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Category Archives: English language

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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Notelets

1. Dr C has gone to Fiji for a week’s holiday. That could be interesting as a coup seems to be in progress.

2. A couple of (reconstructed) bits of conversation with coachees this week.

Coachee 1 (14): Yes, I read The Lord of the Rings when I was about 4.

Me: Really? That’s a bit much for a four year old… Did you read it in Chinese or English?

Coachee 1: In Chinese. (He was in Shanghai then.)

Me: Have you read it since in English?

Coachee 1: Yes.

Me: Do you still read a lot?

Coachee: One book a week.

Me: English or Chinese?

Coachee: Mostly in English.

********

Coachee 2 (17): I’m having some problems with Keating’s Speech on the Unknown Soldier. (One of seven set for the HSC unit on speeches.)

Me: What problems?

Coachee 2: What is mateship?

That led to an interesting discussion.

 

The nitty gritty of English

I have one coachee in Year 12 doing Advanced English for the HSC who presents with a considerable problem. It isn’t lack of intelligence or insight, but rather a level of English that makes it hard for him to demonstrate what he knows effectively. He arrived in Australia from Hong Kong in May 2007. While he had some English language instruction in Hong Kong, he is very much a Cantonese native speaker.

Here is a small example.

In the movie Australian, Baz Luhrmann is dealing with the same sort of idea that an outsider Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidmen), is trying to fit in to a country that is completely new to her. The way she belongs to the new continent is by understanding the aboriginal’s thought and accept the way they live and try to fit in to them. With the introduction of the rough cow’s drover (Hugh Jackman) as an assistance of Sarah Ashley, the drover help her to save her remote cow station. In this case, Sarah not only fit in to the aboriginal society because of her acceptance and understanding, but also affect by the drover, she as an English noble is not really standing on their side, one of the reason is the drover doesn’t want to join the English noble group but there is another important reason base on identity that is when a person belongs to a group they will understanding their thought and support them, which is in this case, the aboriginal kid is being accepted by her as her children in the white man society. Her we can see the connection between the experience of Peter Skrzynecki in “Migrant Hostel” and in Australian, both of them experience a lack of belonging to a place because of the lack of understanding to the place. However, in Australia, Sarah Ashley has successfully understand and accept the Aboriginal culture then finally she is truly belong to the continent which is different to all the white people who live in the continent, they just physically belong to that place but not spiritually belong to this place. The sense of belonging is shown in the final scene of the movie, that Sarah Ashley release and let the Aboriginal kid goes back to his grandpa his root this is a acceptance to a culture, which is a way to belong to a new culture.

Here is the work in progress; I have left a section untouched* because I need to discuss it further with the student. Anything in square brackets is to be deleted.

In the movie Australia Baz Luhrmann is dealing with the same sort of idea: that an outsider, Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), is trying to fit into a country that is completely new to her. The way she belongs to the new continent is by understanding [the] Aboriginal[’s] thought and accept the way they live and try to fit in with them. [With the introduction of] The rough cattle drover (Hugh Jackman) assists Sarah Ashley, [the drover] helping her to save her remote cattle station. *In this case, Sarah not only fits in to the Aboriginal society because of her acceptance and understanding, but also is affected by the drover. she as an English noble is not really standing on their side, one of the reason is the drover doesn’t want to join the English noble group but there is another important reason base on identity that is when a person belongs to a group they will understanding their thought and support them, which is in this case, the aboriginal kid is being accepted by her as her children in the white man society.*

“Cow” is feminine, “bull” is masculine; “cattle” is the generic or collective noun.

Here we can see the connection between the experience of Peter Skrzynecki in “Migrant Hostel” and Sarah Ashley in Australia. Both of them experience a lack of belonging to a place because of a lack of understanding of the place. However, in Australia, Sarah Ashley has successfully understood and accepted the Aboriginal culture so that finally she is truly able to belong to the continent, which is different from most of the white people who live in the continent, who just physically belong to this place but do not spiritually belong to this place. The sense of belonging is shown in the final scene of the movie when Sarah Ashley [release and] lets the Aboriginal boy go back to his grandfather and his roots. This is an acceptance of a culture, which is a way to belong to a new culture.

In the previous paragraph I have replaced a few examples of colloquial language with more neutral or formal language.

He is, by the way, improving quite rapidly, but still has a long way to go and not much time to get there.

 

I hereby ban the word “fascist” from this blog…

… unless of course the discussion really is about European politics or history from 1918 to 1945.

I have, I find, used the word very sparingly anyway, so I will hardly notice the difference.

How devoid the term is of any real meaning was made plain by Imre Salusinszky in his piece (not online) in today’s Australian. He was alluding to Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning by Jonah Jacob Goldberg – the review at the title link comes from The American Enterprise Institute, but does give you an idea of its highly contentious reworking of “fascist” to mean anything The American Enterprise Institute would find objectionable. Rather than elucidating something called “fascism”, Goldberg has, it would seem, quite emptied the word of any usefulness at all. But as Imre wryly points out, conceding Goldberg’s use of the term is “too wide to be entirely defensible”, the Left have been using the word as a bludgeon for years. True. Imre goes on to discuss views he finds objectionable – anyone who isn’t John Howard really, except he hasn’t written Obama off entirely – as if Goldberg’s definition really did make sense. (Before someone notices Goldberg is probably Jewish I should mention that so was Einstein, so was Hannah Arendt, so indeed was Trotsky… And the grocer in Vermont Street Sutherland in the mid 1960s.)

So a word I had little use for in the past has now become a word I have no use for at all, except for specific historical instances.

 
5 Comments

Posted by on January 3, 2009 in English language, politics, weirdness

 

Would you log back in to correct a comma?

I would, and just did.

Sad, isn’t it? I am sure there are stylistic blemishes enough remaining… But when I spot one I’m a raging pedant.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on November 11, 2008 in blogging, English language, personal

 

Literacy s—teracy – I get so frustrated…

…but aside from my little bit of tutoring, it’s not my problem any more. What is frustrating is that during forty years (round figure) of teaching, mainly English at secondary level, I read statements like the following just about every year, beginning at least in 1965!

Nevertheless, you don’t need to be a behavioural scientist to know that literacy standards have declined. The problem is self-evident in the generation of twenty and thirty-somethings, with whom most of us work and play, who struggle to write anything more than a simple sentence and to read and comprehend anything more complicated than sports or gossip magazines.

That 2008 variant of this boring anecdotal meme is from David Long on ABC Unleashed today. You may note that in my essay on literacy (1998) I allude to the same allegation, as I could have in 1988, 1978 and so on…   Go and read the essay as I am tired of arguing. I should add, I suppose, that I am not complacent on the subject, that anyone I taught in that forty years left me knowing what a subject and verb are and how sentences are constructed, how paragraphs are constructed, and so on. Nothing in any English syllabus in that forty years forbade imparting that knowledge, though how it was explained and how it was tested have varied. I know this is the case in NSW not just because I was there, but because I also know the person who framed the 1972 “New English” Syllabus, and during the 70s I knew just about everyone at the top of the NSW English Teachers Association, being on the State Council myself in the late 70s. I also knew Leonie Kramer, Rob Eagleson, Bob Walshe, and (less well) Michael Halliday… People who have been around English teaching for long enough will know who they are. Not that this proves anything, except that a healthy discussion has been going on among English teachers for decades and I have been part of it, and teachers have been in all that time, as was my grandfather from 1906, totally committed to fostering reading, writing and thinking among our students, not all of whom are willing participants in the process, which is and always has been one of our challenges — that and the great variety of abilities and circumstances one must deal with. Teachers are constantly seeking ways to meet these challenges, partly as a matter of survival as well as to better serve (or “better to serve” if you follow that fetish) the community. I still regard as possibly my greatest success as a teacher getting a 14-year-old (in 1970) to be able at last to write his own name despite his having an IQ too low to assess. 

In more recent years English Studies has added to what we were taught and (maybe) learned. We think rather more than I did in the 1959 Leaving Certificate about how, where and why texts are uttered/written or (as we say these days) composed, and we pay more attention to the variety of texts, linguistics having shown us a lot more about that than we knew fifty years ago. That is a plus, and very important.

Why are people so irredeemably illiterate (or anecdotal, or dogmatic) when it comes to talking about literacy? Why too don’t a few more people point to the place where language learning begins, and where its development is most fostered: the home?

FOOTNOTE

I had to come back and fix a subject-verb agreement problem in this post! At least I could spot it and knew what to do about it, though it was one of those cases where most readers, probably including Mr Long, would not have noticed if I had left it uncorrected! But I am a bit of a pedant… My coachees of 2008, even the one in Year 8, also know about subject-verb agreement, even if getting it right can be a bit harder when, as is that Year 8 student’s  case, one’s first language is Chinese. (Chinese languages survive without marking subject-verb agreement grammatically.)

Oh go and read English/ESL if you are interested in such things. I’m out of here!

FOOTNOTE 2

There is another possible subject-verb agreement problem in this post, but I am not going to correct it, as arguably it is notionally correct. Can you find it?

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2008 in curriculum, education, English language, English studies, linguistics and language, literacy

 

On translation

Without being in the slightest bit patronising or, worse, racist one can be amused at some of the mangled English that comes one’s way in translated text. We should always keep in mind this isn’t a one-way street either; it isn’t just a case of funny foreigners doing appalling things with English. There is a deadly serious side to the issue as well, as anything from international relations to running a business may be affected. And religion. I recall many years back an anecdote told by a missionary about a preacher working in a tonal language who told his congregation they should look forward to Heaven because when they got there their trousers would be removed. He had meant to say “burdens” but used the wrong tone. Similarly, I once ventured in Mandarin, a language I hardly speak at all, to introduce myself as a “dumpling” when I meant to say “teacher”. I believe Kevin Rudd is much less likely to make such errors.

All this to introduce a blog: Web-Translations.

The people there emailed English/ESL hoping for promotion, but it is a commercial rather than an educational site so I haven’t obliged. However, I thought I would mention it here. There are some nice stories there.

 
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Posted by on October 30, 2008 in diversions, education, English language, literacy, Multicultural, multiculturalism, other blogs, pluralism