Talking about Language, Talking about L-O-V-E

The hip hop classic, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), is now over 20 years old.  The album was recorded before either of my children, now ages 13 and 21 were born.  But, during quarantine, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing it and listening anew with my 13-year-old daughter.  Musically it’s a masterpiece, but there’s more than music here: One of the most compelling and original parts of the album occurs in snatches of talk between the songs. In these interludes, I’ve noticed my daughter’s attention become more focused.  She listens intently as a conversation unfolds between a teacher and some middle-school students about one word: Love.  This conversation brilliantly enacts not “miseducation,” (as the title of the album might suggest), but an ideal of pedagogical discussion.  Whether you’ll be on zoom or masking up and entering a classroom this coming fall, if you’re planning to talk about language with your students, this discussion of the word love on Lauryn Hill’s classic album provides a potentially powerful model for doing so. 

The conversation begins like this: 

Teacher:  Alright people. I’m going to write something on the board.  Let’s spell it. First letter…

Chorus of Kids:  L-O-V-E [a couple giggles]

Teacher: What’s that? 

Chorus of Kids: LOVE!

Teacher: What?

Chorus of Kids: LOVE!

Teacher:  How many of you know any songs about love?

Student:  I know a lot about love!

Teacher: Tell me some titles, titles, I want some songs.

Student: Love! [Lots of giggles]

Teacher:  There’s a song called love? There’s no song called love!  Alright, what is it what is it?

Student: It go “loooooove” [more giggles]

Teacher: Okay.  Anybody else…

Student:  I will always love you.

Teacher:  Okay, any movies about love?

Student: Romeo and Juliet.

Teacher:  Ok. Did you know what that was about when you saw it?

The conversation then fades out and Lauryn sings a sad love song, “Ex-factor.”  After that song and another, the “classroom” conversation continues:

Teacher: Okay, how many people in here have ever been IN LOVE? I know none of the guys are going to raise their hand. Heh heh.  How many of y’all have ever been in love? I know none of the guys been in—we don’t get in love, right? Oh!  Let this black man right here tell what his idea of love is. It’s not all the time we hear young black men talking about love.  About your personal definition.  Don’t tell me what Webster thinks.  

Student (boy): You are willing to do everything for that person.

Teacher: Okay, everything like what?

Students: Side mumbling

Teacher:  Let him talk, come on.  If I asked him to talk about a fancy car, he’d be right on point, but we want to talk about love. You can do it! What do you think?  You said you loved somebody, you should know why you love them, right?

Student (boy):  The way they act. The way they carry theyself.  Stuff like that. 

Student (girl 1): They just stand out.  It’s like sometimes it don’t even matter what they wear or what they look like. It’s like. It’s like. That one! You know? 

Student (girl 2): Yeah [wistfully]

Student (girl 1): You know that you want to talk to him because he stands out. It’s like he got a glow or something.  

Student (boy): That’s what I’m talking about.

Teacher:  That’s deep. I thought that was a beautiful point.  Anybody else want to deal with that? 

Student (girl 2): And, sometimes like when they try to act funny in front of their boys and they get around and they say I love you—They can’t love you! Because love is- love don’t do that. 

Student (girl 1): Love is not phony.

At that point, Lauryn sings one of her most famous songs, Do Wop (that thing), and then, the conversation resumes: 

Teacher:  Hey.  We got some very intelligent women in here, man.  Do you think you’re too young to really love somebody? 

Chorus of Kids: NO!!!!!!!

Teacher: Let’s take it from me.  I’m an adult.  I say wait, you’re too young to be in love.  This is silly. You’re infatuated with him.  He got nice jeans. He wear fancy adidas. 

Chorus of Kids: Laughing!

Teacher: I don’t know!
Student (girl): It’s a difference from loving somebody and being in love.

Teacher:  Okay!  You tell me.  What’s the difference?

Student: You could love anybody.  But when you in love with somebody, you’re looking at that person like- you’re taking that person for what he or she is, no matter what he or she look like or no matter what he or she do!

Student: You can fall IN love—you can fall OUT of love.

Student: You stop being IN love with them, but you is NOT gonna stop loving that person. 

Student:  Maybe sometimes they’ve never been loved before, or they never been in love before, or they never- they don’t know what the feeling is to be loved. 

Teacher: You killed it. We can end the conversation with that, right?

In these small moments, between songs, this teacher illuminates what a great discussion with kids, about one word, might look like.  

Now, you might be thinking—this is an ideal situation, and the conversation may even be scripted ahead of time.  No wonder it’s so wonderful! Others have also wondered the same.  In an essay in Medium about this Album, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, Alex Chochoclo writes:

“I always wondered whether the classroom dialogue recordings were scripted or not. I’d like to believe that they weren’t. Somehow, the experience of listening to young men and women talk about their opinions and experiences of love at such an early stage in their lives is endearing. I wonder what those same voices are experiencing of love right now and what they’ve endured over the last twenty years.”

As if in answer to Chochoclo’s essay, the New York Times also published an article that year, after tracking down the original teacher and some of these students (now adults) to follow up on these very same wonderings.  The revelations of these individuals, and about the word “love” continue to flow in this multi-media article about what followed. 

As the participants remember that day, recalling the conversation, they assure listeners that, while it didn’t take place in a classroom, it was entirely improvised—with the single goal being to have a conversation about the word, “love.”   The teacher brought a couple of students he already knew to the recording session (which took place in Lauren Hill’s childhood home in Newark, NJ), and Lauryn’s team rounded up a few more neighborhood kids whom the teacher had never met before.    

And who is this “teacher”?  The students seem so attentive and forthcoming, eager to answer his questions.  I have always wondered, is he also a hip hop star?  No! At the time of the recording, he was an elementary school teacher in Newark, and a friend and neighbor of Lauryn Hill.  Today, he is the Mayor of Newark, NJ, Ras Baraka.  

And the students the Times talked to were—still are, in the Times-recorded interview from 2018—genuinely engaged in this discussion of love.  Twenty years after the recording of their “class”, they had distinct memories of the event and of the substance of the conversation.  One of them remarked, of the interludes between songs:

“That’s the best part of the CD! It kind of makes you laugh.  And gets you thinking!”

One of the women surprised herself, looking back, at the wisdom of her statement about love, in 1998, when she said, “Maybe sometimes they’ve never been loved before, or they never been in love before, or they never- they don’t know what the feeling is to be loved.”

Listening back to the recording from 1998, she told the Times reporter: “I was wise beyond my years!”  She was impressed with her own younger self, and the recognition she had then that someone who has never been loved may not be able to feel love for others. As she remarks:

“I honestly was thinking about….I had seen kids my age who didn’t have what I had, which was a loving family.  And they would just do things that would be considered bad behavior.  But, you know, it just dawned on me when that question was asked:  Maybe someone doesn’t know how to love because they’ve never been loved before. They don’t know what it feels to be loved. So how can you possibly expect someone who has never been loved before to know how to love?” 

Another participant, one of the boys in the love conversation, talked about how the meaning of the word, “love,” for him has changed over 20 years of his life. Now, he says, as a divorced man, as a man who had recently lost his ex-girlfriend to gang violence, “love” for him is a “gamble.”  He then remarked, “1998 to now, which is 20 years—I’ve lost over 100 friends to gang violence.” 

This conversation—and the return to it 20 years later—reminds us that words don’t define the world for us. Discussing the word love, did not center on identifying its universal essence, the definition.  Instead, it illuminated how people bring meaning to that word through the events of their own lives.  The love discussion became a way for all these adults to talk about much more than the meaning of a word, or even their own individual relationship to it.  That discussion of whatever we mean by “love,” provided a medium to talk and hear about how others might experience the world—through their own relationships, through observations of families around them, from the experience of violence, and of loss. As one participant remarked:

“For me at the time the only person I loved was my brother and my mother. So I could relate to that and that aspect. But to know that being in love was something totally different and its coming from someone that was my peer. It helped be to understand that as I became older and got into relationships. Other people that I know haven’t even had those kind of conversations at home…”

This simple but surprisingly powerful conversation about a single word was still lively for these participants, 20 years after the original recording.  While the “classroom discussion” on Lauryn Hill’s record is set up in her own home, with just a few neighborhood kids, and an obviously gifted communicator as teacher, it’s worth thinking how conversations about single words like this can bring out the collective knowledge in any classroom. 

Teachers can start conversations like this anywhere, even on-line.  Classrooms benefit from this talk about language—conversations that let a word take its meaning from those who are talking about it. Write a word on the proverbial chalkboard (or flash it on your Zoom screen, or post it in on a discussion board) and start a conversation.  The word needn’t be “love.”  Any word that matters at the moment, for your students, in your shared world, could launch the dialogue: “love,” “freedom,” “citizenship,” even “research.” The word research has been an illuminating springboard into discussion for my students. What is research?  That question may not be as spicy as “what is love?” but it is a compelling question for grad students just embarking on research of their own.  And just as it was useful for the kids on Lauryn Hill’s record to hear about love from their peers, students can also gain valuable insight from the experience their peers bring to words like “research.” 

These are not discussions in which a teacher tells students a standardized definition. As former teacher and now Mayor Ras Baraka encourages kids, he asks for their “personal definition,” saying explicitly, “Don’t tell me what Webster thinks.” These conversations don’t call for the “proper” usage or recite expert opinion on the topic.  Instead, talk about the word “love,” like talk about any single word, encourages students to talk about how the word means for them, in their world. Once students are invited to share their intelligence in this way, students seem to gain a confidence that comes from using words as tools for exploration, rather than displays of standardized knowledge being lectured into their heads. Who knows, 20 years later, our students, like those on Lauryn Hill’s record, may still be thinking about such conversations, reflecting how those words work in their world.

As teachers or students, do you remember conversations about words and what resulted? Please share your memories or other comments below!

Five DIY Language Games for Online Learners of All Ages

Lately, the Internet has become an indispensable resource for teachers and professors as we surf through websites and social media looking for examples, links, lessons, or just something to break the ice, lighten the mood, and remind us all of our shared humanity while online.

While searching, we might also discover a secret that most avid Internet-surfers already know: The Internet can make online learning productive, fun, individualized, human-like, illuminating, and even important.  To that end, I dedicate this post to just five online language games—five of the infinite ways the Internet invites us into moments of language wonderment.  As you engage in these naturally occurring language games, you may think you’re “just” surfing the Internet, but, I guarantee, online learning will happen—to make that more obvious, I’ve titled each of these games with an important mini-lesson about language you will learn as you partake, and added some post-game reflections for online learning bonus points:

Game 1:  Words Create Our World—The Caption Game

This is probably the most “classic” of all language games, created by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously coined the term “language game” to describe everything we do with words.

Examples: This picture was first used by Wittgenstein to show how language shapes our world. So, what is it?

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If I tell you this is a “duck” you probably see the image one way. If I tell you it is a “rabbit,” then what do you see? A rabbit? Wittgenstein used this ambiguous image to illustrate how the words we use create the world we live in.

This ingenious demonstration of the power of words can be illuminated in many ways. Internet surfers can find similar examples (multiplying like rabbits) online. The famous “Rubin vase,” pictured below plays a similar game with viewers and language users:

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Another well-known example, this image of a “young lady,” takes us into the realm of the uncanny.  What—in addition to the young lady—do you see here?

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Are you stumped? In both these examples, it might be easier to see the unnamed image if someone captioned it for you:  In the “Rubin vase” image, do you see “two faces” in addition to the vase—once you read those words?  In the “young lady” drawing, do you also see an “old woman with a wart on her nose”—if the picture is captioned that way?

I think these pictures are cool, but if they strike some readers as old, stuffy, and esoteric, consider this more up-to-date observation: We play the same language game any time we caption a photo for Instagram or Snapchat! To illustrate, this cat picture (or any cat picture), might be described in infinite possible ways:

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I could caption this “Cat on a loveseat” or “Cat contemplating the meaning of life” and viewers may see this photo very differently depending on which of those descriptions accompanied it.

Play!  Now that you’ve seen a few examples of how words create our world, go ahead (if you haven’t already!) and search around for more of these ambiguous images online.  You might start by looking for “optical illusions.”  See how the words you use to describe each picture can change what you see!  Then try playing with some of your own photos on social media.  How do you turn the image into a certain kind of event by captioning it one way or another? (“The Life of The Party”?  “My Annoying Brother”? “Dinner with Friends”?  “The Last Supper”?)

Reflections: Lately, in the age of COVID-19, using language to talk our reality into being has been a staple on Zoom or other video-conferencing media.  If we call the now-familiar Zoom grid-of-faces a “Graduation,” that’s what it is!  Call it “Happy Hour” or a “Celebration” and participants will see it as such.   In this way, Wittgenstein (and now the Internet) shows us that language is not just a collection of words that describe things, but itself a collectively created “form of life.”

Game 2: Translation is Not a One-To-One Language Mapping—The Song Lyrics Google Translate Game

As The Caption Game above illustrates, words don’t have a one-to-one correspondence to reality.  Nor, as this Song Lyrics Game will illustrate, do they have one-to-one correspondence to the “same” words in other languages.  Just like a caption for a picture, a translation of a passage will also, always, involve some selection and interpretation.  The interpretive nature of translation becomes most obvious when we try to learn a new language—and particularly when we try to fudge a little and use Google Translate instead.

Examples: Language teachers across the globe have tried to impress upon their students this simple fact:  Google Translate is not the best shortcut to language learning.  And, social media have provided us with some of the best “teachable moments” for this lesson. For years, the Youtube site “Translation fails” has been posting google translations of songs.  By running English-language song lyrics through Google Translate, transforming them into many different languages, and then back into English, this YouTuber arrives at silly—and oddly illuminating—results. Her first smash hit was the Frozen lyric, “Let it Go!”  After she ran this song through several languages on Google Translate and then back to English, the inspirational “Let it go!”refrain had transformed into the more defeatist, “Give up”:

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Updating for new songs and styles, the same YouTuber has now come out with another viral success, based on Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” hit, in which the dark and gloomy incantation, “I’m the bad guy,” punctuated by the now-infamous, “Duh,” transforms to “I’m biscuits. Huh?”

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Play! Now try it yourself.  Take a verse from your favorite song and with the “help” of Google, translate it into a few different languages.  Then translate it back to English. What do you get? Keep going until you get the funniest version, then entertain yourself by singing this out loud! Record it for your friends. You might even want to post it on YouTube! What sort of comments do you receive?

Reflection: Translating with Google to surprise yourself with the silliest possible lyrics can be a blast. It’s also a great illustration of how impossible it would be to line up the world’s languages word-to-word to create precisely the same description an object—or each other.  Each language seems to do things a little differently.  And given Wittgenstein’s observations about language as a “form of life,” this makes sense: Why would we expect words from different languages to line up one-to-one when words don’t line up one-to-one with anything else they are supposed to describe?  It’s precisely this slippage that makes language a shared accomplishment—and not a code that a computer algorithm could understand or recreate.

Game 3:  Appearances of Linguistic Accuracy can be Deceiving—The Magic Bilingual Idiom Game  

 As the Song Lyrics Game above illustrates, there is often some slippage between one language and the next—and between any word and whatever it is attempting to describe.  As literary theorist Jacques Lacan would put it (but in French), there is an “incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier”. There is no one-to-one alignment—either between language and things or between one language and another language.  For that reason, if we translate through enough different languages, and then back to English, we can arrive at “I’m biscuits” from “I’m the bad guy.”  But this slippage gets even more mind-bogglingly wonderful when Google Translate does arrive at a translation that looks right, but still doesn’t work! Revealing this invisible slippage, puts the “magic” in this Magic Bilingual Idiom Game, drawing attention to the often-overlooked aspects of linguistic knowledge that multilinguals hold.

Examples:  One of the best types of idioms to entertain ourselves with on Google Translate might be those phrases for collections of things:  Herds of horses, packs of dogs, clutches of owls, pods of dophins, etc. Often, different languages have different expressions for these.

What’s called a “school of fish” in English, for example, is called a “banco de peces” in Spanish. But what happens if we enter “banco de peces” in Google Translate?:

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Of course. Banco=Bank, de=of, Peces=Fish.  The individual words are translated “accurately” enough.  But the resulting expression makes no sense.  Bank of fish? How can we ever fix this error? It would be confusing to a monolingual English speaker if a monolingual Spanish speaker were to use the expression “bank of fish” for “school of fish”.  And, it would be confusing to a monolingual Spanish speaker if a monolingual English speaker used “escuela de peces” (school of fish) for “banco de peces”.  But if two bilinguals used these translations, they would likely know what each other were talking about.  Their invisible multilingual knowledge would reveal itself!

Google recognizes that their translation app needs the wisdom carried within bilingual users to hone its functionality—this is a form of bilingual expertise that computers alone could never learn. Therefore, Google has built a feedback tool into their translation tool: Click on Google Translate’s dropdown menu and it will offer alternative translations and even a chance for you to “improve this translation.”  You can select the best translation and it will be transformed on your screen, just like this:

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If you care to contribute to the human improvement of Google Translate, calling on your own multilingual expertise, chime in, and Google Translate will get better.

But even if humans improve infinite entries in Google Translate this way, the app still will not work perfectly.  Many expressions and their translations simply cannot be fully illuminated through a computer app.  Consider, for example, the French expression, “cherchez la femme.” Like “bank of fish,” this sentence translates easily in a one-to-one, faux-accurate way, but it loses much of its resonance along the way.  I learned the phrase, “cherchez la femme,” many years ago from a friend in Hollywood who had spent a few years in Paris dubbing movies for a living. He loved saying “cherchez la femme,” and I soon came to get a vague sexist feeling from it. When I asked what it meant, he would give a long, meandering explanation about “noir” movies and how any mystery can be explained by finding the woman at the bottom of it. Knowing no French at the time, I just learned the phrase as a chunk that sounded something like “shayrshayl’phahm” and came to associate it with heartbreakingly sexy French women and intrigue.

Only many years later did I look the phrase up on Google Translate, which conveniently gave me the word-for-word translation, “look for the woman”:

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And, the simple, “look for the woman,” translated right back into “cherchez la femme”:

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On the day I learned that “shayrshayl’phahm” simply translated to “look for the woman,” (and vice versa) I was a little disappointed.  It seemed so mundane.  But, it was also inaccurate. The simple, faux accuracy of word-to-word correspondence conceals the different forms of life these expressions create in English or French.  That’s precisely the magic of the Magic Bilingual Idiom Game: It reveals all the important aspects of living through multiple languages that the faux accuracy of one-to-one translation conceals.  Consider how important precisely this knowledge would be in the context of The Caption Game (above)!  Captioning a photo with “Look for the woman” would lead to a very different viewing experience than would “Cherchez la femme”!

Play! Now it’s your turn to try out your own multilingual knowledge. Think of an idiom you know in one language—then, using Google, translate that into another language you know, then translate it back.  How does that work for you?  Often, you may get the exact same expression.  But how do you know whether it has the same meaning?  In this game, you will need to call on your own invisible multilingual knowledge (and possibly that of your multilingual friends) to check the layers of meaning and precisely how or if Google Translate fails you.

Whenever you sense something amiss, try to fix Google Translate a little and click on their dropdown menu to “improve this translation.”  Of course, with expressions like “cherchez la femme” this might be more difficult. Fortunately, not all human knowledge can be reduced to a Google algorithm! Take note when this happens, revel in your own multifaceted language expertise, and share the good news with a friend.

Reflections: Expressions like “cherchez la femme” render Google Translate almost pointless—but they also serendipitously illuminate the magic of language and the power of multilingualism. Because Google attempts to translate even socioculturally complicated expressions in a one-to-one way, a person needs to know multiple languages and the forms of life they invoke to be able to know when Google Translate leads them astray.  For this reason, Google translate is always soliciting feedback from its users.  And, over the years, it gets better!  Now, it translates many idioms without using a one-to-one correspondence because it has been drawing on the everyday expertise real multilingual people have volunteered—and which you may have already contributed to by playing this game!

Game 4: Subverting Genre Expectations is Funny—The Fake Amazon Reviews Game

Mistranslated song lyrics (like those we’ve played with in the Song Lyrics Game) come off as funny or absurd because they subvert our expectations for the genre: When we expect a dark incantation like “I’m the bad guy” and get “I’m biscuits” instead—we just have to smile.  A similar happy twist occurs now and then with the Amazon product review genre.  Even though we may doubt the veracity of many of these reviews, we tend to read them in hopes that most contributors sincerely report the facts:  If this is a good product or an awful one, reviews will say so.  Precisely this practical expectation for the honest and earnest review on Amazon makes fake reviews a brilliant departure.

Examples: You may already be familiar with one of the biggest magnets for fake reviews, the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, pictured here:

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The reviews of the banana slicer have far more feedback than reviews of any other product on Amazon I’ve seen.  Over 58,000 readers came across the review below and “found this helpful”!

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After all, who hasn’t for decades “been trying to come up with an ideal way to slice a banana”?

The sociolinguist Camilla Vasquez has written extensively about satirical online reviews like these, and just recently she alerted me to another comic product review for a popular commodity in our age of quarantine: Yeast. This very enlightening review rose to the top:

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Play! Now, try to find another “fake” review!  What language game is it playing instead of sincerely reviewing a product?  Poking fun at that product? Practicing PUNmanship?  Venting about another topic? After combing through these and having a few good laughs, pick a product you want to review and try your hand at the “fake review” genre.  Go ahead and post it and see how the world responds!

Reflection:  For me, fake reviews are life-and-language-affirming. They affirm that people care about enjoying language and a few laughs with fellow humans more than diligently buying and reviewing whatever product crosses their screen.  Sometimes the act of sharing one’s sense of humor with the world provides people with more satisfaction than simply consuming that world!

Game 5:  We Live in a World of Others’ Words—The Word Wonderment Game

If you’ve been playing all the games above, you may by now be feeling flush with the power you wield with your words—the power to create a world, but also to genre-shift and tear it down! You may also feel humbled by the shape-shifting quality of those same words and our inability to pin down their meanings. Words are indeed powerful, but they also belong to no one person. And no dictionary or reference tool or app like Google Translate can provide a word’s decisive meaning.   As the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin has written (but in Russian), “We live in a world of others’ words.”  The Word Wonderment Game is about exploring how our words take on new meanings when others take them out into the world and all its diverse forms of life. The Internet is made for this type of exploration.

Examples:  You can start the Word Wonderment Game with any word or phrase you’ve heard lately that captured your fancy.  It may be something new you overheard from teens (“soft girls”) or college kids (“natty light”), a new word for the age of COVID-19 (“face covering”) or a local word you’ve overheard and think you understand by never really fully “got” (“jawn”?).  You might even see an intriguing word chalked up on a sign at your local bodega.  “Hoagie” for example, is often used in Philadelphia as if everyone knows what it means—and as this picture shows, Philadelphians are venturing out to pick up freshly made hoagies even during quarantine:

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But what if you were new to Philadelphia and you didn’t know this word?  Or what if you’ve lived here forever but simply want to explore how other people use this word?  Via the Internet you can take a shortcut through the world of others’ words.  Start with a google search:

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Already, Google’s dropdown menu suggests we’ve entered a world in which people associate hoagies with comfort (“haven”) and immediate gratification (“near me”).  The  list of links proffered next offers solid indications that Philadelphia is hoagie-central. Next, urbandictionary.com provides a selection of strong opinions, and the “top definition” offers more information about the history of the word itself:

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A life-like quote in the second entry mentions that you can get hoagies at “da Papi store”:

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And this entry authoritatively mentions an exception: “meatball” is the one filling that requires “sub” or even “sandwich” and not “hoagie” as the sandwich word:

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These entries and the dialogue included, may set you wondering:  Do I even know how to say the word “hoagie”? To explore, head to YouTube, with a new prompt:  How to say “Hoagie”. You’ll get a long a boring tutorial—but you’ll also find many other videos in which “hoagie” is under discussion.

After this, you might find yourself reading about “The Great Hoagie Debate”, and even filling out an online poll about it (I admit it.  I voted “yes”):

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As you churn through these different perspectives on hoagies, you’ll likely also encounter more words you’ve never known before. Wawa, hero, meatball sub, da Papi store, and so on.  You’ll also start feeling like some people in Philadelphia really care about hoagies.  A lot.  It’s not just another word for sandwich. The word “hoagie,” like any other word, is no one person’s alone to define or wield—but one shape-shifting word among many in a world of others’ words.

Play!  You may be spending more cross-generational time in conversation these days. This means you may hear new words you don’t often (or ever) use yourself—but that people you know may care about a lot.  Ask about those words!  What do they mean to the speaker?  In what situations would they use them? Inevitably, you will be running across unfamiliar words everyday (“namean?”). Or familiar words that have taken on new meanings (“face covering”). Follow up on those words!  What “forms of life” do they invoke?  Who uses them?  What do they tell us about society?  Surf the Internet to find all the nooks and crannies these words inhabit and the ways their meaning changes across contexts. “Slippage” between words and meaning doesn’t only occur when we’re using google translate.  Even the word “hoagie” has an indeterminate meaning.  So be sure to look into all the different ways our world is made up of others’ words.

Reflection: The Word Wonderment Game revels in the fact that any time we speak, we are participating in a world of others’ words—and others’ perspectives.  As you learn about different words and about the forms of life that surround words you thought you knew, you’ll likely run into controversies. You may find yourself feeling strongly about the use of certain words. You may feel that certain words should not be used.  Why not? Our strong feelings about words can lead to important conversations about our differences. Through these conversations about language, we can also collaboratively build new meanings together, so that we live in a shared world.

Now, next time you’re on zoom, teaching a class, or celebrating the end of the week, “share your screen”!  You may be able to play some of these language games with others and spark more talk about language—in the process, you’ll be collaboratively shaping the world we’re inhabiting, both online and off.

Please share your reflections on any of these games below.  If you want more language games, let me know!  There are many more that I cut from this short list.  What other language games do you play on the internet?  Please share!

Elbow, Elbow Pit, or Cough Pocket?

The human elbow is getting a lot of attention these days, as we collectively fight the global spread of COVID-19.

But what does that word “elbow” refer to?   Am I the only one who has spent most of my life using “elbow” to refer exclusively to the pointed part that sticks out when we bend our arm?   I don’t think so. Ask any person on the street to point to their elbow and I bet you they’ll point to that pointy part.  And yet…

Cough into your elbow

The part of our anatomy where we are supposed to be coughing these days (if we don’t have a tissue) has been confusingly called the “elbow.” This suggests (and this suggestion is born out in ubiquitous public service announcement illustrations) that the “elbow” is the part of our arm that gets enclosed when we bend our arm.

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This contradicts everything I have envisioned about elbows for my entire life.

Bump elbows in greeting

On the other hand (or the other side of the elbow), we are also supposed to “bump elbows” instead of shaking hands or hugging—apparently a time-tested greeting that has been called on during epidemics in the past, and has now been resurrected for COVID-19.   This is reassuring to me—I can visualize bumping elbows—the pointy part of our arms.  Wikipedia provides this crystal-clear illustration of elbows touching in “a stylish bump in 2008”:

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But it would be really hard to cough into that pointy part of our elbow. So why are people calling the inside of our elbow the “elbow.”

Maybe we just don’t have a word for it, and it’s just too clumsy to say “the inside of your elbow”.  Is it called the “elbow pit”?  I googled that and found others had been wondering the same thing: The search bar auto-filled with “Elbow pit what to call it?”

But Wikipedia tells us there is a specific word for that part of our body: the cubital fossa or… elbow pit.

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This wikipedia definition of “elbow pit” (aka cubital fossa) as anterior to the elbow was bolstered as my search continued. As I was googling “elbow pit,” the search bar also offered up another top search suggestion: “elbow pit tattoo.” This is what they look like—they are not on a person’s elbow.  They are nestled in the elbow pit (where we should also cough):

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But for some reason, the public service message is not “Cough into your elbow pit.”  Why not? Why have people insisted on calling this simply the “elbow”?

Well, the analogy to a smelly armpit may just be too much for genteel Americans to handle.  I mentioned this term, “elbow pit,” to my 12-year-old daughter and she said simply, “Ew. I find that very disturbing.”

Others seem to have also picked up on the disturbing aspects of the phrase, “elbow pit,” as represented, of course, on Urbandictionary.com, where elbow pit is defined. The top definition seems modest and descriptive:

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But the third definition goes directly to the problem of armpit associations:

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Ew, indeed!  The commonsense resistance to a bodily analogy like “elbow pit” is borne out further on Reddit, where at least one thread suggests referring to the elbow pit as, instead, “elbow vagina.”

So, maybe a more expansive working definition of “elbow,” to include the “elbow pit,” has merit. It seems that people who design these public service campaigns would rather be a little imprecise than end up in the “elbow pit” zone of associations.  Plain old “elbow” is simpler and conveniently euphemismistic, nipping any of the “elbow pit” or “elbow vagina” undertones in the bud.

Maybe it’s okay, sometimes, to be a little imprecise in our language if the precise language just leads us down a scary path?  People might be more likely to cough into something called “elbow” (inaccurately) than to cough into the more accurately named “elbow pit.”

And what if we are talking to kids—those prime germ-spreaders?  We don’t want to call it the elbow pit and immediately hear a class of 25 saying “EEEEEEEWWWWWWWW!” Definitely bad PR for good practices.

Cough pocket

Well, sometimes we just need to think a little longer (or ask a citizen sociolinguist!) to come up with the most effective phraseology.  Fortunately, this Seattle pre-school teacher, Ms. Laurie Goff, seems to have nailed it! She calls it the “cough pocket,” and tweeted a handy video demonstrating exactly what coughing into that cough pocket will look like:

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Her accompanying explanation is friendly and convincing:  “That’s a cough pocket.  It’s on your body! It’s free, it’s easy, and it’s always with you!” Now this video (and not a collection of germs from all her preschoolers!) is going viral, spreading the word about where to cough–arguably more effectively than any inaccurate, euphemistic use of “elbow,” or accurate, but icky, “elbow pit” ever could.

So to the question, how are we supposed to cough into our elbow?  Ms. Goff provides an answer:  Use your cough pocket!

What are your experiences with the words “elbow,” “elbow pit,” and “cough pocket” (and of course, the “elbow bump”)?  Please comment below!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tone Deaf

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Have you ever witnessed someone using language painfully out of tune with the present company? Examples I’ve encountered include

  • A college student, charging meals and shopping sprees to their parents’ credit card, complaining about how poorthey are in front of peers who struggle to pay tuition on their own
  • A museum docent welcoming a Korean-American visitor from Santa Barbara with the Mandarin Chinese greeting ni hao
  • A professor repeatedly referring to the women in his graduate seminar as girls

Every day, people use language in ways like this, slightly out of tune with the immediate
situation, ways we might describe as tone-deaf. Considered more literally, a tone-deaf musician cannot hear what their instrument sounds like relative to the pitch of others. A tone-deaf singer can sing loudly and clearly—while completely unaware of the cacophony their voice causes when surrounded by a chorus of voices singing in a different key. This can lead to some pretty painful listening.  In conversations, metaphorical tone-deafness can also lead to painful situations.  Often and understandably, the person most directly affected by tone-deaf turns of phrase may not feel they can speak up. Or, that if they do, the tone-deaf person may become defensive and the conversation will go nowhere. Tone deafness is an unfortunate state, but one with a remedy: More talk about language, that is, citizen sociolinguistics.

Almost nobody purposefully intends to be communicatively tone-deaf.  For this reason I prefer the formulation tone-deaf to the term micro-aggression which might also be used to describe the example scenarios above.  The term micro-aggression suggests these instances of tone-deaf language use originate from a malicious individual, intentionally using language aggressively to demean another person.  In contrast,  the term tone-deaf refers to a societally-induced state, one fostered by poor language education—even among our most privileged classes.  Advice to combat micro-agressions usually involves highlighting words or speech events to avoid:  Don’t use the n-word.  Don’t ask Asian-Americans where they are from.  Things to NOT say.  Unfortunately, this kind of advice can lead to accusations of “political correctness,” or to people simply clamming up in the face of the unfamiliar.  Instead of leading to further conversation about assumptions behind our language choices, conflicts around language across diverse groups continue to seethe beneath the surface.

Citizen sociolinguistic inquiry provides an alternative to these prescriptions for sensitive language use: More discussion about language and more consideration of different perspectives. We do not need a prefabricated list of words to use and not use, but an increased level of language awareness, and the skills to inquire about words and their uses and meanings across contexts.  Situations of tone-deafness arise every day, but they can be curtailed by improving language education, by specifically teaching our children how to tune in to the everyday workings of language in context.

Being tone deaf, speaking without regard for the other perspectives in a community, can be the result of any overly standardized language education, in which expertise is seen only to be lodged in the voice of the teacher or the text of a grammar book.  Even professors with PhDs, working at prestigious universities, might appear tone-deaf until less powerful individuals have the courage to call them out.  While a tone-deaf person may have excellent language skills according to one context and set of criteria, they have an underdeveloped ability to assess the context in which they are speaking, and the way others might receive their words. An education that enables such tone-deafness is an undereducation, because it never builds the expertise necessary to engage in the cycle of dynamic language awareness:  In many language arts classrooms, students have never been pushed to engage in citizen sociolinguistic inquiry.

A tone-deaf use of language, if unchecked, can have the opposite effect of citizen sociolingistic discussion.  Instead of fomenting conversations about language, it can silence less powerful voices.  Unless someone speaks back—for example, by calling someone out on the type of language they use—that tone-deaf perspective becomes the only one people hear. Nobody learns from alternatives. People who are literally tone-deaf may be discouraged from ever pursuing music.  They just won’t be able to participate.  The equivalent action for the conversationally tone-deaf  would restrict those who are tone-deaf to their own neighborhood of language use, be it an Ivory Tower, fraternity or sorority, family or clique, or other any other walled-off language community that “understands” them.

Fortunately, however, being metaphorically “tone deaf” is something we can work to avoid by having conversations about language and including language awareness and inquiry as part of any language arts education: Let’s investigate who uses the word girl in different ways and why, explore uses of ni hao and all the ways Asian Americans experience that greeting, discuss how people relate to the word poor and the implications.  We can also develop inquiry skills to investigate more obviously controversial words like the n-word, fag, or the use of gender-neutral pronouns.   Any tone-deaf encounter provides us impetus for a discussion about language and how it affects all of us.  Each conversation about language can illuminate the ways we have all  been socialized into different understandings of how certain words work.

When we talk about language, we develop an inquiry skill that all humans need — the ability to listen to others and to engage with different perspectives. The more we talk about language, the more deeply we understand how and why some language may be hurtful, and how some can be powerful; how words like girl or ni hao may be offensive to some or how people experience words like poor differently.  But more generally, we develop ongoing habits of awareness of context and the way language works within it.  This is the goal of citizen sociolinguistics.

Have you experienced tone-deaf uses of language? Have you developed ways to avoid them or combat them?  Please talk about your experiences in the comment section below!

 

 

 

Nyle DiMarco: Citizen Sociolinguist of the Deaf Community—and Communication in General

Let’s be honest:  Most hearing people could not be bothered with sign language.

As kids, we may have thought about how amazing it would be to know it: Maybe weScreen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.23.28 PMhappened on the card with the alphabet and learned how to spell our name, or to sign a few top secret words to friends. But after a first enthusiastic burst, the card gets lost, the signing seems like too much effort.

Speaking for my own childhood self, it’s hard to stay motivated when you and all your friends are not deaf.  Learning all the letters, then spelling every word out gets to seem incredibly laborious.

Even if one musters will to know more sign language, typing in “How to use sign language” on google doesn’t help much.  The tutorials that pop up generally feature a very silent video with minimal effects.   Like this one:

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But even this no-nonsense video has over two million views.  The comments underneath give some sense of what motivates people to come to this site, and it is not to learn a secret language. Most comments mention encounters with deaf people—real or fictional—and the desire to make a visible effort to communicate like them: They have fallen in love with a deaf person, or they have a regular customer who is deaf.  They’ve tried a little sign, and witnessed how gratifying it is to connect through this medium.

Many mention Koe No Katachi (“A Silent Voice”), an anime film about a deaf girl. Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.27.44 PM.png

And others say that Switched at Birth, a TV show about twins, one of whom is deaf, brought them to this instructional site.

And here arrives our Citizen Sociolinguist star:  Nyle DiMarco, who plays the deaf heart-throb “Garrett” on that show.

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Nyle DiMarco as “Garrett” in Switched at Birth

Poking around on the web more, Nyle DiMarco emerges as a gorgeous, young, creative, confident, brilliant, and deaf man.  He also appeared on America’s Next Top Model—and won.  He competed in Dancing with the Stars—and won.

He’s obviously an extraordinarily gifted human.  But what makes him a Citizen Sociolinguist?  In addition to modeling, dancing, and acting, he is continuously explaining, largely through YouTube videos, Twitter, and other social media, how sign language works for him and why.  He shows the world the role signing plays in his life—the same way other Citizen Sociolinguists I’ve discussed in this blog site talk about and act out the everyday role of Singlish, Konglish, Emoji, or other language varieties

Nyle talks about and shows us explicitly how signing works for him—with his family, with his friends, while flirting, at the movies.

He embodies what communication can look like in the hands of a socially gifted, smart and confident young man. Who, oh yeah, is also deaf.

One of his YouTube videos posts answers to questions people have asked him through Twitter, and his response to one question in particular, “Were you ever bullied?” caught my attention.  He replies, “No.  Maybe I was made fun of, but I never listened.  Because I have always loved being deaf.”  He importantly points out that being deaf has never been an issue for him—his entire family was deaf, he says, and “they knew what to do.”

Educators often talk a lot about how damaging a “deficit perspective” can be for learners. In the case of deafness and signing, if you consider it a deficit, you may never focus on a deaf individual’s strengths.  Nyle DiMarco embodies the opposite perspective—as he describes himself, he has never seen his deafness as a deficit.  He LOVES being deaf. And, in the best way, he loves being HIM.  He exudes self-respect—and respect for others.

In this way, Nyle DiMarco’s Citizen Sociolinguistics is illuminating not only for the Deaf Community, but for all of us—because he is talking about communication and modeling what it looks like in ordinary situations.

Nyle’s experiences surrounding the movie Black Panther illustrate this attitude in action.  When he went to the movie theater, full of excited anticipation for the show, the captioning machine the theater provided for him was a disaster, running behind the dialogue and awkwardly blocking sub-titles for the fictional Wakandan language spoken by characters in the movie.  He tweeted about his experience, vividly illustrating his position:

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And he wrote about his experience in Teen Vogue, describing in candid detail how awful his trip to the movie theater was (he left after ten minutes). He also made a larger point about the importance of sub-titling movies, and the biased views against it:

“I’ve heard the standard counterargument. Onscreen captions degrade the viewing experience. They’re annoying and distracting. I call BS. People don’t mind subtitles when they don’t understand the language being spoken.”

Nyle goes on to point out that many popular mainstream shows (Narcos on Netflix, for example) include subtitles for those viewers who don’t know languages other than English.  And, even Black Panther included sub-titles in English for Wakandan. His clarity and his humble description of his own viewing experiences on Twitter rallied thousands of Twitter followers in support of his point:  Subtitles of all types often improve the movie experience for everyone—why exclude those that are for deaf people?

But if you look up “Nyle DiMarco’s Black Panther Controversy” on line, you will probably find another Citizen Sociolinguistic controversy—this one with Nyle on the receiving end of the criticism.   Nyle attracted ire from members of the black/deaf community when he posted a video announcing the new American Sign Language (ASL) sign for “Black Panther”.

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He was criticized for, as a white celebrity, overstepping his role as a spokesman for the deaf community, and soon other signs were proposed for “Black Panther”:

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The Moth News story excerpted above, for example, elicited this comment praising the slamming of Nyle (and two thumbs up):

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 12.06.50 PMHow did Nyle respond?  This seems like an important test of not only Deaf communication, but communication in general.  According to a sign language interpreter friend of mine: “Nyle did apologize, saying he did not mean to take over and use his fame to overstep boundaries, and I don’t think this tainted his overall reception in any way.”

I looked around on line a bit then and found that, not only did he apologize, he also fully embraced alternatives.  Immediately after his Twitter post, a black deaf man posted a different version of an ASL Black Panther sign.  Nyle responded with “Thanks @jaceyhill” and unmitigated enthusiasm:

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The Twitter feed continued to take up @jaceyhill’s SUPERHEROIC version of the sign.  While a few haters remained, most responses piled on to say thank you to Nyle for his contributions, and, even, as this post illustrates, to promote greater unity:

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So, I don’t see “sign language” as just a potential secret code any more—thanks, in part, to my new favorite Citizen Sociolinguist, Nyle DiMarco.  Every day, he puts his voice out there, talks about being deaf, about using sign and other modalities (like subtitles), and respecting whatever comes back.  His points about his own communication are not meant to stand as immutable truths, but to begin a dialogue about communication and human dignity.  Along the way, more citizen sociolinguists—like @jaceyhill, above, who coined the ASL Black Panther sign that stuck—join in to contribute the expertise that can only come from their unique perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

Acquisition versus Learning and Citizen Sociolinguistics

Did you LEARN how to speak English or ACQUIRE that ability?  What about Spanish?  Or Arabic? This is a distinction that many in the language teaching world like to think about.

Some tend to think that first languages (“mother tongues”) are acquired through participation in family and society, while additional languages require explicit instruction, and are thus learned.  Nobody taught us how to conjugate verbs as we acquired our first language—but this seems to be a big focus of learning additional languages in high school.

But even granting that you acquired a lot as a baby, don’t you consciously continue to learn a lot about your own “mother tongue” as you get older?  Consider all the subtle forms of language we continue to learn/acquire long after we seem to have mastered at least one “mother tongue.” Some of that later-in-life language we acquire without much thought, but other language, we probably spend some conscious effort learning.

Take, for example, ordering a hoagie (sandwich) at Wawa.  If you are not from greater Philadelphia, you may not even know what I’m talking about.  For many, this type of language knowledge has been acquired through such subtle cumulative processes of socialization that people don’t know how to articulate it.   And, it may feel awkward to ask someone directly how to order a hoagie at Wawa.  So, it seems better to just muddle along in the hopes that finally you’ll get it (acquire it).

But sometimes we just don’t have the time, the connections, or the guts to acquire certain types of language knowledge through incremental interactional trial-and-error.

That’s where Citizen Sociolinguists come in.

This act of articulating subtle, socioculturally acquired knowledge—so that outsiders can learn it— is PRECISELY what Citizen Sociolinguists do.  You want to know how to order a sandwich at Wawa? Citizen Sociolinguists have produced You Tube videos on it:

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Not even sure what “Wawa” means? You don’t have to wait through years of socialization to acquire that knowledge, you can simply google it.  If you look on Urban Dictionary, you can get a relatively straight definition:

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Etc…

And, if you browse through other definitions, you  will also get a taste for the ironic reverence many Philadelphian’s feel for the convenience store:

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You can also browse a bit and find some good stories of people who did not follow protocol at Wawa, like this Twitter post featuring a gaffe by Sean Hannity (woe is he):

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Citizen Sociolinguists then, are the language teachers you always wish you had—the ones who teach you what is NOT in the book, but what is crucial to learn to get along.  The ones who answer the questions you were afraid to ask—because it seems like you are supposed to already “just know.”

This explicit learning provides a good starting point—by directing language learners (all of us) what to look for.  Once I get some explicit instruction on, say, “how to order a sandwich at Wawa” or, for that matter, “how to greet someone on the street in Philadelphia,” I don’t need to follow those explicit steps, but I may begin to notice how true-to-life this depiction is—or how people vary from it—and how my own individual variation may fit in.

Citizen Sociolinguists provide us the secrets all good teachers do—combatting a fear of total ignorance that might otherwise paralyze a learner—so that we can forge ahead on our own learning path.

By the way, many contemporary applied linguists and language teachers avoid both the terms “learning” and “acquisition” in favor of “language development”—a combination of these processes.  This also seems to apply to the type of growth that happens when we engage with Citizen Sociolinguists.

How have you used the Internet and the knowledge of Citizen Sociolinguists to learn a new language, or to learn new aspects of a language you’ve been struggling to understand?  Has this explicit training opened new forms of participation for you? Please leave your comments below!

Retweet! and Other I-Agree Signals

“Retweet!”

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This week, listening in on a heated high school discussion, I heard someone shout out “Retweet” from across the room. I wasn’t sure what was going on. Was our conversation being tweeted about?

Later, in another class, while gathering lists of words (using pencil and paper) for our semester-by-semester slang tracking, the word “retweet” appeared on someone’s list.

I had to ask, “Do people actually say that?”

Sure.  It means “I agree with you,” or “I feel the same way,” or “I TOTALLY AGREE!”

These kids had some pin-pointed expertise:  I couldn’t even find this definition of “retweet” on Urban Dictionary, where the only definitions offered are the literally literal

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and the facetious (?)

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Yuck!

So… here’s the scoop:  Certain teenagers say “retweet!” out loud—in the same place other people might say, “thumbs up!” “here-here!” “right on!” or even “I concur.”

Why so many expressions for “I agree”?

Slang expressions tend to proliferate around taboo topics like sex and drugs, or insulting remarks about men, women, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality.  We as a species seem to have an unlimited capacity to make new words for the skeezy, forbidden, or embarrassing. And it makes sense that we would want to be more creative (or secretive) about how we talk about them.

Less obvious:  Our species-wide love of agreement and new ways to do it!

Just as ways to talk about being “wasted/lit/turnt/smashed/etc” proliferate like crazy, so do ways of expressing the fact that “I feel the same way.”

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 9.32.51 AM Look around you and you will see all kinds of evidence that people like to agree!

Many of these, just like many other new words, are boring and sheep-like (think thumbs ups, viral videos, proliferations of exclamation points!!!). But others tip toward the profound, or at least show that how we agree may be a powerful glue holding us together.

Call and Response is one of the most moving forms of “retweet!” Listen to all the buzzing agreement, for example, during Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have been to the Mountaintop” speech:

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MLK: “Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech”

Audience: “YEAH!”

MLK: Somewhere I read of the freedom of press”

Audience: YEAH!

MLK:  Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest FOR right.

Audience:  YEAH! ((Clapping and screaming in agreement))

Enthusiastic agreement happens when reading too. Look through a book that someone appreciated:  Underlining!  Highlighting!  Post it notes!lovingpostits

I happily notice when students show up with books like this in class.  So many post-it notes can’t simply be superficial display.  This student found a connection with Mr. Bakhtin.

Teachers also recognize when there is a buzz of agreement in a class.  When faces light up, I’ll sometimes stop and ask, “You’re smiling.  Do you agree?” Yes—and the discussion gets better.

Some teachers even use silent hand-signs for agreement.  At this website about “talk moves,” one teacher illustrates how she embeds this agreement sign in her discussions, apparently with some success:

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Comments on this video also enthusiastically agree that the “I agree” sign improves classroom discussions:

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Piling on, readers of the comments that agree with the “I agree” sign also receive “I found this helpful” agreement award symbols.Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 10.32.01 AM

People seem driven to express agreement and we keep finding new ways to do it.

As the “talk moves” teacher explains, the “I agree” sign is a way to “encourage discourse in the classroom.”  Agreement signals involvement. Humans learn and develop through interaction. But we also want to keep it real and display our unique identities: Different groups, different media, different attitudes, different styles require different agreement expressions.  I may agree with much of class discussion—but  I doubt I’ll ever say “retweet!” to express that agreement. I have my ways.  You probably have yours.  And the conversation continues…

How do you express agreement?  When, where and why? What are the effects?  Please comment here!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talking Music and Singing Language: More is More

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 9.23.40 AMJane Frazee (a renowned music educator who also is my stepmother) has spent most of her life teaching and writing about music and music teachers (see her latest here).  She constantly thinks about questions of music and children.  And when I talk to her about Citizen Sociolinguistics, she keeps thinking about music and children. I’ll tell her about the “Accent Challenge” or “Language Pies” or high school students’ fascination for “slang,” and she says, “that’s a lot like what we are trying to do with music!”

What’s the connection?

One of the questions Jane has been thinking about has to do with music Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 9.29.08 AMnotation.  Why do we teach children to read music notes when their natural sense of rhythm and melody is always initially much more sophisticated than anything they can read on paper? Children who are jump-roping, hand-clapping, rapping, singing, patty-caking, Miss Mary Mack Mack Macking during recess, are looking at quarter notes and eighth notes in the music classroom and saying, in unison, “Ta Ta Tee Tee Ta.” Most children love music!  But Music Class can seem disconnected from other experiences kids have making music. And as kids get older, into their teens, they want to be playing their own instruments, in bands with friends, or socializing around music in other ways that don’t seem to connect to more formal music instruction.

So, why are we teaching “Music” when they already know it?

And, here’s the connection to Citizen Sociolinguistics: Why do we teach children—and young adults—“Language Arts” as if they don’t already know how to use language?

How can music and language teachers capture the knowledge and joy their students have for music and language without stifling it?

Many kids in music class –at least in the Ta Ta Tee Tee Ta style music class— have no idea they could make connections to what they may have been doing five minutes ago, singing with friends, before they walked into class.  In part, this is because the sophisticated musical things that kids do together without any teacher around –the moves they easily make rhythmically and melodically as they syncopate hand claps, lyrics, or jump-rope steps–take a long long time to learn formally and to put on paper.  Jane’s work explores how to give children the tools, gradually,  to represent and build on those rhythmic and melodic inclinations in notes, on a score.

From a Citizen Sociolinguistics perspective we can do something similar.  We’ve got the tools to explore what students know about language.  But students need permission to “count” what they are already doing as important knowledge about how language works.   When we talk about language from a Citizen Sociolinguistics perspective in English class, students reveal things that have never come up before:  “My mom sounds so formal whenever she is on the phone!”  “My mom uses a Chinese accent when ordering dim sum in English.” (Moms come up a lot.) “My teachers have no idea how emojis work!” “What would you call the store Five Below in Spanish? Cinco Abajo or still just Five Below?” “What are “salty looks”?”  Like kids playing with music and rhythm on the playground, these kids continually play with language, exploring different accents, languages, meanings, phrases, and creating new words and ways of speaking daily.

But if kids already know and love music, know and love language, what are teachers supposed to do?  Should we just give up and let them do their thing?  Is there no point to teaching music and language arts?    As music teachers and music lovers, as language teachers and language fanatics, music speakers and language singers, lifelong students and teachers, Jane and I would agree: No! We don’t stop teaching, but we don’t discount the richest foundation for what we teach: the music and language kids already make everyday.

We build connections:  That music you love on the playground? That counts as music in class too! That language you’ve noticed in that rap song that sounds amazingly cool? That counts as “Language Arts”!  Now let’s start thinking about how those daily discoveries you make about language relate to music notation, to English literature.  In music, this is called “improvisation” “song-writing,” or “composition.”  In English, “creative writing” or –hey- “composition.”   These are the most sophisticated skills musicians and language users can get –and teachers  can help them get there.

For me, Citizen Sociolinguistics provides a framework to gather everyday language knowledge and legitimize its role in the language arts classroom so that students’ language awareness and creativity grows.  For Jane, her half-century of experience with music teaching and teachers has given her a massive repertoire of music projects that build on students’ knowledge of music and connect it to the techniques of improvisation and composition.

Sure, there are musicians out there who never took music class, who never learned to read notes.  There are brilliant story-tellers who never wrote down a word of their stories.  As Jane and I agreed yesterday, “More is more–Not either/or”  (and hey! that makes a nice poem, or song!). So lets develop ways to make the connections that make the most of language and music in and out of class.

How do you make connections from language to language arts?  From music to music lessons?  From music to language and back? What do you think music notation and the written word have done to build language and music awareness? What are some of the ways we can concretely build these connections—in classrooms and out?  Please comment below!

Sociolinguistic Persona Hacks: Ce n’est pas grave, mon cherri

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“Hacking,” as a liberating activity (see previous post on Google Translate Hacks) coordinates well with “Citizen Sociolinguistics.” Both take the tools of a highly standardized and hierarchically controlled world, and try to put them to work in new, even quirky, ways.

Combining the two yields endless possibilities for quick ‘n’ easy Sociolinguistic Persona Hacks. As a Sociolinguistic Persona Hacker, one can draw on easily accessible Internet based sociolinguistic portraits of speakers and combine those with one’s own specific language needs.

This week, I attempted such hacking with my 8-year-old daughter. She came home from Performing Arts day camp gushing: “I am going to be a Frenchman and all my lines are in French!”

Trouble.

“Cherchez la femme” being the only French phrase I know, I wasn’t sure how I was going to be a helpful mom with practicing these lines.

Fortunately, if you want to learn a few words in French to be in a play, you don’t need to absorb the three-year curriculum of French I, II, and III.

Using tools of the Internet, specifically YouTube and other helpful video sources, my daughter and I took a few shortcuts in language learning. We didn’t care about everything French speakers do with language. We just wanted to get the gist of how “The Frenchman” in the play Slick Macarons would say this:

“Ce n’est pas grave, mon cherri” ((while lying down))

We started by taking a look at YouTube-based French speakers and what they have to tell us about using language.

First, the basics: What does it mean and how do you say it? Drawing on my dormant French repertoire, I remembered “mon cherri” as “my darling” (maybe from cartoons? Sacre Bleu!). Here’s our first video hit for the rest of that line: “Ce n’est pas grave”:

Ce n’est pas grave (it’s no problem)

This was enough to get started rehearsing. But, I wondered, what other sorts of performances are out there that could enrich this role? As my daughter went off to practice, out of curiosity, I couldn’t help going through a few more helpful French videos.

“Allons-y” (Let’s go!) by the same performer caught my eye:

Allons-y

This seemed like a useful phrase. I thought I might suggest it to my daughter as something The Frenchman could throw in during an improvisational moment in Slick Macarons. Or maybe even use it myself with my French speaking friends!

Apparently others thought the same. It turns out “Allons-y” is all over the Internet. A very socially productive phrase. One viral pathway follows Doctor Who, using it in very silly ways, “Allons-y, Alonso!” being one of his favorite things to say, according to Urban Dictionary.

And here is a nearly 3 minute compilation of “Allons-y” tokens in Dr. Who:

Allons-y by Dr. Who

Allons-y has also been immortalized in memes like these:

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So, using “Allons-y” might not have much purchase if one is going for “French authenticity.” It might even convey something more like “Big (Anglo)Phony.”

But. It still might add something fun to the Philadelphia performance of Slick Macarons.

Moving on, I thought I would try to zero in on the more paralinguistic aspects of being “The Frenchman” and found this video on “Ten Ways to be Parisian with (“Chanel Muse”) Caroline De Maigret.”

10 ways to be Parisian

On viewing her lovingly hilarious portrait of the Parisian Woman, I thought tip #2, “Look at your phone when it rings but don’t pick it up,” might give my daughter some sense of the physical performance she could enact as The Frenchman in Slick Macarons.

In all, these few minutes of Sociolinguistic Persona Hacking gave us a lot to work with.

Sociolinguistic Persona Hacks may also  suggest a broader lesson about language. Creating a Sociolinguistic Persona ultimately has less to do with “accuracy” or “mastery” of a named language (like French) and more to do with combining languages, attitudes and one’s own personal flair. Learning a language (or to act out a language) is necessarily about learning about languages and their many ways of acting.

Ce n’est pas grave, mon Cheri!

Allons-y!

Have you ever tried your own Sociolinguistic Persona Hacks using languages you are not familiar with? Or, if you are a language teacher, with the languages you teach? Share your secrets—er, stories—below!

WAVE! White American Vernacular English

What if we analyzed everyday speech of White Americans as a legitimate, internally consistent system?

Try googling “White American Vernacular English” and guess what you get:

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The Wikipedia entry for “African American Vernacular English.”

Does this mean WAVE does not exist as a legitimate systematic variant of the English language?

WAVE might easily be characterized by a quick internet search for “Grammar Pet Peeves.” Using this definition, my search reveals many possible tokens of WAVE, probably recognizable to most readers. This is a typical Internet circulated list:

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This list (and the countless other similar lists on the Internet) probably contains some words or usages that most white people use frequently.

Sometimes, we have less conscious awareness of WAVE tokens. For example, a few months ago, news surfaced about an individual who had, over several years, changed thousands of instances of a certain “grammar error” on Wikipedia. When I asked people to guess what it might be, many came up with common pet peeves like those on the list above. But the culprit was the phrase “comprised of,” used where the Wikipedia editing maven considered “composed of” the correct choice. “Comprised of” he asserted, simply has no place in the English language.

Many white people, however, use “comprised of” all the time. Even I, a college professor, but a native speaker of WAVE, grew up using “comprised of” in place of “composed of”! Many of my peers don’t think of it as “wrong.” Swiftly, people began to speculate that this Wikipedia correction maven had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Many other people who point out “errors” white people make also, frequently, are taken to task. The errors they are pointing out inevitably are recognized as common (even systematic!) but easy to overlook. The people who have these Pet Peeves sometimes even apologize for being so picky.

And white people generally don’t officially get penalized for saying “literally” in a figurative way, or using “comprised of” instead of “composed of.” In classrooms, teachers say things on these Pet Peeve lists all the time and, unless that teacher has an arch enemy in the class, nobody corrects them.

And nobody collects these words together and calls them WAVE and then says they are appropriate in some situations, but not in others: “Okay, you can say “literally” for emphasis when you are drinking with friends, but never in a job interview.”

Let’s face it: WAVE is not a thing people talk about. AAVE is. And because AAVE is named, sometimes people say it is appropriate here and there, but not over there.   Originally, the christening of a variety of speech with the name AAVE was meant to provide legitimacy. But over time, this good intention has stumbled all over itself by suggesting on the one hand that it is “legitimate” but on the other hand, only in certain (non-white) situations.   WAVE on the other hand, does not need to be labeled because white people speak it. And even though some people have a few mild “pet peeves” about it, WAVE is legitimate in white public spaces (like schools).

Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa, in their brilliant article in Harvard Educational Review this month, call this a raciolinguistic ideology. They carefully illustrate how the language of white people is not subject to the same “appropriate” or “not appropriate” critique that the language of Black or Brown students is subjected to in classrooms. Flores and Rosa do not talk about WAVE—because it does not exist as a named entity. And this illustrates their point. White people, by virtue of being white, get to count as using language appropriately.

As long as I am a white person, I can speak the way I grew up speaking. Aside from the occasional article about linguistic Pet Peeves or the (OCD?) programmer who corrected thousands of instances of “Comprised of” on Wikipedia, nobody will correct me. They will understand that I’m just speaking after all, I’m not writing the f***ing Declaration of Independence!

And literally nobody will sympathetically identify me as a native speaker of WAVE, but kindly advise that my speech is not appropriate in school.

Are you a speaker of WAVE? Do people sometimes tell you it is not appropriate for certain situations? Do you repeatedly get critiqued for speaking the way you grew up speaking in your home? Do you see other evidence of raciolinguistic ideologies around you?