Archive for Language and education

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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Translating Chinese poetry is hard

Wei Shao sent me this photograph of the English translation of a famous Chinese poem:


(Click to embiggen.)

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Chineasy? Not

Last Friday, the following article appeared in The Wall Street Journal:

"A New Way to Learn Chinese:  Entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh aims to bridge the gap between East and West by teaching Westerners how to read Chinese".

The article is preceded by a video that begins with this note:

Entrepreneur and author ShaoLan Hsueh has devised a simplistic method for teaching English speakers to learn to read Chinese.

It is true that her system is "simplistic", but it is not true that people who use it "learn to read Chinese", despite her repeated claim that "it works."

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Phrase-hoarding

What do the following phrases or sayings have in common?

  • first-year experience
  • fast-track MBA
  • be the difference
  • cure violence
  • student life
  • students with diabetes
  • one course at a time
  • touched by a nurse
  • we're conquering cancer
  • working toward a world without cancer
  • imagination beyond measure
  • tomorrow starts here

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How to learn Chinese and Japanese

Some years ago (in 2008, as a matter of fact), I wrote a post entitled "How to learn to read Chinese".  The current post is intended as a followup and supplement to that post.

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Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?

Whether Cantonese is a language or a dialect is a subject that we have touched upon many times on Language Log, e.g., "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (see especially the remarks in the second half of the original post) and "English is a Dialect of Germanic; or, The Traitors to Our Common Heritage ."

But now it has become a hot-button issue in China, especially in Hong Kong, where the government's Education Bureau recently made a monumental gaffe by declaring that Cantonese was not an official language of the Special Administrative Region:  "Education Bureau rapped over Cantonese 'not an official language' gaffe:  Claim Cantonese 'not an official language' leaves public lost for words."

Here's an article in Chinese on the uproar that followed the announcement of the Education Bureau that Cantonese is not an official language of Hong Kong.

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Three cheers for Michael Gove

This is a guest post by Richard Hudson, who proposed the title "The death and re-birth of grammatical analysis in UK schools". Americans who don't know who Michael Gove is may want to skim his Wikipedia page in order to appreciate what it means that Dick ends his post

So three cheers for Michael Gove! I never thought I'd live to read those words, let alone write them myself.


A few weeks ago, Mark Liberman kindly accepted a guest posting from me about sentence diagramming. In his introduction he said "This is a guest post by Dick Hudson, who has promised a later submission about his experience helping to organize the re-introduction of grammatical analysis in the British school curriculum." So here I am again, to try to explain a rather complicated bit of recent history in UK education.

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Putting grammar back in grammar schools: A modest proposal

A few days ago, out of the 21,595 visitors to LLOG that Google Analytics counted, 88 arrived after asking what part of speech is the, and thereby landing on Arnold Zwicky's post "What part of speech is 'the'?", 3/30/2006. Unfortunately, if they were looking for how to fill-in-the-blank on a homework assignment, they probably went away unsatisfied, because Arnold's excellent post starts by complaining, cogently and at length, that "the school tradition about parts of speech is so desperately impoverished", and closes by noting that

[A] linguist who proposes to introduce, say, the technical term determiner for a class of pre-adjectival modifiers in English that includes the articles, demonstratives, quantifiers, possessives, and more is likely to be seen as UNDERMINING tradition, casting off the sureties of the past in favor of fashionable jargon.

All true — but hard for a student to boil down to a single label. And just as hard for a teacher to use as the foundation for an assignment. This confusion and controversy about what standard grammatical terminology (and methodology) ought to be is one of several reasons that grammatical analysis has all but vanished from the curriculum of American schools.

I feel that it's past time to do something about this. So, as a Christmas present to the English-speaking world, let me propose a simple and practical way to cut through the tangled undergrowth of grammatical tradition and the dense thickets of recent grammatical argumentation. The goal: a standard, canonical grammatical description for English. Yes, really. It's already Out There — all we need to do is to recognize it for what it is.

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Ingilizce, a Chinese novel about English in Turkish translation

I'm surprised that, until today, I had never heard of the novel entitled Yīnggélìshì 英格力士 (English) by Wáng Gāng 王刚, which was published in 2004.  Now, thanks to Bruce Humes's article, "The 2013 Istanbul Book Fair, Xinjiang Connections and 'English'", posted November 3 on his blog called "Altaic Storytelling:  Tales from Istanbul to Heilongjiang", I'm delighted to learn about this fascinating book.

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English tips from Li Yang, noted wife-beater and pedagogue

Crazy English: crazier than you imagined!

An anonymous tipster sent me this photograph taken in a washroom at the Kunming Airport:

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Uyghur as a "dialect" — NOT

The latest issue of The Atlantic has an article entitled "The Uighurs, China's Embattled Muslim Minority, Are Still Seeking an Identity".

The comments on language usage and policy in Xinjiang will be of particular interest to many Language Log readers, since they reverberate with a number of recent discussions that we've been engaged in.

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Character amnesia and the emergence of digraphia

David Moser saw this photograph of a child's essay via Twitter:

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Hopefully no need to comment

A number of people have written to ask me why I have made no public comment on the preposterous old fraud Nevile Gwynne and his highly publicized recent book Gwynne's Grammar.

Well, one reason is that a certain amount of collapse in the will to live had come over me when contemplating the sheer dopiness of Mr Gwynne's pontifications about grammar and his lack of any grasp of the subject (declaring that too much too young is incomprehensible does not make a retired accountant into a grammar expert). Another is that Mark Liberman covered the topic very nicely, with an unerring eye for syntactic reasoning, in a comment on the first Bad Grammar Award, ostentatiously given to the authors of a short letter criticizing the UK education minister, which was really just a strategy for getting the press to show some interest in Gwynne's Grammar. (The citations and evidence relating to the Bad Grammar Award have apparently never been published on the web; I have been unable to find even the original press release, let alone anything more detailed.) But I now have discovered a third reason for not offering detailed comments: there are at least two beautifully aimed non-credulous posts about Gwynne already available in the blogosphere (and the superior quality of the blogs over the newspapers here is really striking).

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Donald Kagan's farewell

Matthew Kaminski, "Democracy may have had its day", WSJ 4/26/2013:

Donald Kagan is engaging in one last argument. For his "farewell lecture" here at Yale on Thursday afternoon, the 80-year-old scholar of ancient Greece—whose four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War inspired comparisons to Edward Gibbon's Roman history—uncorked a biting critique of American higher education.

Universities, he proposed, are failing students and hurting American democracy. Curricula are "individualized, unfocused and scattered." On campus, he said, "I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness." Rare are "faculty with atypical views," he charged. "Still rarer is an informed understanding of the traditions and institutions of our Western civilization and of our country and an appreciation of their special qualities and values." He counseled schools to adopt "a common core of studies" in the history, literature and philosophy "of our culture." By "our" he means Western.

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Coming up: lecture in Seattle

One week from tomorrow (Tuesday) night I give my Jesse and John Danz Lecture at the University of Washington in Seattle. And although the summary published on the registration page is entirely accurate, I would still conjecture that as many as half the people planning to attend will think that the scandal is people who write bad. They will assume that I will be dinging ordinary folks for writing (and speaking) ungrammatically. Little will they know what lies in store: that my target is the grammarians. It is the rule-givers and knuckle-rappers and nitpickers that I will be castigating for their ignorance of the content of the principles of English syntax.

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