Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Mythology of English: Part 2 - Register

Rewind a month to where I wrote The Mythology of English Part 1. After writing that I got completely swamped with TEFL work and let me blog slide. Never fear, I'm back to finish where I left off! So I left off with the questions: But is English really as democratizing as it seems? Are we really as casual, informal and non-hierarchal as our lack of formal titles suggests?


I would argue that our formalities are still there - but they are covert. Rather than having a strict set of rules laid out for us in our language, we have a set of social rules that dictate our use of language.

It comes down in part to our register - as sociolinguists like to call it. Register means saying the right thing, at the right time, in the right place, to the right person. Or in another sense: language that is dictated by its use and not by the user. But doesn't every language have registers? Well, yes. As I discussed in Part 1 many languages have formal ways of dictating register through the different forms of addressing someone - such as the French "vous" for formal situations and "tu" in informal situations.

But here is the thing about American English register - it's sneakily friendly. It can be so hidden at times that we don't recognize it until it is presented inappropriately.

As Vance, my amazing and awe inspiring wealth of information of a TEFL instructor liked to say: " In America, every stranger is a friend you haven't met." In other words, our bank teller, our server, our office-mate, our teachers and even our bosses have the potential to all receive the same style of treatment.

An example of this is how we so casually and automatically ask a rather personal question as a greeting. Not sure what I mean?
Ever walk down a hallway and pass a coworker or an acquaintance and say "Hey, how are you?" and keep right on walking without any intention of listening to their response because REALLY you don't expect a response?

"Hey, how are you?" is the greeting - not a question. This personal question that one might use to probe after someone's health or emotional well-being in another language is flung around in American English in a way that in most cases is not at all meant to be taken literally.

Time and again I have had students ask me "why do the people who work at the mall ask me how I am?" or "why does the lady at the grocery store ask me so many questions and smile so much?" Their initial reaction to being greeted this way by a stranger is a mixture of confusion and also some sense of awe. I always laugh to myself when my students comment on how friendly Americans are or when they comment on how often we smile in public and at strangers. Another Vance quote that I loved was that he frequently referred to Americans in his tongue in cheek way as "shiny, happy people."

This informal and personal way of addressing someone speaks to our values. They speak to who we want to be as a country and how we want to be perceived. There's no hierarchy here! Everyone is a friend. Equality for all. We Americans know this to be untrue, of course, but it ties in with our myth of the American Dream. In the land of opportunity, all you need is will, determination and a friendly disposition. Oh...and you have to speak English.

To go off on a mini-tangent for a moment: my hometown of Frederick, MD recently decided it's official language to be English. Was this really necessary? Not only does it seem unnecessary to me but as Commissioner President Blain Young said himself, "'it set's the tone." This, I imagine, for the "minorities" in Frederick, who are very quickly becoming the majority of the city's residents, is a tone they will not misunderstand. But there are times in which simply knowing the words in English does not mean the speaker understands the register they are striking in how they use those words.

For the ELL learner, not having a set of titles and ways of addressing people may seem like a blessing. Less things to memorize, woo! The problem is that it's still there, you just have to know the social rules. While one single word may not denote a certain attitude either way, the tone of voice you use, the order of the words, the words around that word, and the way in which you deliver the word (think body language) most certainly can.

For example. In some cultures the relationship between a server and a restaurant patron is very formal and decidedly cold. The message here from the patron being: "You bring me what I ask for and you stay out of the way" kind of deal. It's not at all rude, this is just the culture and a server who delivers this distant feeling type of service is giving, in their culture, the hight of perfect customer service. In American culture this register would often be completely inappropriate. Instead it is expected that you exchange the "how are you this evening" kind of pleasantries and maybe even ask the server what their favorite dish on the menu is, comment about the weather and then tell them how amazingly delicious all the food is. At the restaurant where I work (a mid-range dinning establishment with French American comfort food cuisine, a large selection of wines and beers, frequented mostly by upper middle class families) this expected exchange of pleasantries doesn't always happen. There are two types of people who break from this general "script."

The first group that generally fails to perform the ritual and strike this register is often my foreign patrons. To be sure, some of this can be attributed to a lack of confidence in the language, but not always. The general issue here is a lack of "cushion" words, as I like to call it. American English loves to throw in all those nice little pleasantries that soften the words we use to ask something of someone. Like saying "would you mind," or "if it's not too much trouble," or "when you have a moment." Without these words our requests seem like commands and we certainly wouldn't command this stranger, whose job it is to serve us, to fetch us whatever it is we need. No no, not in America. These "cushion" words serve to humanize the position the server is in and attempts to level the playing field, if only in our minds.

When I go to pour wine in a foreign patron's cup and they simply say "No", often without making eye contact with me, as opposed to the slightly apologetic "Oh no thank you, I'm finished drinking for the evening," accompanied by the "thanks anyway" smile that I would expect; it leaves the server feeling unintentionally snubbed. While of course there is nothing wrong with saying "No" and the word itself does not imply any sort of hierarchy or position, the absence of the polite words that we so often use to accompany this word is enough to set the tone in a register that robs the receiver of that democratic feeling of being the patron's equal.

The second group that hits an inappropriate register are those who obviously feel that there IS a hierarchy to be maintained. While there is no diminutive title they can use to express this in English per say, the blatant omission of "cushion" words can be just as jarring as using the "tu" form in French with a stranger with the intent of making them feel inferior. For example: I walk up to a table of Americans and start my "Good evening my name is..." greeting. Before I have even gotten my name out of my mouth the patron, without even turning to make full eye contact with me, shifts slightly in his chair and says, "merlot."

This patron, while he may not maliciously be seeking to demean me (and I have my theories about this but let's give them the benefit of the doubt here) has in any case struck a register and has, without using any nasty words, offensive gestures or status defining titles, made it very clear to me that he views the relationship between us as just what it is. They are paying for me to serve them. The "cushion" words are not present to mask this fact. Whether intentional or not, the situation has been laid bare with that one simple word.

In teaching English as a second language it is important to make these distinctions of register clear. While every student is taught "please" and "thank you" it is the duty of the instructor to stress the different registers that can be used with those same words.

Another example is that in French is it common to start a sentence with the word "alors." If you speak in English the way you would speak in French and start all of your sentences and questions with the word "so," what register does that strike? Well I can tell you from experience that it makes the speaker sound judgmental, haughty or arrogant. Sounds like a stereotype of the French, does it not? Perhaps, instead of actually being arrogant, they just aren't following our socially prescribed register. Not because they don't want to I imagine, but because they weren't taught the ways in which our register is different from theirs.

While I have met several French speakers who speak English quite well, they seem to be missing the concept of the register. More often then not they speak English in the same way they would speak French. This results in them using different cushion words - take the example of "so" which in English is used selectively and in French is not - and also their body language and word stress sends the opposite message from what they intended. The French speaker may say things like "So, are we there yet?" as opposed to "Hey, about how much longer until we get there?" Not only do the words strike the native English speaker as being different but the stress pattern - stress on "so" and "yet" - strike the listener as being almost confrontational - even if the speaker is smiling!

Vance shared a very interesting example with us in class concerning register. He was teaching an upper intermediate level class. As the students funneled in for the first day he was sitting among their desks waiting for them to settle into their seats. An asian woman entered the class and approached Vance and asked if he was the teacher. When he confirmed her suspicions she replied with "Yo, what up bitch," while smiling a radiant smile. You can probably imagine how a teacher meeting their student for the first time might react.

With a little digging he discovered where this student had picked up this rather unfortunate wording. She worked an evening shift at a retail store, sorting and moving boxes in the back-room warehouse. She confessed that the first few weeks at work no one acknowledged her. No one said hello. No one asked her name. She went about her work and slowly she seemed to get some recognition from her coworkers until finally one day she was greeted upon arrival to work with a "Yo, what up bitch." She had been accepted.

Now, she didn't know what the word bitch meant. She only knew that receiving this greeting, which was apparently the standard greeting in this environment, meant that the others were acknowledging her as part of the group and had accepted her.

Here was the dilemma Vance faced, and that he posed to us. What do you tell the student? IN the context of the students workplace, this register - while shocking in another context - is in fact "appropriate." Do you tell the student not to respond in the same way? Do you express to the student that this type of language is only appropriate in this situation and no others? Do you simply explain the meaning of the word bitch and let the student draw their own conclusion on the usage of this word? What would you do?

These are the types of issues that an ELL faces when using English in the real world. In a communicative classroom - these issues are explored and addressed in a way that traditional classrooms seek to ignore. This type of language is difficult to teach and discuss with students because it starts to necessitate the discussion of class and race, but it is absolutely necessary if the student wishes to interact and possibly assimilate with the American culture.

The word bitch can now be use in several registers. There is of course the use of it as a derogatory slur but then I might also jokingly call one of my girlfriends a bitch. What's the difference between me calling a woman who cut me off in traffic a BITCH and calling one of my female friends a BATCH? There is a huge difference in register here. Also, what demographic uses BATCH and what does it say about the speaker? What will people think of a speaker who is obviously foreign using this word in this way? How will they know when it is the appropriate register or not?

In my next few posts we will talk about the importance and implications of Code Switching, Body Language and Identity when teaching ESL/EFL.

Does anyone have any stories or techniques to share about teaching register? Any personal experiences of your own or with students?

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