4. On Comprehension as Part of Communication
184.108.40.206. On anchoring and intake
It is now the role of the hearer to anchor this information by transforming the speaker’s output into her own intake. The grammar of the English language helps the hearer to understand that the utterance is a signal of information as well as which kind of information (new or old). However to get to the full comprehension, the hearer must also understand the speaker’s experience as well as the situation in reality behind the experience. She does so by recreating in her own mind and in the opposite order the journey made by the speaker. The first step of anchoring is thus to remove the layer of wrapping created in the framing process to uncover the input created as a result of the naming process, i.e. the speaker’s experience. As mentioned, though the naming was made covert by the framing, the utterance is likely to still hold some traces of it which may guide the hearer.
But for the second step of accessing the situation behind the experience, the hearer is on her own.
She has to remove the second layer of wrapping created by the naming process. She does so by comparing her own inner world to the external world the hearer thereby gaining access to a description of the situation (Bentsen & Durst-Andersen, 2015, pp. 12-14; Durst-Andersen, 2011a, pp. 152-153, 264-265; Durst-Andersen & Cobley, to appear). Of course, the situation which the hearer gains access to will not be the same as the one, which formed the basis for the speaker’s experience. It can only be a model of it.
Returning to the example of I actually bought a loaf of bread today said by Jane to her friend John, John now has to make sense of the utterance. The grammar of his mother tongue English lets him understand that this is a flash-back, the telling of a story (indicated by the simple past) showing him the entire movie. It also allows him to understand that the loaf of bread mentioned is unknown to him (new information signalled by the indefinite article). However, for a full comprehension of what Jane said, he must also understand her experience as well as the situation behind her experience. Just as any other hearer (and speaker) John knows that any utterance is always a model of a situation in reality, a symptom of the speaker’s experience and a signal of information to the hearer. To understand the symbol behind the signal, the experience that was Janes input, John has to remove the layer of wrapping placed in the framing stage. The adverb actually guides him in this process as it indicates that Jane experienced a contrast between the external world, the situation in reality, and her own internal world, her four discourse worlds. It also indicates an element of surprise over this contrast. Putting himself in Jane’s mind, John knows that this contrast must be because she holds an opinion of herself as someone who always makes her own bread and takes pride in this, and that she therefore feels surprised and perhaps even shameful to have bought some.
However, there is not much in the utterance which actually helps John understand the situation behind the experience (behind the information). For this part, he is somewhat on his own. By comparing his own internal world, i.e. what he holds in his mental stores of information about the past and present world, with the external world, i.e. what is true at the present moment, he can gain access to the situation. It will, however, never be the same situation as the one Jane actually found herself in, but only a model of it. In other words, in the process of comprehending the message and its purport John recreates in his own mind the journey made by Jane in the process of producing it. Only the order is reversed. This gives him the full comprehension that Jane was
actually buying a loaf of bread although she sees herself as the kind of person who makes her own and this left her feeling surprised and perhaps even shameful.
On the implications for comprehension in a mother tongue and comprehension in a foreign language
The discussions of the communication process across the three supertypes showed how speaker and hearer are able to meet in communication, first through the utterance with grammar as their common code and then secondly when the hearer in her own mind recreates the journey made by the speaker and ends up where the speaker started. In Chapter 2 I discussed why the process of acquisition of a word as first a series of concrete sensory pictures and concrete thoughts and later as an abstract symbol, i.e. the image-idea pair, showed how culture might influence language and how the lexicon of our mother tongue was anchored deeply in not only our mind but also our body, making it such a powerful tool in communication. To this we may now add the important role the grammar of our mother tongue plays. Not only does it bring dynamicity to the static word, but it also serves at the main index of language, uniting speaker and hearer communication.
Yet, how exactly grammar works depends on the supertype and the individual language. When growing up, speakers of a given language internalise the workings of grammar to a point where the process handled by grammar will feel automatic and the distinctions made by grammar go unnoticed but remain pivotal in communication. But what happens when we communicate in a foreign language? Even when we learn the grammar of a foreign language, the process by which we learn it is (usually) quite different from the acquisition process in our mother tongue. And what happens with the understanding implied by and the distinctions made by the grammar of our mother tongue? Are we fully able to shed these in favour of learning new? Or do we superimpose the indexical nature of the grammar of our mother tongue and the distinctions made by it onto the foreign language? These questions, which seem even more relevant in an intercultural ELF context, where native speakers of different languages communicate in English as a common language, lead us to briefly discuss the notion of transfer.
On the notion of transfer
The notion of transfer deserves a brief mention in the discussion of comprehension in a foreign language, regardless of whether English is conceptualised from a second language or a lingua franca perspective. By transfer I mean not just in the traditional sense of transfer of certain lexical
or grammatical concepts from L1 to L2, but rather in the widest sense of the concept as an idea that our communication in one language may be influenced in some way by our ability to communicate in another language. To some extent, how transfer is conceptualised depends on how the relationship between language and thought is understood. Is transfer simply a translation from one language to another (typically L1 to L2) as a consequence of or even a strategy for dealing with lack of proficiency in a foreign language, or is it a reflection of fundamental differences between languages and thus an expression of linguistic relativity?
From a crosslinguistic influence (CLI) perspective, transfer is merely another term for crosslinguistic influence, i.e. “the influence of a person’s knowledge of one language on that person’s knowledge or use of another language (Jarvis & Pavlenko, 2010, p. 1). This influence is by no means a unidirectional one from L1 to L2, but rather an ongoing progress in which different languages interact in different ways in the mind to the extent that L1 may indeed influence L2, but the opposite is also possible and likely (Jarvis & Pavlenko, 2010, pp. 10-22, Odlin, 2005, p.
5). As for the possible connection between transfer and linguistic relativity, cross-linguistic influence might be a result of fundamental differences between languages and as such a case of linguistic transfer, but need not be so.
Odlin (2005, p.5) argues for a separation of the concepts meaning transfer and conceptual transfer to clarify the relationship between linguistic relativity and crosslinguistic influence. Meaning transfer, also referred to as linguistic transfer by Jarvis & Pavlenko (2010, p. 61), is defined as
“cases of influence from the semantics or pragmatics of the native language (or a second in L3 acquisition)” (Odlin, 2005, p. 5). Meaning transfer may happen at various levels of language including at the phonetic level, lexical or semantic level, syntactic level, and the pragmatic or discursive level (Jarvis & Pavlenko, 2010, pp. 61-111). Conceptual transfer is defined as “those cases of linguistic relativity [i.e. the influence of language of thought] involving, most typically, a second language” (Odlin, 2005, p.5) or as “types of transfer [related to] the mental concepts that underlie those [linguistic] forms and structures (Jarvis & Pavlenko, 2010, p. 61). In other words, conceptual transfer deals with the influence between languages at the conceptual level rather than (just) at the semantic level, at the level of the concepts that underlie a certain word (or grammatical category) rather than the meaning associated with it. This means that meaning transfer might sometimes also indicate conceptual transfer, but not necessarily. Often, meaning transfer is simply the case of the influence of some kind of semantic or pragmatic element from
the native language on some kind of semantic or pragmatic element in the second language (Odlin, 2005). Conceptual transfer, on the other hand, will always imply a related meaning transfer and as such: “conceptual transfer is a subset of meaning transfer” (Odlin, 2005, 6).
In the following sections I shall briefly go through some of the different aspects of transfer which might be relevant for this project, i.e. semantic transfer, grammatical transfer and pragmatic transfer, and discus how these aspects of transfer relate to the distinction between meaning transfer and conceptual transfer as well as to the overall theoretical framework of communicative supertypes and the communication process.