Reasons to Learn a New Language

10 October 2016

John McWhorter’s TED Talk

Although, I have to say I don’t completely agree with some of his assertions, I completely agree that the more languages one knows, the better we all are.

I think there are a lot of reasons, but I first want to address the one that you’re probably most likely to have heard of, because actually it’s more dangerous than you might think. And that is the idea that a language channels your thoughts, that the vocabulary and the grammar of different languages gives everybody a different kind of acid trip, so to speak. That is a marvelously enticing idea, but it’s kind of fraught.

He uses the word “fraught”  a couple of times to describe the scenario, but I’m not entirely clear on what he means. I’m not convinced by his dismissal of the influence that different languages have on our way of experiencing the world. In Russian (IIRC), there are two separate words for hues of colour that English would refer to as green. As a result of the linguistic distinction, speakers of the language have a better developed visual means of discerning between shades of green that speakers of languages that made no such distinction.

In many languages, there are singular words for a large number of relatives, such that it would be impossible to speak the language in any natural way without knowing where the interlocutor fits in their family, and into larger society. This is something else we don’t do in English. Cousin, Aunt, Uncle cover a lot of relations that would have numerous terms to discern maternal or paternal relatives, their generation, and such like.

I’m discovering more and more how languages such as Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) are mostly made up of verbs that are altered using prefixes, suffixes, affixes and such. It makes for a much more dynamic and engaged world when one can only refer to it in terms of verbs.

And languages, in the end, are ultimately about the sound that is produced, whether through listening to a speaker, or hearing the inner narration of printed words, or imagined conversation, and the sound of each language carries something different with it. I heard a conversation in passing between two gentlemen. They spoke in English with very different accents. One spoke very nasally with clipped vowels, the other spoke with deep rich vowels. They were having a laugh about something.

McWhorter goes on to list his four reasons:

One [reason] is that if you want to imbibe a culture, if you want to drink it in, if you want to become part of it, …you have to control to some degree the language that the culture happens to be conducted in.

He further points out that learning to express oneself in a second language requires a means of mastering a certain level of versatility. If you only know the rudiments, then you come off sounding wooden, and your expression is very limited. To learn a language, really learn it.

Second reason: it’s been shown that if you speak two languages, dementia is less likely to set in…

Addressed in an earlier post the Golden Age of Golden Years

And then, third — languages are just an awful lot of fun.

Yes. Yes they are.

[Fourth,] we live in an era when it’s never been easier to teach yourself another language… Couldn’t have done it 20 years ago when the idea of having any language you wanted in your pocket, coming from your phone, would have sounded like science fiction

While this is true, he makes the assumption that we all have easy access to smart phones, apps, etc. I’ve found a great language learning method in the book Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. It’s a flashcard system that schedules practice to get the words/grammar/etc into long term memory without spending a lot of time doing repetitious exercises that play in the short-term. There’s a Fluent Forever web site with some resources. And check out anki, the digital scheduled recall system (ie a flashcard tool).

The Golden Age of the Golden Years

11 July 2016

We’re living 20 years longer (YMMV) than 50 years ago.

Which presents a number of problems we’ve never encountered before. We’ve never had a global population this large, nor have such a large number of us lived this long. It’s both remarkable in terms of our success as a species, and comes with a number of challenges.

Although our bodies are living longer, if we don’t take care to keep our minds healthy, we are more prone to senility (a lay-term for a number of cognitive conditions). There are a number of ways to keep the body healthy, and are easy enough to find. Some decline is expected, however, how does one keep the mind, the brain, and nervous system sharp?

Dr Norman Doidge offers a lot of great advice in The Brain that Changes Itself:

Psychologically, middle age is often an appealing time because, all else being equal, it can be a relatively placid period compared with what has come before. Our bodies aren’t changing as they did in adolescence; we’re more likely to have a solid sense of who we are and be skilled at a career. We still regard ourselves as active, but we have a tendency to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are learning as we were before. We rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger, trying to learn a new vocabulary or master new skills. Such activities as reading the newspaper, practicing a profession of many years, and speaking our own language are mostly the replay of mastered skills, not learning. By the time we hit our seventies, we may not have systematically engage the systems in the brain that regulate plasticity for fifty years.

That’s why learning a new language in old age is so good for improving and maintaining the memory generally. Because it requires intense focus, studying a new language turns on the control system for plasticity and keeps it in good shape for laying down sharp memories of all kinds. No doubt Fast ForWord is responsible for so many general improvments in thinking, in part because it stimulates the control system for plasticity to keep up its production of acetylcholine and dopamine. Anything that requires highly focused attention will help that system—learning new physical activities that required concentration, solving challenging puzzles, or making a career change that requires that you master new skills and material. Merzenich himself is an advocate of learning a new language in old age. “You will gradually sharpen everything up again, and that will be very highly beneficial to you.”

Should you choose to embark on this mission, to learn a new language (and you don’t really have to wait until you’re 60), then I suggest learning one that will ultimately be of some benefit. If there is a community where you live who speak a language other than the majority, that would be an excellent opportunity to build some bridges. Even more importantly, many languages are at risk of disappearing (as many already have). This is a loss that cannot be overstated. Every language is another way of thinking, of looking at the world, of perceiving our very existence and place in the greater scheme of things. If we reduce our languages, we hobble our perception, limit our thinking, and ultimately do everyone a disservice.

There are those who argue that cultural change is natural, no doubt, however, supplanting the native languages of the place with a few widespread languages is hardly a natural change. The legal framework of Canada ensures that French and English dominate, while the languages of this very country were attacked, primarily through residential schools. You can always go to England and France (and dozens of other places) to learn English and French. Where will you go to learn Inuktitut, Tsimshian, Algonquin, and the dozens of other languages that grew out of Turtle Island?

I strongly urge those who wish to keep their minds nimble into old age to seek out what languages are spoken around them, and to choose one appropriately.

Personally, I’m trying my hand at both Algonquin (the local indigenous language, overlooked in the great English-French debate that rages on in Canada) and Mandarin. I’d like to add Spanish and Arabic. Ambition has never been my weak point.

One of the most practical techniques in language learning I have stumbled over is laid out by Gabriel Wyner in Forever Fluent. His technique focuses on getting vocabulary, grammar, etc. into long-term memory as quickly as possible, such that needless rote repetition isn’t necessary. I’ve been using his technique, and can vouch for its effectiveness. In the end, it does require entering into conversations with native and fluent speakers, which is the whole point.

Here’s Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe on the subject

I lost my talk
The talk you took away.
When I was a little girl
At Shubenacadie school.

You snatched it away:
I speak like you
I think like you
I create like you
The scrambled ballad, about my world.

Two ways I talk
Both ways I say,
Your way is more powerful.

So gently I offer my hand and ask,
Let me find my talk
So I can teach you about me.

Take that, thou… thou…

28 August 2012

Getting all Elizabethan on beslubbering knotty-pated puttocks.

One thing I appreciate about the British is their love of witty digs and insults. When I last visited England, I was astounded that I rarely heard the same insult twice, and learned terms such as bell~end and gormless. Oh, what joy. Nevertheless, seeing as Shakespeare had a wide range of barbs at his behest, it’s hardly surprising.

Now you too can use Shakespearean English as it was intended: to make fun (and oh what fun).

Shakespearean Insults

Or, if you want to go to the source, there are a number of insult generators.

Come, come, you talk greasily; your lips grow foul.

115 Days to Dec 21st 2012


30 July 2012

Rambling about a prefix: dis-

I’m a bit of a word geek. I have been known to read the dictionary, and books on grammar, and visit the online etymology dictionary just for fun. That may make me a logophile, but I draw the line at logophilia. I also dig calligraphy. I mean, check some of this out:

Alright, well, the point of today’s post, if there is a point (which I’m beginning to doubt), is to look at one of my favourite prefixes: dis-. Although it changes the root word to its opposite, ascribing a sense of apartness (dishonest), there is a connection that I feel is intuitive (i.e. I haven’t found it substantiated in any reference on the subject). It can denote a negative meaning to the root, but it feels to me that it imparts a sense of corruption or degeneration.

ease becomes disease. It is not a simple opposition, like up and down, it is something more sinister, like right and left.

In Dante’s Inferno, Dis is the name of the city in Hell that encompasses the 6th through 9th circles, which is to say, the most serious transgressions. Despite that he wrote in the Italian of his day and region, I’m looking at the flavour of these words in English (which was only really distinguishing itself in Dante’s time).

The Romans were known to call Pluto, their god of the underworld, by the title Dis Pater, which is Father Dis. (see American Plutocracy).

So dis- takes on a hellish meaning (at least to me).

Here’s a sampling of words to show you what I mean:

  • disable, disability
  • disadvantage
  • disbelieve
  • discharge
  • disembowel
  • disgrace
  • disorder

We could have used un- as a prefix (except that its of Germanic origin, but at this point, it’s all the same in English). Look at the difference between disease and unease, disable and unable, disbeliever and unbeliever.

The city of Dis contains sinners guilty of first degree crimes (premeditated, and requiring action on their part, as opposed to spontaneous or passive crimes). In a sense, the above examples (given that I have only a smattering of them) show a sinister or far more negative meaning associated with dis- than un-, and in some cases, the difference is one of intent. A disbeliever refuses to believe. An unbeliever may be persuaded.

A distressing display.

What is most telling about this underlying significance is the use of the prefix as a word, a word which serves to substitute for the word disrespect used as a verb. Don’t dis me. Although this usage has fallen out of vogue, it was widely used for a while around the turn of the millennium. In fact, a dis was sufficient grounds for retaliation, fisticuffs, dislocated shoulders and all.

I think if there were a verb that most closely defines “dis,” it would be dismiss. Like blowing someone off completely and utterly. A short form of the equally insulting “whatever.” Either way, disaffecting.

I don’t really have a point, just riffing on this thing. I’m going to be out of town for a few days, and wanted to take care to make sure I had a few posts lined up for my absence.


144 Days to Dec 21st 2012

Art in Meta-Books

23 July 2012

Brian Dettmer’s Bibliophilia.

I love books. I will resist purchasing an e-reader until my dying day, plain and simple. I love the whole reading experience: the heft of a Pynchon novel, the dry rasp of paper under my fingertips, the sound of the pages sliding against each other with each turn, the satisfying thud of closing the cover.

Brian Dettmer also loves books, quite evidently, however, his love of their physicality has inspired him to creative expression which I find simply delightful. Check ’em out.


151 Days to Dec 21st 2012

Amazon Tribe has no Words for Time

22 July 2012

An exception that proves theAbysmal.

Once again, what we take for granted has been thrown out the window – or at least put on the windowsill to cool for reconsideration. Our idea of time, embedded in our language and day-to-day life, is not innate. The Amondawa, who we’ve only come to discover in 1986, don’t keep track of time the way we do. They are still subject to the body’s diurnal and monthly rhythms, however, time is not a separate abstraction as it is for us, and the idea of saving time would be unfathomable to them.

As the Amondawa learn Portuguese, they will be exposed more and more to the ideas of time associated with the language, and undoubtedly to the calendar and clocks which are absent in their culture. There is an argument that the Amondawa have a concept of time similar to ours, however, because they exist in an intimate society, the terms they use would seem shorthand to us. Their vocabulary is more absolute, such that they refer to “the riverbank” as opposed to generic “rivers.” This same absolute language may be used with the time concept.

At any rate, it’s an interesting subject for consideration.

Amondawa Tribe lacks Abstract Idea of Time

An Amazonian tribe has no abstract concept of time, say researchers.

The Amondawa lacks the linguistic structures that relate time and space – as in our idea of, for example, “working through the night”.

The study, in Language and Cognition, shows that while the Amondawa recognise events occuring in time, it does not exist as a separate concept.

The idea is a controversial one, and further study will bear out if it is also true among other Amazon languages.

The Amondawa were first contacted by the outside world in 1986, and now researchers from the University of Portsmouth and the Federal University of Rondonia in Brazil have begun to analyse the idea of time as it appears in Amondawa language.

“We’re really not saying these are a ‘people without time’ or ‘outside time’,” said Chris Sinha, a professor of psychology of language at the University of Portsmouth.

“Amondawa people, like any other people, can talk about events and sequences of events,” he told BBC News.

“What we don’t find is a notion of time as being independent of the events which are occuring; they don’t have a notion of time which is something the events occur in.”

The Amondawa language has no word for “time”, or indeed of time periods such as “month” or “year”.

The people do not refer to their ages, but rather assume different names in different stages of their lives or as they achieve different status within the community.

But perhaps most surprising is the team’s suggestion that there is no “mapping” between concepts of time passage and movement through space.

Ideas such as an event having “passed” or being “well ahead” of another are familiar from many languages, forming the basis of what is known as the “mapping hypothesis”.

The Amondawa have no words for time periods such as “month” or “year”

But in Amondawa, no such constructs exist.

“None of this implies that such mappings are beyond the cognitive capacities of the people,” Professor Sinha explained. “It’s just that it doesn’t happen in everyday life.”

When the Amondawa learn Portuguese – which is happening more all the time – they have no problem acquiring and using these mappings from the language.

The team hypothesises that the lack of the time concept arises from the lack of “time technology” – a calendar system or clocks – and that this in turn may be related to the fact that, like many tribes, their number system is limited in detail.

Absolute termsThese arguments do not convince Pierre Pica, a theoretical linguist at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), who focuses on a related Amazonian language known as Mundurucu.

“To link number, time, tense, mood and space by a single causal relationship seems to me hopeless, based on the linguistic diversity that I know of,” he told BBC News.

Dr Pica said the study “shows very interesting data” but argues quite simply that failing to show the space/time mapping does not refute the “mapping hypothesis”.

Small societies like the Amondawa tend to use absolute terms for normal, spatial relations – for example, referring to a particular river location that everyone in the culture will know intimately rather than using generic words for river or riverbank.

These, Dr Pica argued, do not readily lend themselves to being co-opted in the description of time.

“When you have an absolute vocabulary – ‘at the water’, ‘upstream’, ‘downstream’ and so on, you just cannot use it for other domains, you cannot use the mapping hypothesis in this way,” he said.

In other words, while the Amondawa may perceive themselves moving through time and spatial arrangements of events in time, the language may not necessarily reflect it in an obvious way.

What may resolve the conflict is further study, Professor Sinha said.

“We’d like to go back and simply verify it again before the language disappears – before the majority of the population have been brought up knowing about calendar systems.”

152 Days to Dec 21st 2012

A Tribe Called Red

14 July 2012

Free Album – and don’t forget the electric Powwow

Local DJs A Tribe Called Red hold a monthly event called the Electric Powwow (2nd Saturday of every month at Babylon night club in Ottawa). That means tonight! I need new shoes.

They’ve released their album for free online and have asked people to share and pass it along. So here it is.

Also, you can check out their blog and their page on Soundcloud.

160 Days to Dec 21st 2012