Unit 3: Language and Society
about this tutorial...
This is one in a series of tutorials on intercultural communication.You may create a print version by clicking on the "print all" link at the top of the page. Anticipated completion time for this tutorial: approximately 90 minutes. If you are completing this tutorial for a course, your score on the included exercises will be recorded. Note that you can stop and come back and your score on completed items will be retained.
The objectives below can be achieved through working with the assigned readings, watching the presentations, doing the tutorial exercises, and posting to the discussion forums.
By successfully completing this unit, students should be able to...
- Discuss the unique nature of human language
- Explain the relationship between language and culture
- Explain the principle of linguistic relativity/determinism
- List and define different branches of linguistics
- List and define areas of descriptive linguistics
- Discuss different ways to classify languages
- Discuss issues in language learning today
Key concepts for this unit
Key concepts (PDF)
UNIT OPENER: Film clip - What does Chinglish tell us about China?
One of the first things foreign tourists are likely to notice on visiting China are the many signs translated into English, into very bad, often highly amusing English. We're use this phenomenon to explore some issues of language difference and translation.
First, watch the video (about 1:30 minutes long) below:
=> YouTube version
After watching the video, think about the following:
- What do the signs indicate about differences between English and Chinese?
- Many Chinglish signs are professionally printed or type-set - how could such flagrant language mistakes escape proof-reading or even spell-checking?
- Do the Chinglish signs reveal anything culturally about China?
- What is likely to be the reaction of young Chinese who have learned English when they see Chinglish?
- Are there any counterparts in American culture to the Chinglish phenomenon?
Now, turn to the next page for comments.
UNIT OPENER: Comments and Analysis
1. What do the signs indicate about differences between English and Chinese?
Chinese uses a different character set from English, which uses the Latin alphabet. Chinese has many different spoken varieties, which in some cases are very distinct from one another (Mandarin and Cantonese, for example). But they all use the same character set (also used in one of the character sets in Japanese, Kanji). Chinese characters are not phonetic, but rather are ideograms, representing a word or morpheme (the smallest meaningful unit of language). Chinese characters number in the tens of thousands and pose one of the challenges in learning the language. Chinese is much more succinct and dense than English (no definite or indefinite articles, for example). An article in The Economist ranked it by far the most efficient language for use in twitter.
2. Many Chinglish signs are professionally printed or type-set - how could such flagrant language mistakes escape proof-reading or even spell-checking?
The meaning of a Chinese character depends on what it's next to, which makes dictionary look-ups not always very effective. Because taken out of context a string of Chinese characters could have a variety of meanings, assigning a precise English equivalent can be tricky. In some ways, the indirectness in the Chinese communication style is mirrored in the lack of specificity in the language. The language itself is high-context - characters in isolation have little meaning. The ambiguity can only be resolved by providing context. It's probably also the case that Chinese printers lack the English proofing tools (after all, a whole different character set) needed.
3. Do the Chinglish signs reveal anything culturally about China?
Interest in learning English and wide-spread availability of English teachers is a fairly recent phenomenon in China, although it is growing now at a fast rate. China is like the USA in that it exhibits what I would call "big country syndrome". If you're from a small country (say Luxemburg or Denmark), the need to learn another language is a practical necessity. If you're from a country with over a billion native speakers (by far the most in the world), things may look different. Americans tend to be monolingual for a variety of reasons, but one is certainly geographic and demographic.
4. What is likely to be the reaction of young Chinese who have learned English when they see Chinglish?
Depending on the particular instance of Chinglish, the reaction could be embarrassment (particularly if in the company of foreigners) or amusement. Some Chinglish signs in fact seem to have been created to entertain and attract attention. The Chinese government doesn't see it that way. Before the Beijing Olympics, there was a concerted effort to eliminate Chinglish in areas likely to be visited by tourists.
5. Are there any counterparts in American culture to the Chinglish phenomenon?
How about the numerous tattoos of Chinese characters on NBA players or other athletes? One of the first in the NBA was Marcus Camby's arm tattoo of 勉族, which means nothing in Chinese (something like striving minority people). There are many others that follow that pattern.
What's the point of this unit's opener?
There are many common elements among languages, as Chomsky and fellow linguistics have demonstrated. However, there are plenty of major differences, ones that become quite evident when you start to learn a language as different from English as is Chinese. Many Americans assume translation from one language to another is a simple process of word substitution. That doesn't work for any set of languages but it's even more the case with Chinese and English. Structurally and culturally, the languages are so different that translation between the two can be much more of an art than a science.
Text as PDF file (for printing or viewing in new window)
=> YouTube version | View/print presentation outline
The nature of language
- Keith Chen: Could your language affect your ability to save money?
TED description: "What can economists learn from linguists? Behavioral economist Keith Chen introduces a fascinating pattern from his research: that languages without a concept for the future — 'It rain tomorrow,' instead of 'It will rain tomorrow' — correlate strongly with high savings rates."
Can Your Language Influence Your Spending, Eating, and Smoking Habits? from the Atlantic largely supporting the claims as does the piece by David Berreby, Obese? Smoker? No Retirement Savings? Perhaps It's Because of the Language You Speak, while a post in LanguageLog, Keith Chen, Whorfian economist, expresses skepticism
- Phuc Tran: Grammar, Identity, and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive
TED description: "Phuc Tran grew up caught between two languages with opposing cultural perspectives: the indicative reality of Vietnamese and the power to image endless possibilities with English. In this personal talk, Tran explains how both shaped his identity."
Comments from reddit readers and on Quora (expressing skepticism)
Language in society
- Jill Shargaa: Please, please, people. Let's put the 'awe' back in 'awesome'
TED description: "Which of the following is awesome: your lunch or the Great Pyramid of Giza? Comedian Jill Shargaa sounds a hilarious call for us to save the word "awesome" for things that truly inspire awe."
- Anne Curzan: What makes a word "real"?
TED description: "One could argue that slang words like ‘hangry,’ ‘defriend’ and ‘adorkable’ fill crucial meaning gaps in the English language, even if they don't appear in the dictionary. After all, who actually decides which words make it into those pages? Language historian Anne Curzan gives a charming look at the humans behind dictionaries, and the choices they make."
- The Racially Charged Meaning Behind The Word 'Thug'
NPR's Melissa Block speaks to John McWhorter, associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, about the use of the word "thug" to describe Baltimore rioters.
Speaking multiple languages
- Mia Nacamulli: The benefits of a bilingual brain
It’s obvious that knowing more than one language can make certain things easier — like traveling or watching movies without subtitles. But are there other advantages to having a bilingual (or multilingual) brain? Mia Nacamulli details the three types of bilingual brains and shows how knowing more than one language keeps your brain healthy, complex and actively engaged.
- Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies
TED description: "Patricia Kuhl shares astonishing findings about how babies learn one language over another — by listening to the humans around them and "taking statistics" on the sounds they need to know. Clever lab experiments (and brain scans) show how 6-month-old babies use sophisticated reasoning to understand their world."
- Tim Doner: Breaking the language barrier
Young polyglot talks about superficial view of language learning in the media; explains "method of loci" (memory palace) and experimenting with other methods; about language and culture
- Benny Lewis: Hacking language learning
Polyglot explains his method for language learning; about polyglots; emphasizes motivation
TED description: "'Some people just don't have the language learning gene.' To prove that this statement is patently untrue is Benny Lewis's life mission. A monoglot till after leaving university, Benny now runs the World's most popular language learning blog and is learning Egyptian Arabic which will be language number twelve, or maybe thirteen. But who's counting?"
On language learning
- Sid Efromovich: 5 techniques to speak any language
Polyglot explains his approaches to language learning. His first rule: make sure you make mistakes
- ShaoLan: Learn to read Chinese ... with ease!
For foreigners, learning to speak Chinese is a hard task. But learning to read the beautiful, often complex characters of the Chinese written language may be less difficult. ShaoLan walks through a simple lesson in recognizing the ideas behind the characters and their meaning — building from a few simple forms to more complex concepts. Call it Chineasy.
Chineasy? Not Victor Mair (prominent Chinese language professor) on this approach (not a fan)
- Chris Lonsdale: How to learn any language in six months
How he became fluent in Chinese in 6 months
Victor Mair is skeptical: Fluency in six months
- How I learned a language in 22 hours
Article from the Guardian by Joshua Foer
It's not easy and it takes time. Comments on Joshua Foer's article
English as a world language
- The speech accent archive
Fascinating archive of American English accents
- Suzanne Talhouk: Don't kill your language
TED description: "More and more, English is a global language; speaking it is perceived as a sign of being modern. But — what do we lose when we leave behind our mother tongues? Suzanne Talhouk makes an impassioned case to love your own language, and to cherish what it can express that no other language can. In Arabic with subtitles."
- Jamila Lyiscott: 3 ways to speak English
TED description: "Jamila Lyiscott is a 'tri-tongued orator;' in her powerful spoken-word essay "Broken English," she celebrates — and challenges — the three distinct flavors of English she speaks with her friends, in the classroom and with her parents. As she explores the complicated history and present-day identity that each language represents, she unpacks what it means to be 'articulate'."
- Patricia Ryan: Don't insist on English!
TED description: "In her talk, longtime English teacher Patricia Ryan asks a provocative question: Is the world's focus on English preventing the spread of great ideas in other languages? (For instance: what if Einstein had to pass the TOEFL?) It's a passionate defense of translating and sharing ideas."
- Jay Walker: The world's English mania
TED description: "Jay Walker explains why two billion people around the world are trying to learn English. He shares photos and spine-tingling audio of Chinese students rehearsing English, 'the world's second language', by the thousands."
- There Was No Committee
Article by Geoffrey Pullum (from the Lingua Franca blog) on the rise of English in education world-wide
TED talks on endangered languages
- Wade Davis: Dreams from endangered cultures
TED description: "With stunning photos and stories, National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis celebrates the extraordinary diversity of the world's indigenous cultures, which are disappearing from the planet at an alarming rate."
- Mark Plotkin: What the people of the Amazon know that you don't
TED description: "'The greatest and most endangered species in the Amazon rainforest is not the jaguar or the harpy eagle,' says Mark Plotkin, 'It's the isolated and uncontacted tribes.' In an energetic and sobering talk, the ethnobotanist brings us into the world of the forest's indigenous tribes and the incredible medicinal plants that their shamans use to heal. He outlines the challenges and perils that are endangering them — and their wisdom — and urges us to protect this irreplaceable repository of knowledge."
Playing with language and identity
- Trevor Noah - Live at the Apollo - London
The South African comedian on his identity and the role of lanuguages
- Hetain Patel and Yuyu Rau: Who am I? Think again
TED description: "How do we decide who we are? Hetain Patel's surprising performance plays with identity, language and accent -- and challenges you to think deeper than surface appearances. A delightful meditation on self, with performer Yuyu Rau, and inspired by Bruce Lee."
On the nature of TED talks
- Terry Moore: Why is 'x' the unknown?
Why is 'x' the symbol for an unknown? In this short and funny talk, Terry Moore gives the surprising answer.
Debunking Terry Moore's TED talk
- The Sound of TED: A Case for Distaste
The case for being skeptical of TED talks
Q1: Sapir-Whort Hypothesis
Q2: Rule systems in linguistics
Q3: Smallest unit of meaning
Q4: Fields of linguistics
Q5: World languages
Q6: Language extinction