Playing with my two-year-old granddaughter today, fresh breezes of wonder washed over me. Why does she understand what I say? My mind went to my international students, many of whom did not start learning English until college age. Why is it that, at the beginning of the semester, they and I speak carefully and have to politely repeat ourselves to be fully understood, but by the end of the semester, we converse easily and rapidly?
The elements that foster understanding are hard to define, but surely they are multiple, and surely one foundational element is trust. While we are getting to know each other, we are sorting through signals that indicate trustworthiness. If the signals warn us that the other is not trustworthy, we can't absorb meaning in conversation; our minds and souls get occupied constructing inward fences and developing self-protective procedures in anticipation of future problems.
But where strong trust undergirds conversation, defenses can relax and serious listening has a chance. True exchange of ideas then flows.
My granddaughter knows I will listen carefully to her verbal and nonverbal signals, so she can in turn listen and hear me. My students possess intelligence and kind hearts, so when they receive respect from me, they respond, and soon we understand each other well. The same is true for domestic students, although the difference in language comprehension across a semester is less noticeable.
Developing this trust and receiving its benefits is one of the things I look forward to as a professor, most particularly when I see understanding flower in my students' writing.