Sunday, March 09, 2008

Phatic Speech and Self-Talk

The other day, the Omniglot had a nice post on phatic speech. For the non-native, phatic speech can be among the hardest bits to master, or at least to recognize, for it consists in knowing the right words to say absolutely nothing. It's also sometimes referred to as "elevator talk," the elevator being just the kind of place where you'd want to say a few words to break the silence but without feeling that something has been lost when you arrive at your floor before your interlocutor and the conversation must come to a halt.

I've written in the past about self-talk - using spare moments in line, or while finding a parking spot, to rehearse what you'd say in the language you're learning if only you were actually in Beijing, Paris, Rome, Madrid or Tregor, as opposed to being, well, at home. It's a good technique for living the language even when you can't, at least in real life. But I don't think I'd ever hit on the importance of elevator talk.

Simon's post reminded me just how much my true conversion to French fluency was marked not by understanding what people said, but by my understanding of which questions weren't actually questions and which responses could be offered without saying anything. The surest way to mark a non-native in most cultures is to see him seek a meaningful response to a question like "How are you?" or "Sure is cold today, isn't it?"

So if you want to be fluent in your new language, work hard and study hard. But if you want to seem fluent, pay extra special attention to the sections on greetings and social rituals. When you need something, you'll still have to betray your status as a learner. But if you've got a good handle on phatic speech, you'll be able to make it through more than half your conversations as a seemingly solid speaker of the language even though you've neither learned nor said a thing of importance.

Take this conversation in Breton (from
Herve ha Nolwenn.
H. Salud dit, Nolwenn.
N. Salud dit, Herve.
H. Mat an traoĆ¹ ganit ?
N. Ya, mat-tre. Ha ganit ?
H. Mat-tre ivez.
Greetings to you, Nolwenn. / Greetings to you, Herve. / Good are things with you? / Yes, good-indeed. And with you? / Good-indeed, also

Notice that there's absolutely no information exchanged there. And yet, if you can cap off this conversation with a cheery Kenavo, you can make it through an entire Breton conversation without even knowing ten words!

If you're just starting to learn a language, or if you know quite a bit of one, but don't feel at all natural when speaking, it never hurts to learn some more. But sometimes, first, you'll want to learn the words to say nothing at all - and say it well!


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