My original post examined the difference between the more rigidly defined uses of language and communication in French students, versus the looser, more informal and emotive writing done by American students, outside the typical written/classroom format, in blog postings or instant messages. The differences between the usual formal styles of expression and explanation, and the less rigid behaviors practiced outside traditional academic structure seem like different ways of dressing language, code switching.
James Gee’s article, ‘Reading as Situated Language’ did actually answer some of the curiosity I had in mind about these differences in expression. His beginning statement that, “It is often claimed that the idea of human language is to convey information,” sounds almost like a way of explaining what we are trying to do with our academic writing and speaking structures—present a formalized way of giving information to others in our fields of study. However, he immediately counters this, and goes on to explain the point of view that language is, as we discussed in the class, an expression of experience, not just information.
This turned out to be a really in-depth discussion, one that I hadn’t had before in such detail with so many other people, and I found it quite useful in reinforcing that idea. It also reminded me of a quote from a science fiction book I have somewhere in my collection (and unfortunately I can’t remember where or which book just now), but one character says something to another along the lines of, “You know, all conversations are basically people exchanging stories.”
Communication is just that: telling the story of our experience to another person, whether in speech or writing (or occasionally song or even other non verbal means). The emotional tone that the American students used seems to me to have been an easier one, outside the more rigidly defined academic structures, because it allowed more expression for them. We often create meaning by trying to convey to others just how strongly something affects us emotionally, and that has to be done either by finding the right words (and sometimes words fail us, as we find), or expressing emotively. It’s plainly obvious that the more invested someone is in an idea, the more vociferously they’ll speak to defend it, or the more emotionally active they’ll be in trying to convey the experience to another. Even negatively affecting experiences or ideas will give us reason to emote, whether in anger or disgust or boredom or frustration (sometimes because the idea or experience being examined is either of a disagreeable type or because it’s not being communicated to US clearly enough for our tastes).
The use of emotional language or expression, and emotive grammar (like ? and !) in the American students non-formal blog/forum/instant message was a way for them to try to convey their point of view in a less restrictive fashion. In formal academic language, it’s often difficult to get across just how something affects the writer or speaker because of the way our language is codified. We’re supposed to use big words, don’t run on, stay away from personal statements, anecdotes, or the use of “I”—be part of an unemotional, didactic collective. But sometimes, when you read something that’s been written, you can see, just a little, how someone’s writing is trying to ¬still get across how they feel about it, whether negative or positive, and with that attempt masked behind formal academic language, the expression can come off seeming a little sterile or bland.
I can’t speak for the French students’ more formal behavior, even outside rigorous classroom speech/writing (aside from instant messaging, where the rigor breaks down because it comes to two people interacting, if not face-to-face, then at least mind-to-mind). Perhaps American students do fulfill a bit of the overeager, gung-ho “U-S-A!” type, and I can’t exactly say why that is. Maybe it’s just a cultural identity thing, which would take a great deal more examination of psychology, history, culture, etc. But every bit of writing and speech (or other expression) is about trying to get our point across, and sometimes rigid language, while a useful framework for organizing thought, is also potentially a framework for restricting thought, or at least restricting the expression of that thought. No wonder some students get fed up with academic language, frustration borne of inexperience or displeasure at its potential inadequacies for expression. Even I do from time to time, and I’ve been using the structure for more years than I care to think about :]