I have thought a lot about this post as I believe the original question is super interesting as it points to a very deep issue……
Understanding is so dependent on frame of reference and proficiency of a language is simply not enough. I think the more we recognize this the less frustrating learning a language becomes. For example, I used to endlessly fret over references I didn’t understand. Often, I just move past and spend my time perfecting my understanding of Russian instead. I usually just get tripped up when I don’t know if it is a reference problem or a language understanding problem.
To the original post, the second I read it an image of the situation pulls into my head based on my experience living in America. For example, I easily imagine a student at home. I have kids I have to feed. I have an understanding of how schools work. I understand parent associations in general. I understand finance and budgeting. I understand American culture.
All these types of things (framework or lack of framework) instantly come into play when we read the sentence. And based on these different references even Americans read the sentences differently. Some might think: 1) “I don’t get it. What kind of students are we talking about – grade school, high school, or college?” or 2) “What a great solution!” or 3) “That solution might not solve anything.”
So, the problem of understanding goes waaay beyond just English skills. When you take the original sentences and combine reference issues with learning English – Yikes! So difficult.
Here is a fun example of how reference changes everything……
What is the answer to this simple problem?
48÷2(9+3) = ?
Mathematics right? A concrete language. Nothing could be more exact or easier.
Yet, different people come up with a different answer depending on their frame of reference. A older student, a newer student, and a computer programmer all arrive at different answers as their reference is different. They fill in the gaps about the meaning of what you are supposed to do in this situation. ie - the sentence is not the same to all of them.
Alistair Cockburn is my favorite thinker on communication in my field - software development. He talks at length about the complexities of communication among people speaking the same language. He contends that we can never get great communication. We can only try to reduce the error. to communicate:
- We have to think something
- We have to convert to words and express
- The other person has to read/hear those words
- The other person has to process them into their mind
Hence, a game of telephone. – My sentence makes perfect sense to most Americans as they instantly know what the game “telephone” is. But, if you don’t the game telephone, my sentence might lose almost all meaning no matter how good their English is and they might struggle thinking about how a telephone relates to all this.
Alistair makes a couple of interesting observations. I tried to find the link to this but he has so much material I couldn’t find it.
- The more we have a common reference the less words we need to use to communicate. So, a software team just starting will need many more words to describe something than a team that has been together for a long-time would need to describe.
He uses a marriage as an example and how a simple glance between a husband and wife can speak volumes about a situation as the husband and wife automatically fill in all the gaps to what that glance means.
I see this in my own house. My wife is Russian and doesn’t speak English well. I am American and don’t speak Russian natively. Yet, after being together a long time we communicate as well as any couple as we fill in the gaps. BUT, where we get into trouble is with frame of references. She grew up in USSR and I grew up in 80s America. You don’t realize how much your frame is slanted until you mix with someone with a different frame. So, our misunderstandings are almost never at the language layer and are almost always with the reference and assumptions we are making about a situation - ie “reading between the lines”.
- Written words are often very difficult to describe a situation. They lack the visual and intonational queues of the speaker. And, the reader cannot interact. The best communication for understanding is face-to-face.
This second one might seem obvious. Yet, people endlessly try to communicate with words - written specifications, emails, etc. when speaking would be much better. Who hasn’t had an email or letter they wrote “taken the wrong way”.
Just some random thoughts as I was thinking about the original post…