Thursday, August 07, 2014

report from Lubbock, Aug. 2014

Another International Teaching Assistant Workshop just ended; this is the one 3-week stretch in which I teach absolutely full-time, but it's a whopper of full-time. There is SPEAK grading, Performance test grading, and six hours a day of teaching, all crammed into this three-week gig, and I more or less have to tell the folks at home that they're on their own. Some observations about the state of ITA's and Texas Tech will be found if you scroll down a little.

First, I want to say a little bit about the relative silence of this blog. In fact this blog didn't really move with me and my professional career to Texas Tech; it has stayed behind, really, as a repository of all good stuff that happened over an 18-year span in Illinois. But it's about time it moved, and I'll tell you why: I seem to be stuck in the process of converting all my interesting experiences into professionally-written, book-worthy ideas, and one reason is that I don't really use this blog actively enough anymore. Instead of pulling, bending, changing, etc., I just took a break and went into fiddling for a while. That has been successful; I have a band, I play bluegrass, I'm happy. But I don't intend to let my professional ideas rot on the vine back here. It's time I dredge stuff up and either publish it or drop it.

Now the nature of a blog is, it's fairly casual, and it's published, whether it's polished or not. I'm ok with that. If this is as far as some of these ideas go, that's ok. But I'm taking the red and gray of this blog and remaking it in the Texas Tech red-and-black soon, and that's because I want to keep it current, and keep using it instead of letting it collect dust. That's my first announcement. Look for some changes here soon in the design aspect. A person has to change once in a while.

Lubbock is at the searing peak of its summer; though we took a break for about a week in the mountains of New Mexico, I am now back crossing my beloved 19th street four times a day and in the process of so risking my life, I've decided to make sure that whatever feelings I have about language, acquisition, etc. I'd better get them in print sooner rather than later. So I'm thinking of devoting some energy to that process in the near future. And I hope you'll see evidence of the following: 1) a book about language as a self-organizing system; 2) a collection of essays and other writing about language acquision, and 3) a book or collection of writings about how technology and grammar intersect. I've been talking about these things for years. The heck of it is, I know where this writing is (on my blogs, in my Google docs, etc.), but it just collects dust where nobody sees it; if it were in book form, I could at least get it out there, where it might do some good. Not that anyone buys my books. But, books collect ideas under one cover. Blogs don't. Google docs simply maintain them. Books publish them.

Walked to the ITA workshop on its last day; walked home; walked to the pool, swam, and now I'm about too drained and exhausted to even do the multitude of organizational tasks I've set out for myself, for my afternoon and what little free time I'll have before the semester comes crashing in. But, I got some pictures uploaded, below, at my home weblog, and my lubbock weblog, and those are really my most immediate organizational task. I'm still finishing my ITA workshop blog, which has three entries. This last one has social media, teaching philosophies, and a tour of world cities. Most of all, in my opinion, it still proves that to me at least, the blog format is one of the best places to simply publish interesting stuff. Nobody takes it too seriously, yet by simply remembering a well-chosen URL, you always have access to the best of people's creativity, the things you can get them to say. Teaching philosophies, in particular, help them to crystallize their feelings about what they're about to do, and, since they are graduate students, they take their writing seriously and give you a good picture of various departments and issues of teaching within them. I'm proud of the work my students are still putting on blogs, and in this case I'll say one thing: in three weeks, all we could do was write the stuff and put it up there, really; we didn't worry too much about "revision." But, organization and perfection were less important than simply getting it up there. Students were coming and going the entire three weeks; this blog represents the time they spent in that classroom, discussing writing and the issues of social media, as well as talking about their own cities. I'm proud of that memory and will fix up the blog to reflect that, as soon as I have time.

Unfortunately, however, I lost the password and even the logon of the last one, which also held teaching philosophies, and this brings up an organizational nightmare of the blog world: one loses passwords, especially if one is ADD or trusts the old pen-and-paper method. I'm working on it, folks, I promise.

Which brings me to my last point. The CESL weblogs, also, are collecting dust, turning into a museum of the era in which we used them. Blogs are ok for that. I guess it's ok if people at CESL simply forget that they're there, and they sit there with all their beautiful pictures and show what people did way back in the early 20-aught years. I have them rigged, I think, so that if anyone jumps in with crude comments, I'll know. As they get stale, they move down on Google indices, and people are less likely to stumble upon them. But even now I use them. Students have research papers on them, and I call them up. They reflect the idea that you can take a corner of a public discourse environment, you can make an interesting project, and you can leave it posted indefinitely, for its creators to use, and for anyone to see and comment upon. If anything, it's making the web more civilized, and calmer. And that's no small change in today's world. My last organizational task is to link up these weblogs, so that one can more easily have access to them, or see them in the order that I'd like you to see them. Look for more on that, here.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

new on Facebook

I am like everyone; I spend a significant amount of time on Facebook. My friends include a lot of former students, so they are all over the world, and thus I get caught up in the World Cup drama even when I'm not actively watching it a lot. But this post is about two other significant developments on Facebook.

The first is Facebook's own experimentation with using its feeds to manipulate your mood. Facebook can make you happy. Facebook can make you sad. Facebook can make you forget the vast majority of your friends, in favor of the ones it puts in front of you, in its relentlessly formulaic ways of deciding what your feed looks like.

Now I'm already a little jaded by the rest of the stuff Facebook has been doing, like using the margin to speak directly to everything it knows about me. The ads basically say, hey you 60-year-old who teaches ESL and likes the World Cup, click here! Facebook by the way is mad at me because I've still, after two years, not told it where I'm from, and that's because it's a rather complicated answer, but lately it started to make stuff up, and just say I'm from Lubbock or from some other town where I had a lot of friends. Wrong, Facebook.

People like me are mad at Facebook because it's using so much of what it learns in such a devious way. It's one thing to make a profile out of thousands of bits of information it's gotten out of me legitimately (what kind of idiot am I?) but it's another to basically take things I'm meant to see, order it in order to change my own feelings, and then go along like it is in charge, it controls my feelings anyway. The reason people are mad is that they suspect that it works...

But here's another trend I've got a bead on, and I'm not sure this one is entirely good either. I'm an avid follower of HONY (Humans of New York), in which some guy interviews people on the streets of New York and puts their responses with their pictures; because he has thousands of followers, people write in with comments immediately and constantly. My understanding is that he censors the comments, and still gets thousands of legitimate, non-hurtful comments for each post. He must spend his life censoring the comments, but in any case, what he has created is living, all-inclusive discussion forums that are alive, and in which comments tumble in just as you check your phone. If your phone gets Facebook, you can essentially participate in a texted discussion with any of thousands of strangers who are piping in on such subjects as what constitutes a crime, or when someone becomes immoral in divorce. Some of these I've found banal, but others have been fascinating, and it's only a matter of time before he or his competitors perfect the art, or use Facebook at another plane of participation. Hand it to HONY though: he did it first; he's in uncharted territory, and, for the moment at least, it's working.

I think Facebook-watching could be a full-time career. But I mean that in more of a sense that if you were critical about the stuff that happens every day, every week, you could use critical social commentary to alter the way our culture is moving; we're like a canoe on very fast rapids. Unfortunately, I'm more in the other camp. I watch Facebook with increasingly more of my time, and it's mostly just to keep a fairly wide collection of friends in my consciousness. For that reason alone, I still defend Facebook - it's made my social circle very wide, very interesting, very international. All that other stuff, well, I'm like everyone, I put up with it, because, basically, I feel powerless to stop it.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

World Cup 2014

A friend of mine said, "Why should I care?" to which I responded, some Texas high school just spent 60 million on a football stadium, and football kills people, it gives them concussions, and injures their legs/knees/ankles/feet for life, so any energy we can put into promoting soccer is in essence saving lives. Kids need stuff to do. It's not enough to say to them, don't do American football. You have to have something to replace it with.

More and more Americans are watching the World Cup and this is a trend that has been steadily increasing. I've been interested in the last three or four of them, but I haven't actually watched this one much, not having streaming video, or even television to speak of. I watch my computer and my phone to see the scores come in. I'm overjoyed of course that the Americans finally beat Ghana. I've said enough, since I have friends from Spain, Brazil, Mexico, all kinds of other places that are still in the race. I tend to like the African teams and the South Americans against the old European powers but that's based on a very old prejudice and not based on any real knowledge of real teams.

My friends who are abroad refer to the teams in plural, i.e. England are, Spain are, etc. I guess this reflects the fact that British English has won at least the soccer audience, whereas we purely American soccer fans (who call it soccer) are still a distinct minority, even an extreme minority. I don't care. The USA is good. It has a chance. It is still in the hunt. Go USA!

My friends also are quite critical of the officiating. I am fortunate in that regard, because I still don't know a foul from a wrongly-called foul. But I haven't been watching it either, so I lose even more of the fine discrimination of what is or isn't, what actually happened. How should I know? I can't make predictions based on what I've seen. I have no idea who is playing up to their potential.

But I can tell you this: When you win two, you are virtually guaranteed getting into the next round. When you win one and tie one, it gets a lot murkier, and this is important for Brazil and Mexico, because as far as I'm concerned Cameroon is still in it. And anything can happen, USA can even beat Germany. Not likely but possible. One other thing, Brazil is wet & rainy, and it might make people go bonkers or do stuff they wouldn't ordinarily succumb to. We'll have to see.

But I feel like Argentina. The whole nation goes bankrupt, goes under, things are bad, for us here in the US we are looking at another six trillion war, all for nothing, but who cares, it's game time or "match time" and it's time to head up to the local barber shop, and see what the guys are saying about this team or that, and whether "it is" any good...

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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

e pluribus haiku 2014



e pluribus haiku 2014 is out. 875 haiku, better packaging, more complete. I'm really proud of it. click on the picture to order it through amazon or by kindle. my intention was to publish on July 4, but if you think about it, the season is already over by then. The season is now. so pass this along, and celebrate the diversity of this country, its 50 unique states (and the District of Columbia); and the expression, through poetry, of a traveler's view.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

World Cup 2014

The World Cup is a kind of diversion on this weblog, but four years ago, or was it eight, people were actually tuning in to read whatever some American (me) had to say about it, and I was surprised, but I couldn't help but notice that the blog was actually being read, for whatever reason.

Now you will notice right away that I am a USA fan, but don't know that much, really, about the USA team, or any other team, for that matter. A friend of mine made a comment about the reason Landon Donovan could have been excluded from the USA team this year, and, much as I snickered, I realized that I have no idea why he really was excluded, and very little time to do the research, having way too many children, and having those children more interested in the relationship between Elsa and Sven than in Landon Donovan. But I do know that Ghana is, again, our biggest rival; that our division is considered tough; that the backdrop (Brazil), this year, will be quite interesting; and that interest in the World Cup has been steadily rising in the USA, as part of a general trend toward internationalization in the younger generations.

As to this last tendency, I would like to consider myself a leader. Notice the world, I would tell fellow Americans. In particular, notice how soccer doesn't physically destroy its players as American football does. It is a world spectacle; its players are the kings on the world throne, they get the girls, the Ferarris, the television time, the money; they cheat and pretend, dramatically, to be injured, but hey, I feel better about feeding this monster than the American football one, which gives people repeated concussions, and broken ankles for life. I realize that's not quite justification. If this is an exercise in rampant nationalism, in unhealthy adoration of physical skills, then maybe it's better "Letting it go," as they say. But I'll save that argument for another season. For this one, I'll stick with my tendency, which is to love the USA (underdogs in this situation), like the African teams (always underdogs, for financial reasons), like most of the South American teams (always so passionate, so colorful), and like Mexico (local favorite). I like 'em all, actually, I like watching, and caring. It's an international spectacle, like the Olympics. It's much more fun to talk about, than political maneuverings in Ukraine. It's a little hedonistic, that way. But bring it on, I'm sick of talking about wars. Here the US is threatened with war in the Ukraine, war in the South China Sea, not to mention war in Afghanistan (it's been there all along), war here, war there, drones in Yemen, drones in Pakistan. We just can't seem to stop killing people. Well I say, kick the ball, and stop with the killing. If you can't take care of your soldiers when they come home, let the soccer players go out there, because you don't have to take care of them; they'll latch on to some team like Arsenal, and they'll make a fine living, and they'll marry into money, and everything will work out ok. We'll get our competitive streak satisfied, yelling about the way they "shoot," and nobody will die as a result (generally).

I say, let the games begin!

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May report

So what have I been doing with my life? Several things. My semester of work is over here; I worked half-time, partly in an ITA class, and partly in the University Writing Center, but I will teach full-time in the ITA Workshop in mid-July, so that counts to bring my appointment up to the 3/4 time I am paid for. What is annoying about working half-time is that whenever you teach anything, your worrying expands to fill up the space, so you might as well be working full-time, because you're worrying full-time. I try to put time into other things, and do; I've been writing, I've been working on my music, but above all, we have two new children and have to fit them into our family routine, and this has all been quite draining. I turned 60, and some days, I feel very old.

But, before I give up, I have a couple of things I want to do. I've been collecting essays about acquisition, and I'm thinking of publishing them. I've also been writing about language as a self-organizing system, and I want to collect that writing as well. These, as I envision them, are two separate books, hopefully published this year, as I've already done the vast majority fo the writing. The first has this running title: O to be estar: Essays on language acquisition. The second has this running title: Language as a self-organizing system. That second title is rather boring; it might need some work. But that's where it stands. These are both collections of writing that put my work out into the world. Having them on google docs, or blogs, doesn't seem to be doing it for me. Not that anyone will read it in its CreateSpace form, either. But it will make me feel like I've put it out there better.

In fact, I've become interested in the process of putting things out there in little home-made books, if only because a book is something you can hold in your hand, and bonk people on the arm with. Lately I printed my most recent e pluribus haiku, 875 poems in a single volume which is still only $5 (+ shipping), and I find that quite awesome, sorry about the plug, but basically if I make a string of these, and put out the writing that I do, it gives me a feeling of being an author that I don't quite get from being a teacher, or being a fiddler, or being a father, all of which I am being, but which reward me in different ways. Applying this to my ESL career, there are things I've learned, and I want to say them; I want to put them out there. If I have a single book, I have a place where I can point that encapsulates my philosophy. This blog, obviously, is one place. But this blog is fading into obscurity. The best thing about it is its pink and gray (very stylish) appearance, and even that, to tell you the truth, gets old. I hate the font. I can't keep up the links on the template. I'm getting impatient with it as a mode of communication.

I missed TESOL this year, and might even miss the one in Toronto, if I'm not careful, and I love Toronto, cold as it is in March. There are people I love who go to TESOL, and I miss them, even though they are busy integrating technology into classes, and I am not. I have gone this far and not mentioned at all how I"m on the cutting edge of using EdModo; I'm not. I've lost the desire to tell the world to get with the program and get students to use the language in new environments. To some degree, this will happen on its own, with or without me anyway. There is one more book in me, though, and that's how technology has influenced the language, the grammar, and the way people learn language and grammar. It has, in fact, created a new world, and I'm in a better position to expound on this than most people, so I should, and perhaps I will. This, you'll notice, is a distant third, it doesn't even appear in my top two. Alas, either it'll happen or it won't, what else can I say?

Stay tuned. Here's hoping this blog doesn't go the way of the wooly mammoth.

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Cars have universals; languages have funny sounds

When I went to Korea, I was curious about why people walked to the left on sidewalks, in order to avoid bumping into each other. The question was, basically, whether it was possible for a whole culture to be what appeared to us to be "left-handed" - which, if you think about it, is just another way of saying that it's opposite of what one has come to expect. The language always had verbs last, and had post-positions instead of prepositions. So I began to wonder: Is it possible for people to just be oriented in another direction?

But alas, they drove on the right, like we do. So I said, why don't you drive on the left, like the Japanese? Is there a reason for these things? And someone said, well, that is the reason, if the Japanese drove on the left, we didn't want to be like the Japanese. At the time we got roads, we were more inclined to imitate the Americans.

I studied these phenomena for a while because of my general sense that language is kind of like random human cultural behavior, which as you can tell from the above anecdotes, is far from random, yet at the same time, does not seem to have a rational physical explanation. In the search for universals, you might do what the Chomskyists did, which is to say that every culture sticks to one side or the other, it's just that the culture determines which side. But I ran across the British, who, when walking on the street, don't stick to either side. Apparently they use a different system to avoid bumping into each other. And keep in mind, virtually every other cultural tendency, starting with the language but including law, we seem to have either gotten from the British or adapted from the British. But my point is, if there are cultures in which people don't stick to either side when walking in the street, then there are really no universals about walking in the street. You can't say that if someone bumps you with their left elbow, they're more likely to bump you with their left foot is a universal.

So it is with language. Some universals, for example, all languages have vowels and consonants, appear to apply to all languages, at least all the ones that are primarily oral, but even that opens up a can of worms. But the ones that deal with word order all assume that word-order restrictions are an inborn part of our language mechanism, and they're not. Plenty of languages have no word-order restrictions whatsoever. So what they refer to as "universals" sound more like physical movement regularities like the one with the left elbows. These are not universals. Some languages use order to express things. Some most definitely do not.

I was most provoked by the assertion that sticking to one side of the road, when driving, is a universal, while the culture itself determines which side. This assertion relies on the assumption that roads have room enough to actually have two sides, which in my experience, is a false assumption. But, allowing that the vast majority of one's roads have plenty of room, I still see no reason why a person born into a world with no cars, few cars, or random cars would necessarily feel compelled to stick to one side, except when encountering another car, or as a cultural habit developed upon encountering other cars regularly. In other words, there is no genetic imperative to stick to one side regularly. It is a cultural habit that people develop for their own convenience (and to save lives, generally) and they might choose either side depending on their whim or their political inclinations (people in the Falklands, for example, might prefer aligning with Britain to aligning with Argentina). People who regularly have entire roads to themselves have no special reason to stick to one side or the other at all, and generally don't. We are in the habit of taking our Western obsessions with word order, road alignment, etc. and imposing them on other cultures, as if, if you don't have this particular obsession, then what are you, radically chaotic? I think the example of British sidewalks, if true, though, reminds us that a culture can be quite rigid and regular about a number of things, and still have no cultural agreement about which side of the sidewalk to walk on. Sometimes people don't agree. Sometimes they have other methods to avoid bumping into each other.

The story of the wave brings up an interesting point. In that story, people in stadiums (stadia?) around the world have taken to standing up, and by the movement of their bodies creating a wave that moves around the stadium, clockwise in the northern hemisphere and allegedly counter-clockwise, more often, in the southern hemisphere (as evidenced by the Olympics in Sydney). Now if it is true that the spontaneous movements of large groups of people can be influenced much in the same way water goes down the drain, then an argument can be made that when there is movement, the movement can be influenced by certain external factors. I'm not sure I buy that argument, or that that argument could apply to language, where Japanese and Korean have post-positions, but English has prepositions. So we place certain things to the left or to the right. But this doesn't come from the movement of the earth, or from our relation to the magnetic pole, or from the fact that we are in the "west". It's simply a cultural agreement, and we could change it if we agreed to change it. That's actually kind of scary, but it's true.

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Friday, April 04, 2014

Cultural flexibility presentation

Leverett, T. (2014). Cultural flexibility as a characteristic of good language learners. Third Annual AL/SL Conference on Language Learning and Teaching, Texas Tech University, April.

Gave this presentation today, and got lots of input. The handout will follow, as will links to several things I've written about it. I'm a little slow in getting it all online, but will, all in good time.

The essence of it is, when you fill a classroom with well-motivated adults wanting to learn a second language, their own native culture will be an impediment to their learning, and will provide variation in learners. For example, those from languages without article systems will find our article system pointless and ridiculous, and will have trouble learning it, whereas those from Spanish or Portuguese backgrounds, for example, will have the mental framework and will have already accepted the principle of such a system. People spoke of things in language that were hard to swallow: An old Chinese man spoke of how he couldn't get over English's failure to distinguish kinds of cousins (mother's side? father's side? male? female? older? younger? etc.). An American woman learning Arabic spoke of the way the language pulled you into the religion and she had trouble with that. One Chinese woman pointed out that she herself had reservations about acquiring such expressions as "bless you" which seem overtly Christian. The trouble we have in just adapting an entire system is often internal resistance to the culturally unpalatable demands of the new situation.

More on this later. It was to some degree unfinished business; I taught ESL for 28 years, and now am seeing the top end of it, people who are almost fluent. How can I look back at the whole process, and dispense wisdom from what I've seen? Basically, everyone was motivated, at least on the first day. Everyone had a memory and a working mental apparatus, with the slight exception of a few that were missing a switch here or there. So what remained, and why did people learn languages at different rates? This presentation attempts to get at the answer.

A good discussion occurred about the passive voice. A claim was made earlier in the day that active was more basic than passive, thus bound to be acquired earlier; that would be more natural, that would be as it was meant to be. There is a natural order to these structures, this speaker said, and we learn them in order.

Alas, but my presentation points out the ways we don't learn them in order, or, we take that order in our own hands, and impose our own order on the system, and acquire any feature only when we're ready. Thus it would be possible for a person to acquire articles first, or last, depending on their inclination, but more important, with passives, it would be theoretically possible for a person to deliberately acquire passive and passive only, since it is not required to know active before one knows passive, or to "enter" the cognitive sphere through the active voice. Is it? That, I think, would be my more fundamental research question.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cultural Flexibility

I've written a little about this before, but I'm about to begin a serious inquiry and have lots of preliminary thoughts to put down before I start.

First, I was heavily influenced by a book on motivation that I reviewed for TESL-EJ. To me the essence of the book, my walk-away tip, was that motivation, or pure desire to learn a language, wasn't worth anything until it could be translated into measurable outcomes. For example, you would like your language class more if you were motivated to learn a language, and this could be measured, simply by asking you if you liked to go to that class. You would do more studying of that language, because your motivation had been converted, so to speak, into the juice that ran the engine, and that juice was measurable, in the sense that if you did more than you used to, or more than the next guy, you were clearly more motivated. Your motivation had converted successfully into useful, measurable units of juice.

Now I didn't quite buy this at the time, and I still have trouble with it, a little, because in fact I believe you can really want something and still be unable to convert it, and then, in that case, what do you call the desire? You can be crying inside to learn a language and still be unable to sit in a class, for example, or learn your vocabulary words. Ah, but skip that argument. When it comes to cultural flexibility, the problem is the same, but it's much more fun to worry about. For example, some things about a language are more unpalatable than others. And, that unpalatable-ness (unpalatability?) can be measured, right? So, you learn to use a, an, or the, but you never quite bought into the idea that you should have to be bothered with such a thing. This would be unpalatable, and your cultural ability to bite the bullet, or just say to yourself, look, this is something I have to learn for cultural reasons, is going to determine your success. If you are stubborn in the sense that your feeling about the unpalatability of that characteristic of language is stronger than your cultural need to fit in, get along, do as everyone is doing, you will have more trouble with getting your articles right, and this will be one of the last features that you master.

Now, in the world of features, first, there are several kinds. There are unpalatable sounds, (like th) which can be distinguished from sounds that are merely difficult to make (zh as in measure). AE as in bat or hat is another example; it may sound unpleasant, or you may know that people in England don't have to bother with it, or are able to make it in a slightly less offensive way. Sometimes the grammar, as in a/an/the/0, is routine, and you'll bump into it twice per sentence; other times it's a little more rare. Sometimes you can get away with errors a lot longer in certain areas, than in others, because certain mistakes are more repairable on the part of the listener (or the reader as the case may be). So errors or features have characteristics of their own: frequency, importance, etc. that influence the necessity of learning them first, later, or not at all.

In Korean you actually speak a different language to people who are older than you, people who are the same age or level as you, people who are below you, and children; this fundamental division of the human race before one opens one's mouth is unpalatable to democratic Americans who basically use the same language for everyone, and are proud of it, although sometimes they're fooling themselves. Nevertheless one would have to admit that this is a fundamental characteristic of the Korean language; you won't go far if you don't master it. You'll be corrected in a fundamental kind of way, and that's because you have violated a very important rule. That's not to say this can't be done; English speakers eliminated the thee/you distinction at one time, but it could be called a social revolution and was no small deal. What I'm saying is that features of a language can be foundational, or more of whatever the opposite of foundational would be.

Now I'm inclined to say that one of the primary considerations here is that often what we are watching here is subconscious. People detest the a/an/the situation because it seems so trivial, yet they know it causes problems, and they have trouble integrating the awareness into their systems so as to correct the problem. When it is subconscious, I like to bring it to the front and ask them about it. For example, I have high-level students who never make a th correctly and I know they can do it, so I'm in the habit of asking them if it's just too embarrassing to stick their tongue out in public, and are they really unable to do that just because they are stubbornly cultural about doing something that, back in their home culture, one would never do. By the way, I feel this way about walking around someone's house in my socks; I really don't want to do it. I kind of feel like feet stink, especially when they're in socks, and it's better just to keep one's shoes on, as dirty and muddy as they might be. But the question of cultural flexibility is simple: how much are you willing to give up, just because you know that it's what is done, it's what this culture has decided is necessary, it's what you do to become "fluent"?

What I am trying to prove is that, first, the sense of discomfort you feel with customs (like leaving one's shoes at the threshold, or sticking one's tongue out to make a th) can be measured. Your cultural flexibility, therefore, can also be measured. We should be able to predict how well you will do with learning a language by measuring your cultural flexibility, in the same way that if we could measure the size of your memory, or your ability in retrieving what you want out of it, we could measure your success in mastering vocabulary. These are characteristics that make good language learners. Pure intelligence, I am convinced, is not really one of them, because we are not really talking about rocket science, as puzzling as another language's grammar may seem. It is not made to be too complex for the average person to figure out...on the contrary, languages must be accessible, or they would be virtually useless. That doesn't mean they're easy, though. Geniuses have trouble with them. And I intend to get to the bottom of what is most difficult in mastery of them.

Here are some research questions that I would like to explore, refine, and/or answer:
1. Language features clearly can come in different kinds: grammatical or phonological, to start with. But what about semantic? Are there more? What am I missing?
2. So we test you, and determine that you are quite stubborn, unwilling to stick your tongue out, so to speak, so you are doomed to years of trouble mastering any given language that requires this or that cultural concession. Are you doomed to failure because of your basic nature, or can you actually teach yourself to be more flexible? I suspect the latter. I suspect that it is difficult, but it is the key to language learning.
3. OK, so we set about making subconscious problems conscious; for example, I point out that the reason you are having such trouble with a/an/the/0 is that deep down, you feel that it's a pile of horse pucky and you shouldn't have to be bothered with such triviality. You readily agree, and now realize why you've had such trouble for so many years mastering such a trivial feature. Does your awareness of your own feelings help you master the problem? Is this a useful teaching tool? I can ask everyone about the relative unpalatability of various features of English or the language that they are embarking upon learning, but will that matter?

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a pleasant story

The presenter was a woman, a Chinese surgeon. Her job was to present about superstitions or cultural beliefs, so she chose to tell us about Chinese numbers and what they meant to Chinese. Eight was prosperity in a financial kind of way, she said, but eighteen was not lucky at all; in the same way American hospitals skipped the thirteenth floor, Chinese hospitals sometimes skipped the eighteenth. Many numbers had positive connotations, but four was particularly bad, being associated with death, due partly to the way it sounded.

So then, having described the lucky characteristics of numbers like one, two, five and eight, she showed us her phone number, which was filled up with all the good ones and in particular four eights at the end. Now I may have copied this down in my notes, but I felt embarrassed about copying a woman's phone number, and besides that, it was quite long, much longer than ours tend to be, a string of maybe thirteen or fourteen numbers, all lucky ones of course, not a four in the bunch. They all ran together, and weren't put in groups like ours are, area code, prefix, etc., just fourteen lucky numbers in a row. She explained that the four at the end could be interpreted as her future, thus all eights at the end would indicate a very prosperous future. Happiness and good luck, of course, filled the early parts of the number and were more likely to represent all the good stuff that would take place before that prosperity arrived.

So, at the end, we all had a lot of questions and two boys in the front got into a discussion that I didn't catch, because I was in the back. But finally I asked her: How did she rate such a great phone number? I'm a surgeon, she said, and I did an operation on a guy, and he gave me that phone number as a gift.