One of the toughest and most interesting courses that I took in grad school was called “Multi-Modal Interaction in Cross-Cultural Communication” (or MMI, as I took to calling it after a while). Quite an intimidating title, for a class that focused on how video recordings often give analysts a more complete picture of what happened during a conversation (versus an audio-only recording).
When you think about it, this seems rather obvious, since so much of what we use to figure out what’s going on in a conversation comes from non-verbal cues (like body position, eye gaze, gesture, etc.). But videos also capture things like entrances and exits, or activities that someone is doing when they’re not speaking, and sometimes these non-verbal actions stimulate a verbal response.
On audio recordings, these non-verbal actions come across as long pauses, and the verbal responses may not make sense. If we’re lucky, someone who was involved in the recording remembers what happened and can fill in the missing information. Or maybe we can figure it out because we know the people being recorded, and we can make an educated guess. And sometimes we can figure it out because we’re really familiar with the language, and some responses are only triggered by certain actions (i.e. greetings when someone enters a room).
But what happens when you don’t know the language being spoken, or anything about the people being recorded?
In MMI, we learned to recognize how easy it is to rely on our own knowledge of a language, rather than basing our interpretations on proven linguistic aspects, when analyzing a conversation. To help break this habit, we talked about things that are universal in all languages. Things like how every language has some way of repairing confusion in a conversation. And we also talked about the importance of gathering information about the unique participants and their specific culture. Then, we were asked to analyze videos of completely unfamiliar languages and cultures, and to back up our statements with linguistic knowledge.
So why am I blogging about this class now?
Because I felt that this class was the turning point, after which I truly became a linguist. Not only did it open my eyes to the fact that I needed to be aware of when my interpretations could be relying on knowledge that was language and/or culture-specific, but it reminded me that my job is to be able to back up my interpretations with linguistic knowledge, and not just intuitions.