Language Lens

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

Archive for the tag “linguistics”

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.

meditation one

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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.

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.

Regionalisms: Pop vs. Soda

  • Bob: “Would you like a pop?”
  • Linda: “A what?”
  • Bob: “Like a Coke or a Sprite, ya know – a pop?”
  • Linda: “I call it soda – where have you been living?”

Linguistics teaches about dialects within countries or idiolects, the dialects of individuals and even companies.  A classic example of regionalisms in the United States are the various terms for soda, or is it pop?  Even sodi-pop, a mix of the two, is a common term used in the mid-west.   Growing up in Colorado, to me it’s pop, and it will always be, unless I have to pedir una gaseosa in Spanish.

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According to the map, there are three primary names for the carbonated beverage: Pop, Soda and Coke with many variations throughout different regions.  Facebook friends throughout the country confirmed results of the map, and they also introduced a few terms that would be found in that “other” category.

  • My family in Illinois says “sodi pop.” 🙂
  • Bubbles! Junk! Fizz! …and Soda!
  • I get made of for calling it pop out here on the east coast.
  • Actually as a kid I called it soda-pop until my cousins informed me one summer that this was very wrong and teased me mercilessly until I chose a side.

How many more colors would be introduced to the map if it represented other English speaking countries?  These terms don’t even include the different terms from other English speaking countries.

  •  In Australia I believe it is just called fizzy drink… or by the name, except for lemon-lime soda which is referred to as lemonade both here and in the UK.

So, what do you call it and second question: Could you change the word or is this a regionalism that will always stick with you?  Again, I”m partial to “pop.”

http://pinterest.com/pin/250653535482103431/

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