Boosting Fluency by Understanding Higher Order Semantic Content (A guest article by Maksim Sokolov )


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You’ve been learning a foreign language for many years and are now in possession of good vocabulary and near-perfect knowledge of grammar rules, but you’re still faltering when you’ve got to deal with quite basic situations. Does this sound familiar? The problem could be that you’ve been recognising only words as semantic units hoping to learn and then glue them with grammar. The solution could lie in devoting a bit of attention to higher order semantic building blocks of speech.

In this article I would like to share my perception of the semantic speech structure and the different roles of semantic building blocks. Before I continue, I would like to stress that neither do I claim absolute novelty of the approach, nor the standard of strictness found in books by such pundits as Halliday et al.  Moreover, the semantic perspective of speech I’m going to be talking about is one-sided as it ignores grammar, so it would probably suit only rather advanced learners who’ve got used to taking everything with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless, the approach helped me immensely in my foreign language studies and I feel it might be of help to others as well, and I shall proceed.

So what are those semantic building blocks I was referring to? I recognise the following semantic levels of speech.

0. Basic set lexical units: words.

  1. Set word combinations: collocations. Typically, they are more or less fixed combinations, for example ‘to throw a sickie’. However, in the context of the structure proposed I would also interpret quite loose word combinations such as ‘good advice’, ‘highly recommend’ as collocations, as it is done by some linguists*.
  2. Set expressions. These are “Lovely!”, “How dare you …?”, “That’s gross…”, “I’m afraid I can’t.” The main difference between the levels 0 or 1 and the level 2 is that there is now a communication function superimposed on the words/collocations to express your feelings, your situation, your status and so on.Note another aspect to the difference introduced at the level 2: although set expressions can consist of only one word, as in the above example with “Lovely!”, there is context as something that adds to the basic meaning or even changes it altogether. Specifically, when asked to confirm the details of your taxi order, you reply “Yes, that’s correct,” and they reply back “Lovely. Your cab is going to arrive in about five minutes.” In this context ‘lovely’ has the connotation ‘understood; OK; it suits us’, which you won’t find if you consult, say, the Oxford English Dictionary entry for ‘lovely‘.
  3. Set roles: yet another meaning can be superimposed on the speech, and it is the one of modality, or your attitude to what’s going on and it can be aptly inserted by the skillful use of 0, 1, 2. To illustrate, if you are a ‘disgruntled customer’, like Mrs Richards in Fawlty Towers, you would claim %you’ve never met such insolence in your life%; if you are, on the contrary, the one who has to deal with such customers, and you don’t want to ‘get off on the wrong foot’ with a valuable client you would probably try to explain that %it was not your intention to create such an awkward and embarrassing situation%. This client-staff relationship example within the level 3 shows that in the same context – the feature of the level 2 – different roles suggest different language. Other examples of set roles include a bickering couple, a boss and subordinates, friends having a square talk.

To summarise, the mathematics of the speech semantics goes as follows:

  • 0s as provided by the LANGUAGE;
  • 0s + 0s = 1s as provided and governed by the LANGUAGE;
  • 0s or 1s + function/context of SPEECH = 2;
  • 2s + other bits as dictated by the SOCIAL role/archetype = 3.

Now, what I suggest is that instead of struggling with 0s to say something appropriate in terms of 3, we try it the other way round. Namely, you first choose your character or your role (3) depending on what you want or have to do in a particular situation, and all the rest unfolds automatically as a given situation tells you what expressions (2) consisting of what collocations (1) and finally words (0) you should use. Actually, at its heart this viewpoint of placing acting in the centre is not at all new: just recall the passage from William Shakespeare starting “All the world’s a stage…” and the quote from Victor Hugo: “Life is a theatre set in which there are but few practicable entrances.”

It seems also pertinent to draw an analogy between a speaker of a (foreign) language and a music composer, since not only does the latter learn the notes, but also the scales, the harmony, and so on. Moreover, in many cases the restrictions and set combinations of the musical form appear to be by no means an impediment to the composer’s creativity.

Finally, a few more words to the reader: I hope you enjoyed reading my first article on LinkedIn. If it actually does happen that my approach arouses interest, I would be happy to write a continuation of this article that would address not the understanding but the acquisition of higher order semantic content in a foreign language, so please do comment.

Footnotes and References

*In fact, the most extreme case would be if any word combination is regarded as a completely original collocation, i.e. both ‘he drives a car’ and ‘he was driving a car’ would be thought of as different units, so there would be no need for grammar as everything becomes lexical.

The background picture is by Peter Worsley.

By Maksim Sokolov, rebroadcast here with his permission.

About David J. James

53 year old accountant who loves languages, literature, history, religion, politics, internet, vlogging and blogging and lively written discussion. Conservative Christian, married to an angel, we have three kids, and live in Warsaw, Poland. I can help you with company set-up, bookkeeping, payroll, tax, audit and due diligence all over Poland and the region.

Posted on 20/09/2015, in Blog only. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This would explain why Japanese supposed be so hard to learn. Because so much of it takes place on what you say is level III.

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