Smartphones & language learning

The Apple Developer Conference is coming up next week and there is a lot of speculation about what Apple will announce, especially in the area of hardware. Most likely there will be new iPad models and new laptops, but probably not the new iPhone model, which is said to be coming later this year. This is the 10th anniversary of the iPhone, which represented a radical re-invention of the mobile phone, soon followed by similar Android phones. I just published a piece in Language Learning & Technology on what the smartphone has meant for literacy training and language learning.

Here are some quotes from the column, slightly edited (references removed):

The most successful mobile apps and services feature contextualized learning through an ecological approach. Apps can place language and culture learning into a localized setting, while also leveraging the resources of the global network. That makes available both social connectivity and worldwide information sources. In the process, learning content is customized and personalized, allowing the user to integrate new knowledge and skills into a real-world setting. This approach brings into play three major affordances of the mobile complex, which will be discussed here: situated learning, local and global integration, and personal empowerment.

Situated learning
One of the most powerful affordances of smartphones is situated learning.  Embedding activities and language in real-world environments holds the potential to make learning more meaningful and memorable. The built-in GPS, mapping, and touch control graphics of smartphones allow mobile apps and services to be location-aware and to provide continuous updates as a user moves from place to place.

[Many examples provided, such as a mobile app helping immigrants to Great Britain and mobile games for language learning]

Incidental language learning [is] more easily implemented through the smartphone environment. As users go about their daily lives, a learning companion is always available—a kind of personal tutor, available for consultations on demand, somewhat like the companion in Rousseau’s Émile (1762). Rousseau postulated that Emile’s curiosity would not only prompt the child to ask questions, but that information provided in response, since given in a particular context and location, would be retained longer. A series of contextualized learning experiences is the kind of “cognitive apprenticeship” smartphones may help develop.  Learning through concrete, lived experiences, integrated into everyday life, can provide a powerful instrument for more effective language acquisition

Local Agency and Global Reach
Smartphones are uniquely equipped to support localized use, while making available all the resources of a global network. One of the seemingly minor but, for linguistic purposes, highly useful innovations of the iPhone was the elimination of the physical keyboard, using instead an on-screen keyboard. While there were initial complaints over the difficulty of typing accurately with fingers, now that screen sizes have grown, and auto-correct algorithms have improved, users have gotten used to this form of text entry. The major benefit has been to make it much easier to support different writing systems.

Having mobile devices support a local language makes them into powerful tools for teaching literacy. In many developing economies, where there is not a fully developed landline phone and Internet system, mobile phones provide voice telephony, text messaging, and Internet access. This is particularly the case in isolated and rural areas, where solar and other alternative power sources can be used. In such environments, or among scattered urban groups, there may be limited access to schools or libraries, so that mobile devices offer a unique opportunity for the delivery of education.

[Examples discussed include support for endangered languages and for literacy projects worldwide]

Smartphone users, from virtually any connected location, have the power to connect interactively to a wide array of educational opportunities. This is an invaluable tool for enabling educational services in far-flung locations and supporting distance learning, but it also offers face-to-face instruction a means for students to learn on the go wherever they may be.

Personal Empowerment
Every smartphone is configured differently, customized as to language and locale, and loaded with apps of the user’s choosing. One of the difficulties in being able to measure the efficacy of MALL projects [mobile assisted language learning] is that the typical student will have access to and be using daily a variety of online tools and services. Some may be in the target language (foreign newspapers or TV stations) or be designed for language study, ranging from basic tools such as dual-language dictionaries to sophisticated services such as Babbel or Duolingo. The extent to which language learners take advantage of such resources will vary with the individual and the context of learning.

While language learning may not be an issue of central importance in the lives of many of our students, learning a second language, along with the cultural framework that comes with it, is a matter of crucial importance to one population: migrants and refugees. For these groups, mobile phones are a powerful instrument in potentially life-changing (or life-threatening) situations.

[Examples given of NGO’s and government agencies which have created apps to help immigrants with areas such as language learning and enculturation into the new country]

The column concludes:
Smartphones do not seem likely to be going away anytime in the foreseeable future. While the pace of innovation has slowed, new features will continue to be added as the devices become thinner but more powerful. As inexpensive smartphone models proliferate, feature phones have been forced to add features formally found only on expensive smartphones. This should enable the spread of smartphone-like capabilities to more communities. This, in turn, will encourage further development of mobile-enabled literacy projects and language learning applications. Language learners will continue to use regular commercial apps for socially based or incidental language learning, while taking advantage of utility apps for translation and dictionary look-ups.

While smartphones have clearly moved from the category of fun toys to that of powerful pocket computers, it is no easy task to harness the computing, communication, and collaboration capabilities for the purpose of serious learning. For instructed language learning, the mobile complex, developed around the smartphone, provides both challenges and opportunities. The main challenge is to provide to students the skills and knowledge to be informed and engaged online learners. Important in that process is presenting persuasive illustrations of learning connected to students’ lives (present and future) and to bring those experiences into the classroom. The most effective way to do that may be through the smartphone they likely all own. The opportunity is to leverage those digital devices and online experiences to enable and encourage in our students life-long learning, learner autonomy, and critical digital literacy.

Rejecting likeability

By Slowking - Own work, GFDL 1.2

Chimamanda Adichie by Slowking

The Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, has published a new novel, Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions. The book was written after a friend asked for advice about how to raise her newborn daughter to be a feminist. In an interview on NPR, Adichie talked about some of the 15 suggestions in the book.

On “feminism lite”, the idea of conditional female equality:

“It means raising a girl to believe that she is inferior to a man but that the man is expected to be good to her, that women are somehow naturally subordinate to men but men have to treat women well. And I find it dehumanizing to women because I think that surely we have to have something more than male benevolence as the basis for a woman’s well-being.”

On teaching difference:

“I think it’s important to just say to kids, look; the norm of our existence as human beings is difference. We’re not all the same, and it’s OK.”

On girls rejecting likeability:

“I think the way that a lot of girls are raised in so many parts of the world is that idea that you have to be likable. And likable means you have to kind of mold and shape what you do and say based on what you imagine the other person wants to hear. And I think instead, we should teach girls to just be themselves and that idea that you don’t have to be liked by everyone.”

That last point is an interesting take on a communication style associated by Adichie with women, but often seen as part and parcel of an indirect or implicit The idea is that in high context communications, often seen as characteristic of Asian cultures, one tends to use means beyond explicit language to guide what one says, using knowledge about the interlocutor’s social status, for example. Part of that process is taking into consideration the possible reception of what you say on your conversation partner, gauging that reception by observing body language and other indicators. In Western cultures generally, that kind of communication style is indeed more associated with women than men. Women are seen as being more observant and better listeners, making them more adept at sensing what the other person is feeling. The danger Adichie sees here for women is that using this approach to conversing leads women to adopt a persona which hides their real selves.

Adichie is not alone in this view, encouraging women not to see being “nice” as a guide to their behavior. The reaction to the “nasty woman” description of Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump led both to a call for solidarity among women, but also to a celebration of the right of women to assert their own personalities.

Symbolic ethnicity or cultural appropriation?

The Ganley Sisters doing a brush dance

Last night I attended a Karneval Fest (German version of Mardi Gras celebration, also called Fasching), sponsored by one of the local German social clubs, the Deutscher Sport Club Richmond. It was an interesting experience, with good German food and drink, music, and dancing. As is the case in Germany, there were also quite a few humorous talks, all given in German, in fact, often at least in part, in Rheinland dialect, as the most famous celebrations happen in cities along the Rhine, especially in Cologne and Mainz. These talks are called Büttenreden, meaning talks delivered on a vat or barrel (in dialect a Bütt). Judging from the paucity of laughs at punch lines, I am pretty sure the majority of attendees did not understand the jokes. That didn’t seem to bother anyone – the use of German contributed to the atmosphere, in the same way that the costumes, decorations, and the music did. Most of the folks there were enjoying playing at being German for the evening, just as most of them probably had done at the Richmond Oktoberfest.

I had another experience of what is sometimes called symbolic ethnicity today at a concert given by the Irish-American group, Cherish the Ladies. As this was held at noon, an Irish breakfast was served, with bangers and soda bread (however, no black or white pudding). The group consists of women from the US, Ireland and Scotland, but the featured ethnicity was definitely Irish, the source of almost all the songs (often written by members of the group inspired by visits to Ireland) and the jokes (many at the expense of the Scots). Just as we will next month on St. Patrick’s Day, we were all honorary Irish for the occasion.

In the US, assuming for fun and celebration a different ethnicity can be a tricky proposition. No one is likely to complain if a non-German wears Lederhose and a Bavarian hat to an Oktoberfest celebration. But donning a Native American costume for Halloween is considered inappropriate, an example of “cultural appropriation”. This month Is Black History month in the US, but it’s not likely any White Americans will honor African-Americans by wearing blackface. It may come down to the context in which the ethnic borrowing takes place, and the kind of portrayal used. Representing German ethnicity by wearing an SS uniform would be problematic, as would enacting an Irish identity by dressing as a starving potato farmer. It’s also the case that historically disadvantaged and mistreated groups, like American Indians and African-Americans deserve to by treated with dignity and respect by the mainstream culture, which oppressed them. There have been too many distorted and negative portrayals of those groups in the US media and culture for it too be ok to perpetuate the stereotypes.

One of the interesting aspects of both the German and the Irish events this week-end was the incorporation of women’s domestic work in a humorous or musical way. One of the talks at the Karneval Fest was given by a self-professed “Putzfrau” (cleaning lady), who brought along her mop and bucket. Two Irish sisters, preceding Cherish the Ladies (the Ganleys), did a “brush dance”, using ordinary brooms as props around which and with which they danced. Perhaps such evocations of an underprivileged class (women in domestic roles) is permissible in this instance because of the fact that both Irish-Americans and German-Americans have become part of the cultural mainstream. We White Americans can laugh at our own, confident, at least for now, in the maintenance of the power structure that provides white privilege, even for the least prestigious among us.

Alternative facts

Interesting news story in the New York Times today, about the increased sales of George Orwell’s novel, 1984, in which a totalitarian state has absolute control over news dissemination, using “newspeak” to provide the view of reality the state wants to project, in the novel called “reality control”. Apparently, the surge in interest is related to the use by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway of the term “alternative facts”, in defense of the false claim by White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, that Mr. Trump had attracted the “largest audience ever to witness an inauguration.” This first week of the Trump presidency has brought other “alternative facts”, such as that there were 3 to 5 million fraudulent votes in the presidential election, an explanation the President gives for losing the popular vote.

It might not seem all that important, whether there were more people at the inauguration this time compared to 2008, although clearly it does matter a great deal to Trump. The real problem is not with a president whose ego is so easily bruised. It’s that this refusal to acknowledge facts is likely to be something we will be seeing again, and in situations in which getting the facts right is vitally important (terrorist threats, trade negotiations, legislation). Having a government that puts out false information is clearly a threat to democracy. It risks putting the USA in the company of regimes, past and present, in which information from the government is routinely assumed by the citizens to be false. The media, mainstream and other, needs to be the safeguard, and we, as news consumers need to be more aware than ever of what sources to trust and which to doubt. It will be a sad state of affairs indeed if one of the sources we learn to mistrust is the White House.

English and the EU

Theresa May

Theresa May: No Brexit negotiations in French

One of the interesting questions surrounding Brexit is the status of English in the EU. This was raised in an article in the Guardian yesterday in which it was reported that the EU’s chief negotiator has indicated that he expects the talks to be conducted in French. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May has said that will not be the case. Just in case, the Guardian has published a tongue-in-cheek guide for the PM, Le Brexit: a linguistic guide for Theresa May. Included are French translations of such helpful phrases as “Brexit means Brexit. How many times do I have to say it?” or “Can I interest you in a some tea and biscuits? I also have some very innovative jam to sell you”. The latter phrase is in connection with a recent tweet from the British trade secretary, “France needs high quality, innovative British jams & marmalades”.

The unhappiness in the EU over Brexit may be reflected in the recent comment by Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President, that he will no longer speak English in public. According to the article, “Speculation that English would be abandoned by Brussels emerged on the day after the referendum when the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, who is fluent in English, conducted his Brexit press conference in French”.

With Great Britain leaving, Ireland is left as the last native English speaking EU member. Irish Gaelic is one of the 23 official EU languages, so if English were to go, Irish officials may need to brush up on their likely rusty Gaelic (spoken as a mother tongue by less than 1% of the population). In reality, it’s not likely that there will be a change in the status of English, as it is widely used as the lingua franca in the EU, as it is elsewhere in the world.

As it happens, I am currently in London, having come over for a conference at the Open University on “MOOCs, informal language learning, and mobility”. Brexit was something which came up frequently, as a number of the projects presented at the conference were funded by the EU. For language educators, Brexit is unfortunate not just due to possible loss of project funding, but also for the isolationist message it sends. Of course, the kind of nationalism Brexit represents is not just to be seen in Britain, it’s been on full display in the US presidential campaign. I’ve had frequent pub conversations in the last few days about the election, with most Brits expressing incredulity over Trump and how far he’s gotten. Yesterday I was asked in separate conversations the same question: “Aren’t you ashamed?” Being in this situation as a US citizen abroad takes me back to the conversations I had in Europe during the Vietnam war and the war in Iraq – like the Trump candidacy, events that don’t show the US in the best light. However, during one conversation last night, “Tangled up in blue” played over the pub’s sound system, so I was able to say, there are things about the US I’m proud of, like our newly minted Nobel Laureate in literature!

Locker room talk

Locker_RoomThe infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording of Donald Trump on the set of a soap opera in which he boasted about using his celebrity to fondle and abuse women has been dismissed by Trump and his supporters as “locker room talk”. What does that mean? Apparently, the idea is that this is how men talk when they are among themselves, as they would be in a locker room, with the implication that this is meaningless boasting, not to be taken seriously. Many professional athletes, who have spent a lot of time talking in locker rooms, have expressed their disagreement with that perspective, claiming that comments about women are not the normal subject matter of the banter.

“Locker room talk” is apparently not an easy expression to translate into other languages, being a term with a lot of US cultural baggage. That was made clear to me as I as watching the German news recently, in which locker room was translated as “Umkleidekabine”, meaning a changing cubicle, normally a place where one would be by oneself, not a locale for communicating with others. “Locker room talk” was variously translated as “Männergerede [men talk] in der Umkleidekabine” or “Gequatsche, wie Männer es in der Umkleidekabine machen” [nonsensical talk, as men tend to use in changing booths]. What doesn’t come through in the German versions is the cultural connotation of male locker room culture. I’m curious about how locker room talk is being translated into other languages. Another term in that regard is “quip”, which is how vice-presidential candidate Pence described Trump’s comment during the last debate, that Clinton will be “in jail” if he is elected.

A powerful speech act

steve3I attended yesterday the official swearing-in of a new judge on the Virginia Supreme Court, Steve McCullough. The process was an interesting example of a powerful “speech act” (an utterance that causes something to happen), namely having the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court transform an ordinary citizen into a fellow Supreme Court Justice by a few simple words spoken as an oath of office. The magical transformation only happens, however, if the oath is spoken correctly. President Obama in 2009 had to retake later the oath of office because Chief Justice John Roberts did not prompt him with the exact correct language, so that Obama did not say the line correctly. It’s not likely in that particular case that anyone would question whether Obama was really the President of the United States (although, given the birther controversy, that may have happened, if he had not retaken the oath). In the case of marriage vows, a similar transformational speech act, the absence of the concluding statement, “I now pronounce you husband and wife” often is played up in fiction and film as meaning that the couple is in fact not legally wed (i.e., The Graduate, The Princess Bride).

The oath of office actually was made interesting by the fact that the new Justice held his 2-year son, Andrew, as the oath was being administered, while Andrew’s mother held the bible on which Steve swore the oath (and tried to quiet down her son). Speech acts may be accompanied by such nonverbal signals as the presence of an official document of some sort or the wearing of prescribed clothing, as, in this case, the black robes, which visually transformed Steve from a citizen into a Justice (the “robing” was also done ceremoniously). Part of this official act was also that it took place in a prescribed location, namely the Chambers of the Virginia Supreme Court, a place set apart from normal everyday life (no cell phones allowed, sitting and standing at prescribed times, always beginning one’s addressing of the Justices with the formula, “may it please the court”). In linguistics, we would say that the “felicity conditions” (i.e., in this instance, all the outer trappings) for this “commissive” speech act (it commits Steve to fulfilling the oath of office) have been fulfilled.

Into this august environment came Andrew, who chimed in merrily while his father took the oath. It struck me at the time that the kind of informality represented by having a new Supreme Court Justice hold a babbling 2-year old during such an important official government ceremony, in the presence not only of the other Justices, but also of the Governor of Virginia, members of the Virginia legislature, and other high officials, was something that might not be done in all cultures. In the US, we like to see our government officials as being no different from ourselves, often choosing a political candidate by the fact that he’s “just like us” (open question of how well that works out). Being a doting father is part of that image projection and having children close by in such instances is both accepted and valued. When you’re the US President on an official visit to Vietnam, having noodles and cold beer at a neighborhood joint in Hanoi is just the kind of “ordinary joe” behavior we like to see.

I don’t usually hobnob with the Governor and the Supreme Court, but Steve is a former VCU student, whom I hired as a lab assistant back in the early 1990’s when I ran the Language Lab. After graduating from law school, he worked for a while for my wife’s law firm, so we’ve known Steve and his family for a long time. It’s great to see a former student have this degree of success. I asked Steve after the ceremony whether he figures that being a Supreme Court Justice will be an interesting line of work. He answered that there are likely to be engrossing cases that come up, but that a lot of it will be routine and less than exciting – just like all jobs.

Teaching in India

logo Coming to India to teach intercultural communication seems like taking coals to Newcastle – seems odd for an American, coming from a foreign language phobic land, to be telling multilingual Indians how to get along with people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. In fact, one of the main themes in the course was the Western controlling influence over the traditional narratives around intercultural communication, with individualism (identified with the West) being seen positively – enabling creativity, critical thinking, entrepreneurism – in contrast to the groupthink, passivity, and rigidity of collectivistic cultures. The course was live-streamed on YouTube, then archived: Intercultural Communication in Global Virtual Environments.

My colleague here at the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur) has mentioned that in her classes she typically has students representing a number of Indian states and a variety of Indian languages. English is the language of instruction, but it isn’t anyone’s first language. During breaks from the classes during the course, I heard a lot of code-switching among the participants. There was one student from Nigeria in the class – it was interesting to compare the different effects of British colonialism in both countries. Nigeria has a similar multilingual make-up; the student indicated that he regularly used four different language at home, the main ones being English and Housa, plus two local languages.

I learned some history of the Institute here that I hadn’t known, namely that it was the site of the Hijli Detention Camp, housing those fighting for independence in the 1930’s. This is now the Nehru Museum of Science and Technology. The site was used as a British Royal Air Force airstrip and later as a US Air Force base. In fact, I was told yesterday that the Enola Gay refueled here on its way to drop its atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

I am heading back to the US tomorrow. I will miss being here, and especially the contact with the students, but will not miss the weather. It was 110° F when I came and has been hotter than that some days; for Thursday the forecast says 117°.

Colors and body parts

donald-trumps-hands-suck-1457116346-crop_desktopThis past week there have been some remarkable public comments on personal appearance and body builds. In the most recent Republican debate, “Little Marco” (Trump’s term) tangled with “Big Donald”, with Donald Trump commenting on Marco Rubio’s statements about his hands, clearly referencing his male prowess: “And, he [Rubio] referred to my hands — ‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.” This follows Rubio’s comments about Donald having wet pants in the breaks from an earlier debate. In a press conference, Trump commented on how much Rubio sweats: “Can you imagine,” Trump said of Rubio meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, “and he walks in and he’s drenched. I have never seen a human being sweat like this man sweats. … It looked like he had just jumped into a swimming pool with his clothes on.” Speaking of Putin, there we clearly have a politician who feels that projecting a hyper-masculine persona is important for his image. He frequently is seen in press photos bare-chested, playing sports, or engaging in other activities that highlight his body build. His walk is best described as a swagger. It’s sad to see US politicians engaged in outdoing each other in terms of masculinity – the last thing that should determine who is best able to be President is the level of testosterone (or the ability to hurl insults).

Nina Simone and actress Zoe Saldana

Nina Simone and actress Zoe Saldana

A controversy over skin color emerged in the last week in reference to the movie of the life of singer Nina Simone. This has brought out for public discussion the issue of colorism – the idea that skin tone (how light or dark) and not just race, can lead to prejudice and discrimination. The actress selected to portray Simone is Zoe Saldana, who is Latina, but self-identifies as black. Her parents are from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, where, as elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, there is a mix of ethnic and racial backgrounds which results in a broad range of skin tones. Saldana is light-skinned, in contrast to the dark-skinned Simone. This has been seen as one more example of “Hollywood’s attempt to sideline women with dark skin”. What makes the issue particularly troublesome is that for the movie Saldana wore black face, recalling past racist practices in the entertainment industry. Many have pointed out also that it’s not just a case of trying to cast someone that comes close to the appearance and background of the person portrayed, but that in this case Nina Simone famously made a point of talking and singing about her blackness, which she celebrated but which also resulted in missed opportunities, such as being refused entry to the Curtis Institute of Music.

Another issue of appearance arose in an interview this week-end on NPR with Joanna Hausmann, a Venezuelan comedian who makes videos for The Flama, focusing on Latino culture. Hausmann has a Jewish father, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, and a Cuban mother. She uses her personal background as one of the main sources of her comedy:

I think that I grew up explaining who I was, right? As a white Latina with a Jewish last name. That does not make sense in the conceptualization of what a Latina should be. Also I’m not particularly suave, I’m incredibly awkward. There’s something about my identity that does not mesh with what people think the identity should include. …

[Growing up] I was trained in explaining my identity in a way that wasn’t surface level. And it also opened me up in understanding that people can literally have absolutely any background and what we conceive to be their identity, or their reality or their background is usually not the case.

Hausmann celebrates not only the variety of appearances of Latin Americans, but also the variety of ways in which Spanish is spoken, as in the video below:

Learn to code or to communicate

President Obama writing JavaScript

President Obama speaking Indonesian

The President speaking Indonesian

Our Virginia General Assembly, according to Wikipedia, the “oldest continuous law-making body in the New World” has in recent years been responsible for some real screamers in terms of proposed new laws. Those include proposals to ban low-riding pants and measures that would allow legally blind people to drive motorcycles. Some have attracted national attention, such as a law to give fertilized eggs legal status as persons or, most recently, the proposed requirement for invasive transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking an abortion, which included the stipulation that the woman’s medical record indicate whether or not she viewed the ultrasound or listened to the fetal heartbeat.

This session a proposed law would allow high schools in Virginia to consider computer programming as a substitute for learning a foreign language. Currently, either 3 years of study of a single foreign language or two years each of two different languages is required for the college-prep diploma. Virginia is not the first state to consider such a step. Florida is currently considering a similar change and Kentucky has implemented it.

In a story from my local NPR station, a high school student was all for it:

“That would actually make my year, not only does it make sense, it’s something that I’m interested in…Because in Spanish class earlier today I was just sitting with my head down like, ‘Why do I have to do this?’ But here I feel like I can express my interests better.”

 His comment may say more about the quality of local language instruction than about the wisdom of changing the requirement. Interestingly, a computer science teacher at the same school, Chris Neville, had a different track:

“Some kids aren’t necessarily ever going to use Spanish, the kids who really need it, are probably the kids who don’t want to take it,” Neville said. “I don’t believe in really locking kids into what they want to do right now, because I changed my mind 14 times before I decided what I was going to do.”

And besides, says Neville, the fundamentals of programming, like logical reasoning and problem solving, are more in line with math than foreign language.

Indeed, the idea that a programming “language” is equivalent to a human language is strange and misguided. The procedural steps, hierarchical reasoning, and logical branching in coding are closer to mathematical skills and concepts. In math and programming, there tends to be a particular (and often unique) correct pathway or answer. Linguists would be happy to explain that this is far from how human language works. Language is rarely used to simply transfer information back and forth, as common folk wisdom might assume; instead it is full of stops and starts, interruptions, broken sentences, simultaneous speaking. Mostly, there is little logic involved. Rules of grammar may be cut and dry, but that is a small part of what constitutes human communication in any language. The study of language pragmatics, the branch of linguistics that deals with the significance of speech in real human discourse, has shown how tied language is to the particular context in which it is used, and therefore how dependent all conversation is on cultural cues and clues. The inextricable connection between language and culture is one of the major insights that comes from the study of a foreign language.

Monolinguals typically see differences among languages as being mostly semantic, i.e. just using different words for the same concepts. But the word designating the same object in different languages may have very different real meanings. The word for forest in German is Wald, which, as in English conveys the idea of a lot of trees together. But the word in German has rich overtones that harken back to the Germanic tribes’ pagan worship of trees, the mysterious forest happenings of the best known Grimm Brothers fairy tales, and place names like the Schwarzwald (Black Forest), all of which (and more) imbue the word Wald, when used by speakers of German, with historical and cultural associations unique to that language. Learning a language provides entry into the deep recesses of a culture – a proficient second language speaker gains an insider’s perspective.

One of the real tragedies of not providing an incentive for adolescents to start learning a language while in school is related to the age at which it is easiest to learn languages, namely early in life. The critical period hypothesis points to the biological and psychological developments in humans that make it difficult to learn a language well when starting language acquisition as an adult. In fact, children, given their innate curiosity and lack of self-consciousness, are ideal language learners, eager to imitate and not afraid to make mistakes.

I am totally in favor of high school students learning computer programming – I see this as fundamental to 21st-century life (see my piece on digital literacies). However, there is no reason coding should be considered as an alternative to language learning. In our interconnected world, the ability to communicate with others requires both computer skills and sensitivity to cultural issues in language use – something best learned through second language study.

Watson as Life Coach

IBM's Watson analyzes a Twitter account of a user

IBM’s Watson analyzes a Twitter account of a user

Interesting story recently on NPR about Watson, the IBM super computer that won the “Jeopardy” game show. It apparently has now been retooled to analyze texts written by an individual on social media in order to provide insight into personality traits. The assumption is that our choice of words unconsciously reflects who we are. In itself this is nothing new. In the 1990’s James Pennebaker used a computer to analyze individuals’ use of personal pronouns. An abundant use of the first person pronoun, according to Pennebaker is revelatory of someone’s personality and/or state of mind:

If someone uses the pronoun “I,” it’s a sign of self-focus. Say someone asks “What’s the weather outside?” You could answer “It’s hot” or “I think it’s hot.” The “I think” may seem insignificant, but it’s quite meaningful. It shows you’re more focused on yourself. Depressed people use the word “I” much more often than emotionally stable people. People who are lower in status use “I” much more frequently.

According to the NPR story, the Watson program goes well beyond the analysis of pronoun use. It created “personality dictionaries”, correlating words in English to 5 different personality traits, with the acronym of OCEAN: “O for openness, C for conscientiousness, E for extroversion, A for agreeableness and N for neuroticism”. Texts an individual has written on Twitter, Facebook, blog posts and in other online services are collected and parsed. For the story, Facebook posts for the reporter, Aarti Shahani, were analyzed, which she found reflected fairly accurately at least some of her major personality traits. But, as she pointed out in the story, our online identity may be quite different from the identity we have in other contexts. Our behavior and language may differ significantly if we are at home with family, for example, rather than in the workplace. Likewise, our language use online may depend on the medium being used, as well as on the purpose of the communication, and on the particular situation or people we are addressing.

Watson was less accurate in its function as an “emotions analyzer”; it misread the emotions behind some of the statements in letters between Shahani and her ex-boyfriend. You can try out how well your emotions are analyzed using a trial version of the Tone Analyzer available online. A demo version of the writing analysis tool is also available. Given the interest in both big data and social media, it seems likely we will see more such tools, probably as mobile apps. One could well imagine their use in dating services.

Texas in Norwegian

people-in-norway-are-using-texas-as-slang-for-cra-2-28065-1445536485-5_bigI’ve been familiar for some time with the small German-speaking community in Texas, centered around towns in the Texas Hill Country, particularly Fredericksburg and New Braunfels (home to a very nice German restaurant). Unfortunately, the Texasdeutsch dialect is dying out. The clip below describes the dialect – note the opening scene in the wonderfully named town of Weimar.

But apparently, Norwegians in Texas are doing fine, according to a recent article in The Guardian, about Clifton, the “Norwegian Capital of Texas”, although it’s not evident that the Norwegian language has survived there.

The piece was prompted by an article in Texas Monthly about the use of the word “texas” as an adjective in contemporary Norwegian, meaning crazy or wild. The article cites a number of articles illustrating the use of “texas” in spoken and written Norwegian. It most commonly appears in the expression, “det var helt texas”, describing something wild and chaotic. In a report from the BBC, the use of the word is traced back:

[The use of texas] became part of the language when Norwegians started watching cowboy movies and reading Western literature, according to Daniel Gusfre Ims, the head of the advisory service at the Language Council of Norway. ‘The genre was extremely popular in Norway, and a lot of it featured Texas, so the word became a symbol of something lawless and without control,’ he says.

Ims mentions in the interview that Texas is not the only US state that is used in this kind of metonymy (a thing or concept being called not by its own name, but by another name which is associated with it): “Norwegians also use the term ‘hawaii football’ to describe an ‘out-of-control’ match”.

The Guardian actually asked people in Clifton if they had heard of the “texas” adjective use in Norwegian – no one had.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Mandarin

zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg speaking Mandarin at Tsinghua University

The Facebook CEO recently gave a talk at a Beijing university (Tsinghua) in Mandarin Chinese. This follows a public question and answer session in Mandarin with Zuckerberg conducted last year in Beijing. The reaction to his talk has been mixed, with many praising his courage to give a 20 minute speech in Chinese, given that he has not studied the language that long. James Fallows had some interesting comments in the Atlantic. There has been an interesting discussion on the languagelog blog. Victor Mair commented:

He’s intelligent, he’s confident, he has a nimble tongue, possesses strong communicative skills, and is blessed with all the other attributes that make him potentially an excellent speaker of Mandarin. But Zuckerberg has gotten off on the wrong foot with his Mandarin learning. I don’t know what methods he is using, but they clearly are not the right ones.

Mair says the grammar and vocabulary were fine, but the tones were way off. Using the right (of the four) tones right is essential to understanding what a specific phoneme means, as the same short syllable can have 4 or more different meanings, depending on the tone. It’s a similar issue for non-native speakers of English who do not use standard intonation and stress patterns, but can be even more problematic in tonal languages (which include Thai, Vietnamese, other Asian languages and some African languages). Still, Mair says he was able to understand almost everything in the speech, although other linguists who asked native speakers to listen, indicated that for them there were some parts of the speech which were difficult to decipher.

One commenter on languagelog pointed out that how problematic getting tones wrong is in terms of comprehensibility depends on the context:

There is a pretty low upper limit to how complex your vocabulary can get with bad tones. When you are using very common words and constructions, people can infer most of what you mean even if it isn’t clear. But once you are trying to quote weird technology terms from a newspaper or use words that native speakers might themselves have only heard a handful of times, poor tones will make you completely incomprehensible.

In my experience, if you provide enough context (i.e. speak not too slowly and say more than a few words) and have some tones wrong, you are likely to be understood. Despite pronunciation problems, many on languagelog and elsewhere praised Zuckerberg’s willingness and courage to give a public speech in Chinese. Native Chinese are appreciative (and surprised) when non-Chinese (especially Americans) make the effort to speak their language. In fact, the Washington Post last year, after Zuckerberg’s first public use of Chinese, ran an article entitled “A brief history of white dudes wowing people with Mandarin.” It certainly does not harm the cause of promoting Chinese language learning in this country to have the CEO of Facebook make the effort to learn and use the language. And that in a country in which Facebook is banned.

What language?

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush

Sarah Palin on Jeb Bush’s use of Spanish in conducting a town hall meeting in Florida recently:

“I think we can send a message and say: ‘You want to be in America? A: you better be here legally, or you’re out of here. B: when you’re here, let’s speak American.'”

Donald Trump was critical as well: “I like Jeb. He’s a nice man. But he should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.” Later, he retweeted an attack on Bush for “speaking Mexican”.

Aside from the awkwardly incorrect naming of languages, the real bafflement here for me is why the Republicans would go out of their way to discourage their own candidates from trying to connect with Hispanic voters, a group the party badly needs for success in 2016. Jeb Bush may not be a super exciting candidate, and his views may not be conservative enough for many Republicans – while for others, his having actual experience holding political office is a clear disqualification – but he does seem like someone likely to attract at least some Latinos to vote Republican. Of course, that holds true potentially for Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

This is not just a Republican issue, and points to general views on the ability to speak other languages in the US. One would think that we would be happy to have our leaders be able to communicate directly with foreign leaders in a second language. In fact, US voters (and non-voters) tend to be suspicious of politicians who speak other languages. French seems to be particularly suspect. John Kerry downplayed his fluency in the language when he was a candidate for President and Mitt Romney was particularly loathe to admit to his ability in the language. Apparently one may be tainted with socialism by speaking French.

In the case of Spanish, many US citizens are living in denial that the country has become – and certainly will remain – multilingual, with large numbers of US citizens and non-citizens speaking Spanish as their mother tongue. If Republicans continue to embrace the views of this group of deniers, it seems likely they will again go down in defeat in 2016.

Language & Identity

Traditional Navajo clothing

Traditional Navajo clothing

The language we speak is a crucial part of our individual identities. Language can also be a social identifier – a way to tell who’s in and who’s out. This has been the case within the Native American Navajo Nation, where a candidate for president was disqualified last fall because he didn’t speak Navajo fluently. That candidate, Chris Deschene, had an impressive resume, having graduated from the Naval Academy, and subsequently earning a law degree and a master’s in engineering, before serving one term as a state representative. But he doesn’t speak Navajo fluently, having grown up away from the Navajo community. According to a story last year on NPR, “Deschene blamed his limitations on what he calls the tribe’s cultural destruction. Up until the 1960s, the U.S. federal government forced thousands of American Indians to attend boarding schools – among them, Deschene’s mother. While there, she was punished for speaking her native language. The U.S. government later relocated his parents to Southern California, where Chris was born.” This summer the Navajo Nation held a referendum on whether the president of the Navajo Nation should be required to speak fluent Navajo. The majority voted no. The story on NPR about the issue included laments from members of the Nation that the vote will erode the connection between the members of the tribe and their culture. It will also, they say, lead to less interest among the young in learning the language. They point out that many rituals and traditional aspects of the Navajo culture are tightly linked to the language.

The Navajo Nation has been in the news this summer also because of the action taken to tax junk food and soda. This too has a cultural side to it. The action was taken because of the very high rate of obesity and diabetes. The intent is to encourage members of the tribe to eat healthier food, especially more fruits and vegetables. One of the problems on the reservation has been the paucity of grocery stores; as a consequence, many people rely on convenience stores and fast food restaurants. To get to a good grocery store, tribal members need to drive off the reservation. According to Denisa Livingston, a spokeswoman for the grassroots group that pushed for the tax:

When people have to drive that many miles across the Navajo Nation in this food desert, it definitely is discouraging because healthy fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy foods will not last a very long time when you have to take it back hundreds of miles across the Navajo Nation.

The tribe plans to use the funds generated from the junk food tax on local farm initiatives. This is the socio-cultural aspect of the plan. Traditionally, Navajo people traditionally lived off the land. New initiatives such as the North Leupp Family Farms have helped about 30 families return to subsistence farming and eat healthier foods.

Moving the Navajo people – or any other community in the US – in the direction of embracing traditional ways of life, including native language use, family farming, and healthy food culture, is likely to be an uphill battle, given the ubiquitous presence of mainstream US media and advertising which point decidedly in opposing directions.