Adding another language

19 06 2011

Foreign language learning has never been a topic to grab headlines. Especially not in English-speaking countries where monolingualism is rampant, premised on the rhetorical question – “Why learn another language if  the rest of the world is busting its gut learning English? Fair enough, perhaps, but the question over-simplifies the reasons/motivations  behind the endeavour.

In the space of 24 hours, I came across two pieces that feature foreign language learning. The first was in The Sydney Morning Herald, in the weekly Education Section, where in a part-serious, part- whimsical article, the writer describes and critiques his personal experience of a course he undertook to learn (notoriously difficult) Mandarin in 48 hours.  Check it out at:

Later in the same day I was sent an article focused on the lucrative value of adding a language to your skill set. Caution – a year from now, the list may be different. Check it out at:

While we’re on this topic, anyone wishing to become engaged in language learning could do worse than to follow the blog of Dr Gary Birch, now retired, from Griffith University, Queensland. Gary, an applied linguist, is also a great communicator. Note that the one does necessitate the other: there are loads of applied linguists who are poor communicators, and loads of good communicators who are not applied linguists. Gary is both, his blog tells it all, candidly, and with humour. But what I most like about Gary’s blog is that it/he doesn’t pretend  learning a language is easy. It’s called  Second Language Mentor. How to Learn a Second Language. Check it out at:

What does “sparkle” have in common with “jiggle”?

7 03 2011

English has a sophisticated verb system, or more correctly, a collection of sub-systems, that allow for very precise reference to time. In fact, I tend towards the view that the soul of English is encased in its verb.

One of my favourite tenses is the future-in-the-past eg I thought it was going to be a great evening out. This means: in the past I had this thought about an activity yet to be experienced and now, looking back, after the event, I can recognize my prediction was completely wrong (or totally correct, as the case may be).

I’m very fond of this tense structure and as I get older, I find I have more and more use for it – perhaps because it allows for a certain bittersweet reminiscence and regret to which I find myself rather prone. Until such time as I can express this function in a language other than English, I feel I’ll never be able to take much pride in my other languages. It can be done in Spanish; it’s just that, limited as my Spanish is, I can’t do it.

But that’s by the way. What I was hoping to get onto, by introducing verbs,  was a mention of a verb form called the frequentative. This is a special independent verb ( let’s call it #2), derived from another verb (let’s call this one #1) where Verb #2 has the very particular meaning of denoting a repeated occurrence of Verb #1’s meaning.

Obtuse? Let’s look at it through some examples. Take the word “flutter”. Historically, this is a frequentative of the verb “float”,  its meaning related to the rapid, flapping movement of wings.

We have a few others in English. Some employ the suffix –le – : – like “sparkle” (from “spark”); “crumble” (from “crumb”); “nestle” (from “nest”); “jiggle” (from “jig”); “gobble” (from “gob”); “wrestle” (from “wrest”). Others, like “flutter”, use the –er suffix eg “batter” (from “bat”); “patter” (from “pat”).

In English the list of frequentative verbs is short and closed. Some other languages, notably Lithuania and Finnish, are much stronger on frequentatives. In Finnish, for example, you can include a special device, which is very nice,  that denotes that the repeated occurrence is sudden  and short-lived. There’s another device (called an “anti-causative”) denoting that the action is not deliberate but accidental or independent. As I look at this from the outside, it seems the possibilities for nuanced expression are endless.

Most Finns no doubt take all this in their stride, with only a handful of linguists regularly celebrating their language’s dexterity. The fact is that many of the original verbs (Verb #1) have disappeared over time (as too, they have in English: eg we have “scuttle” but no longer much use for “scud”) , leaving only the derived form (Verb #2), making it even less likely that your ordinary speaker of Finnish knows that their frequentatives have a rich history.

Sadly, your ordinary Finn may only ever discover his/her language’s special capacity when, in learning English, they struggle to express in English that which comes naturally to them in Finnish. Or maybe the dexterity of their first language actually privileges them as second language learners. I have no idea, but it is a subject of conversation I might raise when next I run into a Finn.


20 06 2010

I once did a plenary paper about “assumptions” for a Language Conference. It was subtitled: I’ll have  what she’s having, an utterance borrowed from the movie When Harry met Sally (1989), which as everyone knows was built on a mountain of assumptions, most of them false. My paper explored the often unwitting gap that stretches between what is taught and what is learned.

I was interested to read something recently, in an essay submitted by a Masters student of mine (at Anaheim University), where assumptions again take centre stage. I’ve reprinted it here, with Laurel Costill’s permission, because it’s so beautifully pithy. She writes –

Explaining how misunderstandings occur:

In order to formulate a sentence, a speaker must first evaluate how much the hearer already knows. At this step, it’s possible that the speaker evaluates the hearer incorrectly. For instance, by the speaker’s statement that the hearer looks like Selma Hayek, the speaker was giving a compliment; the speaker assumes that the hearer has the same opinion of beauty of Selma Hayek.

However, the hearer may only know of Ms. Hayek from the movie Frida and interprets the comment to mean that she desperately needs to pluck her eyebrows.

Teaching and Learning

28 04 2010

An article in today’s  Sydney Morning Herald , by Ross Gittins, deals with the vexatious problem of prison reform. But it starts off much wider:

” Modern politicians have become so adept at monitoring public opinion that they’ve developed a preference for wanting to be seen fixing problems rather than to actually fix them. They purport to fix problems by doing whatever the punters and media commentators imagine should be done rather than what the experts say is worth doing.

You can see this in Kevin Rudd’s approach to healthcare reform. He sees the problem primarily in terms of fixing hospitals. Why? Because that’s the way the punters see it.” (p.13)

Same could be said of education and the school system. Government by punter, the curse of demoncracy, means that politicians look for quick-fix solutions that will be up and done with and available for viewing well before the next election. Just think of the insulation debacle, as was clear from this week’s Four Corners episode.  Poorly thought out, driven by myopia, senior bureacrats ignoring the advice of experts. End result: death, injury, and all-round economic  fiasco. Education deserves  better.