The Way We (Should) Learn Language

I recently read a book called The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff and Patricia K. Kuhl. One of the subjects they focused on is how we learn language as children.

Here are some interesting excerpts from that book:

“Babies master the sounds of their language first and that makes the words easier to learn” (p. 109).

That we learn the sounds of language before we even begin to make words tells me that the way foreign language is taught in our school system is using the worst method possible. How many people have taken a class in Spanish, German, Japanese, French, etc. and really learned the alphabet in those languages?

I know in my Spanish class at Caldwell, the only pronunciation lesson we got was less than five minutes long, and the teacher insisted it wasn’t that important. He then went on to suggest that learning the alphabet in the language was ridiculous and silly.

That suggestion made me angry, not only because I know that you have to learn the sounds of a language before you can speak the words properly, but because the first stage of learning a new language, learning the alphabet, isn’t ridiculous. Sure, it might make you look ridiculous while you do it, but your pronunciation gets much better.

The other problem I had with his short lesson on pronunciation is that he didn’t cover all of the letters. He covered the “b” and “v”, the “d”, the “rr,” and the vowels. He didn’t even mention the “ll” which is uh, rather important in Spanish. Knowing to pronounce the “ll” like the English “y” keeps people from saying things like “eL-LA” instead of “eH-Yah.” Not to mention his failure to cover diphthongs like “ue” and “ui.”

A diphthong, by the way, is the gliding sound vowels make when paired with other vowels. We have them in English as well. Like the “oo” in “good.” Or the “oa” in “boat.” In any case, research clearly shows that the first step of language learning is the acquisition of the sounds of that language.

“Babies seem to learn some general rules about the words in their particular language before they learn the words themselves. By nine months, for example, they’ve learned that English contains words that have a certain emphasis pattern. Words with a first-syllable stress pattern, like BASEball or POPcorn, are more common than the reverse (a word like surPRISE). In some other languages it’s the other way around: first syllables are stressed less often than last syllables. By nine months babies have this all sorted out” (p. 109-110).

So not only do we first learn the alphabet, we also learn how to stress words. If that’s the way we learn naturally, why do foreign language teachers fight so hard against teaching us new languages in this way?

English has a natural first-syllable stress pattern. Spanish, on the other hand, has a natural penultimate-syllable stress pattern (penultimate being second-to-last). Examples: El escriTORio, el estudIANte, el proFESor, etc and so on.

If a teacher doesn’t show his students that stress pattern, is it any wonder that we have difficulties learning new languages? America is one of the most monolingual countries in the world. I don’t know the exact percentage of people in this country who speaks two or more languages fluently, but it’s tiny in comparison to countries like the United Kingdom, where nearly everyone speaks at least two languages.

“Knowing which words are possible in your language helps you begin to divide the continuous stream of speech into words, even if you don’t know what those words mean” (p. 110).

Hmm. So if we know what sound combinations are possible by knowing the sounds and the stress pattern, we can listen to people speak in a foreign language and understand where the separation of words occur instead of hearing garbled mess.

This seems like common sense to me, but few people teach language this way. When I started learning Spanish (which I did on my own, outside of a classroom environment), I first learned the alphabet, a handful of grammatical rules, and then started listening to music. I have no trouble listening to people speaking Spanish now and understanding them (although I may not always understand the meaning of what they are saying, I at least am able to understand where the words separate).

Before I did that, though, Spanish sounded chaotic, like no separation of words existed. Ironically, the separation doesn’t actually exist in any language, but the grammar rules that underlie each language allow for the illusion of word separation and give us the ability to speak.

 

So if we learn language through sound acquisition, unconscious grammar acquisition, and stress-pattern recognition, why not base foreign language classes on these three principles? Teach the sounds of the language, the stress pattern of the language, and the grammar of the language, and then learn the words?

I’m sure it seems backwards to other people who have taken a foreign language class, but I have learned something deemed to be impossible (by other English speakers, go figure) in Spanish by applying grammatical concepts and then double-checking my perceptions with a native Spanish speaker.

That “impossible” concept? The difference between the verbs “ser” and “estar.” Do I know a lot of words in Spanish? No. But I have a pretty solid grasp on the basic grammar rules (and yeah, I still mess them up because I’m learning). But this idea that there are impossible concepts for people to learn is ridiculous. We are hardwired to learn language, so if we keep that in mind, there is no such thing as a grammatical concept we can’t master.

(Now if only language teachers could see it that way!)

Nanowrimo 2014

I filled out the application to return as the Municipal Liaison for Boone, N.C., again this year. I would love to have a Co-ML, if any of my Wrimos are reading this and are interested, please let me know asap!

In other writing news, I am working on a research paper for my English class. And, of course, I chose a difficult topic. That topic? The theories behind why humanity wages war on itself. I’m learning a lot, so that’s good, but some of these theories are ridiculous. I foresee having to fight the urge to turn a research paper into an opinion paper. Which we all have to do, right?

Research papers are supposed to be free of bias and display only the facts. So are academic texts, for that matter. Sadly, I can’t count on both hands how many academic texts I’ve picked up that contained the bias of the author/s on every page.

To keep from bias in my own writing, I’ve decided that when I write the first draft of my “War Theories” paper, I am going to have a separate document open so I can rant about the absurdity of some of the theories. I find that helpful when I’m doing any kind of academic writing. If I express my disgust/amazement in a separate document, I can keep from sticking it into the academic paper where it 100% does not belong.

Anyway, back to Nano 2014. I think I’ve decided on a novel for this year. I have the prologue written; it’s 1,220 words. I won’t include that in the Nano document, of course, since that would be cheating.

And I may change my mind before November; who knows? But the idea for Bittersweet (yes, it already has a title), is this:

Sunfire is one of three sentient demon swords forged by the last great demon blacksmith. She possesses the ability to cut a gateway into any world, cut through illusions, cut through spiritual energy, and severe connections  between a parasite and its host. She is the most sought after sword in the demon world (yet to be named!), but no demon has been able to wield her for long.

Like her sibling swords, Mindblinder and Iceterror, Sunfire is old; she has seen 3 million years come and go; demons average 1,000 years, but the oldest demons she’s seen were 5,000. Because of her age, she knows the gods intimately. They rarely walk on her world because divine magic and demonic magic are incompatible; few gods have the power to walk through a demon world–the same can be said for demons in a divine world. There are five gods who have proven to be an exception to that, and two of them are goddesses (one of the goddesses is Helmi).

Mindblinder and Iceterror have had the same wielders for 3 million years. When a wielder is mentally strong enough to handle the power of a sentient demon sword, that wielder gains the longevity of the weapon. Mindblinder’s wielder pays the price for that longevity in being unable to ever distinguish between fact and fiction. Iceterror’s wielder pays the price for that longevity by being unable to act offensively; Iceterror possesses a purely defensive magic.

Sunfire’s greatest desire is to find a wielder. In 3 million years, no demon has been able to wield her for over 100 years. Her magic affects her personality, and that, in turn, affects her wielders. She despises deceit. Since Sunfire is so powerful, she infects her wielder with the same hatred of deceit she possesses. When her wielders encounter deceit/manipulation, they lose their minds and go on a killing rampage. Sunfire knows the reason for this is that no demon who has ever wielded her has ever possessed the mental strength to handle her power. But she’s lonely.

In the demon world, she is known as Bittersweet. It is assumed that she is a poison-based sword because no demon can wield her for more than 100 years. But her power is so seductive that everyone seeks it; wars are fought over the right to wield her. Of the three sentient swords, she is the one best known for the number of demons who have been killed by trying to wield her. The death count? Over 700 million. The population of the demon world? 500 billion.

Demons try to wield her and die for one of two reasons. 1) They aren’t strong enough to even touch the blade of Sunfire and implode from the inside. 2) They wield her for 100 years until their mind burns out because they lack the mental fortitude to wield such a powerful sword.

When the story starts, Sunfire is waiting for yet another war over her to conclude, so she can pick her next wielder. While she’s waiting, Helmi approaches her and suggests she try a different world, a human world. Sunfire allows herself to be convinced, and she cuts her way into the human world–our world.

Once she’s there, a teenager, around 17, stumbles onto her by accident. He ends up being the wielder she’s been waiting for, and that’s where the story really begins.

 

That’s a really long “gimpse” of what I’m planning for that novel, but the more I think about it, the more I want to write it. Even though I might change my mind by November, it’s not very likely.

 

How to Avoid Second Person

The second person point-of-view is shown by the pronouns “you, your, yours, you all.” It is the bane of English teachers everywhere.

Why do English teachers hate second person so much? Because it doesn’t belong in formal academic writing.

“You” belongs in informal writing, like blog posts and how-to guides. “You” might also be used in special types of fiction, like choose-your-own-adventure novels.

The reason that it doesn’t belong in formal writing, however, is that “you” implies that the writer has an intimate connection with the reader.

And that’s a problem.

Research papers are the most prevalent type of formal writing that exists. But using “you” in a research paper implies that the audience being addressed is sympathetic to the author and, therefore, the people in the audience are inclined to agree with what is written. Second person creates a bias—intentional or not—and that is unacceptable in formal writing.

Luckily, avoiding second person is fairly straightforward, and there are a few ways to avoid “you.”

1. Replace the word “you” with “people, person, anyone, someone, those, they, he, she,” etc. 

This is an effective method, but it grows stale quickly. No one wants to read a paper where “you” has obviously been replaced with one of these pronouns.

2. Replace the word “you” with “one.” 

We’ve all heard this in an English class. While “one” effectively eliminates “you,” the word “one” also weakens papers much more than the word “you.” Not only is the word awkward to use but it also eliminates any emotional connection the writer may have with the reader.

3. Use Passive Voice

Wait. What? Passive voice? Isn’t that something else English teachers tell students to avoid?

Well, yes.

But passive voice isn’t always a bad stylistic choice. If a sentence can be made active, make it active. That’s always the best choice. Passive voice, however, becomes useful when the word “you” doesn’t want to be erased. Sometimes second person pronouns are stubborn, clinging to sentences a writer wants them to vacate.

Sentences can be constructed passively with relative ease. Just use helping verbs like the following: be, have, do, can, should, ought to, must, will, may 

*Note: Some of those helping verbs are considered modal helping verbs because they express possibility or necessity*

Passive voice can also be constructed by using linking verbs. Generally speaking, “be” is considered a linking verb in all its forms: be, am, are, was, were, being, been, had been, will have been, may have been, should have been, could have been, will be (etc.)

Plenty of other verbs are considered linking verbs. Any verb that does not describe an ACTION is a linking verb; thus, the sentence with a non-action verb is constructed in the passive voice.

This method for replacing “you,” is a strong one. Writers need to be careful not to overuse the passive voice, however, as it has a tendency to weaken the impact of their papers (or stories) when it is overused.

4. Label the person performing the action. 

This is a solid method to eradicate “you” from any paper. When a paper is directed to an audience of journalists, for example, use the words “journalist” and “journalists” in place of “you.”

Labeling like this is similar to the passive voice method—writers should be careful not to overuse it.

5. Use infinitive verbs

Wait. What? English has infinitive verbs?

Yeah, I know. Shocking, isn’t it?

The infinitive of a verb is simply a verb that is preceded by the preposition “to.”

Examples of infinitives: to be, to drive, to see, to mark, to learn, to love, to laugh, to play

Using infinitives is a solid method for eliminating second person. Be careful not to overuse it, though, as the infinitive form of any verb is the weakest form of that verb.

6. Change the verb form so that you is no longer required.

Changing the verb form being used is an incredibly strong method of eliminating “you.”

Why?

Well, consider these examples.

“When you drive along the Parkway, you can see a lot of beautiful leaves.”

Versus

“A lot of beautiful leaves can be seen when driving along the Parkway.”

Notice the difference?

Changing the verb from drive to driving forced the entire sentence into a new arrangement. That new sentence formation also allowed the implied you to be used.

“A lot of beautiful leaves can be seen when driving along the Parkway.”

At first glance, this sentence might seem to be grammatically incomplete. It isn’t. The reason is because the word “driving” tells the reader WHO is seeing the leaves. That WHO is the implied you revealed by the gerund form of the verb “to drive,” (which is “driving”).

7. Use a different verb. 

When you read a sentence that contains the word “you,” it generally means the sentence can be strengthened if the VERB is strengthened.

Weak verbs lend themselves to second person pronouns much more readily than strong verbs. Weak verbs include the verbs feel, think, seem, look, appear, see, tell, show, among others.

Strong verbs also provide the opportunity for a writer to significantly spice up their work.

Here’s an example of a sentence using a weak verb:

“You see a locked office and decide to enter it.”

Versus:

“The locked office beckons; what secrets lurk within its walls?”

Out of the two sentences, the second one contains a hook.

Strong verbs create tension.

Tension is what keeps readers interested.

 

Overall

There are multiple methods you can use to avoid that pesky second person “you” in formal writing. The strongest of those methods are using strong verbs, changing verb forms, and using passive voice constructions. The other methods work. They just don’t work as well. 

And in informal writing? Use “you” all you want. Well, as long as you are writing blog posts, instructional how-to’s, or choose-your-own-adventure stories.

In fiction? Stay as far way from “you” as you can, except when dialogue forces the usage of second person pronouns.

 

 

 

 

Cultura Profética: La Complicidad con Letras

Soy el verbo que da acción a una buena conversación
y cuando tu me nombras siente ganas
Soy la nueva alternativa contra contaminación
Y tu eres la energía que me carga
Soy una arboleda que da sombra a tu casa
Un viento suave que te soba la cara
De too’s tus sueños, negra, soy la manifestación
Tu eres esa libertad soñada

Soy la serenidad que lleva a la meditación
Y tu eres ese tan sagrado mantra
Soy ese juguito e’ parcha que te baja la presión
y siempre que te sube tu me llamas Ya
tira la sábana sal de la cama
vamos a conquistar toda la casa
De todo lo que tu acostumbras soy contradicción
Creo que eso es lo que a ti te llama

La complicidad es tanta
que nuestras vibraciones se complementan
lo que tienes me hace falta
y lo que tengo te hace ser más completa
La afinidad es tanta
miro a tus ojos y ya se lo que piensas
te quiero por que eres tantas
cositas bellas que me hacen creer que soy

La levadura que te hace crecer el corazón
y tu la vitamina que me falta
soy ese rocío que se posa en tu vegetación
y tu esa tierra fértil que esta escasa
Soy La blanca arena que alfombra tu playa
todo el follaje que da vida a tu mapa
de toda idea creativa soy la gestación
tu eres la utopía a ti te llama

La complicidad es tanta
que nuestras vibraciones se complementan
lo que tienes me hace falta
y lo que tengo te hace ser más completa
La afinidad es tanta miro a tus ojos
y ya se lo que piensas
te quiero por que eres tantas cositas
bellas que me hacen sentir muy bien

Soy la locura que estremece,
soy tu adicción y tu eres mi felicidad, mi calma
Soy una colonia que va en busca de liberación
Y tu eres esa dosis de esperanza
Soy la cordillera que en la distancia
te cura la visión con su elegancia
de todo loco que lo intenta soy la frustración
y tu eres ese reto que me encanta

La complicidad es tanta
que nuestras vibraciones se complementan
Lo que tienes me hace falta
y lo que tengo te hace ser más completa
La afinidad es tanta miro a tus ojos
y ya se lo que piensas
te quiero por que eres tantas
cositas bellas que me hacen sentir muy bien