Archive for Language acquisition

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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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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