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!

The Age of Zoom Meetings for a person who stutters

As many of us continue to adjust to working (or studying) from home, there’s been a proliferation of pieces about digital communication in today’s Age of Zoom Meetings. Despite the obvious benefits offered by these platforms during a pandemic, both researchers and “laypeople” have explored why exactly Zoom meetings can be so frustrating. Technological failures and glitches clearly play a part, but many think there is something more fundamental to the medium itself at work. Linguistic anthropologist Susan Blum, for instance, had some especially insightful thoughts about why Zoom—which she sees as based on a “folk model of how conversation works” (ouch!)—is so exhausting. She argues that videoconferencing is “nearly a replication of face-to-face interaction, but not quite, and it depletes our energy.” I couldn’t agree more, especially as the novelty of making your background a Minecraft world fades away. Zoomxhaustion, zoomtigue—whatever you want to call it—is real.

Especially for people who stutter.

While people who stutter (PWS for short) face unique communicative challenges in all parts of their life, I’ll be honest: as a PWS myself, the Age of Zoom Meetings is especially difficult. I’ve spoken with several friends who stutter, and they corroborate my feelings of exasperation with videoconferencing vs. in-person communication. Many of the things that make Zoom simply “exhausting” for fluent people make it emotionally draining and at times traumatic for PWS, especially in high-stakes videoconference settings.

[Before diving into the “why,” a quick introduction to stuttering. Traditionally, stuttering is conceived of as a communication disorder involving disfluencies in a person’s speech (often repetitions, blocks, or prolongations). Scientists don’t really know what causes stuttering, but they do know it is basically neurological and physiological, not psychological. While children who develop a stutter often “grow out of it,” those who start stuttering after early childhood rarely become non-stutterers. Here’s a link to a page created by the National Stuttering Association for more information about stuttering. Because of its current relevance, here is a great piece about Joe Biden as a person who stutters. Finally, for people into linguistics, here is a thought-provoking reframing of stuttering as a speech variety.]

Many of the things that make Zoom simply “exhausting” for fluent people make it emotionally draining and at times traumatic for PWS, especially in high-stakes videoconference settings  

The disembodied voice

Most of the challenges faced by PWS result from the paucity of (or in the case of audioconferencing, the lack of) visual information. This constriction of communication—the inability to harness our full communicative toolbox, in a sense—can have frustrating ramifications for both the PWS and the listener.

First, in cases where the videoconference is the PWS’s first interaction with someone new, the dearth of visual information increases the likelihood that the listener will not understand what’s happening during a disfluency—they will not be able to “read” the person as a PWS. The moments of disfluency displayed by PWS, when conveyed over a platform like Zoom, can so closely resemble technological “glitches” that PWS are often accused of being on mute or having bad Internet service (when in fact, we are just stuttering!)

This adds a new and debilitating layer to the challenges PWS face. During in-person interaction, while we are still often misunderstood, we don’t have to worry about a stutter being seen as a technological glitch (humans don’t have mute/unmute buttons, after all–though I’m sure many of us could think of several people we wish that did!). Secondary behaviors associated with stuttering, things like (involuntary) gestures and hesitations, help communicate the message that “Hey, I stutter” and “give me a moment.” These are all are stripped away in Zoom-mediated communication, leaving PWS to face the stark choice of explicitly “outing” themselves, or appearing technologically maladroit. Neither is a pleasant option—the latter is a lie and makes us look incompetent, and the former can be emotionally laborious and put the interlocutor on the defensive. These misunderstandings, in the way that they derail the conversation and require interactional “repair,” are draining and put the onus on the PWS to constantly explain themselves.

The moments of disfluency displayed by PWS, when conveyed over a platform like Zoom, can so closely resemble technological “glitches” that PWS are often accused of being on mute or having bad Internet service

Similarly, even when interacting with people who know you stutter, the lack of visual data can make it difficult for a PWS to signal the start and end of their speaking turn. When a PWS begins speaking, especially in a circumstance where they anticipate stuttering, they often (again, possibly unconsciously) use nonverbal cues like changing their posture, gaze, or beginning to make hand gestures. All humans do this, of course, but PWS might rely on them as a way to hold the floor when they are having a speech block and want to prevent others from talking over them. Bodily gestures also help to signal the end of a speaking turn, and when it is OK for a speaker to start talking without feeling like they are interrupting.

Few of these communicative resources are available to PWS in conferencing. In my own experience, I speak much less on Zoom calls because I don’t have time to begin a speaking turn. Stuttering most commonly happens at the beginning of the utterance, and by the time I start talking, someone might already have the floor. In cases where I do really want or have something to say, I might use a filler word like “um” or “well” to hold my place as I begin. This isn’t ideal; especially in the business world, it can come across as “unconfident” or “unpolished.”

One of the most interesting unintended consequences I’ve observed in the Age of Zoom Meetings is indicating the end of a speaking turn as a PWS. In “real life,” I find people rarely talk over me when I am having a disfluency—because they see what is going on. In online conferencing with people who know I stutter, they almost always treat me with respect—but they sometimes simply don’t know when I am finished. So they will say “Sorry to interrupt you, Jacob…” when I have actually finished my turn. Of course I appreciate their intentions, but the effect of this apology is that it disrupts the flow of the conversation, makes me feel singled out, and can even put pressure on me to “keep speaking” if the assumption was that I wasn’t done. Other writers have already remarked on how often we are forced to apologize for interrupting on Zoom, and all of this is only exacerbated for a PWS.

Zoom is also marked by the death of backchanneling. We simply don’t do this over Zoom—the playback from a “room” of people saying “Uh-hum” and “Mhm-hm” is horrendous. We also can’t really use nodding to signal we are listening, because our face is probably just a 1”x 1” sliver of someone’s screen. Backchanneling is an essential part of human communication, and the lack of it is difficult for everyone. But again, it makes things especially hard for PWS—many of whom rely on it to keep going during especially difficult disfluencies. (I have been saved many times by an especially empathetic listener in the audience who, by virtue of maintaining eye gaze with me, lets me know that they hear what I am saying.)

Finally, from a psychological perspective, it is difficult for me as a PWS to think that my entire identity on a Zoom meeting is constricted to my “disembodied voice.” PWS are obviously much more than their stutter, but over Zoom one can feel reduced to just that condition. We have less opportunity to display our passion, our confidence, our articulateness, when all we are is a stuttering voice floating through the ether. Research in digital communication backs up this feeling of being “judged”: delays on conferencing systems of even 1.2 seconds made listeners perceive the speaker as less friendly.

Zooming into the future

Like the telephone, Zoom is essentially a monocrop of communication—as Blum says, “all the communicative signs that embodied humans rely on are thinned, flattened, made more effortful or entirely impossible [on Zoom]. Yet we interpret them anyway.” 

Many of points brought up here don’t just apply to PWS. Rather, they more broadly illuminate the limitations of digital communication in its current state. I don’t know if or how these shortcomings can be improved upon, but I do hope we can build empathy for some of the challenges they might pose for PWS and the infinite others who might be misinterpreted while Zooming.

Some things, of course, do help. Being on camera, and having others display their faces, is generally more helpful than audioconferencing—it softens the impact of some of the things mentioned above, but by no means removes them, especially in larger groups. Having empathetic people around also makes things easier for the PWS. But the fact of the matter is that digital communication is simply not built for people with communication disorders. Like the telephone, Zoom is essentially a monocrop of communication—as Blum says, “all the communicative signs that embodied humans rely on are thinned, flattened, made more effortful or entirely impossible [on Zoom]. Yet we interpret them anyway.”

I would love to hear others’ thoughts about The Age of Zoom Meetings. What affordances or challenges does Zoom bring to who you are?

A New Lingua Franca for COVID-19

A generation from now, we will look back on this time and remember our shared language–a shared language that citizen sociolinguists have made visible and viable.   During the COVID-19 global pandemic, we have all been learning new words and phrases, and while we haven’t been able to share each other’s space and live company, we have been able to create a new global Lingua Franca for the COVID-19 era.

A generation from now, we will look back on this time and remember our shared language

To illustrate, let’s take a cursory scan of new words being popularized, circulated, re-created, and joked about these days.  COVID-19, of course, has been coined in the last few months.  Is there anyone on the planet who does not know what this refers to? And Merriam-Webster has already compiled lists of suddenly frequent vocabulary words we all have been hearing, including virus, contagious, infectious, superspreader, and quarantine. The York Times also just published a useful glossary covering these terms, throwing in state-of-emergency, incubation, containment, and R-naught.

I appreciate these careful compilations, but these are words that scientists of infectious diseases have known and been using for a while, as experts.  Everyday people experiencing this pandemic have simultaneously been creating an all new vocabulary of our own. By re-thinking some of these terms from the scientific community, having conversations about these very words, and by endlessly generating and popularizing more words related to this pandemic, we have been able to make sense of our own world in our own words, together—while maintaining a safe distance from each other.

The phrase Social Distancing, for example, has baffled some, coming across as an oxymoron.  I’ve had numerous conversations in which people puzzle over how we can be “social” and “distant” at the same time, and heard friends snappily assert that we need to be physically distant but remain socially connected.  But we keep using the phrase anyway.  And, it has expanded from noun phrase to adjective: We now have social distancing workouts, social distancing car circles, social distancing study halls, and even social distancing fun runs. We can still catch The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah. I just googled “Social Distancing” and the first phrase that popped up on the search dropdown menu was social distancing baptism (and the first image featured a minister aiming a super-soaker at an infant).

During all this social distancing, Universities across the globe have been using the most popular video-conferencing platform, Zoom, to take learning on line, and this has led to more word play: Zoomed out, for example, to describe that zoned out feeling and glazed expression one might get after a day of meetings and classes on Zoom. That is, if you weren’t Zoombombed by a hacker, popping into your meeting uninvited, with inappropriate messages and images.

On top of these new words, certain place names have become part of everyday conversation, and now resonate with us all.  Wuhan is a huge city in China with a population of over 11 million people—more than New York, Tokyo, or London. But until COVID-19, most Americans had never heard of it. While the  coinage of Wuhan virus gave a one-sidedly negative perspective of the city,  more nuanced associations with Wuhan are emerging—as illustrated by this “The Wuhan I Know” comic recently created by Laura Gau, gaining popularity on Twitter, and featured on public radio.  Now nearly everyone in the US probably knows the name of that city, and many of us can even picture its location on a map, inside another newly familiar location, the Hubei Province. Similarly, the Lombardy Region of Italy, and even New Rochelle, New York have become commonplace in conversation.  We’ve all expanded our repertoire to include these distant—and not so distant—place names.

But we’ve also been sharing and resurrecting terms about the time we spend at home: Procrastibaking (a combo of procrastinating and baking that some are trying out for the first time) has been reappearing and featured in more social media posts.  As has the need for no-knead bread (who knew?) and pizza kits (now being picked up from favorite pizza joints to be assembled, safely, at home).

And more and more we’ve been popularizing words for new activities we are doing together (apart), by tacking the word virtual onto it all.  Now we have virtual happy hour, virtual brunch, and Zoom’s virtual background.  My son, still at college on the West Coast, but living off-campus, just had a virtual zoom birthday celebration with us, his East Coast family, along with his West Coast housemates, whom he calls his social distancing team.

We’re all in this together, and our language shows it

Some of these new words and phrases may evoke the specter of loneliness, and some of these place names may draw a momentary infamy they never asked for, but this is how we, as a society, develop a common relationship to our new, uncommon conditions.  Even in the best of times, much of the way we all experience the world together is by sharing language with each other.  As we use and talk about words together, those words themselves become our shared experience. Even just hearing certain words again and again, as they morph little by little–Zoom, Zoomed out, Zoom-bombing, social distancing pizza kit, social distancing friendship, social distancing–gives us a sense we are all living life as one collective.  In the time of COVID 19, this type of shared language experience provides a form of existential hope.  We are all in this together—and our language shows it.

 

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.

Screenshot 2020-03-15 16.39.15

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”:

Screenshot 2020-03-15 16.50.50

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.

Screenshot 2020-03-15 16.37.41

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):

Screenshot 2020-03-15 16.56.04

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:

Screenshot 2020-03-15 19.45.14

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

Screenshot 2020-03-15 19.47.20

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:

Screenshot 2020-03-15 17.50.20

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JOE BIDEN IS NOT ARTICULATE: Does it matter?

Screenshot 2020-01-28 10.31.06Lately, Joe Biden’s language has been under the articulateness microscope.  When there are substantive policies to be debated, why do we hold up articulateness for critique in political discussions? Biden seems competent enough, and experienced. Does it really matter if he is articulate?  Short answer: It depends on what people say about it.

So, let’s take a look:  How are people talking about Biden’s speech?

Joe Biden’s manner of speaking has been called “choppy,” “rambling,” “halting,” and there are plenty examples to illustrate this as noted in this October 2019 New York Times article:

“People are being killed in western, in eastern Afghan — excuse me, in eastern, uh, Ukraine,”

“I would eliminate the capital gains tax — I would raise the capital gains tax”

“So there’s a, there’s — my time up?”

Still, Biden’s popularity has in part been fueled by this choppy, rambling, and halting style, as evidenced by these Iowans quoted in the same article:

“I love it. It appeals to the common people, working class, Americans, everybody!”

“I know he falls over some of his words, we all do.”

“Oh, big deal! He speaks from his heart.”

So, is he speaking poorly? Or is he brilliantly connecting with the common people? As discussed in a previous post, in certain situations inarticulateness can be a form of competence. Until recently, Biden’s choppy and halting delivery—with the occasional profane word thrown in—has worked well for him, projecting a down-to-earth image.  But, the claim that his disfluencies appeal to “the common people, working class, Americans, everybody” may be an overstatement. Even those common people and working-class Americans are starting to get worried about Biden’s disfluencies.  When the New York Times spoke to union leaders in Western Pennsylvania, those hard-working Americans insisted that their priority was to support a candidate who would maintain coal jobs.  Biden was their guy—but they had concerns. Not because he was wavering on his stance on coal and fracking, the issues that most concerned them, but because he didn’t seem very articulate. One of them summed up:

“You know it scares me.  I love Joe Biden, but lately he’s not as articulate. What’s Trump gonna do?”

For these union leaders, being inarticulate has become Joe Biden’s biggest vulnerability.  If Biden couldn’t get the Democratic nomination, some of them were considering voting for Trump and, as union leaders, advising their union members to do the same.

According to some accounts, Biden has been verbally awkward for decades, and for a long time Biden’s gaffes and hesitations, and even his profanity have made him likable.  But the union leaders had a different take for 2020: Right now we don’t need a friendly guy.  We need someone who can challenge Trump.  As the concerned union leader quoted above asked, if we put a hesitating, pausing, mis-speaking Biden on stage with Trump, “What’s Trump gonna do?” (Implied answer: Rip him to shreds). In the context of that discussion, it seems Joe Biden has pushed the limits of competent deployment of “inarticulateness.” If he can’t more seamlessly make his case, he simply won’t be able to stand up to Trump.

Others have discussed this as a problem of age.  He’s just too old to keep up—and his inarticulateness is the primary evidence of this. This argument is made clearly by a New Hampshire voter quoted in this Vox article:

“I don’t think he can take on Trump for that reason. I don’t think Biden is quick enough and sharp enough to take him on. His story is incredible, but he’s just too old.”

Biden’s inarticulateness is increasingly being talked about not as a sign of relatability and political competence, but as a sign of age, incompetence, and inability to beat Trump.  How did that happen?  Did he really start becoming more inarticulate? Is his brain degenerating?

His brain may be degenerating, but let’s be frank: That’s not what matters in this election.

Consider another politician famous for his folksy speech and mannerisms: Ronald Reagan. He was elected twice. Despite an increasingly simple speaking style and decreasing vocabulary during his time in office, citizens deemed his style relatable.  In Reagan’s case, much of his repetition and reliance on stock lines may have been caused by a brain stumbling through the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease.  Still he was a successful candidate, winning two terms and then ongoing status as a beloved former President. He was even dubbed, “The Great Communicator.” Why didn’t people focus on his inarticulateness–his slowing of speech, his waning vocabulary (now shown to be empirically measurable)? Because the people discussing his speech didn’t talk about it as a problem.

At one time, that folksy interpretation of Reagan’s speech style was enjoyed by Biden too.  But now the word articulate has come to haunt Biden’s campaign.  As the very different cases of Biden and Reagan suggest, how we perceive someone’s inarticulateness is more a product of a context and everyday conversation than of that individual’s brain–even if the examples of halting speech and bumbling frustration coming from that individual are as real as the recordings replayed again and again on national television.  It’s not the speech itself that’s giving Joe trouble, but the way people talk about it. So, back to our original question: Let’s say Joe Biden is inarticulate.  Does it matter? Not on its own.  But all those people out there discussing Biden’s speaking problems—and the journalists reporting their remarks—are making it matter more and more each day.

Being “articulate” (or not) probably does matter for the success of a presidential candidate.  But how we talk about it is what makes it matter.

BEING INARTICULATE AS A SIGN OF COMPETENCE: You know what I mean?  

Being inarticulate is highly under-appreciated.  In many cases, rather than a sign of carelessness or miseducation, being inarticulate may instead be an important building block of sociality and even democracy in a diverse society.  Consider, for example, the following much-maligned expressions deemed “inarticulate”:

You know what I mean?

Like, um…

Whatever

These are expressions that have been derided by English speakers, teachers, parents, and elders, as a mark of younger generations’ lack of backbone, intelligence, or will.  Taylor Mali’s spoken word performance mocking these hesitant words and the mannerisms that accompany them has circulated widely on YouTube.  In under three minutes, Mali brilliantly delivers his entire monologue using these expressions and piling onto them all the hesitant rising intonation in the universe:

In case you hadn’t realized? it has suddenly become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about? or believe strongly in what you’re like saying?

Invisible question marks and parenthetical you-knows? And you-know-what-I’m sayings?  have been attaching themselves to our sentences, even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions?

Are we like the most aggressively non-committed generation to come along in like a long time?

Mali’s spoken-word performance almost seems to be celebrating these ways of speaking.  Immortalizing them.   But he concludes by imploring listeners to “Speak with conviction,” delivering this line with conclusive falling intonation, and a facial expression of drop-dead seriousness.

This call for confident articulation of our convictions makes sense—in certain contexts.  Dozens of you-know-what-I-mean?s throughout Swedish Activist Greta Thunberg’s speeches would likely lessen her impact on worldwide climate awareness. “Invisible question marks” and ubiquitous likes would be surreal on the presidential debate stage.  Fluent, confident, unhesitating speech—speaking with conviction—remains the preferred mode in political debates or speechifying in Davos.

But last week I asked some graduate students in my class—many of whom are international students, all of whom are multilingual and have lived in different parts of the world—to think more broadly about being articulate.  Specifically, I asked, are there certain situations where being inarticulate is more useful?

An answer shared by several students took me by surprise:  Paradoxically, phrases like those maligned by Taylor Mali can also help a person sound like a competent language speaker.

One student from China mentioned how, upon arriving in the United states, she was surprised to hear so many “likes” among the native speakers here.  She started using like and you know what I mean to fit in.  As she put it, using these phrases does double duty:  It makes you sound like you’ve been living in the US for a while, and simultaneously gives you time to search for a word, or think through the rest of your sentence—always useful when using a new language.  As soon as she learned the phrase you know what I mean, it became a crucial bridge to successful communication with local English speakers.

A student who grew up in Philadelphia, but had spent the last year living in Brazil, had a similar perspective on speaking Portuguese there.  The crucial word for him had been tipo. Another student remembered that when learning French, her instructor, frustrated with all the students’ “ums” told them to please use the proper French “euh” instead.

The examples began to flow—what about saying o sea or este in Spanish? Or something like ba in Swedish? A quick google search yielded lists of filler words in dozens of other modern languages. This duolingo forum about filler words contains an outpouring of citizen sociolinguistic expertise and appreciation (and a little Taylor Mali-like opprobrium) including these enthusiastic examples:

Screenshot 2020-01-24 13.49.30

As these stories and outpourings of multilingual “filler” words suggest, being “inarticulate” in this way may be an important step in joining a new language community—and even sounding “native-like”.  For a new speaker of any language, speaking “with conviction” may not only be impossible, but undesirable. The priority may instead be fitting in, and using words like like and you know what I mean, can be the most competent way of entering into new conversations.

What forms of being “inarticulate” function well for you?  Or do you find ums, likes, tipos, and you know what I means annoying? Please comment below!

Citizen Sociolinguistic Arrest: Update that Syllabus, Boomer!

The beginning of January brings a new year, and, for anyone involved in the University, a new semester.  And, with that, after the relaxed, snack-filled and beverage-saturated days of the holidays, many a lament about the return to a more frantic pace and the need to ramp up for new students. My colleagues and I are spending the first week or two of January putting our syllabi together, readying ourselves for that first day, when we meet relative strangers and are responsible for connecting with them deeply and building a community of inquiry together.

In preparation for that anticipated first day of class, most of us will be updating our syllabi not only with new material—the latest journal articles in Cinema Studies or Sociolinguistics or History of X—but also with new language to talk about that material. Let’s face it (boomer) without a little updating in how we talk about history, sociology, linguistics, education, and ourselves, there may be no lesson at all.  We may be stopped in our tracks on that first day of class in what I call a “citizen sociolinguistic arrest.”

What is a citizen sociolinguistic arrest? It’s very much like an ordinary citizen’s arrest—one citizen calling another out for violating the law—only in the case of a sociolinguistic arrest, the citizen calls out the other for a violation of their language. You have probably witnessed or even participated in at least one citizen sociolinguistic arrest over the holidays. Maybe your sister referred to her niece as a “freshman” in college, and she was reminded that “we call them first years now.”  Or your grandmother referred to participants in the Hong Kong protests as “Orientals” and someone gently explained that English-speaking people generally now use the term “Asian” instead.

But the holidays are over now and we’re working on our syllabi.  After leaving our family gatherings, some may be thinking: Can’t we move on and just do our work?  No.  These citizen sociolinguistic arrests are likely to happen in our classes this semester too.  Professors may begin that first session with introductions.  And these may include mention of preferred pronouns. Even if we don’t mention our own, or include a note about our own pronouns in the syllabus, we may be seen as making a choice deliberately not to honor non-binary or non-cis gendered individuals.  As soon as one student introduces themselves with their own preferred pronouns, the choice may become a topic of conversation.

Now readers may be thinking:  Fine, we can talk about pronouns on the first day. But what about the content of the course—can we teach within our areas of expertise without being arrested for the way we talk about our specialty?   No. There are plenty of opportunities to critique content-specific language there too, and lately, I’ve heard some fascinating content specific accounts of citizen sociolinguistic arrests.

In a photography class, for example, one professor, preparing his lectures on Diane Arbus, realized that his descriptions of Arbus’ photos needed updating.  Last year students had citizen sociolinguistically arrested him for his use of the word “transvestite” to describe Arbus’ well-known photographic subjects.  Society has changed regarding trans, non-cis people and our language has along with it. Should we still use the word “transvestite” since it is the one Arbus used?  That’s an open question.  Or is it?  In my own introductory ethnography class, we routinely read Hortense Powdermaker’s account of race relations in Mississippi.  Should we use “negro” now, because it was the word she was using in her time?  In that case, the question seems less open. But the discussion can be important.

Time clearly changes our relationship to these words, and some of us take longer to catch up. Growing up in different parts of the world also affects the way we use the language to describe our specialties:  Another friend of mine, a history professor, realized that the term “world power” could also lead to a citizen sociolinguistic arrest: Referring to Portugal as being one of the great “world powers” at one time, led to a long discussion of many Westerner’s myopic sense of the word “world.”

Each of these citizen sociolinguistic arrests—those that happen with our friends and relatives over the holidays and those that happen in our classrooms and on our syllabi—have the potential to spark important conversations about language, and, inevitably, about why we choose one word or another, and how our different personal histories led us to these choices of words.

There will never be permanently “correct” ways of talking about any of these issues.  We will always be subject to critique, and when being critiqued, humility and open-mindedness usually serve us well.  These discussions of language—across generations, specialties, gender, and many other communities, can be fascinating. Everyone can learn from them.  And as we do so together, we can build that coveted community of inquiry and genuine curiosity within our classroom.  So, just as we always need to update our syllabi, we might also need to update the way we talk about it–but then let’s keep the conversation going!

Have you been the subject of these sorts of citizen sociolinguistic arrests in your classrooms,  your family dinner table, or elsewhere?  Please share in the comments below and let’s keep talking…