Suddenly Dumb

Embarrassing Story

When I moved to Canada, my fluency in English was confirmed twice by IELTS. I had been studying English for decades, since I was twelve. I had ten years of experience working in an international company where English was the only spoken language. I was pretty confident in my speaking abilities, when one sunny morning I took an elevator.

My husband and I rented an apartment on the 10th floor. I went downstairs to check our mail.  The elevator stopped on its way down to collect other residents. Three more people joined me, and they naturally started small talk about the weather. I felt completely lost, because I couldn’t figure out what to respond to, “It’s a beautiful day today, eh?” I panicked, because I have zero experience in small talk, neither in English nor in Russian. Russians would rather keep silent or talk about politics in a situation like that. Small talk simply doesn’t happen between Russians; not the way it happens in North America, anyway.  

I think I managed to mumble something like “yes”. Other neighbours started discussing the beauty of sunshine and contrasted that to the rainy night.  

While I was feverishly searching for appropriate responses, the elevator reached the ground floor. “Have a good day!”, my neighbours said. And I panicked again, because I didn’t expect this phrase and didn’t have a ready-made, canned response for that. 

“How come,” I thought, “how come my English was sufficient for market reports, international conferences, friendly parties with colleagues, but not enough for a forty second ride in an elevator with neighbours?”

Of course, eventually, I learned how to make small talk, and I learned what phrases to expect in different situations, and what responses to give in order not to look weird. But in my thoughts, I kept returning to that embarrassing ride in the elevator, and I tried to understand why I felt suddenly dumb and speechless.

Apparently, my vocabulary wasn’t the problem. But what was it? I talked about that with other language learners, and with my students, and they shared their stories, very similar to mine. What mysterious power turns language learners’ brains blank, erases all knowledge of the language and makes us feel dumb when we face native speakers outside of familiar settings such as classrooms or offices?

I didn’t know what to say, not because I didn’t know English words, but because I simply wasn’t familiar with the Canadian (or, wider, North American) small talk protocol. 

What Chatbots Know (But You Don’t)

In everyday conversations, we often use pre-made phrases, canned responses, semi-automatic reactions. When we get involved in communication or initiate it, we have certain ideas in mind regarding what is going to happen, what we are going to say and what reaction we may get. We have a number of scenarios for typical conversations. You’ve probably never thought about it this way, but you use those scenarios every day, and that saves you a lot of time, energy and brain cells. Developers of chatbots and AI platforms know about those scenarios and implement  them in their simulators.

Those protocols or scripts, I haven’t nailed down the terminology yet, are not quite universal. They are cultural. When we study a new language, we invest a lot of our time in learning new vocabulary, in comprehending the linguistic mechanics of each particular language, in developing practical skills such as listening comprehension, reading, writing, and, finally, speaking. We rarely pay attention to how native speakers interact with each other. 

How ubiquitous are those scenarios? I do not have the exact number, or percentage for how much of our communication is “automotized”, but I think it is something very close to 100%. Don’t feel bad about it. We are not robots, or lazy, or stupid (maybe we are, but it is not because we use “canned” phrases). It is in the very nature of human speech.

When we listen to human speech, our brain gives the most plausible interpretations based on the topic and the situation. We understand something because, to a certain extent, we expect that to be said. We compare our knowledge about typical situations with what we hear, and this is how we figure out the meaning of phrases. Each next phrase verifies our interpretation, and we make the necessary adjustment. This is how human communication happens. We always rely on the communication scenarios established in our culture and our heads.  

What language courses often lack is cultural communication habits. We usually don’t have a chance to learn those conversation scenarios without being immersed into the environment where everybody else follows the protocols and knows the scenarios. Why are native speakers so bad at understanding immigrants? Is that because immigrants speak poor language? Partially, yes. But more often, it is because immigrants use different scenarios, and locals don’t hear the expected response, don’t get the expected reaction. I felt so helpless in the elevator, not because I didn’t speak English, but because I didn’t have the script called “small talk in an elevator” in my hard drive. 

You probably have heard that living in a country where a target language is spoken is the fastest and the easiest way to learn the language. Why is that so? Is it because of the exposure? Yes, but also, because this is one of the easiest and fastest ways to learn how people communicate, how they beg, threaten, humiliate, encourage, tease, command, and so on. As immigrants enrich their conversational repertoire with new native scenarios, it gets easier and easier for them to communicate with native speakers. And native speakers will understand them easier. 

Now What?

By now, I probably have convinced you that we have a menu of scripts, a set of conversation scenarios, in our head, and this menu makes communication easier. What does it mean for language learners? 

I suppose, there are a few serious implications for both language teachers and language learners. First, the most obvious one, is that we should expect communicative failures in early stages of language acquisition. It has nothing to do with vocabulary or grammar. It has very little to do with other language skills. Textbooks don’t teach communication. 

Second, the learning materials should be authentic and communicatively charged. With all the due respect, classic literature doesn’t teach how people communicate. At the very best, it teaches how people communicated in the language quite some time ago. Dostoyevsky was a great writer, but I would strongly recommend against mimicking his characters in everyday conversations. TV shows are much more informative in that regard, as well as movies. Live online chats are extremely helpful, too, even though the language there is often broken, ugly, and primitive. If you want to learn how to communicate in the language, watch native speakers communicating where possible. You’ll pick it up sooner than you think. 

And finally, scenario-based language learning makes context extremely important. Our communication is contextual. No conversation happens in a social vacuum, why do we learn languages by memorizing sterile, context-free words and rules?

You probably think that I make learning a new language unnecessarily complicated. This is not true. When we were babies, we didn’t have any ideas about how to hold a conversation. We had no scripts or scenarios other than “I cry, I get fed. I cry more, I get changed”. We learn the scenarios by observing our parents and other adults. We can repeat that process one more time, now faster and more consciously, with a new language and new culture.

If this article resonated with you, please share your stories and ideas in the comments! 

Special thanks to George Strohl who proofread and edited this article.