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Archive for September, 2009

I’ve long been interested in the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis, and how one’s language affects perceptions of space and color. Interestingly, there’s now some quantitative evidence that metaphors can have a strong influence on our perceptions. Primary metaphors, those that are so deeply embedded in our language that we aren’t usually consciously aware of them, are so strong that we confuse our basic physical senses with the things our language has linked with those senses metaphorically.

Bargh at Yale, along with Lawrence Williams, now at the University of Colorado, did studies in which subjects were casually asked to hold a cup of either iced or hot coffee, not knowing it was part of the study, then a few minutes later asked to rate the personality of a person who was described to them. The hot coffee group, it turned out, consistently described a warmer person–rating them as happier, more generous, more sociable, good-natured, and more caring–than the iced coffee group. The effect seems to run the other way, too: In a paper published last year, Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey J. Leonardelli of the University of Toronto found that people asked to recall a time when they were ostracized gave lower estimates of room temperature than those who recalled a social inclusion experience.

In a paper in the current issue of Psychological Science, researchers in the Netherlands and Portugal describe a series of studies in which subjects were given clipboards on which to fill out questionnaires–in one study subjects were asked to estimate the value of several foreign currencies, in another they were asked to rate the city of Amsterdam and its mayor. The clipboards, however, were two different weights, and the subjects who took the questionnaire on the heavier clipboards tended to ascribe more metaphorical weight to the questions they were asked–they not only judged the foreign currencies to be more valuable, they gave more careful, considered answers to the questions they were asked.

Boston.com: Thinking Literally

The question is, how universal are primary metaphors between languages?

I came across this study this morning, and it boggles the mind.

Chronic radiation is defined as the radiation received slowly or in a low-dose-rate from various sources. It is completely different in nature to the acute gamma or neutron radiation generated from the atomic bomb explosions that occurred in Japan at the end of World War II. Tantalizing insights from people living in higher-than-normal background radiation areas in the world and from nuclear energy workers receiving excess radiation over long years have suggested that chronic radiation might paradoxically be beneficial to humans. However, in the absence of an epidemiological study, it has been impossible to conclude whether chronic radiation is harmless or indeed beneficial to human beings. Fortuitously, an incredible Co-60 contamination incident occurred in Taiwan 21 years ago, which provided the data necessary to demonstrate that chronic radiation is beneficial to human beings.

Chronic Radiation Is Beneficial to Human Beings by Yuan-Chi Luan

luan.chart

I hope I’ve been exposed to similarly beneficial radiation and or contaminants during my time here in Taiwan.

Recently, I’ve been reading an interesting book called The 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferriss, and stumbled across his blog. In it, he had a video in which he and Kevin Rose that was primarily about things related to the business of start-ups. But then, surprisingly, in the last 5 minutes of the video, the conversation turned to learning Chinese. Skip the first two minutes of the video if you’re easily disgusted!

The 4th Random Episode from Glenn McElhose on Vimeo.

I thought those language learning ideas were pretty odd. In my own experience as a teacher and as a student, getting a lot of language input improves output, whereas focusing on speaking doesn’t necessarily improve one’s comprehension abilities. In fact, I recall at least unpleasant experience I had in Guatemala in which I was able to ask people for directions in a very fluent manner, but I couldn’t understand their responses. Steve Kauffman’s critique included the very same point:

2) Ferriss says that we should start with production of the language, not comprehension. I could not disagree more. You have to understand before you can speak. You have to get the language in you before you can produce anything in the language. I have seen his previous material where he places great importance on knowing the word order, and certain basic sentences, in different languages. To me the usage patterns in different languages are too varied, unpredictable and usually illogical to allow for any such formula approach. You just need to get used to the language with a lot of input, and work on comprehension.

That said, I have had very good results working on production in a few very narrow situations. The first is pronunciation. I still think the best way is to hear a lot of the language before trying to speak it (just as we do with our native languages), but focused drilling of the more difficult sounds can help quite a bit. I’ve seen it in my students’ pronunciation of “r” sounds in English, and I’ve seen it in my own pronunciation of the “ü” sounds in Mandarin. The other place where focused work on language production has helped me is with writing Chinese characters. I’m not sure that any amount of reading alone would give someone the ability to write characters. It would do wonders for the overall structure of their essays, reports or other writing, though.

I’ve recently found the Wikipedia Commons Stroke Order Project, via Sinosplice.

If you’ve checked out many online Chinese dictionaries or websites on learning Chinese, you’ve seen a variety of ways to present characters’ proper stroke order. Animated GIFs are a favorite, but they often fall flat in one important respect: they display each stroke in a single frame, often leaving the direction of the stroke somewhat unclear.

This is where the Wikimedia Commons Stroke Order Project impresses me: not only are the animated GIFs large and attractive, but they fluidly demonstrate the direction of each stroke. A nice example:


from the site:

Hello, and welcome to the Commons Stroke Order Project. This project aims to create a complete set of high quality and free illustrations to clearly show the stroke order of East Asian characters (hanzi, kanji, kana, hantu, and hanja). The project was started as there was none like it in terms of quality and it seems that it is the only one working on all three schools of Han character stroke order; simplified and traditional Chinese, and Japanese.

You are free to use the graphics we’ve made and welcomed to join us and contribute to our progress. It’s easy, you just have to follow the simple steps stated in our graphics guidelines.

Like John, I’m very impressed with the general look of the project, and very happy to see a free alternative to the various proprietary systems we’ve had to choose from before. I am curious how they’ll handle characters with variable stroke order, but I think most students will be happy being able to see an acceptable stroke order for whatever character they happen to be looking up.

There is one thing about this project that’s a bit depressing, though. That’s the near total neglect of traditional characters. According to the Wikimedia page, only three traditional characters have been added!

BlackWhiteRedGradientAnimation
Bopomofo37/40 Done0
Hiragana Done Done0
Katakana Done Done0
Hangeul1/3500
Kangxi radicalsThese aren’t categorised separately. See the progress pages.
Traditional Chinese305
Simplified Chinese1,010181379
Kanji4889

I’m used to traditional characters getting back of the bus treatment in textbooks and online resources for Chinese learners, but this is just sad. Who’s up for adding some Traditional characters to balance this out a bit?

This summer, I managed to get a few videos of a class at my school when they had nearly finished their second semester. It’s a pretty good class in terms of student morale. The read from an extensive reader called The President’s Murderer (OUP Bookworm). As usual for my school, this class meets twice a week for two hours each time, they spent quite a bit of time on phonics and basic grammar drills and had regular homework of an audio-lingual variety. As they progressed, the classes got gradually less intensive and more extensive. Their current level is about the tipping point between the strict, low-level classes and the more relaxed intermediate level classes to come.

First they read from a vocabulary sheet to review words in the book that they haven’t learned yet from the school curriculum:

Then, they take turns reading the chapter the teacher read last week:

After that, the teacher reads another chapter to them, intentionally making a few mistakes they have to correct. He might ask a few comprehension questions, and then it’s on to the next activity. That’s pretty much how all the reading works for the lower level classes. This class had already read Aladdin, Pocahontas and two other readers of the same level as this one, so it wasn’t necessary to interrupt for too many explanations. It would be boring to spend an entire two hours reading, but I think most the kids really look forward to the half hour they spend on it each time.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with this class. Several students quit at the beginning of the semester because their parents thought the basic phonics and grammar we started with was too easy, but those that have continued have done great. That’s including four kids who hadn’t been to an English school before, and who were a bit shaky on the alphabet and struggled with phrases like “sit down”, “stand up” and so on. Everyone has worked hard, and they have all far, far surpassed the starting point of those who thought the class was too easy.