Tag Archives: language policy

Babies, apologies and “huh?” with Cartoon Queen Carol

Photo: Anishahamedsaifi via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Anishahamedsaifi via Wikimedia Commons

Cartoon Queen Carol Hills and I went round the linguistic block in the pod this week. (See bottom of post for all stories and links.) Among the topics we discussed: two new studies concerning language acquisition.

There’s plenty we don’t know about how we start speaking. We are constantly trying to discover more, but much of the process remains a mystery. How do we start conversing, picking up the grammar as we go along? Two new studies cast light on the early stages of language acquisition.

A study at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, considered infants’ recognition of a second language. It found that infants as young as 13 months could distinguish between languages. They could tell when adult speakers used different words for different things. The kids were shown videos of English and French nursery rhymes. Researchers concluded that the infants came to understand that certain items were described differently in English and French.

“Infants appreciate that words are not shared by speakers of different languages, suggesting that infants have a fairly nuanced understanding of the conventional nature of language,” said study co-author Annette Henderson.

“People often think that babies absorb language and you don’t have to teach them, and they do absorb it and they learn very passively, but they’re not just learning willy-nilly,” she said.

Another way infants learn is through adult baby talk. Yes, that often annoying way that adults speak to babies — slowly, elongating some vowels: “How are youuuuuuu?” The more an adult talks that way, making it clear to the infant that this is a one-on-one interaction, the quicker the infant picks up words.

Researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Connecticut studied thousands of verbal exchanges between adults and infants in reaching their conclusion.

“Some parents produce baby talk naturally and they don’t realize they’re benefiting their children,” said the study’s co-author Nairán Ramírez-Esparza. “What this study is adding is that how you talk to children matters.”

These studies were a couple of the topics Cartoon Queen Carol Hills and I discussed in the podcast. Here are the others:

  • Meaningless apologies. More especially among Brits and Japanese. And Brits again, as observed by an UK-based US Army officer.
  • Bosnia has three school systems and three languages of instruction. Tough luck if you live in the ‘wrong’ part of the country.
  • Is ‘huh?’ really used in all languages? It is in the 31 languages surveyed in this study.
  • Is the Endangered Languages Movement skewing linguistics research?

All the the fun is in the podcast, and Carol’s a blast. So give it a listen on the Soundcloud player at the top of this page.

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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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    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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