Language Lens

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

Archive for the category “Scholar”

Yesterday’s word, Tomorrow’s voice

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.” -T.S. Eliot

past and future

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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

How Language Seems To Shape One’s View Of The World

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*This is a fascinating article from the article of the same title by Alan Yu, from the health section of NPR.

Lera Boroditsky once did a simple experiment: She asked people to close their eyes and point southeast. A room of distinguished professors in the U.S. pointed in almost every possible direction, whereas 5-year-old Australian aboriginal girls always got it right.

She says the difference lies in language. Boroditsky, an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, says the Australian aboriginal language doesn’t use words like left or right. It uses compass points, so they say things like “that girl to the east of you is my sister.”

If you want to learn another language and become fluent, you may have to change the way you behave in small but sometimes significant ways, specifically how you sort things into categories and what you notice.

Researchers are starting to study how those changes happen, says Aneta Pavlenko, a professor of applied linguistics at Temple University. She studies bilingualism and is the author of an upcoming book on this work.

If people speaking different languages need to group or observe things differently, then bilinguals ought to switch focus depending on the language they use. That’s exactly the case, according to Pavlenko.

For example, she says English distinguishes between cups and glasses, but in Russian, the difference between chashka (cup) and stakan (glass) is based on shape, not material.

Based on her research, she started teaching future language teachers how to help their English-speaking students group things in Russian. If English-speaking students of Russian had to sort cups and glasses into different piles, then re-sort into chashka and stakan, they should sort them differently. She says language teachers could do activities like this with their students instead of just memorizing words.

“They feel generally that this acknowledges something that they’ve long expected, long wanted to do but didn’t know how,” Pavlenko says. “They felt that it moved them forward, away from teaching pronunciation and doing the ‘repeat after me’ activities.”

Pavlenko points to research showing that if you’re hungry, you’ll pay more attention to food-related stimuli, and she says speaking another language fluently works the same way.

One’s native language could also affect memory, says Pavlenko. She points to novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who was fully trilingual in English, French and Russian. She says Nabokov wrote three memoirs: He published one in English, and when another publishing house asked for one in Russian, he accepted, thinking he would simply translate his first memoir.

“When Nabokov started translating it into Russian, he recalled a lot of things that he did not remember when he was writing it in English, and so in essence it became a somewhat different book,” Pavlenko says. “It came out in Russian and he felt that in order to represent his childhood properly to his American readership, he had to produce a new version. So the version of Nabokov’s autobiography we know now is actually a third attempt, where he had to recall more things in Russian and then re-translate them from Russian back into English.”

Boroditsky also studied the differences in what research subjects remembered when using English, which doesn’t always note the intent of an action, and Spanish, which does. This can lead to differences in how people remember what they saw, potentially important in eyewitness testimony, she says.

John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, acknowledges such differences but says they don’t really matter. The experiments “show that there are these tiny differentials that you can find that seem to correlate with what language you speak,” McWhorter says. “Nothing has ever demonstrated that your language makes you process life in a different way. It just doesn’t work.”

He calls this “the language hoax,” which happens to be the title of his upcoming book.

As an example, he refers to modern speakers of a Mayan language, who also use directions that roughly correspond to compass points, rather than left or right. Researchers asked people, most of whom only knew this language, to do tasks like memorizing how a ball moved through a maze, which would have been easier had they thought about it in terms of left and right, rather than compass points. The participants were just as good at these tasks and sometimes better,leading the experimenters to conclude they were not constrained by their language.

Boroditsky disagrees. She says the counterexamples simply prove language isn’t the only factor affecting what we notice. Like studying to be a pilot or doctor, she says, learning to speak a different language fluently can also change us, and this means we can learn those changes, like learning any other skill.

“It’s like a very extensive training program,” Boroditsky says. “There’s nothing exotic about the effects that language has on cognition. It’s just the same that any learning has on cognition.

A New World

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

New world with clouds

 

Knowledge of language

“Knowledge of languages is the doorway to wisdom.”
~Roger Bacon

 

Doorway

In the words of Yeats

Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.
~William Butler Yeats

Yeats

 

http://pinterest.com/pin/250653535482593939/

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/

Different Language, Different Perspective

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.
~Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austrian-British philosopher

 

Diff language diff perspective-use this

Language, an Instrument in Thinking

“Language is not only the vehicle of thought, it is a great and efficient instrument in thinking.”
~Sir Humphrey Davy

Instrument

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