Monday, October 30, 2006

plagiarism revisited

Two local incidents of plagiarism to discuss. The first involved a teacher, not me, who gave a student an honest appraisal of his writing - a grade so low, that the student was probably mathematically eliminated from the possibility of passing, from that point on. A good reason for the low grade was probably that his grammar was so poor, it was difficult to recognize what he was saying. It is possible, after all, for a student to reach a higher level and still have poor grammar. Yet, from the student's point of view, what was he to do? His next paper showed evidence of being written or at least improved by a girlfriend. My point in this situation would be that maximizing his tuition money, and productive use of his time and energy, would be to keep him in the game at least enough to feel like he had a chance, writing it himself. Yet I'd be one of the grade-inflaters who'd led him to believe that could write at the highest level at all, when in fact, he was at the wrong level, at least in writing. There's no way out of this. Maybe it was our fault for letting him get up there; our fault for being cold-stark truthful, then, about his writing; and our fault for expecting him to do anything else under the circumstances. Yet it's probably happened in some form or another in other venues too.

Another case: I gave my whole class this weblog assignment, asking them only to look at a site and tell me what was on it. I didn't mean copy what was on it, yet that's what about half did. The instructions are clear, I thought, but maybe the law against copying was not. What's the deal? Time to remind them: if I wanted a copy, I'd have given you a dime. Or here's another way of saying it: Copying is not illegal, by itself. It's putting your name on the paper afterward, that gets you thrown out of school.


Friday, October 27, 2006

An interesting weblog touches a subject i've always been fascinated with- the changes in our pronoun system that very well could trigger a huge grammar change, the use of plural for all general statements....but this weblog is also interesting because it's sharp, heavily commented on, and stripped free of the usual blogspot title electronics- you have to shred the trunk of the url to get to the main weblog.

Pronouns are fascinating- starting with the Quakers & their thee/thou kinds of things- one can only assume that these changes are brought about by social needs and not just random chance. Why else would a community go to so much trouble to change something so basic? I want to do more research on this.

Another language change that someone should comment on is the addition of interesting language development partly because it's an abbreviation that doesn't abbreviate anything...taking over semantic space for good reasons- but adding the innovation that one can make an abbreviation, complete with period and all, and not really have it mean that you shortened anything at all. Kind of like the US Postal Service deciding to change state abbreviations to all caps, two letters only...didn't they realize that this was the death-knell for normal (and colorful) abbreviations like Ill., Calif., or O.? I'm also interested in chat and text-messaging, and the changes they bring (lol)- so this whimsical musing about abbreviation and language change could be like complaining about a raindrop when a tsunami's on the horizon.

But, speaking of weblogs, got into TESOL again, twice over, one discussion about plagiarism, and one bigger, a demonstration, on weblogs. There could be more, but I certainly won't ask for it, since I need time to organize & pull together my project (see below). And it's a busy time- can't even organize the present weblogs, or make CESL Today, lacking the 3-4 hours of attention to detail that it requires. Ah, life.

Happy Hallowe'en, and a merry All Saints Day, Guy Fawkes Day, Sadie Hawkins Day, and Election Day- enjoy your holiday season!

October rain on the ginkgo leaves

I've been working hard on this, organizing notes, etc. Trying to integrate blog notes (below) into a manuscript (here):

Leverett, T. (unfinished). Language as a self-orgainizing system.

language models/language philosophy
models for language change, (3-06), best overview so far
principle wanted- 10-06
language as a social contract
fear of behaviorism

metaphors & analogies- human behavior
traffic & foot traffic- 10-06
yellow lines & concrete pilings- restrictions etc.
metaphors for language - cutting across the lawn
language learning analogies & the secretary

language change
sound change (10-06)- northern cities vowel shift, hw/w, restrictions
irregular verbs- morphological change (10-06)
language change

perception & sociology
through the looking glass- 10-06
risk & perceived risk- 10-06

self-organization and the brain
"utilitarianism" explained

dialects & choice
bad grammar alley (10-06)- dialects, association, choice
apple's for sale (4-06)
student dialect
dialect variation part II
dialect variation and Missour-ah

sitting on the dock of the whorf - 10-06

related stuff
frost on the pumpkin

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

traffic & foot traffic

Using road traffic as an analogy to language change and development has been fruitful to me for several reasons. Human traffic behavior and human language behavior have a lot in common- in both cases, individuals make the decisions that make the changes that control the whole picture. Individuals act in their own interests and do what is easiest. Individuals program themselves to use habits to accomplish their ends and change these habits only when it is necessary or desirable. People are aware in a heightened way of what others are thinking and doing, and how they are responding to various cues. The collective body (traffic jam/language) has its own life- it sometimes disperses, sometimes gets stronger or more regular, simplifies itself or orders itself unexpectedly in some way. Each individual within the larger group is aware of his/her influence on the group to some extent, and weighs the consequences of his/her actions toward the group. though sometimes changes are entirley unconscious.

But there is one large problem when you try to compare a good traffic jam with language change. And that is that many people consider the law to be a major reason that they keep a sense of order on the road. The law, after all, was there before they got their license; tells them where not to go and what not to do, and acts as a control or maintainer of order.

I don't believe the law is really that important, as I've seen whole roadfuls of cars breaking it shamelessly and still keeping a very strict order. I believe the cars came first, with no order; the norm came second, as people decided it was to their benefit to make a habit of keeping to the right or left (and then the law followed, long after the norm was established).

Nevertheless it's hard to get at why we do what we do as long as most of us see fear of the law as a guiding force in our or any traffic behavior. So, I'm beginning to switch into studying crowds themselves. After all, people walking on the street don't worry about being arrested for touching the line. It's just not an issue for walkers. Yet they too follow many of the above patterns listed above.

And it happens that the norms develop somewhat randomly: in the US, you walk on the right side of the sidewalk; in Kenya, the left; in Britain, it doesn't matter; in Korea, the left, but you drive on the right. It's not genetic; it's not even a restriction created by the country. It's pure self-organization. I need to find studies done on crowds in places like crowded streets, etc., where some real principles come into play. Unfortunately much of the work done is directed at preventing disasters like those that happened at IKEA stores and Mecca- whereas language has very few disasters of that nature. But people speaking languages follow many principles similar to those of people walking down a crowded street. They seek space on all sides. They seek forward progress- to get where they're going. They are heavily influenced by the group itself, and the possibility that they will hurt the group if they don't behave properly. I need to investigate.


risk and perceived risk

Our sociology text's chapters on crime pointed out once that risk of getting caught and punishment were two variables that influenced criminals, and that of the two risk of getting caught was probably more important, especially in murder cases, where the punishment or lack thereof did not seem to influence whether people committed crimes of passion or not. I had no argument with that, but as I mulled it over, and wanted to use the idea of risk myself, I decided that there was a problem: risk is different from perceived risk, and perceived risk is more important.

The criminal is not always right about whether he/she is likely to be caught or not. And it's how he/she thinks that influences whether he/she commits the crime- not the actual risk itself. Funny they didn't make that distinction. Especially since these days, risk is greater, and perception is probably lagging behind.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

through the looking glass

The sociological part of my treatise is yet to even find a single spot on a piece of paper, so here it is. Basically, I'd like to set out to say the following:

Humans in communicating are intensely aware of the way they are being seen by their partner in the communicating act. The speaker wants to convey his/her own meaning and nothing else except what he/she intends to convey. He/she constructs an image based on the way he/she assumes the partner is interpreting what he/she is saying. With every word, he/she may be aware of choices. This choice will sound southern; this choice will sound academic, this one will sound pretentious, this one is local vernacular; this one is actually bad grammar but otherwise ok. The speaker will choose the one that suits the occasion and choose the unmarked one if possible. The speaker assumes that all variants of any given construction have variation for a purpose: they carry extra meaning, extra association, as for example above. But the speaker most likely seeks to avoid unwanted association, seeks to do what is simplest, do what most others do in similar circumstances, as the price of going off on a different path is often unknown, often high, but generally not worth even thinking about when one is busy.

Thus all sound change is ultimately related to humans just doing what humans do: going from one place to another in the simplest possible way, not thinking too much about the route, doing what others do; paying attention to others' responses; making assumptions about the price of breaking the rules.

People aren't really all that complicated. Neither are grammars themselves. They have to be simple, or the millions of people who have to use them every hour would have more trouble than they do. The grammar of any given language is ultimately explainable and understandable, less complicated than it seems, as millions of people construct their own models of it, carry it around, and apply it to the above situation(s) thousands of times daily, and still have room in their brains to do all the other survival-oriented tasks that make thier day...

Having said that, I'm off to bed...

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Principle Wanted

This was a help-wanted ad I encountered once, looking for a job in the educational field. I figured this school really needed me, but I couldn't help them. I don't have the right ones!

Seriously, I've been rereading these linguistic principles, put together by Austin Zeigler, but really taken from Fromkin and Rodman- who provided my original linguistics textbook. I can't really argue with Mr. Zeigler here, or F & R, my old buddies, but a couple of them are intriguing.

#2: There are no 'primitive' languages. All languages are equally complex and equally capable of expressing any idea in the universe.

This one is interesting. How do you define equal? I have a deep feeling that this is right, but I imagine it would be hard to prove. I'd like to rephrase it as this: Humans are willing to fill a certain amount of their brain with the details of their language; there's an optimum amount that they are willing to use; after that their brain gets crowded and begins to forget stuff, so it's not very efficient to have a language that has too much of a memory load. People forget too much and have to keep learning it. So, languages tend to expand to this point and not expand much farther. And they expand in the areas where people need it. So if they need to talk about six different kinds of snow (as the old Sapir-Whorf legend goes), then they use their memories and language space to learn those six different names. Thus some languages are better equipped to talk about snow, for example, than others. But others have expanded equally far in a different direction. So, if looking at the whole systems, one would ultimately conclude that they are equal.

I have the same basic feeling about humans themselves, who seem to have a remarkably diverse set of skills and qualities, deep differences in all kinds of characteristics yet seem to all be in the same deeply difficult condition. But that one's for my quaker blog, if I ever get that organized.

#3. All languages change through time.

This one seems remarkable to me, if only because the sentence is in complete isolation. There are no other generalizations, no other universals, that can be attached to this sentence, or they would have done it. Not: all languages get simpler, get bigger, get more complex, get bigger vocabularies. Nothing. Just: they change. It's like living near the interstate and saying: traffic happens.

There is one more principle that I encountered:

"Since language is essentially a human activity it was argued, guiding principles for the study of its evolution should be sought within the general rules that govern human behavior." Bynon, p. 24.

This apparently came from a "neogrammarian manifesto" in 1878 (Osthoff & Brugmann); it was a guy named Schleicher who said that languages could be considered as organisms in and of themselves, with lives of their own, making progress and decaying, etc. Interesting. Here are the references.

Bynon, T. (1977). Historical Linguistics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Osthoff, H. and K. Brugmann (18780. Einleitung to Morphologische Untersuchungen, I; English translation in W. P. Lehmann, A reader in nineteenth century historical Indo-European linguistics,, chapter 14.

Schleicher, A. (1869). Die deutsche Sprache, second edition, Stuttgart.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

on blogs

Technorati: State of the Blogosphere, August 2005. Accessed 10-06.

The blogosphere doubles every five and a half months. There were over 14 million blogs in July 2005. 55% of them are active; this number has remained stable, more or less. A new one is created every second. Only 13% are updated weekly.

Hiler, J. (2002, Feb. 26). Google loves blogs.
Microcontent news. Accessed 10-06.

Why blogs have inordinate power in your searches. It makes sense: they're updated constantly; they point to the things that are important; they are obsessed with news and with good sites, and things that people value.

Burke, J. (2005, Nov. 28). Hyperlinking could change the writing styles of newspaper journalists. The Editors Weblog.

Title is self-explanatory, but it says what we're thinking- that blog writing is three-dimensional, because some words or phrases are moving walls into another dimension. Like an old suspense thriller.

Hiler, J. (2002, May 28). Blogosphere: the emerging Media Ecosystem. Microcontent News.

About the relationship between bloggers and journalists; useful for my class on media. Quotes "Doc Weevil" --
blogger : journalist :: tick : sheep
bloggers : journalists :: dung beetles : elephants
like an old GRE test, huh? But here's another interesting paragraph:

"Like any ecosystem, the Blogosphere demonstrates all the classic ecological patterns: predators and prey, evolution and emergence, natural selection and adaptation.  I've often thought that anthropologists were best equipped to deconstruct the emerging blogging sub-culture, but now I'm convinced I got it wrong: the greater mysteries of the Blogosphere will be unlocked instead by evolutionary biologists."

I'm going to need those evolutionary biologists anyway, I figure. More later...


Sunday, October 22, 2006

yellow line on one side, concrete piling on the other

People will organize themselves, especially when it is to their own benefit. People are aware when they are part of a large system, like a large traffic jam- if they don't see the cars behind them, they're irresponsible. They know that if they swerve or stop it could cost lives, way further back. Our behavior thus is a kind of calculating of the price of possibilities- we can change lanes, but only at a price; we can stop, but only at a price, etc.

But these are different from restrictions. Restrictions are the concrete-aluminum siding bars that say: can't go there-at all. We don't even consider places where it's physically impossible. Yet there are far more places we choose not to go, if only because we know it's bad for the system, on a level far above us. The system won't absorb it, it won't be good.

Furthermore, there are random changes that the system likes, and these are perpetuated because they make everyone's life easier. People know when simplification will save them room, and make life easier. The only true restriction in language is: we really don't want to use more than part of our brain-space worrying about it. We don't want to, and we aren't going to, and since it's entirely in our control, we don't have to.

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sitting on the dock of the whorf

I've been meaning to collect my thoughts on the Whorf Hypothesis- but I haven't quite pulled them together yet. It's not dead- though some linguists have been saying for years that it is. The question is: does language influence your perception? or, better yet, control it? Hardliners say: perception is perception. Just because you classify stuff according to your language, doesn't mean you see it any differently. Ah but I say you build your seeing machinery in your first few years--so the way you classify stuff does determine the way you see it for the next sixty or seventy. More on this later, I hope...

here's something scary

Told the webheads about this, then realized that this article never mentions Second Life by name. George is an avatar; he lives on the internet; he gains intelligence, and has learned many languages, from the people he chats with. But he's a "bot". Where does he chat? Where does he get so smart? It just says "the Internet." I guess they assume you know. It's one thing to talk to someone, for example, in SL (that's Second Life, not St. Louis)- and not know whether their true self is really a man or a woman. That's ok. But not knowing whether they are real? This could play games with you. If anyone doubts that it's a new world, read this article.

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Friday, October 20, 2006

language change & irregular verbs

In a stunning goal-line stand, a few resistant irregular verbs are proving that no matter how relentlessly the English language tries to regularize and simplify its verb system (over the past thousand years or so), some of these are going to hold out and not change. These irregular forms are maddening, especially for our non-native learners who try to make sense of a confusing system. But the resistance proves a certain point- as we get down to only 150 verbs or so, the most common of these can't change, because they're used too frequently. Verbs like weave/wove/woven can go, no problem, and become weave/weaved/weaved- why not? Everyone will understand it, and we don't use it often enough for it to even matter. I don't have 9,999 pieces of evidence to prove you wrong. But try to change come/came/come? go/went/gone? No way. Because you know that regularization of thesewould be wrong; because you've not only memorized the irregular forms but taught yourself to use them, and used them many times, thus establishing your resistance to a new pattern.

You will hear kids using go/goed/goed, which always draws a smile from the indulgent (linguist) parent, but this only proves that at this point of the kid's development, mastering the newly-learned rule is more important than using the evidence one has received to date most effectively.

It's a kind of echo of the functional load theory, mentioned a couple of posts down. If all verbs were equal, these would have succumbed hundreds of years ago. It's almost like we have to stop using them in order to truly clean them up and make them fit in with the rest of their classmates. But as the last of the irregulars change, slowly but surely, these remaining few have dug in their heels: not going anywhere. over my dead body you will. want a piece-a-me?


frost on the pumpkin

Organizing my thoughts. The weather has got me to pitching things I don't need, putting everything else where I can see it.

language models/language philosophy
language as a social contract
language learning analogies & the secretary
metaphors for language - cut across the lawn
fear of behaviorism
"utilitarianism" explained

language change
sound change (10-06)- northern cities vowel shift, hw/w, restrictions
models for language change, (3-06), best overview so far
language change

dialects & choice
bad grammar alley (10-06)- dialects, association, choice
apple's for sale (4-06)
student dialect
dialect variation part II
dialect variation and Missour-ah
people who say "we was"

vaguely related
connectivism (2-06)
language as a medium
Kotsoudas' principles
bilingualism & children
language learning and the musician's ear
the translation plateau
the familiarity hierarchy
words that start with vowels
the listening-writing connection

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

sound change

I'm interested in all language change - and I think there's enough of it in our daily lives to fill our plate, without digging into history and speculating about how things used to be. The reason I say that is that I'd like to get at the reasons for it, and those should be easier to find now than anything we could speculate about in the past.

The other day I encountered one of my sons' previous preschool teachers, who was visiting from Chicago- she had a new life, was living in the Ravenswood section of the city- and was clearly happy to both be there in Chicago and back in our small town for a visit. But what struck me most about her was that she had picked up a completely new set of vowels- her words sound different now. She was using what they call the northern cities vowel shift, one of the more profound changes to our sound system these days. But where did it come from? I almost asked her. She would not likely know the answer, though; I get the sense that half the time this stuff is unconscious. She just wants to sound like the people around her, the people in her set, her friends, maybe. But where did they get it? I don't even believe that these northern cities have a collective sense of geography about this stuff (we're going to devise an accent that will set us apart from places further south)...nor do they pick up exotic tongues from the boats on the Lakes, though proximity to Canada may have something to do with it.

Another interesting sound change is the merger of w- with wh-. For most people today, witch and which sound alike, and fortunately this causes very little confusion, as they are used in different environments. Same with weal and wheel, wile and while, wen and when, etc. The reason I mention this is that I encountered an ancient theory called the theory of functional load, which said that a merger like this is more likely if it causes less misunderstanding in practical terms to the language and to practical considerations. The theory was put forward by Martinet, I believe, who was part of the structuralists, who saw languages as complete interconnected organisms. This theory went out, I'm sure, and has been virtually forgotten, except by me, but nevertheless I mention it for a few reasons.

First, it implies that the language almost has a mind of its own. It buckles in the spot where it's able to, because it's too difficult to buckle in other spots. It merges wh- and w- because it can, and that makes life simpler, and because that allows room for more consonants or sound combinations to appear and be remembered. And it won't put too many people out, so why not? But an interesting aspect of this change is that the people are collectively going along with it, as if they're saying to themselves, ok, I'll do that, it doesn't make any difference anyway. But who thought of it?

Labov seemed to think that a lot of these changes were motivated by social class- somebody somewhere wants to sound like somebody above them- and this could be true for quite a few sound changes, but I'm not sure it would be true for this one. People don't even know this one is happening! They're letting the h sound go because it's easier, because it doesn't make any difference, etc., and they're doing it collectively, and for the most part, they don't even hear it, let alone consciously decide how to make the sound. I don't believe there's any social movement involved at all.

The ongoing simplification of the sound system is probably a response to the complication of it somewhere- somewhere beyond my analysis. We have more sounds now, more to remember, so somehow we have to simplify, somewhere where it doesn't matter. That's a reasonable explanation- but I'd like to see it proven. I'd like to know what's at the bottom of this.
Most of all I'd like to know how millions of people can go along with a collective scheme that nobody devised- yet just seems to be the best one to actually work and make the language have one less consonant cluster.

Again, I believe the best analogy is traffic- where you by necessity must be super-conscious of what others are doing; where you by necessity have your own goals and constantly act in response to others, at the same time keeping the system going and automatically accepting innovations that work in your favor; and where, half the time, you couldn't even tell me how it came to pass that you arrived home so quickly.

Now while I'm at it I have this bug about what linguists refer to as "restrictions"...English has "restrictions" against such things as p and s in a cluster at the beginning of a word, so that although we can say tops with no problem, we borrow words like psychology and psoriasis only under the condition that we don't have to pronounce the p. This restriction was presented to me by a Greek phonetics professor who had a shade of disdain for English speakers and their inability to just say the p. What's up with that?

Well, to this day, I don't know. But I have a sense that we don't walk around with restrictions, things in our heads that say "I can't, I can't." On the contrary. A brief overview of human behavior shows that this is not how things work. Just look at the paths on a college campus. Certain places are worn to the quick; others are untouched; and it's often unrelated to the signs the poor doomed grounds crew puts out telling everyone to "please don't walk here." We are always looking for short-cuts- and using them- and at the same time, looking for ways to simplify, to organize, to remember fewer details. We set up this system as a matter of survival, but when it comes to language, we have to rely on a collective sense of simplification, because it doesn't do much good if only one of us simplifies by ourselves. I'd like to set down this sense- that really what happens in language is people using the well-worn habits of the people around them- innovating when they have to, simplifying when they can- and not really worrying about restrictions. It's not that we can't, it's that we don't, because as an innovation, its price is too high in our present system of habits.

A cold fall morning, dew on the grass, you try to decide whether to cut across the grass, save yourself a couple minutes on the way back from a meeting. If others had gone there before, the grass would be worn to dirt, and wouldn't make your shoes wet. But nobody's gone there before- so you see that, by cutting across the grass, your feet will get wet and make you uncomfortable all morning. The price is too high. You take the sidewalk. You wimp! But the grounds crew likes you.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

st louis in the rearview mirror

So Second Life announced today that it has over a million residents, and that over $400,000 is spent there every day. As a city it is larger than St. Louis, and soon will be more vibrant. I didn't have to read too much about it (here's a good place) to find out that it has working-class neighborhoods, glitzy areas, red-light districts, etc. It has its own language, its own culture, and its own population of trouble-makers who set loose cyber-cannonballs to wreak havoc on innocent gamers. I haven't had time to actually join it, but still I can't get it off my mind. Here are my thoughts:

1. The world has changed forever- subtly, but nevertheless permanently. Online communities will change the way people think, live, do business and use language.
2. The primary language of Second Life and most online games is chat. I may be totally wrong about some of this, but if so would love to be corrected. I am interested in chat and what it is doing to people's minds and their language. I think this should be studied carefully. This is only one minor way in which the world has changed forever; nevertheless it's the one I'm most interested in. So I'll run with it- indulge me.
3. Chat is based on English, at least the English version of chat that I'm most familiar with and which as far as I know is used in Second Life and a number of other games. That is, users of chat for the most part already know English and use abbreviations (R U w me?) because they're typing quickly and communicating quickly. Chat has unusual discourse conventions- often two or three conversations are taking place simultaneously- but for the most part its grammar is the same as that of English from which it springs. It does not invent its own grammar- or if it does, I'd like to know about it. It's an abbreviated, written form of English that is in many ways a cross between spoken English and written English.
4. It is, however, possible for people to enter Second Life or another game from a country in which they have not been exposed to English at all. For these people chat is their doorway to English. They learn chat first; English later if at all. They learn English language grammar through chat but would have to construct meanings (lol=laughing) without knowing what the letters stand for, unless they observe someone asking, and then find out- or ask themselves, and then find out. For these people chat would be a kind of stepping stone to fluency which would then influence the degree of fluency and their understanding of the new language - see story below.
5. There are also native speakers who spend considerably more time on chat than on anything else- and for all I know, they may start on chat before they even write anything else. The pervasiveness of chat is not understood, nor is the influence it would hold on someone who writes/types chat maybe 5, 6 times more than they write anything in formal English. For the most part these kids have learned to talk already- but how do they view the formal written word? I'm curious.

Years ago I was in Korea and was struck by the different styles of people who were trying to learn English. On the one hand were the people who studied little books, some printed very cheaply as part of the daily newspaper, and they would study these on the train very carefully, yet not really have much fluency with the spoken word; I could barely say hello to them, though they were friendly enough. On the other hand were the street-hawkers of Itaewon, the soldiers' district, who stood in the street yelling "free" and trying to entice passers-by into basement discount clothing outlets. These hawkers lived entirely by the facial cues of the people they were working on- they had a number of phrases, and lots of charm, and actually a rustic kind of pleasant fluency, even when you didn't buy anything or they didn't really have time for you. I doubt they could read or write a word, but they could carry on a conversation sometimes for ten or fifteen minutes depending on how good you were at stalling. When you were in the shop, of course, their job was done and the manager took over. But the idea that listening always precedes speaking, and both always precede reading/writing, is not true in second language acquisition, and the entry point of the learners is always important, especially when one (reading, for example) is done at the exclusion of others (speaking/listening, for example). One other unusual kind of learner I'd like to mention is the guy I met who, deep in the interior of Mongolia, had mastered both reading and listening- listening through Voice of America- until he could pass the TOEFL, which he did...but he had never actually talked to anyone at all in English, and was absolutely not used to the discourse conventions of routine speech.

A hybrid speaking/writing chat changes the mix considerably. One interesting thing about chat, of course, is the heightened sense of communication- the urgency of knowing how much was understood, etc. Chat has its own ways of working this stuff out which are very interesting and clearly different from e-mail or spoken conversations.

The primacy of English in this gaming world brings up another issue- which is the end of the geographical assumptions we make about language as we know it. These include such things as: you grew up in X, therefore you probably learned what English you know in this way....these assumptions have always been tenuous anyway- but they are pervasive in our present world anyway. And, as a side research question, how is this: If a gendered world teaches boys to talk differently than girls, what happens to this person who spends more time chatting, in their opposite-sex avatar, practicing the gendered speech conventions of that avatar (not to mention using the language specific to that world)- than they do, here in the real world, being themselves? Just a thought.

Somebody brought up the idea of a class field trip to Second Life. If I could find a reason, I'd do it in a minute.


Monday, October 16, 2006

webheads do second life - 10-06

Around my house, Second Life is when the first cereal box is down to the crumbs and you get to start the next one fresh. But these days it also refers to an extremely popular and scary online game that according to this article has over 700,000 users and is being given the eye by educators. Since webheads aren't afraid of anything they were given a tour of it this week by the very same Gavin Dudeney (I believe) who is quoted in this article. Since I am already multitasking on Sun. morning I was unable to get the voiced part of the tour, but got enough of the essence of it to be flabbergasted nonetheless.

My question really is, this Second Life business is ok for those of us who are already doing fairly well in First Life- have a job, an education, fluent in English, etc. What if one gets to "Second Life" before one gets to "First Life"? What if one's exposure to English comes by way of chat, by way of this online world? Just curious. I'm sure this has not been studied in any depth- SL is relatively new. Not to malign the intentions of SL makers, who probably made something cool basically because they could, but the implications of having so many people on SL are enormous, and completely un-thought-out, is my guess. They can try to manage them, but it's already a city larger than St. Louis (another SL, I guess).

We're still sticking to the cereal boxes- I haven't started in on SL yet though I expect one of my kids to give it a whirl any day now. As it is, something is overriding "force quit" and "log off" on his profile and making it so you have to unplug the computer in order to start over and do anything else- I suspect it's some whirring function of cockroaches on astroturf, otherwise known as runescape, that keeps going long after even safari or firefox has shut down. And is there any way for us mortals to figure out what it is? I doubt it. The cord may be our only true weapon.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

bad grammar alley

This is something I'd like to write more about, but I have to get it down right. It's a sensitive subject, so I have to experiment with ways of saying it. I've written a little about it, but haven't gotten it quite right yet.

Basically, there is a huge misunderstanding in the world about language. It is this: if you educate people enough, they'll get their grammar right. It's true for some of the people some of the time. But it's not true for eveeryone. In my classroom, everyone wants standard grammar. We define it, we give it to them, we teach them why it is what it is, and we try to do all this well. Around us, people in the academy are teaching people in their disciplines, and those people are learning to speak and write like educated people- not like whatever they were doing before. So it's natural to think that all the world is on the same path. But they're not.

Linguists have been pretty good about presenting dialects without judgement. For example, they might say that might could is associated with a southern dialect, and not say whether that's good or bad, whether a person might want to avoid it, or pick it up, and in what circumstances. Purely regional dialects are just that: if you lived in Tennessee, you probably would want to pick it up, but after living a few years in Chicago, you'd let it go again. This is a natural process of assimilation and association- you want to sound like the people around you, and you don't want to be associated with things (like the South) when you don't know how the people you are talking to might be perceiving those things. This is one thing when we're talking about regions- but there are many other dialects cutting through our culture, and two of them are associated with standard grammar. One of them more or less embraces it; it goes by the maxim that when in formal situations, one should stick with standard grammar as one knows it. Fair enough. But the other says that standard grammar is to be avoided in favor of structures like we was, ain't, and I seen...which are clearly and unambiguously non-standard.

My point is that the speakers of this dialect already know this. No amount of education is going to change their actions, since they don't spring from not knowing standard grammar.

The best explanation for this came from someone whose name I've forgotten; I'd love to find this quote. Basically, he said, look, we were all there in second grade when the teacher told us what was right and what was wrong. We all heard her. She laid it right on the table. And the fact is, some of us did what she wanted, and some of us waited until we we were free to do as we pleased. (and some of us became the teacher- but that's another story)...

The world is full of people who would probably use correct (standard) grammar if they knew it, and sometimes teaching them works; they'll learn it, and use better (more standard) grammar from then on. And, in an academic environment, people who are not paying attention may pick some of it up without even trying. It may be the majority that likes standard grammar, seeks it and values it- and it would have to stay this way, for these ideas of "standard" to continue. The standard machine has its own momentum, and that's good, because somebody has to keep defining it and backing it up with facts- and this puts food on our table, I might add. But not everyone is in the same game. Nonstandard dialects are alive and well, and show remarkable vigor in spite of taking a continuing beating from English teachers in every classroom. I'd like to do a study of ain't alone- as it kind of symbolizes this defiance, willingness to break a rule and flaunt it. How are you going to educate someone out of doing that?

Often the judgement that brands nonstandard as uneducated or undesirable (this second one does not generally come from linguists, but these are linked nevertheless)- is unspoken. One of your parents may have been the last person, besides maybe that second grade teacher, to actually tell you that they expect you to use a high standard in your speech; it's personal, and people outside your family are not likely to criticize you or judge you publicly on such a personal thing. I think that one reason it's good to keep it this way is that speech is ultimately a personal choice- we identify with groups by virtue of which dialects we use- and by this choice we have often demonstrated that some things are more important than being "standard" in certain environments. The assumption that we would all follow the rules, if we just knew them, is misguided, for a significant population. Getting to the bottom of why we do what we do, how we do it, and how we've come to have some misconceptions about it (I'm not accusing linguists here) is the topic of my work, if I can get to it.

I should add, just as an aside, that in spite of the reverence of the majority of the population for the concept of "standard," it's really quite elusive, changing, evolving, shadowy, not agreed upon by everyone in the least. It's a slippery little devil, a live fish in the garbage disposal, so to speak. But that's another story too. Stay tuned...

By the way, I've written about this before, and on looking back, am disappointed now to see that I haven't really moved far off of my soapbox. The "work" I alluded to is here; but connecting it to a larger collection of dialect-related writing is really what I'm after here. Blogging about it gets it back on the table- where can I look for leads? Where can I take this argument? How can I integrate it into what I've already written? What next? These few days between classes, as the leaves fall, is when I might be able to stir the pot, get myself an agenda for the coming winter. I can write, if I'm inspired. I can do research too. While I'm walking back from the pool, after I've combed my hair, but before I get to the Japanese garden.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

total time law

The Total Time Law is a teaching principle, which, back in the days when i did more active research on teaching itself, I found in a backwater article in an out-of-the-way place. Why do i remember it? I'm not sure. I'm not even sure if I could find it again, or, if I remember it correctly.

What it said, if I recall correctly, was that the amount of time you spend teaching a particular point determines to some degree the likelihood that students will learn it, because it demonstrates by the time itself that it is important. That is, if you spend two hours teaching participles, students are more likely to learn them than if you spend only half an hour, regardless of how effective your teaching is, simply because the longer time demonstrates to them that it is more important.

Where this becomes important is that some programs have put grammar within other classes and no longer teach grammar explicitly, in a class that is labelled "grammar"- but ours does. Geography buffs had a major complaint when geography was not given a specific class in the public schools- and in fact grammar had the same problem in American schools- it was never explicitly taught. I wonder if it would be a reflection of the Total Time Law to say that such treatment of a subject should probably not turn out well for the student's ultimate mastery of that skill. But I'm not sure that's true. Do students do worse in grammar in curricula that do not have explicit grammar classes? This question goes to the essence of Krashenism, I guess, but even now, I can't answer it. I've noticed people don't have passionate discussions about curricular issues- or maybe I just don't attract them, because I can no longer really believe that these issues make much difference ultimately. It would be interesting, however, to know the facts.


Saturday, October 07, 2006


Leverett, T. (2006). Review of The Struggle to Teach English as an International Language, by Adrian Holliday, TESLEJ (Online Journal) 10, 2, Sept.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

teardrop in the turquoise sea

It turns out I'm at an interesting nexus point. I happened to be around SIUC a few years back when the Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages was moved to Ohio State, and its files downloaded off the web and transferred, by disk I believe. A few years later SIUC wanted to delete the account as inactive and we let it- little did we know that those files did not reappear on any web and are probably collecting dust somewhere- Ohio State's link for them comes up empty. We're on a search for them, and they may turn up- but-

In the meantime, I've gotten a request for an old file on St. Lucian French Creole (Ed Ford and Leonie St. Juste-Jean), and, since I happen to know about the wayback machine, was able to find at least an image of the file. Turns out this link, the wayback's record of our old page, leads you to a subterranean archival record of all these files- obscure Caribbean pidgin language and other pidgin language reports, sometimes along with pictures and ethnography- projects of Linguistics students, mostly, saved by the wayback archive.

If those files never turn up (I am, as we speak, returning to many other responsibilities- as Ling-dep't webmaster, I'm really just a temp) - then this will be as close as we get. It's kind of a bureau dresser link into another world- but, I'd like to point out, the web is more and more important, not less & less. These small languages may have here their first recorded archiving- from the old times- a historical record that should not be forgotten, nor misplaced. I'm sorry to have ever been aware that they were to be erased- and to have done nothing about it at the time. Now I'm looking for someone to pick up the ball- collect them, brush the html dust off of them, put them someplace safe- in short, value them for the resource that they are. Takers?

Here's one on Tok Pisin, "The National Language of Papua New Guinea" (E. Etepa).
And another one does Mauritian Creole (B. Morrissey).
Finally, Shelta-Gammon (H. Tondini).

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Monday, October 02, 2006

big weekend for plagiarism

-found out I would be presenting at TESOL '07 in Seattle, which is good, because I get to see my daughter, who is at this very moment making sure the weather is acceptable. This plagiarism discussion would be similar to a TESOL 2006 Discussion, at a Ramada where I lost my wallet in Tampa, thus causing weeks of grief and anxiety, but getting me a little excited about the topic itself, in the process.

-SIU folks find more cases- don't know how long the DE will keep this link up, but basically, there's a good question of how much people, academic people, get away with plagiarism on a routine basis. I have been guilty myself, I know, of various offenses, but also have been a prolific writer in my own right. This blog, for example, is entirely original - though it might have some lifted photos.

-a student copies an article right under my nose, gets away with it for quite a while, but hey, I'm onto it, it's my job. If I wanted a copy, I'd a' given you a dime.

-what's that about research papers? the final? the midterms? Ah but I'm not truly a writing teacher this term, don't know about Turnitin, don't know how to set lab computers on "test mode." Don't know what anyone is talking about. Small goals- learning about this stuff, a challenge on my path, but that's what's coming. In good times, we publish quite a bit, and I check it- even read it, if not edit it- make sure it's not copied. A few get by. And occasionally, I have to write a a story just to keep my sanity.


Sunday, October 01, 2006


Below, an unedited part of a chat by the webheads who meet weekly at Sunday 7 am our time. It sounds kind of workaholic to get up so early and get online with such a group, discussing use of technology in teaching usually; in this case, just digital cameras in general. I saved it simply because I wanted the reference, wanted someday to be able to read it more carefully. But I save all their links here, and reference them whenever I can.

I have some reservations about printing (publishing) stuff that is said casually, informally, even though they probably know on some level that it could be used this way. The link site is my personal site, just a log of cool places that we talked about, went to, tried out, etc. (and some are personal, probably)- but ones that I can't let go of, and can't organize right away either. I can only hope that this group is not offended that I take what I get, and put it here, essentially for anyone to peruse. It comes by too fast; half the time I can't even open the links as chatters provide them, and must capture them just in order to explore them in a better time frame. In this particular snippet (below) there are no links. But the record of places they discuss, visit, try together, and review, in general, is incredible. I find myself going back through them as often as I can - usually not Sunday morning, of course.

Having said that, I'll also say: those Sunday mornings, sometimes with coffee, little kneehuggers afoot, sun coming up on another busy weekend, have as their anchor this chat with people I've come to consider good friends- all over the world- in many cases I don't even know where from- but definitely, an extended family. If you, webheads, have stumbled upon this site, welcome home! Mi casa es tu casa. I'd like to invite you in further- for Life cereal, Guatemalan coffee, Blues clues video, Cars movie video games, days-old Chicago Tribunes- & the waking up of the immediate family. But now, it's back to work- it's already Sun. night!