Linguistic Autobiography, 2nd Update 2018

It’s been 12 years since my Linguistic Autobiography post, and 9 years since my first update.  I could probably stand to re-write the whole post. Maybe someday.  Here’s the current state of the languages I speak.

English: Native speaker/native fluency.

Spanish. I speak it every day at work, and out in the community. There are plenty of people in my life with whom I have code-switching English/Spanish relationships, and quite a few Spanish-only relationships. I still make language mistakes in Spanish, but I make mistakes in English, too; who cares. There’s still plenty I don’t know about Spanish, and I still learn something new about expressing myself every time I talk to one of my friends. I want to stress that; literally every time I talk to someone in a non-routine conversation, I learn something new; whether by intuition or by explicitly asking, “what does that word/expression mean?” At this point, learning things in Spanish feels effortless, as effortless as learning new slang or expressions in English.  But the point is, yes, I’m still learning.

French and Italian. Each of these two languages were my dominant second language at some point in my life, even though I got much further in my French studies than I did in Italian. There are a few people I can talk to in French, but not many, and not every day.  As for Italian, there’s really no one that I speak to anymore. I miss it. In the future, I’d like to spend a summer in Italy, and another summer somewhere in the Francophonie–maybe Martinique, Guadaloupe, or Québec–just to get those two languages back. I feel like I need two weeks of immersion in either of those languages to get back to speaking them transparently.

Mandarin Chinese. Rusty! I haven’t gotten to the point in my Chinese where I could speak as well as those European languages; I can speak less Chinese, but the little I do speak, I speak really well. I need another summer in Taiwan to get that ball rolling again. Going for two years without daily practice was not great for my fluency.

American Sign Language: This the new hotness on my list. I had a Deaf friend back in 1991 teaching me signs, and I took extension courses in ASL here and there, but I didn’t have the opportunity to really learn it until this summer.  I took a summer intensive at the local community college, and as a resident of the state of California the credits were cheap! $49 per credit! I aced the class and am going to all the Deaf events I catch word of: Deaf Meetup! Deaf Pizza! Deaf Bowling!  I want to be a signer and have Deaf people in my life! I would say my level at this point is Novice High, and climbing rapidly.

I’ve talked before about a two-week headache, not actual pain, but a dull soreness that tells me my brain is re-wiring itself for new language.  I did not feel this headache the same way with ASL; it only lasted for a few days.  I also found myself with no desire to speak English.  After three and a half hours of class, my friends and I seemed reluctant to switch to speaking; I found myself with zero desire to speak again. When I did, speaking English seemed noisy and chaotic, exactly how I felt at the end of my Chinese language pledge back in 2007.

Tagalog, Pangasinan, and Ilocano. These are my heritage languages, and I have made an effort to learn each of them. Tagalog, I think I got up to Intermediate Low, but I’ve lost interest in it for various reasons. I’ll regret it someday soon, I know, but nowadays when I look at Tagalog, all I can think about is Pangasinan.  I’m still all about Pangasinan, but I’m at Novice Mid and holding. I will practice more with my parents. Ilocano is still at Novice Low, and hope to spend a summer in Ilocandia someday.

Here are some other languages I’ve studied in my life; I’m at Novice-Mid, or Novice-Low in all of them at this point. Latin, German, Korean: I took classes in these languages, but I don’t retain much. I’d love to have the chance to study all of them. Hawaiian, Hindi; I’ve done some self-study but haven’t gotten very far. I get a crush on ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi every time I go to Hawaii, and Hindi speakers are everywhere and I want to eat all of their veggies. 

Other languages that I haven’t studied but seem like fun:  Bahasa Indonesia, Kiswahili, Modern Standard Arabic, Guaraní, Portuguese, Catalan, Maltese. Xhosa seems cool doesn’t it? Japanese 100%!

The list is probably too long, but it would be cool. We’ll see; poco a poco.

Language Learning: They Talk Too Fast

giphySo I’ve been a teacher for 23 years at this point, and a casual multilingual for a similar amount of time. I’ve been thinking about the following topic since the 90s, but have been afraid to try to explain it, since monolinguals are often such babies.

Second language learners and monolinguals often accuse people speaking other languages of talking too fast.  “Slow down! Please! You talk too fast!” How inconsiderate of you, to not speak at a pace that I dictate. You people (of a different culture) have a problem, and my needs, as the outsider, must be placed at the center of this exchange.

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Listen, these cross-linguistic studies about words per minute, and syllables per minute were done years ago. There’s a ton of them but I’ll just link to publications with the most authoritative sounding title; so here’s Scientific American and Psychology Today.  Both articles explain that all over the world, different languages exchange information at about the same rate; nobody is actually giving information faster or slower than anyone else. Spanish and Japanese might have slightly more syllables per minute, and Mandarin and German might have fewer syllables per minute, but if you look at Mandarin and German syllables they are denser with information; in the end, no one culture is exchanging information faster than the other.

Yes, there are exceptions; excited teenagers, coke heads, etc. But the remarks I hear are rarely about a coke head; instead they are about entire cultures. I’ve heard: Spanish speakers talk too fast! French people talk too fast! Chinese people TALK TOO FAST (um, Scientific American just said they have the fewest syllables per minute…).

My students regularly tell me I’m talking too fast. I’m not. I’m talking normal speed.  When I show a video, they throw themselves on the floor and say OMG WHY ARE THEY TALKING SO FAST. I can hear with my own freaking ears that they’re not talking fast at all.

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Get up off the floor.  They are not talking too fast.  You don’t understand anything due to the fact that you have THROWN YOURSELF ON THE FLOOR. You stopped listening. You. You did that. You stopped listening, and now you’re complaining about them.

Here’s what’s happening:

  1. giphy1They’re not talking fast; you are understanding slow. You are at a stage where you cannot process normal speed human communication. That’s normal, it’s not your fault. But it is YOUR problem to deal with, not theirs; stop accusing them of being abnormal. They are treating you they way they treat everyone else.  You want them to baby talk you? The least you can do is ask politely.  Could you please baby talk me? Can you please stop treating me like the adult you think I am, and instead infantilize me?  Go ahead and use all your baby stereotypes, I love that.
  2. They’re not talking fast; they are talking in paragraphs. It feels fast to you, because you’re slow to process, but you’ll notice that even when they baby talk you in paragraphs, you still get lost.

But I need it, you say, I need slow speech! That would be a great argument… Actually, no;  it’s not, restating that you need something is a terrible argument.  When you actually get people to slow talk you, one of two things happens:  a) they baby talk you and it’s condescending and they stop taking your seriously as a person, or b) they slow motion talk to you, which DOESN’T HELP YOU UNDERSTAND.  If you don’t speak Chinese, no amount of slow Chinese is going to help you understand.  If you don’t know the words, hearing them at half speed doesn’t help you; no amount of slowing or shouting or repeating the same word at them excitedly is going to connect the dots in your brain.

So just go home and give up.

Or you can try to negotiate for meaning.

  • Interrupt politely and ask a question, hear the answer and repeat it.
  • Interrupt and try to repeat what they said; check for confirmation.
  • Interrupt and try to paraphrase them, check for confirmation.
  • Interrupt and request clarification, “what was that word?” Hear it and repeat it.
  • Interrupt and ask them to repeat what they said. Hear it and repeat it.

These are all communication strategies that forgo you accusing them of being abnormal that don’t require slow motion or condescending baby talk.  You’ll notice that they are all appropriate strategies in a regular conversation in your native language. People talk to you in paragraphs all the time in your native language; you already have the strategies to disrupt the stream of information a little so that you can manage it.

What if you’re in a conversation where interrupting would be impolite?  Oooh that’s a tough one. Let me suggest this; if you’re in a situation so formal that interrupting would be rude, then accusing that person of talking too fast is also rude. Maybe be a different kind of rude. Or maybe stick to familiar register social interactions for the time being; stick with allies who know you better and are familiar with how you fast you process information, and can comfortably adjust for your level. Maybe just smile and survive it, and keep your coke-head accusations to yourself.

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What’s the Lazy Language?

A few years ago I blogged about how to choose which language to study.  Part I dealt with vision; who are you trying to be, which language are you speaking in the future?  Part II was about which language is the most practical language, since people seem to be extremely horny for whatever is practical.  In Part III I try to address the easy language, for those people who just want to skip to “the end,” fluency, free sodas, and recreational drugs.  I am being sarcastic.

The thing that sucks the joy out of me is that many people aren’t looking for the easy language, or the practical language, or the language they can see themselves speaking in the best, most adventurous versions of themselves.  Instead, they’re looking for the lazy language.  The root of that is the ridiculous assumption that language learning is both painful and impossible, which seems like a strange thing, I don’t know why people keep choosing it.

By the way, should we just say it?  Should we just say, “Spanish is the easy language for Americans!” Great. Listen, if I open up my Chinese textbook to a vocabulary list of any particular chapter, I find a list of about a dozen or so vocabulary words for the chapter, more or less. When I open my Spanish textbook to a vocabulary page for a chapter, I find six dozen vocabulary words. Which language is easy; which language is lazy?  Is learning 15 unfamiliar things harder than learning 72 less unfamiliar things?  Why does that question even make sense to you?

Which is easy which is lazy

Here are a couple of videos I’ve made to help recruit students into my programs.  The first one, I made in 2015 when I was trying to get students to sign up for Mandarin at Seattle Prep.  Here’s the higher quality version.  If that’s not working for some reason, here’s a youtube copy:

Now it’s 2018, and I’m at Xavier College Prep, and we made one for the whole language department.  Here’s the original link, but the youtube version is here:

Doing the video in the target languages wasn’t my idea, but I thought we’d try it out.  I was a little worried that it would spook the monolinguals, but so far it seems ok.  The next one I do will be even better.

“Proper Spanish?” That’s just my day job.

Somebody asked me the other day how to say “lunch” in Spanish.  Someone shouted “lonche” and someone else shouted “almuerzo.”  They looked at me, and I said, “la comida.”  Immediately one of the shouters snapped at me, “why do you always tell us different words?!”  It wasn’t a question, it was an accusation.

My best answer; my only answer:  “I’m not from here.”

Spanish in California is different from what I’m used to.  To my ear it sounds like northern Mexico, plus a distinct /b/ vs. /v/ distinction that just doesn’t exist in other varieties of Spanish, apart from maybe some Gloria Estefan songs.

And of course, my Spanish is different from theirs, and I know I sound weird to them.  I’m keeping a list of words that have stumped my Spanish speaking friends, colleagues, and students.  Some of the words are fancy and academic-sounding, like el simulacro and la tertulia.  Some are words that I know to be common in Mexico, like piropo, nefasto, but when I say them here, people blink at me.  In a conversation with my new colleagues I tried to refer to an all-boys school as todos varones, a term I learned from a colleague in 1998, and now I’m starting to think it was never the right term in the first place.  What do I know?

It’s not a nice feeling to use these words and have local people blink and squint at me. I’m trying to get them to like me, and here I am with these strange words they never heard of, I feel like a jerk.  Luckily my new friends are quickly getting used to me; instead of awkward vocabulary moments, they’re starting to just chuckle at me and ask me to explain my crazy word. This must be what it feels like for a speaker of  Australian English to be harassed by… me. By the way, if there is a contest for the nerdiest, most dorky way to explain the word tertulia, I won it this afternoon.

On the other hand, it’s a delight for me to learn local words.  The other day my friend used the word nortearse (which is definitely more charming when pronounced “nortiarse”).  I understood what it meant immediately (to get disoriented, discombobulated) but it was just agiphy surprise to hear it, because it sounds like the root word is “norte,” which cracked me up because it sounds like a comment on what happens when you go north… to the US.

My friend also took it upon herself to teach me the word chivearse, which, again, is more charming when pronounced “chiviarse” (to get embarrassed and go coy, to get flustered by a compliment).  The root word is “chivo,” a kid goat; which is adorable.

So my friend says she’s going to teach me the phrase “qué bolado” tomorrow.  I looked it up but I can’t wait to hear how she explains it.  I told her I would take notes.  She promised to teach me all of her slang, if I would teach her proper Spanish.

I’m told her I’m happy to teach her everything I know. You know, I’m thankful that I can speak Spanish and that people perceive it to be “proper.”  I, personally, don’t hear my own Spanish as proper; I hear a bunch of pronunciation and grammar mistakes, fumbling for words, and awkward expressions.  I think I’d much rather have native-speaker intuition and be able to tell a joke, to write a poem, to talk on the phone without anxiety, to  choose concise words and make powerful and moving statements, to understand stand-up comedy, or those adivinanzas, like this one:

Agua pasa por mi casa;
cate de mi corazón,
el que no me lo adivine
será un burro cabezón.

I understand all the words, but I don’t understand why those words are together, and I don’t get why when my coworker heard this one, she was delighted and said “that was a good one.”  The answer, by the way, is “aguacate…” high fives all around.

I would take slangy, colorful native-speaker intuition over “proper Spanish” any day of the week.  Besides, “proper Spanish” is just my day job; I want to leave it behind after the five o’clock whistle.

 

Interference and other Paranoia

I would like to tell the world that in the early 1990s back at the UW, I studied more than one langauge at the same time.  In fact, it was my policy; taking both French and Spanish was exactly what I wanted to do.  There was one point when I added Italian to the mix so that I could do the UW’s Rome Program.  Anyway, the point is that semester after semester, I was studying two or sometimes three different languages at the same time; often on the same day.

People used to ask me, “Don’t you mix them up?  Don’t you confuse them?  Don’t they interfere with each other?”

And my answer was, no, not really.  Then people would either look at me like I was a super genious (I’ve never been a super genious) or tell me that it was impossible, and that I must be lying somehow.

I don’t really know what their theory of language was. They must have believed that the human brain is a finite container, and that a one language filled a normal brain to capacity.  My Linguistics 120 class taught me that we haven’t really found a ceiling on the number of languages a human could learn, but maybe I was the only one who got that memo.  In other words, if there is a limit on the number of languages a human brain can hold, science hasn’t found it yet.

For me, speaking a language is just a habit, and we conjugate verbs by habit, the same way a basketball player has a habit to dribble a ball.  Is there a limit to a number of sports someone can learn to play?  If someone is a tennis player, does the tennis knowledge interfere when that person tries to play basketball?  Are there stern warnings against learning too many sports or too many games?  Is there a danger that a football player might get confused and start dribbling the ball?

Anyway, for me, French is an entirely different game than Italian; Italian is a different game than Spanish.  So no, I don’t mix them up.  Sometimes, when I’d be teaching a Spanish class and the bell rings and five minutes later my Chinese class is in the room, yes, I absolutely called a Chinese student “Señorita” or “Señor.”  Does that count as mixing up the languages?  Because it doesn’t seem very significant.  Nobody seemed to care, not me, not my students.  I feel like in those quick-switch situations, I wasn’t “mixing them up;” it just had a different langauge handy at that very second.  I mean, so what if I call an English speaking lady “Señora,” or say “Hola” to a Chinese person?  Everybody survives.  Literally everybody survives.

I remember one time when got a paper back in Spanish class back in college.  I had written, “he oído hablar que…” or something and the prof marked it wrong and wrote “Interference from French.”  And I thought, this prof is a dick.  We were in a Spanish class because we were learning how to speak Spanish; if I used a French structure it was because I DIDN’T KNOW THE SPANISH STRUCTURE.  It was a strategy.  But he called it “interference” as if my French habit was damaging my Spanish.  Honestly, literature professors are not qualified to diagnose stages of language learning.  I still think poorly of that prof (although I learned a crapload about Latin American short story in that class).

People love the theory of language interference, they love it like a dog loves a bone.  Whenever I take a new language class, it doesn’t matter if it’s Spanish or Korean or German, there is always some precious snowflake who answers the instructor in French, and the breaks into English and explains that they took 6 years of French and French is just on their mind, and guh, it’s so hard to speak Chinese now because French is crippling them. Later I speak to them in French and find out that they don’t actually speak French; their Chinese is being blocked by a langauge THEY DON’T EVEN SPEAK.

I don’t believe in interference.  I don’t believe that knowledge of one langauge is ever a detriment to learning another.  I don’t think that langauge learning is ever bad.

When people ask me how many languages they can take at once, I tell them, “as many as you believe you can handle.”  If they believe they can handle only one at a time, then they’re probably right, but it’s their personal limitation, not a biological one.

And when people tell me about getting “confused” with too many languages, I always wonder, do they know someone who is so “confused” with many languages that they are disadvantaged in life?  Are there YouTube videos of genuinely language-confused people whose lives are ruined by too many languages?  Have you heard of a single person?  Sure, they say, this person speaks English with a horrible accent, they say, but in that case, it’s not someone that’s genuinely “confused.”  It’s usually the case that they’re not good at English.  Anyway the point is “confused with too many languages” is NOT A REAL AFFLICTION.

Finally, there are people who create monolingual policies for their children, because they don’t want their kids to be “confused.”  Folks, little kids learn language like a superpower.  Confining a kid to one language because you are afraid of confusion is like forbidding Superman to fly because you’re afraid he might fall.  It’s adults that tend to suck at language learning; it is a shame that they project that onto their kids.  Also, you might want to remind those parents who fear multilingualism that they haven’t read a single book, article, blog, tweet, nutrition label, or fortune cookie about raising multilingual kids before they sentenced their child to monolingualism.

The Secret Ingredient to Language Learning

Yesterday my teacher said that my way of learning grammar was unique.  She even did an impression of me;  quietly reading a grammar explanation, frowning, nodding… and then producing well-formed sentences.  Most people are not like that, she said.

Well, I’m glad to be able to do that.  I’ve been studying grammar all my life and I know my way around some verbs.  Romance languages taught me about grammatical agreement, tense, voice, and mood.  Chinese has taught me about shifting focus away from the actor of a sentence using grammar; putting it instead on an object. So the places where Tagalog is “difficult” reminds me a lot of work that I have done before.  I can read a grammatical explanation off the page and then start producing.

Here’s the deal though; grammatical analysis is NOT the language learning superpower.  It’s handy, absolutely, and it’s impressive to bystanders, but it’s not the secret ingredient.

The secret ingredient is practice.  Even though I can produce well-formed sentences from a first reading of an explanation, I still have to practice the forms in real conversation.  I still have to make mistakes and work thorough doubts and get confused.  Does everybody hear this?  I’m going to make mistakes.  That’s how I’ll get to fluency, just like everyone else.

I can know the mechanics and physics of how a bicycle works; I can do all the math and analyze the process, but I won’t know how to ride a bike until I physically put myself on the bike and pedal.  The process necessarily involves wobbling and falling.

I do have very high expectations for myself this summer; I expect to learn a lot about Tagalog, academically.  Whether or not I become a proficient speaker, though, will depend on my willingness to practice and make mistakes.  Just like everybody else.  From a proficiency standpoint, I’m in the same position as someone who can’t tell an adjective from an adverb.  Practice is still everything.

I keep remembering back when I finished my study abroad in France, and I left disappointed in my level of French.  But then a year later after 9 months back in Seattle, I realized I had a new command of vowels and an ease with complex structures that I had gained without any intentional effort on my part.

People like to believe that they have direct control over their learning, that working hard will produce a direct improvement over time.  But we have to remember, we’re not filing language into our brains; we’re giving language to our brains to file.  The good news is that it’s instinctual, and it goes faster than we think.  The bad news that we’re not really in control of the schedule, and we do like to feel in-control.

The best we can do is practice our faces off with real communication, as much as possible, on a daily basis.  Get plenty of sleep, hand have healthy blood circulation so the brain can install the new language.  And to try to be joyful about language learning, as our memories hold on to emotion.

Reading grammar off the page?  It’s not the secret ingredient.  It’s still a pretty cool trick, though.

Some iPad Magic

So I’m taking the German class, and one of the things we do for our teacher ever week is to record an audio journal.  I use Voice Recorder (FREE) to record on my the journal on my phone.  It’s very easy to use, but I haven’t found a great way to edit audio on the iPhone or on the iPad.  I suppose I’m a little picky, being a recovering podcaster and all.  I am trying to find a way to assign audio homework to my students as well, without it being a pain in the neck to collect and grade.

This week I made the video above using Adobe Voice, which is a crazy easy way to narrate a slideshow.  In terms of audio, it’s even easier than the voice recorder; you can’t edit the audio, but you can do multiple takes of smaller chunks of audio.  Also, there is a good chance that your slideshow might actually be interesting to watch.  It’s a thing right now to make student work that is shareable; the idea is that students try harder when they know that their audience is the whole internet.

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The image to the left is a screenshot of me using the Google Translate app camera function on my German homework.  I pointed my camera at some German sentences, and the app changed them to English right before my eyes like magic.  Well, “English” is a strong word; the translations come out a little janky.

The funny thing about Google Translate is that people, and by people I mean students–they don’t want to believe that the final product is often janky.  They see the sentence “At me in” and “They comes from Germany” and they think, oh yes, this is an awesome way to get my homework done faster.  Then when a teacher like me confronts them and says “this is a machine translation,” they get all haughty and say they worked really hard, and how dare you accuse them, my daddy is a lawyer, meow meow meow…

(It’s the same when they get a native speaker to translate their homework for them; the native speakers throw in advanced grammar and idioms and the students try to pass it off as their own.)

It’s not even difficult to spot.

Finally, my German teacher Frau S showed be a paperback book called “Café in Berlin” from the “Learn German With Stories” series  I was surprised, because I’ve already read this book; in fact I’ve read the whole series.  I told Frau S that I read it on my kindle, which is handy because you can just poke at a word to find the definition in the dictionary.  She was not happy at all when I said this, because looking up everything instantly is not good for your second language reading strategies.  Don’t worry, Frau S, this is not my first rodeo.  Anyway, I’m halfway to a paperless lifestyle; no more paperbacks for me.