Language Lens

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

Archive for the category “Education”

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!

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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.

The Voice of the People

It’s that time of year again, election time.  With living and teaching in another country, naturally I’ve talked a lot about the upcoming US election and just how the system works.   Like many Americans I’ve had to do my own homework on the infamous Electoral College.  It’s not so straight forward, and it’s certainly different than the Argentine way.   Here in Argentina I’ve looked for the Republican and Democrat equivalents and realized there aren’t any.   Despite there being some similarities in terms of how the government is structured, this is just one of the many differences.  For one voting in Argentina is mandatory.  The legal voting age was just lowered last week to 16 years old from 18; days before election all campaigning is prohibited, and the president is elected by winning the majority of the vote, the popular vote.

Surprisingly enough the President in the United States can be elected President without winning the popular vote.  How the President does win is by the ‘electoral vote’ in the Electoral College, which is the sum of Senators and Representatives (538 votes).  In the US government, each state has members of the House of Representatives based on the population of the state, and two Senators, regardless of the size of the state.  This is where the 538 number comes from, and in order to be elected, a candidate must have a majority of the electoral votes.  Since 1964, this number has been 270.

Evidently the Electoral College was not the Founding Fathers first choice, nor their only idea for how to elect a new president.  As the US Constitution was being drafted, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention considered five ways in choosing a President:

  1. By debate and vote in the U.S. Congress
  2. By the popular vote of the people
  3. By vote of the State legislatures
  4. By vote of the State governors
  5. By electors – the Electoral College system

Unable to agree on how to elect electors, the delegates eventually settled on the idea of leaving it up to each state.  The electors of the Electoral College are real people who are generally nominated or chosen by votes in their corresponding state.  They can be state elected officials, party leaders or people with some personal or political affiliation to the presidential candidates.  So when an American votes, they are voting for their state elector who then votes on behalf of the people in their state for the president.  In most cases the electors vote based on the majority vote in their state, but this is the law only in 27 states, including Washington D.C. as a state.  The other 24 states have no law requiring their electors to vote based on the majority vote and can instead choose the candidate of their choice.  For a breakdown of state law, go here.

This seems odd to me, although history has shown that generally the Electoral College has been true to public opinion.  In 2000, however, the famous election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was only the fourth time in the history of the country where the president was not elected based on the popular vote.  This time represented a great crisis in the country and regardless of opinions why, few will disagree that the country has only become more polarized ever since.  The popular vote didn’t matter in this case, so why would your vote matter today many wonder.  Historically only around 50%  of the population votes anyway (58% voted in the 2008 presidential election).  See the history here.

The validity of the Electoral College has been debated for years, and was close to being reversed in 1970, although obviously the bill for change wasn’t ultimately approved.  Today it comes down to a math game, and a president can be elected by not getting a single person’s vote in 39 states or Washington D.C., unless they win the popular vote in just 11 of these 12 states: California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia.  These are the most populated states in other words, with the most electoral votes.  This doesn’t even consider the now key-phrase in any election “Swing State.”

The Founding Fathers originally felt that this system would better represent the full population, as the states’ representatives would vote on behalf of their people.  Many things have changed since this time, however.  The two party dominant system was not in place then as it is today. Communications and news no longer take weeks to deliver and due to the media, the world has access to every word spoken by the candidates.  To the Founding Fathers, a tweet was just the name for the sound a bird made.

Each election the debate returns whether or not the Electoral College in fact represents the true public opinion.  Those who oppose the method have many criticisms, most of all being that a president can be elected without winning the popular vote.  Although this has happened in history, proponents of the method will say that it has happened few times and that the Electoral College is a weighed voting system that is designed to give more power to the states with more votes, although it allows small states to swing an election; thus the system considers and better represents smaller rural areas, and wouldn’t allow larger metropolitan or highly populated areas to dominate an election alone.

Unfortunately the country is very polarized today and only gets worse during election time.  Later this week some people will rejoice and others will be tremendously disappointed.  Politics aside, I truly hope the voice of the peopleis heard rather than it being a game of mathematics.

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http://edition.cnn.com/ELECTION/2004/special/president/electoral.college/more.html

http://www.debate.org/opinions/is-the-united-states-electoral-college-a-fair-way-to-conduct-the-presidential-election

http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/thepoliticalsystem/a/electcollege.htm

http://uselectionatlas.org/INFORMATION/INFORMATION/electcollege_procon.php

http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/thepoliticalsystem/a/electcollege_3.htm

http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/electors.html

http://people.howstuffworks.com/question4722.htm

http://pinterest.com/pin/250653535482440539/

Learned fools are still foolish

The learned fool writes his nonsense in better language than the unlearned, but it is still nonsense. ~Benjamin Franklin

 

Nonsense

http://pinterest.com/pin/250653535482103926/

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