January link bonanza!

Here’s a few links I found of interest this month:

Adam Gopnik explores America’s prison problem (read it all the way through)

If you haven’t seen it yet, I can has language play: Construction of Language and Identity in LOLspeak http://vimeo.com/33318759

Who knew Post-structuralism could be so hilarious?

A critique of Guns, Germs, and Steel over at Savage Minds

Neuroanthropology is Rad.


Wernicke’s area may need to be moved!

Translingual resources

On the rectification of names.

ESL? EFL? what’s the difference? A walk in the words helpfully summarizes this commonly-made distinction: ESL, or English as a Second Language is commonly taught in an English-speaking country; EFL, or English as a Foreign Language is taught in a non-English speaking country. At least, that’s the commonly understood distinction. The actuality, however, is more complicated.

The first, and most obvious objection is that many students don’t speak only two languages (English as a third or fourth language?). My own students, particularly those from multilingual countries, often make exactly this sort of objection. Proponents of the term ESL argue that it stands for English as a Second Language not the Second Language (though this idea brings with it the idea that there is a fundamental difference between First and Second language learners, which is somewhat problematic too).

Another, perhaps more important issue is that English is less and less “foreign” world-wide. There are English speaking communities in more countries than you might expect. And it’s entirely possible to get by in the US without speaking English (much as many Americans studying in Spain never get around to speaking any Spanish). So the concept of a language belonging to one country and being foreign to another is somewhat less relevant.

UK schools often use “English as an Additional Language” which I often find myself using when I need a term. In most American DOE schools, the terms Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and English Language Learners (ELL) are the most common terms, but these also have their own baggage. LEP defines students by their lack of English, and thus is part of a deficiency model of language teaching. For this reason it is generally avoided (and in truth, it rarely describes the kind of English teaching I do). The term English Language Learners seems less problematic, but like many of these concepts gets fuzzy at the end–who are English Language Learners? Aren’t all schoolchildren learning English? When does one stop being an English Learner?

What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet…

In my own classrooms, I find myself struggling to describe my students and what it is exactly, I do. While teaching First-Year Composition in the English Language Institute I usually used the phrase “multilingual students” to describe my students–which my students generally appreciated. Many of them had been using English for years (if not decades) and were very competent writers–though they were just different from monolingual writers. And yet, when talking about the course to others, I could tell that I was constrained by the realities of who was in my class (and who was not): I asked English TAs “do you have any multilingual students in your class?” and they responded “oh sure, lots of them speak other languages–almost everyone takes a language class in High School.”
And then, of course, we have English as a Global Language (EGL), English as an International Language (EIL), or English as a Lingua Franca (ELF or LFE). More on these, later.

poot, toot, bu.

One of the first tenants of linguistics is that linguistic signs are arbitrary. By this, linguists mean that there is nothing about a book that requires it be called book and not hon, shu, libre, or horse. Well, mostly arbitrary, anyway.

Onomotopoeia are an obvious exception. I farted while paddling yesterday, and that got me thinking about how many words for farting have an /u/ /a/ /ae/ or similar sound–and very few have an /i/ sound in them. Wikipedia contributes:

add that to your list of biological influences on language.

postscript: I was surprised at how many also had a p (which is closely related to f), and some sort of r. The Pidgin (HCE) fut always seemed much more onomotopoetic than fart to me. Fut may provide a nice hint to fart’s etymology, however: when pronounced by non-rhotic Brits, fart is a big, satisfying faht.

Language learning and the Handan Walk.

Zhuangzi tells the story of a boy from Shouling who went to learn the Handan Walk. “He hadn’t mastered what the Handan people had to teach him when he forgot his old way of walking, so that he had to crawl all the way back home.”

As a language teacher and learner, I sometimes feel like the boy from Shouling: my own English has changed. One of my classmates gleefully informed me that my “native speaker intuition is ruined;” an officemate notices I use features of English as an International Language; when I lived in Japan and visited the US, I was often asked what country I was originally from.

This story shows us the flipside of interculturality. To borrow another metaphor from Zhuangzi, if the truly intercultural person is the Daoist Sage, able to fall into the rapids of American (or any other) culture and emerge unbruised, in the culture but not of it, than the boy from Shouling is the failed bicultural, neither here nor there, alien to both.