Language Lens

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

Archive for the category “Language Insight”

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!

 

 

 

 

 

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Football and English: The Power to Unite

It’s that time of year again, the World Cup.  The United States didn’t qualify and after Argentina and Spain lost, I naturally went for where I live now–Belgium.  The team was doing great and made it to the semi-finals!  I speak in the past tense, because it all ended last night losing to France.  Despite losing, however, people still honked their horns and celebrated the team’s success, which put a smile on my face.  These past few weeks have been exciting and beautiful as the occasion united people who otherwise have little to nothing in common.  This is the power of sports, and football in particular.

Brussels is a conglomerate of people from all over the world, and finding a real “Belgian identity” is hard for a few reasons.  First of all as stated in the last blog post, there are approximately 184 nationalities living within the City of Brussels!  And secondly, Belgium itself is divided.  Unlike some countries where division is due to race or religion, the modern explanation for division in Belgium is  language.  In Flanders they speak Flemish, a dialect of Dutch. In Wallonia, they speak French, although a Latin language Walloon was their original language and has declined in use little by little, today being spoken by few.

The World Cup can be a time for unity.  You cheer for your team, then you go for another if need be.  You may not watch the games or be a fan, but you still like to see people on the street smiling and filled with excitement.  In Belgium, bars were filled with people of all kinds.  Bars were filled with Flemish and Walloons, matching the demographic of the team in fact!  They had to unite to play as a team, so how could they overcome the language division that existed between them?

I overheard some Irishmen talking last night about how the team communicated, and it wasn’t by speaking the others’ language.  Instead, it was by speaking English together!  A trend that is starting to happen bit by bit is that Flemish and Walloons are choosing to speak English together instead of each other’s language.  It seems English is able to bridge the divide somehow.

Belgium lost which was disappointing for many but good news came as well as a lost football team in Northern Thailand were rescued.  This was a miraculous story with divers from many countries working around the clock to save the boys.  When the boys were found, fortunately some spoke enough English to be able to communicate with the British divers who found them.  When EU Parliament workers have a meeting, it’s English that is spoken to reach the numerous nationalities represented.  Historically English was a language of submission and cultural domination, but today it’s the language used to unite groups and ease communication barriers.  English today is a common lingua franca across the globe.

The World Cup is a time of unity and cheers come in many languages, but when more than “Go” “Stop him” or “Shit” (among others) are needed, English is the language in common.  Football and English, together or separate, they are true forces that can unite!

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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!

Language, it shapes many things in our lives

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” ~Benjamin Lee Whorf

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.

Whiskey: I stand with the ‘e’

Well gosh… it’s been many months since I wrote for this dear blog, and I hate to let so much time pass, but it’s been a busy year… with a lot of movement.  One part of that movement was returning to the “homeland”, she says with an Irish brogue.  I like to tease like that, as many of us Americans come from Irish ancestry, and especially a family with the last name of Kelly, the second most common last name in Ireland after Murphy.  Irish roots come from both sides of my family in fact, and nearly all my life someone made mention of just how Irish my name is.  So… it was no wonder that I wanted to go and see it someday.  That day arrived this past summer when I finally made it to the Emerald Isle!

My brother is the Guinness drinker in the family, and I went to the Guinness Museum in his honor, but I will admit it’s not my favorite brew.  What I prefer but don’t drink often is whisky.  I mean whiskey.  Both are actually right!  I was told before about this spelling difference, but didn’t quite understand it until I went to both Scotland and Ireland and saw it for myself.  These two countries take their whiskey seriously!  In the gaelic language, whiskey originated from the word uisce (Irish) /uisge (Scottish), meaning “water.”  Distilled alcohol in Latin (aqua vitae) is technically “water of life”, so therefore combine Distilled and Whiskey into Gaelic, and you get uisce beatha (Irish gaelic) and uisge beatha (Scottish gaelic), meaning “water of life” and indeed that is how it is viewed.

There are two general ideas about the spelling change.  First that it’s just a regionalism between the two countries, like color and colour from the US vs. Britian.  And secondly that the spelling refers to where it is from.  After going to the Whiskey Museum in Dublin, I attest that the second is true!  Whisky without an e is always for the Scottish versions, often called Scotch for Scotch Whisky.  Spelling it as “whiskey” in fact can be quite offensive.  As the two countries were competing back in the day and still dispute over who has the best spirit to offer the world, the ‘e’ was added to the Irish version for “excellent” to show its superiority.  Today much “whiskey” is spelled as such in the US as well, which isn’t surprising after visiting and seeing just how tied the two countries are.  The only other place I saw a comparable number of American flags is in America itself, and tour guides’ best explanation for this was “to welcome the American tourists.”  In the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013, nearly 33.3 million Americans (10.5% of the total population) reported Irish ancestry, where Ireland itself has nearly 6.4 million lads and lassies!  So many of us consider ourselves Irish American, although I learned saying American Irish is more accurate, and what the Irish think is more appropriate as well!

So… now you know a bit about the word difference.  This isn’t just a spelling variation or a regionalism.  It truly shows where you stand in terms of preference and allegiance.  I stand with the ‘e’.

Here are a few photos from my journey: the Irish Whiskey Museum, the Cliffs of Moher, the Dingle Peninsula, St. Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin, Ring of Kerry, Galway, Blarney Castle, and Killarney National Park!

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Native Speakers as the Language Authority

Language is a living thing… constantly changing and transforming in the face of modern society.  Spanish, unlike English, has an authority or “regulatory body” which monitors the language and works to promote linguistic unity between different Spanish speaking regions: the Real Academia Española (RAE), Royal Spanish Academy in English. The RAE works to ensure a common standard in the language, following its founding charter: “… to ensure the changes that the Spanish language undergoes […] do not break the essential unity it enjoys throughout the Spanish-speaking world.”   Since English has no official regulatory body, some suggest the Queen is that authority or dictionaries like the Oxford English dictionary or the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but in the end, dictionaries are just a collection of words and language is so much more than that.

There are many more countries in the world that speak Spanish compared to English, however, there are many more English speakers in the world as it´s the most common second language to learn and is a lingua franca.  English as a lingua franca (ELF) has emerged as a way to explain communication in English between speakers with different first languages. One in every four English speakers in the world are native speakers, therefore the majority are speaking English as their second language!  Since English doesn´t have this authority like the RAE for Spanish, it will naturally be influenced by many people who speak it as only a second language and not even from just natives.  Singlish is an example: colloquial English spoken in Singapore.  Although English is an official language in Singapore, Singlish is a dialect with unique intonations and grammar stemming from the influence of other languages in the region, such as Malay and Chinese.  It is a regional variation of English–a dialect in other words–but it´s not the same as comparing US and British English as these come from Standard English and are not influenced by other languages in the case of Singlish.

Despite so many people in the world speaking English at a near native level, it is still the native speakers who are thought to have authority in this according to Barbara Seidlhofer in her article English as a lingua franca.  Seidlhofer says that, “there is still a tendency for native speakers to be regarded as custodians over what is acceptable usage.”  Perhaps the RAE equivalent in English are the native speakers themselves.

Despite RAE´s controls, there is a lot of creativity with new words in Spanish.  I love how you can make a verb for almost anything, like matear (as in to drink mate), boludear (to be/act as a “boludo” in Argentina), and my personal favorite: salpimentar (to salt and pepper your food.)  With the internet and technology, news words are constantly being added to the English vocabulary, and English has its own way of creating new words, such as by combining two ideas and/or concepts (like in the examples below) or to make a verb from a noun for the action, such as “to google.”  The following is a summary of some brilliant new terms that really reflect culture in the United States and/or in English speaking countries.  Some made me laugh a bit too!  For a full list of terms from the original article “25 brilliant words to add to your vocabulary”, go here.

afterclap askhole beerboarding cellfish chairdrobe chiptease destinesia dudevorce hiberdating internest nonversation textpectation

I have been back in the United States for about four months, and I can´t say that I have heard any of the following terms used, but I wouldn´t be surprised if I started hearing them, or if they are already used.  Who hasn´t bought a bag of chips and in the end it´s more air than chips?  And “chairdrobe” is great for me, as I have done this my entire life!

These terms are definitely better understood by native speakers, as they join together two words or two ideas to describe a new phenomena, which may not even exist in the same way in a different culture.  Furthermore, these words aren´t “real words” (yet) that one can find in a dictionary.  They are reflections of culture influencing language to create new words for new activities. New words come from new ways of life, and again, language is always changing and evolving, just like life around us.

Exactly this, another way to think about things!

another perspective

Connecting meditation and language learning

I come to you almost two weeks after finishing my first meditation retreat.  This was for a technique called Vipassana, which is one of the most ancient forms of meditation from India.  Until about a year ago I had never heard of it, and until about two weeks ago I knew nothing about it.  I had tried several meditation techniques, never getting real direction and only getting frustrated in the process.  Maybe you relate.  Like everyone who starts, I was trying to stop my mind, but how can you do that really? And especially when you have a mind that will never seem to stop running? They say “mente a mil” in Spanish, literally the idea of your mind being at “speed one thousand.”

I am no expert and am pretty young in the meditation world honestly, but I now understand the point and have experienced some real results of my own.  Meditation can be practiced in many forms: in cleaning, drawing, focusing on breath, counting breath, scanning the body for sensations, the list goes on.  You are simply learning to observe your mind rather than stopping it, and each technique has a different approach on how to do it.  By observing, you become aware, and awareness is the first step to any kind of change.

Now I want to talk about language learning, and of course since this is a language blog!  A wise woman once taught me about this thing that happens when acquiring language.  First you become aware of a mistake you are making either on your own or with a teacher´s help. Then you get repeated correction from a teacher (and realize just how much you are making that mistake.) Thirdly, you start to correct yourself, and finally, the error is no longer an error and has been converted, corrected, transformed…however you want to call it.  There is something in linguistics called “fossilization” which is an error that has happened so much or was never learned correctly to begin with that it has “hardened” so to speak, leaving an imprint as a fossil does.  It´s a mistake that a student has made so many times that it has become part of their natural speech, for example.  In the world of meditation, you could call it taking root.

As I worked to find my bliss at the Vipassana retreat, I realized it wasn´t bliss at all really.  It was hard work sitting up for hours at a time and trying to focus.  I had some moments of bliss but there is nothing like the bliss of seeing some change in your life.   I “scanned my body” (and for anyone who has done it, you know what I mean) and throughout the week thoughts came to me, things I hadn´t thought about in years and others that came around and around again.  Some of these thought patterns we all have seem impossible to change, just like a fossilized mistake!

So I´m back to the real world, the hectic world that it is.  Those ten days in silence enjoying nature, finding inner peace, and searching for the right meditation position were blissful now that I compare it to the city noise.  Maybe it is  just that I´m back to the typical routine, and it feels intense because I had never calmed my mind like that before?  Why do we meditate really?  To find peace, tranquility…equanimity… equanimity… equanimity.  We do it to change our minds and to evolve, because you can evolve past the broken record that goes on and on in your head.  Awareness is the key to any kind of freedom, even freedom from language mistakes.  You too can correct and evolve past fossilized mistakes.  It just takes some work.

I had many days to sit and meditate and admittedly think about other things too.  One thing I thought about was this blog post in fact and the connection to fossilized mistakes and roots in our mind.  These things can change… it just takes some work.

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Why “Soccer” and not “Football”? Blame it on the Brits!

So it`s the World Cup and what a joy to be in a place like Argentina during this time.  Just like any other event, be it a concert or local football game, the people are as passionate as you can imagine.  When Argentina plays, the streets are empty and you hear shouting and screaming from all the buildings around.   Restaurants and homes are decorated in flags of light blue and white.  Many offices are equipped with extra monitors and TVs to watch the games while working.  Store are closed in order to not miss a moment, and no one–except two foreigners (myself included)–came to a class that was scheduled before game 2 on a Saturday.  Whether you like football or not, it`s hard to not get sucked into the excitement somehow!

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I`m American and grew up watching “the other football.”   You know – the one that does not have to do with feet at all?  Come on America!  Why do we have to be different than the rest of the world?  I have been annoyed by this, just like many of you, but there is a reason for it and it`s not American arrogance.  In fact, it`s the Brit`s fault!

football vs. soccer

 

The word “soccer” is a diminutive of association, as in As-soc-iation Football.   In the early 1800`s, a group of British universities took the medieval game “football”  and started playing their own versions of it, all with different rules.  In order to standardize things across the country, however, these games were categorized under different organizations and given different names.  One version of the game played with only hands became “Rugby Football.”  Another version was called  “Association Football.”   Rugby Football later became “Rugger” for short, and Association Football later became “Assoccer,” quickly changing to “Soccer” alone.

Eventually Rugby and Soccer both spread across to the United States  in the early 1900`s.  What was known as “Gridiron” in Britian was called Football in America and  “Association Football” kept the name “Soccer.”   The Brits also kept using the term  “Soccer” for a large part of the 20th century; in fact between 1960 and 1980, “Soccer” and “Football” were “almost interchangeable” terms in Britain.  The first documented case of the sport being called by the term “Football” was in 1881, 18 years after it was first called “Soccer” (or officially “Association Football.”)

Soccer is not as popular in the United States, although things are changing.  Of non-Brazilian fans visiting this year`s World Cup for example, the greatest number of fans come from the US!  Personal economics makes a difference of course, but that is more than neighboring Argentina fans.  Vamos USA!

So… it will be hard to overcome the many stereotypes against Americans and “Soccer” but remember this, it isn`t our fault!  I was surprised too!

 

 

Sources for this post:

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/why-americans-call-it-soccer-2014-6#ixzz35ZcK2qcp
http://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-2783,00.html

http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2010/06/the-origin-of-the-word-soccer/

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