Archive for Language teaching and learning

Saving a critically endangered language one child at a time

A recent blog on Miao/Hmong posted on Language Log reminded Chau Wu of an earlier news report from Taiwan about a 5th grade girl from Hla'alua (Lā'ālǔwa zú 拉阿魯哇族) who won a speech competition using her native language (article in Chinese).

"With fewer than 10 native speakers and an ethnic population of 400 people, Saaroa (= Hla'alua) is considered critically endangered," according to the article on Saaroa language in Wikipedia.

Here is a 4min-33sec YouTube video as a brief refresher on the small Austronesian tribe.

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Circumspection, circumlocution, irresolution, and indecisiveness in Japanese

I don't recall how I learned first-year Japanese half a century ago (perhaps through self-study), but I remember very clearly my ascension to second-year during 1972-73 at Harvard University.  My teacher was young Jay Rubin, and our textbook was the famous Hibbett and Itasaka*.  It was a veritable baptism by fire.

[*Howard Hibbett and Gen Itasaka, ed., Modern Japanese: A Basic Reader, 2 volumes (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press, 1965).]

This was real Japanese, no more made-for-gaijin pablum.  It was a big book with a wide variety of humanities and social science genres, and no punches pulled.  All of the texts seemed very difficult, and I will explain the main reason why below.  One of the essays haunted me for years, and still sometimes it comes back to fill my mind with melancholy and morbid thoughts.  It consisted of the reflections of an author on the best way to commit suicide.  He dwelt on all aspects of the act of suicide.  Surprisingly, the emphasis was not on which method was least painful or most effective, but rather — at least as I recollected his thought process — more on which act was most elegant or least repulsive.  Reading that essay was so wrenching that I was almost afraid to decipher the next sentence after having figured out one with great effort.

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Support for non-Mandarin languages and topolects in Taiwan

Judging from this article and other news I've been receiving on this subject in recent days, this is one more piece of evidence that Taiwan is serious about supporting languages and topolects other than MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin):

Taiwan university offers raises to encourage faculty to teach in native tongues

Instructors eligible for 50% hourly wage hike for conducting classes in Indigenous languages, Taiwanese, Hakka, Taiwan Sign Language, or Matsu dialect

By George Liao, Taiwan News (1/3/22)

The article is short but sweet:

National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) recently passed a national language development measure that encourages full-time faculty to teach courses in the country's native languages by raising their pay.

These languages include Taiwanese, Hakka, Indigenous tongues, the Matsu dialect, and Taiwan Sign Language, CNA reported.

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Taiwanese resurgence

We have often experienced vexation and consternation over the future of Taiwanese / Hoklo, especially in light of what's happening to Cantonese in the PRC.  Now comes some welcome news from Ilha Formosa.  A renewal of Taiwanese has recently been spurred by a least expected source, China.

Chinese Pressure Fuels an Unlikely Language Revival in Taiwan:

Local tongues gain popularity as more people on the self-ruled island, where Mandarin predominates, disavow their connection with China

By Joyu Wang, WSJ (12/22/21)

Pranav Mulgund remarks:

A recent aversion to the CCP has pushed people in Taiwan to stop speaking Mandarin. For instance, “One enthusiastic participant is Lala Sin, a 35-year-old mother of three, who has largely avoided speaking Mandarin Chinese, the most used language in both Taiwan and China, since last winter, instead talking with her children exclusively in Taiwanese Hokkien, or Taigi (pronounced 'dye-ghee')”. Teachers of the language have experienced a tripling in enrollment from 2012 to 2020. I think it’s quite an interesting idea to revolt through language. It’s obviously not an unprecedented idea, but quite fascinating to happen in modern times.

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Japanese and Korean on a roll

There are reasons why this is so:

"Can you say Squid Game in Korean? TV show fuels demand for east Asian language learning:

Japanese and Korean are in top five choices in UK this year at online platform Duolingo"

James Tapper, The Observor (12/24/21)

The surging growth of Japanese and Korean language learning is a veritable phenomenon:

Whether it’s down to Squid Game or kawaii culture, fascination with Korea and Japan is fuelling a boom in learning east Asian languages. Japanese is the fastest growing language to be learned in the UK this year on the online platform Duolingo, and Korean is the fourth fastest.

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Should non-native students of Japanese pay close attention to pitch accent?

From a long-time learner of Japanese language:

I must say that the Japanese instructors at the Foreign Service Institute were NOT inclined to teach — or even acknowledge — pitch … and, for that matter, in all but rare cases, "bother" to correct students save on the most egregious botching of vocabulary or grammar.

Their core view, perhaps not atypical for the era, or, who knows, even for today, was "No foreigner is EVER going to learn to speak Japanese, so it is senseless to devote effort to minor things."

All that was part and parcel of the famous (=infamous) "study" by the Japanese who devised a means of determining WHY foreigners could never speak Japanese properly, and why Japanese could never speak foreign languages properly.  After wiring up his brain to gerry-rigged electrodes and electrical impulse measuring devices, he concluded (he was a dentist, I believe, and not a scientist let alone a linguist) that Japanese is a vowel-rich language, foreign tongues are consonant-rich, vowels and consonants are processed on opposite cerebral hemispheres, so "of course" it would be "impossible" for Japanese to speak foreign languages (he excluded vowel-rich Polynesian languages as inferior and unworthy of serious attention) and vice versa.  When asked how it could be, then, that Japanese diplomats so often spoke foreign languages fluently, without accents, he replied "Because they are no longer TRUE JAPANESE.  Their brains have altered."

A gentler version of that is found in this posting to a language forum, with extensive comments providing a variety of viewpoints on the subject:

"Pitch Accent? Should Learners of Japanese master it?", Ling!Q (April 2011)

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Dramatically declining enrollments in Chinese studies

The number of students enrolled in a given foreign language is a good index of public perceptions of the importance of that language for global politics, economics, and cultural influence.  When I came to Penn in 1979, interest in all things Russian was soaring.  The Slavicists occupied quite a bit of real estate in Williams Hall, which houses language studies at Penn.  They had a number of institutes, research centers, libraries, and so forth, and they were extremely well funded.  A decade later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian juggernaut at Penn began to fall apart, to the extent that it lost nearly all of its space and researchers, and they were tossing whole libraries into dumpsters.  As an ardent bibliophile, it pained me greatly to see precious books being thrown into the trash.  I rescued as many of them as I could stuff into my Volkswagen Beetle and cart away, including an enormous, old, and undoubtedly historically important encyclopedia that still sits in the enclosed porch of my home.

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"They're not learning how to write characters!"

So exclaimed a graduate student from the PRC.  She was decrying the new teaching methods for Mandarin courses in the West that do not emphasize copying characters countless times by hand and taking dictation (tīngxiě 聽寫 / 听写) tests, but rather relying on Pinyin (alphabetical) inputting to write the characters via computers.

These are topics we have discussed numerous times on Language Log (see "Selected readings" below for a sample of some of the posts that touch on this subject.  I told the student that this is indeed a fact of life, and that current teaching methods for Mandarin emphasize pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, etc., and that handwriting the characters is no longer a priority.  Whereas in the past handwriting of the characters used to take up over half of a student's learning time, now copying characters is reduced to only a small fraction of that.

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Difficult languages and easy languages, part 3

There may well be a dogma out there stating that all languages are equally complex, but I don't believe it, especially not if it has to be "drummed" into our minds.  I have learned many languages.  Some of them are exceedingly hard (because of their complexity) and some of them are relatively easy (because they are comparatively simple).  I have often said that Mandarin is the easiest language I ever learned to speak, but the hardest to read and write in characters (though very easy in Romanization).  And remember these posts:

"Difficult languages and easy languages" (3/4/17)

"Difficult languages and easy languages, part 2" (5/28/19)

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Hong Kong Cantonese in jeopardy

From a fluent speaker of Mandarin:

This past weekend, I watched the latest film from Marvel Studios: "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" (an Asian superhero movie). I was rather surprised to hear about 30% of all lines spoken in Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 (Mandarin), especially when given that some scenes were set in Macau and characters from ancient Chinese villages. Although I could not find an article or commentary on this specific topic I was interested in, I did find this Reddit post—the author discusses how strange and peculiar the creators' decision to use Mandarin in particular is in the context of the movie. 

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Gender fluidity in the classroom

Recent article on gender and language teaching:

How Language Classes Are Moving Past the Gender Binary

Languages that contain only “he” and “she” pronouns pose problems for communicating about gender identity. Here’s how some language teachers are helping.

By Molly Lipson, NYT     Sept. 1, 2021

Selections from the article:

Tal Janner-Klausner teaches Hebrew. There is nothing unusual about that, but the language presents a frustration that Mx. Janner-Klausner, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns in English, feels compelled to discuss with their students.

Hebrew, as well as French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and other languages, uses binary pronouns, which means that gender identities outside of he/she and male/female don’t exist in any formal capacity.

In Hebrew, even the word “they” is gendered. In French, “ils” refers to a group of men or a mixed-gender group, and “elles” refers to a group of all females. All nouns in gendered languages — including people — are categorized as either masculine or feminine, and any adjectives associated with these words must reflect that gender.

That presents a problem for students who are gender-nonconforming, and, of course, for the speakers of the language in general. Is it possible for learners of a gendered language to refer to themselves and others when their identities are not represented?

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China jettisons English

So they say, but I wouldn't count on it.  We've heard this patriotic, isolationist tune sung countless times during the last thirty years or so (in fact, it happens every time preceding a national political meeting, but nothing ever comes of it).  The wealthy, privileged, elite, right up to and including Chairman Xi, keep spending a fortune to send their children to the comfort, safety, and English environment of the USA.  I know, because I've taught hundreds of them during the last twenty years and more.

"‘Reversing Gears’: China Increasingly Rejects English, and the World:

A movement against Western influence threatens to close off a nation that succeeded in part by welcoming new ideas."  By Li Yuan, NYT (9/9/21)

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Characterless Sinitic

Valerie Hansen is Director of Undergraduate Studies for East Asian Studies at Yale.  Yesterday she was talking to a sophomore who had taken 1st and 2nd year Mandarin online and is about to start 3rd year.  Valerie writes:

After a while, she told me that she did have one worry about taking 3rd year: she had never written a single character and she wondered if her teacher would expect her to know how to write characters.

She can read Chinese and uses the computer to write essays. So in essence she knows pinyin and can identify the characters she needs when she writes something.
 
Is this the future of Chinese? Only computers will know characters?

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