Saturday 23 July 2016

Nature, nurture, and linguistic giftedness

I met a Scandinavian couple the other day, who had visited Portugal countless times. They waxed lyrical about the country, its beauty, its history, its food, its people (I can, by the way, impartially confirm that their comments were spot on), and told me they would be moving there soon. Paperwork, housing and banking matters were all good to go, and they were delighted to have found a native who could answer their less bureaucratic questions.

“So when will you start learning Portuguese?”, I asked in turn. “Oh, no need for that!”, they waved me aside, “Everyone speaks English there”. They do?, I thought, wondering what everyone and English might mean, whenever anyone says what they’d just said. Okay, I went on thinking, so they’re aiming to make a home of Portugal’s beauty, history, food, and people in a language that is neither theirs nor the country’s. How will that work itself out?, I wanted to ask next but, before I could, they added: “Besides, we’re not good at languages.”

I must have mumbled something in response, and we probably went on talking about the marvels, the enrichment, etc. etc., afforded by travelling the world. I can’t remember. I’ve learned to switch to sociable autopilot after that line, one that I’ve heard countless times and as infinitely tried to counter, to null effect. The cumulative facts that I use more than the magical number of just two languages in my daily life and that I ‘work with languages’ apparently make me unsuitable to speak for the learning of new ones. “You’re gifted for languages”, people nod knowledgeably at me and, as far as they’re concerned, this compliment ends the argument.

Gift-wrapped language skills?
Image © Clipart Panda

The issue is, of course, that this is no compliment at all. It makes light of the tremendous amount of time, will, engagement, openness to input, readiness for practice that goes into learning any language, any time, whether we’re big or small. It tells me and other language learners that we’ve learned our languages because we were, literally, given something that we didn’t need to have merited to earn. It tells me and other believers in hard work that we should believe instead in easy handouts that we can’t help being awarded – or not awarded: the corollary of gift theories of learning is that some of us “are not good” at learning certain things, and can’t help it either. 

The issue is also that the gifted-for-languages reasoning is flawed. It says that in order to be able to learn languages we must be good at languages. So are we all gifted, since all of us are good at learning at least one language, or does linguistic giftedness apply only to multilinguals? In that case, the gift can only reveal itself after we’ve learned a couple of languages, since nobody is born using them. So was there a gift to start off with, or did we acquire language learning skills on the job? Are we talking nature or nurture?

Understand me right: I’m not denying giftedness. I’m saying that arguing that you can only learn to use new languages if you’re gifted for languages makes as much sense as arguing that you can only learn to use new smartphones if you’re gifted for smartphones. I can’t deny giftedness because the single most important thing I’ve learned from my 40+ years as a teacher is that we’re all gifted. The trick is to find where that gift lies, which is not necessarily where entitled education policy-makers keep telling us where to look. In order to be good at what we do, what we need to be given is the chance to develop what we’ve got. Francis Bacon dixit, in Novum Organon, 1: CXXI: “So again the seeds of things are of much latent virtue, and yet of no use except in their development”. Or, as Edward M. Hundert puts it in the last paragraph of his book Lessons from an Optical Illusion. On Nature and Nurture, Knowledge and Values, we must strive to “nurture that nature that has nurtured us”.

Let me leave you with two other nuggets of wisdom about learners and learning: Aristotle’s “Consuetudo est altera natura” (‘Habit is second nature’) and Quintilian’s “Consuetudo certissima est loquendi magistra” (‘Usage is the best language teacher’). Consuetudo is where we find the gift.

I’m sure that my new friends will enjoy living in Portugal – their way, with expat English among English-speaking Portuguese. They won’t notice, and I won’t tell them, what they’ll miss about Portugal’s consuetudines. Or about exploring unsuspected language learning skills, more on which next time.

© MCF 2016

Next post: Language learners and linguistic resourcefulness. Saturday 17th September 2016.

Saturday 9 July 2016

Being multiscriptal: why our alphabets matter
=Guest post=

Photo credit: Matt Thorsen
by Tim Brookes

Before I started the Endangered Alphabets project, I thought of myself as being multilingual: good French, decent German, solid Latin, tourist Spanish and Italian, toasts in Russian and obscenities in half a dozen languages.

Now, after seven years of carving the world’s most obscure and endangered writing systems, it’s clear what a novice I am. I just received a Facebook birthday card from a colleague who wrote in a dozen languages, most of them endangered. And my ethnocentricity has been challenged head-on by the fact that in doing more than 100 carvings in more than 30 different minority scripts I can now read precisely one word in a non-Latin script: the Balinese word suksma, meaning ‘thank you’.

The Balinese word “suksma” (‘thank you’).
Carved in cherry
Photo credit: Tom Way

Yet oddly enough my insular limitations have also been a strength in this ongoing project, or at least have offered me perspectives that might otherwise be hard to come by. My first exhibition of carvings, all of which featured Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in endangered writing systems, grew out of my stumbling upon Omniglot, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages. It was a revelation. I thought of myself as fairly well-traveled and widely-read, yet I’d never heard of probably 85% of the languages on Omniglot. And the texts themselves were all Greek to me – well, more than Greek, given that in many cases I couldn’t pronounce a single glyph or understand a single word-cluster.

In a way, that was an advantage. I saw those languages not in terms of the communication of meaning but as a series of symbols that had evolved (or in some instances been created) for a reason, or a series of reasons. My ignorance led me to ask questions that might never occur to someone versed in that language. Why was the Inuktitut script so mathematical? Why was Baybayin so damn thin it was hard to carve and even harder to paint?

The phrase “mother tongue” in Baybayin, the pre-colonial script of the Philippines,
based on calligraphy/graffiti by Kristian Kabuay.
Carved in flame cherry
Photo credit: Tom Way

Why were the letters of Samaritan off balance? Why did Cherokee have serifs on curves – and come to think of it, why did it have serifs at all?

And the more I looked at these unfamiliar scripts, the more I realized we English-speakers never stop and ask ourselves basic questions about our own language and alphabet. Why were we so smitten with the Latin alphabet – to such an extent that the default academic font was called Times New Roman? Why were we so keen on parallels, right angels, circles, the Euclidean forms that are in fact impossible to write freehand? What does English have against diacritics, when other languages embrace them to such an extent that some scripts look like a large wet black dog shaking itself?

But the really interesting questions were about language itself, and the way people instinctively think about it. For example: it has been fascinating to me how often people look at my Alphabet carvings and say, “That one looks like an alien script”. I even though so myself when I first started. I’ve come to think of this as the Stonehenge phenomenon: when people look at Stonehenge they see pattern and therefore intent but they can’t see meaning. That’s a powerful, magnetic phenomenon. They can’t look away or stop wondering what it means and why it was created.

I think an “alien” alphabet has the same qualities: we can see it has shape and purpose and therefore intent, but it’s so utterly unfamiliar we can’t understand it, and we can’t even imagine understanding it. So we assume it must not be of this Earth. More and more, I find myself thinking in such galactic terms and seeing and hearing language as a series of variations on the concept of pattern.  

“Happy New Year” in Mongolian calligraphy,
based on the work of Sukhbaatar.
Carved in pau amarillo
Photo credit: Tom Way

Let me explain. When I’ve finished carving and painting one of my scripts into, say, a piece of curly maple and then I add the first coat of tung oil, an extraordinary three-dimensional change takes place. The wood acquires both luster and depth, as if rising and sinking at the same time. Faint shadows become deep currents. Knots become cyclones. The grain ripens one way, but in the same instant a different set of ripples will often appear running perpendicular to it. The wood becomes anatomical, muscular. And the black text seems to float both in and above it, as if it is both part and not part of the wood.

The first time I really looked at this transformation, it struck me that something fascinating was taking place in terms of pattern. The grain in the wood and the ripples running more or less perpendicular to it, looking like patterns in wet sand, are expressions of the rhythms running through everything.

The verb “la” (‘to be’) in Nom, the pre-colonial script of Vietnam.
Carved in quilted maple
Photo credit: Tom Way

Trees have been on this planet for some 370 million years, and the patterns in the grain – well, they illustrate forces that have been acting on matter since the dawn of the universe.

Part of the human condition, though, is to try to see the shape and drift of those forces. We’re pattern-seeking creatures, after all. And what struck me about languages, especially when carved in wood, is that they show our own efforts to understand the world by creating patterns – patterns that others can recognize and convert into speech, into ideas – overlaid on the deeper, older, more complex patterns that have made us what we are.

Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets project, whose carvings have been exhibited all over North America including at Harvard, Yale, and the Smithsonian Institution. He is also the author of 16 books, details of which can be found at his homepage.

© Tim Brookes 2016

Next post: Nature, nurture, and linguistic giftedness. Saturday 23rd July 2016.


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