Thursday, September 27, 2007

Wu Zongjie on words in practice

Words always leave something unsaid. You can recall the classic distinction of literal meaning and speaker meaning. While literal meaning is explicitly expressed, speaker meaning is just implicitly there without any form. The distinction is often explained by a typical (and rather boring) example of “It’s hot here.” Whereas the literal meaning is IT IS HOT HERE, the speaker meaning is often explained as something like ‘Would you be kind enough to open the window?” Here, the speaker meaning is simply something left unsaid for politeness or parsimony of speech. However, as Relevance Theory claims, not all sentences are like this. In fact, in our daily discourse, utterances more often have weak speaker meaning than strong speaker meaning like the above. Think of the weak speaker meaning when your spouse says on holiday, “Oh, how relaxing!” What does she mean exactly other than the literal meaning of the sentence? Certainly not something identifiable precisely. Rather she meant to express her being in a holiday resort, or understanding of the being, giving the mind of the listener ripples of multiple effects, of different kinds and degrees, the whole of which nobody, even the speaker herself, cannot enumerate. Words express what can be expressed and what cannot be expressed at the same time.

When I exchanged e-mail with Judith Hanks, she kindly told Dick Allwirght that I was interested in connecting Exploratory Practice with Heidegger’s philosophy. Dick in turn was kind enough to call my attention to Zongjie Wu, who wrote “Understanding practitioner research as a form of life: an Eastern interpretation of Exploratory Practice” (Language Teaching Research 10, 3 (2006); pp. 331-350). I thank Judith and Dick very much, for I read the article with excitement.

Wu connects Exploratory Practice with not only Heidegger, but also other Western philosophers like Gadamer and Dreyfus and Eastern philosophers like Zhuangzi and Laozi. As someone who learned many fables of Taoism from childhood and studied German philosophy in adulthood, I greatly enjoyed the argument.

The argument might be best summarized by the following quotation.

Following the route from being and understanding to naming, an inquiry is undertaken for the harmonization of teachers’ professional life, where (following Thomson, 2001: 259) teaching is revealing being though words embraced by understanding; and learning, conversely, is experiencing what a teacher reveals. Being is here conceived as life on an ontological basis. Quality of life means authenticity of being. Understanding takes the form of the unity of knowing and doing, where the unsayable intelligibility experienced by teachers is named in a language that vibrates with the silent call of learning. Language here serves the function of bringing understanding into consciousness and manifestation, but to make itself into the unknown in the sense that language itself offers nothing directly plausible and meaningful but helps transform life into essential insight. (p. 333)

I cannot resist the temptation of quoting the last three sentences of this article as well, which are also beautifully written.

In the practice of naming, understanding reveals itself as being in the nameless. Naming is to bring people together, not to fragment them into different parts in a hierarchical structure. Thus naming is ‘to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced’ (Palmer, 1998: 90). On the Way from being, understanding to naming, EP brings research and teaching, work and life into a harmonious wholeness. (p. 348)

I believe this is one of the very important articles in which the delicate and somewhat paradoxical nature of language use in practice is academically explored by way of connecting Eastern (Chinese) and Western (German) philosophies. As someone who appreciate Chinese philosophy and German philosophy, it was indeed a pleasure reading

Monday, September 17, 2007

A foreign language writer

What is it to be a foreign language writer?

As Prof. Lourdes Ortega (University of Hawai'i) said at the 2007 Symposium on Second Language Writing on Sept. 15, at Nagoya Gakuin University, "writing in a foreign language across the board is often characterised as a less purposeful and need-driven enterprise than writing in a second language." Then what am I doing here as a foreign language writer?

As I write this essay now, I'm away from my Japanese discourse communities where I usually belong with a sense of security and confidence as a native speaker. In this cyber-space of English, I'm stripped of my undoubted authority and comfortable capacity of a native speaker. I'm vulnerable here.

Yet, I belong to this English discourse community, too. My participation is only peripheral to the community, but I need this engagement for myself. I've met a large number of English speaking people and read not a few books written in English. Literacy in English, however insufficient it may be, is now part of me.

I'm a person who needs thinking to live. That's why language is vital to me. My language now includes this foreign language I'm clumsily using.

For each language (or to be precise, a genre of a language), there is a different discourse community. Different discourse communities offer different sorts of food of thought, and I often find it easier to use the same genre to respond and think together, even when I'm not as proficient in the genre as I wish.

Let me put this way. I need to think to live. Thinking requires a language. A language (or a genre) entails its own discourse community. Different discourse communities provide different language uses, which are reflections of different types of thinking. Perhaps I'm foreseeing more possibilities of who I can be by increasing the number of languages (or genres) and discourse communities in which I can engage myself. I'm trying to diversify myself.

Diversifying myself. Maybe this is my purpose to write in a foreign language. Maybe my need as well. I want to live better.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

A three-dimensional understanding of communicative language ability 1/7

September 8, 2007
JACET 46th Annual Convention
in Yasuda Women’s College,
Hiroshima, Japan

JACET symposium

English Education at the Tertiary Level
– in Search of a Consistent Curriculum from Elementary School through University

Consistency and Diversity
-- A good understanding rather than a good test?--

Hiroshima University




1.1 Concept > Construct > Operational Definition > Measurement

Consistency should NOT mean the dominance of a paper-based standardized test because no paper-based test can capture the whole range of language knowledge and use. (Tests are only educated guesses of hypothetical constructs)

1.2 Understanding involves something immeasurable

Even a General English Proficiency Test may distort our understanding of communicative language ability because it only deals with readily measurable aspects of language and use.
Our understanding of second language communication goes beyond the notion of measurement.

"Oh, so you're not interested in communication, only language." (McNamara, 1996, p. 83)

The dog (our understanding) should wag the tail (a test).

Not the tail wagging the dog.

1.3 Education is more than measurable “objective” and contains immeasurable “aim”

“By objectives I mean the pedagogic intentions of a particular course of study to be achieved within the period of that course and in principle measurable by some assessment device at the end of the course” … “By aims I mean the purposes to which learning will be put after the end of the course.” (Widdowson, 1983, pp.6-7)

1.4 My contention

A good understanding of communicative language ability is more important than a good standardized test.

1.5 Expected results

A good understanding of communicative language ability would bring a good balance between consistency and diversity in curriculum.

Without it, English language education would end in uniformity and conformity, or in complete chaos.

Uniformity and conformity, particularly when harnessed by a standardized test, suppresses creativity and motivation of teachers and students.

Furthermore, neglecting diversity is to deny the different needs of different departments and colleges.

A three-dimensional understanding of communicative language ability 2/7


What is a good understanding of communicative language ability?

The understanding must be theoretically sound and simple enough to be a guideline for curriculum.


3.1 Descriptive approach

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment.

“Professor, your talk is too abstract and too general. Make it more specific!”

The opposite truth:
“Listen, your talk is too particular and too specific. Make it more abstract!”

A good theoretical understanding is also needed.

3.2 Theoretical approach

Development from Chomsky (1965) up to Bachman & Palmer (1996)

Problems in Bachman & Palmer (1996)
Not interactive enough
Mysterious 'strategic competence'
Obliterated 'psychophysiological mechanisms'

A three-dimensional understanding of communicative language ability 3/7


4.1 Addition of mindreading ability and physical ability to linguistic ability

Mindreading ability is involved in interaction.

Strategic competence can be demystified by the introduction of the mindreading ability.

The mindreading ability is a theoretical notion supported by “Theory of Mind” and “Relevance Theory” (To be explained later)

Making Physical ability more conspicuous: Linguistic and nonlinguistic physical ability.

4.2 A three-dimensional understanding of communicative language ability

A three-dimensional understanding of communicative language ability 4/7

4.3 Mindreading ability

4.3.1 Theory of Mind

According to Baron-Cohen (1997), Theory of Mind is an ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own, and, with that understanding, to explain and predict others' behavior.

Young children (under 3 or 4 years old) and autistic persons seem to lack Theory of Mind.

-> Theory of Mind is a basis of interpersonal communication.

4.3.2 Relevance Theory

"Given the particular nature and difficulty of the task, the general mind-reading hypothesis is implausible." "[Comprehension] might involve a sub-module of the mind-reading module, an automatic application of a relevance-based procedure to ostensive stimuli, and in particular to linguistic utterances." (Sperber and Wilson, 2002, pp.20-21)

The First, or Cognitive, Principle of Relevance:
"Human cognition is geared to the maximization of relevance."

"The relevance of an input for an individual at a given time is a positive function of the cognitive benefits that he would gain from processing it, and a negative function of the processing effort needed to achieve these benefits. (Sperber and Wilson 2002, p. 14)

In other words: The more benefit, the better: the less effort, the better. Strike a balance between the benefit and the effort for relevance.

The Second, or Communicative, Principle of Relevance
"Every utterance conveys a presumption of its own relevance."

Presumption of relevance

"The utterance is presumed to be the most relevant one compatible with the speaker's abilities and preferences, and at least relevant enough to be worth the hearer's attention." (Sperber and Wilson, 1986/1995, pp. 266-78. Emphasis added).

->Unlike the "knowledge of language" (Chomsky 1986), a speaker can increase her relevance by learning to do so. A better speaker can make a speech that produces more benefit with less effort on the part of the listener.

4.3.3 Mindreading ability

->Mindreading ability in communication is to anticipate other's mind and to infer the intention of the other successfully.

Mindreading ability in linguistic communication

->Mindreading ability in speaking and writing is for the speaker/writer to anticipate the listener's/reader's mind and to arrange words as the listener/reader would understand well, not as the speaker/writer would like to arrange.

->Mindreading ability in listening and reading is for the listener/reader to anticipate the speaker's/writer's mind and to understand his utterance as he meant it to be, not as the listener/reader would like to understand.

A three-dimensional understanding of communicative language ability 5/7

4.4 Physical ability

4.4.1. Linguistic physical ability

'Psychophysiological mechanisms' (Bachman 1990)

4.4.2. Non-linguistic physical ability

Body language (including indexical behaviors), tone of the voice, eye-contact, facial expression, etc.

4.5 Linguistic ability

Dual meaning of 'knowledge'
(1) 'usage' or 'conventions' as in 'language knowledge' by Bachman
(2) 'competence' as in 'knowledge of language' by Chomsky

4.5.1 Usage

Grammatical, textual, sociolinguistic, and functional

4.5.2 Competence

Underlying all the usages in language use

4.6 Interrelated independence of the three abilities

4.7 Different types of English Language Teaching

A three-dimensional understanding of communicative language ability 6/7

4.8 Coherence with the past theories

A three-dimensional understanding of communicative language ability 7/7


5.1 Innovating understanding

The standard assessment framework of accuracy, fluency and complexity cannot assess the mindreading ability, which is considered a basis of interpersonal communication or interaction.

Non-linguistic physical ability plays a very important role in actual communication, though it is usually dropped from the items of a paper-based standardized test.

Innovating our understanding of second language communication is crucial.

Imposition of a standardized test without a good understanding of second language communication is detrimental.

"Something that we know when on one asks us, but no longer know when we are supposed to give an account of it, is something that we need to remind ourselves of (and it is obviously something of which for some reason it is difficult to remind oneself.) " Wittgenstein (1953, Section 88)

5.2 Consistency and diversity

Consistency and diversity in curriculum should be maintained and developed through innovating our understanding of second language communication.

5.3 Remaining issues

'Emergence' in interaction
Literacy and written language.
Integrity and humanity
Why communicative language ability alone?


Bachman, L.F. (1990) Fundamental considerations in language testing. Oxford University Press.
Bachman, L.F. and A.S. Palmer (1996) Language testing in practice. Oxford University Press.
Baron-Cohen, S. (1997) Mindblindness. Bradford Books.
Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of the theory of syntax. The MIT Press.
Chomsky, N. (1986) Knowledge of language. Praeger
McNamara, T.F. (1996) Measuring second language performance. Longman.
McNamara, T.F. (1997) 'Interaction' in second language performance assessment: Whose performance? Applied Linguistics, Vol. 18, No. 4. pp. 446-466.
Sperber and Wilson, (1986/1995) Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Blackwell.
Sperber, D. and D. Wilson. (2002) "Pragmatics, modularity and mind-reading." In Mind & Language, Vol.17. Nos 1 and 2. pp. 3-23.
Widdowson, H.G. (1983) Learning purpose and language use. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical investigations. Blackwell.