Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Final Paper: The Long-term Effects of Early Language Exposure After Language Attrition Has Occurred

The long-term effects of early language exposure after language attrition has occurred

Zenas Lee
Psych 17N Final Paper
Stanford University

1. Introduction
Babies have the seemingly magical ability to acquire language without effort. The widely accepted critical period hypothesis claims that after a certain age, people lose this ability. This theory has been extended to second-language acquisition. Supporters of this extended theory point to evidence of age as a factor affecting achievement of native-like fluency. Children are able to learn a second language “quickly, automatically, effortlessly, and to a level indistinguishable from that of native speakers,” while for adults, second-language learning is perceived to be “slow, effortful, and often less than perfectly successful” (Snow, 1987). Language acquired at a young age can also be forgotten. There are many people who claim to have been fluent in a certain language when they were young but cannot remember a word now. Such language loss or attrition occurs when exposure to that language is cut off or outweighed by another language, such as in the case of international adoption or immigration to a foreign country. Given these two characteristics of language (the critical period and language attrition), this paper aims to explore the long-term benefits of being exposed to a language in the developmental ages. First, a brief overview of language attrition will be followed by research on the effects of early language exposure. Then, the results of the various studies will be discussed. Finally, a conclusion will be drawn from the discussion and the author’s personal insights.

2. Brief Overview of Language Attrition
“Language attrition” refers to loss or attrition of skill in one’s native language (L1) or a second or foreign language (L2). The phenomenon can be observed in both large groups and individuals, but this paper refers to the latter form of language attrition. Individual language attrition can be subdivided into four categories: L1 loss in an L1 environment (e.g. aphasia), L1 loss in an L2 environment (e.g. immigrants), L2 loss in an L1 environment (e.g. L2 learners), and L2 loss in an L2 environment (e.g. older immigrants who revert to L1). This paper does not consider L1-in-L1 loss, as it has more to do with physical reasons than influence of another language. The degree of attrition in the other three categories depends on various factors, such as age, skill level, amount of other language exposure and use, etc. Although a highly interesting topic in itself, this will be the extent of the introduction to language attrition, as it is sufficient to understand how one could “lose” language, thereby allowing us to consider the effects of early language exposure after attrition has occurred.

3. Research on the Effects of Early Language Exposure
To properly discuss the effects of early language exposure, it is necessary to first compare language acquisition between adults and children. One prediction of the critical period hypothesis is that second language acquisition will be relatively fast, successful, and qualitatively similar to first language only if it occurs before the age of puberty, when cerebral lateralization is about complete. Thus, to test the hypothesis, many studies have focused on the age factor.
Studies examining the correlation between age of exposure and language ability have looked at immigrants and their language skills. One particular study compared the perceived foreign accent and grammaticality scores of 240 native Korean speakers who acquired English as a L2 at different ages (Flege et al., 1999). The participants’ age of arrival (AOA) in the United States ranged from 1 to 23 years, and their mean length of residence was 15 years. They were first required to complete a language background questionnaire so that the study could be analyzed using different variables as controls. Subsequently, they took two tests: 1) a test asking them to repeat English sentences that contained a wide variety of English vowels and consonants, and 2) a grammaticality judgment test. Results showed that as the AOA increased, the strength of perceived foreign accent increased and the grammaticality scores decreased, but when variables confounded with AOA were controlled, grammaticality scores turned out to be less relevant to AOA and more dependent on education and use of English/Korean. The findings from this study actually did not support the critical hypothesis theory because if the hypothesis were correct, there should have been a correlation between AOA and L2 performance for individuals who began learning their L2 before the age of puberty (12 years), but not for those who began learning their L2 later in life. However, the AOA–foreign accent correlations and the AOA–morphosyntax correlations were significant for both Koreans with AOAs of 2–12 years and those with AOAs of 13–23 years. These findings did, however, lend credibility to the theory that with increasing age, the ability to acquire or perceive phonemes that are not in our L1 decreases.
Now that we’ve examined the age factor, we can turn to research on the effects of early language exposure. Research on the beneficial and lasting effects, if any, of exposure to language during childhood is too limited to provide any conclusive evidence. However, recent studies have ventured into this area, and one study interestingly examined the effects of overhearing a language during childhood (Au et al., 2002). They tested the idea that having auditory exposure to a language during childhood may help people learn to speak that language with a more native-like accent later on as adults when they start studying it. The study compared adult learners of Spanish who had overheard Spanish regularly during childhood with those who had no regular exposure until around age 14. Both groups were students enrolled in a 2nd-year Spanish class at the University of California, Los Angeles. The overhearers had heard native spoken Spanish for at least several hours each week for at least 3 years between birth and age 6. The exposure decreased significantly after this period, and they had spoken and been spoken to in Spanish minimally (occasional Spanish words or short phrases embedded in English sentences) until they started taking Spanish classes around age 14. The L2 learners had minimal (the occasional word or short phrase in Spanish) or no regular exposure to Spanish until they started taking classes around age 14. Similar to the Flege et al. experiment, participants were asked to read Spanish sentences aloud. These were recorded and later phonetically (voice onset time) and phonologically (phonemic patterns and phonological rule) analyzed to rate the accents of the participants. Additionally, a second test was run with the same group of participants, examining whether morphosyntax could be more readily acquired by overhearers. The participants were asked to verbally complete five simple jigsaw puzzles, which were designed to test number and gender agreement among determiners, adjectives, and nouns in Spanish. Parallel to the Flege et al. study, the results of this study showed that overhearers were able to produce more native-like accents than L2 learners but did not have any measurable advantage in morphosyntax.
The third study that this paper will examine is similar to the previous experiment but differs in that it looks at childhood speakers of languages (Oh et al., 2003). The participants in this study were enrolled in 1st-year college Korean language classes and divided into three groups: 1) childhood speakers who had spoken Korean regularly for a few years during childhood; 2) childhood hearers who had heard Korean regularly during childhood but had spoken Korean minimally, if at all; and 3) novice learners who had no prior Korean experience. The first two groups both had experienced a sharp drop in hearing and speaking Korean around age 5 to 7. A fourth group of native Korean speakers were also tested for comparison. The participants’ first task was to listen to a Korean word and identify the word from several similar sounding choices. The second task was to read a Korean sentence aloud. The first task tested phoneme perception, and the second task tested phoneme production. The results of the study showed that childhood speakers were as good as native speakers at hearing the phonemic contrasts of Korean, outperforming the novice learners. They were also able to produce native-like accents, outperforming both novice learners and childhood hearers. These findings bring to light the benefits of childhood speaking experience and suggest that the benefits of early language experience are long-lasting even with little or no subsequent experience with the language. The nature of early language experience also seemed to be important: childhood hearers outperformed novice learners in the perception but not production of Korean phonemes. This evidence seems to point to early hearing experience helping later perception, and early speaking experience helping later production. However, the study recognizes that this cannot be the simple, general conclusion because the previous study showed that early hearers had a benefit in phonology production in Spanish.
There has also been research presenting evidence contrary to those of the studies above. A study examined the language abilities of monolingual adult speakers of French who had been adopted as monolingual Korean speakers by French families from Korea to France between 3 to 8 years of age and never again exposed to Korean (Pallier et al., 2003). The adoptees took two behavioral tests: 1) listening to Korean, Japanese, Polish, Swedish, and Wolof sentences and assessing whether they were Korean or not; 2) choosing the translational equivalent of a French word after auditory presentation of two Korean words. Also, while they listened to Korean, Japanese, French, and Polish, their brain activities were also analyzed using fMRI. Results of the behavioral tests showed that the adoptees were not able to better distinguish Korean from other languages or identify Korean words in a forced-choice task than native French speakers who had no prior exposure to Korean. Moreover, event-related fMRI activation patterns did not differ while listening to Polish (an unfamiliar language) and Korean, and adoptees' activation patterns for French and Korean did not differ from those of the native French speakers.

4. Discussion of the Research
The findings of the research explored above seem to generally show that at least the phonological aspect of language is retained after exposure to the language in the developmental ages. This seems like a plausible result when we consider the fact that babies are born with the ability to differentiate all phonemes but only acquire the ones of his/her native language and lose the rest. The studies suggest that if a person is sufficiently exposed to a language as a young child, the phonemes of that language are kept even after he/she has experienced language attrition. However, early exposure seems to offer no advantage for the morphosyntactic aspect of language. This suggests that morphosyntax is something you can acquire with effort when studying a language. While this seems logical, real-life experience and personal observation of Koreans studying English lead the author to believe that more effort is required of people without early exposure. One explanation for this is the difference between certain languages. While it is easier for Spanish speakers to learn French because of the similar characteristics in the two languages, it is more difficult for Korean speakers to learn French or Spanish because Korean does not assign gender to its vocabulary other than when identifying a man or woman and has different sentence structure.
The suggestion by the Oh et al. study of a difference in benefits arising from the nature of language experience in childhood seems logical, but as they pointed out themselves, doesn’t exactly agree with the Au et al. study. However, this disparity can be explained by several possible factors affecting the study. First, the Spanish overhearers had had limited but some experience speaking Spanish words, which means they were able to produce the phonemes they had acquired through auditory means. Second, the length of language education was longer for the Spanish overhearers than for the Korean hearers. The Spanish overhearers had studied Spanish since the age of 14, while the Koreans were taking first-year classes in college. If the Korean hearers had studied Korean for a longer time, they might exhibit better phoneme production.
The last study also contradicts the suggestion of an existence of beneficial effects from early language exposure. This can be plausibly explained. The study assumed that because they had known Korean as children, the adoptees would be able to recognize Korean. However, after experiencing language attrition (L1-in-L2), the adoptees could not be reasonably expected to identify what Korean sounded like without knowing what it was. They also would not know Korean words they had not used in over 20 years or ever (they may have never learned the word as a child). The adoptees could still potentially be better at acquiring Korean than native French speakers with no Korean exposure. A one-time experiment may not be sufficient enough to test these potential abilities. In the other studies, the participants were students who were taking Spanish or Korean classes, which could have triggered their abilities and lead to better performance on the tests. Therefore, a new study comparing the perception and production abilities of the adoptees and native French speakers after they have both taken Korean classes should be run.

5. Conclusion
The questions initially posed by this paper were: Does language exposure in the developmental ages help in acquiring that language later on in life? If so, which aspects of the language are retained? After exploration of related research, the author is convinced that early exposure to language leaves an imprint of phonemes that one can retain later on in life even after language attrition has occurred. This seems to correspond with the author’s personal experience of speaking both English and Korean more predominantly at different times in life as well as the author’s observation of friends who had varying degrees of early exposure to English. The author had exposure to both Korean and English at a young age. However, because of the occurrence of language attrition, the author had transition periods when she had to take ESL classes in kindergarten in America after living in Korea from age 3 to 5 and the ESL-counterpart of Korean in sixth grade when she moved back to Korea. She is now perceived by both native English speakers and native Korean speakers as a native of both languages. However, the author recognizes that her case is specific to her and cannot be generalized without further studies. The author would like to see future studies better examining the effects of early language exposure, so that this paper’s questions can be answered more conclusively and also further questions, such as how many different languages can an infant be exposed to and reap the benefits of such exposure from without it negatively affecting his/her linguistic abilities.

Au, T. K., Knightly, L. M., Jun, S. & Oh, J. S. Overhearing a Language During Childhood. Psychological Science, Vol. 13, No.3. pp. 238-243. (May 2002)
Flege, J. E., Yeni-Komshian, G. H. & Liu, S. Age constraints on second-language acquisition. Journal of Memory and Language, 41, pp. 78–104 (1999).
Oh, J. S., Jun, S., Knightly, L. M., & Au, T. K. Holding on to Childhood Language Memory. Cognition, Vol. 86, No. 3, pp B53-B64. (Jan. 2003)
Pallier, C., Dehaene, S., Poline, J.-B., LeBihan, D., Argenti, A.-M., Dupoux, E. & Mehler, J. Brain Imaging of Language Plasticity in Adopted Adults: Can a Second Language Replace the First? Cerebral Cortex. pp. 155–161, 1047–3211 (Feb. 2003)
Snow, C. E. & Hoefnagel-Höhle, M. The Critical Period for Language Acquisition: Evidence from Second Language Learning. Child Development, Vol. 49, No. 4. pp. 1114-1128 (Dec. 1978)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

#17. Dreaming in Another Language

A 67-year-old man talks in Spanish in his sleep. This doesn't seem weird at all. But take into account that he has forgotten almost all his Spanish, which he learned as a child until the age of 10, when he moved to the Netherlands and started learning Dutch and other languages. He says that Spanish is the only language he was ever fluent in but now all that is left of it is only in his dreams. (link to article below)
In Korea, dreaming in English is people's "dream." They think that if they dream in English, it means that they have achieved a significant level in English. This doesn't seem totally nonsensical, so I wanted to find out how much correlation, if any, there is between dreams and language ability.
Steve Kaufmann, author of The Linguist, founder of, and speaker of nine languages, offers his opinion on the topic: "In my experience it does not mean much. It sometimes happens to me, I think it reflects the fact that we are really committed to the language, listening to it, and wanting to speak it. In our dreams we are not inhibited so we do well." In an online forum (, people seem to share the opinion that dreaming in a foreign language doesn't mean you have the language down solid. Citing their experiences, they seem to agree with Kaufmann that people dream in the foreign language when they're studying it intensely.
Other than other personal accounts, I couldn't find any research that pointed to a correlation between dreaming in a foreign language and ability in that language. Apparently, we're "smarter" when we're asleep, so we can speak the foreign language better in our dreams. However, some people have experiences of dreaming in a language they never learned, which they perfectly understand while they're asleep. A lot of sites that I came across as I researched this topic were about interpreting dreams, premonitions (dreams predicting the future), and sleep disorders like somniloquy (sleep talking). So it seems that a lot of the dream world is unknown, because we do things in our sleep that seem unexplainable like carrying out a conversation with someone.
As for me, I don't think I'm very conscious about which language I dream in, but I do find it odd when my English-speaking friends and my Korean-speaking friends come out together in my dreams and seem to communicate perfectly with each other. I think I've had dreams where I understood French perfectly, but the memory is vague, so I'm not really sure. My roommate tells me I sometimes say random words in Korean while I sleep, but as she doesn't know Korean, I'm not sure if it's just gibberish or actual Korean. Although I didn't find any substantial evidence, the majority opinion seems to be that one's actual ability in a foreign language and dreaming in that language have little correlation. Just because you dreamt in German, that doesn't mean you've achieved fluency or even proficiency in it.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

#16. Faking Body Language

Body language is probably an interesting topic for most people. We all "apeak" it--usually subconsciously. According to an article title "The Body Language of Love," 55% of what we say is understood through visual components (gestures, postures, facial expressions, etc.). The words we say apparently only account for 7%. Many have probably read something similar elsewhere that body language reveals a lot about what we actually think and feel. For example, when we mimic what someone else's body language, it's an indication that we like that person.
Body language is obviously telling, but is there any way we can manipulate people by faking body language? There is a lot of literature on using and interpreting body language, especially for dating or job interviews. Politicians have to look and act charismatic and confident.
So if you know what your body is saying, then isn't it possible to fake it? I think it is possible to consciously send messages with your body, such as making eye contact and leaning forward when you're interested in someone and you want to indicate that what they're saying is interesting to you. However, if you don't feel a certain way but have to act contrary to your feelings, such as when you're hosting relatives whom you don't particularly like, a lot of people fake smile and fake laugh. But when people fake such body language, is it really undetectable or are their true feelings revealed in their other subconscious body language? A few weeks back, I saw a clip of Fox News's "Body Language" segment on The O'Reilly Factor, where a body language analyst analyzing an interview with Hilary Clinton. The analyst said that her laughter was "evil." She could tell that Clinton wasn't genuinely laughing because she was laughing for too long and only her mouth was laughing and not her face (as far as I recall).
These two factors are actually on a site I found that tells you how to detect lies:
Most of the listed indications of lies are things we normally know but do not pay a lot of attention to. So if we pay attention, can we know when someone is being deceitful? If we are analyzed by a professional body language analyst, can we get away with our fake gestures?
I couldn't find a good answer to this question (most search results turned up how to interpret body language or "improve" body language), but I assume that as with all lies and liars, there are good ones and bad ones. Good liars will be able to deceive other people by faking their body language and bad liars won't. However, because a lot of body language is subconscious, it seems to be much harder to disguise your true feelings.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

#15. Esperanto

Is there a universal language?
Nowadays, knowing English helps a lot in communicating with people from different countries. Even if two people's native languages aren't English, it's likely that they can only communicate in English. I think I feel this especially more at Stanford. There are many kids who speak another language fluently. A lot of the time, this is due to their ethnic background and the language their family uses at home. When I talk with my Thai or Chinese friends, I can only communicate with them in English. We can't use Thai, Chinese, or Korean. So English seems to be taking the place of the universal language, but it's still very far off from actually becoming such a language. I don't know if we can ever reach that goal. However, many years ago, there was an attempt to make such an international language: Esperanto.
When I first heard about Esperanto, I was intrigued. I'd never heard of it or heard anybody speak it, but supposedly, it was the international language. Obviously, it failed, but I thought it was topic worth researching a little bit more into, so it's the topic of my blog entry for today. :)

Esperanto was invented in 1887 by Dr. Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, a Polish eye doctor. He published the first book in Esperanto, Unua Libro, under the pseudonym "Doktoro Esperanto," which is where the name of the language comes from. Contrary to my initial conception of it as a language made to unite the world under one universal language, Esperanto is an international second language that helps promote peaceful communication between people of different countries. Nobody has an advantage to Esperanto because it’s not a national language, so everybody is “equal” when they speak Esperanto. It’s a neutral language which theoretically protects minority languages because they have a better chance of surviving in a world that has a universal second language rather than in one dominated by a few “strong” languages. According to most of the sites I found on Esperanto, there are approximately 1,000 native speakers of Esperanto, 10,000 fluent speakers, 100,000 active speakers, 1 million who understand a lot of Esperanto, and about 10 million who have studied it to some extent. These numbers are much higher than I’ve expected because I’ve never met anyone who had even attempted to learn Esperanto. But apparently, Esperanto is “the most widely used international auxiliary language” today and particularly popular in Eastern Europe and China. There is a whole world of literature and music in Esperanto; there are more than 25,000 books in circulation written originally in Esperanto, many others translated from other languages into Esperanto, Esperanto songs, and radio stations that broadcast news bulletins in Esperanto.
The roots used in Esperanto are mostly derived from Latin and some of its vocabulary comes from modern Romance languages, English, German, Polish, and Russian. The alphabet is basically the same with some new additions (Ĉĉ, Ĝĝ, Ĥĥ, Ĵĵ, Ŝŝ, Ŭŭ), and the pronunciation is phonetic. It has few grammatical rules. Words are made by combining prefixes, roots, and suffixes. The word order in a sentence is pretty much free, so for example, Japanese speakers and French speakers can just say the words in the order that their languages use respectively. There aren’t irregular forms when forming plurals, different tenses of verbs, etc. Therefore, Esperanto is supposed to be pretty easy to learn. I don’t know what the standards are for this measurement, but according to my research, for a native English speaker, Esperanto is about 5 times as easy to learn as Spanish or French, 10 times as easy to learn as Russian, 20 times as easy to learn as Arabic or spoken Chinese, and infinitely easier to learn than Japanese. People generally seem to find they learn Esperanto much more quickly than other languages. In fact, some studies say that learning Esperanto before learning a foreign language helps you learn that language faster because it gives you a good base.
There are many places and sources you can use to learn Esperanto, including this site: I don’t know how practical it is to learn Esperanto, but the goal of Esperanto is to facilitate communication between speakers of different languages, so if you learn it, you can find other people who speak it to help you when you visit other countries.

For me, I think Esperanto would be interesting to learn, but I would choose to learn French or Spanish instead because I can easily find a lot more people who speak French and Spanish than Esperanto. However, if anybody wants to, there seem to be a wealth of resources out there, and I encourage you to make use of them and wish you luck!

If you want to hear Esperanto being spoken, here is a link that has a sample sentence:


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

#14. What is Language?

What exactly is language? Which sounds, motions, or symbols qualify as language, and which don't? We've talked about the definition of language in the past few classes, and it made me think more deeply about what language really is.
Originally, I thought language was any means of communication. So I would have said that the high-pitched sounds dolphins make and the meowing noises that my cat makes when she's hungry are all language. But apparently, language is a faculty unique to humans and it has to have certain levels of sophistication to be recognized as "real" language.

So I looked up the definition of language on the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

1 a: the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community b (1): audible, articulate, meaningful sound as produced by the action of the vocal organs (2): a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings (3): the suggestion by objects, actions, or conditions of associated ideas or feelings (4): the means by which animals communicate (5): a formal system of signs and symbols (as FORTRAN or a calculus in logic) including rules for the formation and transformation of admissible expressions

And I wanted to discuss each of the definitions a little.

1a: This definition implies that language has to be verbal and widespread, or at least used in common by a significant number of people. According to this definition, sign language is not a language, and languages that are almost dying out (like those with just one or two speakers left) no longer qualify as language. This doesn't seems right. Vocalization of language is an important part of language. It's the most convenient way to communicate, in my opinion, because the response is immediate. However, deaf people who cannot speak have made up a beautiful, complex language that doesn't require sounds. So this definition doesn't seem to encompass the true meaning of language.

1b(1): Again, this definition also implies that language is verbal. The intent of this definition, I think, was to rule out animal sounds as language. Most people probably would agree that mooing, chirping, barking, etc. aren't "audible, articulate, meaningful" sounds.

1b(2): I like this definition the best so far because it doesn't require a verbal quality for language. If limiting language to human communication, I think it has the right amount of restrictions. Language has to be "systematic," "conventionalized," and "understood." It excludes animal sounds but includes all forms of language--written, verbal, and gestures.

1b(3): This definition refers to a different kind of language, I think. It's still a form of communication but more symbolic. A gift of roses would be a "suggestion" of attraction and language according to this definition.

1b(4): This one is close to my original definition of language. "Communication" and "animals" are the only two requirements.

1b(5): The important word in this definition is "rules." This definition would also exclude animal sounds, but it would include "scientific languages" like the symbols and equations used in chemistry and math. I think these should also qualify as languages. They are actually rather important languages because they are international. Most of the symbols are used uniformly throughout the world, which is amazing, if you think about it.

After my short analysis of the definition of language, I still think that language should mean any sounds, motions, or symbols that communicate meaning--even the simplest feelings like hunger. When my cat meows at us, we know that she wants food. When she purrs, we know that she's content. She expresses something, and we understand it. I think those two things (expression of emotions/thoughts & understanding of the expression) are the only two qualifications language has. Of course there are varying degrees of complexity in language, but as long as something is communicated between two or more living creatures, I'll call it "language."

Thursday, November 8, 2007

extra article for #11

I found a new article on the dominance of English that was interesting and pretty comprehensive:
Whose Language?
It talks about why English is becoming a world language, whether it will stay the dominant language, how many non-native speakers there are, what variations of English there are and how they're being reconciled, etc.

#13. Losing Language

Many people say that they've forgotten a language they knew sometime earlier in their lives. One of my friends who lived for three years in Japan when she was young (preschool & kindergarten age) says she doesn't understand a word of Japanese now. We often forget second languages if we don't constantly practice them (like my French). However, having learned a language at an early age seems to work to one's advantage when learning that language again. It's easier to pick up the language, and one is likely to have a more accurate pronunciation.
Thankfully, I didn't really lose English when I moved to Korea, but my English did get rusty. I still have trouble conjuring up words sometimes because I think of them in Korean. I get nervous about making a mistake, which makes it more difficult to say what I want to say. However, it's the same the other way around. The other day, I was talking to my Korean friend on the phone and I couldn't remember the Korean word for raccoon for some reason. That's why I prefer Konglish, as I've said before. Anyway, getting back on track of the topic, so I was curious... Can we really "lose" a language?
I don't know how reliable this source is, but apparently, there was recently a French study that looked at Korean-born children who were adopted by French parents and thus, were no longer exposed to Korean. The key finding was that these individuals, when tested in their 20s and 30s, could not distinguish between Korean and Japanese. The conclusion was that learning a second language in childhood is in vain if exposure to that language isn't sustained, which seems correct based on our experiences.
There was also a study conducted by psychologist Benjamin Levy and his colleague Dr. Michael Anderson at the University of Oregon that found something called "first language attrition." The subjects of the study were native English speakers who had learned about a year of Spanish. They were told to repeat a word for a certain object in Spanish numerous times. After that, they were told to recall the word for the object in English. The researchers found that people had a more difficult time retrieving the English word after such Spanish exercises. The conclusion is that learning a second language can negatively affect your first language ability. You don't actually forget the word, but it is hard to roll it out on your tongue. So, vice versa, it's usually hard to learn a new language because our first language inhibits us from thinking in the other language. We have to temporarily "forget" our first language in order to learn the second language more quickly.
However, this research didn't really answer my question because it talked about short-term loss of language. I couldn't really find substantial research that would prove that we really can lose our languages, but it seems safe to conclude so.
I don't know if I just couldn't find the right study on the internet, but I feel this is an interesting topic worth researching. Some things I would want to know more about are: how much being exposed to a language at the developmental ages helps in acquiring that language later on in life, which aspect of language benefits most (because on personal intuition, I feel that having once spoken a language at least leaves the memory of the pronunciation, so when you learn it later on, you still have the capacity to produce the distinctive sounds in that language), how many languages a normal child can acquire and keep, etc.


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

#12. Language Change

I kind of talked about this in "#9. Creating New Words," but creation and change, though connected, are different.

The types of changes languages undergo are:
1) Lexical changes (word creation and extinction)
2) Phonetic and phonological changes (changes in pronunciation)
3) Spelling changes
4) Semantic changes (changes in meaning)
5) Syntactic change (changes in sentence structure)

As you can see, there's more to language change than just new words. So I decided on this topic for this post. :)

Alexandra left me a question on my post #9: Do you have any ideas as to why some languages (like English or Korean) might change so rapidly, while others stay relatively static?
She asked this because she had read an article about Icelandic speakers not having any trouble reading 14th-century texts because their language hasn't changed much. The National Science Foundation also says that Japanese has changed relatively little over 1,000 years, while English has evolved rapidly in just a few centuries.
So I'm curious about her questionm, too. I certainly don't have the correct answer to her question, but what I have researched might partly answer her question.

The consensus seems to be that languages change. That much is obvious to most people. Then, the question most people are probably curious about: WHY do languages change? Professor Chris Pontain at the University of London says this is "one of the big questions in modern linguistics which has still only received a partial and tentative answer."
In the 18th century, the theory was that language "decays" because people are lazy. The theory of the late 19th century was that language naturally changes little by little, and it isn't in our (humans') control. The recent theory advocated by American linguist William Labov is that because people are social animals, we influence each other, and language changes as a result. For example, if I start calling a pen "frindle" and my friends start calling it that too and it eventually spreads throughout the whole country. There are problems with all three of these theories, but the last one is the most believable one to me.
These are the general theories, and there are a lot of causes behind language change, too, such as colonization, new technologies, etc. I talked about some of this in my other post.

To try to answer Alexandra's question:
As for Icelandic, there is probably a correlation between Iceland's policy of linguistic purism. From early 19th century, Iceland has replaced "loanwords" with new words from Old Icelandic and Old Norse roots so that these foreign words don't infiltrate their language. North Korea has a similar policy, and thus, the Korean there is a lot different from the Korean we speak in South Korea. Korean was also influenced by the Japanese Occupation during World War II.
So, I think government policy and economic advancement have a lot to do with language change. However, further than that, I don't have enough information to determine why Icelandic or Japanese hasn't changed much while others have. But another interesting thing is that although English has changed a lot, apparently, our spelling of words hasn't changed much because it's usually maintained the same even if the pronunciation changes. This makes it easier for us to read literature from “the old days”, but because of other language changes, we still have problems understanding the literature.
So, I come again to the inevitable conclusion about language: we really can't know for sure. But it is still interesting to think about and develop our own theories.


Thursday, November 1, 2007

#11. The English Craze

I've talked about the English craze in Korea before in this blog, but now I'm devoting a whole post to it. This inspiration comes from news about the Nova schools in Japan and the Korean presidential candidates' platforms regarding expansion of English education in Korea.
Recently, there was a crisis for many native English speakers in Japan. They lost their jobs because Nova, a popular English conversation school chain, filed for bankruptcy. The focus of this post is not on the crisis though, but how this news also reflects the English craze of Japan. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, "English-conversation schools are a big business in Japan. Millions of Japanese dream of speaking English. But the six years of language classes given in middle and high schools focus on grammar, not conversation, so few children learn to speak English well. The $3.5-billion-a-year foreign-language-education industry teems with more than 1,100 companies catering to about two million students, according to the Japan Association for the Promotion of Foreign Language Education."
The situation is more severe in Korea. The two major South Korean presidential candidates have recognized the obsession with English education in Korea and have drawn up plans to alleviate the costs and pressure following this craze.
Chung Dong-young of the United New Democratic Party (UNDP) pledged to open government-operated English-language schools in order to reduce educational expenses. According to Chung, the number of students going abroad to study English has increased by 2.6 times in the past five years. I myself can attest to this rapid increase of students studying abroad, as I am one of them. My high school, which has a study abroad program called "Global Leadership Program" has expanded continuously since it began in 1998 with four students. When I graduated, there were 78 GLP students in my class. There are over a hundred students in the class of 2008. There are also many more schools that are starting similar programs. This apparent English craze is not good for the Korean economy, and Chung said that his pledges will "create more jobs and solve the problem of families separated for English learning." Oh, yet another problem in Korea: fathers earn money to send their wives and children to English-speaking countries. They call these men "Giruhgi (Goose) Fathers." They are a group that many take pity on, since they have no family to return to at home and work just so that their children can learn English and have a more successful future.
Chung's opponent, Lee Myung-bak of the Grand National Party (GNP), proposed creating "an international zone, which would provide an English-only environment and autonomous education system like those of Singapore and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates." He also suggested more English classes in schools and more native speakers assisting in such classes. Citing that Koreans spend 1.4 trillion won ($15.5 billion) on English study, Lee promised to nurture 3,000 English teachers annually and post them in schools to cut educational expenses in half.
The Dean of Yonsei University, one of the most prestigious universities in Korea, said that he expected Korean colleges to expand the number of classes taught in English. According to, "In a recent poll by JobKorea, a recruitment website, 64 percent of the 1,075 South Koreans surveyed said they were stressed at work because they had insufficient English. Nearly a third, or 31 percent, said they were disadvantaged because of a lack of English proficiency, having failed to get a promotion or secure the posts they desired." Kim Hwa Soo, the CEO of JobKorea explained, "As companies focus on strengthening their global competitiveness, the ability to speak foreign languages is becoming an important factor at workplaces." According to the Korean Education Ministry, in the year ended on March 31, 2007, 52% of the 217,959 students who went abroad for university or higher level education went to the U.S., U.K., Australia and other English-speaking countries. Four years ago, 159,903 went abroad to study.
I think I've offered overly sufficient information to show how important Koreans regard learning English. Even just looking at the numbers for Stanford, you can tell how popular studying abroad is in Korea. For the Class of 2011, Korea had the most international students accepted to Stanford, 37, while number 2 and 3, Singapore and Canada, had 17 and 16 respectively (if I remember right). When I walk/bike around campus, I see Koreans and hear Korean every day. It's just crazy!
Anyway, I feel like I'm going off-topic here, but I'm sure that now you have a sense of this English craze I'm talking about.
It's probably not as intense as Korea, but English is taking over other countries in Asia, too. According to the Tehran Times, Khazaeifar, head of the English department at Ferdowsi University in Mashhad, Iran, said, “Persian is being gradually and deceptively eaten away by a relentless enemy named the English language." At a SPELT (Society for Promotion of English Language Teaching) conference currently being held in Karachi, Pakistan, a speaker, Mashood Rizvi, said that a project named "English for Life" has been launched in Sindh and Balochistan, and that the program will soon be expanded. In an opinion article by Nilanshu Agarwal in India, "English plays a very important role in education, business and administration. It is the medium of instruction for higher education-both academic and technological. Those who seek jobs in private companies or professions must be proficient in English. It is recognized as an official language for purposes of administration at the national level."
In 1607, only 3.5 million people spoke English in 1607, almost all of whom lived in the British Isles. It is estimated that 2 billion people worldwide will speak English by the end of this decade. According to Lord Alan Watson of Richmond CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), English is joining Chinese, Hindi and Arabic as the most-used languages in the world. The difference is that for Chinese, Hindi and Arabic, it's because large numbers of people speak them as a first language. For English, it's because of the number who learn it as a second language. He also said that more people are learning English in China today than all of the North Americans who speak English and predicted that by 2030, the largest ethnic group in the world using English will be the Chinese.

So... what's the cause behind this proliferation of English?

Well, EVERYTHING is in English these days. Most of the studies in academic fields and the internet are in English. So, it's THE language to know.
But what if this is just a passing fad?
Well, I guess we can't know that for sure. But the increase of both the speed and amount of global communication will keep English from suffering the fate of Latin, which evolved into different languages in different places because people were isolated.

So, right now, I'm extremely glad I'm proficient in English. :)

Korea -
Japan -
Iran -
India -
Pakistan -
English is the global language -

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

#10. Grammar and Learning Language

Why do we learn grammar? Is it essential to learning a language?
Based on my experience of learning and teaching grammar, it seems like a good supplement but not a necessity to learning language. We can get what we want to say across in ungrammatical sentences, and we can understand other people who speak "wrongly." However, for everyone to communicate in the most effective (and by this, I mean least ambiguous) way, there needs to be an established set of rules governing what people say and how they say it. Using correct grammar lessens misunderstandings and misinterpretations between people. So the question arises: can grammar only be acquired through formal learning or do we absorb grammar as we do words when we're young? And another question follows from this train of thought: is there more of a necessity to learn grammar when we're learning second languages?

We can acquire our first languages as babies without formally being taught grammar at all. The linguist Patrick Hartwell divided grammar into some categories. "Grammar 1 refers to the internalized set of linguistic patterns that convey meaning. Grammar involves rules of phonology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics that are all internalized, usually by the age of 5." In other words, Grammar 1 is the grammar that allows us as babies to construct meaningful phrases and that which we use unconsciously on a daily basis. "Grammar 2 deals with linguist’s attempts to describe and analyze formal language patterns." Both Grammar 1 & 2 are usually what linguists concern themselves with the most.
Chomsky expanded his original theory of an innate language acquisition device (LAD) to Universal Grammar, "a single grammatical system which is transmitted genetically and accounts for the ability of all normal humans to learn and speak their native language." According to Chomsky, Universal Grammar is what allows children to deduce the structure of their native languages from "mere exposure." I think this is what Hartwell would call Grammar 1.
So we don't need to be taught grammar when we're babies. So why do they make us study what nouns and verbs are in school? Apparently, educators cannot agree on their answer to this question. They've even called them the "Grammar Wars."
Hartwell's Grammar 3 and 4 are the types of grammar we learn in school. These are the established rules for "proper" writing and speaking. According to my limited research, instruction of grammar began with the Greeks. They weren't so strict about "correctness," though. Grammar had more to do with style. This evolved into an isolated instruction of prescribed rules. English teachers have believed that this system works well, but a New Zealand study conducted by Elley, Barham, Lamb, and Wyllie (1975) found that English grammar instruction had “virtually no influence on the language growth of typical secondary students.” Another study (Harris, 1962) found that five high school students who received two years of formal grammar instruction performed worse on a test about sentence complexity and surface errors than students who recieved no such education.
So, I didn't really find the answer to my question. I'm continuously finding out that language or linguistics is a difficult field to study. There are no real certain answers, only lots of speculation. So, here's my two cents:
From my experience as a semi-native speaker of English and Korean and a student of French as a second language, I think some grammar is innate and some has to be learned. The innate part is sufficient for simple communication. Babies can say "me want cookie" and parents can understand them just fine. We somehow acquire the basics of stringing words together to make sense. So as long as I know enough of the words in French, I can make crude sentences like a baby. Speakers of English as a second language often have trouble with putting "the"s and "a/an"s in the right places. They might say "After the graduation, I can get the job to earn the money," and even though it sounds awkward, we can understand what they're saying. But not perfectly. Hence, the need for rules. Knowing and employing perfect grammar doesn't make you a great writer or the most effective speaker, but it helps you express your thoughts the best way they can be expressed. So we should learn grammar, but not emphasize it so much that it clouds the more important skills, such as writing well and speaking persuasively.;read=984

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

#9. Creating New Words

When I was in the third or fourth grade, I read a book called "Frindle," which I remember to this day because I really enjoyed it. The story is about a boy who replaces the word "pen" with the word "Frindle" because his English teacher told him words come from us. "Who says a dog is a dog? We do." This word spreads due to Nicholas (the boy) and his friends' efforts and eventually (when Nick is an adult) makes it into the dictionary. I loved this book because I found it fascinating that a kid could make something big like that happen (even though the book was fiction). So I always wanted to make a word of my own.
Making a word is easy and difficult at the same time, I think. Especially these days, once you create a word that is catchy, it's not that hard for it to suddenly breakout into common use. The internet has helped a lot. In Korea, there are so many new words being created and used by most young people that a TV program promoting the use of correct Korean words was created. This program is actually pretty good, because it brings back words that have kind of fallen out of use and also helps adults learn what the kids are saying these days. Most words are created by abbreviation, like "sel-ca" (a picture of you taken by yourself - "self camera") or "an-seup" (sad, like "It's sad that A is staying home on Friday night doing homework." - "an" from "angu," which means "eye," and "seup," from "seupgi," which means "vapor," meaning your eyes are watery). So for a person like me, who doesn't look at a lot of "popular" sites or play online games, which is where most of the neologisms are generated, it's hard to keep up with this newfangled language. I usually learn it pretty late, when all my friends start using it, but fortunately, I'm usually good at guessing the meanings of them.
There are many words popping up in the English language too. We "google" people, are supposed to avoid "sketchy" guys at Full Moon on the Quad, and "blog" about such new words. There's even a site that introduces new words that have come into the existence of our everyday lives: Word Spy.
Some words newly entered into the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2006 were spyware, supersize, ringtone, and drama queen. If you follow this link for the list, at the bottom you'll see a link for the new words in 1806, and it's pretty cool to see how commonly used many of them are now.
So with all these new words being incorporated into our everyday conversations, I had to disagree with Mr. Chomsky when I watched the YouTube video of Ali G's interview with Noam Chomsky, and Chomsky said to Ali that people would just ignore him if he made up a new word.
Well, now I've shown that it's obvious that words are created all the time, but how do they usually come about and how do they become "official" words?
Some methods that we most often use to create new words are:
1) Compounding - joining two or more morphemes together to make one word
ex) chairperson
2) Conversion - using a word from one part of speech in another part of speech
ex) eyeball; She's been eyeballing those shoes for weeks. (noun to verb)
3) Affixation - adding suffixes or prefixes to existing words
ex) deshopping; “to buy something intending to use it once, then return it for a refund”
4) Clipping - reducing longer words
ex) flu; from influenza
5) Blending/Truncating - mixing words together, using parts of them
ex) fanfic; fan and fiction
6) Acronyms
ex) imao; in my arrogant opinion (when I first saw this on Facebook, I had to google it)
7) Using brand names
ex) Xerox; copy
8) Borrowing words from other languages


And how are these newly created words entered into our dictionaries? Well, Merriam-Webster says they have editors that read a cross section of written material every day. They find new words or new usages of words and mark them. They collect these citations and enter it into their database. When they have sufficient citations (which shows wide usage) and a significant period of time has passed (which shows the longevity of the word), they add these words to their official dictionary!

In addition to words, we now have to decipher emoticons too. They add valuable information to written (or usually, typed) language, which has the disadvantage of not being able to see the person you're talking to or hear his/her intonation. I still don't know a lot of the emoticons used here because they're different from the ones in Korea. In Korea, ^^ or ^-^ is equivalent to :). (See the smiley eyes?) One I use often is -_- which is used when you're at a lost for words because what the other person said was stupid or made the situation awkward. I even use some of these emoticons when I write letters or notes by hand to my friends. When I think about how much language is evolving with the advancement of technology, I'm blown away sometimes.
We need new words for new things, like iPods. Sometimes words are ephemeral. They appear for a short time, usually describing or reflecting a cultural phenomenon, and then disappear.
Sometimes, we don't have words for certain things/emotions/situations. "The comedian Rich Hall gave us the word sniglet (an example of itself) for a word that should exist but does not. Eg, Elbonics n. The actions of two people manoeuvering for one arm-rest in a cinema." Babies make up words all the time, but they get lost as the babies grow up. My parents always told me how I used to call a watermelon (subak in Korean) "shabak." I'm sure we all have at least one of those. When I use Konglish, I say things like I'm "nora-ing" (playing), adding "-ing" to Korean verbs. People replace words that they can't think of with "whatchamacallits" and "thingys(thingies?)." And even though we don't use grammatically correct language, we understand each other just fine most of the time.
So why would Noam Chomsky say people would just brush Ali G off if he created a new word? Why can't there be a "frindle" in real life? I think he was just irritated by Ali and wanted to cut the interview short. Because language changes ALL THE TIME, and it's all OUR doing. So let's go out and create language!

Monday, October 22, 2007

#8. Do We Have a Language Gene?

The reason humans dominate this world is probably due to language. This amazing ability we have to communicate with words, both written and spoken, has allowed us to advance society. We can do so much with language: acknowledge both tangible objects and abstract ideas, express our thoughts and emotions, provoke certain thoughts and emotions of other people, and build relationships with these people. It gives us such an advantage over other species. We are not destroyed by animals stronger and bigger than us because we have the ability to communicate intelligibly (well, maybe not ALL humans, such as our president). So why were we chosen to be this special group? How did we get so lucky?
Apparently, humans have a "language gene" that gives us the innate ability to communicate. This gene is called FOXP2 and was discovered in 2001 by researchers in England. This gene is needed during early embryonic development to correctly form neural pathways in brain regions associated with speech and language. The researchers studied a large family, identified as "KE," half of whom were affected with a serious language disorder. After studying this family, the researchers had narrowed the location of the FOXP2 gene to a region of chromosome 7 that contained about 70 genes. Trying to pinpoint one out of these 70 could have taken more than a year, but they got lucky when another researcher found a boy, who wasn't related to the KE family but had almost the same disability. This boy had a visible defect in chromosome 7 that specifically affected the FOXP2 gene.
However, this doesn't seem to be the whole story. As we know, the media leads us in a specific direction--sometimes the wrong one. So, when the FOXP2 gene was found, the media apparently went crazy and reported this discovery almost as the determining factor that sets us apart from other species, as I was talking about. But this FOXP2 gene isn't THE language gene, it's A language gene. The FOXP2 is a transcription factor, "a protein that binds to the promoter region of other genes and facilitates their transcription from DNA to RNA." This means that it can potentially affect a large number of genes. So it might not just be related only to language.
As I write this blog, I'm thinking that I have nowhere enough knowledge to decide what this all means and should ask our professor about it in class.
The article that lead me to write a blog on this topic was about a recent finding of the FOXP2 gene in Neanderthals. The Neanderthals are considered a species that has the same ancestors (chimpanzees) as humans but died out because they were less intelligent. However, this new discovery lends support to the argument that Neanderthals carried conversations, too. On the other end, "Dr. Simon Fisher, one of the scientists at Oxford University who discovered FOXP2, said: '...analysis of a single gene is not enough to resolve the big question of whether or not Neanderthals were capable of speech or for us to estimate what level of complexity their vocal communication could achieve.'"
Again, I don't know what this all means, but this is really interesting and I want to find out more about it.

Cavemen 'may have used language' -
Scientists identify a language gene -
FOXP2 and the Evolution of Language -

Thursday, October 18, 2007

#7. Speaking vs. Writing

Do we write more eloquently or speak more eloquently?
I think I write much better than I speak, because I can organize my thoughts and express them in the best way possible. Although speaking has the benefits of conveniency and instant feedback, I've always preferred writing when I need to say something important. The chances of making a mistake, such as hurting someone's feelings or messing up grammar/vocabulary and looking stupid, are much lower. I can also write things that are difficult to vocalize. That's why I think I become much more truthful when I write. I'm not saying that I lie all the time when I speak, but I think I reveal more on paper. My friends have always told me that they enjoy my letters because they can feel my sincerity. So naturally, I became curious why it seems easier to speak than to write.
A book called Um . . . : Slips, Stumbles, Verbal Blunders and What They Mean by Michael Erard explains this somewhat. There are two types of speech blunders, according to the author: slips of the tongue and "speech disfluencies." "Slip-ups happen because we're thinking way ahead of what comes out of our mouths. We make what another linguist, Rudolf Meringer, once called 'forward errors.'" That's why we sometimes say things like "Glab that glass." We're thinking about the "gl" sound too fast. "Disfluencies" refer to lack of eloquence. Only a few very gifted people can speak without making mistakes or hesistating. The rest of us normal people have to fill our momentary gaps of ineloquence with "um"s and "er"s or "you know"s and "like"s.
According to my limited research, speaking and writing is thought of as very different things. Speaking is natural to human beings. That's why we speak before we can write. But writing is not. That's why we have to LEARN to write and why not all languages have alphabets or an equivalent. Speaking and writing cannot be but different because they are used in different contexts. People usually speak when 1) in close proximity; 2) they need to see the reaction of the listener(s) to go on; 3) the intonation of the sentences are important; 4) the situation is informal; etc. People usually write when 1) they are not at a distance to have a conversation; 2) they have to leave tangible records, such as contracts; 3) they need to organize all their thoughts clearly and convey them to someone else; etc. However, these distinctions are not absolute. They are often blurred, especially with the advancement of technology like the telephone and e-mail. We use emoticons to make writing more like speaking, in which gestures and facial expressions can be involved. We write speeches and present them orally to be more effective in reaching an audience.
This is all probably obvious information, but it's interesting that I think I can write better when actually, speaking is supposed to be easier (in terms of innate ability). It's also interesting that the two are treated as separate functions, but they overlap increasingly.
According to Wikipedia, "most contemporary linguists work under the assumption that spoken language is more fundamental, and thus more important to study, than written language." I don't know if I agree with this; for me, written language is just as important, if not more, than spoken language.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

#6. Pardon My French

Swear words are a natural part of our adult (probably even younger) vocabulary. Not everybody uses them, but they aren't foreign to most people.
I was curious about when we usually learn swear words, so I googled it and also thought about when I learned "bad words." According to experts, "using foul language is a normal part of pre-adolescent development. Children swear in order to appear sophisticated in front of their friends and to shock their parents; it's a way to test limits and be 'bad' without really being bad" (, full link below). On another site, a parent expresses his concern about his three-year old's newly acquired "ability" to curse. This site also seems to explain that it's a natural part of children growing up and learning language. Apparently, most kids eventually grow out of this and use the language that they are taught is appropriate. However, many seem to grow back into this habit when they hit their teenage years.
I remember when I went back to Korea in 6th grade after spending all of my elementary school years in the U.S. Kids hadn't really started swearing yet in the U.S. (at least where I lived). When I went to Korea, I was shocked by the extent to which swear words were incorporated into the everyday language of my peers. I think I sensed that they were bad even though I didn't know what they meant at first. But I remember asking my mom what "gu-ra" meant after about a week in school, and she kind of laughed and responded that it was a vulgar term for a "lie" and that I shouldn't use it. That was one of the weaker swear words though, which is why I thought it was safe to ask my mom about it. I don't really know when kids here start using foul words in everyday language, but in Korea, so many kids use "ssi-bal" and "jot(-na)" (roughly equivalents of "fuck"--not in meaning but in the way it is used and the force of it) in practically every sentence from elementary school that even though adults still find it very unpleasant, it's natural. It's also very contagious. Although I didn't want to use such language, I found that sometimes they just naturally came to the tip of my tongue because so many people around me did. In Korea, the starting-to-swear age seems to be getting even lower and lower. You see these little first-grade, second-grade kids use about four swear words in one sentence, and it's scary. They have these sweet little faces, and yet, they talk like gangsters.
But no matter how "natural" a part of our language they are, swear words still carry a feeling of vulgarity and provoke certain emotions. Otherwise, we wouldn't use them as much. They give a sense of thrill to the speaker. Steven Pinker explains the scientific reason behind this in his article "What the F***? Why We Curse:" "Curses provoke a different response than their synonyms in part because connotations and denotations are stored in different parts of the seems likely that words' denotations are concentrated in the neocortex, especially in the left hemisphere, whereas their connotations are spread across connections between the neocortex and the limbic system, especially in the right hemisphere. A likely suspect within the limbic system is the amygdala, an almond-shaped organ buried at the front of the temporal lobe of the brain (one on each side) that helps invest memories with emotion. In humans, the amygdala "lights up"--it shows greater metabolic activity in brain scans--when the person sees an angry face or an unpleasant word, especially a taboo word." This reaction is apparently also involuntary. "Once a word is seen or heard, we reflexively look it up in memory and respond to its meaning, including its connotation." A demonstration of this is the Stroop effect: people find it easier to read the word "red" when it is written in the color red than in a different color like blue. So for swear words, because of "the automatic nature of speech perception, an expletive kidnaps our attention and forces us to consider its unpleasant connotations."
However, some swear words' powers do decrease. Years ago when religion was more influential in the everday lives of Americans, "hell" and "damn" were extremely bad words. Now, due to secularization, they do not have the same force as they used to, and instead have been replaced by words like "fuck" and "shit." Pinker goes onto explain why we have chosen words that are synonyms of body parts or its excretions. I won't go into this here, but it is interesting to read. (Follow the link!)
It's funny that certain words can carry so much emotion and meaning behind it and provoke such strong responses. Television and movies can use this to their advantage to get more viewers. Even broadcast TV try to work around FCC regulations by using substitute profanities like "frak" on "Battlestar Galactica." (I don't watch this show, so I don't know exactly how this word is used.) The industry says they need such words to create a more realistic sense of the characters. For example, you can't have lawyers and tabloid journalists using only perfectly acceptable language.
What words people use say a lot about who they are. We go to lengths to avoid saying certain words because of how we'll be perceived if we use them. We have to consider the effects our language will cause. People and companies have to pay huge sums of money because of one word. Stars get written off the script because they used a certain word to a co-star. Fights are started in bars, sports games, school, etc. because of a single word. At times, it seems ridiculous almost. But it's all because language has power. Lots of it.

[Steven Pinker's article],0,2643366.story,,4898,00.html
[something funny]

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

#5. Language Barriers

Any bilingual or multilingual speaker will understand language barriers. A monolingual person might have experienced difficulties in communicating too, either with a foreigner or with someone who didn't understand the vocabulary the person used. Language barriers exist everywhere, and sometimes they are just slight, even funny miscommunications, but other times, they put people in danger.
Two articles that I read (links below) were about such situations, and the kinds of barriers were actually different:
The first one had to do with a word in one language not existing in another language. Apparently in Spanish, there is no word for "wheezing," which is critical to diagnosing asthma. Hispanics in the U.S. who have asthma are often diagnosed incorrectly because in the process of translation, wheezing becomes asphixiation or even snoring.
I have expressed my frustration before of words that I know in Korean and can't express in English and vice versa. One day, I was talking to my high school English Literature teacher (he was American) about such words and phrases (because he speaks a little Korean too), and I told him that I couldn't find an English phrase that would convey the meaning of "jja-jeung-na," which roughly means "I'm irritated/annoyed." Korean people use "jja-jeung-na" a lot in daily life. It's an emotion that we feel often I guess. But when I speak in English, saying "I'm annoyed" sounds really weird. Anyway, when my teacher heard this, he agreed with me and said that he and his friends who live in Korea had thought that too, and had decided that the best translation was "urgh!" It isn't really a word in the English language, but I think it is the best translation possible. He also said that it's not that American people don't feel this emotion of "jja-jeung," they just don't have a word for it. I thought it was really funny how a word so frequently used in one language didn't exist in another, when actually both groups of people felt the same emotion that it expressed.
Another word that I couldn't find a good equivalent for is "in-yeon." I actually wrote about this in my college application essay. Here's an excerpt from my essay: "There’s a Korean word, inyeon, that I love. I haven’t been able to find an appropriate equivalent for it in English, but in a few words, 'people who met by fate' comes close." Although I tried to translate it for my essay, those five words cannot convey the deep meaning of the word "inyeon." It's a kind of precious but coincidental meeting of people that seems to happen for a reason in the whole order-of-the-universe kind of way. The reason I like this word is because I think it describes all the people I've met and the relationships, from very brief to best friends, I've formed with them. It's a word that can express the value I hold for all the people I've met and will meet. But I can't convey the meaning of this word without a whole paragraph like this to someone who speaks only English and not Korean.
That's why I think there shouldn't be one language that takes over the world. Despite the obvious convenience it would bring, we would also be losing so much.

The second article was a barrier due to the lack of knowledge of a foreign language. In this case, they focused on Spanish, because there are many people in America who speak only Spanish fluently, but I'm sure that the problem is the same for any foreign language. As I've mentioned in my previous posts, America is a very heterogeneous society, and there are many people who have very limited English skills. They usually can survive without having to ever learn English, but sometimes, knowing English could be crucial to the continuance of their lives, as shown in the article. In medical situations where you need specific information to proceed with treatment of the patient, communication is vital. So the article talks about how doctors try to learn Spanish and carry around little "cheat sheets" and how translators and body language are used. However, these things aren't good enough. There are limits to these "solutions."

Just think for a moment about how important language is to our lives.

A doctor might not be able to save someone's life even though she has all the technical skills she needs. A patient might have to die simply because he couldn't communicate the exact source of his pain.

Language is important to the very SURVIVAL OF OUR BEINGS.
So appreciate language. :)

related links:

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

#4. Understanding Accents

The U.S. is a big salad bowl, as they say. It has the most diverse population in the world, and thus, also has many different "versions" of English. It is pretty common to come across someone who speaks English with an accent. Just at Stanford, you can find many professors and TAs who speak English in a "different" way. This is probably because the most eminent scholars in each field gather at this world-class institution. Which is great--except when we can't understand them. Despite their brilliance, we sometimes cannot benefit from such resources because of this language barrier. It's funny that we come across such a problem when we're all basically speaking the same language. Or are we?
Last week in class, I asked what the difference between a dialect and accent was, and Professor Boroditsky told us that it was really a broad spectrum. There was no clear distinction between dialect, accent, and even language, because what is just a different dialect in one region can seem like a whole different language to a person living in another region. So, when we come across these Indian, French, Spanish, Chinese, etc. accents, we have a hard time understanding them.
I remember just a few years back, I couldn't really understand British accents even. A Scottish teacher I came across in high school was almost incomprehensible at first. However, as we listen to English being spoken in such accents more and more, and we get used to them, they become easier to understand. I can speak Korean English and understand Korean English, but I bet a lot of people here couldn't. It's not a big accomplishment though--it's just because I have lived around it and am familiar with it.
So when I read this article/opinion (, I thought it was a bit arrogant of the author to say that people who don't speak "good" English shouldn't really work in America. It's true that if everyone had American accents, it would be a lot easier to communicate with each other. However, the U.S., by nature, is a place where diverse groups of people come together. Therefore, we "native American English" speakers should not dismiss people with accents as someone we do not have time to understand or someone who was too lazy to learn "proper" English, because who defines what is proper and what is not? A southern accent can be just as foreign as an Indian accent to some people, and who says the former is American and the latter is not?
There are efforts by many people to "neutralize" their accents so that they can be more competitive in the business world, but the truth is, after many years of one language, your tongue just can't make the new sounds of another language well (as I said in my previous post). There is no one correct form of English, in my opinion. All the different accents spoken by people who have come to America from another country are valid forms of American English. Even the new TOEFL iBT (internet-based testing) has included Australian and British accents in its listening section, because there are many professors with such accents, and students will have to be able to understand them when they come to study in America.
So we should make an effort to have a little more patience and get used to these various forms of English. Listen carefully to what they're saying, instead of just automatically thinking that you won't be able to understand them anyway. When you have done that, then you are a true American English speaker.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

#3. Baby Geniuses

I've always thought the way that babies learn language is amazing. It's almost miraculous. All of a sudden, babies start talking. My mom always tells me how annoying I was when I was two years old. I would fight with her constantly, now that I could speak. Apparently, babies just acquire language by listening to the people around them speak. I guess that's why adults are careful about what they say around their children.
Having taken French in high school and feeling like I can't speak a word of French still, I regret not learning French earlier. (Although my French skills probably are related to my lack of study more.)
It's a known fact that we learn languages more quickly when we're young. The scientific reason behind this is that when we're born, we have billions of brain cells, millions of which control language. These cells start to connect with each other and form complex pathways, and by the time we're ten years old, our brain has settled into our first language.
A recent study by a University of Pennsylvania psychologist has found that babies under 18 months old actively interpret the phonetic characteristics of their languages when learning new words. Apparently, when we're born, we are geniuses. We can differentiate all the slightly different sounds of all the languages in the world. However, as we acquire our native language, we lose the ability to discriminate non-native sounds and instead focus on becoming better at our own language. This makes sense, obviously. However, this is the reason that Japanese(and Korean also) adults cannot differentiate the English "r" and "l" sounds. Because there is no difference in these sounds in their languages. This leads to the mishaps of spelling we saw on the first day of class, like the "rocker room" and the "flesh juice."
Have you ever noticed the way people's speech change when they talk to babies? Apparently, there's even a name for this, "parentese." Usually, we call this "baby talk." According to research, this helps the babies learn language better. The exaggerations and other distortions of speech we use help the infants learn the key features of sounds. The repetition of words also strengthen language connections in the baby's brain. Babies' brains are like a sponge, just soaking in the words and sounds. Quoting Lila Gleitman of the University of Pennsylvania, "For the first three years, you can't go wrong, unless you lock them in a dark closet."
Babies also start to predict what sounds will come next by using the pattern of sounds within words to distinguish the ends of words. Babies "pay attention to sounds that cohere within words, compared to the less predictive sounds that change as they span a word boundary," according to Psychologist Richard Aslin of the University of Rochester. For example, take the phrase "pretty baby." When babies hear the first syllable of "pretty" (prih), they know that a sound like "tee" will follow rather than a sound like "gond" or "bay."
After researching this topic, I find even more amazing what we were capable of when we were babies. So if we're all language geniuses as infants, why don't we just learn as many languages as we can when we're young? It seems like the smart thing to do. In fact, one of the sites I researched ("Building Baby's Brain: Learning Language), recommends that parents start teaching multiple languages early. I partly agree with them because of my experience. My parents didn't have to spend tons of money on me so that I could learn English, nor am I a non-Korean-speaking-Korean (I speak Korean fluently--that phrase was kind of confusing, I know). However, I have heard that learning another language when you haven't even yet fully acquired your native language can negatively affect your ability to learn your first language. Unfortunately, I haven't researched this topic today and will leave it for a future post. And even if that is true, babies are still geniuses, in my opinion.

Links I used for this post:

Monday, October 1, 2007

#2. Dying Languages

I'm kind of continuing with the topic I touched on in the first post, but this time I've researched it, and the focus isn't only on Korean.
I was watching the Colbert Report last week, and Colbert had invited a guy who wrote a book titled "When Languages Die" and talked about endangered languages. I was excited because it was the day after we had started the seminar, and it was so closely related to our class! There was mention of how there are unique words in certain languages and that's why we should preserve them. A couple of the examples I remember are: "castrated reindeer" and "I'm going to stab you in the gut with a knife," both of which are (each) one word in a language that is dying out. Colbert was saying that we don't need such words and that if we do want to say something like that, we can just say it in a longer phrase.
I partly agree with him, but there is more to these languages than that. There is a whole culture and identity that binds people together. And there are some words whose meanings can't be exactly expressed in another language; the slight nuances are different or the object/emotion/situation doesn't really exist in the other culture for there to be a word for it.
There are about 6000 to 7000 languages in the world right now, and apparently, one language is disappearing every two weeks. There are many with only one speaker left. One article I read was about an old woman who is the last surviving speaker of Elem Pomo, a dialect of a North Californian Native American tribe. (link below)
According to NVTC (National Virtual Translation Center), a language is considered "endangered" when they are "on the brink of extinction, much like endangered species of plants or animals." It goes on to say: "Languages are considered to be endangered when parents are no longer teaching the language to their children and are not using it actively in everyday life. A language is considered to be nearly extinct when it is spoken by only a few elderly native speakers."
K. David Harrison, the professor who was on the Colbert Report, said that languages die out mostly because kids don't carry it on. They don't learn it because they don't need it. It's a Darwinian "survival of the fittest." I understand this, but I am also deeply saddened that this is fact. I think this applies to Korea too. Korean isn't anywhere near endangered, but as I said before, Koreans are crazy about learning English because their knowledge and fluency of it determines their future success. English is key to survival in Korea, so it's no surprise that it is hard to keep minority languages alive elsewhere. Colonization, economic progress, increased global communication are all responsible for the gradual disappearance of languages.
According to an article in 2003 by the Independent/UK, "of the 176 living languages spoken by the tribes of North America, 52 have become extinct since 1600. Of the 235 languages spoken by the Aboriginal Australians, 31 have disappeared." This is all due to colonization. In more modern terms of "colonization," English is taking over the world. My roommate and I were talking about this the other day, and she thought it was unavoidable that English become the dominant language (not that she is a proponent of it). According to, 80% of the webpages on the World Wide Web is in English, and as the internet is essential to our lives these days, this mere fact shows that we need English to have access to the world.
However, many people are working to preserve the "small" languages. There are organizations like the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, who work to educate the next generation in a particular language so that they will carry it on into the future. There have been success stories too; Hawaiian, Hebrew, and Irish Gaelic are three of them. We actually talked a little about these language resurrections in class. So it's not impossible to bring a language back to life. You just need a committed group of people.
So this blog entry ends on a hopeful note. Languages need to preserved for the richness of meaning, culture, and history that they contain. We, especially the students of this class, can play a role in this, by continuing to speak the languages that aren't necessarily the "fittest."

Here are some links that I used to write this blog entry:
"Only living Elem Pomo speaker teaches so she won't be the last"
Elem Pomo audio (you can listen to the lady speak Elem Pomo!)
Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival
Alarm Raised on World's Disappearing Languages (Independent/UK)
Language Death (BBC)
Languages Die, but Not Their Last Words (The NY Times)
As languages die away, so do pieces of history (The Seattle Times)
How Languages Die

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

#1. Introduction

Language has always fascinated me. I think this is mostly due to the fact that I speak two languages, Korean and English. People ask me which of the two I'm more comfortable with, and I reply, "Konglish." I need both languages to express everything that I'm feeling. Sometimes, even these two aren't enough. I need more words. I took French in high school, but I'm not that good at it. I plan to continue it here at Stanford, but I'm probably going to take it next quarter, as the classes this quarter is enough for me. Anyway, French will probably add to my vocabulary and allow me to express myself further and more precisely.
I think language does shape the person who speaks it. Especially for me, Konglish is sort of a metaphor for who I am. I'm not a 100% Korean, nor a 100% American. I'm a mixture of both. I've lived half my life in one country and half in the other. Both cultures have influenced me and shaped who I am, and language has been a part of that influence. Speaking two languages itself has defined me, but also what languages I speak, how I use them, and what they add to my knowledge has made me the person I am. For example, in Korea, being fluent in English is a big advantage in school and in society. Parents in Korea spend so much money on their children's English education. Companies hire people with high TOEFL or TOEIC scores. I made easy money tutoring middle school students solely because I was good at English. Foreigners from English-speaking countries pour into Korea because they can earn big bucks by just teaching their language. They don't even have to know Korean. Korean parents like the native speakers best.
The English craze in Korea has made me think a lot about how important English is, and how that is influencing Korean; whether Korean is slowly disappearing, what with kids learning English from the very early ages (some mothers listen to English educational tapes while they're pregnant); whether English will soon become the official international language; why Koreans seem to be more crazy about English than its neighboring countries like Japan and China.
I wrote much more than I first intended :p, but I guess this is why I enrolled in PSYCH 17N and why I'm interested in language and its influence. I hope I can learn a lot from this class and also share my thoughts. :)

And finally... Countries I've Visited! (not that many... hope to visit more)

create your own visited country map
or check our Venice travel guide
EDIT: I just noticed that the right side of this map doesn't show... FYI, Korea is in East Asia! And I've also been to Mongolia, which also doesn't show up on the map.