Tag Archives: Marilyn Chin

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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Words your grandmother taught you in Chinese, Dutch and Yiddish

Did Barack Obama learn a word or two from his grandmother? Well, maybe not — he didn’t grow up with the gran pictured here (it’s his Kenyan stepmother). But many people did learn their very  first foreign words from their grandmothers. The Big Show’s Marco Werman learned a Dutch curse. Nina Porzucki learned a Yiddish word that speaks to a existential Jewish mindset: dafka. Nina’s grandmother didn’t think she was conveying such a Big Idea. She was just describing the stubborn behavior of her granddaughter.

Marilyn Chin learned insults, puns and tongue twisters, many of which later found their way into her poetry. Chin has published three volumes of poems. Many of her poems are linguistic investigations of her own Chinese-Americanism.  Now she’s published her first novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen. It’s the story of two Chinese-American twins, Moonie and Mei Ling Wong,  and their search for double happiness. Or maybe single happiness. Double Happiness is just the name of their family restaurant (wordplay and irony abounds). Between episodes of Chinese food delivery gone hilariously wrong — thanks to Mei Ling’s souped-up American need for sex and drugs — the twins enter a mythological world of Chinese fable. From profane to sacred, and back to profane again. In the pod, I interview Marilyn Chin, who like the twins in her novel, had an overly protective Old World grandmother raising her. Chin can still recite her grandmother’s curses and sayings, delivered in the Toisan sub-dialect of Cantonese. She also recites a super-punning poem from her 2002 collection, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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Spelling Obama in Chinese, oratory, and chop suey love

How do you spell Obama in Chinese? Depends who you are. The Chinese news media spell it 奥巴马 (àobāmǎ). But the US Embassy in Beijing recently launched a campaign to change it to 欧巴马 (ōubāmǎ). Why no agreement? The embassy says its spelling is closer to the American pronunciation of Obama. But the Chinese don’t appear to like how it sounds, or reads. For one thing, the Taiwanese already transliterate Obama the American way. Beijing likes to keep its scriptural distance from Taipei. More here and here.

Next on the podcast, the contrasting oratorical styles of presidents Hu and Obama. The two leaders draw on starkly different rhetorical traditions, and they may also have somewhat different audiences when they step up to a podium. There are personal differences too, mainly concerning charisma: Obama oozes it;  Hu doesn’t go in for oozing much of anything.  Some young Chinese have noticed.  Like their Japanese counterparts, they’re learning English by reciting famous Obama speeches.

Then, something on a type of Chinese idiom known as chengyu, as explained by the late James Lilley, former U.S. ambassador to China. Lilley says Chinese diplomats loved to hide behind these sayings. He recalls how he once turned the tables on them by coming up with an enigmatic saying of his own.

After that we travel to the UK, where Confucian philosophy has infused Chinese language classes in five public schools. It’s almost inevitable that when you learn a language, you learn about the culture of the people who speak that language. (Believe it or not, it helps.) But this new approach in Britain goes a step further: the schools draw on Confucian teaching methods. The idea is that students will learn more through thinking and enjoying a subject than they might through memorization.

And then, a grand finale:  poet and writer Marilyn Chin on why she loves the expression chop suey. It’s all in the onomatopoeia. More about the origin of the dish here and the song here (it’s a high point in the musical Flower Drum Song.) Much more, by the way, from Marilyn Chin next week, including a discussion of the role language plays in her new novel.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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