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.


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' - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/10/20/nbrute120.xml
Scientists identify a language gene - http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/10/1004_TVlanguagegene.html
FOXP2 and the Evolution of Language - http://www.evolutionpages.com/FOXP2_language.htm

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" (family.com, 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 brain...it 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] http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20071008&s=pinker100807&c=2
[something funny] http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2007/10/fucking-and-the.html

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 (http://www.progressiveu.org/170641-speaking-the-language-where-you-live), 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 EnglishEnglish.com, 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