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  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 9:35 am on December 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: alcohol, , crazy english, drinking inhibition, language learning, second language, spoken language   

    Drinking in language 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    This article originally appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on October 21, 2010.

    My friends and I were on the C-1 bus a few weekends ago, leaving an off-East Campus house to get to West and catch the Robertson bus to Chapel Hill. I had just turned 21, and I was looking forward to my first night out barhopping since I had come back stateside.

    Some of our fellow passengers had been drinking, and the heady odor of beer and rushed vodka shots overpowered the bus and began to give me a healthy buzz.

    More than the stench, though, my mind was on the two red-faced freshmen next to me, who were engaged in an enthusiastic, but obviously slurred, conversation in Spanish. Their grammar was poor and their pronunciation worse, but it sure looked like they were having fun. If they were in the middle of an oral exam, they would have scored low on structure but high on confidence.

    Does drinking alcohol help people speak other languages?

    Every student knows that being embarrassed is one of the cornerstones of the difficult process of learning another language. After all, we students are visitors in a new world. For those who are used to easy academic success, stumbling over verbs or gendered nouns can be stressful or disheartening.

    So in response, we inhibit. We mumble when we’re called on in class, or we clamp up in conversation. We don’t speak the language outside of the classroom. We’re intimidated by students whose abilities seem greater than our own. Our teachers tell us to be fluid and open to mistakes—practicing is important, after all—but their pleas aren’t always convincing.

    This, my friends, is where alcohol comes in.

    We all know what drinking does, whether through observation or participation. People with “liquid courage” are more likely to do or say things that they might have been reluctant to while sober.

    The fear of embarrassment fades away with every ounce of rum. Inhibitory control slips out of our hands like a wet beer can. People loosen up, and some of us are more sociable and talkative after a few. Many of the neurological processes at work when your roommate jumps on top of the bar at Shooters are the same as when he later whispers je t’aime in the ears of his dancing partner. Our uninhibited behavior is mirrored in our speech.

    And maybe because some of us drink to become someone else—a party alter ego—speaking a foreign language fulfills some sort of urbane, globetrotting identity that we aspire to embody.

    I’m not recommending downing a dozen steins whenever you need to practice German. Yes, moderate amounts of alcohol might help with practicing a language. And associating positive memories with foreign language use can prime you to perform better. You might even form a good friendship with a foreigner over a few bilingual drinks.

    But drinking probably won’t help you learn the basics of a language, because studying demands a clear mind.

    Researchers studying second-language acquisition have identified two aspects of learning another language: one that is automatic (e.g., an understanding of simple grammar based on one’s mother tongue) and another that is memorized (e.g., vocabulary). Students usually feel comfortable with the first and stumble over the second. When people drink, though, their loss of inhibition probably facilitates memorized language, even if they are making mistakes.

    As with all things alcoholic, using language under the influence presents a mixed bag. The rewards are there, but they are lost when people binge.

    People’s inhibition disappears with every sip in a binge, and so does their awareness. Very drunk people might believe that they are smooth or charming or balanced, but they are often none of those. Similarly, when drunken foreign language speakers believe that they are using proper grammar and pronunciation, they are often sloppy and incoherent. And practice is useless if you don’t remember it the next morning.

    But maybe we don’t even have to drink to take advantage of the benefits of alcohol.

    Li Yang, a Chinese entrepreneur, certainly thinks so. His “Crazy English” program centers on his conviction that orthodox teaching is ineffective. Instead, Li’s students jump up and shout English phrases in the classroom, on buses and from rooftops. The goal is to eliminate embarrassment, curb inhibition and facilitate a positive social environment.

    Crazy English sounds a little bit like last weekend’s Crazy Party. But it ditches the spiked punch and concentrates on making language learning fun and communal. It has been astoundingly successful: over 20 million people have taken a Crazy English course in the last 15 years.

    The success of this program demonstrates that a student doesn’t necessarily need to drink before her oral exam to get a good grade. Language students can be uninhibited without alcohol. Maybe a fun, worldly identity can be crafted without it, too. Whether or not you drink, your learning experience is affected by your confidence.

    Maybe next time you’re studying for a language exam, you should try the Crazy method and shout for practice. Lose control. Make a fool of yourself. Climb onto a rooftop and let the quad echo with vocabulary from Haitian Creole or Arabic 125. Imagine you’re fully bilingual. Drink in the language experience.

    Whether or not this study session requires alcohol is none of my business, of course. Liquid or dry, the courage is the same. I just hope I overhear you on the bus next weekend.

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 8:43 am on November 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: chaucer, , language and gender, new york times, on language, , singular they, spoken language   

    They, their, and them 

    (posted by John)

    We all use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when we want to be gender-neutral. It’s so common these days that we hardly notice it, and nobody has ever corrected me when I’ve said ‘they’ in conversation. But most of us have been told not to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when we’re writing something at all formal. As it turns out, though, we are in good company. The singular ‘they’ has been around for a long time, and it’s been used by some of history’s most famous and well-respected authors. Geoffrey Chaucer is credited by many as the first major author to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, albeit writing in Middle English.

    And whose fyndeth hym out of swich blame. / They wol come up . . .

    -Chaucer, “The Pardoner’s Prologue”

    Chaucer is credited with the first use of singular ‘they.’

    This was all the way back at the end of the 14th century. And since then, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage, a number of other famous writers have done the same, including Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Jane Austen.  The NY Times’ On Language cites more—Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope, among others.

    “And every one to rest themselves betake.”

    -Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece, 1594

    “Nobody here seems to look into an Author, ancient or modern, if they can avoid it”

    -Lord Byron, letter, 1805

    “I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly.”

    -Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814

    Nevertheless, most ‘purists’ agree that the traditionally correct way to use a singular pronoun in ‘neutral’ situations is to use the masculine ‘he.’ This ends up at least sounding fine in most places. But Merriam-Webster points out that it is “awkward at best” to use ‘he’ in certain instances, for example when the pronoun’s antecedents are both male and female.

    “She and Louis had a game—who could find the ugliest photograph of himself.”

    -Joseph Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (in Reader’s Digest)

    “. . . the ideal that every boy and girl should be so equipped that he shall not be handicapped in his struggle for social progress.”

    -C.C. Fries, American English Grammar, 1940 (in Reader’s Digest)

    Reread those two examples with ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘them,’ and see for yourself how much better they sound.

    Interestingly enough, the Times’ On Language credits a feminist grammar teacher by the name of Anne Fisher with popularizing the use of ‘he’ as the neutral pronoun.

     “If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher’s popular guide, “A New Grammar” (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.”

    -On Language, Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, July 21, 2009

    For many, it’s not just an issue of sounding awkward in certain contexts. It is a major point of contention that the so-called ‘neutral’ pronoun is actually masculine–call it a symbol of continued male dominance in a world that should instead be striving for equality between the genders. And it without doubt sounds sexist to say that “Everyone should have his fair share” or “Everyone should be allowed to assert his rights.”

    However, attempts to find a good gender-neutral pronoun that’s not ‘they’ have been relatively futile. The On Lanugage article discusses a wave of Twitter-using grammarians tweeting about some of them, like hiseror shhe. I’ve also heard zhe (that first sound zh is supposed to be [ʒ] in IPA, like the first sound in the French name Jacques). None of these seem particularly satisfactory to me though.

    One frustrated tweeter agreed, simply saying “Damn you, English language!” — I guess everybody’s entitled to their (his? zheir?) own opinion, but maybe we should just be happy with what we’ve got, and what we’ve got is definitively ‘they.’

    Like I said, lots of people have an opinion on this issue. I hope my position is clear enough, but I would be interested to learn what other people think. Also, if anyone has any suggestions for, or has heard other good versions of, a gender-neutral pronoun, let us know! 

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 6:00 am on November 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , email, , , , , grammer b, , spoken language, , written language   

    The effects of txt 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    If you’ve ever transcribed a free-form conversation, you have probably been struck by how little of a spoken exchange is made up of true grammatical sentences. Listen to your conversations—we hardly ever talk “properly.” We interrupt each other, we lose our train of thought or we misconjugate verbs and get flustered.

    We’re not all careful speakers at all times: redundancies, mistakes and misinterpretations are as central to human language as descriptiveness and precision are.

    Despite this, our educational system—in fact, all of literate society in every language—demands that we write in grammatical sentences. We can’t write our academic essays in phrases and incomplete thoughts. Our literate culture requires completeness and grammaticality. Deviations from this sentence model are dismissed, at best, as art projects or, at worst, serious misunderstandings of grammar.

    Not everyone believes writing should be this way. Thirty years ago, a composition theorist named Winston Weathers proposed “Grammar B,” an alternate style providing, in his words, “options that do not yet exist but which would be beneficial if they did.” His Grammar B sought to convey information from author to reader in the same way it travels from speaker to listener. He promoted a written representation of human thought that mimicked the mechanisms of spoken language—with interruptions, redundancies and visual elements (in lieu of cues like intonation).

    Winston Weathers.

    It was a radical idea with several merits. In fact, for a writing project three years ago, I rewrote a sociology essay into Grammar B. The result was easier to read and understand than the “Grammar A” version. It was also more engaging and conversational.

    But it’s not a coincidence that Weathers’ book is out of print. Writing, especially academic writing, is driven by a cycle that rewards Grammar A and produces it too. I would never have actually submitted my Grammar B essay to my sociology professor and have expected a positive response.

    So if we write in Grammar A and speak and think in Grammar B, are we being cognitively torn apart? Are we being required to think in two different ways? To use language incongruously and inconsistently?

    Consider, at least, that spoken language dwarfs writing in our species’ timeline. We started speaking at least 200,000 years ago, around when Homo sapiens emerged. Written language, on the other hand, appeared no earlier than 10,000 years ago, and it wasn’t until about 200 years ago that mass literacy became common.

    Significant swaths of today’s world remain illiterate. All societies in the world are still based fundamentally on spoken language. In fact, all literate societies are both oral and written—and the conventional wisdom until recently was that a society can be completely oral, but it cannot be completely written.

    World rates of literacy. (Click to enlarge and for source information.)

    If our spoken language is different from our written language, what does it mean that the literate establishment requires such rigidity in writing? It’s obvious that I’m writing this post in Grammar A. I write all of my papers in Grammar A, and you probably do too. That’s considered normal. But when I speak in Grammar A, you think I am working hard to be a careful speaker: I am being formal, or I am delivering a speech.

    So we recognize the merits of Grammars A and B in different situations. But I’m no fool to think that academic writing will ever comprise Grammar B works. It’s a fun idea, but it’s not sensible for any mainstream academic or student to discard the established rules of grammar, even if Grammar B is clearer.

    ——

    I once wondered if the dichotomy between written and oral traditions would continue to grow until they had little to no relationship to one another: whether Grammar A’s rate of change would be so much slower than Grammar B’s that they eventually split.

    In my family’s first language, Kannada, a beautiful literary tradition spanning 15 centuries continues to flourish. But today’s formalized Kannada grammar and vocabulary has very little obvious relation to the spoken form—so much so that a Kannada-user like me, familiar only with speaking the language, can barely understand formal text.

    This phenomenon is called diglossia, and I wonder if English is headed toward it. To be sure, all literary languages have some spoken/written diglossia. When we have the luxury to be careful (like in writing), we are generally more grammatical. And written language usually changes more slowly than spoken language because of various forces—compare English spellings to pronunciations, for example.

    But forms of communication like short and ungrammatical text messages, or even longer, conversational emails, have thrown us a linguistic curveball.

    For the first time in our species’ history, we are constantly and continuously using written communication for real-time conversations. We IM, we text and we e-mail. Just 20 years ago, the only written communication reliably employed by most people was letter writing. Now, there are entire online communities whose primary, if not only, form of communication is through written language.

    What does this mean for the future of human communication? Will diglossia be thwarted? Or will there be an even greater divide between spoken (including instant, written messages) and formalized written English?

    Spoken language uses subtle cues like intonation, pausing and volume to deliver meaning. Written language lends itself to longer reflection and more careful word and phrasing selection. I’m not constructing the two in opposition to each other, although it is obvious which is more fundamental to our species.

    We have used spoken and written language mostly for different purposes, so they may have developed divergent characteristics for that reason. But as we communicate more and more through text, our use and understanding of language will change fundamentally—even if we never actually write our essays in Grammar B.

    (A version of this post appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on September 23, 2010.)

     
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