24 Apr 2009

Phatic communication, twitter, and web2.0...

The first blog post I discovered on twitter was, very aptly, about the nature of communication on twitter itself. Even more aptly, it was tweeted by David Gauntlett, Professor of Media and Communications at Westminster University and general busy-body behind theory.org.uk.

In the post, Leisa Reichelt described the incessant exchange of status messages as an 'ambient intimacy' which keeps friends and colleagues just close enough to communicate with, but with the volume turned down - just enough to provide a little background music. Basically, phatic communication via web2.0.

The blog, unfortunately, quotes someone erroneously attributing this 'phatic function' to Mikhail Bakhtin rather than Roman Jakobson (at least they managed to get a Russian linguist). In Jakobson's (1962) six functions of communication, the phatic function establishes and maintains communciation, a kind of metacommunication. In speech, this includes chit chat to you neighbour about the weather to strike up a conversation and the macho grunts sports jocks exchange with each other; and in writing, the opening and closing formalities like 'Yours sincerely'.

A more appropriate attribution would be to Polish anthropologist, Bronisław Malinowski, who coined the phrase. His ethnographic studies of the Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea in the 1920s led to his observations that 'ties of union are created by the mere exchange of words' (Malinowski 1923:315 in Wardhaugh 2006).

The idea of web communication as phatic communion was something I had read before, although usually in the pejorative sense. Academics sceptically remark that "students are certainly engaged in communication. But has this communication led to any new understanding?" (Kern 2000:355 in Kramsch & Thorne 2002).

Though similarly sceptical, Kramsch and Thorne (2002) interestingly suggest that as computer-mediated communciation (CmC) tends toward the phatic function, rather than the instrumental, the nature of CmC may be very different to that assumed in Hymes' framework of 'communicative competence' that has underpinned so much of current EFL pedagogy since CLT.

I think that dismissing phatic communion as mere gossip, or idle chatter, misses the most important function of language. Exchanges of this type of communication may be empty of meaning in an instrumental sense, but they are rich in meaning in a social sense. In fact my own unscientific observations of my family or of commuters on trains leads me to think this could even be main function of language.

However, linguists and applied linguists, have tended to overlook this function and concentrate on the rationalized coding and decoding of messages as the main function of communication, and in doing so have adopted Shannon and Weaver's transmission model of communication (yes, I know they didn't call it that, but that it what it is). Anyone who reads the oringinal article will instantly understand my misgivings in uncritically transplanting a model from applied mathematics to something as social and cultural as human communciation.

Maybe the sheer magnitude of people that are communicating through web2.0, usually using English as a lingua franca, will lead to a reassessment of what 'meaningful communication' is in foreign language pedagogy. I am all for promoting 'ambient intimacy' in the EFL classroom2.0.

Am I being overly hopeful? Well, seriously interested at least.


Kramsch, C. & Thorne, S. (2002) Foreign language learning as global communicative practice, in Block & D. Cameron (Eds.), Globalization and Language Leaching, London: Routledge.

Jakobson, R. (1962) Selected Writings, The Hague: Mouton.

Wardhaugh, R. (2006) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Oxford: Blackwell.


Peter Thwaites said...

I wouldn't be at all surprised if phatic communication was the "main function" of language use. The social function of language is incredibly important, serving to make our societies more coherent.

As such, I think that this dimension of social activity ought to make it into classrooms rather more often. We ought to have learned by now that it's not necessary to set up information gaps in order for our students to have something to communicate about. Just getting them to discuss what time they got up this morning, and perhaps trying to decide who's the laziest class member, ought to involve plenty of much more authentically social communication, as well as being a springboard for lots of language work.

So I'm with you in being up for a reassessment of what a "communicative approach" should involve.

cuppacoffee said...

I would agree. I think the reason CLT met with so many claims of cultural inappropriacy (Bax, Kramsch, Block and Cameron...) was its foundation on the 'negotiation of meaning' as the mechanism of acquisition.

It is telling that this was a later addition to CLT through the (mostly American) empirical research of Long, Pica, etc. rather than the founding principles of Breen & Candlin, Canale & Swain, etc. Possibly, widespread acceptance of the approach was premised on its scientific legitimacy rather its than pedagogical efficacy.

Many applied linguists seem to me determined to find some kind of ties to science, almost to legitimize the discipline. Yet the amorphous nature of language ensures they always fall short.

I think language teaching in postmodernity requires a reassessment of communication in all its current social and cultural roles - we can leave language to the linguists.

Habermas's 'theory of communicative action' would be my theoretical starting point because it could offer a critical theory of social interaction.

MissHollyday said...

Nice post-
Your mention of Malinowski reminds me of his 'context of situation' when trying to explain to English L1 speakers of his experiences/ethnographies of the Trobriand Islanders. He did many of the ethnographies in the local language- Kiriwinian & his difficulty lied in how to relay stories back to L1 speakers what he experienced where people could 'feel the situation' as he explained it, or to "place the text in its living environment" (Halliday & Hasan, 1985, 1989:6). He was a visionary for the time, as was Margaret Mead. These 2 were my role models when I first got into anth/archaeology and I love to reflect back on their research. I easily adapted a love for ethnographies and think they should play a crucial role in language learning.

Currently in my English in the World class (grad school TESOL) everyone keeps talking of taking the culture out of English to teach it properly. I say take the ethnocentricism out of English. How can you take culture out of English? Language develops out of a culture. Culture develops out of patterns of behavior that is learned and turns into societal norms that govern actions of people. Context of situation shows this.
As for your post, I definitely think that web 2.0 apps have a place in the classroom and it is up to teachers to provide this because students are fast overtaking us in tekkie talk. I haven't thought about how to incorporate it effectively yet though.
BTW I just heard of Crystal's new book, Txtng. I tried to get a copy of it here but its not available yet.

Sputnik said...

This is very interesting in the context of the growth of World standard English, which is essentially an instrumental version of English (at least as I understand it), one which pares back all that phatic superfluity.