Category Archives: Language learning

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What if the President Couldn’t Read?

2E131CE400000578-3303860-image-m-27_1446654140207A rumor has been circulating about our new president’s level of literacy. First suggested (I think) in a blog post for The Times of Israel, the notion that the president not only doesn’t like to read but cannot read above the fifth-grade level of his campaign rhetoric has made the rounds of Samantha Bee, the Daily Kos and other left-wing opinion makers. I am not here to spread that rumor, but to ask what it might mean for our understanding of both this unusual president’s character and the fut…

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How Not to Teach Chinese

Chinese_characters_logoVictor Mair wrote on Language Log last month about a test in what appears to have been a third-year class in Chinese at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, in New York. What made it news in China (see in particular this story in the South China Morning Post) was that the test involved giving synonyms for a number of words written with Chinese characters so rare and archaic that many Chinese people were prepared to admit on social-media sites that they would not have been able to pass the …

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‘Arrival’: Just Say Yes

louisebanks

Spoiler alert: I will make no attempt to avoid revealing plot points as I discuss the celebrated recent science-fiction movie Arrival. First, I figure if you’re destined to see it you’ve probably already seen it. And second, it’s actually too deep to spoil, and the whole theme of the story suggests that it couldn’t be spoiled anyway.

Joe Fruehwald organized a group outing to see Arrival in Edinburgh, and the linguists who attended were all agreed on one thing: Seeing a movie give any kind of de…

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The Anglophone Millstone

sprechen

I’ve owned up in an earlier post to the rather disgraceful fact that I can’t speak German despite having once spent 18 months living in Germany. I know how to to produce the sounds of German accurately; I can read the language aloud from a text, and pronounce everything correctly — I just draw a blank on most of what the text means.

I have the necessary motivation. A key determinant of success at learning a language is the degree to which you like the speakers and want to interact with them and…

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Babble, Brabbeln, Babiller, Balbettare

firstwordsI’ve spent the last month babbling. I like that word, babble. It’s what babies do before they “really” talk. It’s also the sound of water running over rocks. Apparently it is not related etymologically to Babel, the Hebrew word for Babylon, now known for the infamous tower whose builders were punished with the sudden eruption of mutually unintelligible languages.

I’ve been babbling because I have a purely fanciful desire to speak the major European languages, and my monthlong trip to Corsica a…

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The World’s Best Philosopher of Linguistics

Yesterday while tidying my study I discovered something shocking: The world’s most brilliant, insightful, and prescient philosopher of linguistics died four months ago, and I didn’t know.

putnam

I was unwell in March, recovering from minor but painful surgery. Popping opiates like M&M’s, I would fall asleep while reading, and then lie awake in pain all night (my heart still aching from Tricia’s recent death). Yesterday I shifted a pile of papers and uncovered the March 26 issue of The Economist, open …

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Colonialism in U.S. Spanish Departments

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Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas

While Las Meninas is perhaps the world’s most famous selfie, and Miguel de Cervantes’s edits on Cide Hamete Benengeli’s novel mapped metafiction centuries before it was in vogue, there’s an argument to be made that the cultures of Spain should appear considerably less in U.S. curricula. In a recent study, I found some disturbing trends: Despite efforts toward cultural democratization in the 1970s, nearly all Spanish-language departments in the United States are over…

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Living in Latin

salvilogoIf you think Latin is a dead language, think again. Over the past few years, a growing number of “living Latinists” are breathing new life into Latin, taking it out of the classroom and into the light of day.

In February I attended  Bidua Latina, the North American Institute for Living Latin Studies’ Latin-immersion weekend. The institute, known as SALVI (see logo at left for the full name), seeks ways to make learning the language more enjoyable for students, teachers, and the general public. T…

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The Social Consequences of Switching to English

I commented here a few months ago on the status of English as a planetwide communication medium and some aspects of the “undeserved good luck” that got it that unlikely status. “The race for global language has been run,” I said, “and like it or not, we have a winner” (see this Lingua Franca post). English continues to expand its reach, and spreads at an increasing rate; many have noted, for example, that the European Union is moving in the direction of conducting most of its business in English…

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‘Gangsta’ Shakespeare

“It will be like catching butterflies in the dark,” a colleague of mine commented.

He was talking about my signing up to teach a course called “Shakespeare in Prison” at the Hampshire County Jail, in Northampton, Mass. It would have a total of 30 students, half inmates and half Amherst students, and focus on the sonnets and a handful of late plays, including King Lear and The Tempest.

“The endeavor is laudable but impractical,” my colleague added. “Language is an impediment. You will be di…