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The Art of Second Language Conversation

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Issue: 17 Section: Arts Geography: Canada

April 6, 2004

The Art of Second Language Conversation

by Linda Besner

When I talk to my new friend Tom, we're not just talking-- we're metatalking. When I ask him how he's enjoying the weather, he tells me he is not enjoying it at all because it has too many future tenses. "Will it rain?" he asks me. Then answers himself, "In the afternoon it may begin to rain." "It will soon be raining."

Tom and I meet once a week to practice the most self-reflexive art on earth-- the art of second language conversation. It is simultaneously speech and the dissection of speech, a use of form which constantly queries the form. It's as though an actor, in the middle of a soliloquy, were to stop and earnestly ask the audience, "If I said 'jealous,' would you understand me more like a person whose girlfriend is cheating on him, or as someone who is careful about their possessions?" And the audience were to answer, "I don't know, what's the rest of the sentence?" And then the actor and the audience would go on to toss around ideas about whether the actor has jealousy in his/her nature or sometimes behaves in a jealous way, and whether this quality is good or bad.

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It makes for a unique kind of performance. It combines elements of logical flow with questions of semantics, word association, and indeed outright mistake. Set free of its particular contextual meaning, every word expands, and becomes important in its own right.

My favourite aspect of the second language conversation, however, is the way it forces the listener into that position so dearly beloved of poetry teachers everywhere-- the active interpretative stance. Because of the sometimes agonizingly slow pace of the conversation, as well as the listener's awareness that the speaker may actually lack the words to say what he/she means, expectation and anticipation are heightened, and there is a greater sense of surprise and discovery when a sentence is completed in an unanticipated fashion. The listener rarely sits passively and allows the speaker to flounder, casting about for a word he/she may not even know. Instead, the listener is constantly making suggestions, chasing various trains of thought, trying to divine which linguistic alleyway the speaker is wandering in. My most creative audience experience, in talking to Tom, was when he was telling me something about a flower, and was getting frustrated that I didn't seem to be following him properly.

"A flower," I repeated.

"No," he insisted, "the best part of the flower."

"The petals?" I asked stupidly. "The stamen?" What's the best part of a flower?

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Eventually, it turned out that in Czech, kvetina is a word that refers to a cut flower, but with the stem and the leaves as part of the package. Giving someone "flowers" is giving them kvetina. But the word for the actual blossom is kvet, so Tom was looking for something like flow, or maybe flo, that would relate to "flower" in the same way. Easily sorted out; but the confusion provided me with an interesting opportunity. For a tantalizing moment I was considering our conversation from the unexpected vantage point of a bee. My attitude towards flowers as a human was not generating any information by which I could determine what Tom meant by "the best part" of a flower. Maybe, I thought, the assumptions that I'm using for this conversation are wrong. Because there is generally less context in second language talk, I am quicker to jump in an array of directions to try to fill in the missing pieces. If Tom's first language was English, I would expect him to fill in the information for me. My position as listener or audience member would be lazier.

Finally, in conversation with Tom, we both end up questioning how important the form really needs to be. Is it enough if I understand what he means? Or does his grammar and word choice have to be worthy of an Oxford don? In other words, is the function of conversation to communicate ideas? Or is part of it a display of linguistic virtuosity for its own sake? As a conversationalist, Tom is able to be innovative in a way that might take me considerable thought. It wouldn't have occurred to me that Labrador dogs "have rich emotions," or to say that "the rain is falling in ropes." In some ways, learning "correct" English is a plot to turn Tom's conversation conventional, to strip it of the poetic effects that unusual words or sentences structures can have. Paradoxically, once his English is more consciously artful, it may lose its current gaps and spaces that allow the listener to interact with it as art.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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