Language Lens

A blog about life, discovery and culture through the lens of language and linguistics.

Archive for the category “Education”

The learning process…and the process of “fossilization”

There are many theories on how we learn language, therefore there are many methods on how to teach.  Students are different and for adults what is even more different are their life circumstances and schedules.  We can’t always have the “ideal” situation for learning by moving to London or Washington DC, and what is “ideal” anyway?  The practicalities of life play a big part in language acquisition, and this is simply a reality.

English is a unique case as it’s spoken in many more countries than just the UK, the US, Australia, Ireland etc.  It’s the “common language” among people in an international environment and for traveling.  English is also unique because we have regular exposure to it, and it dominates the entertainment industry.  This is how so many people learn on their own by immersing themselves into TV series, podcasts or music.

Although it’s wonderful to have the ability to learn on your own, it presents some challenges and limitations as well.

  • Many times there are “holes” or “gaps” in a student’s knowledge – things that weren’t learned well from the start, therefore leaving a ‘hole’ or ‘emptiness’ in the flow of knowledge.
  • We naturally have “interference” from our first language onto a second, so we “transfer” things from our mother tongues onto English.

Both common sources of mistakes – holes and interference – lead to “fossilization”, which occurs when a mistake is repeated enough times without correction that it becomes a habit.   The mistakes technically harden in your brain leaving an imprint, like a fossil.

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… but rest assured, there is no challenge too difficult to overcome.

Fossilized mistakes are possible to correct.  It just takes work and more than that, it takes greater awareness, which is the first step to any change.  Meditation techniques teach that “what you feed will grow.”  In other words, what thoughts and beliefs you constantly reinforce by repeating them will grow stronger in your mind.  The process is the same regarding language, including how we talk to ourselves as we learn, how we react if and when a mistake occurs and those darn “fossilized mistakes” themselves.  The more we repeat them, the more they take root.

This leads me to the four general steps in the learning process:

  1. A student makes mistakes and gets correction from a teacher. There is no limit to how long this process might take and it’s a more passive process for the student.
  2. Eventually the student starts to “self-correct” and this is when you know language acquisition is shifting from passive to active. Self-correction is possible due to greater awareness, which is the first step to any change.
  3. The mistake is made once in a while, always self-corrected when noticed.
  4. Eventually the mistake disappears. The hardened fossil has been broken open and thus dissolved.

This matters anywhere you learn another language, but since there are around 184 nationalities living in Brussels and around 104 languages present, this makes “interference” widespread and there are few native speakers to learn from as you would in London or Washington DC.  If everyone is influenced by their first language, then interference comes in many forms in Brussels.  Some people call the English spoken in international communities such as this “Globish”, “Eurish”, “Euro-English” or simply “International English.”

Some observations and tips for language learning based on my teaching experience:

  1. Frequency is more important than duration of time in order to retain and memorize information. For example, it’s better to learn a language in small increments of time (30 minutes a day) instead of a two hour class all at once.
  2. For improving comprehension it’s better to stay with one general accent and get used to the sounds, tones and expressions before moving on to another. Some students think it’s best to change their teacher and hear different accents all the time, but it actually works in the opposite effect as your ear never adapts fully to one. This is to focus your comprehension and limit the amount of information you receive at once.
  3. When you aren’t focused and can’t concentrate, it’s best to take a short walk, try to meditate or find whatever means you can to relax before learning begins. Being relaxed and calm is more important than knowledge or skills, because when we aren’t relaxed, it blocks us from speaking at our full potential and therefore the knowledge we have matters less.

Since language is best learned with more frequency than of duration of time…since greater awareness is needed to make a change… and since “fossilization” is real and occurs when students don’t get corrective feedback, targeted conversation is the way.

Remembering what meditation reveals: “What you feed will grow.”

If conversation isn’t guided and if there isn’t someone available to point out “interference” or “fossilized mistakes”, then we continue to feed these errors and find ourselves in a vicious cycle of habit.  Fossilized mistakes are just that – they’ve happened enough where they are now habit.  By being more “mindful” of your learning, by targeting problem areas, and by being in a calm environment to do so, you can learn to break the habit of “fossilization” and then be in a better position to continue learning on your own!

 

 

 

 

 

When brands meet grammar

We are all well aware of top brand names: Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Nike, or Apple.  Love a brand or hate it, it is a way of giving identity to a product, service or line of either. A brand is also a way to differentiate a product/service from its competitors, which is defined as its (brand) “positioning”.   Both Motel 6 and Hilton for example are in the same business and are recognized names, however, they do not compete with one another as they are in different classes and have different product “positioning.”

According to the annual study by Forbes, in 2017 Apple tops the list as the most valuable brand in the world for the seventh consecutive year, worth $170 billion.  Google is the second most valuable brand, followed by Microsoft, Facebook and then Coca-Cola.  Global brand recognition is a true success for a company, but what about when a brand meets grammar and becomes so well recognized that it surpasses language barriers or even becomes part of common everyday language?  Apple for example is used by millions of people who have little to no knowledge of English at all and yet they still say and recognize the name.  Google is a great modern example that takes it beyond solely recognition.  It started as a simple search engine and today is a common verb meaning to search for something online!  Although Merriam-Webster tells us that “to google” is to use Google specifically to find something online, who uses anything other than Google really?  …. Ok, some of you, but most of us wouldn’t consider using anything else when believe it or not there are 140+ options out there!  Yahoo is the second most used option, but somehow “yahoo it” just doesn’t sound as good as “google it” … and who can deny that “googlealo” (Google it) just rolls off the tongue so well!

Googlealo

*Translation: “When you don’t know something, Google it.”

Other marketing success stories are products like Bandaid, Kleenex, Q-tip or Gillette in Spanish speaking countries where it’s the common name for a standard razor.  These are the everyday terms for the products themselves when they actually come from merely a brand name.  Due to the dominance of American brands and recognition in movies, many cultures and languages adopt a brand name for a product.  It happens often but still, few brands will reach this level of recognition.  How it happens is something for another blog post, but starting with children, during their learning and formative years is definitely one example.

A friend of mine is a teacher for young kids in Barcelona, Spain and upon doing a grammar exercise of word opposites, a young student showed the influence of a brand.  In the final example, when “DIA” (day) was really asking for NOCHE (night) as the answer, he responded with Carrefour, (a French) supermarket competitor of another (Spanish) chain called Dia.

Is this:

a.) a comical example of a young learner b.) a case of marketing101  c.) both

I say BOTH!

opposites

 

 

 

Spell “sardoodledom” please!

Spanish, like many of the other Romance languages, has a transparent spelling system, which means once you know how to say the basic letters, you can pronounce nearly anything.  It means that the letters will (almost) always be pronounced the same way.  If only English were this way!  Instead, it has strange letters popping up, like the “h” in spaghetti or the “b” in doubt, and don’t even get me started on the vowels!  Technology is making spelling less and less important to people as well, therefore “a lost art” if you will.   According to Mencap, a third of British adults struggle with spelling due to over-reliance on spell checks and technology, and for people over 18, one out of every five has difficulty spelling tricky words.

Should we all return to the spelling bee days?  Until learning that English has an “opaque”spelling system, also known as deep orthography, I assumed all elementary students participated in spelling bees, some spelling “e-s-c-u-e-l-a” while others spelled “s-c-h-o-o-l.”  But no!  English students need spelling bees because of the spelling issues, difficulties, and rarities.  As English speakers, we must study the spelling because we can’t guess based on solely how the word sounds!  This is why many consider English pronunciation difficult, as one doesn’t know how to say the word by reading it alone.  And it’s also why those regular verbs in the past can get so confused…

So, next time you want to ask your Catalan or Colombian friend about those dreaded spelling competitions, think twice!  They didn’t do it!  But you could ask a French, Arabic or Hebrew speaker perhaps…as their spelling system is like English–opaque and unclear! The question remains if videos like this appear in those languages and cultures!   Spell “sardoodledom” please!

To be in the black vs. to be in the red, that is the question

To be in the black vs. to be in the red, that is the question.   These phrases are common in Business English, and despite black usually having a negative connotation, it is positive in this example.  “To be in the black” means for a company to be making profit, to have money in its account in other words, where “to be in the red” means the contrary–to have a negative balance in its account and owe the bank.  Both terms can apply to a person, a company or an account.

  • XYZ company is finally in the black and seems to be recovering financially!
  • ABC company on the other hand is in the red and continues to lose clients, unfortunately.

These terms come from the days of manual accounting, where a ledger was used to manually keep track of funds.  A positive flow of money was reported in black ink, and an expense was reported in red ink.  The way I wrote that makes it sound like a historic practice which it isn’t, but let’s face it, technology has replaced and changed many practices including how balance sheets and income statements are done.  Just remember this: a company wants to be “in the black“, as they want to be making money!

This is the case for English, but be careful as the phrases do no translate directly into Spanish!  “Estar en negro” or “trabajar en negro” means to work illegally, and translates instead to “working under the table in English,” which means avoiding taxes and earning in cash for example.  It doesn’t refer to a foreigner working in a country illegally.  “Estar en blanco” (literally, to be in the white) means to be working legally, to be paying taxes on wages and reporting income.

under-the-table

  • Estoy trabajando en negro por ahora.  I am working under the table for the moment.
  • No extraño mi trabajo en blanco, porque gano mejor en negro.  I don’t miss my registered/legal job, because I’m earning better under the table.

A little Business English for you folks, and my favorite Rolling Stones song with a fitting title: Paint it Black, but don’t be fooled by the name.  The lyrics are clearly about someone who is likely “in the red” instead.

Exactly this, another way to think about things!

another perspective

Find the Beat!

I remember how school changed for me after starting piano lessons; it all of a sudden got easier.  And then there were the really really smart kids who had great grades, scored high on all of the placement tests and were perhaps “smarter than the rest.” I noticed that many of them played an instrument, primarily the piano, and I remember thinking then that perhaps there was a correlation.

And absolutely there is a connection.  Nina Kraus, of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in Illinois,  says, “when we play a musical instrument we are exercising and making important electrical connections, or pathways, in our brains.  This might even help our brains when we are trying to learn another language, or a new subject in school.”  In another study related to reading Nina argues that “kids who are poor readers have a lot of difficulty doing this motor task and following the beat…It seems that the same ingredients that are important for reading are strengthened with musical experience.  It may be that musical training, with its emphasis on rhythmic skills, can exercise the auditory-system, leading to less neural jitter and stronger sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential for learning to read,” she said.  This study adds to the emerging (and fascinating!) correlation between musical-rhythmic skills and performance in other areas related to language, such as non-verbal elements and kinaesthetic learning.

Another recent study with jazz musicians shows that the part of the brain that is activated while playing together is the same area that is related to syntax of a language – the order of words.  In the study, one musician would play four bars and the next would make up four bars in return, to compliment the previous sound.  They were improvizing  and having a “music-like conversation” really, which makes the connection to syntax so interesting.  The study showed that even as they were not playing and were waiting their turn simply listening to the sound of the other, “the brain wasn’t resting. The musicians were processing what they were hearing to come up with new sounds that were a good fit.”  This reminds me of when we are in a conversation and sometimes are thinking about what we are going to say in return rather than just listening to the other talk.  You know it´s happened to you too!

A lot of language learning success is related to being able to recognize and repeat patterns, and what else is full of patterns and rhythms – music.  The intonation of a language, not to be confused with pronunciation or accent, is an essential part of mastering a second language and has all to do with hearing rhythms and tones.  There are countless examples of music and its relation to language learning.  Whether you learn a second language by imitating rhythms and sounds or by listening to a song and learning the new language as a result, find the beat to help you in your language learning process!

Musical beats

A New World

“Speak a new language so that the world will be a new world.”
~Rumi

New world with clouds

 

Unfolding Language, Unfolding Life – Podcast Summary

Children of bilingual parents, or parents of two different languages, start to develop a bilingual brain in the womb.  So by the time they are born, their brains are not the same as a monolingual child.

By the age of 3 of 4, kids have already acquired thousands (yes thousands) of words and complex grammars.  Children in fact can speak many grammars that they were never taught!  (If only learning a second language were this easy you’re thinking.)  Although imitation can certainly help, in truth this podcast tells us that young children don’t learn by imitation and instead learn by where they are at in their personal development.  This is why a little girl will repeatedly say “My teacher holded the baby rabbits,” no matter how many times her mother corrects and tells her that it’s “My teacher held the baby rabbits.”  Eventually she will graduate to a higher level and use the irregular verbs, but until then, she is learning aspects of language by finding and recognizing patterns in the language she hears around her, rather than by simply imitating others.

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This simply touches the surface of the information available related to child and language development.  I encourage you to listen to this podcast if you get some time to hear it from a true expert, Jean Berko Gleason, a psycholinguist from Boston University who is credited with developing the “wug test,” a test of children’s knowledge of morphology.

Listen to Unfolding Language, Unfolding LIfe here.

In the ‘Brain Rooms’ of Men and Women

We’ve all heard of the book “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus,” and I’ll admit that I even read it many years ago.  Raise your hand now if you did too.  But hey, I don’t remember much of what the book said.  I’ve instead lived it like all of you!  One thing that this book clearly achieved was coining a common phrase to describe something that we all know as fact: men and women are different.

The obvious, we are different genders, but we make decisions differently, we communicate differently and we simply think differently.   Here are a few facts that I learned from an entertainment website and blog that I’m beginning to love: Unusual Facts.  I’ve shortened the list, so refer to Unusual Facts for the full story and the original sources.  Meg’s disclaimer: There are always exceptions, so dont take this too personally!

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1. MULTI-TASKING
Women – Multiple process
Womens’ brains are designed to concentrate on multiple tasks at a time.  For example, women can watch TV, talk on the phone and cook all at the same time.

Men –  Single Process
Mens’ brains are designed to concentrate on only one task at a time.  Men cannot watch TV and talk on the phone at the same time.  They either watch TV, talk on the phone or cook… (usually) separately.  I see the pros and cons related to multi-tasking and driving, particularly related to stereotypes about female drivers.

2. LANGUAGE
Women can easily learn many languages, but can’t find solutions to problems, where men can’t easily learn languages but can easily solve problems.  This is why in average a 3 year old girl has three times higher vocabulary than a 3 year old boy!

3. LYING
When men lie to women face to face, they often times get caught.  Womens’ brains observe facial expressions 70% of the time, body language 20% of the time and words coming from the mouth only 10% of the time.  Mens’ brains do not operate the same, so it’s technically easier for women to lie to a man face to face.

4. PROBLEMS SOLVING
If a man has a lot of problems, his brain clearly classifies the problems and puts them in individual “brain rooms” and then finds the solution one by one.  Women on the other hand do not classify their problems in the same way and instead want “someone to hear them out.”

5. UNHAPPINESS
If women are unhappy with their relationships, they can’t concentrate on their work. If men are unhappy with their work, they can’t concentrate on their relationships.

6. SPEECH
Women use indirect language in speech, but men use direct language.

7. HANDLING EMOTION
Women talk a lot without thinking. Men act a lot without thinking.

And that’s where they say “That’s all Folks!”

To be or not to be… Tolerant

Tolerance.  It’s a noun and a politically-charged word, which naturally some preach and others detest.  It and its adjective form, tolerant, have been used in a social context for years and continue to be used, just for different reasons.  I read it in fact today in the comments of an article, “I think you need to start becoming more tolerant of others.”

Spanish is very precise with its verbs and has two verbs for the single verb ‘to be’ in English, ser and estar.  In general ser is the choice to talk about personality traits and things that are more permanent, like nationality or telling time, where estar is the choice for things that are temporal, like feelings or location.  This topic proves to be difficult for English speakers who are used to yet one verb.  In order to differentiate between a permanent trait and a temporal state, we English speakers have to use more words… more grammar, such as adverbs:

  • The water is cold.  (It’s still unclear whether the water is permanently cold or just temporarily cold.)
  • The water is always cold.  (Adding the adverb ‘always’ shows that cold is the water’s permanent state.)

In Spanish, the meaning of a sentence changes based on the verb choice, and not by adding extra words:

  • Ella es feliz.  (She is a happy person.) (Ser)
  • Ella está feliz.  (She is happy, in the moment for some reason.) (Estar)

It struck me recently when I was reminded that the adjective “tolerant” in Spanish goes not with estar, a temporal state verb, but with ser, the permanent state verb.  Through the grammar lens, I say it’s a great message: tolerance isn’t a temporary state that comes and goes, it’s something that we must ‘be’ in the diverse world we live in.

I think so at least.

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And PS – this was about the word ‘tolerant’ and not the verb ‘to tolerate.’  That is another subject for another day.

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