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An article by Nataly Kelly landed in my intray, and it was interesting to follow up: Jack Jason is actress Marlee Matlin‘s interpreter. Watch them interact here: Do you notice the places where she “says” nothing, but gives us this look, this fabulous body language, this space where we infer and bond and relate, and he puts that non-verbal communication into phrases marvellously, filling in the blanks, repeating what is already understood, adding warmth and stress and intonation… the way we do when we’re doing it well? With phrases like: “Guess what, girl:” “You know? I did. I really did. I had that opportunity.” What he’s doing here is definitely worth noting for learners of English. In this case, particularly female ones, though. A man interpreting a woman. He connects and accomodates just like a woman.  (Communication Accomodation Theory on Wikipedia) Do you forget that you’re hearing a man’s voice when she speaks, is it just her voice? Or are you hearing a man sounding like a woman?

Tangent time. Thinking about what this means for me when I teach men: I sound like a woman, I minimize differences between us, I converge as a part of building rapport. Do they use any aspects of my language as a model? I can’t really see that at all. If they did model anything on me, they would have to correct out the “female factor”, right? But I’d probably notice that, wouldn’t I, because I don’t really see how a learner would do that without sounding really weird. It’s more likely that they don’t apply any model of accommodation based on phrases at all. It’s far more essential than that, closer to Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar, “an innate set of linguistic principles shared by all humans”, so that the way anyone, including a learner of English, will accomodate another can only come out of a lifetime of practice, using multiskills honed in real interaction.

I’m buying into Merrill Swain’s concept of “comprehensible output“. This says that when a learner encounters a gap when speaking English, he or she becomes aware of it, and this leads him or her to want/try to modify it, providing the imulse to learn something new about the language. So there is clearly still a place to teach those phrases on an on-demand basis.

PS: Unfortunately the video has been made private. Here’s an alternative that shows the two interacting – if not quite as eloquently: