Monthly Archives: December 2013

Tongue twisters and language acquisition

Here’s a guest post from the Big Show’s Nina Porzucki.

Every culture has tongue twisters. You know, “Sally sells seashells on the seashore.” Two of my favorites are: “unique New York” and “toy boat” — try saying either of those 10 times fast, I dare you.

But why and how does our tongue get twisted?

That’s part of what psycho-linguist Dr. Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel sought to figure out. She’s a researcher at MIT and she’s been studying tongue twisters.

During her studies, she’s identified some of the most frustrating English language tongue twisters. Now, she’s presented her tongue-twisted findings at the 166th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

Try this one on for size: “Pad Kid Poured Curd Pulled Cold.” Seems easy? Try saying it faster.

Shattuck-Hufnagel is specifically studying the different ways in which our language breaks down. She is trying to get a better picture of how we put together words. Certain tongue twisters seem to elicit different kinds of errors, she says.

“If you can figure out why speech of one kind elicits one kind of error, and speech of another elicits another kind of error, than you start to get some insight into the speech production process.”

That is, how we as humans take an idea and use sounds to express it.

Shattuck-Hufnagel hopes that what she learns about speech production will help scientists figure out how to assit people who suffer from aphasia or children with developmental speech disorders.

“I’m quite convinced [that], as we get better models, we will even be able to teach people second languages more effectively.”


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The Manchus ruled China into the 20th century, but their language is almost extinct

Manchu language class at People's University in Beijing. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Manchu language class at People’s University in Beijing. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Here’s a guest post from the Big Show’s Matthew Bell who was recently in China.

Wei Hubu was quick to make reference to my height. I met the 30 year-old language instructor after class at People’s University in Beijing.

“We Manchus used to be tall just like you,” he pointed out as we walked to the university cafeteria. At 6’4″, I’m at least a foot taller than Wei.

“But most Manchu men were warriors, and they all got wiped out,” he said with an ironic chuckle.

In 2013, China’s ethnic Manchu minority is in little danger of being wiped out. It’s more than 10 million strong. But the Manchu language is another story. It’s on the verge of extinction.

Well aware of this fact, Wei is among a small number of people trying to avert what they see as a looming disaster.

The end of the Qing Dynasty

The last emperors of China belonged to the Qing Dynasty, a fascinating era in Chinese history that begins in the 17th century and ends in 1911. Every Chinese school kid knows 1911 as a turning point, when thousands of years of imperial rule in China finally came to a close.

Screen shot from "Kangxi Dynasty," a Chinese television drama set during the Qing Dynasty.

Screen shot from “Kangxi Dynasty,” a Chinese television drama set during the Qing Dynasty.

Thanks in part to popular television soap operas, people in China have something of an idea what Manchu rule looked like. Or at least how China’s Manchu rulers might have dressed. What is far from authentic in these period drama series though is the dialogue.

Actors in the soaps speak Mandarin Chinese, the national language of the People’s Republic since the 1950s. But during the Qing era, government officials were actually foreigners. Officials in the Chinese court were Manchus from the northeast, mostly beyond the Great Wall, near the border with Korea. Manchuria is the English name of the region.

The Manchus had their own language too. And naturally, Manchu became the language of all official business during the Qing Dynasty.

Like Wei Hubu, most of the students in his classroom at People’s University are ethnic Manchus themselves, there to learn the language of their ancestors.

After class, Wei was kind enough to teach me a few phrases in Manchu. To my non-expert ears, Manchu sounds a lot more like Korean than Chinese.

How Manchu is written

Manchu script is very different from Chinese characters. It’s more like Mongolian. It’s also phonetic, like English, with each letter of the Manchu alphabet corresponding to a specific sound.

Wei admitted that he’s as much student as teacher. He comes from a Manchu family, but only started studying the language a couple of years ago. He said Manchu won’t help him professionally. He is mainly trying to get in touch with his Manchu roots, and – he hopes – to make a modest contribution to the effort to save Manchu from disappearing completely.

“If Manchu dies out,” Wei told me, “so much will be lost. Language is the soul of a culture. People would never truly understand Manchu culture and history.”

Under official Chinese government policy, the languages of ethnic minorities are protected. But attitudes among the Chinese public can be less than charitable. More than 90 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people belong to the same ethnic group, the Han. And many of them see little reason to preserve certain cultural relics of the past.

Apathy toward Manchu

During an evening walk at the summer palace of the former Qing emporers in Beijing, I ran into a 26 year-old lawyer named Chen. The park is a popular historic spot. With some pride, Chen took a look around at the ancient monuments and said that he is captivated by the legacy of the Qing Dynasty, but not the Manchu language.

“I’m Han ethnicity, so I don’t know much about the Manchu language,” he said.

I asked Chen what he thought about the effort to save the language from extinction.

“My personal opinion is that we should let it be, because some languages will slowly fade away,” Chen replied matter-of-factly. “I don’t think we should do something to intentionally preserve them. What will die out, will finally fade away.”

It’s hard to find much enthusiasm for the Manchu language among most of the Chinese public. That might have something to do with the fact that Manchu has been fading away for a long, long time.

In the 18th century, China’s Manchu rulers lifted the ban on intermarriage, allowing Manchus and Han Chinese to get married and start families. At the same time, Manchu officials were told they had to start studying Mandarin.

Traditional medicine

Fast forward to the present day, and no one in China speaks Manchu as a first language, according to Cao Meng, a Manchu language professor at Shenyang Normal University north of Beijing. Cao said fewer than a hundred people can read classical Manchu fluently. But the professor disagreed with the suggestion that Manchu is already a dead language. Not yet, at least.

“The Manchu ethnicity is one of China’s largest in terms of population,” Cao told me. “It would be a national shame if the language was allowed to die out completely.”

Cao explained that there are troves of untranslated materials written in the Manchu language. These sources are full of information about family histories, government policies, and other subjects close to the hearts of many Chinese people, like traditional medicine.

“This knowledge could be lost forever,” Cao said. So, the professor – who is Han Chinese – is working to promote the study of Manchu starting in grade school.

For others though, it’s more personal.

One Manchu language instructor told me she understands the language a lot better than her parents do. She is also from a Manchu family. So, to help her folks get in touch with their cultural roots as well, she makes them listen to pop music with Manchu lyrics.


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Dementia and language loss: what we know and what we don’t know

Photo: Wi2-Photography/Flickr

Photo: Wi2-Photography/Flickr

Here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Nina Porzucki.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in London or Los Angeles, in rural India or in urban Japan — this disease steals lives, it wrecks families, it breaks hearts,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron this week at the G8 Dementia Summit.

This is the biggest international summit to address the issue of dementia.

While world leaders and thinkers pledged to identify a cure or a disease-modifying therapy for the disease by 2025, linguist Alison Wray has been thinking about how to address the social repercussions of the disease.

Wray is a professor of linguistics at the Center for Language and Communication at Cardiff University in Wales, where she’s been researching dementia through the prism of language.

One of the enormous challenges with the disease is language loss. Dementia patients forget words and phrases and it can often make communication difficult and strained between a patient and his or her family.

Her work involves looking at how that breakdown of language strains the communication between dementia patients and their caregivers, and how to develop ways to ease that strain.

One key to alleviate the breakdown in communcation, according to Wray, may be as simple as looking at how other cultures around the world deal with language loss and dementia.

“In Western society, we view our older people in certain ways and we are frightened of dementia,” said Wray. “In other cultures in the world, they don’t necessarily see dementia as such a huge problem. They don’t make it into some kind of monster which is very frightening. It’s simply something that you deal with.”

Wray said some studies show that being multilingual may slow down the symptoms of dementia.

“When you’re used to using more than one language, you have several ways to express the same idea, therefore it gives you more routes to get around an obstacle that might come up,” said Wray.

However, she also pointed to conflicting research that shows there is no difference between monolingual and bilingual dementia patients.

All this is to say that more research is needed and this G8 Dementia Summit is just the beginning.


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From Afrikaans to Zulu, South Africa’s languages have stories to tell

Trilingual government building sign in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa (Wikimedia Commons)

Trilingual government building sign in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa (Wikimedia Commons)

During apartheid, South Africa had two official languages, English and Afrikaans. Indigenous languages, like the people who spoke them, were considered inferior.

When apartheid ended, the Afrikaner minority that had ruled South Africa was willing to give up some of its power — but not its language.

“Language for the Afrikaner nationalists had been central to their identity, their being, their struggle,” said South African constitutional judge Albie Sachs. “They could just about imagine conceding democracy, and could just about imagine a constitution in which black and white were equal. But if Afrikaans was downgraded: boom!”

Sachs — who was imprisoned and exiled during apartheid — helped write the post-apartheid constitution, which upgraded nine indigenous languages without reducing the status of English and Afrikaans.

“In two sentences, we had solved the basic dilemma of the language question in South Africa,” said Sachs. “No language is any more important than any other language.”

Government recognition of 11 languages reflects Nelson Mandela’s vision of an inclusive rainbow nation. But it has also created tensions: English dominates in many spheres of business and culture, as it does elsewhere around the globe.

Afrikaans remains tainted by its association with apartheid, even as some of its younger speakers are trying to change that. Also, some middle class blacks prefer to speak English in the home, rather than Xhosa, Tswana or other indigenous languages.

South Africa has nearly seven million Afrikaans native speakers, placing it ahead of English, but behind Zulu and Xhosa.

More than 11 million South Africans grew up speaking Zulu, but few speak it as a second language, and fewer still speak it in business settings. As a result, the language is not evoloving as rapidly as say, English. It can also be clunky. The words for the numerals eight and nine are horribly long, for example, so Zulu speakers often just switch to the English words. And like many indigenous languages, there aren’t many Zulu words for the Internet age.

So language activist Phiwayinkosi Mbutazi has invented his own Zulu words, and hoping that his neologisms catch on. He has already dreamed up more than 500 words, such as buyafuthi (recycling), derived from the Zulu words for ‘bring back’ and ‘again.’

You can hear Phiwayinkosi Mbutazi discuss his one-man Zulu language academy in the audio of this story, along with excerpts of linguist Mark Turin’s excellent BBC documentary on the recent history of South Africa’s languages. The full version of Turin’s documentary is in this previous podcast.


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Hundreds of millions of Chinese stubbornly resist speaking the ‘common tongue’

At 68, Wang Yufang says Mandarin is not necessary in her daily life. Her neighbors speak the Chongming dialect, as do the vendors at the local market, and the island's bus drivers. (photo/Ruth Morris)

At 68, Wang Yufang says Mandarin is not necessary in her daily life. Her neighbors speak the Chongming dialect, as do the vendors at the local market, and the island’s bus drivers. (photo/Ruth Morris)

Here’s a guest post from Shanghai-based reporter Ruth Morris…

It has four tones, strange ‘measure words’ and thousands of characters to memorize. So for English-speakers, Mandarin can be an especially difficult language to tackle.

But here’s some more bad news. Even if you become fluent, you may not be able to communicate with nearly a third of the people living in China.

State media recently reported that more than 400 million Chinese are unable to speak Mandarin—the national language—while millions more speak it poorly.

Instead, they rely on regional dialects—some call them separate languages—that are so far apart, they’re mutually unintelligible. Even Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, spoke with such a pronounced regional accent that many Chinese had a hard time understanding him.

A long trip, linguistically

Today, non-Mandarin speakers tend to be older Chinese from rural areas, like the island of Chongming. It’s just 45 minutes by bus from the center of Shanghai, but linguistically it’s a much longer trip.

“Like eating, eating the dinner. In Mandarin we call it ‘chi fan,’ but in Chongming language we call it ‘chibie’,” said Gu Hangyu, a student from Chongming.

Gu’s grandmother, Wang Yufang, is one of the millions of Chinese who doesn’t speak Mandarin. As a farmer, her life has been hard. Corncobs fuel her stove, and handpicked cotton fills her comforter. In winter, she heats her home with the energy from a car battery.

With her grandson translating, Wang said she doesn’t speak Mandarin, and has no need to. All her neighbors speak the Chongming dialect, and so do the vegetable vendors in the market.

But Gu is less matter-of-fact. He’s worried his native dialect might fade. He also noted that some city dwellers look down on new arrivals if they speak with thick regional accents.

“I have a special feeling towards my native language,” he said. “I’m proud of Chongming. It’s a beautiful town. The people are friendly… the air is fresh, the water is clean.”

Dialects or Languages?

You Ruijie, a linguist at Fudan University, said dialects spoken widely in commercial hubs like Shanghai will likely survive for generations. Others are on their way out.

“I think some dialects, especially the small dialects, could disappear in the near future,” he said.

It’s a testament to today’s mobility and migration in China that You’s family speaks four dialects. Yet his son and his parents don’t have a single dialect in common. It’s a linguistic leap that’s not uncommon here.

You says for all intents and purposes, China’s 10 or so dialect groups should be treated as completely separate languages. He says: think of the difference between Italian and Spanish. At the same time, many Chinese minorities have their own languages, like Uyghur, Mongolian and Tibetan.

This adds another degree of complexity, especially for visitors. If you want to buy a necklace in Xinjiang in the west, or a cellphone in parts of Southern China, you might get further in English than in Mandarin.

Gu Hangyu and his grandmother Wang Yufang (photo/Ruth Morris)

Gu Hangyu and his grandmother Wang Yufang (photo/Ruth Morris)

Wang Yufang and her grandson, Gu Hangyu, at her home on Chongming Island, near Shanghai. Gu says when he has a family, he'd like his son or daughter to speak his native Chongming dialect. Many young Chinese do not speak their grandparents' dialects.

On Chongming Island, Gu’s grandmother says she has no plans to take up Mandarin herself.

“She says it’s hard for older people like her to study Mandarin. It’s useless for them. But it’s useful for young people like me,” Gu said.

At 68, she added, she’s confident the Chongming dialect will outlast her. And if it is lost and she’s still alive, at that time, she said, “I will leave the world.”

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China’s linguistic landscape is changing as rapidly as its cities and lifestyles

The children of migrant workers are taught Mandarin at a school in Shanghai. Many speak a regional dialect at home, and some don't speak Mandarin at all when they arrive for the first day of class. (Photo/Ruth Morris)

The children of migrant workers are taught Mandarin at a school in Shanghai. Many speak a regional dialect at home, and some don’t speak Mandarin at all when they arrive for the first day of class. (Photo/Ruth Morris)

Here’s a guest post from Shanghai-based reporter Ruth Morris…

As it stands, Mandarin is the language of government, commerce and pop songs in China. But not everyone is excited about learning it.

While the government insists Mandarin is necessary for social cohesion, some of China’s ethnic minorities have pushed back. Tibetans students, for example, have protested plans to shift nearly all their classes into Mandarin—a policy they say represents a larger campaign by Beijing to dilute Tibetan culture and assert political control.

There have been protests in Cantonese-speaking parts of China too. People there are worried their native dialect is being forced out of public places and into the home.

But the general trend points in the opposite direction. Despite protests and lagging investment in rural education, not to mention the prevalence of regional dialects, Mandarin usage is growing at a breakneck pace.

Just seven years ago, state media reported only about half of China’s population spoke Mandarin, compared with about 70 percent today.

Government policy lags social desire

Steve Hansen and Kellen Parker are the founders of Phonemica, an Internet project that invites people to upload stories in dialects derived from old Chinese. They say China’s staggering economic growth is playing a big role in Mandarin’s expansion. Increasingly, Mandarin is the language of survival, and opportunity.

“I think honestly, in many areas of China, government policy is lagging social desire,” Hansen said.

China’s unruly linguistic landscape is known for its groupings of wildly different dialects that go back hundreds of years, spread over a vast geography.

“The reason it’s so diverse it because it’s so huge. I mean, you have hundreds of millions of people,” said Hansen. “Many of these people, for hundreds of years, they grow up in the same valley. They stay in the same valley. And what’s interesting about China is a lot of them, up until now… have not moved around a lot.”

Menial jobs

Now that’s all changing, fast. Bullet trains crisscross the country. And migrant workers shuttle between home villages and factory floors hundreds of miles away.

On a recent morning in Shanghai, 60 kindergartners—the children of migrant workers from all over China–repeated phrases in Mandarin while their teacher rewarded them with stickers.

School administrator Lai Zherong said many of the school’s students don’t speak Mandarin when they arrive. But they pick it up quickly. Without Mandarin, she said, they risk being slotted into menial jobs when they grow up, on construction sites or factory lines.

Beijing says about 400 million Chinese cannot speak the national language. But Parker, of Phonemica, says: don’t blink.

“I think that number is going to be much, much smaller in 20 years,” he said, then added: “I think it’s going to be shockingly smaller in 20 years.”


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