sensitivity

We are into the complex topic of testing language proficiency in my TESL course. A whole slew of acronyms pours out…DELE, TOEFL iBT (CBT, PBT), CAE, MELAB, DEFL, IELTS, CELPIP, TORLF (rhymes with awful). ETS is behind the pinnacle of these, the TOEFL. I’ve yet to think up an appropriate acronym for this gruelling 4-hour stress-fest. But…how they are a “non-profit” is a mystery to me. They run millions of tests internationally. (They are also behind standardized testing in Canada.) Do they really put all their profits into R&D? Cannot be. I think their wishy-washy status under US tax law is at fault.

Complaints about TOEFL to come. My intent was to look at the act of interlocution. Communicating. Bantering, witty or otherwise. This point came up in relation to language proficiency being a complex and multifaceted thing, as it includes such things as grammatical usage, circumlocution (being able to talk around something if you don’t have a word/phrase), gestures, knowledge about the world, and “sensitivity to one’s audience”. Um. I think most of us might need some sensitivity training. We do listen (often only when we have something to gain/learn), and some of us choose our words before we utter them.

But how much do we consider the other?

Tannen talks about high involvement and high considerate speakers. Members of the former group will all talk at once, talk over each other, interrupt and generally not consider the other. High considerate speakers, on the other hand, won’t speak until they are sure the other speaker is done. Obviously it’s a spectrum, and in certain situations one could be at one extreme or the other, or happily in the middle. I’ve witnessed conversations where two people are talking, but neither are listening. It’s a cacophonic nightmare. We do fear the “awkward silence” in English, and will do a lot to avoid it. Some languages have more silence than speech, which one would assume makes for much better listening. I am happier as a listener, at extremes fear the power of words, and attach a lot to not being listened to.

One interesting thing to note is the expression “talk at”. To be talked at, at least to me, means the speaker is forcefully trying to get their point across, without taking me or my contributions (stated or potential) into consideration. We have a few verbs in English that can take two prepositions. Yell, talk, throw, among others, when coupled with the preposition “to” are neutral, but the addition of “at” suggests aggression. Don’t yell at the tigers, they might attack.

What is the purpose of communication? Is it just to state your opinion? Often it seems to be. When do we speak from place of wanting to be heard, listened to and understood, and when do we just say whatever genius idea is in our beautiful minds at that moment and then try to negotiate meaning or understanding, if at all? When do we have communication breakdowns, and why? Perhaps it’s not language that gets in the way of communication – it’s a neutral facilitator. It’s us. Putting aside oneself – one’s ego, one’s history, one’s ideals, means that you are completely present to listen, and maybe even speak. Bon courage.

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