Some of the things that students learn in English class are false


Topic 1 of almost any book of primary or secondary of Castilian language and its literature: “Language and communication”. Any child or adolescent who is a little curious should show concern about this subject; children ask questions such as: “How do words get from our heads to our mouths?” or “Why does my mother tell me ‘You have arrived’ when, in fact, she is seeing that I have arrived?”

The theme, far from living up to what we could expect from it, leaves much to be desired. One more year, the less and less curious students, due to the grace of the syllabus, repeat once again the communication model designed in 1960 by Jakobson : communication (without referring to human communication) consists of seven central elements: a transmitter transmits a message. message to a receiver alluding to a referent through the use of a code using a channel and in a given context.

Nothing new under the sun, nothing interesting, nothing to wonder about. Later, in class or at home, some exercises of the type: determine what are the elements of the context in communicative situations X , and to something else, butterfly. Nor are we going to waste time on what is going to happen again, exactly the same, next year.

This pattern that we repeat like a mantra at the beginning of each school year was designed (by Shannon and Weaver ) to describe mechanical information exchange, vastly simpler than human communication. And from this model to the present day, six decades have passed in which linguists have asked themselves interesting questions on this subject.

The questions to ask ourselves about communication

Victoria Escandell-Vidal , one of the best researchers of our time, raises in her book Communication some of these questions: when is there communication? What do we communicate? Are all elements of communication equally relevant in all communicative situations? Are there any more? Next, I will try to explain, following the steps of Escandell-Vidal, why these questions are so relevant.

Let’s start by asking ourselves when there is communication and what we communicate. Let’s imagine the following situation: two friends who lost contact fifteen years ago reconnect and meet for coffee. The first, whom we will call María, is late and, as she walks towards the cafeteria, she sees that the second, by the supposed name Inés, shares a table with a man who gets up and kisses her on the lips while caressing her belly, which is quite bulky. At that moment, Maria finds out that her friend has a partner and they are expecting a baby.

Now let’s imagine another possible situation about these two friends: when María arrives at the cafeteria, she sits down with Inés and the man who accompanies her. At that moment, María asks who the unknown individual is and what she knows him about, to which Inés responds by kissing him with love and then adjusting her dress so that her friend can see that her belly is bulging. The information that Maria has received in the first and second cases is the same, but only in the second case can we affirm that there has been communication.

This absolutely prototypical act of communication raises several questions about Jakobson’s model. The most obvious in this case is related to the code, which does not exist in this situation. Another question we can ask ourselves is related to the sender and the receiver and the relationship that exists between them. Would María have communicated the news in the same way if the recipient were the president of the multinational in which she works, with whom she is speaking during an event in which the company’s hiring policy is decided?

We must also ask ourselves if these factors are the only relevant ones in communication. The answer, as soon as we think about it, is that no: there are other elements, such as the purpose, that are decisive in determining what we communicate and how.

Let’s go back to the gesture of Inés adjusting her dress to show that she is pregnant. In the second situation that I have presented, the purpose of Inés is to give good news to her friend. Now imagine that Inés is standing in the Madrid metro, someone asks her if she wants to sit down and she responds with the same gesture. Obviously, the purpose of Inés is not to give joy to a stranger but to indicate, with that gesture, that, indeed, she should travel seated because she is pregnant.

What about the code?

What I intend to show with these examples is that communication goes far beyond the model designed by Jakobson.

First of all, we have seen that code is an element used in many acts of communication, but not all.

Second, we have to take into account the intention: if the sender has no intention of communicating, the information obtained by the receiver has not been communicated to him.

Third, the role of the sender and receiver is not static, but dynamic, as it shows that different senders and receivers produce different communicative events with the same message (that of Inés showing her gut).

Fourth, we must refer to the purpose, an element that Jakobson’s scheme does not contemplate.

Finally, the situation or context, which in non-university education is used only to indicate the physical environment in which the communicative act takes place, is absolutely relevant (see the difference between making the same gesture in a cafeteria, in a meeting of company or in the subway).

Thus, we can firmly affirm that what children repeat year after year in language class is not only little or not at all interesting, but it is also incomplete or, in the worst case, false.

Relevance Theory

We have to ask ourselves, then, what model of communication we have to teach.

In the 90s, linguists Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson wondered what cognitive processes guide communication by developing the Relevance Theory , from which such important works as those of Escandell-Vidal and other linguists draw. In Relevance Theory, the different components of communication are organized around three types: elements, representations and processes.

The elements are those components of communication that are directly observable; namely, sender, recipient and signal. Above these are the mental representations that play a role in communication; These include the environment, the situation, the social distance and the objective. Finally, and crucially, above elements and representations are processes, which are the operations that take place when we process data.

The process that is generally studied in classrooms is that of encoding and decoding a message: a sender encodes a message and transmits it; the decoding process is exactly the reverse and allows the recipient to retrieve the message.

Undoubtedly, this process is crucial in human communication, although it is not the only one. During a communicative act, the issuer, voluntarily, produces a set of signals that do not belong to a code and that we call signs. These signs are understood by the recipient because there is a natural cause-effect relationship.

We speak, then, of a process of ostension-inference in which we understand ostension as the natural emission of clues and by inference the process by which the recipient can reconstruct the links that unite the signal and the content it refers to. Any act of communication combines encoding-decoding processes with ostension-inference processes to achieve correct communication.

Let’s review the model

Thus, the communication model that is taught in the classroom should be reviewed, given that the one proposed by Sperber and Wilson, which conceives communication as a voluntary act and determined by stable causes that allow the issuer to generate representations in the mind of a recipient, provides a view that best corresponds to the actual workings of human communication.

Teaching a model like this in secondary school will encourage students to ask questions about their own communication: understanding, for example, that the communicative situation is fundamental or knowing the existence of processes such as ostension-inference will allow students and teachers to understand why Some communication attempts are effective with certain audiences (such as their classmates) but unsuccessful with individuals from other generations (such as their parents or teachers).

Thus, students will study cognitive science, learn about their own communication processes and, only perhaps, at some point they will think that it is not that their teachers and parents do not want to understand them but that, simply, the absence of some elements of communication does not allows it.

Author Bio: Silvia Gumiel Molina is Professor of Spanish Languag at the University of Alcalá