Archive for Language teaching and learning

McWhorter on the global linguascape of 2115

John McWhorter has an ambitious article in the Wall Street Journal for 1/2/15: "What the World Will Speak in 2115:  A century from now, expect fewer but simpler languages on every continent." The article covers a lot of ground and includes much daring prognostication along the way.  I won't attempt to summarize everything in this rich essay, but — so far as Mandarin goes and so far as one is willing to make predictions about the future based on current circumstances, trends, and available data — I think that McWhorter is right on the mark.

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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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"Spelling" English in Cantonese

As a follow-up to my Language Log post on Li Yang's fēngkuáng liánxiǎng 疯狂联想 ("crazy association"), Chris Fraser sent me three images of an old Cantonese book that purports to teach English by means of what it calls "Táng zì zhù yīn" 唐字註音 ("phonetic annotation with Tang [i.e., Chinese] characters").

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At Cologne

"Welcome at Cologne Airport," said the co-pilot of my flight as we taxied in to the gate and my current visit to Germany began. And of course what he said is ungrammatical.

"Arrived safely at Cologne Airport," said my email to my partner a few minutes later; and of course what I wrote is grammatical.

Aren't languages unfair?

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Providence talks

Emily Badger, "Providence Wins Mayors Challenge Prize for Early Childhood Project", The Atlantic Cities, 3/13/2013:

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg likes to say that cities are the new laboratories of democracy in the United States (sorry states!), particularly in an era of political paralysis in Washington. This was the premise behind the $9 million Mayor's Challenge launched last summer by Bloomberg Philanthropies, inviting any city with a population larger than 30,000 to submit a groundbreaking idea for funding. This morning, Bloomberg announced the five winners – including a $5 million grand prize to Providence, Rhode Island – for potentially replicable innovations "bubbling up" from cities in early childhood education, recycling, data analytics, civic entrepreneurship and resident wellbeing. […]

Grand Prize ($5 million): Providence, Rhode Island: Research suggests that in just the first few years of life, low-income children hear millions fewer words than their middle- and upper-income counterparts, impacting the development of their vocabularies and setting back their long-term prospects for academic and career success. This program aims to close that "word gap."

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Let it Schnee??

With no comment from me, I'll let Peter Lewis on "Our Mechanical Brain" tell you about how Rosetta Stone tried to create a festive advertisement for their language-learning software and managed to get a three-word sentence wrong in each of three different languages, and two out of the three wrong even on the second try. Read Peter's account here. And remember, when it's language, people never check. They never call a linguist. They just make stuff up.

Update: Rosetta Stone got in touch with Language Log and asked for space to respond. We're happy to provide that, of course. Here is what they said:

In a word, we’re ashamed. We tried to capture the spirit and meter of a popular Christmas tune and, regrettably, our enthusiasm for spreading marketing cheer outpaced our respect for linguistic accuracy. We green-lighted an ad before its time. The fact is, we have a stringent pedagogical approval process at Rosetta Stone, and we missed an important check-point here. There’s no excuse. The ads have been recalled. We assure you that from here on out, no one at Rosetta Stone–including marketing–will be taking shortcuts. We’re sure that this post will invite more thoughtful (even heated) criticism, and we hope you’ll understand if we don’t engage further in the dialogue for the moment—we have important work to do on the home-front. Thank you for keeping us in check and have a great holiday. (Hey, maybe we’ll try ‘Silent nuit, holy Nacht’….)

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Words in Mandarin: twin kle twin kle lit tle star

Randy Alexander sent me the following photograph and asked how long it would take for me to identify the text in the background:

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Invest wisely, beat the grammar snobs

As I read the Daily Mail article referred to in my previous post, my eye drifted down into the comments, and I saw that a commenter in London signing himself as JustSomeBloke had said this:

Time and time again, it has been shown that the school's league tables are routinely fiddled in order to benefit this or that school. At the same time, our so-called education system — ruined by lefty, progressive teaching methods — can barely teach our children to write English properly. If your a younger reader, you probably didn't even notice the two deliberate mistakes in this comment.

Well, I am not a younger reader; I have 40 years of involvement in academic work on the English language. But I have to confess to you that it took a couple of readings before I spotted both errors. The second was immediately noticeable, but I had to go back and look again to identify the first, which I had casually read past.

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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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Sedaris endorses compositionality

Thanks to Graeme Forbes for alerting me to this! He has given me permission to post his note to his pro-compositionality friends. [For readers for whom compositionality is a new concept: it's a central tenet of formal semantics, usually credited to Gottlob Frege (but not without some controversy): The meaning of the whole is a function of the meaning of the parts and of the way they are syntactically combined. See, for instance: this introductory handout or the entry on Compositionality in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.]

From Graeme Forbes:

You may have already seen this, but in case not, here's an excerpt from an article in the current New Yorker, "Easy, Tiger", by David Sedaris (July 11/18 2011, p.40). It's an entertaining piece about how he "mastered" Mandarin, Japanese and German with the aid of tourist-courses on his iPod, including one from a company called Pimsleur. The "Easy, Tiger" alludes to a phrase in the section on romance in the Mandarin course. Or was it the German course? Surely not!

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IELTS: The test that sets the standard?

Here's a case that  I'm hoping will turn out to be an epic example of journalistic misunderstanding.  Because the alternative is that the International English Language Testing System is a really, really bad way to measure English language proficiency.  And that would be a shame, because IELTS, a product of University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations and the British Council, is pretty much the standard English proficiency test outside the U.S.

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Language tests for immigrants in Canada

According to Nicholas Keung, "All immigrants face mandatory language test", The Star, 7/20/2010:

Born and raised in New York, Dodi Robbins graduated from Harvard University and has been practising law for 13 years.

Her first language is English. Yet like all other skilled immigrants applying to settle in Canada, the American corporate lawyer must now take a language test to prove her English is good enough to settle here.

“I was outraged, insulted and floored,” said Robbins, who obtained her law degree at Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School in New York. A mother of two, she has been working in Toronto on a work permit for four years as compliance and regulations counsel for an international financial services company.

“I almost fell off the chair. I’ve been practising law here for years and I have to prove my proficiency in English?”

Last month Ottawa made its language proficiency test mandatory for all skilled immigrant applicants, including native English and French speakers. The so-called “ministerial instructions” stipulate officials are not to process applications without language test results, starting June 26.

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Removing teachers with "accented" speech?

It's been widely reported that the Arizona Department of Education has begun working to remove teachers whose English-language skills are viewed as inadequate. According to press reports, the evaluators aim (among other things) to remove teachers with "accents", which probably means Spanish accents in most cases. Casey Stegall, "Arizona Seeks to Reassign Heavily Accented Teachers", Fox News 5/22/2010, wrote:

After passing the nation's toughest state immigration enforcement law, Arizona's school officials are now cracking down on teachers with heavy accents.

The Arizona Department of Education is sending evaluators to audit teachers and their English speaking skills to make sure districts are complying with state and federal laws.

Teachers who are not fluent in English, who make grammatical errors while speaking or who have heavy accents will be temporarily reassigned.

"As you expect science teachers to know science, math teachers to know math, you expect a teacher who is teaching the kids English to know English," said Tom Home, state superintendent of public instruction.

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