Sunday, August 28, 2011

Children's Brains Miniseries: Age and Wisdom

Elihu, in Job 32:7, had a good thought: "I thought, 'Age should speak;  advanced years should teach wisdom.'"

According to recent research, as reported by ScienceDaily, wisdom truly is an advantage gained by age. Notice the first sentence of the second paragraph--it gives the definition of wisdom in the study. Wisdom here is basically experience. That is not a bad definition, though wisdom is a difficult word to pin down. And biblical wisdom is certainly more than mere experience.

The Judgment of Solomon
by Gustave Doré

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Children's Brains Miniseries: Boys and Girls Not So Different?

I always react viscerally when people (even experts) try to make absolute distinctions between men and women, boys and girls, male and female. [ALERT: unproven assertion] So many of these distictions seem to be artificial at best and trumped up at worst.

Sure, there are neurological differences. But they should not lead us to superiority or inferiority complexes--and definitely not to extreme measures like keeping boys and girls away from each other in school. As noted in the article, there are "few reliable differences between boys' and girls' brains relevant to learning or education."

I am probably wrong and people who really like their boys' school, girls' school, or women's college will be upset with me. But research does support my visceral feelings! Research, for that matter, probably supports anything.

Children's Brains Miniseries: Importance of Preschool

I should give the caveat that any time I refer my (imaginary) blog readers to research that I find interesting, I am always aware that the research is much more limited and tentative than a blog post title can make it seem. This is a caveat that one should always also bear in mind about news headlines, whether it refers to education, language, obesity, vaccines, or even Congress.
So with that said, let me refer you to another article from ScienceDaily highlighting the importance of preschool in language development.

As a language teacher/professional, I am encouraged by a comment from the author of the Vanderbilt University study: "We need to take very seriously the importance of teaching language in the preschool years."

As a parent, I am encouraged because 1) my son has a robust educational experience at the day care he attends from time to time and 2) whether it is in an official preschool or not, he is having language (multiple languages, actually) reinforced and taught in a structured environment at home as well.

Image: sheelamohan /

Friday, August 26, 2011

Children's Brains Miniseries: Grammar

After a several-day lapse in posting, I have a miniseries for the weekend: children's brains. This is based on several articles from one of my favorite language/linguistics websites, ScienceDaily.

First, consider an article about two-year-olds and grammar. The conclusion of a study done at the University of Liverpool is one of those common-sense ideas that make you say, "Oh, I knew that" only to realize that you actually did not. The research "suggests that infants know more about language structure than they can actually articulate, and at a much earlier age than previously thought."

My 22-month-old, who I am perfectly willing to concede is probably more intelligent than average, definitely has an understanding of some complex grammar. (He is also now an active trilingual, clearly choosing English, French, or Spanish words depending on whom he is talking with.) He rarely goes beyond the 2-year-old benchmark given in the article of stringing more than two words together, but on occasion he does. He also carries on intense, extended conversations of baby babble that simply make one laugh with sheer joy at the beauty of a small child trying to communicate. Perhaps the sounds coming out of his mouth mean something to him. Perhaps not. At any rate, grammar is alive and well in his brain and definitely not a boring subject drilled into and giving headaches to students.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Are You Addicted to This Blog?

Are you addicted to this blog? Apparently it is not impossible to be addicted to technology. An August 11 post from the LA Times blog presents some qualitative research (primarily anecdotal) into the 21st-century addiction that technology can become. Fascinating stuff.

My first reaction was one of a bit of skepticism at the label "addiction." But consider the definition of the word (from "the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma."

One can definitely be enslaved to technology (in the sense of habit-forming attachment). And if you read the graphic, it sounds like some people go through "severe trauma" when they are separated from their smartphone/Facebook/computer. So are you addicted to this blog? You will only know if you try to stop reading and then experience severe trauma!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Is Reading in Decline?

This is the question I have in relation to a small research project I am working on: Is reading in decline? I hear that it is. Newspapers, of course, sell a lot less. Yet much reading is done online and on e-readers and other devices now. So is reading in decline, really?

Any help you have towards answering this question would be much appreciated. I have the 2004 report from National Endowment of the Arts titled Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America. I plan to re-read it, but obviously it studies only literary reading, and my question is broader than that.
  • So, do you know of any studies/surveys on reading, in the U.S. or elswhere?
  • Do you think that reading is in decline, or simply in transformation (what we read, how we read, where we read)?
  • Has your reading declined since an unidentified point in the past?

Image: dan /

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Philosophy of Education from the Karate Kid

With the school year just around the corner, I received a tidbit of educational inspiration from an unexpected source, the 1984 Karate Kid. The Japanese maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi, who agrees to teach Daniel karate, tells the boy, "No such thing as bad student. Only bad teacher."

We could make an appropriate corollary: "No such thing as bad teacher. Only bad student."

Neither of these statements is strictly true, of course, but they provide the type of perspective essential to successful education, particularly language education. Both sides must work as if success was entirely dependent on their effort.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Today in Language: Michel Mohrt

L'écrivain Michel Mohrt vient de mourir à l'âge de 97 ans. C'est un grand écrivain qui a beaucoup travaillé et beaucoup avancé la langue française. Si vous connaissez son oeuvre, quel livre recommanderiez-vous ?
The French writer Michel Mohrt died today (August 17, 2011). He was 97.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Today in Language: Jean de la Bruyère

La Bruyère est né le 16 août 1645. Une citation que j'aime bien de son livre Des ouvrages des esprits :
Il faut chercher seulement à penser et à parler juste, sans vouloir amener les autres à notre goût et à nos sentiments ; c'est une trop grande entreprise.
Translation: It is necessary to seek only to think and to speak rightly, without trying to bring others to feel as we do; that is too great an endeavor.
Cela me fait penser à une autre citation, cette fois de l'écrivain anglais C.S. Lewis (dans un essai, « The Experiment », de son ouvrage An Experiment in Criticism) :
The real way of mending a man's taste is not to denigrate his present favorites but to teach him how to enjoy something better.
Traduction : La vraie façon de réparer le goût d'un homme n'est pas de dénigrer ses préférences actuelles, mais de lui apprendre comment aimer quelque chose de mieux.
Ont-ils raison ?


Monday, August 15, 2011

Recipe of the Month: Tempura Fried Okra

Tempura (天ぷら) actually is not originally Japanese! It apparently comes from a Portuguese dish that was introduced in Japan a long time ago, I would assume by Catholic missionaries.

Try out this great recipe for Tempura Fried Okra from Guy Fieri. I don't know how you feel about celebrity chefs and the Food Network, but that is about all my wife and I watch on TV when we stay at a hotel. (By choice, we do not have cable or satellite TV at home, just a television screen and DVD player for movies. So when we stay at a hotel, we splurge on cooking shows, Iron Chef, etc.) We recently saw Guy Fieri make this recipe on Guy's Big Bite, and I tried it at home to spectacular reviews (all from my wife).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Une vue biblique sur les livres

Ecclésiaste 12:12--Du reste, mon fils, tire instruction de ces choses; on ne finirait pas, si l'on voulait faire un grand nombre de livres, et beaucoup d'étude est une fatigue pour le corps.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

La folie des livres

Citons Rica des Lettres persanes encore une fois. Il s'agit des livres cette fois. Dans la lettre 66, il écrit :
La nature semblait avoir sagement pourvu à ce que les sottises des hommes fussent passagères, et les livres les immortalisent. Un sot devrait être content d'avoir ennuyé tous ceux qui ont vécu avec lui : il veut encore tourmenter les races futures, il veut que sa sottise triomphe de l'oubli, dont il aurait pu jouir comme du tombeau ; il veut que la postérité soit informée qu'il a vécu, et qu'elle sache à jamais qu'il a été un sot.
Des mots mésurés. Rica continue avec une pensée qui porte sur ce que je suis en train de faire:
De tous les auteurs, il n'y en a point que je méprise plus que les compilateurs, qui vont, de tous côtés, chercher des lambeaux des ouvrages des autres, qu'ils plaquent dans les leurs, comme des pièces de gazon dans un parterre.

Friday, August 12, 2011

La faiblesse des traductions

Je prépare une étude sur Lettres persanes de Montesquieu et il y a plusieurs des lettres qui me plaisent beaucoup. Rica, l'ami du personnage principal Usbek, est un homme très amusant, toujours avec une idée ou une histoire provocante. Dans la lettre 128, il raconte une conversation entre un géomètre et un traducteur d'Horace. Voici l'opinion du géomètre sur les traductions :
Les traductions sont commes ces monnaies de cuivre qui ont bien la même valeur qu'une pièce d'or, et même sont d'un plus grand usage pour le peuple ; mais elles sont toujours faibles et de mauvais aloi. Vous voulez . . . faire renaître parmi nous ces illustres morts, et j'avoue que vous leur donnez bien un corps ; mais vous ne leur rendez pas la vie : il y manque toujours un esprit pour les animer. Que ne vous appliquez-vous plutôt à la recherche de tant de belles vérités qu'un calcul facile nous fait découvrir tous les jours ?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

French postcolonialism

Postcolonialism refers simply to the socioeconomic situation that countries find themselves in after shedding the political status of a colony. French postcolonialism and the situation of la francophonie are of particular interest to me in my research, and they are especially interesting because the so-called field of "postcolonialism" is not nearly as significant in France as it is in the U.S. To cite Emily Apter: "there is really no commensurate intellectual movement [to postcolonialism] on the European continent."

Why might this be? I will offer two reasons, that could be expanded, revised, or challenged. But as I see it, [ALERT: unproven assertion] the field of postcolonialism, like most post- fields, tends towards radicalism, which tends to make more headway in U.S. academia than European academia. And by radicalism, I mean not only extreme left-wing theorizing but also at times academic nincompoopery. More on that in a later post, but as preliminary reading, try out Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction or Orientalism and see if you don't agree with me.

The second reason is the still uneasy relationship France has with some of its former colonies. It has tried to develop/maintain amicable relationships with francophone countries of the African continent, but it is awkward to move from colonizer/colonized to equal economic partners. In reality, some African countries, though independent, are still highly dependent on France and thus not autonomous.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fanon, la langue et le postcolonialisme

« Parler, c’est être à même d’employer une certaine syntaxe, posséder la morphologie de telle ou telle langue, mais c’est surtout assumer une culture, supporter le poids d’une civilisation. »
—Frantz Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs, p. 13

Monday, August 8, 2011

Le postcolonialisme...

Cette semaine je pense afficher de diverses pensées sur des mouvement post- et en particulier le postcolonialisme. Tout d'abord pourquoi post ?

C'est bien sûr un terme du latin qui signifie après, donc on croit se trouver dans une époque qui suit l'époque du colonialisme, une « doctrine politique qui prône l'exploitation par la métropole des territoires sous-développés qu'elle a pris en charge à son seul profit ou au profit unique des éléments métropolitains installés sur ces territoires », selon le CNRTL.

Une première question qui se pose : est-ce qu'il est possible de dire de façon définitive qu'on est dans une époque post lorsqu'il s'agit d'une idéologie ? Il me semble que toute idéologie est toujours susceptible à se promulguer, même si elle est actuellement dormante.

Une deuxième question, assez banale : Le mot postcolonialisme, comment s'écrit-il ? Postcolonialisme, post-colonialisme, post colonialisme... Lequel préférez-vous ?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

New Poll: Next "Today in Language" Feature

Here is an easy poll question: Who should the next "Today in Language" feature be about (someone born or dead in the month of August)?
1) John Dryden
2) William Carey
3) Balzac
4) Pascal
5) Baudelaire

Don't forget to vote!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Linguist Joke I Don't Get

I have read the following joke online: "How many linguists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but he/she (politically correct) must consult the Oxford English Dictionary."

Call me unintelligent, but I honestly don't get it. If you do, do you mind explaining it to me? It doesn't matter if it ruins the humor. I really just want to know what I'm missing.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Is America Illiterate?

I recently overheard someone make the comment, "America is illiterate." It may have been, "America is so illiterate." Alas, my memory fails me, but you get the idea.

Though other evidence may have been presented, the only piece I overheard to substantiate this radical claim was that the person had overheard someone else use a non-standard idiom: "a hard road to hoe." This was deemed a gross violation of true literacy, for any literate American knows that it is impossible to hoe a road, and the right idiom is "a hard row to hoe."

"A hard row to hoe" = a difficult endeavor
This is hardly evidence that America, generally speaking, is illiterate. It is not evidence that even the one American who said "hard road to hoe" is illiterate, for illiterate denotes inability to read and write and at worst connotes a level of intelligence below that of the accuser. So the accuser meant that one person (and, it can be conceded, probably many, many more Americans) do not know the proper form of every idiom they have occasion to use.

To further make the case that mis-worded idioms are no more evidence of national illiteracy than the split infinitive at the beginning of this sentence, though the phrase "a hard road to hoe" is demonstrably inaccurate, it clearly has some precedent in common usage.

Furthermore, people who say "road" in place of "row" may simply be making a phonetic slip, the two words being identical in pronunciation apart from the terminal consonant in "road." Thus the "wrong" idiom is not even evidence of lower intelligence, much less illiteracy--simply evidence that we all make, technically speaking, slips of the tongue.

Furthermore, even if someone knowingly utters the phrase "a hard road to hoe," it must be noted that a road and a row are not entirely disparate objects. Not nearly as disparate as, say, a road and a respiratory virus. Or a row and a Justin Bieber. So what is so wrong with the phrase "a hard road to hoe"?

Finally, in the accuser's defense, it must be pointed out that the heretofore mocked accusation was a performative utterance in the highly informal context of a lunch conversation, where hyperbolic speech and pedantic prescriptivism should certainly be much more readily forgiven than in a book on grammar or a lecture on English usage.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Neurolinguistic or Musicological Question About Toddlers

What is it--about language or the brain, or both--that makes my 21-month-old son calm down when he hears children's music but not necessarily when he hears other nice music? For example, I can be playing a nice classical piece with words (like "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," which we had playing in the car just yesterday) and he will be in the back seat fussing but if I turn on music with childlike voices (like an old Disney cassette we have in the car) he immediately quiets down and becomes very attentive. Why? Is he unique or is this how most small children function with "baby talk" in music?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

More Linguistic Pairs

A linguistic pairing similar to Saussure's langue-parole is that of competence and performance, first articulated by Noam Chomsky.

As the words indicate, competence refers to a person's ability to use language, particularly to create new utterances and sentences based on grammar. Performance then refers to specific instances of the person's use of that language competence. To cite Katie Wales' A Dictionary of Stylistics:

Linguistic competence is the internalized knowledge users of a language supposedly have about its system, which enables them to construct and interpret an infinite number of grammatically correct . . . and meaningful sentences. . . . This implicit knowledge is to be distinguished from what we do when we actually speak, i.e. performance: the process of speaking and writing. (71)

Just as Chomsky found deficiencies in Saussurean structuralism, his own competence-performance has also been critiqued heavily and the focus now tends to be on communicative competence as opposed to mere competence, or simply the knowledge of language. To cite Wales again:

Communicative competence depends on social and cultural interaction, on relations of power, and must be acquired. It is easier to think of "incompetent" communicators (unable to make small talk, rude to superiors, etc.) than Chomskyan incognizants. (Wales 71)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Langue or Parole? - Part 2

Yesterday's post gave a brief history of the linguistic terms langue and parole, as well as the history of this blog's title (Langue or Parole?). This post expands a bit more on both of those points.

First, the langue-parole pair merits a bit more explanation. Though yesterday's post quoted from Saussure himself, Katie Wales gives an even better explanation of langue and parole (as well as langage) in an excellent book, A Dictionary of Stylistics. She says that langue is "the system of communication produced by a speech community." This is the broader view of language, "distinguished from . . . language as the specific verbal behavior of individuals in speaking and writing (la parole)." Langage in Saussurean thinking is simply "the general faculty possessed by human beings" (232, entry "langue").

Thus to answer the question Langue or Parole? in regard to blogging, the writing phenomenon that is blogging (short, frequent posts often with media and interactivity incorporated, etc.) is an example of a langue, a "general system or code of communication" (cf. Wales, 287). But each blog post or comment (or even +1) is an example of a parole, "the verbal behavior or utterances of individuals in speech and writing, the individual instantiations of the langue."

As for the history of this blog's name, it should be mentioned that, in addition to yesterday's four points about the linguistic profundity of Langue or Parole?, other non-linguistic, purely pragmatic considerations also went into the choice of the name. Yesterday's observations were not afterthoughts, but they were not my first thoughts either. I initially wanted to name my blog Langue et Parole, Langue and Parole, or at least Langue-Parole. But those names already exist in the world of Blogspot. So I came up with Langue or Parole? (Langue or Parole without the question mark didn't make sense at the time) and then developed pseudo-creative reasons for the name. So I guess yesterday's observations were afterthoughts after all.*

*One more afterthought: If I stop blogging here, please remind me to delete my blog so other people can use the blog name if they so desire. It would appear that numerous good blog names are tied up by blogs with paltry entries or no recent entries.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Langue or Parole? - Part 1

I will now explain the name of my blog. I have had a blog since March of this year (2011) and there truly is a reason (multiple reasons actually) behind the name.

The French words langue and parole have been used as linguistic terms for a bit more than a century. Ferdinand de Saussure, whose book (class notes compiled by his students) Cours de linguistique générale (Course in General Linguistics) introduced structural linguistics and ushered linguistics into the 20th century, used the terms to denote the universal characteristics of language (langue) and the individual expression or use of language (parole). You could think of them as the impersonal and the personal, the macroscopic and microscopic. To quote Saussure himself from Cours de linguistique générale:
L'étude du langage comporte . . . deux parties : l'une, essentielle, a pour objet la langue, qui est sociale dans son essence et indépendante de l'individu ; cette étude est uniquement psychique ; l'autre, secondaire, a pour objet la partie individuelle du langage, c'est-à-dire la parole y compris la phonation : elle est psycho-psychique. (37)
Translation: The study of language has two parts: first, and essential to this study, is langue, that aspect of language which is social in its essence and independent of the individual; this study is only mental; secondarily, there is the individual aspect of language, parole, which includes phonation: this aspect is psycho-mental.

It must be noted Saussurean linguistics no longer exists in its original form. The terms langue and parole are viewed as insufficient and imprecise.

Nonetheless, I choose to use them because they are immediately recognizable terms and remain quite useful as a starting point for linguistic discussion. After all, where would we be linguistically without Saussure? (Or, though I hate to say it, without Chomsky or Derrida?)

Thus, the title of this blog, Langue or Parole?, has several implications:

1. It implies that this is not a monolingual blog: the title includes French and English, the primary languages here.
2. It implies that this is a blog generally focused on language and linguistics: the title is not PC or Apple?.
3. It implies a minor linguistics quiz: you have to decide whether blogging falls in the linguistic category of langue or that of parole (and that same question could be applied to each specific blog post).
4. It implies continuing discussion and refinement of ideas: the question mark indicates that I am not always sure about my linguistic observations and therefore invite contributions and corrections.

Image Credit: (NOTE: I could find no copyright or other information about the cool graphic. If it is copyrighted, however, please let me know and I will immediately remove it.)

Recipe of the Month: Crêpe la Suprême de Poulet

It is now August but here is the belated Recipe of the Month for July: Crêpes la Suprême de Poulet. During my recent trip to Montreal (which keeps getting invoked here on this blog), I ate at Crêperie Chez Suzette in downtown Montreal (Vieux-Montréal) and had a delicious meal crêpe that I just had to try myself. It is number four on the Chez Suzette menu.

I went a-Googling and found a great recipe on that I made last week (so this does count as the July Recipe of the Month), though lack of ingredients and time due to unexpected life circumstances meant no mushroom sauce. It was still good, though, according to my wife, and I am much more confident about making crêpes now.