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Problems with Second-Person Narratives in ESL Learning
Adam Richard Tanielian Abstract: Second-person narratives are popular in spoken English, mainly among native speakers. When this style is used, “you” most often means “I” or “we” and rarely relates to the actual second-person. Due to differences between the literal and inferred meaning of the second-person narrative, confusion can easily result among native speakers, leaving little hope for understanding among second and foreign language learners. Common uses are cited of “you” as a replacement of the first person “I” or more inclusive “we”. Sports and entertainment-related interviews provide the most frequently occurring examples. Problems relating to literal word-for-word translation of this style are contemplated. A survey of secondary students in Thailand shows that “you” is nearly always interpreted literally in direct translation, and rarely relates to concepts from the first person. Broad potential for confusion and miscommunication are pondered. Recommendations include further study on interpretations of “you” in second-person narratives, and that native speakers refrain from using the second-person narrative in speech due to its high potential for misinterpretation. Introduction English may be the most complicated language in the world. There are innumerable rules and almost always exceptions to rules. Vocabulary and grammar are both expansive domains, making fluency as a second-language (L2) speaker something of an anomaly. Young language learners so often become bewildered by the number of rules in English that Horwitz‟s (1986) “foreign language classroom anxiety scale” included a question regarding such rules. English is a marketable second language (ESL) for the world in part because it is thought sufficiently constant. That is, second language learners can expect little deviation from core rules once they learn the basics. Words for “I”, “we”, and “you” are featured in the first ESL textbooks young learners encounter. These words are staple subjects in countless sentences in both spoken and written usages, and form part of the foundations for elementary communication. They are taught to translate directly, but then we find also the phenomenon of the second-person narrative, which is scarcely addressed in conventional ESL education. Seemingly an oddity in English, a little inspection shows that the second-person narrative is very commonly used, causing unknown confusion among L2 speakers.
This article briefly addresses usage of the second-person narrative. Problems with translation are pondered. A survey of Thai high school students shows that even L2 speakers with small vocabularies can correctly translate first, second, and third person pronouns in the literal sense. I recommend that native speakers reduce or discontinue use of the secondperson narrative. When “You” Is Not You Phelan (1994) discussed two styles of second-person narrative: one which clearly establishes a separation between the narrator and narrative, and one where the narrator/protagonist uses the second-person to narrate his own story. The latter use is often found in colloquial English among native speakers. Unlike in literature, use of the secondperson “you” as a substitute for “I” or “we” in spoken language fails to distinguish between speaker and audience and likewise fails to create a poetic sense that may be found in more complex writing. In fact, most uses of the second-person narrative in speech are simply erroneous. Only because of linguistic adaptation can the listeners infer the intended meaning rather than the literal one. Sports interviews and popular music are of significance in examining improper substitution of “you” when “I” or “we” is grammatically appropriate for the context of the message. A professional athlete giving a press interview provides one quintessential example of this phenomenon. Sports fans can understand that when a famous footballer talks about how much work “you” did in preparation for the recent match, and how hard “you” tried in that match, “you” is not actually any of the fans, but rather only that athlete and his or her teammates. When asked what he does in his free time, Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch told a reporter (Horney, 2012), “I just been kickin' back, man. It's really time on your day off to just chill, regroup, get your body together and, you know, relax and try to get as healthy as you can.” The subject of both sentences is Marshawn, but he only referred to himself in the first. Taken for its literal value, the second sentence refers entirely to the reporter who asked the question. Although it is not likely intentional, this style intrinsically appeals to many audiences who may experience the life of an athlete vicariously through the speaker. Lynch‟s example is partially defensible in that it can apply literally to a listener because days off of work are often spent relaxing and improving health. Marshawn‟s use of multipersoned narration (Richardson, 1994), changing from the first to second person
between sentences is not a new phenomenon in the English language, but it is more appropriate utilized in fictional writing rather than oral testimony. Olympic gold medalist Summer Sanders talked about her experiences in Barcelona in 1992, before the internet and telecommunications boom. "You sort of forgot that it was airing live back in America and millions of people were cheering you on," she said. "You just didn't hear that," (Eisenband, 2012). Obviously, “you” means “we”, as in the Olympic team, or “I” and not “you”. Pinpointing precisely who the “you” is can be challenging considering that many members of the audience are unlikely able to identify with the speaker as a topperforming athlete. Another prime example of this habit is found almost every time the word “you” appears in a song. While it is clear that the subject of a famous song is not each individual listener, and thus every mention of “you” is not referring to the members of the audience, what is not clear is who “you” is, if it is a person at all. There are thousands of instances where this can be found, but perhaps none quite as famous and ironic as 1972 Carly Simon hit. “You‟re So Vain. You probably think this song is about you,” Carly sings in the chorus. The subject is “you”, and thus it is a song about “you”, but the listener is supposed to feel somehow ashamed of inferring that. What is stranger still is that the song is not actually about each individual listener, whom Carly would be insulting if she were intending “you” to be interpreted broadly and literally. Song lyrics where “you” is insulted, ridiculed, threatened and harassed are very common in the rap genre, but fans of the style apparently interpret no linkage between the literal and alternative meanings. Rappers so often mix personhood that questions arise whether or not they know the difference between voices and personhood, if their style is purely out of erroneous habit or if there is legitimate rhetorical strategy to their vernacular. Dilution of personhood is found in speech like rapper Red Café‟s discussion of the New York Knicks with a sports reporter (Adelson, 2012). “You gotta win the game before you get on the court. You have to take their heart. We can get back to it. You have talent with Melo, with Stoudamire. We need a leader to go out there and lead the floor. We have the talent to win, you just need a leader.” Without knowledge of who uttered those words, origins would be unclear. Red appears to be talking to a player or a coach due to his usages of “you”. Due to use of “we”, it
also appears that he may be part of the team or larger organization. Complete obliteration of personhood is exacted later in the interview, when Red says, “I don‟t get with that. When I was growing up, if you get attracted to a team or style of play, you stick with that.” Obviously “you” means “I” to the speaker, but the purpose of the switch is as unclear as the objective literal definition to the listener. In some cases, the second-person narrative is essential to telling a story or developing a hypothetical framework, but it works best when prefaced with a clue that the speaker is setting up a situation in which the listener is supposed to imagine him or herself. For example, in the Sugar Hill Gang‟s 1979 hit “Rapper‟s Delight”, Wonder Mike introduces a hilarious rhyme about bad food with the line “Have you ever went over a friend‟s house to eat and the food just ain‟t no good?” In the bars following, he alternates between the first, second, and third person. Clarity is held in this rap due to the set-up question, which shows consciousness of personhood, whereas in other cases use of the second-person “you” is by way of habit and lacks broader consciousness on the part of the speaker. Survey of English Learners in Thailand 120 English language students from the 11th grade in a Thai public school were asked to translate three words from English to Thai: “I”, “we”, and “you” (“ผม”, “เรา”, & “คุณ”). The sample consisted of three class groups of sizes 34, 39, and 47 students. Learning ability was the main factor in assignment of students to each group. The instrument used was an English midterm exam, on which students had to choose the correct translation among four possible choices. This portion of the exam was checked for accuracy by a Thai native speaker. The exam was administered by Thai teachers and checked by a native Englishspeaking foreign teacher. 76.1% of responses were correct for all three words. 64.1% of all students correctly identified translations for 2 of the 3 words. Within the sample, results resembled the overall skill and learning levels of students. 81.5% of answers were correct in the highest-skill group; 76.1% were correct in the middle group; 68.6% were correct in the remedial group. 10.5% of wrong answers related to “I”. 18.6% of incorrect answers were on the “you” question. 70.9% of incorrect answers were in translation of “we”. After the exams were marked, it was determined that a Thai translation error may have been a factor in the high
numbers of incorrect answers. Although not necessarily an incomplete and certainly not an incorrect translation, it was determined that “พวกเรา” should have been used rather than “เรา”. Potential for Substantial Miscommunication As was found in Fiji (Arno, 1994), in the Thai language, people regularly refer to the self by using third person proper nouns. Replacement of “I” or “me” with one‟s own name in communication of ideas about the self is grammatically awkward in English – it was once the gag in a Seinfeld episode (“The Jimmy”, 1995) – but it does not confuse the subject. In these cases, the listener can pinpoint the identity of the subject by using only literal interpretation, which is the first and often only approach used by L2 speakers. Third-person narratives are oddities in the English language, however, leaving speakers to choose between first and second person for practical situations. When strategically and intentionally used in literature or scripted entertainment, it has long been established that the second-person can create linkages between the narrator and audience. By involving listeners/readers in the plot, they may develop greater empathy for the protagonist. Objective truth may also be more easily validated by posing thought in the second-person, whereas the first or third-person may significantly distort truth by way of the appearance of subjectivity or disassociation (Bal, 1993; Fludernik, 1994; DelConte, 2003). “You” may be singular or plural, and thus may sometimes include “they” or be better phrased as “you all” (y‟all), but “you” is never conventionally defined as “I”. Its fictional quality makes the second-person narrative appropriate for non-literal uses. Aside from limited poetic or artistic uses, confusion too easily results. In the context of daily communication or when giving an interview, the second-person has little pragmatic value because of the omnipresent literal meaning. In an intercultural, international and multilingual context, the second-person narrative may cause confusion relating to semantics, and of a broader psychological nature. Overlaps between the first, second, and third persons can bring about a transpersonal quality whereby the nature of self and being can be questioned. In certain cases, the audience may be alienated and questions may arise regarding whether or not the speaker knows who he or she is talking about. Heavy use of the second-person narrative could result in confusion of “you” and “I” in unintended instances, whereby it may become unclear whether the speaker is actually talking about the self or others.
Whereas use of the first-person “I” may foster an image of arrogance, the secondperson “you” may appear as an accusation. Some listeners/readers simply do not want to identify the self with the speaker/writer, and in such cases use of “you” may lead to communication of false information. For example, Reuters (Goldsmith, 2012) published an article featuring Ivanova, a young female prostitute in Amsterdam, who spoke about minors in her profession. “Even when you run away you have to go back to the same job. The only good part is that at least you might work for yourself,” she said. Ivanova may have subconsciously or unconsciously attempted to draw attention away from herself by using the second-person instead of the first. Regardless of the motivating factors for its use, “you” implies that the audience can identify with Ivanova‟s plight, which is unlikely considering the low percent of prostitution. Conclusion Second person narration is a complicated phenomenon (Demjen, 2011). Successful application requires elaborate knowledge of proper context and style on the part of the narrator and dynamic understanding of the English language by the audience. Neither the average English speaker/writer nor the general population of L2 speakers have the requisite skill effectively use this style. Confusion of personhood is the most probable result when the second-person narrative is used in daily speech with non-native English speakers. If subjects are misinterpreted, then the message is lost. Language coding and interpretation is most efficient if direct translation can be utilized. If parity between literal meaning and intended meaning is lost, then the transitive relationship between languages and misinterpretation is inevitable. In some cases, consequences of miscommunication are minimal, but in most cases confusing “you” and “I” is detrimental to the entire communication process. Intercultural communication requires more caution than communication among native speakers. Television and the internet now make most interviews internationally-accessible, and thus exercises in intercultural communication. Due to its minimal benefits and maximal potential for error, English speakers should discontinue use of the second-person narrative when it is known that L2 listeners are present. More precise definition of the subject is required for accurate translations. Since conversation among native speakers establishes acceptable practices and parameters of language, native speakers should attempt to discontinue use of the second-person narrative among themselves.
Most second language learners with only minimal vocabulary are able to correctly translate subjects in three voices of speech. Basic language textbooks do not discuss any phenomenon where the words for “I”, “we”, and “you” are interchangeable. More studies on perceptions of the second-person narrative are needed, but it is implicit that the dictionary definition is the default meaning (Jaszczolt, 2010). Therefore, since it is not difficult to help L2 speakers on this small point, native speakers should accommodate a more diverse audience by choosing their words more wisely. References Adelson, E. (2012). Rapper Red Café on the Knicks, Linsanity, CP3, LeBron, Dwight and Anthony Mason. The PostGame. Retrieved 8 Dec 2012 from Yahoo! Sports. Arno, A. (1994). Personal names as narrative in Fiji: politics of the Lauan onomasticon. Ethnology, 33.1, p21. Bal, M. (1993). First person, second person, same person: narrative as epistemology. New literary History, 24.2, p293. David, L. (Producer). (1989). Seinfeld [Television series]. New York: NBC. DelConte, M. (2003). Why you can‟t speak: second person narration, voice, and a new model for understanding narrative. Style, 37.2, p204. Demjen, Z. (2011). The role of second person narration in representing mental states in Sylvia Plath‟s Smith Journal. Journal of Literary Semantics, 40(1), pp1-22. Eisenband, J. (2012). Summer Sanders talks Olympics, Michael Jordan and Nickelodeon Slime. The PostGame. Retrieved 8 Dec 2012 from Yahoo! Sports. Fludernik, M. (1994). Introduction: Second-Person Narrative and Related Issues. Style, 28(3), p281. Goldsmith, B. (2012). Younger girls forced into prostitution in economic crisis. Reuters. Retrieved 8 Dec 2012 from www.reuters.com Horney, B. (2012). One on One with Marshawn Lynch. The PostGame. Retrieved 8 Dec 2012 from Yahoo! Sports.
Jackson, H., O‟Brien, G., & Wright, M. (1979). Rapper‟s Delight. [12” single]. New Jersey: Sugarhill Records. Jaszczolt, K. (2010). Defaults in Semantics and Pragmatics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 1 Jan 2013 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/defaultssemantics-pragmatics/ Phelan, J. (1994). „Self-Help‟ for narrate and narrative audience: how “I” – and “You”? – read “How.” Style, 28.3, p350. Richardson, B. (1994). I etcetera: on the poetics and ideology of multipersoned narratives. Style, 28.3, p312. Seinfeld, J. (Writers), & Ackerman, A. (Director). (1995). The Jimmy [Television series episode]. In L. David (Producer), Seinfeld. New York: NBC.
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