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Monthly Archives: June 2009

The hidden power of language

The idea that language shapes (if not determines) our perspectives, indeed what we may think, has been around for a long time. I have encountered examples of the phenomenon in teaching ESL and EFL (English as a Foreign Language). For example, some Chinese students and I once disputed the colour of something we were all looking at only to discover that our mother tongues cut the spectrum into somewhat different arbitrary bits in the blue/green section. The “real” spectrum has no divisions; our language imposes or constructs divisions.

So I am drawn (via the Arts & Letters Daily) to HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? [6.12.09] by Lera Boroditsky.

For a long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at best untestable and more often simply wrong. Research in my labs at Stanford University and at MIT has helped reopen this question. We have collected data around the world: from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal Australia. What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world. Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity…

Scholars on the other side of the debate don’t find the differences in how people talk convincing. All our linguistic utterances are sparse, encoding only a small part of the information we have available. Just because English speakers don’t include the same information in their verbs that Russian and Turkish speakers do doesn’t mean that English speakers aren’t paying attention to the same things; all it means is that they’re not talking about them. It’s possible that everyone thinks the same way, notices the same things, but just talks differently.

Believers in cross-linguistic differences counter that everyone does not pay attention to the same things: if everyone did, one might think it would be easy to learn to speak other languages. Unfortunately, learning a new language (especially one not closely related to those you know) is never easy; it seems to require paying attention to a new set of distinctions. Whether it’s distinguishing modes of being in Spanish, evidentiality in Turkish, or aspect in Russian, learning to speak these languages requires something more than just learning vocabulary: it requires paying attention to the right things in the world so that you have the correct information to include in what you say.

Such a priori arguments about whether or not language shapes thought have gone in circles for centuries, with some arguing that it’s impossible for language to shape thought and others arguing that it’s impossible for language not to shape thought. Recently my group and others have figured out ways to empirically test some of the key questions in this ancient debate, with fascinating results. So instead of arguing about what must be true or what can’t be true, let’s find out what is true…

I am storing a copy for future reference: Edge_ HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE pdf.

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English/ESL nominated

Last year English/ESL came in at #75 in the Top 100 Language Blogs 2008 on Lexiophiles. I have just been informed that English/ESL has been nominated for the Top 100 of 2009.

Phase 2: Public Voting (July 8 – July 27)

At the end of the nomination phase, we will prescreen every blog and put it into one of the four categories (see below). In each category 100 blogs will be included for voting. If your blog is on the list you can ask your readers, friends, family and whoever comes to mind to vote for you. We will provide a voting button for your convenience before the voting starts. Every person can only vote once the voting of the top 100 blogs for each category.

top100blog-logo09  Go to the link on that icon for more information.

 
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Posted by on June 30, 2009 in blogging, education, site news

 

Indian students, racism, theatre news

Given recent concern over attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney it is fitting that Sydney’s newest theatre company, The Alex Buzo Company, is mounting two plays in August at The Seymour Centre: Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed (1968) and Alana Valentine’s Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah. The first Sydney production of Norm and Ahmed made history. Not long before his untimely death in 2006 Alex Buzo told ABC what happened.

ALEX BUZO: Those words, I mean sorry, the first word, had been used in a lot of overseas plays and so I just assumed it was OK, it was legal.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: It had been said on stage?
ALEX BUZO: Yeah, it had been said on stage. But because it happened in an Australian play, there was a double standard and they thought it was shocking and the actor was arrested and eventually exonerated.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Yes indeed, the whole matter was actually quashed by the Attorney-General. But there was some… there was a bit of a drama to go through until that happened, when the charges were laid and Graeme Blundell and Lindsay Smith were charged with obscenity. There was a great deal of discussion about it in the press.
[VT] Did it dishearten you?
ALEX BUZO: Well, I had actually been boasting in private that my aim as a writer was to put Australian drama on the front page. I didn’t anticipate this sort of front page treatment but, I thought it did have a good result in the sense that people knew that Australian drama was alive and well, whereas up until that point it had no publicity whatsoever, so it did have positive things. On the other hand it was very draining for the actors to go to the Magistrates Court and then the Supreme Court and then it went eventually to the High Court in Canberra. So, it certainly was a wearing process but it did have its upside.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: In a sense looking back on it, it’s a little disheartening, I guess, that the fight all the way through the courts had to be about two words, had to be about a swear word, rather than something a heck of a lot more important than that. I mean, you can imagine going to the courts in defence of art, but something much more important than just those words.
ALEX BUZO: Yes, I mean, I’d be disappointed if people didn’t think the play had something to say about racism and generational envy. But it is a literary play, it is an art play, it’s meant to be humorous and imaginative, it’s meant to have other things going for it other than the final two words.

I was fortunate enough to meet Alex Buzo on several occasions, most memorably when I played a Rugby League commentator in his The Roy Murphy Show for the Balmain Theatre Group in 1978.

I also see Alana Valentine quite frequently as we have some common interests. I shall go to this double bill if I can possibly do so.

Meanwhile around 4 am on Sunday a couple of Indian students were bashed on Bathurst Street near George Street Sydney. This isn’t surprising, unfortunately, as parts of George Street are notorious for this kind of thing especially in the small hours of Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. I would hesitate to wander there myself. The assailants were respectively 16 and 17.

It is pleasing to note The Times of India reporting on 28 June Indians in Australia are safe.

Australian scientist Jose (Jimmy) Botella, who is attending a three-day international conference hosted by Vinoba Bhave University in Hazaribag, on Sunday said that Indian students in Australia are safe and that reports about repeated attacks on them in Melbourne and Sydney have been blown out of proportion by the Indian media. Botella said that Melbourne and Sydney are cities like Delhi and Mumbai in India where criminal activities are no exception. "This does not mean that Australians are indulging in a hatred war against Indians. In fact, Indian students are very bright and intelligent and Australians like them for this quality."…

True enough. See also Delegation tries to allay ‘racist’ attack fears.

There is, however, another basis for complaint. Some of the “private colleges” students might be lured to are store-front operations of dubious pedigree. Students should conduct careful checks preferably with recognised education sites and the Australian Government before enrolling.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2009 in Australia, Australia and Australian, current affairs, education, events, friends, OzLit, racism, South Asian

 

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Borrowed plumage

I have often enjoyed DeusExMacintosh on Skeptic Lawyer, but today’s entry is a corker!

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The image is linked to the original.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2009 in America, other blogs, satire, USA, weirdness

 

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Sunday lunch: Shanghai food to die for!

Ours didn’t have the egg or rice, but otherwise this seems to be it.

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See red cooked pork belly.

Of course Sirdan and I experienced this treat at Chinese Whisper in Crown Street. So good! Melted in the mouth.

Last Sunday we had dined at The Shakespeare with Mr Rabbit, and we both agreed we had really enjoyed seeing him again, and hope to do so in the not too distant future – here at Chinese Whisper perhaps, or at the rather wonderful Indonesian/Malay place we discovered recently.

Just after leaving Sirdan to head home across Ward Park I saw this.

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No idea, but I hope when they wake up they find it was worth it… 😉

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2009 in Sirdan, Sunday lunch, Surry Hills

 

Sunday Floating Life photograph 24

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Posted by on June 28, 2009 in local, photography, Sunday photo

 

Conflicting perspectives

That is an HSC English topic much exercising me of late, but it is also an interesting thing to explore.

Take President Sarkozy and his recent speech. There is an interesting Australian Muslim perspective on Crikey: Sarkozy’s proposed burqua ban is a blunt instrument.

…Last year, I spent a few days in Paris with a French friend of Moroccan background. She and her family and friends related stories of almost routine discrimination  — of elderly relatives being rejected as unworthy for citizenship after fifty years of law-abiding, tax-paying residence, of always having to strive that little bit harder in work and study in order to prove yourself to your non-Muslim colleagues, of the banning of religious symbols in public schools, which was seen as particularly targeting Muslim girls wearing hijab.

My friend now lives in Sydney, and said that she felt a sense of resignation in the face of Sarkozy’s speech. “It’s just another chapter. The kind of events that are almost unthinkable in Australia are commonplace in France. It’s supposed to be about the burqua, but it’s really about something deeper  — about attitudes to Muslims.”

Many Muslim women, including many hijabis, are deeply uncomfortable with face-covering. It is so vanishingly rare among Muslims in the West that many observant Muslims have only encountered it at a distance.

In Australia, a disproportionate number of the women who observe this practice seem to be converts. Their stated commitment to face-covering as their “personal choice” is rendered problematic by the fact that many of them don’t believe that personal choice over dress standards should be extended to women in Muslim-majority societies. While they believe that covering the face is commendable rather than obligatory, they defend the mandatory covering of women’s hair in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

But as Sarkozy’s speech illustrates, they are not the only ones who think that choice is a one-way street  — you can choose, so long as you choose what I tell you to choose. There is no single experience of face-covering, just as there is no single experience of the bikini. Some Muslim women describe face-covering as providing a sense of privacy and comfort…

Not quite unthinkable in Australia of course, but the outcome was more commendable.

In helping one of my coachees towards a definition of “conflicting perspectives” for HSC purposes earlier this week I raised the question in the following way: “I suppose at your school there are heaps of girls wearing hijab…” “Yes,” he replied. “Does anyone take any notice of it?” “No,” he said. Then I asked if he knew what the French President had been saying recently. He did. We then explored what perspective he might have been operating from – and I was as objective and non-judgemental about it as possible, the point not being whether Sarkozy was right or wrong, or whether he was playing dog whistle politics – a term the French do not have according to that Crikey post. We went through a number of historical and cultural factors. We did conclude that making an issue of such things – and similar things like Sikhs who have to wear turbans – tends to exacerbate the conflict of perspectives.

And Bruce, from an atheist perspective, comes in practice to similar conclusions. (I have to say I am bemused by the sectarianism that leads to charges of “accomodationism” or “Uncle Tom atheism”. A bit “holier than thou” isn’t it, if you get my drift?)

…Harris is famed for championing a reduced form of intolerance, which I think most of the people where I come from would just call criticism. Maybe it’s an antipodean thing, but intolerance to me seems more a matter of civics than of intellectual conduct. Maybe its an Australian thing – I think we and Canada have done better with these kinds of concepts, at least in practice, than the US or any of Europe (you will notice that as the primary architects of multiculturalism in practice, neither Australia nor Canada fell for the mockery of human rights that was the Durban Review Conference – so much for the culpability of multicultural tolerance in that mess.*)

I think Harris falls into a deadly rhetorical trap for even associating the criticism of religion with intolerance. It’s not “conversational intolerance.” It’s not intolerance at all!

Intolerance is kicking a kid out of school for wearing a burqa. It isn’t intolerant to opine that the burqa, when forced upon someone, is oppressive. Or to opine that theological reasons for the burqa are sophistry.

Does the fact that I’m against banning the burqa in schools make me an accommodationist? Even given what I think of it? Please do make a distinction between my applied civics and my intellectual position – just because I think something is a bad idea doesn’t mean that I don’t think intervention would be worse…

I certainly endorse that conclusion.