Language Learning: Like Wrestling with the Laundry

September 6, 2017 § 1 Comment

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I wrote the following in a newsletter a few months after moving overseas. That was a long time ago, but my thoughts on language learning haven’t changed much.

Our main goal right now is to learn the language, and we’ve been taking classes for almost three months. One of our teammates, who was here before we arrived, wrote a while back that learning Chinese is the hardest thing he’s ever done. As for me, I think I’ve done harder things, it’s just that I quit doing them after a couple hours.

Maybe you’ve heard it said that a difficult task is “like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.” Learning Chinese isn’t quite like that, but it’s not far off. It’s more like hanging a king-sized bed sheet on a clothesline in a strong wind. (My apologies to everyone who’s only used a clothes dryer.) Every word or sentence pattern we learn is a clothespin that holds up another part of the sheet. With enough clothespins, the sentences and stories make sense. Little by little, there are fewer and fewer sags in the sheet as we pick out and are able to use more and more words and phrases.

The trouble is, on some days, the wind whips the sheet out of our hands. On some days we run out of clothespins or drop the ones we have. On some days it rains. On some days our arms are tired and hanging up sheets is the last thing we want to try to do. And on some days, the sheet just simply turns to Jell-O.

[photo: “auch Borkum,” by Erich Ferdinand, used under a Creative Commons license]

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The Britishisms Are Coming! So Are the Americanisms! Is Any Language Safe?

November 27, 2012 § 8 Comments

In his new book, All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To, British historian Stuart Laycock claims that Britain has attacked more nations than any other. In fact, according to Laycock, Britain has “invaded, had some control over, or fought conflicts in the territory of something like 171 out of 193 UN member states in the world today (and maybe more).”

Of course, Britain’s incursions aren’t limited to the military variety. Who hasn’t heard of the British Invasion, when the Beatles and Rolling Stones came to American shores? And now those sneaky Brits are at it again.

It’s Enough to Get One’s Knickers in a Twist

This time they’re assailing something as personal to us Americans as our English language. (Yes, yes, we originally got it from them, but we’ve made it our own.) The headlines speak for themselves:

We have Ben Yagoda, a professor of English at the University of Delaware, to thank for keeping track of the incursions. Such is his acumen, his work is sourced in each of the articles above. Yagoda’s blog, “Not One-Off Britishisms,” keeps track of the invasion as it occurs, one word and phrase at a time. Britishisms such as spot oncheekychippy, and have a look have already taken up residence within our borders, and it looks as if there are more to come, what with Harry PotterDowntown Abbey, and Doctor Who helping with the assault.

American Offensives and Offenses

In all fairness, though, as an American, I must admit that my country has done its fair share of invading over the years, militarily and culturally. And evidence suggests that this most recent verbal offensive by the British might actually be a counter offensive.

Take, for instance, the following from Alistair Cooke’s 1984 radio broadcast, Letter from America. The host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater for 20 years, Cooke had one foot planted firmly on each side of the Atlantic, being born in Lancashire and later becoming an American citizen. Letter from America ran for 58 years, and the BBC has just recently put over 900 of Cooke’s audio installments online.

The “letter” of note is “Americanisms,” in which Cooke discusses American words that have made the jump across the pond. There’s caucus and pow-wow (both of which came initially from American Indians) and hunky-doryparolescientist, and awful.

French and Chinese under Siege

French has not been immune to the encroachment of English, as well. (Granted, this isn’t all the fault of us Americans. Maybe we should consider it a joint invasion from the US and Britain.) An article in Les Echos gives several examples of Franglais in the French business world, which now “has French people talking about ‘addressing’ problems, ‘delivering’ solutions, attending ‘meetings’ and ‘workshops’ and ‘conf calls.'”

Finally, we can’t ignore the awful things that American English is doing to the Chinese language. According to Jin Zhao, of the blog Things You Don’t Know about China, online Chinese have latched onto Oh my Lady Gaga!—a phrase from the TV series Ugly Betty and a variation on the globally ubiquitous Oh my God. (Now there’s a phrase I wish we could put a stop to.) And then there’s “Chinglish” like geilivable, a combination of the Mandarin gei li, meaning “give” and “strength,” and the English adjective ending able. The result means something like “cool” or “impressive.”

Chinese innovators have also created new words completely out of English, such as antizen (from ant and citizen) for “college graduates who share a small apartment with several roommates, working hard, yet making little money,” and smilence, meaning “smiling silently” to show mutual agreement.

Is the government of China taking this lying down? Of course not. Two years ago, China’s People’s Daily Online reported that the General Administration of Press and Publication had declared a ban in official publications on geilivable and other forms of “abuse of foreign languages, including arbitrary use of English words; acronym mixing in Mandarin and coined half-English, half-Chinese terms that are intelligible to nobody.” “All these have seriously damaged to [sic] the purity of the Chinese language,” says People’s Daily, “and resulted in adverse social impacts to the harmonious and healthy cultural environment.”

Maybe It’s Nothing to Be Gobsmacked About

So what are we to do? What is the world to do? Maybe we can learn from Alistair Cooke, who says, given time, it will all be OK. “The invasion of Americanisms into Britain is never a problem to any generation born after a particular invasion,” he asserts, “since they don’t know they were invaded, but only to the generation that can see the invaders offshore.”

So no worries. Carry on.

(Stuart Laycock, All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To, History Press, 2012; Alistair Cooke, “Americanisms,” Letter from America, BBC Radio, February 24, 1984; Philippe Bertrand, “Franglais: How English is Ruining the French of the French,” Worldcrunch, July 21, 2012, translated from “Le Français, l’Anglais et Notre Crise d’Identité” Les Echos, July 19, 2012; Jin Zhao, “‘Oh My Lady Gaga! This Is So Geilivable!’: Chinglish Entering Globish?” Things You Don’t Know about China, June 4, 2011; Li Mu, “Authorities Ban Mixed English Words ‘Ungelivable’ in Publications,” People’s Daily Online, December 21, 2010)

Thanks to Chris WoolfClark Boyd, and Patrick Cox of PRI’s The World, whose stories pointed me towards much of the the source material above. Well played! I say. Well played!

[photo: “250th Fort Necessity,” by ryanophilly, used under a Creative Commons license]

Bilingual Brain Boost

April 2, 2012 § 2 Comments

Here are a couple related lists. The first one is under the heading “How Learning a New Language Makes You Smarter“:

– The interference caused by having two languages in your head “forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.”
– Bilingualism improves the brain’s “executive function,” including the ability to focus on more important things while ignoring what else might get in the way.
– The need, and ability, to switch languages develops the ability to better “monitor the environment,” or track changes in one’s surroundings more efficiently.
– Infants raised in a bilingual setting show increased cognitive skills over those raised with one language, even before they learn to speak.
– High-level bilingual skills in elderly adults correlate with a higher resistance to dementia.

(Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, “Why Bilinguals are Smarter,” The New York Times, March 17, 2012)

And now, under the heading “Learning What New Language Will Make You Feel Dumber?

According to the United States Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute, the hardest languages for English speakers to learn are

– Arabic
– Cantonese
– Japanese
– Korean
– Mandarin

These are in no particular order, but the FSI believes Japanese to be the hardest of all.

Published by the National Virtual Translation Center, the complete list of 63 languages includes their estimated learning times. It is no longer available at NVTC, but you can see a copy from October 2007 at The Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

[photo: “Beach Volleyball,” by monstro, used under a Creative Commons license]

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