Tyranny of Context – 2

I posted last week on the tyranny of context, and it strikes me that a similar despotism has a hold on teachers of a foreign language.

We endlessly instruct our students to pay attention to contextual clues, especially in listening. Teachers are taught to think in terms of top-down and bottom-up processing. Top-down is the world of context – clues gleaned from likelihood, previous utterance, attitude of the speaker and so on. What is a bar worker likely to be saying when they give you your coffee? Probably something about the sugar, not about your mother’s health.

Bottom-up, by contrast, is a matter of assembling individual words and grammatical units to make sentences which are then understood. In listening, we do very little of this, we are told. We mostly pick up words or expressions to confirm our guesses as to what is being said.

Reams of experimental data exist to confirm that listening, whether by native or non-native speakers, is controlled more by top-down processes than bottom-up.

And so what about the tyranny of context? In another recent post I mentioned the difficulty one of my students found in participating in wide-ranging social conversation. Unquestionably one of the reasons for this difficulty is that making guesses from context depends on a stable context. Conversation is Protean. In a fluid conversation, where the subject changes on a sixpence, and then changes back, and then morphs into something else, you are sometime going to have to rely, if not on the parsing of grammatical units, then on actually understanding where the fault lines lie – the point at which the conversation veers off.

And sometimes the waiter really will be asking, if not about your mother’s health, then about where you are from, if you would like to try the tripe, and whether you saw the football last night. Context will not help much.

Of course, in a real exchange you have the option to clarify. You can, so to speak, enter the context and fiddle with its wiring. Perhaps, in class, instead of playing audio tracks and asking students to search for contextual information, we could help more in the short term by encouraging intervention. Strategies for clarifying, confirming, interrupting are easily learnt and practised. Learning to cope better with bewilderment is a non-intuitive but necessary skill for many people. But that sounds like another post.

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