Things language teachers know #3 – competence =/= performance =/= intelligence

(For part 1 or part 2 of this series, scroll waaaaay down to 2016.)

We had something of a popularity contest in the US in 2016 between a very comfortable public speaker and a slightly stiff one. Depending on one’s prior feelings or biases, the former may have looked either charismatic or puffed up, and the latter may have looked duplicitous or booksmart.

For a casual viewer, it could sometimes seem that the comfortable speaker simply knew his stuff better, which resulted in his greater comfort communicating that knowledge to large numbers of people. He projected confidence, which encouraged trust. For people not actually listening to the words he used, it was easy and tempting to consider the self-assured speaker a more experienced, able leader, who had earned his confidence through ability and experience. He didn’t choose his words carefully, but his ease on stage seemed as if it might have come from years of being tested and winning. The careful speaker always seemed to have to work a little too hard to find words that sounded right, and therefore felt dishonest – or worse, scheming – to many.

For people who were listening to (or reading) the content of the message rather than the delivery, it was practically irresistable to come to the opposite conclusion; that the stiff, careful speaker chose her words to reflect her nuanced, well-informed thoughts, which naturally didn’t come pouring forth like a river but in precisely measured portions. Meanwhile, the confident speaker’s spell was thoroughly broken on the page. Instead of a freewheeling and charming salesman, his words seemed like those of a buggy machine translator working with Nike slogans in Armenian.

Throughout the campaign and to the present day, it has been a constant joke that President Trump’s speech patterns reflect a lazy and uneducated mind. And while it may be true that he is lazy and uneducated (as opposed to unschooled), the evidence for this is not to be found in his basic speech patterns. As language teachers (and everyone reading this is probably a language teacher), we shouldn’t condone criticism of him or anyone else that is based on the premise that verbal performance is a reliable measure of intellect.

Source. It’s probably true that Obama picked up some good public speaking skills as a result of his education – but not everyone educated learns to speak in public. Do we really want to preclude from the Presidency anyone who didn’t take Debate in school?

It is a truth that is especially evident to language teachers that the sophistication of one’s thoughts and the sophistication of one’s verbal ability can differ widely. There are people who have chunks of academic circumlocution constantly at the ready to bring to bear on topics that they have no particular expertise in. There are also people whose words never quite build a substantial enough bridge for their weighty ideas to cross. Our entire occupation is based on mismatch between our students’ intellects and their communication abilities. If one reliably predicted the other, we wouldn’t need language as a separate subject at all. This is particularly true in ELT (my field), but all language teachers from speech pathologists to teachers of creative writing courses in college know that sophisticated thoughts are no guarantee of sophisticated expressive ability.

It’s also important to keep in mind that abstract linguistic competence doesn’t always manifest in perfect form in real-world situations. There can be quite a bit of “noise” between the language that exists in a person’s head and what escapes from their mouth in a high-pressure situation like an interview on 60 Minutes or an address that will be heard by millions. The presence of a threat, the need to present oneself a particular way to particular people, a time limit, or conversely, great self-confidence can disrupt or enhance linguistic performance. As language teachers, we have workarounds or accommodations to the phenomenon of performances not always matching competence – reducing the number of observers, trying to gather a sample for evaluation unobtrusively, allowing students with anxiety disorders to skip certain portions of the test, etc. It should be no surprise to us to that a politician’s verbal performance isn’t a reliable measure of their linguistic competence, or of course that their linguistic competence isn’t a reliable measure of their intelligence.

Some criticisms (that is, almost all criticisms) of the current President are valid and if anything understated. But we should know better than to attack him for his way of talking. Obviously, this goes 10x for his wife, who seems to be, like him, far too small a person for their historical moment, but is also unfairly criticized for just sounding strange.

Source.

Again – there is plenty of other evidence that Trump is incurious and ignorant. There’s no need to insult most of our students by implication just to make that point.

Virtue Signalling, feigned interactions, and In-N-Out

Virtue signalling” has sort of become this generation’s “politically correct”, a term of abuse for supposedly vacuous public communication by the political left. Much like political correctness, it actually describes something universal across political groups, and use of the term is itself is an example of the phenonemon it describes (i.e., calling something out as “virtue signalling” is a way of virtue signalling to one’s peers, much like decrying “political correctness” is a literally politically correct thing to do in certain circles).

Certain kinds of virtue signalling consist of messages ostensibly sent to the out-group, actually meant for the in-group to see, where the appearance of communication with the out-group is an important part of the real message. The real act of communication seems to be, “Look at me, trying to talk to these savages! That’s how committed I am to our cause!” Unfortunately, a lot of political communication these days really consists of ostentatious displays of self-sacrifice to one’s own tribe, where the sacrifice lies in having to tolerate communication with members of the other tribe.

I’ve covered this ground before, but have a few new insights:

  1. The proportion of apparent communication between tribes which is really feigned communication designed for consumption by members of one’s tribe may be increasing
  2. Some communities place a higher value on communication with out-groups than others, perversely raising the likelihood that it is feigned

The first is just a result of the increasing siloing of discourse; communities have more opportunities for self-selection with cable news and social media than any other time in history. Few conservatives watch MSNBC, and fewer liberals watch Fox News. Odds are, when you see a commentator or guest that appears to be ideologically opposed to the main viewership of whichever cable news network you are watching, you are seeing a feigned communication in which the fact that the host is trying hard to “reach the other side” is the real message of value, and that message is solely intended for his or her own political tribe. Any bonafides that the heel commentator may possess only serve to increase the value and validity of the real message. This has been true of talk radio and conservative commentary since at least the days of Wally George, but the fact that any subculture can now have a facebook group or YouTube channel all its own makes the incentive for in-group signalling so much more valuable than genuine out-group communication that a high proportion of fake out-group communication is inevitable.

The second was brought to my attention by my wife, who asked me what the “Revelation 3:20” on the bottom of our In-N-Out burger wrapper meant. She had heard that In-N-Out food comes with Bible verses written discreetly somewhere on the packaging, but still couldn’t decode this apparent combination of TOEFL vocabulary and time of day. It hadn’t occurred to me that In-N-Out’s Bible verses could also be an example of feigned communication, but of course I grew up in a household that at least pretended to think that church was important and hadn’t thought of how opaque something like “Nahum 1:7” (on the bottom of a Double-Double) looks to someone raised without any exposure to the Bible. A straightforward interpretation of the presence of these phrases is that to Christians, this is like whispering a codeword, a message which shows insider knowledge and expertise, while to non-Christians, it is pretty much indistinguishable from “Xanthan Gum”. If that were the sum of its meanings to both groups, it would be either straightforward in-group communication or simply failed communication rather than feigned communication. However, I doubt the owners of In-N-Out, conservative Christians though they are, would waste ink telling fellow Christians something they already knew or giving non-Christians the equivalent of a Dewey Decimal number to look up. They might instead be communicating something to their fellow Christians besides literal Bible verses – they are communicating the fact that they are trying to reach non-Christians, a message with special currency among evangelical Christians. Seen this way, the use of Bible verses makes more sense – it is vastly more important to put the message in an emic form that Christians recognize, since they are the true recipients of the message, than in a form that non-Christians would, since they are only the feigned recipients. In a community where outreach is a core value, feigned communication with out-groups is an especially tempting form of in-group signalling, and although I haven’t been to church in many, many years, I suspect feigned communication with non-Christians is pretty common. I noticed feigned communication first in Japan, but clearly this type of feigned communication takes place in other groups with similar ways of defining themselves.

Source. Hard to believe this was ever questioned.

Birth tourism and base rates

South Orange County social media has been blowing up over a recent report of arrests of proprietors of “birth tourism” businesses, who accepted money from pregnant women, mostly Chinese, in exchange for airplane tickets, lodging, coaching on evading detection, and presumably lamaze classes, in an effort to have their babies become Americans via birthright citizenship. There are plenty of scandalous details in the indictments which seem designed to boil the blood of the still-common OC Republicans, but the rage-sieve that is social media has boiled the situation down to “I KNEW the Asian moms at the Spectrum were suspicious” and “China is playing us for chumps #MAGA”. I thought I would do a bit of simple math to see exactly how likely my neighbors are to be bigots.

My favorite book ever makes two points of relevance for this story: One, that memorable cases are likely to have their prevalences overestimated; and two, that base rates are often ignored when determining the degree of surprise in any given observation. In this case, the valences of the story (foreigners disregarding US immigration law, newcomers refusing to assimilate, Chinese economic exploitation) made it a particularly strong mindworm for OC conservatives, reactivated whenever an Asian woman blocks the aisle at Sprouts with a $2,000 stroller. The neglected base rates arise when every pregnant Asian woman becomes Exhibit A, despite the city having a large resident Asian population, many of whom are pregnant for non-criminal reasons.

Irvine is home to 277,453 people, and 41.2% are of Asian descent. That makes approximately 114,310 Asians. Assuming that the national average of 50.9% female holds true as well, that makes about 58,184 female Asian residents (pace non-binary Asian residents, I am rounding up). Assuming again (probably unreasonably this time) that the age composition of the female Asian population in Irvine is also the same as the US overall, 36.5%, or 21,237, are between the ages of 18 and 44. Using an Internet rando’s back-of-the-envelope calculation, and also assuming that the rates of pregnancy among Irvine residents are the same as the national average, 3.4%, or 722, are pregnant at any given time. Again, out of Irvine’s 277,453 residents, about 722 are pregnant Asian women between 18 and 44. I will guess, not unreasonably, that anti-immigrant conservatives will have some difficulty in distinguishing Chinese and Chinese-American residents from the other Asian ethnic groups that call Irvine home.

The news stories on the recent arrests do not make clear how many of the mothers resided in Irvine. The OC Register says the birth tourism companies has as clients “thousands” of women, and OC Weekly has one LA-based company accused of serving 8,000 over 20 years. An earlier article says the 2015 raid which yielded the evidence for the arrests was of “three dozen” homes, and one wonders what the maximum throughput of clients could have been for that space. For the purposes of this post I will assume 400 clients of these services per year reside in Irvine. This is almost certainly a high estimate, since it comes from dividing Star Baby Care’s 8,000 total clients evenly across the 20 years that they were in business and assuming that they all lived (and continue to live at the same rate even post-raid) in Irvine. Nonetheless, it yields a workable figure of 100 clients in Irvine at any given time after dividing a year by the 3 months that clients apparently stay/stayed before giving birth and returning to China.

So, assuming that 100 Chinese mothers-to-be in Irvine are here after misrepresenting their intentions to customs agents, and 722 Asian mothers-to-be are just minding their own business, you have 87.8% odds of getting it wrong when accusing random Asian women of being a part of this criminal conspiracy. As it turns out, in a city where almost half of the population is Asian, it shouldn’t necessarily arouse suspicion to see pregnant Asian women in public.

A chunky good man

My first instinct when confronted with a hot political controversy is to go over the language used to express it with a fine-toothed comb*. It is in this spirit that I noticed the great frequency with which the chunk “a good man” being thrown about in reference to the recent Kavanaugh hearings, either for Kavanaugh himself or good men in the abstract.

Example courtesy of Lindsay Graham:

This good man should not be destroyed. If you legitimize this process by one vote short, woe be unto the next person.

My first thought was that if they had nominated a woman like Amy Coney Barrett instead, and she had had similar alleged incidents in her past, this rhetorical nugget would be unavailable for her defense. No phrase of similar cultural heft exists for women, although the phrase “a good woman” is just as grammatically possible as “a good man”. My guess as to why is that while the image that the phrase “good man” conjures up in people’s minds is an archetype of competence, dependability, and bonhomie (emphasis on the homme), “good woman” only vaguely summons the idea of something like a loyal wife. Woe be unto any woman nominated for a high position who needs her character defended with reference to implicit cultural norms.

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PIctured: The tool of a good man, not a good woman. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I did a quick search of BYU’s corpora to see if the linguistic record backs up my instincts.

The string “a good man” gets 12372 hits on iWeb and 1643 on COCA.

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I’ll leave it to you to dig into the contexts.

Meanwhile, “a good woman” gets 1807 on iWeb and 262 on COCA.

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That’s almost 7x the frequency on iWeb (the larger of the two corpora) and more than 6x in the other.

COCA, unlike iWeb, allows you to separate hits by their source (magazines, academic journals, spoken, etc.), yielding a bit more information of what kinds of contexts “a good man” and “a good woman” are typically uttered in.

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Within that about 6x overall on COCA, “a good man” is used about 10x as often in spoken contexts, 5x in fiction, 5x in magazines, 8x in newspapers, and almost 4x in academic writing. For some reason, Bush’s first term in particular also sees a spike in use of “a good man” – perhaps this relates to the politics of that time, including the 2004 election, where adherence to certain conceptions of manhood were a subtext for the Kerry and Bush campaigns.

For comparison, “man” and “men” occur a total of 582,307 times in COCA vs. 483,248 times for “woman” and “women”. This means that “a good man” does indeed occur much more often relative to “a good woman” than one would predict if the phrase were simply a matter of combining parts of speech according to the rules of grammar. “A good man” is a chunk bordering on an idiomatic expression for a certain, known, type of person, like a “people person” or a “person of faith”. This particular type of person’s goodness seems to depend on their not being a woman.

(* The iWeb Corpus lists “fine tooth comb” as about 3x as frequent as “fine toothed comb”, neither with a hyphen. This makes my usage rather pedantic to the point of being functionally incorrect.)