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Repetition and learning by heart: an aspect of intimate discourse, and its implications Guy Cook

The purpose of this paper is to speculate on the relevance to TESOL of intimate discourse, a neglected, undervalued, but important type of discourse, and suggest ways in which it might alter our ideas of appropriate discourse and discourse activities in the classroom.

Introduction

I have a perverse but healthy interest (if that is not a contradiction in terms) in any TESOL activity which is currently outlawed, and a mistrust of the theories evoked to legislate against it. In TESOL, yesterdays criminals become todays respectable citizens with such regularity that it seems almost certain that in this endless alternation, what is outlawed today will be eulogized tomorrow. A gambler would find TESOL a very easy field. This paper considers two such outlaws: verbatim repetition and learning by heart. The two are connected, for the latter necessarily involves the former many times over, and I shall therefore treat them as related. Repetition is the beginning of learning by heart. But whereas, in the communicative or task-based classroom, repetition might warrant absolution as a mild fall from grace (rather as the occasional translation of a word is forgiven in Direct Method teaching), learning by heart is an unforgivable sin. The reasons for this are rarely discussed. It is as though there is no case to argue. Though the terms authentic and communicative inspire endless doubt and debate, the factions which fight apparently agree that repetition and learning by heart are certainly neither authentic nor communicative, and should be discouraged. I wish to argue the opposite - not for the kind of cynical reasons suggested in my opening: a kind of cold gamble on an impending reversal of fortunes - but rather from a strong conviction based on experience as a language learner, and shared I believe by many others, that repetition and learning by heart, though condemned by pedagogic and acquisition theorists, are two of the most pleasurable, valuable, and efficient of language learning activities, and that they can bring with them sensations of those indefinable, overused yet still valuable goals for the language learner: being involved in the authentic and communicative use of language. I should like to suggest that it is not the activities themselves which have occasioned such strong opposition, but rather the nature of the
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texts presented to be learnt and the methods employed by teachers to ensure that they are. In entering this dangerous ground, I should add a disclaimer. There is in Britain, and in many other countries too, a political educational movement advocating a return to basics. Unfortunately for my case, one of the basics advocated is rote learning of the English literary classics, as opposed to the literature of ethnic or other minorities in Britain, foreign literature, or works of popular culture. In this movement, repetition and rote learning are associated rather illogically with the furthering of discipline and conservative values.1 Yet this debate concerns, I believe, not rote knowledge itself, but rather what is to be learnt by heart, and who has the power to decide. Such issues are not my present concern.2
Reasons for the outlawing

Let me now turn from the issue of fashions in education in general and in TESOL in particular, and consider intimate discourse in more detail. This I think can throw light on the function of repetition and learning by heart in the use of a first language, both by adults and by children. Before I go any further I had better define my terms, as the phrase intimate discourse is open to some misunderstanding. I shall define it as discourse between people in minimal power relations3 which they would not wish to share with outsiders. This definition may explain my description of intimate discourse as a neglected area, for although discourse analysis abounds with instances of discourse between intimates, this is not necessarily intimate discourse. This definition also immediately creates a paradox (rather like the observers paradox in socio-linguistics which states, broadly speaking, that certain kinds of discourse are only worth observing when they are not being observed (Labov 1972). It means that any discourse offered for analysis - to be shared, in other words, with strangers - cannot be, by definition, intimate. It is moreover not necessarily the subject matter of intimate discourse which leads people to keep it private, but its linguistic and discourse characteristics. It is, I believe, a way of speaking, as much as a field. with oneself, the relationship in which power difference is most minimal, and the nature of the discourse most private. I shall also include within this category the vast and largely unexplored area of talking to oneself. The current exclusive emphasis on language as communication has almost totally neglected this important area of speech, though it is one which has long been recognized as important in first language acquisition (Piaget 1959, Vygotsky 1986) and is by no means uncommon in adults. In an informal study of adults in the street in London, I estimated that as many as one in seven showed visible manifestation of talking to themselves. For obvious reasons, these are difficult areas to explore. But suppose we had more data of truly intimate discourse, what might it look like? Works of scholarship which touch upon this area (acknowledged in the list
Guy Cook The same is true of ones relationship

Intimate discourse

Talking to oneself

Features

of intimate discourse

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below) and data which I have collected-albeit from necessarily restricted sources - bear out what I think most people would recognize as intuitively true of such discourse; namely that it is: - repetitive and highly redundant (Tannen 1989) - repeated - oriented towards self rather than other (Goffman 1979; Barthes 1990) - oriented toward form rather than meaning (valuing signifier rather than signified) - neologistic, nonsensical (Stewart 1985; Lecercle 1990) - assigning private meanings to words and utterances - figurative (Cooper 1986) - focused upon paralanguage - detailed (Tannen 1989) - imitative Interestingly, these features are also often found in literary texts, which are, in many respects, a kind of public intimate discourse. Thus, paradoxically, we can sometimes study the most private features of discourse by studying the most public.4 Though works of literature are distributed widely and are available to all, we often read them in private, and experience the illusion of a personal one-to-one relationship with the writer. These features are also found in other repeated discourses, such as prayers, songs, advertisements, and graffiti. Typically these occur in both the most private or most public places: prayers at the bedside or in the cathedral, songs in the bath or at the concert hall, advertisements in the sitting room or at the roadside, graffiti on the toilet door or the motorway bridge (Blume 1985; Cook 1989b; Cook 1992: 228). These are also the features of talk between adults and young children. It is largely through this kind of discourse that we acquire our first language. There is not space in this paper to dwell upon all the features in the list above. It is the first two which are relevant to my argument for the authenticity and benefit of repetition and learning by heart. Neglect of intimate discourse has led to neglect of the importance of repetition in first language discourse, which has in turn led to the outlawing of repetition and learning by heart in the second language classroom. I should like to argue that this neglect stems from four distorting factors in contemporary discourse analysis: 1 2 3 4 emphasis on creativity in language rather than memory unrepresentative data cultural bias against any apparently useless language a narrow view of language (and discourse) functions.

I shall attempt to deal with each of these in turn.


Creativity and recall

The theories of Chomsky, which have so dominated the study of first language acquisition for thirty-five years, exclusively emphasize the creativity of language, focusing on utterances that are neither known by
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heart nor repetitions. The process of language acquisition is described exclusively as the development within the individual of a linguistic competence, a tacit knowledge of rules which enables the individual to generate utterances which are put together for the first and only time. Second language acquisition studies have also centred upon the development of this capacity, but added to it that the process of acquiring grammar works best when the attention of the learner is not on the rules themselves, but on meaning (Krashen 1981) or on a task (Prabhu 1987). In all these approaches repetition of form, learning by heart, and imitation are associated with the misguided behaviourist past. Yet, as is now widely acknowledged, research both on child language development (Peters 1983), and on adult language use (Bolinger 1976; Pawley and Syder 1983; Widdowson 1984; Cowie 1990; Howarth 1991), while not denying the capacity for novelty and focus on meaning, has also stressed the role of memory for unanalysed chunks of language. The well-documented discourse of the infant first language acquirer is characterized by repetition of set phrases, rituals, stories, and rhymes, in many of which , for the child, there is neither meaning nor purpose. What child asks for the meaning of tuffet in the lines Little Miss Moffat/Sat on a tuffet? In such cases, it is perhaps only when the form has been assimilated through repetition, that both grammar and meaning may begin to emerge.
Unrepresentative data

But even if we concede that repetitious discourse which does not focus on meaning is typical of the child, it may still seem - for this very reason unsuitable for the older second language student. On the other hand it may be that the exclusive association of this kind of discourse with childhood is largely the result of a distorting effect on the kind of data available for analysis. This discourse seems to be most typical of children, not because it is exclusive to them, but because it is most easily available from them. Some years ago in Britain the Bristol project investigating child language development collected data by attaching to each child in the survey a tape recorder which switched on automatically for short periods at frequent but irregular intervals, recording whatever the child in question happened to be saying and hearing at that time (Wells 1985: 29-35). Such data collection can indeed provide a random sample of the discourse entered into by a particular individual, especially if the intervals are such that the data is collected at different times each day. The subjects of this research, however, were children, unaware of the implications of the recording. Researchers have traditionally felt no qualms about snooping upon children. Adults are a different matter. They have to be informed, and they inevitably monitor and censor what they say. A part of the British National Corpus now being collected is using the same technique of automatic random recording with adults as the Bristol project used with children. Yet the adults are aware that the recording is taking place, conscious of its possible implications, and, crucially, allowed to switch off the devices if they wish. It is also feasible that when the recorders are on, the subjects subconsciously alter their discourse, even over an extended period of

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time. They are also volunteers, and therefore ipso facto a particular - and rather unrepresentative - type of person. The result of such unavoidable censorship is a distortion. Although there is, in various corpora and analyses, data of discourse between intimates (e.g. husband and wife, as in Bavelas 1991) it is not typically intimate discourse as defined above. For obvious reasons, therefore, there is a conspicuous dearth of certain types of exchanges: serious arguments, swearing and abuse, lovers talk, repeated grumbling, nonsense talk and - that totally private but very substantial part of human linguistic behaviour mentioned above - talking to oneself. The nature of certain kinds of intimate discourse may be one of those objects of linguistic research which, like the thought processes of the pre-linguistic child, is forever unknowable, but should not for this reason, in some excess of positivist scientism, be deemed unworthy of speculation, What I am arguing is that discourse analysis is largely based upon data which excludes a very important type of discourse.5 Theories proposed as of general applicability - such as speech-act theory, conversational principles, or turn-taking - are not necessarily readily transferable to this kind of area (Cook 1989a: 43,53). A thorough theory of the discourse of modem life - which in turn should contribute to a theory of TESOL should be based upon both public and intimate discourse. But is this in fact the case?
Cultural bias

It may also be that the low degree of attention afforded to such discourse, and to the repetition which it often involves, is not only the result of the difficulties of coming by such data in our society, but also of the low esteem which our society affords to discourse which displays these features. It is consigned to the private sphere precisely because it is of this type. We find our use of such discourse behaviour embarrassing, and are unwilling to hand over talk of this kind to the discourse analyst, not because we are the only people who do these things - for of course we all behave in this way - but because we live in a society which does not value this behaviour. We cannot see the point of it, for it does not fit our view of the purpose of language, yet we persist in doing it. Contemporary Western culture is perhaps unusual in the lack of importance it attaches to the form of words. What matters in discourse, it appears, is its meaning or intention, and the purpose of discourse is seen only as the transmission of meanings and intentions. So we find those instances of repetitious discourse which do exist in our society difficult to deal with or explain. Philosophy wrestles in bafflement with the problem of reassurance, a very common feature of intimate discourse: Do you really love me? Are you sure you switched the cooker off? Have you got the passports? and so on. Some repetitious discourses, like football chants and advertisements, are relegated to the lowest categories. Others, which we value, like
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literature and prayers, are explained in terms of their meaning or sincerity, leaving no real explanation of why we need to say them, or read or recite them more than once, often in immediate succession. Thus Westerners find the value attached in other cultures to a form of words, and their public repetition, baffling and even ludicrous. NonArabic-speaking Moslem children learn to recite long sections of the Koran without understanding what they are saying; one of the necessary duties of a Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist is to say the words nam-nyohorenge-kyo (I devote my life to universal laws of cause and effect.) every day, whether or not he or she knows the full range of their meanings. Whatever our view of the religious function of such uses of language and they are many and widespread - they do perhaps reveal the limitations of seeing the function of language as only one of communication. For speaking has other functions, for the self as well as for others: it is a source of comfort and an outlet for joy and exuberance, and a way of forming for ourselves and others an image of our own identity.6 One other non-communicative function of repetition could be to aid acquisition. Repetition of substantial stretches of language which are known by heart, whether or not they are fully understood or used to communicate, gives the mind something to work on, so that gradually, if one wishes, they may yield up both their grammar and their meaning. Those children who learn sections of the Koran by heart do not necessarily go on to learn Arabic; but for those who do it seems reasonable to suppose that this rote knowledge is a considerable advantage. Perhaps it is our view of the functions of language which is wrong, rather than the discourse which does not fulfil those functions.
A narrow view of language

A good deal of TESOL practice is based upon the view that the intimate discourse which surrounds the child, and within which the child acquires his or her first language(s), is solely a stimulus to a Language Acquisition Device whose only function is to develop rules for the analysis and generation of unique sentences. Observation of caretaker speech and child discourse has shown this to be inadequate. The input of caretaker speech is repetitive and highly ritualized; the output of the child is often imitative and half-understood. If there is any truth in the Ll = L2 hypothesis, the L2 practices based upon understanding of Ll acquisition have failed to take this into account. It is, for example, often assumed that language acquisition takes place when the attention of the acquirer is on meaning or function rather than on form. Yet in first language acquisition, with its rhymes and rituals and repetitions, this is not always the case. Nor is it true that this kind of discourse withers away entirely in adulthood, though our cultural emphasis on the usefulness of language and on its public domain may lead us to believe that it does. When we are alone, or with our family and friends, we often talk for the sake of talking, literally when we have nothing (in the sense of nothing new or

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meaningful) to say. This situation may lead us to the repetitive and the known-by-heart. This happens at all levels of language, from the formulaic phrases and clauses of grumbling or swearing at another driver, to the entire discourses of favourite fantasies, or songs and prayers. Most functional theories of language (e.g. Halliday 1973; Robinson 1972) tend to miss these aspects of language and of discourse, or consign them to childhood. Language and discourse are viewed as exclusively concerned with the linking of one person with another for two major purposes: to convey information, and to create and maintain social relationships, and it is assumed that although most discourses mix these two functions, they are likely to be set towards one or the other. What is said merely to fill the airwaves is regarded as performing a phatic - i.e. social - function. Yet a good deal - not all - of intimate discourse is more like talking in the presence of others than talking to others, and indeed a lot of it continues whether others are listening or not, and even when others go out of earshot. It is too easy, therefore, to account for all utterances of no great informational content as phatic and therefore as primarily interpersonal. There is also talking for the sake of talking, talking which is - even if in the presence of others - primarily for the self.
Implications for

TESOL

It is as always important not to over-react to narrow views of language and language acquisition. The alternations of fashion to which I referred at the beginning have bedevilled linguistics, applied linguistics, language acquisition studies, and TESOL for far too long. Human uses of language, and human strategies for acquiring it, are many and varied; they cannot be accounted for by unified and hegemonic theories. Whatever violent battles theorists may indulge in, it would be more to our advantage, I believe, to regard new theories as additions rather than alternatives. So I am not arguing that focus on meaning or purpose or communication should suddenly be abandoned for an exclusive diet of drills and songs and rituals and poetry learning. Nor am I arguing for the enforced learning of unwanted texts. But I am arguing that repetition and learning by heart should again form a substantial part of the language learning process. Sometimes there is a place in the discourse of the adult second language acquirer, just as there is within the discourse of the child and the native speaker, for learning by heart and repeating, even without understanding. Knowing by heart makes it possible to enjoy speech without the burden of production. It brings with it the comfort and security of the intimate situation. And as the known-by-heart is repeated many times, it may begin to make sense. Its native-like structures and vocabulary, analysed and separated out, become available for creative and original use.
Received January 1993

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Notes

References 1990. A Lovers Discourse. Barthes, R. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Bavelas, J. 1991. Equivocal Communication. London: Sage. Bolinger, D. 1976. Memory and Meaning. Forum Linguisticum 1/1: 1-14. Blume, R. 1985. Graffiti in T. van Dijk (ed.). Discourse and Literature. Amsterdam: Benjamins. Cook, G. 1989a. Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Cook, G. 1989b. Adverts, songs, jokes and graffiti: approaching literary through sub-literary writing in Effective Training and Learning. London: Macmillan/Modern English Publications: 128-33. Cook, G. 1992. The Discourse of Advertising. London: Routledge. Cooper, D. 1986. Metaphor. Oxford: Blackwell. Cowie, A. P. 1990. Multiword units and communicative language teaching in P. Amaud, and H. Bejoint, (eds.) Vocabulary and Applied Linguistics. London: Macmillan. Fairclough, N. (ed.) 1992. Critical Language Awareness. London: Longman. Goffman, E. 1979. Gender Advertisements. London: Macmillan. Halliday, M. 1975. Learning How to Mean. London: Edward Arnold. Halliday, M. 1973. Explorations in the Function of Language. London: Edward Arnold. Howarth, P. 1991. A Phraseological Approach to Academic Writing. Mimeo: University of Leeds English Language Unit. Krashen, S. 1981. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon. 1972. Labov, W. Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennysylvania. Lecercle, J. 1990. The Violence of Language. London: Routledge. Pawley, A. and F. Syder. 1983. Two puzzles for linguistics theory: native-like selection and nativelike fluency in J. Richards and J. Schmidt (eds.) and Language Communication. London: Longman. Peters, A. 1983. The Units of Language Acquisition. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press. Piaget, J. 1959. The Language and Thought of the Child. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Prabhu, N. 1987. Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Robinson, W. P. 1972. Language and Social Behaviour. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Stewart, S. 1985. Nonsense. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins. Tannen, D. 1989. Talking Voices: Repetition, and Imagery in Conversational Dialogue, Cambridge University Discourse. Cambridge: Press.

1 Rather illogically, as so many poets and poetry now included in the literary canon were in their time iconoclastic and rebellious. How strange, for example, that reciting the poems of the atheist anarchist Shelley should be seen as making pupils into obedient citizens who dress smartly, respect their rulers, and do not argue with their employers. 2 To incorporate them, some might wish to make a distinction between knowing by heart (as we know and repeat a favourite song) and learning by heart (as we might purposely and deliberately memorize something because we are made to, or because it is useful). Yet the results and processes involved in the two may be similar enough to warrant being treated as one. 3 And perhaps also maximal power relations (e.g. warder/prisoner; master/servant). Wolfson (1988) suggests that in modern industrial societies the vast majority of relationships exist in what she terms the bulge, an area of civil interaction in which there are neither extremes of power differentiation between participants, nor great personal closeness or interest. In the bulge, relationships are created by the discourse rather than pre-existing it - hence a lesser tolerance of transgression - and what matters is what is said rather than the person who is saying it. She points out that, paradoxically, the two extremes of maximum and minimal power differentiation have a good deal in common: people speak with equal directness to a servant or a brother/sister. 4 Widdowson (1992), as a prelude to a discussion of literature and the theory and practice of literature teaching, reflects upon this mixture of the public and private in the language of tombstones. 5 Although relations in the bulge (see note 3 above) are most frequent - in that we have more of them and spend more time in them - it is not the case that they are correspondingly of greater importance. Quantity is not all that counts. A short argument or exchange of confidences with a partner, bantering, gossiping, or grumbling with family or close friend, may well count equally or more than longer discourses such as routine meetings at work. Quantity of occurrence and psychological salience, or social importance, are not the same - an argument which corpus linguistics should heed when tempted by the facile belief that the most frequently occurring uses of linguistic items are also the most important to their users! 6 Goffman (1979) describes language which creates identity as display (for further discussion see Cook 1992: 147, 204); Fairclough (1992: 8) mentions an identical function, though he does not elaborate.

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Vygotsky, L. 1986. Thought and Language. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. Wells, G. 1985. Language Development in the PreSchool Years. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Wolfson, N. 1988. The bulge: a theory of speech behaviour and social distance in J. Fine (ed.) Second Language Discourse: A Textbook of Current Research. Norwood NJ: Ablex. Discussant in 1984. Widdowson, H. G. Interlanguage. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press: 324-29. Widdowson, H. G. 1992. Practical Stylistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The author

Guy Cook is Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics for TESOL at the London University Institute of Education. He has worked as a teacher of English in England, Egypt, Italy, and the former Soviet Union, and as a lecturer at Moscow State University and the University of Leeds. His interests include literature teaching, discourse analysis, media studies, and translation theory, and his publications include Discourse (OUP 1989), The Discourse of Advertising (Routledge 1992), and Literature, Discourse, and Cognitive Change (OUP, forthcoming).

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