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Viet Thanh Nguyen on Winning the Pulitzer Prize — Discover

“No minority writer, no writer of color, can claim that he or she accomplished anything purely on their own merit. We all owe so much to the collective struggles and activists that preceded us…”

via Viet Thanh Nguyen on Winning the Pulitzer Prize — Discover


The Right Way to Speak A Language

Often people seem to believe that there is a right way to speak a language. If you’re from North America, you might find the English spoken in the US Midwest to be more or less “neutral”. If you’re from the UK, you may believe that the most polished form is what’s commonly referred to as RP, the Queen’s English or the BBC English. Or perhaps you’re one of the majority who speaks neither, in which case you either believe you should, or you’re totally resistant to the idea of a “standard” dialect or accent.

Let’s take one view of the whole picture: the English spoke in the United Kingdom is the purest form of the language – we’ll assume we’re talking about RP (received pronunciation). To support this view, you might claim that England the fatherland (or motherland if you prefer) of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Bronte, and of course the language itself. As the origin of the language, it must essentially have the purest form, just as the purest form of Catholicism is that practiced in the Vatican, the most authentic Tango is to be found in Argentina, and the best pizza invariably Italian.

Is that really how things work? In language, actually, it’s the periphery that preserves the language, and holds on longest to old-fashioned and in some cases archaic sounds, vocabulary and even grammar. This would put either Australia, New Zealand or North America (including the Caribbean) as the most likely places to find a “pure” and “original” form of English. In fact, as England continued to change, and Australia was settled more recently than North America, it’s fairly safe to say that the general dialects of North America are older in a fashion than the dialects of the UK. The English of the Old World has undergone numerous changes in pronunciation, whereas there are significant references to various pronunciations in the New World. A great example would be rhoticity. The loss of the pronunciation of “r” in the land of the Royal Family is a modern change. Put in another way: England lost the “r”, North America didn’t gain it. We can also safely assume that this happened sometime before the mass settlement of Australia, as it had clearly already happened at that point.

Wait, is that the only explanation? No. Not necessarily. The settlers that came to North America could well have come from a place where the “r” had not yet been lost. Many did in fact come from Ireland, but not enough to preserve the other characteristics of Irish speech, except perhaps in the southern shore of Newfoundland, Canada. That would be too easy an explanation. Fortunately history lends credit to the first reason, and if you search you’ll find plenty of testaments to the fact that English (in England) became non-rhotic after the settlement of North America, specifically in the late 17th and then 18th century (necessarily over the course of a few generations) and before the colonization of Australia. The loss of rhoticity first took off among the upper class of southern England (which may also explain why Irish is still rhotic and also why large parts of England remained so even as late as the 1950s).

But then, why are some areas of New England also non-rhotic?

Another question that begs an answer: is North American English more authentic? If by authentic we choose to mean “pure” then the answer is no. The settlers that arrived from English may have mainly (but not all) spoken rhotic dialects of English, but their individual numbers from most parts of the Old World were too few and far between to solidify one accent and one way of speech, thus preserving it. There are possible exceptions to this of course, and if you travel to the southern shore of Newfoundland Canada, mainly settled by the Irish, you would find there preserved a particularly strong variety of Irish that resembles the language spoken in very small communities in Ireland. In any case, in most of the New World, settlers from various backgrounds converged together, and thus began the development of what we call today General American Speech and all it’s sub-dialects, as well as the English spoken in modern-day Canada. The mixing and blending that developed from so many converging backgrounds, resulted in no one accent dominating, and also the general homogeneity of the North American dialect. While there is variance, even to this day it does not compare to the variance of dialects present in European English.

So where does that leave us? If the UK standard is not the “correct” form, and neither is the North American, then what is? The simple fact of the matter is, languages change and evolve over time, and there’s very little we can do to change that. The advent of writing, and further down the road, mass literacy, drastically slowed the process of linguistic change, but the simple fact that we have three or four large subsets of dialects and accents (the Old World accents, the New World Accents and those in Oceania) tells us that even literacy didn’t stop the flow of progress.  Yet, without too much effort, people from all of these different linguistic communities are able to understand each other. The inevitable variety even adds a bit of spice to the language.

In the end, the “right” way is the one that is most intelligible, but in this day and age, what’s wrong with having several “right” ways of speaking a language and celebrating their differences as well? We could also go a step further and recognize that sometimes unique ways of saying things add functionality to the language. What would English be today if puritans had told Shakespeare to stick to words sanctioned by a dictionary? Quite boring, I think.

Borrowed Words

It seems to be a fad, at least in Korea, but I suspect in many languages, to borrow words from “hip” languages. I’m not sure what establishes a language as hip, exactly, but a better word doesn’t currently spring to mind.

We know this as history fact. We can see it in our languages. In English, doubtless, we have often borrowed words just to sound “cool.” A number of French words have entered our language, of course, when it was a sign of education among aristocrats to speak French. I suspect few of them actually spoke the language, but I could be mistaken, and I’ll have to check into it later. We get any number of words related to cuisine from this period like mutton and beef to name a few. Then there are the words that even sound snooty like decor and elite.

We can also see this need to use foreign words, often pronounced as they would be in their language of origin, to indicate anything from class, education or simply experience. Who among us doesn’t know – or isn’t – an expat or avid traveller who aims to impress as much as possibly by rattling off words we don’t understand in the music of another land. The purpose may well be communication, but it’s not communication of the idea, since we have no way of knowing what they mean – and I don’t exclude myself from this shameful bout of snobbery. No. It’s about communicating status. Plain and simple.

From this tendency, in English with have assimilated words like tortilla, nacho, poutine, ouzo, hummus, shawarma, or instead of this last one, perhaps, kebab. Most of these have made their way into our local lexicon, though some people – ahem – will try to assert their own borrowed exoticism by pronouncing them with an exaggerated Spanish accent. Ever notice someone’s entire sentence flow stop as they accentuate “tortilla”, perhaps they’ll even stamp their foot on the floor and raise their right hand joining their thumb and middle finger, laterally raising and lowering their forearm. Or perhaps their pronunciation of hummus has just little too much “h”. 

Still, these words are pretty commonplace, but we all know someone who loves to through in foreign words belonging to the cultures they’ve learned of, through travels, through working abroad, or through friends from other countries.

The more fascinated the person is with the foreign culture, the stronger their assertion that English just doesn’t have the words to describe the reality they’ve discovered. Sometimes it’s true, often with food: pizza, pasta, chop suey, kimchi, sauerkraut, falafel, hummus.

Other times it’s true, like with schadenfreude, or “the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others” because apparently we hadn’t yet developed a word for that in English. There are, to be sure, cases where one language captures an idea better than another, and in those cases, borrowing the word makes sense. Take machismo for example. The Spanish concept of macho is difficult to render in English, and I think most readers agree, masculine, or many, don’t capture its full essence. These words tend to enrich the language.

Let’s take a few examples of English loanwords in Korean, a few of which I’ve noticed used in the cafe I sit in while I write this, starting with coffee. We also get cafecomputer, arbeit (a German loanword borrowed via Japanese), and pizza. These can safely be said not to have had an equivalent in the language before their introduction. Then, there are the borderline concepts like digital and communication. These can be rendered in Korean of course, but perhaps its necessary to make a new word or their unique meaning in English is a bit like machismo, it exists, but not exactly.

This brings me to the words that obviously come into the language because it’s in style to use foreign words. In these cases words clearly exist in Korean, but using them is either a way of portraying status, knowledge, or simply coolness. Let’s take some examples: communication (I feel the verdict remains to be decided on this one as I’m pretty sure there exist at least a few words for the same concept in Korean), stresssales (used in business contexts as in referring to the sales department), care, and the list could go on. These words are not likely to show up in any dictionary, they’re not likely to enter into a lexicon of “commonly used Konglish” because their very nature is the peppering of Korean phrases with English words, similar to the way English usage is creeping its way into other languages, and the way French words, Spanish words, and Chinese words find their way into English.

Going back to machismo. It’s not that we don’t have masculinity, or our culture is devoid of manliness, it’s that the word machismo describes as it were a particular brand of manliness, and thus merits being borrowed. The same thing can be said of most of the modern trendy words entering Korean from English, I believe. They add style, they add uniqueness to the speakers utterances. They add prestige, perhaps.

They are, indeed, part of what makes a language rich, and English today, wouldn’t be the language it is if historically its speakers hadn’t chosen to borrow words because they didn’t have existing words to match to something, the existing words felt insufficient, or they just plain wanted to show off their linguistic prowess, to add a certain finesse to their image.

Native Speakers Don’t Exist

Maybe. Or not quite. This might be an exaggeration but it’s meant to provoke, and to illustrate a common theme of misaligned expectations among language learners. It was during a workshop with a group of sales consultants for an EFL course that I essentially blurted out this sentence – the title of this blog – to the effect of getting them to think about how they can be honest when dealing with their clients expectations.

What exactly, the question is, do we mean when we say that we want to learn to speak a foreign language like a native speaker? Is it a realistic goal? Indeed, what is a native speaker accent? The topic ties in with other reflections on this blog about accents and dialects.

I would say, to put it bluntly that to sound exactly like someone from Yorkshire, for example, you’d have to travel back in time and orchestrate events so that your mother and father somehow transplanted their life to Yorkshire, lived their long enough for you to grow up surrounded by the local accent more than any other, and not leave until you were in your late teens, at the earliest.

Think about people you know that have a native-like command of your native tongue. Do they sound like the come from some place in particular? Probably not. They can function in the language equally as well as you, they have an equal, slightly weaker, or perhaps even slightly stronger grasp of the grammar of your language than you do, and they get along just fine most of the time, just like you do. What is the difference, then, between you in terms of your “nativeness”? 

Let’s think about a few other examples first before we answer that. Imagine someone from another region of the Anglo-Saxon world trying to imitate your accent. You’ve probably heard it. It probably sounds just a bit off at best, ridiculous at worst. 

That gets me thinking: if we can’t – or most people can’t – even accurately imitate or adopt a different regional parlance in our own native tongue, imagine the challenge faced when that accent we’re trying to adopt is of a completely different set of phonemes, intonation, tone or other general musical quality.

It seems fitting that it’s time, in this global world, to separate the ideas of native-level “functionality” in a language (i.e: I can greet people, talk about my job, express my opinions, talk about my field of expertise, read and understand subtle cues of feeling and expression, etc.) and native-level pronunciation and intonation. The former, I believe, is acquirable and we have to admit even some native speakers are better at certain “functions” of language than others. The latter, I think it’s safe to say, is not so much about competence and ability than it is a marker of origin.

Everyone’s accent, dialect, particular grammar and vocabulary, it can be said, is a like the little tag on a garment that reads “made in China” or “manufactured right here” which in many cases make no difference to the fact that the garment is made with cotton, fits well and is of good quality.

Metal chopsticks, made in Korea, pick up the noodles of a stir-fry essentially the same way as wooden chopsticks in China, even though they may look a bit different, and a Professor with a degree in astrophysics from India can probably communicate more knowledge in his Mumbai-accented lectures than a Londoner with a certificate in customer service can answering the phone at a call center – not that either is necessarily more valuable than the other.

On Cockroaches and Performance Anxiety

Sometimes you read something that has a way of getting into your head, and causing you to rethink a lot of assumptions, understandings and opinions that might otherwise pass completely unchanged. For me, one of those sometimes can be summed up into two ideas: cockroaches and social pressure, the implications of which I’m sure will lead to many a thought on how people tick.

What’s the relation? It turns out, following studies outlined in the book The Upside of Irrationality that our performance is invariably affected by the pressure of performing when all eyes; however many there are, land on us. In humans, the studies were done with anagrams. Participants of one group were asked to complete a series of anagrams in private, while the other group was asked to go up to a board and solve them in front of an audience. The participants with an audience scored worse. In the case of cockroaches – and this is where it gets fascinating for me – lone bugs were “tested” on their ability to run a straight line, and two navigate a maze. This was the control group. The experiment was to determine the effect of having another cockroach within perceptible distance. The subject bug and the “social pressure bug” were placed in a plexiglass container, so that the subject bug could see and smell the other roach. The result? In the simple, straight-line task, the bug performed better. In the complex, maze-task, the bug performed considerably worse, if indeed it was able to navigate the maze at all.

What are the implications of this bug business for language learning? Well, obviously we’re humans and not bugs, but let’s not forget the anagram experiment. It would seem that for simple tasks, we perform better with an audience, but the opposite is true if the task is too challenging.

This lends an explanation to something that any of us who’ve learned or taught language are probably well aware: we often perform very well in the safe environment of the classroom, or with small groups, or even one on one with a teacher, but when it comes to real-world language production, we choke.

The solution? Like the cockroaches with the simple task, I think perhaps we need to set ourselves, and our students, up to be able to perform language tasks we can complete with ease in front of a group, or in the real world, to gain confidence as we build our skills. Conversely, setting a student up to fail in public by making them perform far beyond their abilities is likely a waste of time a best, and detrimental to future progress at worst.

To learn Thai, or not to learn Thai?

This is the dilemma I face at the moment: whether to learn Thai. I’m not a fan of the language. I like tonal, don’t get me wrong. Tonal’s the spice of linguistic life. Really. Chinese tickles my tongue every time I play around with it. There’s just something about Thai, though, that doesn’t appeal to me.

That’s got me thinking about what motivates me to learn languages. Thai just doesn’t dance in my ears like other languages I love. The wonderful Samba or Bossa Nova of Brazilian speech, the taconeo of a Spaniard’s thoughts as they come rushing forward, and the hypnotic rhythm of Arabic with it’s throaty undertones and sandy whispers.

I really used to think it was about culture, especially after my university obsession with Arabic, but now that I look at Thai, one of the cultures in Asia I find most interesting, I feel that’s not really the case. It’s more about the sound.

Or maybe it’s about practicality. I’d always studied languages to use them. Then I came to Korea and discovered that it’s entirely possible that no one will give your efforts to learn a language any thought beyond your ability to say “hi” and “thank you.” The idea that learning a language that people wouldn’t actually speak to you in was new to me, but I rediscovered it on my first trip to Thailand. I tried a few Thai words here and there and nobody bothered to even reply. Some cultures, it seems, are so set in the belief that foreigners can’t speak their language that they won’t even try to entertain a few words.

Time to change that. Let’s see what Thai I can learn over the next few weeks to at least order food, get a taxi and the little things, because even if I don’t like the sound of the Thai tongue, I sure love the sound of new and unfamiliar words flowing off my own.

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.

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