A lot of the friends that I’ve been making recently are from Japan, and so the topic of language acquisition naturally  crops up in conversation. “Joseph, why is your Japanese so good,” they’d ask. “What can I do to improve my English?” As both an English major and an amateur linguist, my answer is usually something like:

“access as many forms of media as possible. Watching sitcoms will give you natural expressions for natural situations. Reading novels and magazines will give you the breadth of vocabulary for sophisticated discourse. Speaking with native speakers will give you first-hand opportunity to practise and revise your speech patterns.”

But internally, my answer is simply a word: Rhetoric. Rhetoric is the secret success to any language learner. It’s the secret success to any speaker or writer, to any one who communicates effectively. And yet, it’s the one thing in language acquisition that is never explored. Everybody gets fixated on grammar and vocabulary, without considering the wide-ranging applications of rhetoric.

I don’t know about you, dear reader(s), but I’ve certainly met (white Candian) people who insist on learning Japanese because they feel it’s so superior to English. English Literature is somehow incredibly boring, written by stuffy old men who write about boring old London, and confuse the issue by using obscure diction. And Japanese comic books are so clever, especially the ones set in historical eras and use archaisms! It’s a really fair comparison.

And yet, these weird Japanophiles who have a minimal command of English think they can master Japanese. Does anybody else foresee a problem here?

1. Speaking a second language isn’t only about translation. I’ve already touched on this topic before, but to communicate effectively in a second language, you’re essentially accessing a different cultural database. This is why the polite response to “thank you” in English is “you’re welcome”, whereas in Japanese it’s “I’ve hardly done anything”. Cultural tags like “good for you!” or “otsukaresama” don’t really have comparable cognates in other languages. Knowing how the language (ie, culture) works requires a fundamental ability in rhetoric.

2. One’s L1 informs one’s L2. It’s very common to ascribe errors in ESLers to grammatical/lexical interference from their mother tongues. And sure, it’s been proven to be at least (ie, at most) the cause of about 30% of all speech errors generated by ESLers. On the other hand, if you don’t know how to speak clearly, articulately and concisely in your first language, I can’t imagine how you’ll magically develop those cognitive communication skills in a second language. Yes, grammar and diction do contribute to communicability. But the logic behind stacking your sentences goes beyond either one. In fact, it extends into the realm of rhetoric.

Rhetoric goes beyond what is being said, and into the choice of what to say. Those who have a decent sense of rhetoric are able to share a sense of enjoyment when they recount positive memories. Those who don’t, on the other hand… . By way of an extremely specific (but dutifully anonymous) example, I once had the misfortune of being locked in an hour-long conversation with a naturalised Canadian. This “Canadian” had come to Canada at the age of 12, and his mother tongue was not related to English (or any other PIE language). There was still a detectable accent. (BTW, I’m just listing empirical fact here; I’m not making any value-based judgements yet.)

When I revealed being a little more than just an amateur linguist, he immediately jumped at the chance to form a connection, after already having established a trend of expressing how difficult all his classes were, and by mentioning that he was taking Intro to Linguistics. But all he said was “it’s so hard, especially phonology, especially narrow transcription, because we have to do it for Canadian English. It’s so unfair.” Difficult? Maybe, for someone who didn’t grow up speaking Canadian English. Unfair? Hardly. What other standard could an English-speaking Canadian University reasonably expect from its students, even if a sizable fraction are from abroad? Using a British or American model would just be ridiculous. Naturally, I relayed these facts, that logistically speaking, there’d be no other standard available. Another person also suggested that if it was so hard, he may as well drop it. Except, apparently he likes that class.

Which begs the question: SINCE WHEN??? Speaking to the difficulty of a course at best speaks to how challenging it is, and at worst, how much one hates it. With no other references to one’s thoughts on the course, one can only reasonably assume that he didn’t like linguistics. (Or alternatively, that he’s an academic masochist.)

But was it a “translation” issue? No. His speech patterns were fine, and his accent didn’t interfere with comprehension. His grammar was solid, and he was accurately able to convey all that he tried to say. The problem was his rhetoric. The problem was, he failed to consider what else he should have said. And realistically speaking, who wants to make friends with some semi-foreign nerd who only says negative things about things you care about?

So sure, vocab, grammar, and pronunciation are all important. But unless you can “get” how dialogue gets exchanged, you won’t be able to maximize communicability. “I, Tarzan; You, Jane” is more easily understood than the grammatically perfect “Tarzan art thou Jane, am I?” which really, makes no sense.  And as already intimated above, a strong cultural awareness plays heavily into this sense of rhetoric. For Canadians, this includes knowing when and how to apologize for things that aren’t your fault, and to thank people, even for their shoddy service in restaurants.