Archive for Language teaching and learning

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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How much language capability does a Green Beret need to have?

In War on the Rocks (5/26/21), Tim Ball has an informative, thought-provoking article:  "Talking the Talk: Language Capabilities for U.S. Army Special Forces".  It begins:

In the mid-2000s, a series of U.S. Army Special Forces recruiting posters began appearing on Army installations across the country. One particular poster prompted more than a few eye rolls and laughs from the Special Forces community (commonly known as the Green Berets). The poster showed a Special Forces soldier conducting a military free-fall parachute jump. The caption stated, “The HALO [high altitude, low opening] jump wasn’t the hard part. Knowing which Arabic dialect to use when I landed was.”

From a recruiting standpoint, the poster hit all the marks. It took the excitement of a commando-style free-fall jump, combined it with the lesser-known expectation for a Green Beret to be a culturally adept warrior, and pushed it over the edge by portraying the jumper as a suave polyglot, capable of switching in and out of complex dialects at will.

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Difficult tongues

Johnson, in the Economist (5/7/21), has an enjoyable article:  "Some languages are harder to learn than others — but not for the obvious reasons".

Here's the first part of the article:

When considering which foreign languages to study, some people shy away from those that use a different alphabet. Those random-looking squiggles seem to symbolise the impenetrability of the language, the difficulty of the task ahead.

So it can be surprising to hear devotees of Russian say the alphabet is the easiest part of the job. The Cyrillic script, like the Roman one, has its origins in the Greek alphabet. As a result, some letters look the same and are used near identically. Others look the same but have different pronunciations, like the p in Cyrillic, which stands for an r-sound. For Russian, that cuts the task down to only about 20 entirely new characters. These can comfortably be learned in a week, and soon mastered to the point that they present little trouble. An alphabet, in other words, is just an alphabet. A few tricks aside (such as the occasional omission of vowels), other versions do what the Roman one does: represent sounds.

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Dissension over the role of the alphabet in literacy acquisition in the PRC

A graduate student from the PRC told me that the situation regarding instruction in Hanyu Pinyin has become quite chaotic in recent years in China.  Hànyǔ Pīnyīn 汉语拼音 ("Sinitic Spelling"), or Pīnyīn 拼音 ("Spelling") for short, is the official PRC Romanization of Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), i.e., Pǔtōnghuà 普通话.

For many decades, it used to be that all students — beginning in first grade of elementary school — learned to read and write via Pinyin.  Indeed, under the program known as "Zhùyīn shìzì, tíqián dú xiě 注音识字,提前读写" ("Phonetically Annotated Character Recognition Speeds Up Reading and Writing"), or "Z.T." for short, which actively encouraged children to use Pinyin Romanization for characters they were unable to write, the promotion of Pinyin continued well into upper grades. See "How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08).  In the last few years, however, it seems that instruction in Pinyin — at least in some schools — has become "optional".  Some teachers are simply not teaching the basics of pinyin.  As a result, many students are no longer competent in it, so that when they get to the dreaded gaokao (National College Entrance Examination [NCEE]), where mastery of pinyin is required, they're not prepared for that part of the exams.  Parents are complaining.

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Annual wave of Anti-English sentiment in the PRC

Article in official CCP media source:

"Chinese lawmaker proposes removing English as core subject"

Liu Caiyu, Global Times (3/5/21)

Coming from GT, the hyper-nationalistic tabloid, this attack on English is not unexpected, and similar anti-English proposals come up every year around the time of the national meetings of the Liǎnghuì 兩會 (Two Sessions), annual plenary meetings of the national People's Congress and the national committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference that have just concluded in Beijing (March 4-11).

Here we go again:

Is English really that important? A Chinese lawmaker at the two sessions has proposed removing English as a core subject for Chinese students receiving compulsory education, triggering heated discussion on Chinese social media.

The proposal was made by Xu Jin, a member of the Central Committee of the Jiusan Society and also a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). It has also been proposed by other lawmakers in previous years.

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An American with native fluency in Taiwanese Mandarin

Here's a video clip of a young American businessman named Ben Metcalf (Mai Banda 麥班達) in Taiwan making a presentation for his company's first public launch as part of their IPO process.

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Cantonese under threat at Stanford

Opinion article in SCMP (2/26/21), by Brian Chan, Kevin Hsu, and Jamie Tam:

Why Stanford University must strengthen, rather than cut, its Cantonese courses
The plan damages the university’s global reputation and undermines its self-professed commitment to diversity
As the most widely-spoken Sinitic language other than Mandarin, Cantonese offers a more pluralistic understanding of China

The article is accompanied by this intriguing photograph (credited to AFP):

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Toddler writes numerals

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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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English as a prestige language in Taiwan

The focus of this post is the expression lào yīngwén, where the yīngwén part is written 英文 in characters and means "English".  The lào part is much more complicated, as is typical when it comes to writing Taiwanese morphemes with Chinese characters.  The Taiwanese verb "làu" means to master something.  When used with reference to a language, it signifies speaking fluently.  In current discourse, it often indicates that one speaks English in an ostentatious manner to show off.  For example, if a Mandarin speaker chooses to speak English on an occasion where everyone in the audience also also speaks Mandarin, then this person's behavior may be considered lào yīngwén. It carries a slight negative tone.

There is no standard Sinographic form for this Taiwanese morpheme.  In written Taiwan Mandarin, it may be written with the following characters:  lào 烙, liào 撂, luò 落.  Since these three characters respectively mean "burn; bake; sear", "put down; leave", and "fall; descend", they are obviously being used to approximate the sound of the Taiwanese verb and have nothing to do with its meaning.  The same is true of the traditional Sinographic representation of this Taiwanese morpheme, viz., lǎo 老 ("old").

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Learning Tamil

Recently we have had a string of posts on South Asian linguistic phenomena.  Most of the languages involved have been Indic, and will probably continue to be predominantly so during the coming months and years.  Consequently, I'm delighted today to make a post about Tamil, a Dravidian language with a glorious heritage.

Except where otherwise noted, the indented paragraphs below are by Carrie Wiebe (professor of Chinese language and literature at Middlebury).  They are integral and self-explanatory, so I will make few interpolations.

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The pain of pronouncing Mandarin "guóqí" ("national flag") for a Mongolian child

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