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3.4: Language and Culture (Summary)

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    From theory to practice...

    Don't expect your language learning progress to be linear. The typical language learning experience is more like a spiral than a straight line, with lots of starts and stops. One often has the feeling of standing still or even moving 1 step forward and 2 steps back, particularly in the stages of advanced novice (CEFR level A2) and intermediate (B1 to B2). It can happen at the upper levels as well. This is normal, that progress comes through fits and starts. Often you are learning without realizing it, building up your store of language until it reaches a point where what you've accumulated starts to come together.

    Textbook language is not real. In real-life use, be prepared to encounter language differences from what's in language textbooks. This is one of the advantages of exploring L2 use through online exchanges, getting a taste of authentic language use in context.

    Language in everyday use is culturally determined. This means that how we carry out routine tasks such as exchanging greetings, asking for a favor, or expressing thanks can vary significantly from culture to culture. In these "speech acts" being grammatically correct is not nearly as important as being culturally appropriate.

    Explore language learning on the Internet. As described in this chapter, there are rich opportunities for language study, both learning and maintaining, on the Internet. Some may work for you better than others – there are many different tools and services, which use quite different approaches.

    For discussion and reflection...

    1. Language and human behavior

    After watching the TED talks by Chen and Tran...

    How do you judge the validity of the claims in the videos that the structure of a language (such as the presence or absence of a particular verb tense) can influence human behavior? When you are using a second language, do you feel you see the world differently?

    1. Words

    After watching the TED talks by Curzan and Shargaa and listening to (or reading the transcript of) the conversation with John McWhorter...

    Do words matter? Is it a problem if someone uses a word incorrectly in a non-standard way? Are there particular contexts in which word usage is important? What's your view on the use of "awesome" and "thug", as discussed by Shargaa and McWhorter?

    1. Language learning and multilingualism

    After watching the TED talks by Doner and Lonsdale and reading the piece by Foer:

    What have been for you the most effective approaches to language learning? What mechanisms have you found for maintaining your second language abilities? How would you judge the approaches advocated in these videos? If you have tried learning Chinese, what is your assessment of the "Chineasy" approach?

    1. English as a world language

    After watching the Ryan and Walker TED talks and reading the articles by Pullum and McWhorter...

    Are we moving towards one language = English? What are the advantages and disadvantages if that were to be the case? Why English and not another language, particularly Chinese? What's your take on McWhorter's statement that "...if the Chinese rule the world, they will likely do so in English"? Is it a problem (culturally), that, as Pullum discusses, higher education in a number of non-English speaking countries is moving towards English as the language of instruction?

    1. Endangered languages and technology

    After watching the TED talks by Davis and Plotkin...

    Is it important to preserve the world's languages? Isn't it crucially important for individual advancement in any country to speak English? Does it matter in that case that a native language disappears?

    Key Concepts

    • Accent: Version of language distinguished by pronunciation
    • Ambilingualism: Situation when two are more languages are used interchangedly and seeminlgy randomly by an individual or in a community
    • Argot: A secret language used by a group to prevent outsiders from understanding [from French argot, meaning slang]
    • Behaviorism: Emphasizes the role of environmental factors in learning (rather than innate factors); learning involves conditioning through repeated stimulus and response
    • Cognate: A word having the same linguistic derivation as another; from the same original word or root
    • Collocation: The frequent juxtaposition of a particular word with another word or words with a frequency greater than chance
    • Communicative approach: Languge learning pedagogy which stresses meaningful and real communication in interactions among learners and the use of authentic texts
    • Comparative linguistics: Branch of historical linguistics concerned with comparing languages to establish their historical relatedness
    • Computational linguistics: Branch of linguistics that includes automatic speech recognition, computer-assisted translation, and other uses associated with the use of computers to predict and interpret human communication
    • Connotation: Commonly understood cultural association of a word, rather than its literal meaning (denotation)
    • Creole: Full-fledged language that originated from a pidgin or combination of other languages
    • Denotation: A word's explicit or literal meaning
    • Descriptive linguistics: the study of the grammar, classification, and arrangement of the features of a language at a given time, without reference to the history of the language or comparison with other languages.
    • Dialect: A language variety associated with a particular region or social group
    • Diglossia: Situation in which two languages or dialects are regularly spoken in a community
    • Discourse analysis: A general term for a number of approaches to analyze language use, usually involving breaking down conversations into individual units, which are studied for their meaning and context
    • Endangered language: A language that is at risk of falling out of use as its speakers die out or shift to speaking another language
    • Ethnography: The scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures
    • Field linguistics: An applied area that collects data on little-studied languages, particularly those with few speakers that are in danger of dying out
    • Fossilization: Refers to the loss of progress in the acquisition of a L2 following a period where learning occurred, despite regular exposure to and interaction with the L2
    • Generative grammar: A linguistic theory that sees grammar as a system of rules that generates combinations of words that form grammatical sentences in a given language (originated by Noam Chomsky)
    • Grammar: The mental representation of a speakers' linguistic competence; what a speaker knows about a language.
    • Historical linguistics: Study of the origins, development and relationships of various languages
    • Idioms: Whole phrases that extended the meaning beyond the literal meaning of the words
    • Indo-European: A large language family of related languages and dialects originating in Eurasia, with the most widely spoken languages being Spanish, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Persian, and Punjabi
    • IPA: The international phonetic alphabet, a set of symbols and diacritics representing phonemes of the world's languages
    • Jargon: A set of words/terms that are shared by those with a common profession or experience
    • Language: A systematic set of sounds, combined with a set of rules, for the purpose of communicating
    • Language family: A group of languages related through descent from a common ancestor
    • Language isolate: Language with no known relationship with other languages or membership in a language family
    • Language socialization: Gradual development of skills and behaviors in expected ways of speaking and acting through participation in social interactions
    • Language variety: The way a particular group of people uses language
    • Lexical approach: Method of teaching foreign language stressing the understanding and production of lexical phrases as chunks
    • Lingua franca: Common language used by speakers of different languages
    • Linguistic determinism: The hypothesis that the differences among languages are reflected in the differences in the worldviews of their speakers
    • Linguistic relativity: Theory that the way one thinks is determined by the language one speaks
    • Linguistics: The scientific study of language, specifically its structure, development, and relationship with other languages
    • Monolingual: A person who speaks only one language
    • Morpheme: In a language, the smallest unit that carries meaning; may be a word or a part of a word (such as a prefix)
    • Morphology: Branch of linguistics with a focus on morphemes, the basic unit of meaning within a language
    • Mutual intelligibility: The ability of two people to understand each other when speaking
    • Neologism: A newly coined word or phrase
    • Noam Chomsky: United States linguist whose theory of generative grammar redefined the field of linguistics (born 1928)
    • Phoneme: Smallest unit of sound, as in a consonant or vowel
    • Phonetics: Description and classification of sounds and the study of their production and perception.
    • Phonology: Study of sound systems and sound change, usually within a particular language or family of languages.
    • Pidgin: A simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common
    • Polyglot: A person who knows and is able to use several languages
    • Pragmatics: The study of how language is actually used and the effect that language has on human perceptions and behaviors
    • Pragmatic competence: The ability to use language effectively in a contextually appropriate fashion
    • Prefix: An affix that is attached to the beginning of a morpheme or stem
    • Prescriptive grammar: Rules of grammar brought about by grammarians' attempts to legislate what speakers' grammatical rules should be, rather than what they are
    • Proto-language: Hypothetical parent language from which actual languages are derived
    • Prestige: In sociolinguistics, the level of respect normally accorded to a specific language or dialect within a particular speech community, relative to other languages or dialects
    • Register: A variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting
    • Root: The morpheme that remains when all affixes are stripped from a complex word
    • Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: The proposition that the structure of a language influences how its speakers perceive the world around them.
    • Semantics: Systematic study of meaning in language, especially word and sentence meaning
    • SLA: Second Language Acquisition: References both the process of learning a second language as well as the academic field dealing with that process
    • Sociolinguistics: The study of how language is used in society, including its differences among cultures, age groups, genders, social class, etc.
    • Speech act: An utterance that has performative function in language and communication

    • Strategic competence: A speaker's ability to adapt use of language to compensate for communication problems caused by a lack of understanding
    • Suffix: An affix that is attached to the end of a morpheme or word
    • Symbol: Arbitrarily selected and learned stimulus representing something else
    • Syntax: Systematic ways in which words combine to create phrases, clauses, and sentences
    • Tone: The use of pitch in language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning – that is, to distinguish or to inflect words
    • Universal grammar: Noam Chomsky's theory that all the world's languages share a common underlying structure
    • Variation: A characteristic of language: there is more than one way of saying the same thing. Speakers may vary pronunciation, word choice, or morphology and syntax


    Books: language autobiographies

    • Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: life and reality. Harvard University Press.
    • Hoffman, E. (1998). Lost in translation: A life in a new language. Random House.
    • Kaplan, A. (1994). French lessons: A memoir. University of Chicago Press.
    • Rodriguez, R. (1983). Hunger of memory: The education of Richard Rodriguez: An autobiography. Bantam.

    Movies involving language or linguists

    • Apocalypto, 2006; filmed entirely in the Yucatec Maya language (with subtitles)
    • Arrival, 2016; science fiction that centers on translation and interpretation, with a linguist as the main protagonist
    • Grammar of Happiness, 2012; follows the story of Daniel Everett among the Amazonian Piraha tribe
    • Do you speak American?, 2005; documentary about different versions of English in the US
    • Ghost Warrior,1984; A deep-frozen 400-year-old samurai is shipped to Los Angeles, where he comes back to life, speaking an ancient Japanese dialect
    • Nell, 1994; wild woodswoman in North Carolina who speaks a strange unknown language
    • Pontypool, 2010; a virus spreads through a community and only a linguist can solve the mystery
    • The Interpreter, 2005; political thriller about a UN interpreter (Nicole Kidman)
    • The Linguists, 2008; documentary film about language extinction and documentation
    • The Terminal, 2004; feature film (Tom Hanks) exploring learning a new language on the fly
    • Windtalkers, 2002, on the use of the Navajo language as a secret code during World War II

    Blogs on language

    • Language Log Long-running, informative blog from the U. of Pennsylvania
    • Lingua franca Associated with the Chronicle of Higher Education
    • The World in words Podcast about language, from PRI's The World

    The nature of language

    TED description: "What can economists learn from linguists? Behavioral economist Keith Chen introduces a fascinating pattern from his research: that languages without a concept for the future — 'It rain tomorrow,' instead of 'It will rain tomorrow' — correlate strongly with high savings rates."

    Can Your Language Influence Your Spending, Eating, and Smoking Habits? from the Atlantic largely supporting the claims as does the piece by David Berreby, Obese? Smoker? No Retirement Savings? Perhaps It's Because of the Language You Speak, while a post in LanguageLog, Keith Chen, Whorfian economist, expresses skepticism

    TED description: "Phuc Tran grew up caught between two languages with opposing cultural perspectives: the indicative reality of Vietnamese and the power to image endless possibilities with English. In this personal talk, Tran explains how both shaped his identity."

    Comments from reddit readers and on Quora (expressing skepticism)

    Language in society

    TED description: "One could argue that slang words like ‘hangry,’ ‘defriend’ and ‘adorkable’ fill crucial meaning gaps in the English language, even if they don't appear in the dictionary. After all, who actually decides which words make it into those pages? Language historian Anne Curzan gives a charming look at the humans behind dictionaries, and the choices they make."

    TED description: "Which of the following is awesome: your lunch or the Great Pyramid of Giza? Comedian Jill Shargaa sounds a hilarious call for us to save the word "awesome" for things that truly inspire awe."

    NPR's Melissa Block speaks to John McWhorter, associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, about the use of the word "thug" to describe Baltimore rioters.

    Comments from NPR listeners on McWhorter's views on "thug"

    Speaking multiple languages

    It’s obvious that knowing more than one language can make certain things easier — like traveling or watching movies without subtitles. But are there other advantages to having a bilingual (or multilingual) brain? Mia Nacamulli details the three types of bilingual brains and shows how knowing more than one language keeps your brain healthy, complex and actively engaged.

    TED description: "Patricia Kuhl shares astonishing findings about how babies learn one language over another — by listening to the humans around them and "taking statistics" on the sounds they need to know. Clever lab experiments (and brain scans) show how 6-month-old babies use sophisticated reasoning to understand their world."

    Young polyglot talks about superficial view of language learning in the media; explains "method of loci" (memory palace) and experimenting with other methods; about language and culture

    Polyglot explains his method for language learning; about polyglots; emphasizes motivation
TED description: "'Some people just don't have the language learning gene.' To prove that this statement is patently untrue is Benny Lewis's life mission. A monoglot till after leaving university, Benny now runs the World's most popular language learning blog and is learning Egyptian Arabic which will be language number twelve, or maybe thirteen. But who's counting?"

    On language learning

    Polyglot explains his approaches to language learning. His first rule: make sure you make mistakes

    For foreigners, learning to speak Chinese is a hard task. But learning to read the beautiful, often complex characters of the Chinese written language may be less difficult. ShaoLan walks through a simple lesson in recognizing the ideas behind the characters and their meaning — building from a few simple forms to more complex concepts. Call it Chineasy.

    Chineasy? Not Victor Mair (prominent Chinese language professor) on this approach (not a fan)

    How he became fluent in Chinese in 6 months

    Victor Mair is skeptical: Fluency in six months

    Article from the Guardian by Joshua Foer

    It's not easy and it takes time. Comments on Joshua Foer's article

    English as a world language

    Article from the Wall Street Journal by John McWhorter

    TED description: "Jay Walker explains why two billion people around the world are trying to learn English. He shares photos and spine-tingling audio of Chinese students rehearsing English, 'the world's second language', by the thousands."

    TED description: "Jamila Lyiscott is a 'tri-tongued orator;' in her powerful spoken-word essay "Broken English," she celebrates — and challenges — the three distinct flavors of English she speaks with her friends, in the classroom and with her parents. As she explores the complicated history and present-day identity that each language represents, she unpacks what it means to be 'articulate'."

    TED description: "In her talk, longtime English teacher Patricia Ryan asks a provocative question: Is the world's focus on English preventing the spread of great ideas in other languages? (For instance: what if Einstein had to pass the TOEFL?) It's a passionate defense of translating and sharing ideas."

    TED description: "More and more, English is a global language; speaking it is perceived as a sign of being modern. But — what do we lose when we leave behind our mother tongues? Suzanne Talhouk makes an impassioned case to love your own language, and to cherish what it can express that no other language can. In Arabic with subtitles."

    • There Was No Committee

    Article by Geoffrey Pullum (from the Lingua Franca blog) on the rise of English in education world-wide

    Fascinating archive of American English accents

    Playing with language and identity

    The South African comedian on his identity and the role of languages

    TED description: "How do we decide who we are? Hetain Patel's surprising performance plays with identity, language and accent -- and challenges you to think deeper than surface appearances. A delightful meditation on self, with performer Yuyu Rau, and inspired by Bruce Lee."

    TED talks on endangered languages

    TED description: "With stunning photos and stories, National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis celebrates the extraordinary diversity of the world's indigenous cultures, which are disappearing from the planet at an alarming rate."

    TED description: "'The greatest and most endangered species in the Amazon rainforest is not the jaguar or the harpy eagle,' says Mark Plotkin, 'It's the isolated and uncontacted tribes.' In an energetic and sobering talk, the ethnobotanist brings us into the world of the forest's indigenous tribes and the incredible medicinal plants that their shamans use to heal. He outlines the challenges and perils that are endangering them — and their wisdom — and urges us to protect this irreplaceable repository of knowledge."

    On the nature of TED talks

    Why is 'x' the symbol for an unknown? In this short and funny talk, Terry Moore gives the surprising answer.

    Debunking Terry Moore's TED talk

    The case for being skeptical of TED talks


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    Photo credits

    Girl at board: World Bank Photo Collection,

    Louisiana Creole girls: Ben Shahn, United States Library of Congress

    Rosetta Stone

    Edmond LaForest

    Edward Sapir

    Tarahumara women: Lance Fisher

    Chomsky: Hans Peters / Anefo


    Field linguists interviewing Koro speaker

    J.R.R. Tolkien

    3.4: Language and Culture (Summary) is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Robert Godwin-Jones.

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