Archive for Pedagogy

African (il)literacy

The following article is so revelatory, at least for me, that I wish I could copy it entirely.  Since that's not what we do at Language Log, I will just quote the opening portion (probably less than a quarter of the total essay), while pointing to a few additional highlights, and encourage others who are interested to read the whole piece (4,700 words):

"Africa writes back:  European ideas of African illiteracy are persistent, prejudiced and, as the story of Libyc script shows, entirely wrong", Aeon (6/17/21), by D. Vance Smith, edited by Sam Dresser

Four different writing systems have been used in Algeria. Three are well known – Phoenician, Latin and Arabic – while one is both indigenous to Africa and survives only as a writing system. The language it represents is called Old Libyan or Numidian, simply because it was spoken in Numidia and Libya. Since it’s possible that it’s an ancestor of modern Berber languages – although even that’s not clear – the script is usually called Libyco-Berber. Found throughout North Africa, and as far west as the Canary Islands, the script might have been used for at least as long as 1,000 years. Yet only short passages of it survive, all of them painted or engraved on rock. Everything else written in Libyco-Berber has disappeared.

Libyco-Berber has been recognised as an African script since the 17th century. But even after 400 years, it hasn’t been fully deciphered. There are no long texts surviving that would help, and the legacy of the written language has been one of acts of destruction, both massive and petty. That fate, of course, is not unique. It’s something that’s characteristic of modern European civilisation: it both destroys and treasures what it encounters in the rest of the world. Like Scipio Africanus weeping while he gazed at the Carthage he’d just obliterated, the destruction of the other is turned into life lessons for the destroyer, or artefacts in colonial cabinets of curiosities. The most important piece of Libyco-Berber writing was pillaged and sold to the British Museum for five pounds. It’s not currently on display.

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Bringing back the Cultural Revolution — in English

As part of the run-up to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that will take place in July, scenes like this are increasingly common on the streets of the PRC:

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A revolution in Sinitic language conceptualization and learning

[The following is a guest post by Georgi Mladenov]

I am another student who seems to have hit a brick wall in learning Mandarin, and I would like to ask you for advice. I have thoroughly read most of your forum posts and I totally share your opinions on language learning, especially as expressed in this post.

Your post captures my situation in its entirety. "The first year of learning Mandarin was pure torture in the classroom" – it feels as if I had written that! In short, I have been studying Chinese in Taiwan for more than a year. I am fluent in English, German, Russian and Bulgarian, I have a B2 level in Polish, Spanish and Serbian, my French is quite good, my Latin is quite decent, and I also know some Hungarian.

However, my disappointment with Chinese teaching methods has been growing daily. No matter what language I learned, the main focus of any beginner's course has always been on pronunciation and mastering any peculiar "tricky" sounds. Not here, though. I personally know quite a few people who have passed TOCFL Level 3 and 4 (reading and listening) and still have no tones! Or students who still say "zh" instead of "z", or "s" instead of "sh", not to mention that many students do not differentiate between "zh" and "j", "sh" and "x", "ch" and "q". And most teachers still try to persuade us how bad Pinyin is.

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Sanskrit and comprehensible input

[The following is a guest post by Amara Hasa]

We are longtime fans of Language Log and wanted to share a project we've been working on that we believe might be right up your alley. We believe as much because it combines two subjects you've written about in the past: teaching languages through comprehensible input and compelling stories ("How to learn Mandarin"), and spoken and communicative Sanskrit ("Spoken Sanskrit").

Our project is a free online library of Sanskrit stories for learners. What makes these stories special is that they follow the current best practices from second language acquisition research.

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A Sino-Mongolian tale in three languages and five scripts

"Silk Road Tales: A Look at a Mongolian-Chinese Storybook"

By Bruce Humes, published

This post features the tale of Zhang Qian, diplomat and explorer of the “Western Realm” during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (141-87 BCE). The book is in Chinese and Mongolian (traditional script) and forms part of a "Socialist Core Value" (社会主义核心价值观幼儿绘本) picture-book series for children aged 5-6.

To facilitate comparison, the blogger has provided the text in three languages, five scripts: the original Chinese and Inner Mongolian script (vertical); Hanyu Pinyin; Cyrillic Mongolian (used in Mongolia); and a translation of the text into English.

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How to teach Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese

The first thing we have to take into consideration is that Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (LS/CC) is a dead language, i.e., a book / written language (shūmiànyǔ 書面語).  Nobody has spoken it for the purpose of spontaneous, unrehearsed conversation for thousands of years.  So we cannot and should not use pedagogical methods designed for living languages to teach LS/CC.

The next question is whether we should require a Mandarin prerequisite to take LS/CC.  I am strongly opposed to requiring Mandarin as a precondition for the study of LS/CC.  I know of many schools that require two, three, or even four years of Mandarin for students who wish to enroll in an introductory LS/CC course.  I think that is absolutely ridiculous.  I don't even think that we should require one year of Mandarin for students to take LS/CC.  I may be the only professor in the USA, perhaps in the whole world, with this outlook.  If there are others, they would only amount to a tiny handful of iconoclastic rebels.  I often have engaged in strenuous argle-bargle with colleagues who demand years of Mandarin before allowing students into their LS/CC courses.

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Duolingo Mandarin: a critique

A friend sent this lifehacker article to me:

"Mandarin Chinese Is Now Available on the Language Learning App Duolingo", by Patrick Allan (11/16/17)

Duolingo claims that it "is the world's most popular way to learn a language. It's 100% free, fun and science-based. Practice online on duolingo.com or on the apps!"

After reading Allan's article, I sent the following note to my students and colleagues:

Judging from the description in this article, I'm dubious about the efficacy of their method.  Never mind about misleading statements emanating from the author of the article (e.g., there are 1.2 billion native speakers of "Chinese"), they seem to overemphasize individual characters, downplay words, don't talk about sentence structure, grammar, and syntax, and don't give any indication of how or whether pinyin is used.

Has anyone checked this app out?

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Arabella Kushner, young ambassador of good will

New China TV, published on Nov 8, 2017:

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"…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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Learning languages is so much easier now

If you use the right tools, that is, as explained in this Twitter thread from Taylor ("Language") Jones.

Rule number 1:  Use all the electronic tools at your disposal.

Rule number 2:  Do not use paper dictionaries.

Jones' Tweetstorm started when he was trying to figure out the meaning of shāngchǎng 商场 in Chinese.  He remembered from his early learning that it was something like "mall; store; market; bazaar".  That led him to gòuwù zhòngxīn 购物中心 ("shopping center").  With his electronic resources, he could hear these terms pronounced, could find them used in example sentences, and could locate actual places on the map designated with these terms.

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Cantonese teachers influenced by Mandarin

[This is a guest post by Silas S. Brown]

It seems a few native Cantonese speakers employed in the production of Cantonese language courses are quite happy to read out Mandarin vocabulary with Cantonese pronunciation, rather than the actual native Cantonese versions of the words, and I can't help wondering why.

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Learn Nepali

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"Facial expressions" in text-dominant online conversation

Christina Xu has written "A Field Guide to China's Most Indispensible Meme" (Motherboard, 8/1/16).  Her essay includes more than a dozen illustrations, the first of which is this one:

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