Oct 29, 2010

Zig Zaggin' Rhetoric

I'm currently in a Teaching a Second Language: Theory and Practice course, and although I was really apprehensive about it at the beginning, I'm slowly growing to enjoy it. The textbook is kind of a drag, but every now and again there's something particularly interesting or thought-provoking. For the most part, what is most fascinating about this class is the off-topic, tangential interaction of the students on our experiences in learning, teaching, or encountering second languages. Probably three-quarters of the class is from China, Korea, Japan, or Taiwan, which has really opened my eyes to a culture group I've never really spent much time with before. Overall, all of our experiences are truly unique and interesting, and I like to bring in the Jewish and Israeli cultural experience.

Something we read recently gave me pause, and we discussed it, and I'm still not sure I get it. I thought perhaps you -- my highly intelligent and educated readers -- might have better insight on this. There's this guy, Robert Kaplan, who wrote a paper on contrastive rhetoric in 1966 suggesting that different languages (and their cultures) have different patterns of written discourse. Okay, easy enough, makes sense. But then he went and created this diagram, which is really beyond me. Sort of.

So, English makes sense. English speakers, and Americans especially, like to be direct, to get to the point, and they expect others to get to the point. They don't dance around the answer or subject or topic. I didn't really get the Oriental image until it was explained to me that individuals from the Asiatic countries don't like to say "yes" or "no," because, depending on who you're talking to, your opinion isn't really necessary to share. So you sort of loop around a "yes" or "no" by explaining all of the possible answers and reasoning and never really stating your opinion, except in a roundabout way.

But Semitic, Russian, and Romance really leave me confused.  Any Russian or Romance language speakers think they can explain the visual representation of a written or spoken discussion? And Hebrew speakers? Care to take on the Zig Zag?

The dashes represent something, too. I'm perplexed.


DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

Here's my take on the Hebrew. At least in Torah topics, we follow the pattern of "yerida l'tzorech aliya" when speaking. We first have to feel a gap that whatever I'm about to say will fill. That way whatever I say will be appreciated more for the void it fills. So I start off with a question and then an answer. That's the first forward line. But then that answer leads to another question. That's the first backward line. But then I offer an answer to that question. That's the next forward line. Etc. Etc., till I get to my final point.

Ya hear?

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I don't think we need to philosophize the Semitic diagram so much. Just think of how the Gemara works. It jumps from topic to topic, from implication to implication, working its way towards conclusions in a way which is clearly directional but at the same time disjointed, with much of the necessary implications left unstated along the way.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

It's not so much a philosophy as it is a part of reality that shapes everything from the ebb and flow of everyday life to the patterns of our speech. It is the paradigm which animates the pattern that the author was pointing out.

Mari said...

I'm looking to do a course that would allow me to teach ESL, so I appreciate the timing of your post! The more I think about it, I wonder how much of what the diagram illustrates has to do with the evolution of a language (or a language group), and how much has to do with how the language is used in a specific region of the world.

Take English. As an American living in Australia, I feel that culturally, people don't strive to be direct when they communicate. My theory is that Aussies are stuck somewhere between Americans and their colder, more formal British counterparts. For instance, Aussies will always use 'partner' to refer to anyone in a relationship. I will say 'husband' to an Aussie, and they will always use call him my partner, no matter if I just called him 'husband'.

Mari said...

My husband studies at university with a lot of Asian students and has told me that none of them will ask questions in class.

As for the Semitic zig-zag, I keep thinking of the way that Israelis-especially Mizrahi Israelis- I know like to talk, which involves sitting for hours, using a lot of hand gestures, using Hebrew phrases and making up plays on words...even when entering a shop in Israel. If you want to get the most out of what you buy, you'll never just pick up an item, ask the clerk for the price and then reach for your wallet. Negotiating is a big part of the way people in the Middle East do business- and it doesn't travel in a straight line.

Vicki said...

I was reading the Kaplan paper and his comments above the image provide guidance on how he visualizes the paragraph structure. Russian paragraphs are very long and often have several sentences that don't relate directly to the point at hand, which is why I'm thinking about the dotted line. I used to translate from Russian to English at work and Russian always has extraneous fancy words, much like an English diplomatic document.

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