Wednesday, January 30, 2013

2012 Language News Update - Addendum 2

This is the final addition to the latest Language News Update. Read the first two parts and the first addendum as well if you like.

This latest piece of language news/research comes from researchers at the University of Washington. They have looked into how brain structure before babies' first birthday can predict problems in language development. The actual title of the study: "Early gray-matter and white-matter concentration in infancy predict later language skills: A whole brain voxel-based morphometry study." I do not know what the second part of the title means (particularly the words voxel and morphometry, but this sounds like, if not a breakthrough, a huge step in the right direction for understanding both the brain and language and children and language.

Monday, January 28, 2013

My Google Demographics

Google knows what I do--online anyway. My blog belongs to Google, I search almost exclusively on Google, and I have a (Google) YouTube account. So I was amused the other day when for the first time I checked my Google ad preferences. They were more or less right in regard to what I search for online (literature, spirituality, news, language references) but were off in a couple of key categories:

Jeremy Patterson
Age: 35-44
Sex: Female
Languages: French, English, Italian

I am a 28-year-old male (if you are female and named Jeremy, that's fine with me, but I'm just sayin' . . .) and know no Italian. I don't think I've ever searched for any Italian words online either, but who knows.

I figured even Google needs a little help sometimes, so I straightened it out and hope for more interesting ads in the future.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Today in Language: Gérard de Nerval

Monument to Gérard de Nerval
in Square Saint Jacques in Paris
The 19th-century French writer Gérard de Nerval died on January 26, 1855. More precisely, and to indicate what kind of life he lived before he died, Nerval committed suicide on January 26, 1855.

Nerval, most famous for the romantic novela Sylvie, was the quintessential 19th-century French melancholic writer: melancholic, poor, bohemian. He is commemorated in the Square de la Tour Saint-Jacques in the heart of Paris, just a few blocks from where he lived and the street where he killed himself (the street is no longer there).


L'écrivain français Gérard de Nerval est mort le 26 janvier 1855. Plus précisément, il s'est suicidé le 26 janvier 1855, ce qui commence à indiquer quelle sorte de vie il avait menée.

Nerval représente le mal du siècle chez beaucoup d'écrivains français : mélancolique, pauvre, bohème. Il y a un médaillon de Nerval au Square de la Tour Saint-Jacques dans le 4ème arrondissement, à quelques pas de la maison de Nerval ainsi que de la rue où il s'est donné la mort (la rue n'existe plus).

Thursday, January 24, 2013

2012 Language News Update - Addendum 1

The two parts of the 2012 Language News Update earlier this month missed out on two important studies done recently, both in the area of children and language acquisition.

The first study (I'll report on the second study in a few more days) concerns children of bilingual parents and language mixing. A researcher from Concordia University found that the vast majority of bilingual parents actually mix languages when talking with their children. As might be expected, this language mixing poses problems in the short term for vocabulary acquisition. But the general benefits of bilingual rearing are not undone, and the short-term effects may not be too serious.

In my own experience, I have gone to great pains not to mix languages at all when speaking to my children. I mix all the time with my wife, and she mixes somewhat with the children, but my reasoning has been the following: I speak French to them, which will be the language they hear the least (or at least the least frequently in natural language environments) given that they will grow up in the U.S. (English) and have some family that knows only Spanish. Of the three languages we want to raise them in then, French is the one that is likely to be the weakest, so I want to be extremely consistent with it myself. But perhaps a little mixing wouldn't hurt? It's true that on the very rare occasion I have made a translation or myself used an English or Japanese outburst that just fit the moment ("All right!" or "やった!" or "Oh, man" or "しまった。").

Monday, January 14, 2013

An Important Humanitarian Question

I have an important humanitarian question: What happens to those people in action movies who are innocently driving along in their own cars in a metropolis when someone with otherwise good intentions (a police officer, Batman, a paramilitary dude) comes along and forces them out of the car at gunpoint so they can take the car and chase someone who is a general menace to humankind?

I do not mean what happens to the actual people in those movies. They are paid actors who, most likely, are much better off in life than I am in terms of financial remuneration for their work.

What I mean is, what happens to people who may actually have been in that situation (had their vehicle commandeered by the "good guys")? Assuming of course, that this actually happens, and I do assume that, since it's on TV, so it must be real life, right?
This is a humanitarian problem not on the same scale of famine, water deprivation, slavery, or actual car theft at gunpoint, but it's a humanitarian problem nonetheless. I always, always feel bad for those people in the movies. Put yourself in their place--it would pretty much ruin my day (or week). Does anybody care about them, or are they just collateral in the bigger fight against Evil?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

2012 Language News Update - Part 2

This is the second part to this Language News Update. Part 1 focused on children, and so this Part 2 focuses on other research in the language sciences.

In general linguistics:

  • Recent research has focused on the advantages of ambiguity in language.
  • Our assumptions and intuition about language aren't always wrong. For example, if you think that, say, Japanese, or Arabic speakers have a harder time mastering their language, you may be right.
  • Our biases about language are not always right. Don't look down on someone who struggles with the pronunciation of your first language, as long as they're understandable. And don't kill yourself or be afraid to speak languages you're learning just because you don't sound like a native. Okay, all of that is my two cents, but there is new research backing up the notion that pronunciation (or "native accent" in popular terminology) is not so terribly important.
  • When it comes to language learning, immersion really is the way to go.
  • Music and language, interesting. Not so unrelated as we might think.
In studies on bilingualism:
And finally, in the spectrum ranging from unsual to bizarre:
  • A recent research study presented some interesting conclusions about texting: first, contrary to popular assumption, it doesn't make frequent texters more creative with language but, second, it actually makes them less receptive to new words than readers of print media. So maybe this gives reason to view (voluminous) texting negatively. See my review of Txtng: The Gr8 Db8.
  • The tiny Piraha tribe(s) in Brazil has no words for numbers in their language. This is fascinating research raising questions about how people perform (or don't perform) certain functions, such as counting. Also, the old debate of whether the world shapes language or language shapes the world (answer: yes).
  • And to wrap this up, according to Norwegian linguist Jan Terje Faarlund, English just might be a Scandinavian language! Glad to have that cleared up. How to be sure that "English" is actually one language? How to classify languages? How to say that any language is directly related only to one other language group? Stop asking all of these pesky questions.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Today in Language: Gaston Miron

The Quebec poet (the definite article could be italicized; he is both a poet from Quebec and the Quebec national poet if that can be a category) Gaston Miron was born on January 8, 1928.


Gaston Miron est né le 8 janvier 1928. Le poète national du Québec, le premier d'avoir reçu des obsèques nationales. Pour commémorer son anniversaire, voici les quatre parties d'un très beau documentaire sur sa vie et sa poétique, "Les outils du poète."

Première partie:

Deuxième partie:

Troisième partie:

Quatrième partie:

Thursday, January 3, 2013

2012 Language News Update - Part 1

It has been 13 months since the last Language News Update here. By most standards then, this post is no longer newsworthy. To start the new year, we present some of the most important news and research from the sundry fields of language sciences.

Most of the language news from 2012 has to do with children. Today's post thus serves as part 1 of this Language News Update, focusing on the non-adults. Let's take it from the start, beginning with babies and even before birth:
Moving on to toddlers and older children:
And not to forget adolescents, and human beings in general:

  • Sorry, teens, but not much has changed in spite of several decades now of solid descriptivist work and attempts to temper linguistic prescriptivism: you're still going to be pushed to speak "properly" (not to mention to write "properly"). Unfortunately, none of the people who bully you in that regard are likely going to tell you what that really means and why you should really do it, because they probably don't know themselves, even though they think they do. (Okay, that was a bit long and rather harsh, but true.)
  • Anyone want a big brain? Learn language!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Of Kings, Presidents, and God

ALERT: This is a long post.

The year 2012 saw a lot of presidential elections, twelve by my count, in a variety of continents and geopolitical situations:

With these elections this year, and with the anniversary of Clovis' death in mind, I also started thinking about the difference between kings and presidents. When I was little, I once told my mother that I wanted to be the president of the United States. She asked why, and I responded confidently, "Because he tells everyone what to do." Far from the truth, I now realize, despite what some presidents themselves would like to think. But even kings have (or had) quite relative power.
The Basilica of St. Denis,
necropolis of nearly all of France's kings

Despite the obvious difference that kings are not chosen by democratic vote, and the fact that democracy did not even exist until recently, are different styles of human government and leadership so very different? You've got presidents and kings, dictators and prime ministers, but they all face similar problems and none proposes a perfect system for humans. And they all pass on (ultimately die) and have to be replaced.

So how do we approach politics? Does it really matter? Something my pastor said this year (in an a-political statement about the specific situation of the American presidential election) seems to me to apply to all elections of any type, and all governance of any type He said that voters were faced with two options, moral darkness or theological darkness. And it could be added that sometimes, many times, our political leaders give us both.

What can we then do? Two opposite reactions present themselves immediately: 1) get more politically involved to make a difference and create change, or 2) give up on politics and politicians all together, pretending that they do not matter.
Dead kings and queens (or their statutes)
at the Basilica of St. Denis.

Both 1) and 2), of course, have something sound in them. There is nothing wrong with political activism. Nor is there anything wrong with a (tempered) skepticism of political power, because it does not ultimately matter, but does make a lot of difference in the present.

For option 1), however, the danger is getting too caught up in politics, a danger for which I have two reading recommendations, the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes and the 20th-century book Blinded by Might. For option 2), the danger is a harmful cynicism, for which I have no reading recommendations because I haven't given it as much thought as option 1), but if you have reading recommendations for either, please feel free to share them.

Most of us probably have a tempered approach to politics, falling between the extremes of 1) and 2). What then can we do, since we don't want to become politicians but also don't want to stop voting altogether? To cite my pastor again, we can pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-4, an astounding passage), pay our taxes (Romans 13:6-7), and otherwise obey them (1 Peter 2:13-17).

If we did that, we wouldn't have to worry about what our leaders do or don't do. We would be leaving it with God in prayer and going on with our lives, which is precisely what he wants.