Archive for Language acquisition

Mother Tongue: lost and found

The idea of a "Mother Tongue" has long preoccupied me, and I once wrote a lengthy paper about the relationship between Taiwanese and Mandarin entitled "How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language".

The topic has now come back to me from a different angle, one that I might title "How to Remember your Mother Tongue and (Temporarily) Forget Your Global Language".

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Zuckerberg's Mandarin

The world is abuzz: "Zuckerberg Wows Beijing Audience With Fluent Mandarin", PCMag (10/22/14). Also on Facebook (of course), and many other sites, including this AP article that called Zuckerberg's pronunciation "far from fluent." See and hear for yourself:

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Baby blues

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The future of Chinese language learning is now

When I began learning Mandarin nearly half a century ago, I knew exactly how I wanted to acquire proficiency in the language.  Nobody had to tell me how to do this; I knew it instinctively.  The main features of my desired regimen would be to:

1. pay little or no attention to memorizing characters (I would have been content with actively mastering 25 or so very high frequency characters and passively recognizing at most a hundred or so high frequency characters during the first year)

2. focus on pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, particles, morphology, syntax, idioms, patterns, constructions, sentence structure, rhythm, prosody, and so forth — real language, not the script

3. read massive amounts of texts in Romanization and, if possible later on (after about half a year when I had the basics of the language nailed down), in character texts that would be phonetically annotated

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Never uttered before

Last week a former Royal Marine who is the boyfriend of the model Kelly Brooks crashed into a bus stop while driving a van carrying a load of dead badgers.

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Who's REALLY the coolest?

Dinosaur Comics for 8/26/2013:

Click on the image for a larger version that lacks some mouseover text helpfully glossing what is expressed by “*sigh*”.

Hat tip: Bonnie Krejci

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High school language exams in students' native languages

High school principals in the UK are discovering that immigrants can be a very useful resource for them. Schools are rated according to the number of passes their students obtain in the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). There are 619,000 immigrants from Poland now living in the country, and Polish is available as a GCSE examination subject.

Polish is now the 5th most popular language to take at GCSE level. And 95% of those taking it gain one of the top 3 of the 9 grades (a much higher percentage than for languages like French or Spanish). Moreover, 97% of those who take Polish score worse on the English Language exam. The inference to draw is clear, and very probably true: schools are pushing Polish native speakers to take the exam, because it pushes up the school's GCSE rating.

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Caesar and the power of No

I sometimes make my way to the multiplex to see and report to you on important films that bear on language-related matters. (Sometimes unsuccessfully. You may recall my glowing account of The Oxford Murders back in 2008. I do hope the director hasn't got out of hell yet.) Back in June I tried to report to you on a special advance showing of a documentary about a chimpanzee sign-language training experiment, Project Nim, but couldn't get in. I had forgotten to allow for the fact that it was part of the Edinburgh Film Festival and (typical of the intellectual enthusiasm of this city) the place was thronged. Not a ticket to be had for love or money. (I will try to catch Project Nim soon; it is on wider release in the UK as from today.) But last night I had a significant success in that I managed to actually get in through the doors (vital prerequisite for really informed movie review) for a screening of one of the most important recent films on primatology research.

Yes, I went to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A rare chance to see a depiction of the actual emergence of language in a new primate species in real time. I promise that very little of the plot will be spoiled if you read on.

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The babbling phase: ranting toddler speaks out

When the stresses and strains of university department administration get me down, when I need a break and I really want to giggle till I'm helpless, I simply close my office door, bring a box of Kleenex over to near the computer so I can wipe off the tears running down my cheeks, and watch, once again, the Facebook ranting toddler video. Victor Mair first brought it to our attention here at One Language Log Plaza, and we have been watching it occasionally ever since. The extraordinary intensity of this little girl's concentration on the nonsense she is babbling, together with the strange fantasy of the wandering themes in the subtitles, yields an experience the like of which I have never seen anywhere.

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Irreversibly loved

Yesterday, on our way to school, my four-year-old commented, "When you love somebody, it can't be unloved. That's 'irreversible change'." I'm not sure which I appreciate more, the sweet sentiment (don't we all wish this were 100% true?), the generalization of a concept he learned on Sid the Science Kid, or the example of unloved in this unconventional usage.

Why do I find this so compelling? On reflection, perhaps it's because instead of the adjectival un- prefix (unhappy, unclear), which is about states, what we have here seems from context to be the verbal un-, which is about reversing actions (unlock, untie). Love as an action, something that effects a change of state, not just a state.

Or maybe I'm just in a sappy mood. :-)

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Difficult languages

The December 17th Economist contains an article entitled "In Search of the World's Hardest Language". Such things usually make me groan, but this one is actually pretty good. At the level of detail one can reasonably expect in such a context, the facts seem to be correct, the range of languages considered is broader than usual, and it recognizes that there are multiple factors involved. There are, however, a few points worth making about this article, as well as inferior examples of the genre.

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He possessed names for all of them in his head

You have to see this cute article by Giles Turnbull. It's about the deep-seatedness of children's need to have names for all the things they deal with — and the lack of any necessity for there to be pre-existing names in the language they happen to have learned.

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