Fiction as a resource for academic inquiry

John Grishamm, The Broker

Sure, this is a great book that fulfills all the prerequisite of its genre in a way that allows the reader to probe some of the possibilities of depth. The writing is taut (although I've only listened to it as a book on tape) and reminds me of the masters: Elmore Leonard and (my all time favorite) Carl Hiaasen.

[He] found it difficult to enjoy a fine meal when his brain was working overtime to hear, grasp, digest, understand, and plot a response to the last phrase thrown at him. Often the last phrase had passed over his head with only a word or two being somewhat recognizable when the whole thing was suddenly being chased by another. (p. 127)

However, what interests me here is an over all much less significant aspect of this book (almost insignificant to the plot). As part of the plot, the main character is required to learn Italian. I was struck how accurately Grisham describes the process of learning a foreign language in an immersive environment. He fully captures all the extraneous elements such as stress, tiredness and culture shock that I have witnessed so often in my work with Peace Corps Volunteers and other students (as well as introspectively in my many forays into language learning). This is particularly striking since language learning is so often mischaracterized in fiction (as well as in journalism) where language is seen as something to be acquired with almost the same ease a program is installed on the computer. (Almost reminiscent of the way sailing is inaccurately protrayed in movies as essentially the same as driving a car.) Characters are described as fluent in several languages and can navigate the foreign culture with complete ease with no mention of accent or other difficulties. Characters described as speaking only a few words can all of a sudden interpret complex utterances with errors mentioned only as a plot device. Karl May (the author of many a Central European's childhood and a massive force behind my moral development) was particularly liberal with his hero's language skills. 'Old Shatterhand' travelled the world easily acquiring local languages with faultless accent - routinely fooling locals into thinking he was one of them (of course May, who never travelled, wrote much of his stuff in prison so the desire to acquire multiple identities might have got the better of him). Laurence Block's sleepless detective is another extreme example. These schemas and scenarios contribute greatly to the many 'folk theories' about language learning out there.

But I digress. Grisham's masterful portrayal of the complex, protracted and extremely stressful process of learning a foreign language is extremely compelling. But could it be used to do research? (A question raised recently at a case study seminar at UEA - Rob Walker cited Dickens as an example of fiction reflecting social research.) Well, surely any researcher would be better served with access to actual learners in a realistic setting but these subjects frequently misreport their mental states in light of their theories of learning. Of course, the researcher can easily compensate for this, but a compelling narrative may be hard to extract. Grisham on the other hand presents a composite picture of a typical learner, which is made more vivid for the reader by the experience of the reader being immersed in the narrative. It is certainly not a substitute for rigorous research (of which there isn't much) but the question is, can the research be complete without an investigation of fictional reflections of human experience (with all its structural limitations and need for narrative conformity)? Apparently, Maslow - in his later work which I'm only familiar with second hand - came to reevaluate the role of fiction in psychological research.

I would (and will) certainly recommend any prospective (or current) language learner to read Grisham's book rather than research literature. (Even though I'm fully aware that fiction has different effects on different people in different stages of their lives - in itself a worthwhile subject).

In the same way, I have recommended James Clavell (with some success) to people dealing with culture shock (Shogun, in particular, paints a faithful picture of the process of adapting to another culture.)

The versatile Michael Crichton's 'The Rising Sun' is another example of an accurate protrayal of ethnocentrism (and even contains references to academic work). Crichton's fictional account of science in The Lost World (and to some extent in Jurassic Park) would do well as a required supplementary reading to Kuhn and Feyrabend.

Now, all of these accounts might miss some aspects of the complexity behind the issues (and even make errors) but on the other hand, it is one of the aims of scholarly discourse to reduce the complexities into comprehensible images (of various sorts) and it may well be that fiction can not only do a better job of that but also provide some insights that may have been hidden in the data evading the analytic mind.