If a person is not introduced to a language’s structure as a baby, the language will not be instinctual. The structure of the brain changes as children age, and in babies there is a particular constellation of emotions which attach to certain sounds, and that changes rapidly. After a certain age, language enters through a different portal.
One piece of research suggests that Japanese students don’t hear the American “l,” and thus don’t reproduce it in their speech, if they have not been introduced to it before 18 months. They can master the “l,” but takes a lot of lab work and repetition. My Chinese students do not hear and thus frequently don’t reproduce the morphemes (s), (ed), (ing) at the end of words because they do not use morphemes for the same purpose in Chinese.
Both my Chinese and my Malay students struggle with “th.” Sticking their tongue between their teeth and blowing feels almost obscene to them. They simply don’t do it in their languages. The obstacle to producing the sound is obviously not physical, since nothing could simpler, but it makes them giggle, their ears do not catch the difference between “s” [I am sinking, instead of I am thinking] in others or themselves, and they are usually well understood because in context, meaning is clear.
I have observed that phoneme deafness occurs more often with a subtle sound like “th,” (as opposed to “s”) than with a big, bold African click, or a growling Arabic guttural.
We also underestimate the muscle memory involved in speaking. The French have strong purse-your-mouth muscles, but it’s tiring for me to produce pursed French “u” for long. Malay and Chinese tongues do not often thrust themselves forward between the teeth. My throat is clearly capable of producing an Arabic guttural, but rebels.
How much of this is emotional, habitual, physical, or mental has not been studied as far as I know. It’s just something to listen and look for.
Exercise: Go to http://accent.gmu.edu/browse_language.php, and choose English and another language. The sounds of each language are represented in an illustration, and they can be compared with the sounds of English, thus alerting students to the sounds they should pay particular attention to, or vice versa.
Teaching ESL and writing at the same time is illuminating, to say the least.
While the American writing student mentioned in a previous post could not pick out the subject and verb of a sentence, ESL students can do that easily, since they learn English as a second language and cannot approach it through the eyes of a baby, but must learn it through their minds, through grammar. They are far more skilled than my American students at recognizing sentence construction.
What do you do when a college freshman, who has passed the required classes and tests to get into college, says the Subject of the sentence, After being forced to look into a deeper meaning I realized how that one little factor could alter your mood, is “mood?” (Please ignore the other problems with word choice, pronoun selection, etc.)
My question followed a review of the placement of commas and other punctuation. (We had reviewed Chomsky’s Colorless green ideas sleep furiously sentence in which the grammar is perfect, but there is no meaning, and Eats shoots and leaves which is unclear until the punctuation is added. The class was intrigued.) I went on to indicate that the required comma after the word, meaning, separated an introductory phrase from the heart of the sentence, which included the Subject and Verb (and an Object too).
As the student struggled to find the Subject, I could fall back on my mention a few days before that English was an S-V-O language, and ask her, “If you are looking for the ‘S’ in S-V-O, why would you look for it at the end of the sentence?”
She got the point and had the look of minor epiphany on her face, and I was pleased. Asking students to repair sentences which are not quite right without their knowing how the sentence is constructed is asking a lot. It would be like asking an electrician to fix a non-responsive outlet if she didn’t know how the wires in the room were connected.
The confession part of this is that while one student experienced epiphany, one or two of the other students were either sleeping or wishing they were.
Sometimes you have to teach what needs to be taught and accept the fact that there are a certain number of students who do not want to learn it. Or maybe it will lodge in their brains for a while and they will have their own epiphany at a later date.
I am convinced that teaching students how sentences are constructed is necessary to good writing. It has been my observation that students who pay attention to this instruction more quickly become adequate-to-good writers than the sleeping students. They probably wake up in chemistry lab or their math class.
My conviction has something to do with faith, and something to do with practicality, but I must confess that I may be torturing the sleeping students to no good end at all. I wonder. I often view myself as teacher-as-entertainer, but sometimes have to ditch that role to do some scales, some basic mental calisthenics, some just plain drudgery.
We need a world language. It greases the wheels of commerce, education, science, medicine, and even Rock ‘n Roll. At the moment that language is English.
Dennis Baron’s recent blog posting provides his usual interesting take on this situation: http://illinois.edu/db/view/25/59351?count=1&ACTION=DIALOG.
The future may involve the development of new languages as English mingles with Japanese, Spanish, Hindi, or other languages. There is precedent for that — French, Italian, Spanish and others evolved from Latin, and a network of languages, in areas from India to Ireland, developed from Indo-European.
There is a balancing trend — the preservation of what Baron calls “boutique languages.” The European Union provides support for its hundreds of local dialects and languages, and there are universities and institutes in South America, Africa, and the United States to support indigenous tongues. As these languages thrive, perhaps the world will become more thoroughly bilingual.
Our decisions about which languages to promote, how to handle the development of English as the standard (or the choice of another language as a standard), and our support of now-disappearing local languages and dialects will have a seminal effect on political and sociological life, and on the future of the planet as well.
What will we do when we meet creatures from elsewhere in the solar system? Will we all be speaking a flexible, adaptable computerese by then? Will sign language suffice in the beginning? We won’t live long enough to know, but that is one of the many areas of life which we should be thinking about even if we know our descendants will be the ones to make the decisions.
For people studying other languages, there is a new site which translates idioms, www.idiomizer.com/idioms/. I find that reviewing the literal translations of idioms in other languages curls the mind.
I entered, “You can’t have it both ways” and got the following responses:
This is a new site and might have some bugs — it invites commentary from readers, so will undoubtedly develop over time. It could be very useful.
Noam Chomsky writes in Language and Thought, that “some of our worst contemporary muddles are due to the general neglect of language as an instrument of thought.” This holds true particularly in the area of moral and political thought.
What is a “person?” Mississippi is about to vote on whether a zygote is a person. By expanding the concept, all concepts of personhood become muddy. Mississippi would define “life” as two cells which produce an energy which causes them to divide and reproduce, which would apply to many bacteria, viruses, and single-celled organisms. This suggests a rather Buddhist-like reverence for all living things, without specifying them as human. The philosophical questions which arise from this definition are myriad; a large percentage of early pregnancies are washed out, would we have funerals? Can a zygote inherit an estate? My son was conceived in Munich; under the proposed Mississippi law, he would have begun his life there, so is he German? Should he be carrying a German passport? Sloppiness with language leads to sloppy law and sloppy practice, which is destabilizing.
What is “democracy?” Is the mere presence of voting, as in authoritarian states like Zimbabwe, Egypt, “democracy?” Dictators can claim to have encouraged democracy by allowing people to vote, when in fact they have cheapened it.
What is “marriage?” Our vocabulary has not caught up with contemporary developments. Opponents of gay marriage, for example, take a single expansion of the concept to its extremes, asking if by sanctioning gay marriage, we are also sanctioning polygamy, and romantic ties with animals. The two members of a gay marriage are puzzling over what to call each other. ”Husband and husband, or wife and wife?” This rebounds to the original definition of “husband” and “wife.” Some have chosen “spouse” which leaves the interlocutor in the dark about the nature of the marital tie. Maybe that is the point. We haven’t even clearly defined homosexuality. Is it a single act? A long-term relationship? An unhealthy fantasy life — the celibate Catholic priest who was a hero on September 11th defined himself as homosexual, though he had respected his vow of celibacy.
We need to get back to basics on some of our most dearly held principles. This involves re-defining certain social and political forces, philosophies, and institutions, perhaps separating them into smaller entities. By failing to do this, we are causing confusion, which Chomsky suggests leads to “muddles.”
Exercise: Ask students to take these and other fundamental social and political concepts and try to come up with a new, more accurate definition.
It is the beginning of a new semester, and I have to evaluate the initial work of students to see if they are properly placed.
It took a week in my ESL class to discover that two students should be in a more advanced class. The key was not in the students (who welcomed the chance to do some basic work in English), but the level of the OTHER students, some of whom were functioning at a low skill level. It took a while to plumb their capacities. The rest of the class cannot progress without those less skilled students coming along, and that would have been a sacrifice for the two most advanced students. Evaluation, in other words, is often relative.
In my writing class, faculty are asked to review second drafts of placement essays on the second day of class — almost 50 essays all at once, quickly. I look for two things; what are they saying, and how are they saying it. Under the first, they must include some analysis and a personal point of view, however scant. The second category is more difficult to assess quickly, but I have narrowed it down to two guidelines. First, have they divided their thoughts into separate paragraphs, with one idea, more or less, per paragraph? Second, quickly glancing through, can I understand their sentences? Another flag which reveals itself instantly is the constant use of generalities (“People think” of “Everyone knows,” or “you”) which muddy any point to be made.
Exercise: As the class progresses, I call upon the students themselves to evaluate each others’ essays. At the end of the semester, they are even asked to assign grades to various essays. Students who have been functioning poorly often cannot perceive their weaknesses, and having their fellow students agree with me, their professor, catches their attention, and that happens more often than not. The higher functioning students get a clearer understanding of their strengths, which is just as important as understanding their weaknesses, and can critique their own papers better.
My linguistics professor once posed the question, “What is an idea?” I must admit that I am still unsure. There is a complex process which occurs between thinking something and speaking or writing it. When we speak, we have not taken the time to figure out exactly what we think beforehand. The American Heritage Dictionary defines an idea as “That which exists in the mind, potentially or actually, as a product of mental activity…” Pretty vague, right?
There are ways we can sort out the thinking process, and tools to sharpen it. Meditation is one.
Exercise: Introduce a subject (methods of parental discipline, 9/11, Queen Elizabeth, my favorite meal, or something else) and ask students to meditate on it in class. They should sit quietly, without reading, writing, or looking around, possibly with their eyes closed, and think about the subject for five minutes. (This is a very long time for some people.) Afterwards, ask them to write a paragraph on the subject.
This could be paired with another short exercise where you provide the subject and ask them to freewrite about it, just putting down everything they are thinking.
After having the two experiences, ask the students to discuss the difference. Can they identify the worth of silent reflection?
In my classes the result is always a great variety of responses. Some people find meditation extremely helpful, others find it annoying. Most find it an interesting experience if nothing else.
We still are not sure how to refer to that awful day — is it “nine eleven” or “September 11th?” As a society, we’re still vacillating.
In 2001, 9-11 (or equivalents) was the Word of the Year, according to the American Dialect Society. In 2002, it was Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). What do you think it was for 2003? Metrosexual. What a change. Soon after that came words like Facebook, truthiness, and Google. The significance of the Words of the Year (see http://www.americandialect.org/) as commentary on our society is worthy of a classroom discussion.
But back to 9-11. Here is a list of related words that have entered our vocabulary:
Al-Qaeda, burka, Taliban, weaponize, Ground Zero, terrorist, Jihad, Department of Homeland Security, Osama (bin Laden), first responders, embedded journalist, Islamist.
Some of these words existed before, such as terrorist, but took on a new meaning after the attacks. Some, like Osama, refer not only to a particular individual, but can be generalized to mean any evil person. Some words were created to describe situations that never existed before, like embedded journalist. Journalists have traveled with soldiers before, but not in this particular way.
Exercise: This list is certainly not complete. What other words can your students contribute to this list? Are your students creating new words? Are they slang words (that is, words to obfuscate meaning so their parents won’t understand), or are they words which describe truly new phenomena, such as twitter?
I am teaching an ESL classes at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey this term, and am having great fun introducing American English to speakers of other languages; in this case, mostly Chinese and Malay, with two Arabic speakers and one Portuguese speaker. Our next class will be on the phonetics of American English, and it seems to me that this is something native American speakers should be familiar with too.
Americans brought many forms of English with them, and learned English in many different ways when they got here, so it is hard to make too many generalizations; however, there is a generally accepted Standard American English.
The standard for American pronunciation has changed from a style which comes from the south of England, to a style which today is heavily influenced by waves of immigrants – Italians, Jews whose native tongue was Yiddish, and now Spanish, among others. American English has also been influenced by the African languages spoken by the tens of thousands of Africans from various tribes who were brought here as slaves. Even today, there is sometimes difficulty understanding people who speak what is known as African American Vernacular English, or AAVE. A case could be made that the social standing and power rank of people of color depends more on the language they speak than on the color of their skin. With hip-hop and rap, some aspects of this language have become standard, and show up in the everyday speech of young Americans of all colors and backgrounds.
In some parts of the U.S., communities which were historically isolated retain language habits from several centuries ago, making them hard to understand. Some examples are the dialect spoken deep in the Appalachian Mountains, and Gulla, spoken in coastal parts of Georgia. Television, radio, and increased mobility for purposes of work and education has gradually begun to conform these accents and dialects to Standard American English. You might wonder aloud in your class whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.
For the most part, and to a greater degree than on the British Isles themselves, Americans can understand each other, and always have been able to.
For English learners, the distinctive sounds of Standard American English which they must learn to reproduce are the “flat a,” represented as [æ] as in flat, laugh, ask, the soft r [ɻ] of rat, harm, really, and diphthongs, diphthongs, diphthongs. For example, the common word “hi” is pronounced languidly, going from a breathy h to a long ahhhhh to a tiny ee.
Exercises: Give the class some tongue twisters.
For th: The thirty-three thieves thought that they thrilled the throne throughout Thursday.
For r: Pirates Private Property
Fresh French fried fly fritters
For ei and ai: Six slimy snails sailed silently
Seven slick slimey snakes slowly sliding southward.
For r and l: On a lazy laser raiser lies a laser ray eraser.
Can you figure this one out?
11 was a racehorse, 22 was 12, 1111 race, 22112. (Answer: Wunwun was a racehorse, Tutu was one too, Wunwun won one race, Tutu won one too.)