foreign language learning strikes back

December 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Modern Languages Associationof America’s most recent review of language learning enrolments in American tertiary students reveal a continued slow rise in student numbers, suggesting that in the States at least, language learning is recovering from the drop in numbers. While not at the levels of language learning in the sixties, steady increases have been seen in the uptake of the languages German and French. Spanish however has been steadily on the rise and is the giant of the field. The other language growing in popularity is American Sign Language. Chinese, Japanese and Italian are maintaining numbers if not growing.


I am an agent

December 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

Wordcount is a fascinating site. It presents a searchable corpus of 88 odd thousand words in English ranked with respect to frequency. The data is based on the British National Corpus whch is made from both written and spoken texts of all types. Wordcount includes all words that appear there twice. Being obsessed with pronouns, I had a look through their stats:

Subject Object/prep possessor
I 11 me 72 my 69
you + you 14 your 73
he 15 him 60 his 27
she 30 her + her 36
it + it 9 its 62
We 34 us 119 our 98
they 28 them 57 their 42

Of course it is not so easy to compare these forms. The leftmost column contains subject forms, but of course, the form you is an extreme multitasker. Without context it can be singular or plural, it can be subject or object, or be governed by a preposition. Likewise, the second column is largely those that are object/oblique forms (i.e. follow a pronoun), but her does all that and takes care of possession too.

We also have to remember that when writing or speaking about ourselves, we really have little other choice than selecting the appropriate first person pronoun, as it is not deemed appropriate to speak of ourselves in the first person, and only restricted genres such as academic text types to select a commoun noun as our reference ….. the author of this study, their also limited ways of avoiding second person pronouns. This would account for the high rank of you especially given its polysemy. We can only exchange this pronoun for proper nouns when managing reference. Third person pronouns are more likely to be used interchangeably with full noun phrases, so the ranking of he as 15 masks the fact that the proportion of subjects which are third person is probably much higher than first and second. It is interesting to note though that when pronouns are used as subjects in the the third person, such subjects tend to be masculine. Women being talked about seem far less likely to be in subject position! (And are perhaps talked about as objects of both verbs and prepositions and perhaps possessors by the looks of it.) The opposite appears to be true for first person in that the subject form far outweighs the non-subject form me. Our preference for talking about ourselves as subjects suggests that we see ourselves as agents and experiencers (of cognitive verbs) more than objects worked upon by others.

by George … Jorge … I think they’ve got it!

December 14, 2010 § 1 Comment

Henry Higgins (played by Rex Harrison) in My Fair Lady tried and tried to get Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) to “correctly” pronounce the vowels in the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain. If you saw the movie, you know that she ultimately did pronounce the vowels to Higgins’ satisfaction. So satisfied, in fact, that he exclaimed, “By George, I think she’s got!”, and then the two broke into song.
Well, I’ve been listening to TV 3 ads for Survivor Nicaragua for a number of weeks now and, by George, I think they’ve got it! The first few times TV 3 advertised the show, the announcer’s pronunciation of Nicaragua was a very un-Spanish like five-syllable structure: “Ni-ca-RAG-GYU-a.” .
This rang wrong in my ears because, growing up in California, I was used to hearing Nicaragua pronounced more like the four-syllable “Ni-ca-RAH-gwa.” I’m sure that my reaction to “Ni-ca-RAG-GYU-a” was similar to New Zealanders’ reactions to the first few times I uttered Samoa as “Sa-MOW-a”, with emphasis and weight on the second syllable, instead of the more accurate “SAH-mo-a”, with a long vowel in the first syllableJust as it took me a while to say Samoa with a more appropriate pronunciation, the TV 3 announcer’s pronunciation of Nicaragua has slowly changed. It has followed a path, which I have heard as something like this: “Ni-ca-RAG-GYU-a” to “Ni-ca-RAG-gyu-a” to “Ni-ca-RAH-gyu-a” and finally “Ni-ca-RAH-gwa”.
It would be interesting to know what initiated the change in pronunciation. Viewer complaints that were perhaps followed by a network email or memo to the announcer? The network’s own recognition of how contestants and others on the show pronounce the name? Something else?

ask the editor … or us

December 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

the fine people at Merriam-Webster talk the talk when it comes to dictionaries. They have a little video site where various editors present the finer points of English lexicography in tasty bite-size morcels from hard-to-spell words to the i before e rule. The video here, however, looks at what triggers the act of consulting a dictionary. The dictionary notes how politics provokes enquiry into vocabulary.

See all the videos at the Merriam-Webster website

kettling whitehall

December 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

“Police kettling has to stop” – this phrase really caught my attention, with “what’s that?…kettling…what does that mean….?” There wasn’t much of a clue in the news item except that it was to do with student protests in the UK, so I did what we all do, I went online. The setting were student protests in Whitehall about government fees, and kettling meant penning student protestors together, so they are confined, can’t move about. So it’s a form of control, and one that bloggers said made them feel uncomfortable and angry (no water, no toilets), but then small, scared and frightened, as their cries to be let out were drowned out and just considered part of the noisy protest. That all sounds awful, and really concerning…. and  a point of view that we don’t often get access to

 But before I went online I wondered why the word stuck in my mind – is it the sound structure of the word (the voiceless plosives?), the fact that it is an old word (like kindle) that has re-emerged, or the fact that I wanted to map my sense of the work on to what this may mean now….. Pressure cooker, for example, would not stick in my mind the same, but maybe that’s because the meaning is less opaque.

 So this was a real case of being captured by the form, meaning and significance of a word…..and it’s still preoccupying…..”

picture from this interesting blog

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