The Nobility Of Nuance

I had a mini-epiphany today, which occurred while reading a leader story in the most recent issue of The Economist. The article was about the Greek debt crisis and wittily titled “Acropolis Now,” the pun having a particular resonance with me as my only brush with the acting world was to be an teenage extra (one of the frenzied soldiers in the USO Show crowd scene) in the Francis Ford Coppola film the article’s title was parodying.

The author of the article was recommending that Germany take a more active role in the Greek bail-out, and exhorting German Chancellor Angela Merkel , who was accused of excessive caution and indecisiveness over the whole affair, to “go on television” to make a strong case to the German people for coming to Greece’s rescue. It struck me that given the context, the author might have used the alternative “get on television,” which –even though “get” is normally preferred to “go” only if a process, difficulty or complication is involved – would have, on this occasion, suggested the interpretation “get herself, finally and pretty damn quick on television.” The coloring of the turn of phrase would have been in perfect harmony with the author’s description of the political and financial worlds’ general exasperation with Frau Merkel for not moving more quickly to support the Hellenes.

So what’s the connection with English as a Foreign Language? For me, it’s the wonder of nuance, something that we mentally reserve for only the most advanced learners but which we should perhaps introduce at an earlier stage, so powerful is its effect on meaning. Let’s look at one very mundane example. Faced with an unclear instruction issued rapid-fire by a fluent English speaker, a learner’s first (and grammatically correct) reaction may be to respond with “Sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying.” Yet the nuance of this response, for the other party, and especially in an office context, is often construed as “I don’t see your point at all. If you indeed have a point I’m pretty sure I don’t agree with it. We are clearly not on the same wavelength,” whereas this nuance is absent with the alternative, almost identical response “Sorry, I didn’t understand what you just said.”

To deconstruct the difference between the two responses in the conventional language-teaching framework seems, to me, about as ambitious as creating a cold fusion kit for hobbyists. Why the double-barreled change of tense? I couldn’t begin to explain. Suffice it to say that the form construction of the second response conveys a clear message of reception difficulty, whereas the form insinuation of the first response conveys an attitude of disagreement and just possibly confrontation. In both the Angela Merkel and failed-understanding examples, the nuance is technically (in the eyes of the learner) insignificant, if analyzed according to a traditional language-structure approach. Which is why, in my view, we really need to shift the teaching of nuance onto the lexical agenda, showing learners (including those at a relatively early stage) how specific words, expressions, sentence constructions and even punctuation and intonations can transform meaning — not because of any structural rule, but because that’s simply how things come across.

Some teachers do this instinctively, focusing, for example, on the many ways the components of a question can be emphasized to convey different meanings (You said that?” ; “You said that?” You said that?”), but all too often we don’t take this coaching a step further and cover off a variety of common situations where nuance can make all the difference — workplace environments being a critical one. A lot of the reluctance to do this at an early stage comes, I think, from an understandable fear of making the language learning process more complex than it needs to be for beginners. Yet perhaps we might be missing the boat here by failing to instill a love of nuance in learners at the critical early stage of learning.

I remember, in my earliest struggles to converse in French while working in my first real job, in Switzerland, being lectured by a pretty girl I was chatting up on when to use “grace a” (causation of a positive outcome) and “a cause de” (causation of a negative outcome). From a traditional language-learning standpoint, there were a thousand things that I didn’t know in French that had a higher priority than the distinction I had just learned. Yet I came away from that one incident with an empowering sense of language sophistication: I now mastered an item of nuance; I had a little pearl of understanding that differentiated me from the average beginner; and never again would I appear the awkward foreigner in an exchange involving this particular point of communication.

It is, perhaps, in fostering a progression of these little “sophistication satisfactions” that we can bolster overall confidence not only in understanding and speaking a language, but in navigating, surviving and enjoying a language culture. Because language is about more than just communication – getting a functional message across. It’s about connecting, including on the emotional level, in a way that allows you to be a fully accepted part of a community. And nuance, far from being a later-learning-stage luxury, is a fundamental building block in this regard.

One Response to The Nobility Of Nuance

  1. Hi there,

    Great post! Very insightful indeed. Apparently, most teachers underestimate their learners and their capacity to understand certain things, which are always things “students will learn later”. Larsen-Freeman brings this up in her “From Grammar to Grammaring” when she describes one of her encounters with a teacher from another country. According to her, the teacher used “of course” in all situations and wasn’t aware of the fact that this might come across as rude in lots of social contexts.



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