September 16, 2013
Assignment 1: Language Learner Profile of Olivier Ruel
Olivier Ruel is a 32-year old Frenchman who is a professional player of the trading card game Magic: the Gathering (M:TG). He resides in Lille, France, and works as a writer and columnist for several publications and websites when not playing in tournaments. He is the fifth highest ranked player in lifetime standings, according to the game’s sanctioning organization, the Duelists’ Convocation International, as of September 2013. He was voted into the game’s Hall of Fame in 2008, the first year in which he was eligible. In the professional Magic community, he is widely respected, and collaborates on a regular basis with players from France, the US, Japan, the Netherlands, and other countries. He has close contact with a wide variety of L1 and L2 English speakers.
Ruel’s first language is French, and he studied English in high school. He also started to learn Japanese in 2004, and spent several months in Japan each year in 2004-2006. As a professional Magic player, he travels to 30-40 tournaments around the world each year, and often stays with local players at his destinations. He has excellent social networks, and spends over half a year away from his hometown annually. I have interacted with Ruel on over 10 occasions in my past as a Magic tournament coverage writer, and know him well on a professional and a social basis. Ruel started playing the game at age 14 in 1994, when the game was first released in French. He has taken time away from the game to pursue other activities, such as university, but claims to play the game not for the money but because he loves it so much. While much of Olivier’s early career was spent with his brother, Antoine, and dominated by French language use, he started to travel outside Europe more frequently starting in 2004, and spent more time with players from other countries instead of his compatriots.
Magic: the Gathering is a game produced in the United States by the company Wizards of the Coast, and while it is printed in 10 languages (including French) and played in over 150 countries (153 countries fielded national teams for the 2013 World Championships), the official language of the game is English. The authoritative rules documents are kept in English, and its judge community uses English, requiring all but the lowest levels of judges to have some level of English proficiency. People attending tournaments in Asia or Europe will hear a large number of languages spoken at the largest tournaments, and at major North American tournaments, usually 30 to 60 players from other continents regularly show up. Asian tournaments broadcast tournament information over loudspeakers in English and the local language. Almost all the top level pros from Europe, Latin America, and Asia have some command of English, as players need to follow the rules updates and information about new cards in English. Players who do not share a common first language often play in broken English, and a strong command of oral language is often necessary to explain complex timing rules and report sequences of events to judges. Many players who can purchase English cards instead of cards printed in their native language choose to purchase English ones, because they’re frequently less expensive. This is another incentive for them to acquire English competency.
While Ruel has published many articles in English, these articles have been edited by native English editors in order to ease reader comprehension. I do not know if his articles are produced in English or self-translated, so for the purposes of this assignment I will avoid examining them closely and choose instead to analyze Ruel’s oral communicative skills. I will use a brief section from an interview Ruel had with Magic video journalist Brian David-Marshall after his inauguration into the Magic Hall of Fame in 2008.
(Collins, time: 3:35)
Brian David-Marshall: So after the ceremony, I saw your brother and Manuel came up to you and gave you a couple of presents.
Olivier Ruel: Yes. … Uh.. Manuel Bucher and Patrick Chapin gave me the Hall of Fame Toy Pack, very useful [Ruel displays a Duncan Toy Hall of Fame package, which includes a yo-yo and an Etch-A-Sketch, which are ironic gifts], and uh… my brother offered me this book. [Ruel displays a scrapbook which has framed photos from his childhood and Magic career, with notes on the opposing pages.] It came from the idea of a friend, Maxine, thanks a lot, Maxine, if you’re watching this, basically, it took pictures of me, and of friends, and everyone wrote their own message. My brother asked Japanese players to, if they could write something, maybe, and they all posted, like, pictures, and little notes…
David-Marshall: It’s, it’s beautiful, that had to have felt really nice. Was that a total surprise to you after the event?
Ruel: Half-surprise. Like, there is a, Tsuyoshi Fujita’s girlfriend, Asami [Kataoka], she came and talked to me last Grand Prix and, like, she tells me like, so did you see the pictures? The pictures? Yes, the pictures, you know? I think I’m not supposed to go… OK, I said nothing. [Ruel gestures with his finger to cross his lips, indicating that he knows something is up but his lips are sealed]
Ruel demonstrates ability to craft a coherent narrative. Using Labov’s system of narrative analysis, he creates a solid abstract and orientation, explaining what the scrapbook is and how he suspected that his colleagues were working on such a gift for him. The audience understands that he is going to explain what he knows about the scrapbook’s creation. Ms. Kataoka’s question about whether he had seen the pictures (which he was unfamiliar with at the time) is the complicating action, and his suspicions about these unknown pictures are the evaluation. He handles the situation by staying quiet, but using hand gestures clearly communicates the clandestine nature of his knowledge. This fits Labov’s result component. There is no coda, as at this point Ruel has adequately answered David-Marshall’s question.
When we look at Olivier’s lexical usage, the only usage that stands out as atypical for native English speakers is his verb choice in explaining how his brother presented the scrapbook to him. Olivier uses the marked verb offer instead of the unmarked verb give. This is most likely an interaction with his L1, French, which uses the marked verb offrir specifically in the context of gifts instead of the unmarked form, donner. This usage does not deter comprehensibility, however.
The other lexical shortcoming that comes across as somewhat unnatural is his repeated usage of the generic book over the more explicit and marked form, scrapbook. This can be explained by scrapbook’s low usage frequency. It is likely that he hasn’t seen the term before, and the general negative connotations of scrap might cause some hesitation and cause him to avoid the term. While this low frequency usage is distinctive, I would argue that it does not diminish his communicative efforts.
Ruel also uses varied hesitations to allow him the time to compose his thoughts. He uses the common English uh… as opposed to the French analogue, euh. I would argue that unmarked hesitations are acquired and used with very little conscious effort, following Krashen’s model of cognition, so the fact that he uses L2 hesitations points to a great deal of exposure to English input. He also uses marked hesitations. Instead of starting a description of the scrapbook with intricate details, he indicates a brief summative explanation with basically. He gains time to compose his thoughts, but it’s also clear that there is a lot of personal information in the scrapbook and important messages inside, and he informs the audience that his description is going to be brief because there’s so much content he values in the scrapbook.
He uses like twice to attribute direct quotation instead of reported speech in his dialogue with Ms. Kataoka. This usage is not one that most French language classes (or many EFL teachers, for that matter) would proscribe, but Ruel uses English extensively in tournaments in a social context, and it would follow that he acquired the like construction from natural interactions with native English speakers.
Assessing Ruel’s phonology in 2008, we find many characteristics typical of native French speakers. His production does not differentiate between /iː/ and /i/. However, he is fully competent in differentiating and using /θ/ and /ð/. This particular area of pronunciation is something that has improved significantly since I met him for the first time in 2004.
Ruel also uses body language and tone to express his emotions. He uses pitch correctly to report questions, and uses a deadpan tone to express sarcasm when discussing his entrance into the Hall of Fame being coupled with “Hall of Fame” toys such as a yo-yo. He knows that he is speaking to a wide audience (10,000 viewers on a live webcast, with archival footage to be posted later), and he uses humor and wit to entertain them. His gesture crossing his lips to demonstrate his conspiratorial silence, while letting the audience in on the trick, is dramatically appropriate. This is a characteristic of a highly competent, experienced communicator. Having personally interacted with Ruel in both French and English in 2004 (he claimed to be impressed with my French, but jokingly said that he couldn’t keep up with me in it and didn’t want to be embarrassed, so he’d prefer to use English), I can say that he has an excellent command of English for emotive and social cues as well as for inquiries. Observing Ruel in dialogue in a more casual register (Miller, 2010, 1:15 in video), he uses a faster, more casual tone, informally dropping by to visit friends, and the fact that he is on camera does not cause any hesitation. The broadcasters don’t expect him specifically, they are just looking for a celebrity player, and Ruel clearly fits their needs. He uses wit and humor in front of a large audience.
In David-Marshall’s interview (Collins 2008), however, the topic is far more personal and formal, and he code-switches appropriately to suit the higher gravitas. Ruel played for over a decade before attaining membership in Magic’s Hall of Fame, the highest honor in the game, and he clearly wants to come across in a positive light. The different register is a product of his personal investment in creating an archival video for posterity, something that he could show his children or relatives, whereas his more colorful register in Miller’s video clearly indicates that he is comfortable talking in English and using more idiomatic, emotional speech in his self-chosen social circle.
Ruel’s response time in the Collins video is quite rapid and spontaneous. His narrative is rich and requires little prompting. This performance could be facilitated by the vividness of the recollection, with little time removed from the events. Or it could be rehearsed. Ruel could have just given a similar recounting to a French-language journalist prior. Or he may have a great deal of experience as a narrator. In his San Juan tournament report (2010), Ruel mixes the social aspect of the game interacting with familiar and new opponents with recounting the strategic plays he made. He knows that his audience in this setting wants to learn how to play better, using his experiences as templates for success. But he also weaves a tale that includes fraternal conflict (facing off against his own brother) and emotional dilemmas he faces as he plays against his fellow collaborators.
One key concept that is exemplified in the case study of Alberto (Schumann 1976) is social distance. If a learner is strongly disaffected and does not feel the need to understand or interact with native target language speakers, that will create a strong disincentive to learn the language. No such disincentives exist for Ruel. Ruel loves playing Magic, and likes to travel the world and meet new friends, and English is his primary vehicle for doing so. Ruel’s motivation is unimpeachable. Since he travels so extensively, he has ample opportunity to use the language and be exposed to it. He regularly reads Magic articles in English, which are often combinations of complex game theory crunching and analysis and anecdotal accounts. He is one of the game’s ambassadors, and is often featured in Wizards of the Coast’s promotional materials. In the hierarchy of Magic players, Ruel is at the pinnacle, and yet his intrinsic modesty and tendency to mock himself (and others) make him accessible. This allows him to front a positive attitude towards his L2 language usage. One could make the argument that Ruel’s usage qualifies as successful acculturation, defined by Schumann.
Through effort, his understanding of English used in playing Magic (a very technical, demanding competence demanding study to reach comprehensibility) is such that he feels confident being able to produce English articles that are respected in his field. This brings to mind Derwing and Thomson’s 2008 study assessing Chinese and Russian learners of English in China, which discusses accessibility to local norms. Ruel has successfully adapted to the international peer group and enjoys high status, which facilitates his language acquisition. However, Ruel has been studying and playing the game for almost two decades, which makes him far more fit for a case study than as a participant in a group study.
Ruel attributes a lot of his success in the game to his collaboration with the Japanese players, and is widely considered to be one of the bridges between the European and Japanese player base. Tsuyoshi Fujita, a fellow Hall of Fame player from Osaka and a close associate of Ruel’s, told me that Japanese pros can interact easily with Olivier because he can slow down and speak English at a speed that matches their own. Fujita said that while many Japanese pros can communicate with other players through email and text instant messages, they are often frustrated by American interlocutors in oral speech, and that the French player is easier to understand than his American or Brazilian counterparts. It is clear that Ruel has learned to effectively modify his speech to work easily with other L2 English users.
There are gaps in my knowledge of Olivier’s English proficiency that I would seek to fill in, if I were to continue my assessment. I don’t know whether he finished university. I don’t know when he started studying English, and what methods he used to learn morphosyntax. Olivier started playing the game with his older brother Antoine, and has teamed with him in many multiplayer formats. How much English did his brother teach him in the process of playing the game? Pecinec’s 2011 article discusses the relationship between two brothers acquiring an L2 and the different influences of age. That would definitely be an area of interest if I were to continue to assess Olivier’s English acquisition, but further research would be needed. I can assert that he has read many English Magic articles, since he refers to them in his articles. He has written for a number of websites in English, but I don’t know the language he writes in initially. I don’t know how much of his written work relies on collaboration with his editors. Given his age and his extensive world travels, I suspect he dropped out of college, and I wonder if that has shaped his perspective on English studies or not. How would he function in a business or academic environment using English? This analysis is yet incomplete. But with the information I have, using the CEFR proficiency levels, I would place Olivier at a C1 (Advanced) level.
It is problematic assessing a learner’s perspective through a mix of personal interaction and published media, because personal perception and subjective memory inform judgments. It’s been two years since I met Ruel in person, and I personally can’t divorce assessment from individual face-to-face experience. I can make judgments based on recorded media, but my intuition doesn’t allow me to trust those feelings. To me, the situation reminds me of Senator Bill Frist (R-NC), a doctor (but not a neurosurgeon) prior to his political career, who claimed that he used an hour of video of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who was diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state, to disagree with the diagnosis and claim that he thought that her brain damage was not long-term or irreversible. After she passed and underwent an autopsy, Ms. Schiavo’s condition was indeed found to have been irreversible and unsalvageable. I selected Ruel because I have had some lengthy interactions with him. I’ve interacted with him on quite a few occasions, but since I wasn’t using my faculties as a TESOL professional to assess him at the time, I can’t wholly trust my findings from those interactions. However, those interactions plus analysis from recorded media do give me the confidence to make an analysis I am confident in.
Collins, Gregg. 2008 Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame: Olivier Ruel. August 2008. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yP-luOO5fLY, last accessed 9/14/2013
– This is the video that I use for the transcript. I selected it in order to avoid jargon-heavy discussion for ease of use and because of its extensive narrative.
Collins, Gregg. Play the Game, See the World. June 2006. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIo27PmbeBs , last accessed 9/14/2013
– A typical promotional vehicle for the game, Olivier and his brother are featured in this video interviewing professional players and their experiences traveling the globe as they play the game.
David-Marshall, Brian. Magic: the Gathering Hall of Fame Pro Tour Profile: Olivier Ruel. Available at http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/HallOfFame.aspx?x=mtgevent/hofplayer/oruel , last accessed 9/14/2013
– This is a summary of the interview and other dialogue that happened between David-Marshall, the official M:TG Pro Tour Historian, and Olivier that weekend.
Miller, Rashad. GP Oakland Day 1 Between Round Chat with Olivier Ruel, uploaded February 17, 2010, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g78Jijb338U , last accessed at 9/14/2013.
– This video is notable for Ruel using a more colloquial register, using more casual, technical game terms to explain his experience.
Ruel, Olivier. My Thoughts on the Hall of Fame. Available at http://www.starcitygames.com/php/news/print.php?Article=16341, May 5, 2008, last accessed 9/14/2013
- An article where Ruel argues for members of the two voting comittees to vote for him for the Hall of Fame. I attempted to contact the website editor of that time, Ted Knutson, to inquire how much editing was involved with Ruel’s article, but Knutson did not contact me. This is an example of Ruel’s earlier English MTG writing.
Ruel, Olivier. Reflecting Ruel – My Pro Tour: San Juan Report. July 11, 2010. Available at http://www.starcitygames.com/magic/eldraziblock/19502-Reflecting-Ruel-My-Pro-Tour-San-Juan-Report.html
– This article is an example of Ruel’s writing close to two years after he started writing a regular column at Star City Games. Ruel regularly wrote tournament reports after tournaments he thought were noteworthy, or where he found great success.