Tag Archives: French language

Ta-Nehisi Coates on learning French

11 Oct

I like to highlight individual learning projects on this blog. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a number of times about his efforts to learn French:

I am emphasizing how I “feel” because, when studying, it is as important as any objective reality. Hopelessness feeds the fatigue that leads the student to quit. It is not the study of language that is hard, so much as the “feeling” that your present level is who you are and who you will always be. I remember returning from France at the end of the summer of 2013, and being convinced that I had some kind of brain injury which prevented me from hearing French vowel sounds. But the real enemy was not any injury so much as the “feeling” of despair. That is why I ignore all the research about children and their language advantage. I don’t want to hear it. I just don’t care. As Carolyn Forché would say—”I’m going to have it.”

Memory and lexical apartheid

6 Apr

While the case for memorization may be clear for learning a second language, what is its role in learning English vocabulary? While it is true that we learn much of our vocabulary from context, rather than explicit instruction , it may be that many English speakers would benefit from direct instruction of English vocabulary.
This is because English is a diglossic language, in the sense that it contains two vocabularies. In a diglossic language, at least two versions of the language exist, each associated with different positions in the social hierarchy. In some cases, such as English, the language contains two vocabularies that reflect social stratification, with one acting as the language of ordinary people and common interaction and the other vocabulary being the words of prestige and power.
A number of languages are diglossic. For example, Hindi-Urdu, sometimes called Hindustani, is a diglossic languages spoken in the Indian subcontinent. The name Hindi-Urdu identifies the two dialects of the same language. Hindi and Urdu share many words and essentially the same grammar. While they have different writing systems, for everyday conversations they are effectively the same and Urdu and Hindi speakers can communicate without difficulty. However, when one wants to discuss topics outside of ordinary interactions, say education, economics, or science, the languages diverge substantially. That is because their higher vocabularies draw on different sources. The higher vocabulary for Hindi comes from the ancient liturgical language of Hinduism; Sanskrit. While Urdu’s higher vocabulary comes from Persian and Arabic.
Arabic is also a diglossic language with an everyday dialect and literary dialect. Research has found that for many Arabic speakers learning the literary dialect is, in some ways, like learning a foreign language. The Arabic of the schools and books is different from the Arabic of home and this may contribute to lower levels of academic achievement.
English also can be said to have two vocabularies both rooted in its historical development. Anglo-Saxon English was established in England by the early Germanic invaders. Latin words were introduced more slowly beginning with the Roman invasion and continuing as a consequence of the spread of Christianity. A major shift occurred with the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The Normans spoke a dialect of French that became the language of the ruling class. This meant that the British aristocracy spoke a Latinate language while the common people spoke Anglo-Saxon English, a Germanic language.
This division still persists in our vocabulary. There is an English that everyone learns to speak, this is the English of everyday interactions and its origins lie in Anglo-Saxon English. There is also an academic English, the English of science, literature, and education. This English is largely Latin and Greek in origin and includes words that were imported into English from the Norman Conquest and, later, during the Renaissance. This difference is illustrated by two great works of English, both written around the same time, the King Jame’s Bible and the works of Shakespeare.
The King James Bible was written in Anglo-Saxon English, and while it was originally published in 1611 it still largely comprehensible to most native English speakers. Indeed, it remains the preferred Bible for many Protestant churches.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, is a Renaissance author and students often find his writing difficult. Many English words borrowed from Latin and Greek are first recorded in the his plays.
Some linguists believe the Renaissance was the biggest period of vocabulary growth in the English language, primarily because of the importation of Graeco-Latinate words.
Educational arrangements in Elizabethan England served to perpetuate class distinctions in language. Schools for the poor and lower classes, when they existed at all, taught only the rudiments of reading and writing in the Anglo-Saxon English, while schools for the children of the elite taught Latin and, sometimes, Greek. Some elite schools required students to speak exclusively in Latin. In the 19th century literature we find a distinction in the use of Latinate words between high and low status characters in the novels of Jane Austen.
David Corson, professor at the University of Toronto, claimed that that English continues to contain two incompatible vocabularies, one Anglo-Saxon the other Graeco-Latinate. The Anglo-Saxon words are used for the concrete while Greek and Latin words reserved used for more abstract discourse. Graeco-Latinate words are used in higher education and specialist vocabularies
Some English speakers, generally those with better educated parents, learn the Graeco-Latinate lexicon from exposure at home. Those who come from homes where only concrete Anglo-Saxon words are used enter school with a real disadvantage. Corson  describes this disadvantage as the “lexical bar” and, even, “lexical apartheid”.
In order to function at the levels required by higher education one must be able to penetrate the Latinate vocabulary of the academy. Our failure to teach this vocabulary, dis-empowers students and locks them out of the central discourse of our culture. Corson  argues that “children’s differences in language ability, more than any other observable factor, affect their potential for success in schooling” . For example, we know that reading comprehension is closely correlated with vocabulary ability. Indeed, the correlation between vocabulary and comprehension is so high that vocabulary tests are good substitutes for comprehension tests. Psychologist Edgar Dale argued that “all education is vocabulary development”.


Confessions of a teenage polyglot

24 Apr

Here is an interview with Timothy Doner who taught himself 20 languages:

“During the past few years, I’ve been referred to in the media as “The World’s Youngest Hyperpolyglot” — a word that sounds like a rare illness. In a way it is: it describes someone who speaks a particularly large number of foreign languages, someone whose all-consuming passion for words and systems can lead them to spend many long hours alone with a grammar book.”

Definitely worth reading.

And don’t miss his TED talk:



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