Here is a link with a series of cartoons about language. Any one of them would go well on a teacher’s door…….
Students often use stereotypes to support their ideas. They will write, “Everyone thinks teenagers are lazy,” or “City people are rude,” or “People in Mississippi are prejudiced.” They do this without a second thought, and, of course, it is up to their teacher to make them think a second time. Some stereotypes are so common that they are barely noticed, like “Well dressed students spend a lot of money on their clothes.” (Some, of course, take the time to find outlets where they can buy fashionable clothes cheaply.) Or “Everyone smokes marijuana these days.”
A teacher can point these out one by one, but better would be an exercise to alert students to their propensity to stereotype, and then review where their impressions came from — television or movies, their parents, a news report which gave misleading information, a single experience?
Exercise: Have students gather in groups and list the qualities of various people: men in skirts, people with tattoos, Scandinavians/Jamaicans/Zulus/Chinese. You might throw in a group about which they would likely know nothing, like Paraguayans, or Siberians, and then discuss their impressions of them. Would a Paraguayan visiting the class operate free of stereotyping, or would the students construct an image of the “typical Paraguayan” from whatever scanty knowledge they have?
I teach two types of classes: students from varying international backgrounds, mostly children of immigrants, at Montclair State University; and international students who have one week to orient themselves before beginning their university studies at Stevens Institute of Technology; this year, they are mostly from China and Malaysia, with one student from Saudi Arabia, and one from Portugal.
My initial challenge was to determine what the expectations of these students were so I could give them the necessary information. Some students, for example, might be confused by a Syllabus, which maps out the entire course ahead of time.
I also wonder what they think of Americans. From Iowa University’s Center for Learning Excellence, I reviewed the qualities others expect in Americans:
That seems to fit pretty well — the qualities don’t all fit me, but they sound familiar. It doesn’t matter where students got these impressions from, the teacher has to live with them. I can work to overcome some of the stereotypical qualities (rude, wasteful, etc.), and work to embrace others. The most useful, in my experience, is heightening the students’ confidence that I am friendly, not conscious of class or power differences, and hard working. I like them to sense my sincere feeling that we are all in this together, we are all learning, and that I will help them as much as I can.
Exercise: Have students work in groups to construct the perfect teaching style. Is (s)he distant or friendly; does (s)he often publicly place your in a situation where you are not sure what to do; is there an emphasis on gender roles – does (s)he behave differently with males and females, or expect different behavior from same; does (s)he encourage students to work alone or in groups; does (s)he work toward future, sometimes unseen (to the students) goals, or does (s)he use information learned in the past (for tests, memorization, etc.)? This exercise will sharpen the students’ own awareness of their expectations, and clarify for the teacher what can be done to improve the classroom atmosphere and enrich the learning process.
One assignment for my mostly-Chinese ESL class was to transcribe the words of the song “Danny Boy” from a Youtube clip. The results were fascinating both for the way they constructed meaning out of the sporadic hints they gleaned from the clip, and for the way they created words out of similar hints.
One line is, “…from glen to glen and down the mountainside,” which seven students transcribed as “…from gland to gland and down the mountainside.” I can think of a many ways to discuss this choice of words, but focused on the minimal pair – “e” and “a.” The Chinese students could not hear the difference. (One study has suggested that if students are not exposed to sounds very young, they will not be able to distinguish them.)
A colleague, Bekah Palmer, suggested I do some work with minimal pairs, and that sounded like an excellent idea. I devised a list of e/a minimal pairs, they were: bad, pet, men, Hal, gland, lag, send, thresh, glen, beg, pat, man, rap, rep, leg, hell, sand, and thrash. I read these words aloud and they wrote what they heard. Some students had one error; some had eight. The most difficult was Hal/hell.
Tomorrow, I will read a list of another set of minimal pairs, this time “p” and “t”. They will be: tie, die, write, ride, set, tear, hat, had, tunes, dread, said, trunk, dill, dip, drunk, dare, tip, tread, and till. I will be interested to see if they catch “tread,” which is a word from “Danny Boy.”
Since none of these students heard these sounds as babies, it is very difficult for them, but it will be interesting to see if they become somewhat more proficient at distinguishing these sounds from one another.
Some of my friends are raising their children bilingual. One couple of lives in Austria — the father is Austrian, the mother is Czech. Another lives in Washington DC — the father is American, the mother is German. The couples speak both languages at home, but they also take their children back to the second-language country for extended summer vacations, and have children’s books, videos, and television programs available.
New research ( http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/11/health/views/11klass.html) shows that bilingual children’s brains develop differently from monolingual children’s. The latest news on bilingual babies is this:
… researchers found that at 6 months, the monolingual infants could discriminate between phonetic sounds, whether they were uttered in the language they were used to hearing or in another language not spoken in their homes. By 10 to 12 months, however, monolingual babies were no longer detecting sounds in the second language, only in the language they usually heard.
In contrast, the bilingual infants followed a different developmental trajectory. At 6 to 9 months, they did not detect differences in phonetic sounds in either language, but when they were older — 10 to 12 months — they were able to discriminate sounds in both.
“What the study demonstrates is that the variability in bilingual babies’ experience keeps them open,” said Dr. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington and one of the authors of the study. “They do not show the perceptual narrowing as soon as monolingual babies do. It’s another piece of evidence that what you experience shapes the brain.”
Another researcher found, that “Overwhelmingly, children who are bilingual from early on have precocious development of executive function.”
It’s surprising that so little is known about bilingualism when it is so important to every aspect of modern life, but at least they’re learning now.
I must add that I have several acquaintances who spent years as young children speaking a second language and barely remember a thing. It appears that as well as exposing them at an early age, one can’t forget to take them to visit grandma every summer, and to implant all the social supports to the language they are learning.
Oh, and one more thing – the babies learned nothing from television, even if they watched programs in a second language for hours. They need human interaction to imprint any language.
This post is excerpted from an article which appeared on www.freshbusinessthinking.com. The information was harvested in the UK — a similar study in the U.S. would be welcome. Why wait for the studies though? In our hunt for greater exports, this could be important:
Cardiff University’s 2007 ‘Costing Babel’ research revealed that UK businesses miss out on £21 billion annually in lost contracts.
It followed an earlier study showing that the demand for non-English language skills in large European companies is greater than the demand for English — often seen by UK small and medium businesses (SMEs) as the international ‘lingua franca’ of business.
The 2006 ELAN Project survey, which emerged from the European Commission’s 2000 Lisbon strategy to stimulate economic growth and employment, said there was evidence of ‘Anglophone complacency’ within small firms.
The report highlighted the importance of language skills, as well as an awareness of cultural differences, to export success.
Four elements of language management were found to be associated with successful export performance: having a language strategy, appointing native speakers, recruiting staff with language skills and using professionally qualified translators or interpreters.
An SME investing in these four elements was calculated to achieve an export sales proportion 44.5% higher than one without these investments.
For the full article, see
Here are a last few thoughts on the reasons to save endangered languages, the last of a series of posts.
Languages are interesting. Each language leads to a troves of knowledge about the human brain, human behavior, and human systems of governance. It also keeps us humble – languages discovered by colonialists were dismissed as animalistic or primitive, but have been found to be intricate, complex mechanisms of expression. Can you make the South African click? How many of your relatives can be named by their relationship to you? Is there, for example, a different name for the sister of your mother than the sister of your father? Do these names reach the level of third cousins? Is there a special name for the eldest child? What is the difference between a chief and a chieftain? Why are there two different words? How many ways of making the future tense exist among the world’s languages? (Answer: hundreds)
It develops your brain power: Research has suggested that learning to speak other languages provides mental gymnastics which refine your thinking powers. Research also suggests that the more languages you learn, the easier it is to learn yet another.
Given humanity’s depressing failures at maintaining peace and a healthy ecology, humility should be one of our most treasured qualities. Crystal quotes Shakespeare, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Amen.
If knowing a second, third, or fourth language in any way diminished us, there would be a reason to support monolingualism, but the human mind is capable of mastering numerous languages. An African student of mine said he spoke 11 languages because his father had 11 wives, each from a different tribe, and he was raised by all 11. We don’t need to embrace polygamy to be multilingual. All it takes is the will.
Here are a few more reasons why we should make the effort to save endangered languages.
Languages contain our history. Take away Shakespeare, Pepys, Wordsworth, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill, Stephen Sondheim, and a host of other poets, authors, and lyricists and much of English speaking culture becomes invisible. As the Irish seek to reclaim their history, much access is through language – - their poets, songs, and sagas. Not all access is written, to be sure. In what ever place we find the words of our ancestors, we can speak with them and interact with them through language. They disappear without it.
Languages contain knowledge unique to each. David Crystal quotes Emerson, “As many languages as he has, as many friends, as many arts and trades, so many times is he a man.” A diplomat negotiating a contract in an unfamiliar language (she may be thinking, “Don’t they all speak English?”) may learn the hard way that she has not thought of everything; for example, commas are crucially important in English, but don’t exist in many languages. If the diplomat does not know what is used in their stead, errors can, and have, occurred. Nomenclature and other knowledge about animals and plants among tribes familiar with a remote area have led to transformative discoveries and a deeper understanding of nature. The Whorfian Hypothesis even suggests that if there are no words for a concept, we cannot think it. Different languages have different definitions of time, for example, even of color. Each language provides a new window into the human mind.
There is a current belief that perhaps consolidating into fewer language groups will grease the wheels of peace, progress, trade, and education, but I disagree. Many of the reasons why have been summed up beautifully in the prolific author David Crystal’s book, Language Death. Anyone interested in the subject will find a thoughtful and profound argument for preserving all the languages we can in this book.
Linguistic diversity is as important as ecological diversity. Just as ecological diversity is a source for renewal, so also linguistic DNA is a source for renewal. In language lies the secret of being human, which involves constant adaptation. Every language represents a linguistic, governmental, familial, religious, historical, and artistic body of knowledge and achievement which can feed those who come in contact with it. Some languages produce sounds we never knew humans could produce; some produce the plural in similarly amazing ways. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote, “Pity the nation that knows/No other language than its own/And no other culture but its own.”
Languages express our identity. Crystal quotes a Welsh proverb, “A nation without a language is a nation without a heart.” Imagine being forced to forsake your mother’s lullabies, the Grace said at table, the songs of your childhood. Our hearts wrap around such things. Many aspects of our home culture are to be found in our language. By realizing this, we can appreciate the sacrifices made by immigrants when they join our cultures.
Exercise: Introduce students to the Omniglot website which has analyses and soundbites of many different languages. They can continue their research into their heritage language, or into another language of their choice.
A few thousand languages are endangered. Should we care? The next few posts will be on this subject.
There is a certain pathos to the idea of a single speaker, master of a language nobody speaks anymore, living in a hut somewhere alone and unable to communicate. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond conjures up the last survivor on Easter Island, after the canoes are destroyed, the trees disappear, and everyone else has died. Every once in a while there is a newspaper article about a lone last speaker passing away in an isolation almost beyond our ability to imagine.
According to the site ethnologue, There are 243 languages in the United States: some of which (Abnaki, Alsea, Barbareno, Iowa-Oto and many others) live only in memory as they are extinct; some (Crow, Cajun French (Louisiana Creole French is holding its own), Kansa, Kashaya and many others) are decreasing, one, Zuni, is increasing.
The names of the languages evoke a rich, colorful past which we have claimed as our own by naming things or places after the communities who spoke them: Aleut, Apache, Arapaho, Biloxi, Catawba, Cayuga, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chickasaw, Chinook, Coeur d’Alene, and that is only the A through C’s.
There are three kinds of sign language: American Sign Language, Hawai’i Pidgin Sign Language, and Plains Indian Sign Language.
Some languages are spoken in immigrant communities, like Yiddish, various Chinese languages, Croatian, several varieties of French and German, Russian, and, of course, 28,100,000 native Spanish speakers.
I could just stop here, as this list bespeaks so much, but future posts will go into this issue farther.
Exercise: Have each student identify one or more of his or her heritage languages, and then look them up at www.ethnologue.com. Where are these languages spoken? Where are they spoken in the U.S.? How many native speakers are there in the U.S. and in the world?