Learning a language changes lives

Linguist Daniel Everett in the Amazon

As a further example of the growth in support for STEM fields in education (science, technology, engineering, math) in the US, and the concurrent drop in support for the humanities, the state legislature in my state of Virginia this year changed the requirements for the academic diploma from high school to enable computer science to substitute for foreign language study. This aligns with the perception that employment opportunities of the future will call for skills in coding, not in speaking another language. In the US, the trend in education emphasizing vocational training is often linked to the economic downturn following the 2008 financial collapse. The result has been a decade of gradual decline in enrollment in foreign language classes at high schools and universities. As a consequence, fewer US students are learning a second language (at least formally in school). This has unfortunate consequences both individually and society-wide. On a personal level, students lose the opportunity to develop a new identity, by experiencing the world through the different cultural lens that a second language provides. That has social ramifications, as monolinguals tend to cling to the one culture they know and tend therefore to be less receptive to other ways of life.

These thoughts were prompted through a recent piece by linguistic anthropologist Daniel Everett, “Learning another language should be compulsory in every school“. Everett is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Massachusetts. He is best known for his work as a field linguist in the Amazon, learning Pirahã, which he described in the wonderful book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (2008). He’s also famous for his spat with the most famous linguist on earth, Noam Chomsky over the concept of universal grammar, aspects of which Everett found to be contradicted by characteristics of the Pirahã language.

In his essay, Everett, talks about his own language experiences, growing up in California, along the border with Mexico, learning Spanish so well that he joined a Mexican rock ’n’ roll band based in Tijuana:

Learning Spanish changed my life. It taught me more about English, it gave me friendships and connections and respect I never could have otherwise received. Just as learning Portuguese, Pirahã and smatterings of other Amazonian languages continued to transform me during my entire life. Now, after spending most of my adult life in higher education, researching languages, cultures and cognition, I have become more convinced than ever that nothing teaches us about the world and how to think more effectively better than learning new languages. That is why I advocate for fluency in foreign languages. But for this to happen, language-learning needs to make a comeback as a requirement of both primary and secondary education in the United States. Learning another language benefits each learner in at least three ways – pragmatically, neurologically and culturally.

He describes the practical and potential employment advantages of knowing another language. Then he provides an example of how learning a language provides insight into how other cultures see the world:

Beyond the pragmatic benefits to learning languages are humanistic, cultural benefits. It is precisely because not all languages are the same that learning them can expand our understanding of the world. Every language has evolved in a specific geocultural niche, and thus has different ways of talking and codifying the world. But this is precisely why learning them is so beneficial. Take, for example:

John borrowed $10,000 from the bank of Mom and Dad to pay down his college loan.

The Pirahã language of the Amazon has no words for numbers or for borrow, dollars, bank, mom, dad, college or loan. So this sentence cannot be translated into Pirahã (it could be if their culture were to change and they learned about the modern economy). On the other hand, consider a common Pirahã phrase:

Piibooxio xigahapaati.

This phrase means ‘go upriver’ in Pirahã. Innocuous enough, until you realise that Pirahãs use this phrase instead of the less precise ‘turn left’ or ‘turn right’ (which depends on where the speaker and hearer are facing) – this is uttered from deep within the jungle or at the river’s edge – all Pirahãs carry a mental map of tens of thousands of acres of jungle in their heads, and thus know where all points of reference are, whether a river or a specific region of the jungle. They use absolute directions, not relative directions as, say, the average American does when he says ‘turn left’ (vs the absolute direction, ‘turn north’). So to use Pirahã phrases intelligibly requires learning about their local geography.

Everett points to the broadening horizons language learning brings with it:

Language-learning induces reflection both on how we ourselves think and communicate, and how others think. Thus it teaches culture implicitly. Languages should be at the very heart of our educational systems. Learning languages disables our easy and common habit of glossing over differences and failing to understand others and ourselves. You cannot achieve fluency in another language without learning its speakers’ perspectives on the world, and thereby enriching your own conceptual arsenal.

Everett ends with a reference to a video presentation of the method he uses in learning indigenous languages, while not having a common language. In the video, Everett uses Pirahã in eliciting language lessons from a woman speaking Hmong. After the demonstration, Everett describes some of the fascinating aspects of Pirahã, including the variety of communication forms including humming, whistle speech, musical speech, and yelling. Speech acts are radically different from Western norms, with no greeting or leave taking rituals. Men and women speaking Pirahã use different consonants.

The experience of speaking Pirahã involves a very different human experience than speaking English. This is true of all languages, ways of life are embedded deeply in how languages work. Learning to program computers is a highly valuable skill, especially in today’s world, but it shouldn’t substitute for the invaluable human experience of learning a second language.

Anger on display (or not): Ford and Kanvanaugh

Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh

The explosive Senate hearing last week involving US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault is still resonating this week. The two not only told different versions of what happened at a high school party 36 years ago, they differed significantly in how they expressed themselves. That includes paralanguage — tone, volume — and body language. The situation is of course unique and it’s problematic to extrapolate too far from the specific exchange to general differences in communication styles between men and women (a topic studied extensively by scholars such as Deborah Tannen). Nevertheless, I do believe the exchange fits into familiar patterns of communication that are gender-specific and socially-determined.

Ford’s testimony was calm, measured and deferential, while Kavanaugh was aggressive, belligerent and bullying. Some have commented that of course Kavanaugh was angry, since he was convinced he was innocent of the charges. However, there’s no doubt that Ford was just as convinced that she was telling the truth – many Republicans, including the President, found her testimony to be “credible”. Yet, she did not yell and engage in angry outbursts and accusations – despite the fact that the assault she alleges (attempted rape) would amply justify that behavior.

In a commentary yesterday on NPR, Rebecca Traister, author of Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, explains that contrast by pointing to the social acceptability (in the US at least) of verbal displays of anger by males, but not by women: “He had in his arsenal the ability to use anger, fury, tears in a way that he felt confident would resonate with the American people”. According to Traister, those same tools were not available to Ford, at least in the sense of being socially acceptable as used by a woman. They are even less likely to be available to women of color in the US:

I think it’s almost impossible for us to conceive of the voices of women of color as being heard loudly enough because they have been so unheard and so marginalized for so long. In fact, it’s women of color who have been the leaders and the leading thinkers of so many of our social movements, in ways that have remained invisible to us.

For Traister, the anger that Ford suppressed in the hearing is likely to re-emerge in a different form:

My argument is not that women’s anger is always righteous. It’s that it’s very often politically potent and yet we’re told not to take it seriously, still. I think that it’s the anger that women are feeling across the country that is having a catalytic connective impact. And this is part of a long process — social movements take a long time. The kind of anger that women are feeling in this moment around Kavanaugh is going to be part of a far longer story that’s going to extend deep into our future.

It’s been interesting to follow as well as the analysis of the encounter from the perspective of nonverbal communication, as in a minute by minute analysis by Jack Brown. His conclusion, from studying the body language: “Judge Kavanaugh’s nonverbal behavior indicates he’s lying as well as deliberately withholding information (lies of omission). He believes he is guilty of sexual assault.” On the other hand, Carol Kinsey Goman, another body language expert, comments:

Habitual and well-rehearsed liars can become quite comfortable with their falsehoods. But the same response is true for liars who believe their own lies. When Ford and Kavanaugh say they are “100% positive,” they may both genuinely believe it.

This echoes an assessment by another analyst, Patti Wood:

Wood says that a key piece of Dr. Ford’s testimony was revelatory; when she said that Kavanaugh and Mark Judge’s laughter — “the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense” — is the strongest impression in her memory. “If Kavanaugh did it and he was laughing, he may not have seen it or felt it as anything but ‘horseplay,'” says Wood. “He may not have had it register in his memory as anything wrong or bad. And if he was drunk, he may not have remembered it at all. This is important because his anger is so strong and he seems so emphatic, and he could actually feel he never did anything like this.”

We will see this week what conclusion the FBI investigation reaches. It seems likely that we will never have factual information that settles the claims once and for all. In the absence of conclusive evidence or convincing witnesses, we will have to continue to rely on our interpretations of the words and behavior of the two individuals involved.

Linguistic relativity: Insights from cognitive science

Blue in Russian: 2 different words

A recent piece in the online magazine, Undark, Scientists Probe an Enduring Question: Can Language Shape Perception?, examines an interesting, new approach to the topic of linguistic relativity, i.e. the extent to which the language we speak influences how we see the world. It starts with a familiar topic within the scholarly debate around this question, namely whether the existence or absence of words for specific colors in a language affects speakers’ perception of colors. This was famously studied by Benjamin Whorf, the very same of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which first laid out this strong connection between language and culture. Whorf studied Native American languages and noted that Navaho speakers split black into two colors and lumped blue and green together into one, thus providing a slightly different color lens on the world than English. Later scholars had doubts, such as Berlin and Kay (1969), who argued that there are cross-linguistic regularities in the encoding of color such that a small number of basic color terms emerge in most languages and that these patterns stem ultimately from biology. This was put forward as evidence against the linguistic relativity hypothesis. Other researchers went further, labeling Whorf’s views as “vaporous mysticism” (Black, 1954),

In this piece in Undark, the example centers on the color blue, and the distinction between shades of blue made in Greek (and in other languages as well) with a separate word, ghalazio, for light blue (akin to goluboy in Russian) and ble for darker blue (siniy in Russian). Instead of the usual procedure in experiments of this kind, the researchers involved (at Bangor University) did not show the participant colors and ask them to name them. Instead, they attached electrodes to their scalps in order to track changes in electrical signals in the brain’s visual system as they looked at different colors. This allowed researchers to observe directly neural activity. In the experiment, native speakers of English and Greek were shown a series of circles or squares of different shades of blues and green. Electrical activity measured in the participants revealed that in the Greek speakers, the visual system responded differently to ghalazio and ble shapes, a change not seen in the English speakers. Thus, for the English speakers everything was “blue”, while the Greeks see the world in a more differentiated way, at least in references to things bluish.

The research team decided to replicate the experiment, this time with shapes:

The Spanish word taza encompasses both cups and mugs, whereas English distinguishes between the two. When Spanish and English speakers were presented with pictures of a cup, mug, or bowl, the difference between the cup and mug elicited greater electrical activity in the brains of English speakers than in Spanish speakers.

Such experiments from cognitive scientists seem likely to continue – and to continue the debate around linguistic relativity. They do seem to provide scientific evidence that our brains are wired by language, at least in some areas. It would be interesting to see experiments of related phenomena, such as the presence or absence of grammatical genders in languages. As Guy Deutscher described in the NY Times Magazine a few years ago, psychologists have compared associative characteristics of objects with different noun genders in different languages (such as the feminine word for bridge in German, die Brücke with the masculine el puente in Spanish):

When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed.

Another area of interest would be time perception, as discussed in a recent article in Popular Science, “The language you speak changes your perception of time”:

Different languages frame time differently. Swedish and English speakers, for example, tend to think of time in terms of distance—what a long day, we say. Time becomes an expanse one has to traverse. Spanish and Greek speakers, on the other hand, tend to think of time in terms of volume—what a full day, they exclaim. Time becomes a container to be filled.

The article cites a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, in which Spanish and Swedish speakers were asked to estimate time based in either distance (how long a line took to grow) or volume (how long it took for a container to fill). The results showed that there were indeed clear differences in the two groups in how they measured time in terms of length or volume, in other words, that the language they spoke affected how they estimated the relative passage of time. The original article, not surprisingly, is full of cautions and caveats. That is likely to be the case in such studies and provides a rationale for cognitive scientists to continue their efforts to measure brain activity related to language and culture.

Best time ever to learn languages?

MinorMynas app for language learning

The BBC recently ran a story, “Is this the best time in history to learn a foreign language?”, with the subtitle, “Today’s youngest generation is more multilingual and wired than ever. Could the tech they’re using breed a global army of polyglots?”. I would say that depends. Certainly, the opportunities are there now for language learning through resources on the Internet, most available on mobile phones as well. The article provides an example, through this combination of collaboration and smartphones, with a profile of Hillary Yip, a 13-year-old student from Hong Kong, who created a smartphone app (MinorMynas) for enabling young people to connect with one another for the explicit goal of language learning. The article cites the increase in migration patterns worldwide that increases the multicultural make-up of the population in many countries as one of the developments that is leading to greater interest in language learning: “This increased migration, especially in cities, brings people with a wide variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds into close contact. Could a more multicultural world lead to a more multilingual generation?”. Yes, that could be the case, certainly among the younger generation, as the article points out. Unfortunately, in older populations, the influx of newcomers from different cultures may lead to discrimination and nativist political views, as we’ve seen in the US, UK, and elsewhere.

The article references the idea of “translanguaging”, the informal mixing of languages common today on the Internet, as well as in many multicultural classrooms. The opportunities for encountering other languages online are increasing, as social media enables contact with people from around the globe. One of the new options is the availability of streaming videos–especially in English– in the target language (with native language subtitles) now available in many countries through Netflix and other services. In many countries, TV shows and movies, shown on TV networks, are dubbed. However, in some countries, such as the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, videos are shown in the original audio soundtrack. It’s no coincidence that citizens of those countries have typically had better English language skills. The availability of target language videos on commercial services as well as on YouTube offers the possibility of learning or refreshing a language through entertainment. This is, as the article discusses, a way to learn without having the goal to learn, or even without the realization that one is learning.

Several recent studies document this process for learners in Europe and in Brazil. The study from Brazil found that “fully autonomous self-instructed learners” of English gained a high level of proficiency without formal instruction, revealing “how the new affordances for naturalistic learning through the Internet have transformed informal language learning, enabling significant numbers of independent, informal learners in foreign language contexts to achieve very high levels of proficiency” (Cole & Vanderplank, 2016, p. 31). In fact, the study showed that the autonomous learners studied had fewer “fossilized errors” than classroom-based learners at a similar proficiency level, that is, fewer persistent, baked-in errors in grammar or word usage. This may be a wake-up call for instructed language learning, to look at more ways to encourage students to make use of online language resources.

Cole, Jason, and Robert Vanderplank. 2016. “Comparing autonomous and class-based learners in Brazil: Evidence for the present-day advantages of informal, out-of-class learning.” System 61: 31-42.

Imagining worlds

I’ve been interested for some time in organizing a course focusing on developing competence in intercultural communication through fiction. An obvious choice are language autobiographies such as Eva Hoffmann’s Lost in Translation: Life in a New Language (1989) or Richard Rodriquez’ Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982), which offer insight into language and culture through individual stories, making language choice and the affective side of second language acquisition personal and concrete. Fantasy stories and science fiction, from Tarzan to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy provide radically different perspectives on human culture. They invite us to see our world through fresh eyes. The best of such fiction engages us emotionally, making us participants in the stories, and thus making them meaningful and memorable.

At times, they may offer interesting takes on human language as well. That’s the case with the fiction of Ursula Le Guin, who died last month. A recent blog post by Martin Edwardes points to this aspect of her work:

Le Guin’s tales give us insights into different ways of being human, from the deceptively mundane (the Orsinian Tales) through the remote but plausible (the Hainish Cycle of science fiction novels), and into the enchantingly fantastic (the Earthsea stories). Her stories help us to understand others and ourselves. They demonstrate the great power that language has in creating imagined worlds.

This came naturally to Le Guin, growing up with parents who were both anthropologists. That may have been at the root of her interest in languages, which is a major theme in her fiction. In the Dispossessed (1974), an anarchist society (on the planet Anarres) is evoked, which has no laws and no property ownership. The people of Anarres have developed their own language to reflect that culture and ideology. In that language, Pravic, there are no possessive pronouns (“my”, “your”, “their”, etc.) and there are no verbs such as “have” or “give” which index personal ownership.

Other kinds of stories offer different insights into the human condition and how it is manifested in different cultures. Folk tales, such as the Brother Grimm’s fairy tales, evoke shared human dreams and desires through the many variations stories like Cinderella have in different cultures. On the other hand, works which are concrete and localized in their story lines and social contexts may offer illuminating views into our own lives and times. A recent story on NPR reported on two sisters in Pakistan who were inspired by the novels of English writer Jane Austen, such as Pride and Prejudice (1813), to curate reimagined Austen-like stories set in contemporary Pakistan, Austenistan (2017). Austen’s stories revolve around women who need to marry well and face pressure from family and society to do so. The Pakistani sisters, Mahlia Lone and Laaleen Sukhera, explain in the NPR interview that that situations is very similar to theirs:

We find it easy to relate to her. We find it easy to relate to her era and her characters because Pakistan 200 years later is still very similar to the Regency period… So one of the basic themes in, for example, “Pride And Prejudice,” was the law of primogeniture. If there is no son, then the father’s estate goes intact to his next male relative. We actually have a law like that here. How much more real and substantial can it be?

In some respects, contemporary Pakistan may have some cultural characteristics and norms which share more similarities with the world portrayed in Austen’s novels than does 21st-century England. In his book Intercultural Communication and Ideology (2011), Adrian Holliday points to this aspect of Austen’s work:

While many historical cultural references may be shared, the early 19th-century British society depicted by Jane Austen is no less alien than that of a so-called ‘other culture’. The richness of thick description in Austen’s literature as art enables greater understanding than the fragmentation of available information about such foreign locations.

The “thick description” Austen provides – detailed information about the setting, the characters’ social and economic situation, the social mores and laws in place at the time, the insights into the characters’ thoughts and dreams, which may be at odds with social norms – makes the world both real and believable, enabling the reader to experience the events vicariously, along with the heroines. As Holliday points out, this is quite different from the fragmented and arbitrary views we typically get into other cultures. In the case of Brits reading Austen, there is also not the barrier of a foreign culture:  “Understanding Austen’s society is not inhibited by our long history of mistrust for the foreign Other. Studying Austen’s society would be an excellent basis for studying the universals of the nature of culture.”

That is the wonder of reading novels, being able to see common human characteristics through individual life histories. The stories intrigue us with their uniqueness and specificity, while the shared human experience they evoke may lead us to more acceptance of surface-level differences among us. An article in Science a few years ago described experiments that showed how literary fiction can play an important role in “understanding others’ mental states…a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies”. In other words, stories lets us experience what it is like to see the world from someone else’s perspective.

Leaders of state and language

A recent article in the NY Times discussed the influence that Kazakhstan’s first and only president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, has had on the development of a new alphabet for the Kazakh language, which is currently written using a modified version of Cyrillic. Nazarbayev announced in May that the Russian alphabet would be replaced by a new script based on the Latin alphabet. However, there is a problem with representing some sounds in Kazakh. The President has decided, according to the article, “to ignore the advice of specialists and announce a system that uses apostrophes to designate Kazakh sounds that don’t exist in other languages written in the standard Latin script. The Republic of Kazakhstan, for example, will be written in Kazakh as Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy.” Apparently, linguists had recommended that the new system follow Turkish, which uses umlauts and other phonetic markers, not apostrophes, but the President has insisted on his system. According to the article, this has led to intense debate in the country, with the President’s views being widely mocked:

“Nobody knows where he got this terrible idea from,” said Timur Kocaoglu, a professor of international relations and Turkish studies at Michigan State, who visited Kazakhstan last year. “Kazakh intellectuals are all laughing and asking: How can you read anything written like this?” The proposed script, he said, “makes your eyes hurt.”

Another President, Donald Trump, has made waves with his use of language as well, as in his re-interpretation of “fake news” to mean any reporting critical of him or his actions, his use of vulgar language to describe African countries, or his habit of using insults and abusive language in his tweets. In an interview with the Deutsche Welle recently, well-known linguist, George Lakoff, commented on Trump’s use of language. Lakoff laments how the wide-spread reporting of the President’s tweets tends to cite the texts. According to Lakoff, just having that language repeated – even if within an article attacking what was said in the tweet – tends, through repetition, to plant Trump’s ideas in our heads. He points out that this is the strategy used by Russia propagandists and the Islamic State in their online messaging. The twitter bots used by Russian hackers repeat tweets over and over again, with slightly different texts, but always using hashtags that support divisiveness in the US population and electorate. This was done in the 2016 election, and is continuing, as in the recent bots’ activity in spreading the #releasethememo hashtag, in reference to the controversial classified memo that some Republicans say shows bias in the FBI’s Trump-Russian probe. This is in an effort to discredit both the FBI and the investigation into the Russian electoral interference, in the desire to undermine the US people’s faith in their government, and thus weaken US democracy.

Lakoff’s advice to the media on reporting on Trump tweets:

Don’t retweet him and don’t use the language he uses. Use the language that conveys the truth. Truths are complicated. And seasoned reporters in every news outlet know that truths have the following structure: They have a history, a certain structure and if it is an important truth, there is a moral reason why it is important. And you need to tell what that moral reason is, with all its moral consequences. That is what a truth is.

He’s not advocating stopping news reports on the tweets, but rather to put them into a proper context, and point to factual discrepancies, when they exist – and in the reporting, to forego inadvertently spreading messaging through textual repetitions. The way that politicians use language can make a big difference in how policies and actions are viewed by the public, especially if a term is repeated frequently. We are seeing that currently in the US in relation to immigration. Trump and Republicans use the term “chain migration“, which has negative connotations rather than the term preferred by Democrats, “family reunification”, which makes the process sound much more positive.

Banging pots for independence

Catalan students advocating independence

Catalonia votes today on independence from Spain, that is to say, many Catalans will try to do so, although it appears there will be many roadblocks to voting created by the federal government, which has declared the vote illegal. It’s not clear what the outcome of the vote will be, but it’s likely it will not settle the question of Catalonian independence, just as the vote in Scotland in 2014 has not prevented a movement for a new vote for independence.

A recent story on NPR points to how vital the Catalan language is in the Catalan identity as being distinct from Spanish. Catalan is, in fact, not a dialect of Spanish, but a separate language derived from Vulgar Latin. It was suppressed in Franco’s time, but since then has seen a dramatic resurgence. In the NPR piece, Catalan specialist, Enric Ucelay-Da Cal, describes how Catalan identity differs from that of the Basques, another group which has sought independent status: “Basque nationalism is ethnicity…But this, it’s basically a language movement. We are Catalans because we speak Catalan.”

Young Catalans largely support secession. In fact, at the University of Barcelona students have occupied buildings in support of non-interference from Madrid. One student commented on NPR: “I think in Catalan and I dream in Catalan,” says Marta Rosique, 21. ” I think in Catalan and I dream in Catalan…And then there is a government that tries to do as much as possible so that Catalan doesn’t exist anymore! There is something that tells me to fight for my own identity, for my own language.” For that student, at least, identity and language are interchangeable.

An interesting aspect of the movement has been the non-verbal demonstration of support for independence through the nightly 10 p.m. banging of pots and pans on Barcelonan terraces and balconies. This began last month, after the Spanish government started sending in army troops to prevent the referendum. This is a form of social protest familiar in South America (known as cacerolazocacerolazo, or casserole). The pot banging may be low-tech, but it’s loud and coming at a time when Barcelonans are starting their evening eating and socializing, which gets going later in all of Spain than in other European countries.

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°.