Archive for Language acquisition

"…her eyes began to swell in tears when she was asked to take out the Mandarin work sheets…"

The following post is from an old, now defunct, blog, but the description of little Eunice learning three languages at once (none of which was her natal tongue spoken at home) and other discussions of Chinese are unusual in their detail and sensitivity, so worthy of sharing with Language Log readers:

"Primary learning in a multilingual society ", Grammar Gang (5/24/14)

The author of the post is Jyh Wee Sew (Centre for Language Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, National University of Singapore).  I will simply quote a few passages of the post and make a few concluding remarks, but warmly recommend that anyone who is interested in second (and third) language pedagogy / acquisition read the whole post.

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Native fluency

The hundred or so scholars at the conference on narrative factuality I'm attending here in Freiburg, Germany come from all over Europe and North America, plus a few other countries.  All proceedings are in English, and every single person here, both young and old, speaks English like a native (except for one person who came to Europe from China as an adult, another individual who has lived in Israel her whole life, and a professor from Francophone Switzerland — the latter three all in their sixties and seventies, and all three speaking English quite well, though not like a native).  No matter what types of literature or philosophy we're discussing, it's all done in English, except for names, titles, and technical terms.

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How swift we misoverestimate

How swift we forget echoes in my head as a familiar cliché, a precomposed adaptable drop-in phrase rather like a snowclone but without customizable parts. I thought it might even be a quotation from some famous source. When I happened to Google-search it today, I was expecting to see millions of hits. Instead there was exactly one, in an utterly obscure short comment on the HeroClix discussion forum. This astonished me. I figured all the millions of others must correct swift to its adverb form swiftly. So I repeated the search on How swiftly we forget. And I was astonished again. Just 26 hits, with some repetitions and duplicates so similar that Google didn't want to show them. Only 70 hits even if you force the display of the duplicates. Given the size of the web today, that should be regarded as approximately zero.

I mention this only because it reminds me that while we all have vague impressions of how often we hear or read something, vast numbers of those impressions are probably wrong (especially when we imagine we have been hearing something more often recently). And it seems to me that this must have some sort of relevance for the cognitive scientists who believe language learning is based on subliminal perceptions of the frequency of encountered word sequences. Though my feeling that it must have some sort of relevance is probably wrong too. It is a mysterious business, language. (Just ignore me. I'm merely ruminating in public. I shouldn't. I'm just wasting your time. Please go on with whatever you were doing.)

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Difficult languages and easy languages

People often ask me questions like these:

What's the easiest / hardest language you ever learned?

Isn't Chinese really difficult?

Which is harder, Chinese or Japanese?  Sanskrit or German?

Without a moment's hesitation, I always reply that Mandarin is the easiest spoken language I have learned and that Chinese is the most difficult written language I have learned.  I learned to speak Mandarin fluently within about a year, but I've been studying written Chinese for half a century and it's still an enormous challenge.  I'm sure that I'll never master it even if I live to be as old as Zhou Youguang.

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Abandoning one's mother tongue

It's one thing to lose your first language when you move as a child to another country where a second language is spoken, but it's quite a different matter when you go to another country as an adult and make a conscious choice to give up your native tongue and adopt the language of the place you have chosen to live.

Yiyun Li (b. 1972), the Chinese American author, is such a person.  In some respects, her story of conversion to English reminds me of Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), who wrote in English as the natural outgrowth of his cosmopolitan multilingualism, and Ha Jin (b. 1956), who chose English "to preserve the integrity of his work".

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Trump's granddaughter recites Tang poems

Donald Trump's granddaughter (Ivanka Trump's daughter), Arabella Rose Kushner, does a remarkably good job at reciting two Tang poems.

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Learn Nepali

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Tom Wolfe takes on linguistics

Or maybe I should say, Tom Wolfe's take on linguistics.

I've been an avid reader of Tom Wolfe's works since the 60s:  The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Right Stuff, The Painted Word, Bonfire of the Vanities).  What I like most about his non-fiction is that, as a leader and exponent of the New Journalism, he writes with a flair that captures the reader's attention without sacrificing accuracy and objectivity.  What attracts me to his novels is that they convey the impression of having been based on a huge amount of research, without in the least being turgid or dull.

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Learning to read and write Chinese

Responding to "How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08), Alex Wang writes:

Thanks for the great blog.  I have also enjoyed the articles of David Moser.  My path toward your blog started when I decided to teach my younger son, 4, to start to read Chinese and English.  It also was heavily influenced by watching my elder son, 7, struggle with learning how to write characters.  He is attending public school here in Shenzhen.  Both were born in HK and raised in Shenzhen.  Moreover, my wife's side is from the mainland.  After analysing the issue at length I have come to many of the same conclusions as your colleagues and you have.

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Autonomous learning

I had never heard of this concept before, but apparently it is a hot topic, especially among government circles.

On Wednesday, I spoke at this workshop:

Application of the Autonomous Learning Environment in Foreign Language Education LEARN Workshop

Date: Tuesday, July 28th and Wednesday, July 29th
Loyola Columbia Graduate Center
Columbia, MD

The workshop was sponsored by the Federal Business Council in collaboration with several offices of the federal government that are involved with foreign language study and application.

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OMG! American English

The star of this popular Voice of America program is Jessica Beinecke (Bái Jié 白洁).  Her Mandarin is quite amazing; indeed, I would say that it is nothing short of phenomenal. Here's a sample:

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I've forgotten more Czech than Barbara Partee has learned

One of the most memorable trips of my life took place in 1994 and involved traveling as a graduate student to Prague in the company of some of the most formidable linguists of North America and Europe. It was my first return to the country of my birth since I’d left Czechoslovakia as a small child in 1969—given that my family had emigrated illegally, virtually Sound of Music style, a visit back wasn’t possible until after the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Barbara Partee, who had spent a good deal of time in Prague, served as our tour guide. I was impressed with her fluency in Czech and charmed by her accent. I’d never heard Czech spoken with an American accent before, but it sounded exactly as I would have imagined it. My own Czech was in ruins. Like many immigrants, I’d learned my heritage language as a child within rather constrained domestic spheres and had never used it to negotiate cab fare or discuss existential concerns, let alone describe my professional activities. But the first time I shyly dusted it off and uttered a few sentences, protesting that I had forgotten the entire language, Barbara turned to me with perhaps a tinge of envy and exclaimed, “You’ve probably forgotten more Czech than I’ve spent years learning! And, there’s still a lot left.”

As it turns out, a language is rarely truly forgotten, merely submerged.

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Paperless reading

Just a little over a year ago, I made the following post:

"The future of Chinese language learning is now"  (4/5/14)

The second half of that post consisted of an account of a lecture that David Moser (of Beijing Capital Normal University and Academic Director of Chinese Studies at CET Beijing) had delivered a few days earlier (on 4/1/14) at Penn:  "Is Character Writing Still a Basic Skill?  The New Digital Chinese Tools and their Implications for Chinese Learning".

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