Monthly Archives: November 2011

Language, evolution and violence?

Where there’s language, there’s Pinker. I’ve always been a fan of his, and there’s not a doubt in this world he’s got a solid grasp on logic. To boot, in this case his reasoning is based in some sound logic, with long established theories as a premise. This article,  Human Nature’s pathologist, and the book it references makes for an interesting read. Check it out on the New York Times’ website:

The flip-side? There are plenty of fairly elaborate counterarguments – backed by research – to a lot of the established theories on the evolution of violence in human society. An interesting book I’ve recently read, Sex at Dawn, happens to have several chapters detailing some of the lesser known theories on human evolution that would seem to indicate that we haven’t necessarily gotten less violent. Or perhaps, we were less violent as hunter-gatherers, but along with agriculture came an unprecedented need for competition in order to survive (and possess). I haven’t had the opportunity to delve too much into the material referenced by the authors yet, but it certainly grabbed my attention. Were cavemen really the violent, competitive creatures modern anthropology often makes them out to be? Could we have gotten the science wrong?

I’m a long way off from answering those questions, but I’d like to be one of the people asking it? Perhaps, in the end, it’s more nuanced: humans were less violent and more cooperative as foragers and hunters, then following the advent of agriculture and the concept of “ownership” we became extremely violent. Finally, nonetheless, over time, this violence has become less necessary as growth and production have come to meet our needs more adequately. Maybe? I think a detailed reading of both Pinker’s work and some of the suggested readings in the bibliography of Sex at Dawn is in order.




Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language Journal

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in studying languages: everyone wants to learn Chinese, nobody seems to want to learn Arabic, making it extremely tough to find resources for teaching or learning my favorite Middle Eastern tongue. In case you’re in the same boat, here’s a site with a fine collection of links to external resources.

Sounds that are hard to ‘spit out’

Accents are a way of life. Everybody has one. I remember a while back I was talking to my mother and mentioned something about our Newfoundland accent, and she seemed to be convinced we don’t have an accent. I asked her what she meant by that and she told me that accents refer to something truly noticeable, like British or Australian.

“What about Irish?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“Hmmm… you know our accent is decidedly similar to an Irish accent.”

Anyway, I never did make much headway with all of that. It turned out that my mother was doing what a lot of people do: confusing accents with familiarity. In that respect, I guess I’m also falling victim to a certain ignorance. I have to admit, after living in Korea for a while, the accents around me tend to meld into one. No longer does a British accent sound quite so distinct, and my own pronunciation sounds more or less neutral even to others.

“I just can’t place where you’re from.” I often hear.

“Huh? Well do you like pasta?” I say with a clearly Canadian “a” that Americans like to poke fun at.

What is it about the way we pronounce sounds that gets so hard-wired in our psyche that we can’t even recognize that the way we speak is different from the way others speak. The languages I’ve had the fortune of dabbling with offer up quite a variety of sounds, many of which are extremely difficult. In ‘Easy’ is in the eyes of the beholder I mentioned that one of the biggest challenges of learning a new pronunciation is getting your head – or should I say tongue – around new sounds.

Half the battle of pronouncing a new language is actually hearing the new sounds. Children are equipped to hear the entire human linguistic spectrum, but that skills quickly gets lost to as we tune our ears to our mother tongue. If you’ve ever spent hours trying to hear the difference between hard and soft sounds of Russian to absolutely no avail, you know what I mean. Another example can be heard in foreign accents. Think of the way a Japanese speaker of English says “thank you”, now a French speaker and finally a German. They’re all different, because speakers of each language hear something entirely different as they try to incorporate the sound. The commercial where the German coast card responds to “Mayday! Mayday! We’re sinking, we’re sinking!” with a timid “Hello? Zis is ze German coast guard. What are you sinking about?” is a great example.

If hearing the sound doesn’t get you down, then pronouncing it just might. There are plenty of examples: many a Canadian gave up on rolling their French ‘r’s a long time ago. Americans, well, how many of you can pronounce “gringo“, “real” or “repetir” authentically? Those are by comparison to other tongue acrobatics required by some of the world’s more difficult to pronounce languages.

Take Chinese, for example. I remember reading a statistic somewhere that it takes a good three months to pronounce Chinese tones adequately enough for a native speaker to have the slightest idea what you’re trying to stammer out. Take the following phrase:

妈妈骂马吗?/ Māma mà  mǎ  ma? / Is mom telling the horse off?

I’ll never forget when I told my Chinese teacher 我喜欢喝血 (wǒ  xǐ huan hē  xuè  or ‘I like to drink blood”) when I meant to say “I like to drink sprite (雪碧 or xuě bì ).

Or how about Arabic? Whether you think it’s beautifully hypnotic – as I do – or rough and ugly, there’s something to be said for a language with 27 consonants, depending the dialect you speak. Especially when so many of them are made by contorting your throat in seemingly impossible ways. One Arabic textbook I owned in university described the pronunciation of one consonant something like this: “The sound is made by constricting the muscles in your lower throat. The only time native speakers of English use these muscles is when vomiting.”

“Is everything okay in there, dear?”

“Yes, mom, I’m just practicing Arabic.”

‘Easy’ is in the eyes of the beholder

People often ask me what the easiest language in the world is to learn, or at least what the easiest language was to learn for me. I’m not really certain how to answer that question, but I’ll give it a shot in kind of a choose your own answer format.

The easiest language to learn is the one you want to learn. Motivation is a crucial factor. If you don’t want to learn Japanese, you’re pretty much doomed to failure, plain and simple. Now, you can have different kinds of motivation: if you have career aspirations that require you to learn a foreign language such as Chinese, you can use that to drive you, but only to a point I think. I’ve seen in time and time again with fellow students in my own language classes and also among students I’ve taught. Where there’s no will, there’s no way.

The easiest language to learn is one whose native speakers are good facilitators. There’s so much to be said here, but I’ll keep it simple. If the people who speak the language don’t know how to communicate with and/or ‘teach’ non-native speakers how to communicate in their language, it’s going to be an uphill battle. Of course, it could be well worth it. In this category, I’d put French and Korean, each for different reasons. French is tough because its native speakers, whether from France, Canada or anywhere else, are proud of their language and proud of their frenchness. I’d say in the case of la belle langue it makes it a few notches more difficult than, say, Spanish or Portuguese. Korean is an entirely different ballpark. Like the French, Koreans are proud of their language, and even more-so, they connect it with their identity. It’s almost like you have to be part of the in-group to actually speak the language. The threshold of acceptance as a Korean speaker is very high. Also, as a language virtually unspoken by non-native speakers, Koreans aren’t accustomed to the idea of accents – indeed those from the capital city scoff at the regional accents quite often. That said, it’s an amazing challenge and when you reach a point where people are truly impressed by your ability to speak the language, and appreciative of your efforts to understand their culture, you can’t help but feel good about it.

The easiest language to learn is one similar to your own. If a foreign language shares something in common with your mother tongue it makes the job much more manageable. Any aspect will help. A similar phonetic system makes getting your tongue and ears around the new language remarkably easy – and means native speakers will more readily understand your efforts to communicate which can be encouraging in itself. Similar syntax makes it much easier on brain – of course, so does a language with a “simpler” syntax. I’ll get into that in another post. Finally, cognates (similar sounding words) can help, but on the other hand where there are many cognates, there are also plenty of false cognates. Any English speaker who ever asked for meat with “no preservatives” in French can attest to that.

The simple answer is there’s no simple answer to this question, but some combination of motivation to learn, acceptance of “new speakers” by the community that speaks the language and similarity to your own native tongue will all work together to make learning a language easier. My two cents, in a nutshell.

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