated with relatives in Žilina. Admidst all the whipping and splashing, no one was to find out that it was also my birthday: I wished to keep that under wraps, for a variety of reasons, but maybe most importantly, out of a (polite?) instinct that I did not wish to draw any attention to myself, and I did not want my relatives running around buying me presents, in addition to hosting our family.

Unfortunately for me and my secret, my relatives have a big print of a painting on their living room wall showing our family tree, along with birthdates. And conversation the first evening just naturally gravitated to the family tree, and after a little inspection on their part, the jig was up . . . they were reminded of my birthday.

So I woke up the following morning to a little birthday package . . . a picture book of Slovak places of interest, and a T-Shirt with a very interesting message:

Prišiel som
Videl som

So here is my quandary: it was certainly nice to get a gift (helping to bolster my “positive face”), but the message was, while right-on-the-mark appropriate in my case, not exactly something a Roman emperor would say (could it even be a face threatening act??). However, the present was offered in a spirit of hilarity and good humor, with everyone laughing and offering “na zdravie’s” (redressing a FTA?), so even if the humor was at my expense, we were among friends and family, so maybe I should view the message as a “solidarity strategy” where a little bit of abuse is meant to emphasize social closeness (Yule 64).

Question: Was the gift an example of politeness?

I should say that I have been wearing the shirt nearly every day since, not without some sense of pride mixed with humility, self-irony and well-being. It seems not only to strike to the heart of my predicament with my beloved Slovak (I have worked so hard, and yet know so little), but it also seems to rise up almost to the level of lifetime credo. I envision the gravestone marking my final resting place . . . .

I came
I saw
I never understood
I left

Everything was fine, and then I ran into one of my fellow American sojourners here, young Katie from my hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin (she is in high school here in Nitra for a year as a Rotary exchange student), she looked at me and rather dryly wondered out loud how I had the courage to wear a shirt that made me look stupid.

Well, I heard
I pondered
I can’t make up my mind . . .
So I’m asking you . . .

What do you think?


Yule, G (1996) Pragmatics. Oxford University Press.

Taking Turns

As we have already discussed, initiating encounters in an American context tend to be more broadly involving than in a Slovak context, while departures in the two cultures are inversely related (Slovaks have good-bye rituals where they are absent in English-speaking settings). Between an initiation and a closure, discourse can be structured around a series of turns, each containing its own beginning and end point. Differences in initiation strategies between Slovak and American speakers can reverberate across a larger more complex discourse, as revealed in classroom interaction between an American teacher and students in a Slovak university.

How is it that we take turns? In an American university setting, the common understanding is that there is an unstated invitation to take a turn . . . that class activities transpire in the form of dialogue. The default reaction to interruption is that it represents buy-in to the communication. Silence is also seen as a cue to participate. Overt questions coming from the teacher are tricky in this context . . . in an ideal dialogue (as opposed to an interrogation), participants extend questions regarding things they do not know but anticipate that audience knows. This is one reason why I am always asking for applications to Slovak. I look forward to your responses as expert information in an area that I am very interested in, but where I know little. It also provides an excellent opportunity to make applications of theoretical principles and terminology. In an ideal dialogue there are multiple sources of direction. This is a momentum-gathering phenomenon, isn’t it? Don’t you feel more inclined to take a turn when there are many students taking turns?

Technological support often can be used to underscore the essential dialogic nature of the teacher-student relationship. Our blog space, for instance, prompts for commentary; I get the first word, usually, but really I recognize that I am not the most important participant, as your commentary always makes up the bulk of every week’s dialogue. The e-mail channel through which contributions are made give further structured opportunities for dialogue. Skyping always involves turn-taking, and unlike our e-mails, it is typically the case that students initiate the dialogue in Skype. Similarly, the wiki space provides a format for interactive, group productions.

What are the specific things that prompt you to take a turn? And how “real” is that turn? That is, what distinguishes between honest participation and just going through the motions? How important is it for me to take the first turn in the week’s proceedings? What if we started class next week with it your turn? That is, I come to class looking forward to a cue to take the first turn, and not assuming that I am to fulfill this role myself? What if our class was organized like Tesco, so that my first appearance was at the back of the line of interactions, rather than at the front?

Greener Grass

Reading in between the lines, I feel your postings last week on ťaháky reveal some interesting extended „Conversations“ on such things as the nature of the student-teacher relationship, individual responsibility and socialism, and the state of education in Slovakia. Underlying your comments, I detected a „Discourse model“ at play that I have begun to notice and get accustomed to here in Slovakia; I will call it the „Grass is greener on the other side of the fence“ model: People in Slovakia seem to have a keen interest in how things are done elsewhere, and have the attitude that much can be learned from examining those comparisons. Thus, writers made comparisons to Denmark, Scandanavian countries, the UK and the US all with the intention of suggesting some corrective measure that could be used here in Slovakia.

The reason why this way of thinking was at first surprising may come from the fact that I am an American, and in my country there seems to be, as one writer recently referred to it*, a „myth of enviability“. That is, Americans think that other people around the world want to be like us, live like we do, have what we have, and, ideally, move next door to us.

This model has many manifestations. As a Fulbright scholar, one of the most important things I have been asked to do is to strive to help out my host country. Frequently my conversations with other American teachers and scholars in the Fulbright program center around how we can make our jobs more like the ones we have back home, with the assumption that this is how we could be most helpful.

This model meshes quite interestingly with the Slovak ‚grass is greener‘ model, as on more than one occasion important people in Slovakia (a majoral candidate, a Vice-Rector, a store owner/operator) have worked to arrange meetings with me so that I could help them understand how things (running a city, a private enterprise, a university) are done in the US . . . so that some of these ideas may be incorporated here.

As gratifying as these conversations can be, there are some interesting limitations. Under these circumstances it seems to cut across the grain for me to criticize things that I feel are bad about the American lifestyle with its focus on consumption, material well-being, self-gratification, competition and specialization . . . the cult of the expert. . . . at the expense of spiritual and aesthetic nourishment, a sense of community and a shared history and future, and an overarching inter-dependence. Likewise, maybe these two models, coming together as they do, make is hard for Slovaks to advance their own point of view, at variance with any international one, unique to Slovakia, and important for that very reason. That is, if you have as a working model the idea that „the grass is greener“ on my side of the fence, then what motivation do you have to solve my problems and to find things that are both valuable and life-enriching on your side of the fence? That is, what motivation do you have to unveil your own hidden treasures for all the world to see?

* Tom Nicholson „Tiso myth appalling and dangerous“ in Spex: Slovakia’s Monthly English Magazine p. 3.

Building Tasks

„Vezmi si do rúk jednu paličku a prelom ju. Teraz s vezmi dve a skús ich prelomiť. Nakoniec skús prelomiť naraz tri paličky. Su také pevné, že sa ti to nepodarí. Vidiš? Jedna palička je slabí, ale ked sú tri spolu, sú silné. Nikdy nezabudni spolupracovať s priatelmi!“*

There recently appeared an article in the Slovak Daily SME titled Ťahákom sa u nás stále darí. ( ‘Crib notes are still with us’; 12.2.2007, Weekend section). The thrust of the article is that Slovak students používaju ťaháky (cheat on examinations, e.g., by using crib notes) more than students in other countries. But what does it really mean that Slovak students cheat more than other students? According to the article, to cheat, students do one of two things when they are working on a problem: i) they communicate with their classmates, or ii) they consult notes or other reference material they have brought with them.

Now from a certain standpoint it may not seem like such a problem that students collaborate, prepare notes, and consult reference material to gain information to solve problems. In fact, the research and collaboration model has been put foward in some circles as one of the major goals of education. So why are notes and classroom discussion viewed as a problem in a Slovak context? Doesn’t it boil down to the bare fact of the teacher’s interest in not wanting it to happen? Such reluctance might reflect a culture of assessment in which it is most likely that exam questions ask students to repeat information that they have been assigned. If tests simply are an indication of the students’ ability to replicate what has been lectured or assigned to them, then allowing students to consult one another and their notes would reduce the exam situation to an exercise in stenography. Such exams test primarily the students capacity to memorize. But in a computerized world where information is ever more readily available, is it really important to test a student’s store of information? The human memory is a relatively weak and unreliable tool in comparision to today’s information technology. If we move from a content-oriented pedagogy, to one that prizes above all skills and proficiencies, then it is not the amassing of information that is the ultimate goal of education, but rather the nurturing of an ability and disposition to access and make the best use of information.. Now if examinations tested thinking skills, then crib notes could serve as an enhancement that would permit the teacher to test higher order thinking skills, make more challenging questions, and get more interesting results. This uncovers another assumption about exam taking where “cheating” can occur, and that is that these exams are meant in part to probe students’ limitations–exams as instruments of diagnosis. Alternatively, examinations might be viewed as a learning tool, constituting a very special situation in which students are highly motivated (especially in high-stakes exit and entrance exams) to use all the resources available to create the best result.

And what about students relying on their classmates to solve their problems? This is only a problem if the students are working on the same problem. So if students have their own distinctive set of problems, which ask them to employ logical methods to infer or extrapolate results framed with appropriate qualifications, then any collaboration would be subordinate to the individual agendas of each of the collaborators, again a desirable result if the intention is to create a learning-rich environment leading to the highest quality outcomes.

How to stop cheating? One answer is to have the teachers and institutions build towards a different type of test, one which relates students with other students and teachers as partners working to maximize the quality of product of everyone’s efforts, not as potential adversaries.

Quoted from the column „Masahikovými očami” in the Weekend Edition of SME 24.2.07. The English translation is as follows: “Take in your hand a single stick and break it. Now take two and try to break them. Finally try to break three sticks at once. They are so strong, that you are not able. Do you see? One stick is weak, but when there are three together, they are strong. Never forget to work with your friends!” The picture appearing in this blog is taken from the SME article on cheating in schools.

Mixed Messages

Uncovering the social motivations of language-boundary-crossing choices . . . is a sociolinguistic task on a par with investigating the social motivations of dialect choice, gender-specific speech forms, or age grading.” -Florian Coulmas

Slovakia is definitely a very interesting place for anyone interested code-switching: socially motivated movement from one language to another in the course of making a message. Slovak, of course, is always around us, but from a global perspective the community of Slovak speakers is small enough that other ‘world’ languages, in particular German, French, Italian, and, especially, English, seem to always pop up.

Take the storefront advertisement pictured above, one of many on the pedestrian zone in Nitra’s centrum that mixes English and Slovak: “big bag outlet športový a modný textil z anglicka.” On the surface, we have three words of English followed by six in Slovak. It only requires a little reflection to see that the transition from one language to the other is not at all arbitrary. The transition point underscores the structure of the message: shop name (in English), followed by a summary of inventory or services offered (in Slovak). What is accomplished by ‘mixing the message’ in this way? The Slovak part of the message, I would guess, has a very practical value: it explains to a predominantly Slovak speaking public assembly just what it might find in the store.

It’s tempting to think of the first part of the message, the English part, as a type of ‘branding’: the English brings to the message a certain ‘cachet,’ a certain status and prestige that results from the fact that English is a language used for international commerce, that goods and people associated with predominantly English-speaking countries, especially the United States, have global exposure. And to the degree that breadth of exposure contributes to degree of fashion and appeal, it is logical to conclude that the English part of the message is an attempt at a stylish enticement to get the consumer to engage with the business.

These messages also are another example of the dual function of language. The English part of the message is clearly a play for status, and does very little in the way of communicating practical information. In fact, the very necessity of the informational, Slovak segment of the message serves to underscore that many passers-by may not attach any informational meaning whatsoever to the English part. Indeed, discerning shoppers who know something about the meaning of a ‘big bag outlet’ store in an English context realize that this phrase is used there to describe downscale discount stores, where people who don’t have a lot of money go, wishing to buy something cheap. Therefore, in an English context, advertising that you are an outlet store has a very different social function, I would think.

Having spent a little time now dissecting this particular advertisement formula, I nevertheless would have to admit that this tidy little case really doesn’t represent the phenomenon of code-switching in its purist sense, but I’ll leave it to you in your postings to make it clear why.

Time Machine

The photograph this week is of the monument on the Nitra Castle grounds commemorating Proglas, described in a wikipedia entry as “the oldest Slovak and Slavic poem, written during 863-867.” Of course, even if you squint at it for quite a while, I would be surprised if you could make anything out, and this is not a problem that stems from the fact that Ludovit Stur had not yet arrived on the scene to codify a literary standard for Slovak.

If we go back to a similar time period in English, the language looks something like this:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning!

Behind the obvious first impression of the extent to which languages change over time, there are many interesting questions, two of which that immediately come to mind being: (i) Why do we call it “English”? (ii) Why does it look and sound so different from today’s English?

The first question gains in potency as we consider that at the time these lines were composed, “English” (named after the Angles, a Danish tribe that had migrated to parts of Britania around the fifth century A.D., in the wake of the contraction of the Roman Empire), was a collection of vernacular speech styles used in by a largely peasant population numbering at most in the hundreds of thousands and located in southern and midland parts of modern day England. The question is especially pertinent to American, Australian, New Zealand and all the so-called “non-native” speakers of English . . . the vast majority of which trace their family and cultural heritage to places around the globe that have little connection with the tiny island bordering the North Sea.

Assuming we can answer the first question (which I’m hoping that you will take a stab at helping me out with), we can then turn to the second question concerning the mechanisms of change. If language is changing, where do we look to see that change in action? What causes the language to change? Is change inevitable? Casting our eye back on Old English, we can see where English has been. How can we see where it is going in the future? And, finally, what attitude does it make most sense to take with respect to the changes that are happening to language? These attitudes may be important, in that they impact on decisions concerning issues of language planning (regarding which you may wish to preview the material in chapter 11 of Coulmas (Sociolinguistics: The study of speakers’ choices).

In this final little time capsule I have for you, I would like you not only to fathom the linguistic distance between the Old English and its “translation,” but also to react to archaic characteristics in the latter version. How would you translate the prayer into Modern Standard English? How are archaisms distributed across the lexicon, syntax, and phonology of the prayer? What sociolinguistic processes account for the persistence of this older forms in this context?

And now let us pray:


Standards and Social Class

Frequently we talk about a “standard version” of the language. What is “Standard English”? This question is especially tough to decide, with respect to English, because it is a native language in widely dispersed areas. What version of English do you think is “standard”? Perhaps it is easier to think about what makes a particular version of a language “standard.” Florian Coulmas, in Chapter Two of his book Sociolinguistics: The Study of Speakers’ Choices, points to the connection between what is considered the standard form of the language and the notion of social prestige: the standard form of the language will be the form used by the most prestigious class of society. But then the question becomes that of determining or identifying class distinctions. In the United States, “Standard English” is sometimes described as “Network English”—the type of English that is used by news commentators on the national television networks. In terms of the various dimensions according to which language may vary, it can be described as the variant of language associated with the region of the upper Ohio River Valley, so-called North Midland American English. Let’s say that Columbus, Ohio, is its epicenter. Columbus is basically white, professional (home of a big University, Ohio State University), economically vibrant, somewhat younger-than-average population, with a moderate to conservative political base. It is at the center of a band that stretches across the United States from Philadelphia out to Omaha, Nebraska. This swath extends north to Cleveland, Chicago and Minneapolis, and south to Indianapolis and St. Louis. You can also hear Standard American English in the voice of “Directory Assistance” on our telephones, or in our commentators on National Public Radio. The written Standard of American English can be seen in high school textbooks, Newsweek Magazine, or the New York Times newspaper. It has wide currency in printed material virtually throughout the US.

When we take a broader perspective, it becomes harder to talk about “Standard English.” Obviously the American Standard does not hold for Great Britain, or Australia and New Zealand.

So let’s try to address some important questions: (i) from what perspective can we detect the “Standard” form of a language? (ii) What are some of the problems in identifying the social class with which the “Standard” is associated?

So far I have been writing about Standard English, but non-native speakers are at some disadvantage on this topic. Is there a standard form of your own native language? Until recently, Slovakia was part of a socio-communist state apparatus, at least nominally dedicated to eliminating social and economic inequality. Under such conditions, was it still possible to identify social classes in Slovakia? What were they?

The Planet of the Talking Apes

What is the function of language? Before you answer, think on it for a while. What if you had to boil it down to a single thing . . . the main, core, central function of language? If you were a monkey, probably the best answer would be that ‘language’ is a means of communication, a way to alert others to predators, food, a way of scaring off rivals and a way of ministering to mates and offspring.

But we are humans, and for us there are things that may be even more important than exchanging information permitting us to get along better in this world. When I think back on one my first linguistics professors at the University of Wisconsin, just to pick someone out at random, I can tell you the big topics we discussed—phonology, phonetic transcription, intonation, sound rules, and accent—but I can’t remember a single specific piece of information, even though I learned a lot, went on to write a monograph on a topic in phonology, and continue to work to this day on issues in this regard. However, what I remember specifically is the way the instructor said my name: it was /mua:k/ rather than /mark/; I remember that he would aspirate the /t/ in a word like “insert” when he would be describing, for example a phonological phenomenon where speakers sometimes add an extra sound (for example “somepthing” rather than “something”). I remember him using expressions like “that is to say . . .” and “let us posit . . .” and “therefore we may hypothesize . . .”). In short the specifics about my recollection of his language left the impression of a man that grew up in New York City, using a so-called ‘r-less’ dialect associated with the urban NYC working class, that had somehow found his way to Wisconsin, but who was not at all ashamed of his roots. In fact, he had an expansive personality and an eloquence that revealed his self-confidence, and a rather formal way of conducting himself with his students, that bespoke of social place, hierarchy, the seriousness with which he considered his subject matter, and which accentuated the social distance between himself and his students. All of which is to say that what I remember about this man is his sense of his social identity in relation to those around him, and not a dog-gone thing that he had to say.

Perhaps it is not too odd to think of the selectivity of memory as a tool for telling us what is truly fundamental to human language: let us think of human language as the means by which we project who we are in the larger social arrangements in which we form a part. Just like we wear certain clothes and hair styles to communicate who we are, even more so we use language to do the same, and it is through the linguistic choices that we make that we advertise our sense of our gender, age, social class, ethnicity, regional affiliations, educational level, comfort level, sense of self, sense of closeness to others, and so on.

The linguist Noam Chomsky has famously said that all humans speak one language, something that to any nonhuman would be as obvious as the fact to us that all adult emperor penguins look alike. Chomsky and others involved in exploring what has been called ‘Universal Language’ have proven how extensive and intricate the human language ‘biological endowment’ really is. For the sake of argument, let us say that all languages are 99% alike. Still, we humans, like emperor penguins, are naturally interested in the differences–differences that follow from decisions that we choose to make. And this is the scope and mission of ‘sociolinguistics: the study of those aspects of human language which are the result of human choice, guided by a metaphysical commitment to agency manifesting free will.