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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.

 

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.

 
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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

 

Spelling on Sunday: found in Elizabeth Street

No, these do not represent the end of civilisation as we know it!

spell 003 spell 001

spell 002

That last one may interest ESL teachers…

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2008 in diversions, English language, local, Surry Hills

 

Top 100 Language Blogs – Lexiophiles

I can’t say I was displeased when I received an email pointing to Top 100 Language Blogs – Lexiophiles because English/ESL has been listed there — at #75. I strongly recommend your browsing the list as some very interesting blogs may be found there.

Now that we have our very own Top 100 Blog List there are bound to be questions and opinions streaming in from all corners of the Internet. This article is a preemptive post to answer what we feel are the two biggest questions. Why we made the list, and how we made the list.

Why did we feel we needed to make a blog list?
The short answer is that we couldn’t find one. We were looking at different language blogs and talking about which our favorites were and why. To make our discussion more colorful we wanted to compare our favorites with a toplist. When we couldn’t find one, at least one that covered our category we decided to make one!

How did we make the list?
We sifted through some 300 blogs relating to language and learning. Each blog was looked over and ranked with a number of points. No system is perfect, but we based our ranking on objective values, which were assigned according to the blog’s content and features.

We identified three main categories: content, consistency and interactivity. We know that no ranking is 100% accurate and always somewhat subjective. Still, we feel that these three categories give a good overall view of how good a blog really is.

Content: No need to explain that the reader appreciates good content. This category took into account what type of content the blog featured. We looked for authored and original content, depth of postings, incorporation of multimedia (such as videos, pictures etc.) and reviews of online tools and websites.

Consistency: A blog is about sharing information in a fast and uncomplicated way. The articles are not like research papers you work months on. People want to read something new every time they visit a blog. Therefore, we looked at if the blog was active, and if so, how active. Frequent postings gave a higher score as well as the regularity of postings.

Interactivity: In our opinion a good blog is not a one-way street but involves the readers as well. The most observable feature is comments, but it doesn’t stop there: Can the user contact the blogger via a contact page, Facebook or similar? Can the user follow the blogger via Twitter or RSS-Feed or share the blog with others via a bookmark button? There are many neat functions that make a blog more interactive.

Thanks, people!

 
 

Sex and the semicolon – The Boston Globe

“Sex and the semicolon” – The Boston Globe is one of those language articles that simultaneously delight and annoy; so much nonsense is written about language, but I won’t quarrel too much with Jan Freeman’s conclusion:

…the semicolon debate is a model of the way we should approach most disagreements about usage issues: as matters of taste, not law. The interesting questions, after all, aren’t about using its and it’s; they’re the ones that have, yes, nuance and complexity. 

 
5 Comments

Posted by on August 20, 2008 in English language

 

Who Framed George Lakoff? – ChronicleReview.com

In the so-called “linguistics wars” I find myself most impressed by those who, like Michael Halliday, root their linguistics in anthropology and sociology rather than in neural science or genetics. While I am aware that the old parable of the elephant applies, my principal reason for my preference is pragmatic; as a teaching tool and as a means of critique of actual language in use — “critical literacy” for example — that approach to language study is most useful. It provides the best framework for thinking through who says (and sometimes does) what, to whom, when, where, why and how? 

Lakoff200 Who Framed George Lakoff? is one of the weekend offerings on Arts & Letters Daily. Lakoff [right] is within the camp of linguists I find useful, even if he presents as a “brain-based” linguist. From a teaching perspective, I have found the likes of Chomsky and Pinker fairly useless — I speak of the linguistics, in the first instance, not the political commentary.

Naturally, I also relate to this:

George P. Lakoff  is falling asleep. It is a bright summer afternoon in San Francisco, and Lakoff is nursing a latte at a small table near the entrance of a bustling, sun-dappled cafe. “This is what happens when you are 67,” he explains sheepishly after dozing off midsentence. A stocky man with a wide smile and a well-trimmed white beard, Lakoff doesn’t seem tired so much as beleaguered…

I have occasionally referred to Lakoff before, and his 1995 study Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust has long been on my Links Page.

Here, according to “Who Framed George Lakoff?”, is the gist of where he is now:

…In his new book, Lakoff takes aim at “Enlightenment reason,” the belief that reason is conscious, logical, and unemotional. Harnessing together work from several fields, particularly psychology, neuroscience, and linguistics, he mounts a polemical assault on the notion that people think rationally — which, he argues, is fundamentally at odds with how the brain actually functions.

Approximately 2 percent of the millions of pieces of information the brain absorbs every minute are processed consciously. The remaining 98 percent are handled by the unconscious brain. The mind, in other words, is like a tiny island of conscious reasoning afloat in a vast sea of automatic processes. In that sea, which Lakoff calls “the cognitive unconscious,” most people’s ideas about morality and politics are formed. We are all, in many respects, strangers to ourselves. Lakoff’s book grandly describes what he believes are the revolutionary implications of his findings: “a new understanding of what it means to be a human being; of what morality is and where it comes from; of economics, religion, politics, and nature itself; and even of what science, philosophy, and mathematics really are.” (He singles Chomsky out as “the ultimate figure of the Old Enlightenment.”)

It is the political ramifications of Lakoff’s theory that preoccupy him these days. An unabashed liberal (he insists on the label “progressive”), he says that Republicans have been quick to realize that the way people think calls for placing emotional and moral appeals at the center of campaign strategy. (He suspects that they gleaned their knowledge from marketing, where some of the most innovative work on the science of persuasion is taking place.) Democrats, Lakoff bemoans, have persisted in an old-fashioned assumption that facts, figures, and detailed policy prescriptions win elections. Small wonder that in recent years the cognitive linguist has emerged as one of the most prominent figures demanding that Democrats take heed of the cognitive sciences and abandon their faith in voters’ capacity to reason…

…Lakoff acknowledges that both academic and political cultures are slow to change. But he is optimistic, pointing to the way in which the growth of cognitive psychology has undermined the rational-actor model that long dominated economics. In his own field, Lakoff predicts that “brain-based linguistics” will soon become the new standard — indeed, eclipsing Chomsky.

And despite his setbacks, Lakoff is not giving up on politics. He is still confidant that his ideas can make a difference to Democrats. When he wrote Thinking Points, his handbook for progressive activism, he sent the first copy to Barack Obama. “I don’t know if he read it,” Lakoff says, as a wide grin flashes across his face, “but a number of people have observed that if you look through Thinking Points, it is the Obama campaign.”

See also George Lakoff on Edge.

 

Instead of a poem…

…I have decided to give you a couple of snippets from The World according to Bertie by Alexander McCall Smith.

First, a statistician observes a passing woman.

Here, approaching him, was a 60-year-old woman, with two point four children, twenty-three years to go, with a weekly income of… and so on. Now there were carbon footprints to consider, too, and that was fun. This woman was walking, but had probably taken a bus. She did not go on holidays to distant destinations, Spain at the most, and so she used little aviation fuel. Her carbon footprint was probably not too bad, particularly by comparison with… with those who went to international conferences on carbon footprints. The thought amused him and he smiled again.

“You laughing at me, son?”

The woman had stopped in front of him.

Stuart was startled. “What? Laughing at you? No, not at all.”

“Because I dinnae like being laughed at, said the woman, shaking a finger at him.

“Of course not.”

She gave him a scowl and moved on. Chastened, Stuart continued his walk…

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Posted by on April 18, 2008 in Best read of 2008, English language, humour, reading, satire, Scottish

 

Daily Terror reports on yesterday’s conference

It’s front page news in The Daily Telegraph today, complete with a poll which thus far records:

Should children be taught about homosexuality at school?

Yes – it is vital to educate students encouraging tolerance and harmony.

31% (185 votes)

No – let them learn about it at home or not at all.

68% (411 votes)
Total votes: 596
This poll started on Thursday, April 17, 2008

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Posted by on April 17, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, education, English language, Gay and Lesbian, generational change, pluralism

 

Thanks, Antony

Even if I think Antony really misread the purpose of my entry How to Maintain Classroom discipline (1947) — not intended to elicit admiration for the bad practice shown in the first half of the video there — I am happy that he has referred his readers to this blog in his entry disgraceful teaching discipline? Perhaps Antony experienced a Mr Grimes I somewhere in his career? I know I did.

My point further is that all of us can be Mr Grimes I — the shouting, bullying, sarcastic and basically insecure person barely holding it together on classroom discipline — on occasions, especially when we are inexperienced, or when the nature of the teaching environment we are in wears us down, or we are having a bad hair day, or whatever. None of us is Teacher Perfect 24/7 week after week for forty years or so, and I challenge anyone to prove otherwise. We are in a terrible state if Mr Grimes I is the norm, however, and the point of that very old — sixty years old — object lesson on the video was to show us a better way. Mr Grimes II is of course just a bit too perfect, and the whole video is simplistic. That doesn’t mean that the lesson it offers is of no value, because what it said sixty years ago really remains true.

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