Teenage Talk: It Doesn’t Just Change Language, It Changes Our World

Citizen Sociolinguistics flourishes in those moments when language catches us by surprise and forces us to start talking about it.  Consider, for example, the way people alternately marvel or reel in horror at the language of teens. There’s something intriguing going on with teen language that sparks human curiosity. Parents and high-school teachers like to share their stories about the language of teens, and professional linguists like to study and explain it. Non-linguists may judge teen language as right, wrong, or just plain weird (“sick” is a word for something you like?).  Linguists tend to describe teen language as playing an important and complex role in language change over time (semantic reversal! Sick!). Now, I would like to consider how teen language changes more than just language, it changes world we live in.  To get a bigger picture of what teen language is good for we need to turn to a third view: that of teens themselves.  

Everyday Adult Perspectives on Teen Language

First, let’s consider how everyday adults talk about the language of teens:  Sometimes with wonder, but also with trepidation, even revulsion! 

Much of the language of teens seems to crop up out of thin air. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when we have all been at home working, studying, or goofing off together, we may be hearing and seeing more teen language.  This post on Twitter, for example, illustrates one working-from-home Mom’s experience with Teen language (or in this case, a 12-year-old):

First of all: Ew! Moving beyond that initial reaction, I showed this tweet to my 13-year-old daughter and she was very impressed! She was also slightly baffled: How did this kid come up with all these different expressions? My daughter and I shared a moment of wonderment (and horror) at this mini fart thesaurus.  Sometimes the language feats of teens carry an impressive ‘air’ of mystery and the unknown.   

More comprehensive catalogs of teen language or ‘what kids are saying these days’ often lead to this same kind of wonder and disgust.  Each semester, for example, my friend Mr. Z, a high-school teacher, has his Language Arts classes compile lists of their favorite “slang,” from which he creates a word cloud. Those words mentioned more often (like “bae” below) show up larger in the cloud, and those less-common words (“sick”) are tiny. 

These word clouds have become an impressive tradition over the years, and they’ve begun to function like semester-to-semester time capsules. Each year, the teacher and I, and the crops of new students in his classes, marvel at the old standbys and the new arrivals. These word clouds tend to impress everyone—including other teachers in the school. But as often as people are impressed with teen language, they are baffled, and even wary of it. Sometimes we don’t even understand what teens are saying (BAE? shawty? krunk?). When we do understand (or think we do), we might not know how to react, or how to talk about it (white girl wasted?).  Many adults tend to disengage when teens talk in strange ways. What are we supposed to say? Should we tell them not to use those words?  To speak with more maturity?  More formality? Some teachers would balk at compiling a word cloud like the one above—it seems too subversive for school. And in moments of frustration we might even think, what is wrong with teens?  15 fart expressions? Really? Why can’t kids just speak about important things and do so like adults??!!

Linguists’ Perspectives on Teen Language

Linguists, however, love to talk about teen language.  But, unlike many parents, teachers, or everyday language police, they don’t judge it or fear it, they describe it and provide the long view. Still, they often manage to take teens’ active engagement with words and the world out of the equation, describing youth language in general as an engine of language change, rather than exploring teenage talk as a dynamic part of their interactions with others.  

This article, posted on the website of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), for example, points out that, much as some adults would like to limit our language to one, correct, immutable, and testable form, the only thing constant about language (paradoxically) is change.  Many words and expressions we take for granted were once considered problematic youth language.  The article provides useful examples: “Bus” was once considered an unseemly shortening of “omnibus.” And, many phrases we now consider problematic in certain contexts –the inevitable “double negative,” for example—were once a staple of older forms of English. Linguists are very good at illustrating that language change happens and that it’s okay.  No need to worry about teen language—it’s natural. Teen language, like a slowly moving glacier, may be hard to navigate for us old folks, but just as that glacier carves out a beautiful and lush valley, teen language will slowly manipulate the word for us, over time shaping the very language we inhabit and enjoy. Trust the process.

Thoughtful people like teachers and parents who really don’t want to unnecessarily criticize teenagers, find these linguistically informed verdicts on teen language a relief.  After discussing controversial words that appear in the language cloud, for example, words that teens themselves have shared, Mr. Z and I want to have an adult message for students, but we don’t want to be preachy. It’s useful to be able to cite linguists who tell us there is something important and lasting going on (language change) when, for example, teens say “like” in every other sentence, seem to shorten perfectly good greetings to “yo,” “what’s good?” or “whaddup?”, or use LOL incessantly, LOLOLOLOLOLOL.  They are not being lazy or losing their mental acuity. The linguist says it’s fine. “LOL” in spoken discourse might one day be used by heads of state. Our language will never stop changing and that’s okay. 

I’ve always found these explanations useful and persuasive at first, but ultimately incomplete. Once we’ve been consoled by Linguists that teen language is simply contributing to the inevitable if glacially paced process of language change, the conversation usually stops. But when we discuss the role of teen language this way, we take the teens out of the world that stimulates and inspires them, and, out of a world that might also hold injustices and frustrations to which they are reacting, out of institutional norms that they might be resisting by using language in creative new ways.  Out of the realm of controversy. Instead of engaging with any of those possibilities, once we legitimize the way teens speak by naming its role in “language change,” we can go back to just waiting for teens to either talk like adults, or for teen language to be accepted sufficiently over the course of time so that adults use it too.  

By stepping beyond the “language change” explanation, I’m not trying to debunk anything linguists have learned and published about language change.  It’s real.  It’s interesting.  And it seems important to remind ourselves that language change is inevitable, and that we are all participating in it.  However, the focus on language change illuminates only a small corner of a much larger conversation that we can have around teen language.  Recognizing that language changes and teen language plays a role the process should be just the beginning of that conversation about language.  However, many times I’ve witnessed the “language change” explanation as the end point.  Science has spoken. The Glacier will move. Language will be fine. Conversation stops.  As an alternative, to keep the conversation going, and to capture the remaining 99.9% of what motivates teens when they communicate, I’m suggesting that when we talk with teens about their language, we include their perspectives as well. 

Teen Perspectives on Teen Language

Teens, perhaps more than any other age-group, are surrounded by new and varied language everyday – language of parents, friends, teachers, coaches, multiple and diverse social groups, and, now, the Internet! While many teens may try to act sage and bored, the world and the language that constructs it, is relatively new to them, and one of their main jobs as developing humans is to figure out how to make it work. This will lead to language change. But the language of teens will inevitably change not only language, but also the world. Teens grow up in a world of stimulating newness. Teens also have ideas and desires of their own.  Their job is to listen to and participate fully in that world of language. Some of the things they say will seem weird to adults. Sometimes the language they use will change the world.  

Consider, for example, the phrase, “people who menstruate.” Recently, this phrase was quoted with disdain by JK Rowling in a now infamous tweet: 

Following this tweet, the Internet broke out with horror at JK Rowling’s statement.  Many long-time JK fans officially pronounced their Harry Potter Fandom dead.  I was confused. As a cis-gendered woman, literally the same age as JK, I thought her comment only slightly funny—a dumb, slightly mean joke—but I didn’t see how it caused such a revolt against her.  Then I asked my daughter (13-years old and a big Harry Potter fan) what she thought.  “I can see why people are upset.  People are rightly calling her transphobic, mom,” my daughter said immediately, and then proceeded to explain to me that many “people who menstruate” might not label themselves “women.”  In that moment, we seemed to come face to face with generational differences in language use, specifically how we use language in gendered ways.  Who knows if this usage will lead to lasting language change.   But discussion of this phrase and how we describe gender categories, seems important.  As my daughter’s quick response to my confusion showed me, teens are participating in those discussions and they hold strong opinions.

I raise this example to illustrate the importance of conversations about language—and often, especially, the language of young people. Teens are not just talking about farts, sex, or getting stoned. But that’s part of the picture too, and to talk about the world-changing words, we need to be more open to talking about all language. What if, instead of chalking up the profusion of creative teen language exclusively to language change, we kept the discussion going? We could start talking with teens about the language they use, learning from them what those words are doing, asking teens questions about their language, rather than giving them explanations from linguistics:  How did you learn all those words I don’t know?  Where do you think they come from? Would you use those words with adults? If not, then with whom? Why? Why do you feel so strongly about using or not using certain words or turns of phrase? 

Over the years, I have learned that teens have strong opinions about language—and less strong feelings about whether they contribute to language change.  I’m suggesting we listen to those strong opinions. Once we assume teens participate actively in the world of language around them, we might also learn more about the world they live in, the way that they are processing it and in turn shaping it with their language. Then, we can start to think about how they might learn to navigate new and different ways of communicating they will encounter over their lifetime. The social world, inevitably, provides an abundance of opportunity, ridiculousness, oppression, joy, fear, despair, and hope for all of us. Our language is the primary way that we, over a lifetime, make sense of it, and sometimes rebel against it or create it anew, together.  Over time, language will indeed change.  In the meantime, let’s talk about it and make it work for us! 

What kinds of teen language exists in your life?  How do you make sense of it?  What have you learned from talking to teens about language? Maybe you are a teen? Please comment 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!

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!

Linguistic Gentrification

Most people recognize the process of neighborhood gentrification: A once affordable neighborhood with character becomes transformed by wealth into a place that the very people who nurtured the character of that place can’t afford to live in anymore (or don’t even want to). With a moment of thought, you can probably think of a few examples of linguistic gentrification too: Everyday, “non-standard,” yet uniquely expressive language gets repackaged as cool, trendy, even standardized—so much so that the original users may no longer want to use it.

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 8.49.32 AM

When neighborhood gentrification strikes, features of old run-down structures originally organic to a way of life—like a breezy front stoop or an original ice box—get repurposed as signs of sophistication. Likewise, linguistic gentrification: Features of language originally part of a way of life—and some looked down on in schools or marked as “non-standard”—become markers of sophistication, local knowledge, or social cachet.

Often these gentrified features originally come from speech typified as “African American.” Those very features deemed “non-standard” resurface as expressively powerful, and get used by white people. So, while most English teachers will decry the use of a “double negative” as incorrect, students in an Ivy League University will use the phrase, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” strategically and to great effect (see previous post, Language Awareness II).

The word “finna” has also gained popularity these days in suburban Honors English classes I’ve been working in. It even appeared in a collective slang word cloud they created last semester:

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 11.10.54 AM

Finna also appears on the Internet in this official looking entry (the very first hit for a google search):

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 9.10.28 AM “Shawty,” “salty,” “jawn,” and the ubiquitous, “yo” are other words gentrified by suburban Honors English 11th Graders.

 But when asked about “finna,” “salty,” or “shawty,” few students can provide a sense of the social history of these words, aside from their own personal contact with them. Most assume they just were part of auto-tuned YouTube songs or funny Vine videos that somehow went viral. A few mention Kanye West as a good source of these expressions. In conversation, one student mentioned that “finna” might come from “fixing to,” a “Southern” phrase. But, others had no idea that “finna” might be parsed that way.

 Just as neighborhood gentrifiers vary in their knowledge of the history of the city they occupy, linguistic gentrifiers have varying levels of awareness of the historical foundation for these words, phrases or features of pronunciation. And, newcomers to words and phrases like “salty,” “ain’t nobody got time for that,” or “finna” use them with wide-ranging degrees of finesse. Some gentrifiers—of cities and language—surely recognize underlying character and build on that. Yes! Others might lack that sensitivity, driving away residents and speakers, losing generations of history and life ways that built the original character that drew us to those places and expressions.

Do you recognize linguistic gentrification around you? Do you partake in the process? What are the different types and what are their effects? Please comment!

Language Diversity Pies

whomCBSWhat if you had to fill in a pie chart with different slices representing all the ways you speak? How many different slices would there be? Or, would you have just one whole pie called “Perfect English”? Would that be ideal?

Some news media, of late, suggest that the “Perfect English Pie” should be the goal. In this editorial today on CBS Morning, Faith Salie bemoaned the fact that many people do not follow her rules for proper “whom” usage.

Salie implies there should be only one uniform type of slice in our language pie, the one in which we are “speaking well.” This is especially true in “America,” Salie says, because according to her, most Americans only speak English:

Very few Americans, myself included, speak more than one language fluently. So, the least we can do is try and honor English by speaking it well.

Besides, she added, using “whom,” just makes you feel more special:

It’s like putting lipstick on your sentence.

The two comments posted, which don’t seem to even hint at irony, endorse Salie’s perspective:

VEGANSAM THANK YOU!

Cfc EditorTerrific vid. It’s nice to know that someone still cares.

Two days earlier, a Saturday New York Times front page story voiced another view on cleaning up language—not “who” and “whom,” but a certain way of saying “Wiscahnsin.” The headline reads:

 For 2016 run, Scott Walker washes “Wiscahnsin” out of his mouth

In this video, and the accompanying article, the author points out that Mr. Walker, now that he is running for national office, has changed how he speaks:

[Scott Walker] has left “Wiscahnsin” back home in Wisconsin. He now wants to strengthen the economy, not the “ecahnahmy.”

At the end of the essay, Jennifer Horn, Chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party remarks:

I didn’t hear it [the Wisconsin honk]. Good for him, good for him.

Both Ms. Horn and Ms. Salie voice the view that we need to avoid certain ways of speaking and use those that are proper or less local seeming. Ms. Horn admires Walker’s new Wiscahnson-free diction, suggesting this makes him more palatable as a candidate. And, Ms. Sadie tells us we need to be especially protective of English, since it is the only language most Americans speak.

But, how do “Americans” really use language? Walker may be ditching his Wisconsin “honk,” but he is not replacing it with a sublime original super-perfect “American” speech. Instead, the article suggests, he is picking and choosing different types of language, adding variety to his language pie. When addressing Republicans in South Carolina Mr. Walker told them, in a characteristically un-Wisconsin-like way, that he enjoyed “talkin’ with y’all.”

To connect with people, even as a Republican in the United States, only speaking English, Mr. Walker’s Language Pie must contain some variety. He might be using “y’all,” in South Carolina, but he probably doesn’t in New Hampshire. And he may still talk about the “ecahnomy” when he is back at the family dinner table in “Wiscahnsin.”

But let’s suppose people are not running for office. Do people in the United States still need several different slices in their Language Diversity Pie? Or should they just focus on “speaking well” as Faith Salie suggests?

Last week, exploring this angle with 11th graders and their teachers, we had them create their own language pie charts. In just a few minutes, many divided their pie up into seven or more sections, including different language for the following slices of social life:

  • Friends
  • Close friends
  • Adults
  • Parents
  • Parents’ friends
  • Home
  • Texting
  • Babysitting
  • With siblings
  • With brothers
  • With animals
  • At work
  • At school
  • With teachers
  • With sports coaches
  • Just Dad
  • Just Mom
  • Nice friends
  • Vulgar friends
  • Girlfriend
  • Professional situation
  • Writing papers for school
  • Writing sentimental texts
  • When complaining
  • When angry or snarky
  • When giddy or happy
  • When tired or depressed

Most students specified slices for “friends,” “adults,” “home,” and “school,” adding varying degrees of nuance. “With animals” was a pie slice only one student came up with at first—but after being reminded of special animal pet voices, many classmates agreed they would add this slice to their pie too. (I doubt they use “whom” with their pets.) Momentary moods were crucial to a few students—clearly different ways of speaking come out when tired or depressed, angry, or giddy.

Nobody spontaneously mentioned anything about languages other than English. But, when I asked about multiple languages in their lives, several students had more slices to add to their Language Diversity Pie:

  • Mandarin with Mom (not Dad)
  • Danish with Mom (not Dad)
  • “Asian”-accented English with Mom, or when ordering Dim Sum in Chinatown
  • Persian with parents
  • Mix of Persian and English in general when at home

A ten-minute discussion revealed a profusion of ways of speaking, languages and “accents” that fit into any one individual’s pie.

These teens easily recognize the distinctive relevance of all the slices of their pie at different moments, or with different people, or to convey different moods. Even these young 16-year-olds, in Honors English, most of whom have spent their entire lives in one suburban community, have wide-ranging communicative repertoires, and can recognize their distinctive utility.

I hope these wise 11th graders can also address those media voices, like Faith Salie, that suggest our language goals should lean toward less language diversity in our pies. Today’s teens will need to use different kinds of language to do many things: babysit, snuggle with their cat, comfort a friend, write poetry, mediate neighborhood conflict, apply for college, be President…

One unitary language pie called “Perfect English” could never do all that.

What slices make up your Language Diversity Pie?

She’s gotta whole lotta nothin’ going on

So this is a,unbreakable like, a guest post.

In Tina Fey’s new comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, establishing the vicious vacuousness of the disaffected 15 year-old step-daughter is partly achieved by her use of ‘like’ as a hedge or filler.

She dismisses the heroine Kimmy from the room because “We’re, like, in here,” and trying to impress her equally unsympathetic friends she tells them “remember how I was so, like, bummed I had to see my grandparents in California, well I met this surfer, like, blonde blue eyed tan. He called me Kalia which is, like, a Hawaiian princess…”

This shorthand is a straightforward media technique (no doubt as the character develops and matures she will speak in pleasant standard English sentences) building on widely held social prejudice to create conflict between types (Kimmy’s language is the vengeance of the plain-talking 1950s mid-westerner let loose on the big city, but the two of them will meet part way, probably literally on bench in Washington Square.) If you want to stop using ‘like’ yourself, there’s a WikiHow page, with illustrations, that may help.

But why does it bother us so much? Let’s go back to Frank Zappa, always a reasonable source to revert to, who claimed the credit for identifying the Valley Girl phenomenon and opening the ‘valspeak’ sociolect to audiences beyond Southern California. His Valley Girl song, written and performed with Moon Unit, lampooned the privileged daughters of the rich in the San Fernando Valley and their desultory expression. Their linguistic laziness, has, it appears, infected us all now, and valspeak, with its rising intonation and use of the work ‘like’ as a filler or hedge, is another sign of a wider cultural malaise.

There is, however, another dimension to it. When young women parade their privilege by dismissing linguistic norms, they are castigated for their lack of mental sharpness; we can’t permit their casual insouciance.   A friend of mine, male, married, a father, with a white-collar job, recently told a story about his work-day where I counted seventeen uses of the word ‘like.’ He wouldn’t be assumed to be using the filler to mask a dearth of cerebral activity, he was just slowing down the story to reach for the next description to aid the drama of the telling.

If language is about power- to express and codify, communicate and categorize- then the debate about ‘like’ has to be viewed in these terms too; who is in control here? When people use the word to fill a pause or add emphasis they are attempting to control their expression, finding room for the next thought or enjoining the listener to participate in their feelings. We too are exerting power on the speaker, receiving their expression and re-coding it through our thoughts.

In every case we have to fight any prejudice that makes young people, and young women in particular, silent. So let’s re-think ‘like.’

_____________

Hugh Kesson teaches Media Studies at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. His blog bartleboothsprogress.wordpress.com needs a bit of work, but he’s quite proud of the ‘Some Basics’ section.

Shakespeare or Hip Hop?

wutang  Shakespeare

Last week in an 11th Grade English class, the English teacher and I started a discussion of language in Hamlet by presenting this poetic musing from D.H. Lawrence:

When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder

That such trivial people should muse and thunder

In such lovely language.     

Then we asked students about their experiences reading Shakespeare’s language so far. They shared frustrations (Too repetitive! Confusing word order!) and doubts (No way could one man have written so much!). Nobody fully embraced the idea that Shakespeare was a creative genius.

Nor did anyone take issue with Lawrence’s glib use of the phrase “trivial people” or the condescending tone he took toward them. Why shouldn’t everyone muse and thunder in lovely language?

Then, we trotted out this Shakespeare versus Hip Hop quiz (one I also shared with my Facebook friends, thus the 79 responses).

The questions and answers (quiz adapted from Ammon Shea’s book Bad English (2014)):

Quote Answer % Correct (n=79)
1.   The music, ho! 1.     Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra 78%
2.   But if you don’t, I’ll unsheathe my Excalibur, like a noble knight 2.     Gangstarr, “Step in the Arena” 66%
3.   Holla, holla! 3.     Shakespeare, King Lear 62%
4.   This is the proper way man should use ink. 4.     Big Daddy Kane, “Taste of Chocolate” 45%
5.   Welcome, ass, Now let’s have a catch. 5.     Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 68%
6.   The money that you owe me for the chain. 6.     Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors 48%
7.   Pay me back when you shake it again. 7.     Nas, “You Own Me” 67%
8.   Holla, ho! Curtis! 8.     Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew 60%
9.   Sabotaged, shellshocked, rocked and ruled, Day in the life of a fool. 9.     Public Enemy, “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” 70%
10.          Every square inch of it, that he chose for himself, is the best part. 10. Wu-Tang Clan, “Wu-Revolution.” 37%
AVERAGE PERCENTAGE CORRECT:       60%

People seem to get the right answer an average of about 60% of the time. Just barely a collective D-.

As some astute 11th graders pointed out, they were able to choose the “right” answers by second-guessing the test, not by deciding whether the language represented the “essence” of Hip Hop or Shakespeare.

Number 1 (78% correct!), for example, seemed to point to Shakespeare only because it sounds obviously like Hip Hop. Typical test-designers, students speculated, would include “ho” just to trick people.

Number 9 (70% correct) includes the word “shellshocked,” which another student pointed to as a giveaway, since that word didn’t exist until after the First World War. Shakespeare didn’t have any shells of that kind!

So, unless you know the exact lyric or play, or recognize testing tricks or oversights, the average person seems to have about a 50/50 chance of correctly guessing whether these quotes come from “Shakespeare” or “Hip Hop.” What does this tell us? Perhaps Shakespeare’s forte was not in his isolated mastery of “The English Language.” Instead, he may have been capturing exactly what “trivial people” said. Their wondrous language (including “ho” and “holla holla”), gleaned from Shakespeare’s active life in the pubs (so we’ve heard), may be precisely what Shakespeare wrote down.

What does that tell us about literary language? About Hip Hop? About our collective language resources? Do you know some “trivial people” that “muse and thunder” in lovely language? How do today’s artists—musicians, screen-writers, poets, playwrights—take up the talk of everyday people and use it for effect?   Please comment!

Language “Rules” and the Common Core State Standards

CCSSImageWhat do the controversial Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have to say about language? I’ve heard teachers and students, colleagues and friends, talking about the Common Core, hinting at worries about yet more standardization and inevitable high-stakes testing. I can agree that more standardization, especially regarding language in a massively multilingual and rapidly changing educational context is worrisome. But, what do the CCSS actually say?

Anyone with Internet access can take a look and navigate through all the standards on the website (www.corestandards.org). So, I did. I had one guiding question: What are the CCSS telling teachers to teach our kids about language? I found some happy surprises.

First, I found this statement in the introduction to the “Language” standards:

Language: Conventions, effective use, and vocabulary

The Language standards include the essential “rules” of standard written and spoken English, but they also approach language as a matter of craft and informed choice among alternatives.

Those quotation marks around “rules” were my first hint of potential CCSS flexibility. Perhaps the crafters of these standards take the concept of language “rules” with a grain of salt. If “rules” are in quotes and craft and informed choice considered important, teachers could be liberated, rather than constrained by the Common Core.

Could this stance be consistently maintained from Kindergarten through Senior Year? I continued through the Language standards to see.

The word nuance in one of the Kindergarten standards (#5) caught my attention and supported my first impression that strict definitions and rigid “rule”-learning wouldn’t be the focus. So, I began there:

K5: With guidance and support from adults, explore word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

K5C:Identify real-life connections between words and their use (e.g., note places at school that are colorful).

K5D: Distinguish shades of meaning among verbs describing the same general action (e.g.,walk, march, strut, prance) by acting out the meanings.

This sounds like a nice way to learn about language and meaning in context: Walking through a school, noting places that are “colorful”–or, marching, strutting and prancing, accentuating the nuance in each gait (and word)!

But, Kindergarten is supposed to be fun. Even standards writers might think so. What happens in first grade? They must start memorizing dictionary definitions then, right? No!

In first grade, this standard remains the same:

With guidance and support from adults, demonstrate understanding of word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

Now students note “places at home that are cozy” and continue to “distinguish shades of meaning,” of verbs like look, peek, glance, stare, glare, scowl or adjectives like large, gigantic.

And in second grade, students must demonstrate their recognition of nuance without “guidance and support from adults”:

Demonstrate understanding of word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

In third grade the standard adds “figurative language” but maintains the need to find nuance.

Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

This standard remains exactly like this through 12th grade. Children go from marching, strutting and prancing around school to analyzing the shades of meaning of hurl versus throw to identifying hyperbole and paradox. Students’ understanding of word nuance consistently grows along the way.

But by starting with the “nuance” standard, I may have created a biased impression.  What about other standards? Are the rest more “rule” bound, standardized and lacking in nuance?

I started over in Kindergarten, this time with the most boring looking standard I could find, 1A. No nuance there:

Print many upper- and lowercase letters.

1A progresses to first grade like this, with even less nuance, as many changes to all:

Print all upper- and lowercase letters.

To second grade:

Use collective nouns (e.g., group).

And third grade:

Explain the function of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in general and their functions in particular sentences.

And, Common Core State Standard 1A continues in the same vein from 4th to 10th grade:

4th: Use relative pronouns (who, whose, whom, which, that) and relative adverbs (where, when, why).

5th: Explain the function of conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections in general and their function in particular sentences.

6th: Ensure that pronouns are in the proper case (subjective, objective, possessive).

7th: Explain the function of phrases and clauses in general and their function in specific sentences.

8th: Explain the function of verbals (gerunds, participles, infinitives) in general and their function in particular sentences.

9th and 10th: [in an abrupt and ironic break with previous grades] Use parallel structure.

Grammar rules seem to be piling up.

But I also noticed a healthy pattern of explanation of rules of “proper” usage (grade 6), interspersed with the slight concession to context, noting these features may function differently in “particular” (grade 5 and 8) or “specific” sentences (grade 7). But where does this all lead? What happens in 11th and 12th grade. Certainly you can’t be teaching more grammar points to 17 and 18 year olds?

Nope! In 11th and 12th grade, rules become “rules,” or, more explicitly, a “matter of convention” that “can change over time” and be “contested”:

11th and 12th: Apply the understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested.

After this dip into the Common Core website, following the ripples of a couple standards through the grades and into adulthood, I began to feel reassured that the CCSS (on their own) will not doom us to decades of robotic teaching and learning.

Understanding nuance is officially Language Standard #5. Nuance also infuses these standards and their interpretation. Like so many educational tools, they can be used and abused. I’m hoping to use them to support more critical thinking about language in classrooms, among students and their teachers, the community, and beyond. I’m also hoping that when students are exploring “shades of meaning,” (CCSS language standard 5D) those who speak several languages, or varied dialects, will be invited to share those shades of meaning too. (See Nelson Flores’ post on Multilingualism and the CCSS). Ideally, up to and beyond graduation, students will engage with the nuance of language, knowing they can also be the ones who change language “rules” and contest conventions.

What have your experiences been with the CCSS? Have you been aware of them as a teacher, a professor, an administrator, policy-maker, or a parent? As a citizen who consumes media about education policy? What do the CCSS ignore or leave out? How are they constraining? How might they be liberating?

Google Translate Hacks

How do you translate talk and text? For many, Google Translate, the on-line translation robot, comes into play. But Google Translate makes mistakes, so ingenious humans have figured out nuanced ways of using it in not exactly the way it was intended: Google Translate hacks.

Hack #1: The Stereotype Detector

In this post on Google Translate one blogger asked “Is Google Translate Sexist?” and then suggested that, indeed, it is. He showed this by running tests in German, in which, for example, the word “teacher” in the phrase “Cooking teacher” translates as “Lehrerin” (feminine) while in “Math teacher” it translates as “Lehrer” (masculine).

I tested this myself, with Spanish: Sure enough, a “Cooking teacher” is a “professora” (feminine), while a “Math teacher” is a “professor” (Masculine).

cookingteacher

mathteacher

This does not necessarily mean Google Translate is sexist. Instead, this “sexist” translation illustrates Google Translate’s strength as a potential stereotype detector. Some words collect in gendered ways. We recognize these stereotypes—in concert with Google Translate.

Hack #2: The Bilingual Expertise Detector

In the transcript below, from Meredith Byrnes’ research on bilingual family literacy, a bilingual mother is explaining to her two boys (ages five and six) how she translates the English idiom, “school of fish”:

¡Porque aquí dice school of fish y abajo dice banco de pescado. Pero si fuera- si como dice arriba school of fish seria escuela de pescado!


(Because here it says school of fish and down here it says bank of fish. But if it was- if it says school of fish it would be school of fish!)

Bilingual people like this mom have special knowledge. The boys will not be able to simply use word by word translation or  a dictionary or even Google Translate for an idiom, because it does not translate literally:

schooloffish

Nope! Google Translate doesn’t get it. But this “mistake” reveals how Google Translate can work well as a Citizen Sociolinguistic tool. In its dumb errors (or “sexist” oversteps) Google Translate can reveal the nuanced knowledge of human beings, like this bilingual mom.

Hack #3: The Bilingual Collective Expertise Detector

Flash forward 10 years in the life of a bilingual family. Often, bilingualism is distributed across a family, parents having expertise in one language, children in another.   Robert LeBlanc’s research on multilingual literacy among teens who attend a massively multilingual Catholic Church (services offered in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Tagalog) illustrates this point.  And, he learned about this Google Translate hack one family developed there.

Teens who attend this church regularly use Google Translate as just one of several translation steps to read scripture publically. One teen, who doesn’t speak much Vietnamese, or read any, manages to recite scripture aloud in church. These are his basic steps:

  1. Types bible passage into Google Translate
  2. Prints out Vietnamese text from Google Translate
  3. Asks mother (who speaks and writes in Vietnamese, but not English) to edit, smoothing over the inevitable Google Translate errors.
  4. Records mother reading the passage aloud, using his phone.
  5. Listens to audio from phone during spare moments and repeats it until it is committed to memory.
  6. Recites memorized Vietnamese bible passage in church.

With this hack, Google Translate, which seems impersonal and error-prone, has the potential to function as an intimate medium, forcing at least one teen to engage deeply on a multilingual task with his mother.

2003-LOST-IN-TRANSLATION-007

Lost and Found in Google Translation

Because Google Translate is imperfect, much is lost in translation. But when we use Google Translate as Citizen Sociolinguists, in concert with multilingual acquaintances, friends, or family members, much more can be found. How do you use Google Translate? What Google Translate hacks do you know?  Please share and comment below!

 

The Language Experts

Who are the Language Experts?

When you have a question about language, who (whom!) do you ask?

Sometimes it may seem the experts are those language bullies or “grammandos” who peevishly correct grammar no-nos. If you are not sure of the difference between “comprised of” and “composed of” (and care), the man who has spent years combing through Wikipedia “correcting” those phrases over 47,000 times may seem like the best person to explain it to you.

But what if you have a question about less rule-bound ways that people use language?boutaweekago

For example, who provides expertise on these questions about speaking English in Philadelphia?:

  • What does “Salty” (or “sawdy”) mean when used by Philadelphia second graders?
  • Who says “Ac-A-Me” instead of “Acme” when referring to the Acme grocery store?
  • Why do some teenagers start rapping and dancing whenever they hear the phrase “bout a week ago”?

Moving beyond Philadelphia, suppose you have a question about a phrase you’ve heard in Spanish. What if someone called you a “fresa” and you had no idea what that meant? Would you consult a dictionary? That couldn’t tell you, like my friend from El Paso could, that “fresa” is a word often used for slightly spoiled, entitled girls from Mexico.

What expert on language could you consult if you encountered this English/Chinese phrase:

Hold住

A language purist might despise it, a Chinese Dictionary might translate it, but a Chinese 20-something could probably provide a more robust explanation for this phrase, (which translates into something like “hang in there!” or “deal with it!”), how commonly it is used, and its connection to a certain TV character.

This phrase might lead you to questions about other Asian World Englishes. How do Koreans, Chinese, Thai, Taiwanese, and Japanese use English differently? Who holds the expertise on this massive variety? I would suggest you start by asking someone who immigrated to Singapore for High School. They might be able to explain the intricacies and irreverence of accent parodies like this one:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OiDvo_XtV4

These are all cases where non-professional-experts, that is, average everyday people who are not linguists or English teachers—Citizen Sociolinguists—have expert knowledge. These everyday citizens have the know-how they need to navigate the daily intricacies of language and communication that make up their lives. And, usually, they are happy to share it.

Your very own friends and acquaintances can often answer your language questions with the precise type of expertise you want. Students and children can also be prime language experts in this regard. Or, Internet sources might guide you. Look up “grammando,” “bout a week ago,” or “salty” and you’ll get some approximations of the meanings of these phrases and their social value. Google “Asian Accents” or a “Mexican fresa” and you may find some video explanations, ranging across degrees of accuracy and offense. These are building blocks to understanding; Your ever-expanding circle of Citizen Sociolinguistics experts can continue to build on them.

Language has interest and connections to social life and human relationships far more wide-ranging than could be contained in one expert’s view. Fortunately, since the survival of life-as-we-know-it depends on it, the grammando will never have the last word on language. As David Weinberger has written in Too Big to Know, when it comes to language or any sort of networked knowledge,

…the measure of one’s strength as an expert is not that you have the final word on some topic, but that you have the first word (p. 68).

When words and communication confuse you, who (whom!) do you call on as your language expert? Your children? Your students? Your parents or friends? Urban Dictionary? YouTube? Google Translate? Others? A combination of all? Post your comments here!