Learning to Listen: Acquiring a New Language vs. Doing Sociology with One’s Ears

I have mentioned in various blog posts that Hindi is the language that I am learning this year (Than 2017a, Than 2017b). My current level is A1 according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. My goal is to move to the next level by the end of April. Before starting my Hindi language learning journey I messaged a couple of polyglot friends, and they sent me materials to self-learn the language. Yet to be honest, I am nowhere at the level where I can teach myself a language that I have had very little contact with. Therefore, looking for a language teacher online was my solution. I found one from Mumbai. Rachna Singh is her name. She is very patient, and positive all the time.  We have had regular lessons for almost two months.

My Hindi learning routine goes as follows: 5 minutes of learning new vocabulary in the morning with the app Drops , then 1 minute of a voice blog. Rachna would sporadically listen to my voice blogs, correct pronunciation, and grammar, where appropriate. During my commute to school,  I would listen to Hindi popular songs, which I have learned that they are often official sound tracks from Bollywood movies. For my listening practice purposes, the lyrics, and the underlying meanings are not yet important to me. Yet sometimes, I can detect familiar sounds, and would sing along, which is quite a bizarre experience especially if I sing aloud on a crowded train. Having seen my speaking and listening skills improve relatively fast, Rachna asked me to read a children’s story in Hindi, which looks like this:Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 22.25.13

The one-hour reading lesson wrecked my brain because I am completely illiterate in Hindi. I needed to piece together how each letter is pronounced, and how they are spoken when put together. Instead of breezing through an A1-level conversation, I was held back by not being able to articulate the simplest words. It was laborious. It was painful. Being forced to slow down my progress, I was upset. Yet, now having had enough time to reflect on what it means to have any progress at all  in language learning, I realized that slowing down is not a bad thing after all. When one has little knowledge about the subject matter, any step forward counts. Despite the fact that my brain was partially impaired for half a day, I got a challenge to look forward to.

Besides learning languages, I am a full-time sociologist in training. My day job is to read books in social sciences, and sometimes I interview entrepreneurs for a side project.  The project concerns with new entrepreneurs who have only established their businesses in the past 1-2 years. During those interviews, I recognize that the way that I ask my informants questions is not so different from how I ask Rachna during my language lessons. In both situations, I assume the position of not knowing anything about their language or their social world, and ask the most mundane, and obvious questions. There are a lot of clarifying questions. In both situations, I aim to understand the underlying logic: one has to with linguistic logic, while the other has to do with social logic. Sometimes I feel that I must appear really dumb to my interlocutors.

When interviewing a New Yorker, one is often amazed by the various facts about the city that one is absolutely not aware of. It seems that New Yorkers are very cosmopolitan; they are also very parochial. They could tell you where a building is located. Yes buildings here have names! This level of nuance is challenging for me. Before becoming a researcher, I thought one has to be all-knowing in order to be an academic. But now I recognize that one knows very little about this world.

In doing qualitative sociology, there is a debate whether interviewing or doing ethnography is better at studying a social phenomenon. Shamus Khan and Colin Jeromack (2014) argue that interviewing alone is not enough, and that ethnography is superior to get at some truth. The other camp, Michele Lamont and Ann Swindler (2014) maintain that the trick of the trade is to interview people, and that sociologists should embrace “methodological pluralism,” instead of pitting one method against another. As of now, I am a serial interviewer, I have been doing some participant observation. But that is about it. I have not done any serious ethnography because I do not have enough patience to write field notes. One hour of observation could potentially lead to 10 pages of field notes. Then if I observe something for 8 hours a day, I would probably produce up to 50 pages of field notes for that day only. And doing ethnography is often joked as doing “deep hangout.” Erving Goffman(1974) in an address to the American Sociological Association suggested that one should stay in the field for at least a year.  Just think about it. There will be a lot of notes for sure. Writing is exhausting. It is a physical activity, like a sport!!! It’s mental gymnastics. I could barely fathom that I would be able to write up to 5 hours a day. Therefore, I prefer to interview people, and corroborate what they say with other materials that I can get my hands at such as archival materials, newspaper, audios, and videos. In a sense, I fall under Lamont & Swindler’s camp: embracing methodological pluralism, and pragmatism.

In those two camps, my layman’s feeling is that the biggest difference is between observing and listening. Ethnographers are very attentive at what they experience, and what they see, while serial interviewers like me are attentive at what the other person says. I ask follow-up and clarifying questions all the time. I find the answers to those questions to be revealing of how they think about themselves, and how they experience their own social world. Their claims can be exaggerated. Yet how they understand their role in their social world is important for me.

Before going to an interview, I know that I need to follow an interview schedule with a long list of questions. However, during the interview, I am learning the language that the other person is using, and I couldn’t find anything more interesting than listening to the sound of their voice, and entering their lingual world. It is like Alice entering the Wonderland. I am fascinated by the small differences. Sometimes things jump at me. People don’t need to say something radical or extraordinary. I only want to know how one thing is slightly different from another thing. That is enough to keep me engaged for an hour or more. I don’t disagree with them. I just want to them to let me into their wonderland, where the trees might look different from what I thought they should look like.

Gradually, I get addicted to interviewing strangers. Sometimes when I am not supposed to interview anybody, then I would call up one of my former informants and ask how they are doing, and ask to  see if we could get a coffee together so I could catch up with them!

Back to my Hindi lesson, listening has become more of a fun activity, and I enjoy it very much. Yet in order to go to the A2 level, I ought to not only acquire more vocabulary. I think my listening strategy has been working. So I’ll stick to it. My illiteracy problem will be solved slower because it needs more deliberate practices.

Jerolmack, C., & Khan, S. (2014). Talk is cheap: Ethnography and the attitudinal fallacy. Sociological Methods & Research, 43(2), 178-209.

Lamont, M., & Swidler, A. (2014). Methodological pluralism and the possibilities and limits of interviewing. Qualitative Sociology, 37(2), 153-171.







5 thoughts on “Learning to Listen: Acquiring a New Language vs. Doing Sociology with One’s Ears

    1. Hi, Japanese is difficult. I started it with Pimsleur language, and got myself a very good Japanese tutor on Italki.com. But I didnt follow through with the language because of the script. The one advantage that I do have is that I read some traditional Chinese, so learning how to write isnt too much of a problem. I also tried the app Drop for Hindi. And it helps very much. I highly recommend.

      Liked by 1 person

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