Language is an important aspect of self-presentation. Use it to your advantage.

Much has been said and written about the use of English in classrooms, as a medium of instruction and interaction. The use of any language that is not one’s own does lead to a variety of problems, and I am really not going to talk about issues of understanding or misunderstanding, or even about how those with greater fluency have an advantage over those who have come from regional language backgrounds. The issue that I am concerned about seems to equally affect those who have had an English medium education and those who are less comfortable with the language.

Some time ago I had a guest speaker in my class, and at one point, one of the students interrupted, asking for a clarification: “Come again?” she said. The speaker looked a bit taken aback. “Come again?” the student asked, again. In other words, she wanted the speaker to repeat what she had just said. Taking it in her stride, the speaker went over her words and provided the clarification.

Another class, another student: this time, I pointed out an error in her answer, and the student, surprised and reluctant to accept my point, remarked, “Are you serious?”

In both cases, there is nothing inherently wrong with the remarks, but they would certainly be considered inappropriate in formal or professional contexts. When you are with friends, it’s perfectly okay to ask, in mock disbelief, “are you serious?” but in the classroom, perhaps a better way to indicate skepticism would be “oh, is that right?” or even, “how is that possible?” Similarly, “come again” might be completely acceptable among friends, but if you want a speaker in the classroom or in a meeting to repeat something, it would be better to ask, “Could you repeat that, please?”

Register

Striking the right tone — and the right note — in conversation is an important part of academic interaction. The college classroom is a semi-formal space, and it does call for a certain decorum. When we are in school, the rules of engagement are very clearly spelt out. We raise our hands and speak in turn, we often do not interrupt or ask questions unless we are invited to. In college, as we’ve noted in earlier columns, some of these boundaries disappear, and we have a greater level of freedom to interact and engage with the classroom. In many institutions, there’s less distance between teachers and students, and the relationship is less formal. But all this still happens within a certain structure. And within this structure, there is a certain kind of language that is appropriate and expected. Most of us have an intuitive understanding of these boundaries in our own languages — there is a “lingo” we use with our peers and another when we speak to parents or elders, and yet another when we talk to professional acquaintances. This is what language scholars call “register”. But sometimes it is not so clear in English, or any other language we are less familiar with.

Language is an important feature of our self-presentation. We need to understand how to use it to present ourselves to advantage. It is not about using big words or flowery language, but it is about using words and phrases in the right way. In the examples drawn from my class, the speaker and the teacher could have quite easily been affronted—or at the very least, irritated—by the students’ tone, which (however unintentionally) was extremely casual, bordering on rude. Unfortunately, casual language is often mistaken as being “stylish” or indicative of fluency; so we assume saying “yeah” for “yes” and “hi” for “hello” shows a greater level of comfort with the language. Call me old-fashioned, but I would say that it is better to be formal than rude, and better to be polite than casual—you generally cannot go wrong that way!

We pick up our sense of language, more often than not, from contemporary media, and some of the casualness we pick is perhaps because we see so much of it around us. But if you are observant, you will also pick up the differences in the way language is used in different contexts. There are many situations where we need to make an impression within the first few minutes of an interaction. The way we use language, more than what we say, often can make the difference.

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