This morning I had a discussion with my five-year-old granddaughter about believing in things. She believes in Jack Frost, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and Rapunzel. I explained why no human could have 14-foot-long hair like Rapunzel, not even the Sikhs who never cut their hair. As for Santa Claus, I told her I had never believed in him, except for fun. She was comfortable believing differently from me: “Some people believe in things, and some don’t,” she said.
She mentioned that she was afraid of “monsters,” and I asked her what she meant by that word. She brought up bats and walking mummies. As for the mummies, we agreed that they exist, but they don’t walk, so they are not worth worrying about. Regarding bats, her fear was based on the fact that “We can’t see them,” although I could inform her that if she were in the right place at the right time, she could indeed see bats. It is important for all of us, not only children, to clarify what we believe in and to investigate what we are afraid of. We made some progress through semantics this morning.
The Supreme Court will shortly rule on the constitutionality of gay marriage, which requires a definition of the word “marriage,” including whether the addition of the word “gay” to a standard definition redefines or simply clarifies the institution itself.
Dennis Baron has reviewed the Supreme Court’s use of dictionaries on his blog The Web of Language, including an instance when a liberal and a conservative Justice used the same dictionary definition to support opposing points of view. He also references the definition of “militia,” which drove decisions having to do with the right to bear arms.
I wish we would all agree on the definition of the term “Founding Fathers,” because this term leads directly into the word “Constitution” which is the bedrock of conservative judicial thinking these days. There were Unitarians and agnostics among the Founding Fathers who would not recognize opinions imposed upon them today when conservatives want to win a point by referencing them.
No matter what they do on the Supreme Court, we can keep a close eye on definitions in our daily lives.
David Brooks writes a column in the New York Times today about a Google database of books published since 1500 which can be used to tot up word usage. He notes that words such as virtue, decency, conscience, honesty, patience, compassion, bravery, fortitude, faith, wisdom, and evil have been used with declining frequency since 1930. He further notes that words such as preferences, self, unique, and many political words, such as economic justice, priorities, right-wing, and left wing have become more frequent. He facilely concludes from these lists that “…as [society] has become more individualistic it has also become less morally aware.”
This data set is not, in itself, informative. It is all in the interpretation, and I would reach different conclusions.
Who defines such words as virtue, faith, decency, and evil? After family, the first place that comes to mind is church; the second is political speeches. Recent studies have suggested that Americans have lost a measure of faith in both the church and the government, and we have refashioned the family. We are no longer sheep who flock to war when our government hails patriotism. A considerable segment of the American populace no longer reviles homosexuals or Jews because our churches tell us to. Many of us have noticed that formerly revered institutions like the church and the government are as likely to mislead as to lead, as likely to promote chaos as order. Somehow, we have claimed the confidence to think for ourselves, to construct our own conscience and behavioral guidelines, and in so doing, we have dropped definitions tailor-made by others. Many of us like and defend our gay cousins and our Jewish sisters-in-law, our Muslim neighbors, and our disabled classmates. We dare to set up companies functioning in new paradigms, marry whomever we please, and think new thoughts. In 1930, when Brooks’s favored set of words reigned, our behavior and even our thinking patterns were dictated by others.
Mr. Brooks is right about one thing — “gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture.” Mr. Brooks reviles the shifts that he detects, and I embrace the shifts that I detect. In academia, a battle of statistics, studies, and papers would ensue, but, according to my paradigm, it’s up to each of us to decide for him or herself what it all means.
You are, of course, invited to disagree…..
The class has insisted all semester on keeping to our Thursday meditation schedule. It has been a challenge to think up new meditations. My role is to conduct a writing class, not a meditation class. The goal is to introduce them to the concept of meditation, and to allow them to experience the feelings and thoughts which meditation induces. To that end, I have tried to vary their experience by introducing varying ways of meditating.
Physical changes are part of the contemplative experience. Maintaining silence is in itself a physical change, but we tried a couple of other ways as well.
SWITCH: Each student picks up his or her gear and chooses a different seat in the classroom. The effects are striking. Besides breaking up cliques or co-dependencies, it mildly shakes up thought processes, and is like a game, providing humor and delight. This practice might become annoying if it were frequent, but can be used when the class is lethargic, or as a variant from time to time. It wouldn’t qualify as a full meditation, but is a class enhancer.
TURN AROUND: We began our meditation with the lights out and the door closed, sitting, feet on the floor, arms at rest, breathing. After about two minutes, I asked them to stand up and continue their meditation. After another two minutes, I asked them to turn around and face outward. At the end of the meditation, I asked them to sit back down and take five deep breaths.
Their comments on each of the above experiences were few. I attribute this to the reticent personality of this class. (Each class has its own personality and I believe that part of the challenge of a teacher is to tailor the pace and content of a course to each unique class.) I thought it was acceptable that they kept their feelings about the meditations to themselves. They again and again expressed appreciation and enjoyment of our meditations, and that was enough.
At the end of every semester, students are asked to write a reflection. For the first freshman course, it is to reflect on one of the principles of good writing they learned, and in the second freshman course, they are to reflect on something they read which touched or interested them.
Marios was in the second semester course, and he wrote, “Four months ago [at the beginning of the semester] it took me less than a minute to read a short poem in English, now it takes me five to ten minutes to read the same poem.” How wonderful!
Scads of wonderful writers have commented on the nature of poetry, but Marios seems to be following the thoughts of Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” It takes time to lift the veil, time to let the beauty and uniqueness of the offering sink in.
The poet W. H. Auden wrote, “’Why do you want to write poetry?’ If the young man answers, ‘I have important things I want to say,’ then he is not a poet. If he answers, ‘I like hanging around words listening to what they say,’ then maybe he is going to be a poet.” Marios commented on this, too. “…now I understand that each word has its own deeper meaning and all the words put together are like a picture. A poet can give the meaning of his point in just a few sentences.” He carried his new appreciation into his native language, Greek, saying that while he “used to only take the general meaning out of [poems written in Greek], they are now more understandable for me.”
This translated into his learning how to “give meaning to my essays,” with an expanded vocabulary and better organization.
Ahhh. I wonder what Marios is doing now. I am satisfied, though, because he learned, and enriched his life.
Did you know this was endangered languages week? I didn’t, but I’m glad it’s happening. With all the alarming news that has hogged the headlines over the past few months, endangered languages have sunk to a lower rung of our consciousness, mine anyway. So it’s time to stop and think for a moment about the many benefits of preserving endangered languages:
1. Every language embodies a system of family and governmental relationships, titles, and rules. Nobody has gotten either system right yet, and we can learn a lot from each other. These systems disappear with the language.
2. Every language uses a certain set of sounds, which express themselves in everything from lullabies to swear words. These help us understand the human brain, and our physical capabilities.
3. Can you imagine a world in which there was no longer a ”Rock-a-Bye Baby,” or an “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” not to mention, “To be or not to be” which other people could understand? Literature and music has been composed in every tongue, whether the culture is literate or not.
4. More than one set of experiments has proven that knowing more than one language improves our method of learning everything else as well, and develops the brain.
5. Extinguishing language means extinguishing identity, relegating certain groups to inferior status. This goes against our principles of self-worth and democracy.
6. Now. If only the Spanish-, Greek-, and French-speaking people I know would answer me in Spanish, Greek, or French when I address them in their native tongue. The United States not only does not foster multilingualism, it mutes the tongues of people who immigrate. It annoys the hell out of me that I cannot practice my second, third, and fourth languages with people who live around me. The less they respond in their native tongue, the less I hear their native languages, and the quicker I lose contact with them.
7. We embrace diversity in all else, why not in language? There is a virtue unto itself of diversity.
Endangered Languages Week 2013 – Here is a weeklong celebration of same in England, if any of you happen through this week.
Celebrating our Sounds, Signs and Songs
SOAS, Russell Square, London
20-28 May 2013
Endangered Languages Week 2013 will present a variety of workshops, talks, films, demonstrations, debate, and more. Events include:
- ELDP workshop on technology and African languages.
- APLL6 conference on Austronesian and Papuan Languages and Linguistics
- Talks and seminars:
- Caroline Kerfoot: ‘Multilingualism as epistemic resource: rethinking ‘languages’ in educational policy’
- Kearsey Cormier on Sign languages
- Henrik Bergqvist:‘The problem of accounting for TAME and related expressions in the context of language documentation and description’
- Catherine Ingram on music and language documentation
- Sarah Ogilvie on web technologies and endangered languages
- Peter Austin: ‘And still they speak Dieri. Language revitalisation in northern South Australia’
- ELAR Open Day, including:
- Film Day: films on/in endangered languages
The full programme of events will appear here soon!
All events are free of charge and open to anyone who is interested in languages.
Posted in endangered languages, Historical Linguistics, language planning and policy | Tags: endangered languages, historical linguistics, language policy, linguistics in the classroom, multilingualism | No Comments
I can’t report that I meditate daily or even weekly, but there were times in my life, difficult times, when meditation was a daily aid. I learned skills and habits that still help me today. I am, in other words, well aware of both the power and the long-lasting nature of discoveries and habits gained through a meditative practice. It is my suspicion that the rewards of meditation in the classroom might show up later, and might last well into the future.
The experience is new to the students and they have to get used to it. (Some students may never take to it, but most do.) Its benefits are highly individualized. Some may find it of benefit in order to achieve the proper state of mind to write; others may find it a well to reach into for new ideas or new links between ideas; still others may expand its usefulness to other areas of life as well.
One thing is for sure — the typical methods of measuring effectiveness do not apply to meditation. The ultimate academic goal in a writing class is better essays, stories, or articles, and so many factors go into that accomplishment that it would be impossible to tease out the gains achieved only through meditation.
The nineteen students in my class provided reactions which help in the assessment. On a general class survey, I asked them to evaluate each class activity this semester according to three criteria: 1) Did it stimulate you to think deeper, 2) Did you enjoy it, and 3) Was it useful in writing your essay. The highest number was 8, and lowest 1.
They rated meditation 4.5 for stimulation, 6.9 for enjoyment, and 4.5 for usefulness. Only individual conferences rated as high for enjoyment (6.9), followed by reading poetry (5.6)*. There is a divergence between the students who benefited from it the most and those who benefited least, but even those who gave low numbers for stimulation and usefulness rated it higher for enjoyment.
What this leaves me wondering is, “What is the value of enjoyment in the classroom?” Does having a calm class which finds itself in a much better mood after meditation produce better essays? Discounting the disgruntled student whose numbers were 1, 2, 1, the class enjoys this exercise more than it enjoys any other activity. In the comments section of the survey, they wrote, “not important, but fun,” “helps me relax,” “eases the stress,” “helps me think about the essay,” “helps me relax and open my mind,” “helps us clear our heads,” “helps connect everything together,” and quite a few remarked that it didn’t help so much in writing the essays, though they looked forward to it, it relaxed them, and it was fun.
In my experience, the meditation binds the class together and gives them a more positive attitude as they work together on writing essays and doing other exercises. Since many students have reported that they now set aside meditative moments as they tackle their homework in this and other classes, it must aid them in some way. This extra element of control over their stress and perhaps their confusion contributes something important to not only their academic, but also their personal lives. This must be evaluated on a scale which resides somewhere outside the Statistics books. My husband is an economist and statistician, and he is helping me make sense out of my first stab at evaluating meditation, but the proper questions to ask, and the proper factors to take into consideration are still under development.
For your further information, below are the averages for each category.
* For meditation: stimulation, 4.48; enjoyment 6.9; usefulness, 5.2
Individual conferences: 6.3, 6.5, 6.9 Overall: 5.5
Reading stories/books: 4.8, 4.4, 6.0 Overall: 5.0
Reading poems/songs: 5.5, 5.6, 5.9 Overall: 5.6
Grammar explanations/exercises: 3.9, 3.0, 4.4 Overall: 3.7
Peer review (traditional): 4.4, 4.0, 4.6 Overall: 4.3
Modeling writing an essay in class: 6.2, 4.5, 5.8 Overall: 5.5
Posted in Changing the university experience, contemplative pedagogy, Pedagogy, Teaching Writing | Tags: changing the university experience, contemplative pedagogy, meditation in the classroom, pedagogy, teaching writing | No Comments
This meditation took place between the clarification in class of the goal for the next essay, and each student’s attempt to narrow his or her focus.
The lights went out, the door was closed, the students set themselves up by adjusting their posture and taking a few breaths. I asked them to turn their attention to their next essay, then breathed on it for a minute or two.
“Ideas are running through your head, right? That is the Monkey Brain, always teasing you, taunting you, distracting you with thoughts unrelated to your focus.” Pause for a minute. ”Don’t fight these ideas. Let them enter your head and march out the other side. Instead of grasping them, let them move. Watch them.”
We breathed on that for a few minutes.
“Many of your are having negative thoughts about this essay — ‘I don’t know what to do,’ ‘I’ve always been terrible at writing,’ ‘I got a C in my high school writing class,’ ‘my teacher told me that writing was not my strong suit,’ ‘This is hard.’ Watch those thoughts march through your head and out the other side, too. They play no role in this task.”
We breathed on that for a few minutes.
“Now you are ready to think.”
We took at least five minutes to reflect silently, then turned on the lights, opened the door, and began to discuss the focus of the upcoming essay.
My next post will be about evaluating the efficacy of meditation in the writing classroom.
Posted in Changing the university experience, contemplative pedagogy, Pedagogy, Teaching Writing | Tags: changing the university experience, contemplative pedagogy, meditation in the classroom, pedagogy, teaching writing | No Comments
My students hate peer review, at least the way it is traditionally presented. I don’t like it either. Students are not skilled enough to analyze each other’s papers well, even when the peer review is tightly targeted.
My students love individual conferences.
I combined them into one activity which would be suitable for a class of 20 or less.
1. Students are divided into groups of three or four. If it is appropriate, they are grouped by area of interest or similarity of subject.
2. The students email each other their essays and, using Track Changes, each student comments on the essays of the two or three other members of their group. I do the same for each student.
3. Instead of class, the students attend conferences with the professor. These should be long enough to have a good discussion, say, 20-30 minutes, so more than one class period is needed to accommodate this exercise.
4. The conference begins with each student giving comments on each other student’s essay. It usually becomes apparent where the weak points are; often the students’ comments are similar to mine, which also strengthens their trust in me as a judge of their essays, and thrills me as well. NOTE: It is usually not necessary to even mention this, because students generally don’t want to hurt each other, but if a criticism is too harsh, the commenter should be reminded to say something positive about the piece.
5. The rest of the conference is spent discussing how to improve the essay, what sources would be useful, and, if there is time, doing some pointed revision.
This exercise proved very popular. It substitutes class time (quantity) for focused attention (quality), and resulted in a higher comfort level for the students, and better essays. It is difficult to judge the efficacy of class activities, but this one immediately yielded better work.
Posted in Changing the university experience, Pedagogy, Teaching Writing, Writing Exercises | Tags: changing the university experience, group writing exercises, linguistics in the classroom, pedagogy, peer review exercises, teaching writing | No Comments
Rutgers just fired its basketball coach for some pretty offensive bullying, including sexual slurs. Rutgers buried one of its freshmen last year because his roommate was spying on him during an encounter with another man. These were examples of disregard for the welfare of the students. I am not surprised.
I interviewed twice at Rutgers for a position teaching freshman writing (my favorite course). Both times, the interviewer told me how dumb and disinterested the students were. The interviews were conducted in pairs, and the other person seemed as taken aback by the bitterness of the interviewer as I was. Let’s see if I can remember the interviewer’s words more or less exactly: “The students here are some of the best in the state, and they’ve never read a book, don’t do the work assigned, aren’t interested in class, and couldn’t tell a subject from a verb. What would you think of teaching this sort of student body?”
I answered, “I’d think that they needed me badly.”
I wasn’t hired either time.
The atmosphere were polluted with disdain and dismissal of the students, and I am glad that they didn’t hire me.
I am copying into this blogpost an email which appeared on the Language Policy List email@example.com about the ancient languages of the Caucasus Mountains. I have edited out some parts of it which were technical, in order to make it a tidy size for a blog post, and to make it accessible to non-specialists. The title of the original posting is “New Book: A Proposal for Pan-Caucasian Alphabet,” posted on March 24th.
[Several of the languages of Northern Caucasian languages were not traditionally written down.] Standardized writing systems for the North Caucasian languages have been implemented only in the 20th century. Initially based upon the Latin script, the adapted alphabets have been shifted to Cyrillic-shaped graphics during the mid 30s. … These writing systems are incapable to represent [sic], in an unambiguous way, the phonetics of the North Caucasian languages, which in their turn possess an outstanding feature of having one of the richest consonant inventories among all the languages of the world….
For instance, the language of the Ubykhs (extinct since 1992) has 86 consonants and two vowels; the Archi language, presently reduced to 1200 speakers, distinguishes 81 consonants and 26 vowels (many of the former do not have exact correspondences in other languages); the consonant inventory of the Bzyp dialect of Abkhaz includes 68 phonemes, etc.
All Caucasian languages have a regular three-level phonation for stops and affricates (voiced, ejective and aspirated voiceless), whereas the Cyrillic script distinguishes only two levels of phonation (voiced and unaspirated voiceless) in case of stops and one (aspirated voiceless) in case of affricates. The Latin alphabet does not represent affricates at all. … [T]he Cyrillic script until the 20th century has chiefly been confined to a limited range of a few Slavic languages sharing similar phonetic traits. … [D]issimilar sets of symbols often with illogical combinations were introduced into the alphabets of particular North Caucasian languages during the adaptation of the Russian script.
For instance, the series of Ubykh postalveolar affricates and fricatives numbers 22 distinct phonemes, for which there is only one (!) correspondence in the Cyrillic script – the letter ч (tɕ). Obviously, this one sign alone is quite insufficient to express the overall phonemic diversity of this extensive series by means of Cyrillic graphics. Set aside the letter х, there is no other direct or indirect graphical correspondence for uvular, pharyngeal, epiglottal and glottal stops, affricates, fricatives and sonorants, which in Caucasian languages abound.
As one can see, the quantity of phonemes of these languages by far exceeds the graphical capabilities of all alphabetic systems that have previously been proposed for them or are currently in use. Such a vast phoneme inventory significantly hinders the possibilities of adaptation of any actual script and constitutes the prime reason for the current project.
[Twenty-four[ out of 69 characters of Adyghe alphabet are double, and 11 – triple, making in sum 35 compounds, which is more than half of the total listing with 69:35 ratio. The similar statistics of the other Caucasian Cyrillic alphabets is as follows: Abaza (74:40), Kabardian (55:25), Abkhaz (64:24), Akhvakh (56:30), Aghul (69:32), Avar (53:37), Lak (59:25), Tabasaran (59:25), Tsez (40:14), Chechen (45:16) etc. The Chechen alphabet alone having merely 45 characters in the presence of 44 authentic vowels and diphthongs in the language itself, clearly convinces one in the fact that even at the cost of universal violation of the alphabetic principle and inappropriate complication of orthography, the given alphabets are unable to express the phonemic structure of the Caucasian languages even in the least satisfactory manner.
All above-mentioned complications essentially limited the means of graphical expression of these languages and led to a point, where, set aside rare dialectal phonemes, a series of sounds of literary languages were omitted in a number of alphabets. In many cases, these very same circumstances also defined the selection of dialects upon which the literary versions of some Caucasian languages were subsequently based: neither the extent of geographical distribution, nor the greater number of speakers was the decision criterion, but the minimal consonant inventory.
In summary, we may conclude that presently for the languages of both North Caucasian families there are practically no alphabets with a satisfactory level of phonematicity. Moreover, in Cyrillic script we deal with a quite inconsistent system of symbols, the potential of which in respect of grapheme morphology and structural correspondences is extremely low and insufficient not only for a simple, practical and phonemically complete rendition of the North Caucasian languages, but also for their aesthetic graphical representation.
The latter is of paramount importance for psychology of writing and determines the representativeness and competitiveness of an authentic language under the dominance of another – an official language with an identical writing system.
Besides the imperfection of the writing system or even its absence, the official status and the cultural dominance of Russian has a no less considerable impact on the marginalization of the spheres of usage of the native Caucasian languages, promoting their gradual extinction. A large number of languages, among which were examples unique by their grammatical and phonetic properties, either completely died out or are on the brink of extinction being reduced to a few hundred or thousand of speakers, such as Archi, Akhvakh, Khinalug, Khwarshi, Tsez, Hinukh, Hunzib, Bezhta, Ghodoberi, Kryts, Budukh, Udi and many others.
Granting these languages a new impetus and means for development may be a possible break through the mentioned difficulties. To achieve this goal we suggest a scientifically valid development of completely new and well-adapted Caucasian alphabets that are adjusted by the morphology of symbols and the logic of their modification. At the same time, they must correspond to the complex intrinsic phonetic features of these languages, render them with full phonemic representativeness and alphabetical unambiguity, and at the same time be free from any irrelevant political or cultural context and enforcing influence.
The best illustrations to the aforesaid are the 1600-year time-tested alphabets of once dominant languages of the South Caucasus and the Armenian Highlands – Armenian, Georgian and the extinct and only recently deciphered Caucasian Albanian. Among the writing systems of the world, these three alphabets are distinguished by their highest level of grapheme-to-phoneme correspondence and are listed among the phonetically most perfect. Caucasian Albanian, inter alia, was the only language of the South Caucasus possessing phonetic features similar to the North Caucasian languages and an ancient alphabet adapted to it.
Throughout the centuries, the viability of the Armenian and Georgian alphabets, alongside with the power of tradition and some peculiarities of the identity of these two nations, was supported by the fundamental fact: they reflect the phonetics of these languages with the highest level of perfection. These alphabets were never superseded by the Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, Russian or Latin scripts, as they weren't adopted or modified, but from the beginning developed on the basis of a meticulous scientific analysis of the phonetics of Armenian and Georgian (as well as Caucasian Albanian).
Hence, we set forth the idea to introduce completely original, easily legible, and most importantly – phonetically perfect and grammatologically thorough writing systems for the North Caucasian linguistic area, based on the character forms and graphical principles of construction of the alphabets of geographically adjacent and historically akin South Caucasus.
To achieve maximum efficiency, two similar, but mutually independent generalized sets of characters for [the] language families are introduced, wherefrom the specific alphabets for the particular languages are subsequently deduced.
Additionally, for the Ossetic language alike, which is an integral part of the Caucasian heritage, an independent alphabet sharing the features of both the newly developed North Caucasian and the ancient Transcaucasian alphabets has been created.
Thus, we attempt to give a new and historically sound unity and continuity to the millennial writing culture of the Caucasian region, a new impulse to the development of greater speech communities, as well as viability for preservation and future revival to smalle
Posted in endangered languages, Historical Linguistics, language and politics, language planning and policy | Tags: alphabets, endangered languages, historical linguistics, language change, language policy, literacy | 1 Comment