Since a lot of my job involves solitary work at my computer and I like to have background noise while I’m crunching numbers or doing research, I’ve become an avid podcast listener. One of my favorites right now is Spycast, which is a weekly podcast hosted by Vince Houghton, the head curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC (which I regret not visiting when I was there earlier this year for a work trip). A few months ago, Vince Houghton interviewed Sven Hughes, who served in the British military in Afghanistan doing PsyOps (Psychological Operations) and now applies his military experience to marketing and political campaign management. He has recently written a book called Verbalisation: The Power of Words to Drive Change (2016), which I of course snapped up as soon as the podcast was over. I guess I roundly proved Mr. Hughes’ points about marketing and persuasion!
While the book is very much directed at marketing execs and campaign managers, reading it made me think of how Hughes’ methods and theories could apply to some of the aspects I was researching in my MA dissertation on the growth of Mandarin Chinese as a taught foreign language.
Verbalisation talks about Hughes’ product RAID, which uses four factors to understand an audience, and subsequently market an idea, a product, or an action to them: Cognition, Flow, Lexicon, and Environment (Hughes, pp. 37-41).
After reading Hughes’ conceptions of each of these factors (pp. 45-46), I like to think of them as “zooming out” on a person and from there, being able to understand how to get them to buy what you’re selling.
Cognition (pretty obviously) focuses on what’s going on in their own minds: how do they feel? What do they think about their own cultural/racial/national/linguistic identity? What are their aspirations, fears, and motivations? How do they process information that they receive (visually, verbally)?
Flow is how a person receives information: which “informants” do they trust? Do they use technology or social media to receive information? What are their social networks? Where do they go to receive information? How is information traditionally transmitted in their culture?
Lexicon is how that information is transmitted to them and how that person then transmits information to others: how do they use humor? What sentence structures do they use? Do they use formal or informal language, and when do they switch/change? Do they use different forms of language on different communication channels and with different people? How does culture or religion play into language use? Do they use more measured or more emotional language?
Finally, when we zoom all the way out, we get to Environment: how does identity play a role in how they receive, process, and transmit information? What are the social or cultural expectations to which they must adhere? Are there political or legal factors that affect the flow of information they receive and who transmits it to them? How does their socioeconomic status affect the flow of information they receive, how they process it, and how they use/transmit it?
After reading this section in Verbalisation, I was a little disappointed that this book came out when I was either most of the way through my research, or had already submitted my dissertation, because it articulates so much of what I hoped to examine when I was exploring how Mandarin Chinese was growing as a taught foreign language.
Better late than never, I suppose; here, I’m going to apply these four “quadrants” of RAID to my own research findings, and frame my dissertation (or at least one aspect of it) in a new way.
Let’s start with Cognition. My interviewees were mostly university-educated British adults of various cultural and racial backgrounds, and of varying ages. When I asked them why they were learning Mandarin Chinese, I found that while there were a plurality of reasons why they were choosing to learn Mandarin Chinese, the most prevalent one was a desire to understand China and Chinese culture. With China’s international economic and political influence growing, learners, especially those who were not of Chinese descent (a few of my interviewees were, and that led me down yet another fascinating sociolinguistic rabbit hole), saw Mandarin Chinese as a conduit to understanding the nation and being able to relate to its people as friends or business partners. Others hoped to look for work in China, or had already worked or studied there, and liked the culture, food, and job opportunities. Others wanted to advance their academic or professional careers and demonstrate a willingness to learn new and difficult things. Some who were of Chinese descent spoke of their family history and heritage (though some of my Chinese-descended interviewees also spoke of conflicting feelings because their families spoke other Chinese languages, not Mandarin). Their aspirations and hopes centered greatly on making connections and increasing their understanding of the world.
As for Flow, many of my interviewees spoke of using technology and social media (such as WeChat) to learn or practice Mandarin and going to language “meet-ups”, in addition to going to private classes or taking courses in school. By and large they received information about the language from more “informal”, individualized channels typical of tech-savvy, socially-minded professionals and students in a large city. However, it should be noted that I connected with the majority of my interviewees via a regular language “meet-up” run by the Confucius Institute, which I have discussed in previous blog posts. While my interviewees were able to find a variety of sources of information about China and Mandarin Chinese through a combination of individual social networks, technology, and the commercial sector, many of them were receiving most of their knowledge about Mandarin Chinese through a government-sanctioned and controlled institution. I found this extremely interesting.
With regard to Lexicon, when I examined both how the Confucius Institute marketed itself, how the British government promoted its initiatives to increase the number of Mandarin Chinese learners in the UK, and how my interviewees talked about their experiences as learners, I found a significant emphasis on novelty and the instrumental value of learning Mandarin Chinese; it was new and unfamiliar, and it could lead to better career prospects. In my research interviews, while many participants expressed pessimism about their ability to attain fluency, they still couched their motivations and learning experiences in aspirational terms: better-paying jobs, career prospects, achievement, fascination.
The Confucius Institute’s promotional materials and teaching resources similarly emphasize both the utility and novelty/cultural significance of Mandarin Chinese. On Hanban’s About Us page, the first words that jumped out at me were “economy”, “rapid growth”, “demand” – while the second paragraph directly references comparable cultural/linguistic promotion institutions and the promotion of (a very specific version of) Chinese culture, the motivations behind Hanban’s promotion of Mandarin Chinese and the creation of Confucius Institutes are couched in economic and business terms. If you look at the main page, colorful pictures of performers in cultural costumes, children and educators meeting Chinese dignitaries adorn it, along with news of cultural events around the globe, which promote Chinese food, dance, and visual arts. Hanban/Confucius Institute’s promotional materials and curricula quite neatly match the cognition, flow, and lexicon of the learners I encountered in my research.
Finally, we come to Environment. My interviewees (few as they were), while diverse in age and ethnic background, were all relatively well-educated residents of London: a vast, multicultural, multilingual city with several universities (and associated Confucius Institutes) and easy access to individual, group, online, and offline Mandarin teaching and learning resources. London’s status as an economic hub (and the anxieties related to Brexit and general geopolitical changes at the time of my research) also likely played into my interviewees’ focus on Mandarin Chinese as a means to improve job opportunities.
So all things considered, I think that it’s safe to say that if we’re examining all of this through Hughes’ framework, at least in the context of my research, the Confucius Institute has done very well at reaching out to well-educated adult city dwellers by fulfilling their need for multiple learning platforms/options (language meet-ups, formal classes, online materials, official proficiency tests), and matching their aspiration/practicality-focused lexicon.
As I said earlier, I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t have Verbalisation when I was working on my dissertation, because I think that Hughes’ methodology for understanding an audience’s motivations and actions would have been an incredibly useful framework for my research, and for understanding sociolinguistics from a policy and marketing perspective.
In my last post, I briefly touched on the impact that the Catalonia independence referendum may have on other minority language communities and on how language and identity may play an ever more important role in geopolitics. As the world is torn between increasing fragmentation (independence movements, Brexit, US isolationism/protectionism) and the forces of globalization that may slow but likely will not be much diminished, how speech communities promote and transmit their languages, and information about their languages and cultures, to other members, to learners, and the world at large is becoming increasingly important.
Hughes, Sven. Verbalisation: The Power of Words to Drive Change. London: Verbalisation Limited, 2016.