Friday, November 19, 2010

LiveMocha and Busuu

Just received this email reminder:
Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini said, “A different language is a different vision of life." As a member of Livemocha you know learning a new language is more than grammar and vocabulary - you're experiencing new cultures and bringing the world closer through language! Return to Livemocha and continue to learn and contribute to the global community.
There's also BUSUU offering six European languages.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous languages

"Re-awakening languages: theory and practice in the revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous languages" Edited by John Hobson, Kevin Lowe, Susan Poetsch and Michael Walsh. Sydney University Press. ISBN: 9781920899554 And this potent quote was on the email from John Hobson that brought me notice of the book.
"When you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It's like dropping a bomb on a museum, the Louvre." Comment by the late Kenneth Hale, cited in The Economist (November 3,2001).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Budget cuts to schools hurt health, business and foreign languages.

Budget cuts to schools hurt health, business and foreign languages. [The Daily News Online]
"Foreign language instruction has never been a strong suit for American public education. There are relatively few strong foreign language offerings at the elementary and middle-school levels. Most high schools around the country offer basic introductory courses in just a couple of languages. Opportunities for language study have declined in recent years. John Schmid of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes that, "From 1997 to 2008, the share of all U.S. elementary schools offering language classes fell from 31 percent to 25 percent, while middle schools dropped from 75 percent to 58 percent." These are the latest figures from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Linguistics. But anecdotal evidence suggests that this trend has continued and may have accelerated with the recession."
"For both the student and the nation, the ability to speak another language is a difference maker as far as competing in the global market place. Indeed, it's small world. That's something most other nations have long recognized. Most country's in Europe and Asia make foreign language study compulsory from elementary school through high school."

Did you spot the grammar/punctuation error in the above? That's ironic in an article lamenting the decline of language study. Foreign language study definitely makes us more aware of accuracy in speaking and writing conventions. Hey, we all make typos and spelling errors - to err is human (and common in journalese). And there's no fun being a stuck up language maven. Language is all about flexibility (variability in systematicity, M Long) and the more language(s) you know the easier it becomes for the brain to adapt and enjoy linguistic variety through established systems, or even creatively disrupting them. To be blithely unaware and not even proficiently monolingual is pure disadvantage. To be obstinately monolingual and monocultural is dangerous.

Education systems of the world, do your job - for your people! Invest in languages education.

Monday, November 8, 2010


"I should have worn jeans and a Hawaiian shirt; everyone thinks Australia is an outpost of America anway. I should have been a walking cliché; clichés make people relax. They stop asking questions. They assume they know." [Roberta Lowing, 2010, Notorious, Allen and Unwin, p.30.]

Language champions

This is an inspiring little collection of pages at Asia Education FOundation. The quotes from Major Michael Stone are brilliant, especially from a humane military man. It would be good to get school students to debate these claims, shake students out of apathy. Michael Stone and Gen. Peter Cogsgrove ask, how do we avoid the obscenity and stupidity of war except by intelligence, respect and responsibility? We in advanced countries have responsibility to forestall misunderstanding by being able to communicate with different others in their languages. To be educated to high levels only in technical and economic matters is to deny that human cultures are rich, complex and diverse, so of course cross-cultural relationships are challenging. To refuse to make the persistent effort is obstinate ignorance that leads to the deaths in war of our children. Debate that.

Two only sample quotes:

Language skills form the foundation for ‘relationship building’, life’s greatest skill and ‘force multiplier’.

Many of the world’s problems could be dealt with peacefully if we had the skills to listen to each other. Learning each other’s Languages is critical in this regard.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Forgetting the culture of cake

Forgetting the culture of cake Scott Steensma November 03, 2010
"My sister and I are the products of what could be seen as a perfect example of migrant assimilation. We are the second generation of a family that arrived in Australasia with minimal English and no friends, slotted themselves into menial work and adapted to an alien culture where cake was strictly avoided before 10am. On the surface we are textbook examples of what many say migrants should do when they arrive in Australia. Under the surface the waves of shock and cultural loss still ring through our family."[Winner of a MARGARET DOOLEY AWARD for young writers]. A very touching and thoughtful reflection.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Language Quotes at

I can remember the lush spring excitement of language in childhood. Sitting in church, rolling it around my mouth like marbles--tabernacle and pharisee and parable, trespass and Babylon and covenant. Author: Penelope Lively

To God I speak Spanish, to women Italian, to men French, and to my horse--German.
Author: Jason Chamberlain Source: inaugural address at University of Vermont, 1811

Pedantry consists in the use of words unsuitable to the time, place, and company.
Author: Samuel Taylor Coleridge Source: Biographia Literaria (ch. X)

To have another language is to possess a second soul.
Author: Charlemagne

More delicious language sayings at and see my own collection at left lower down on this page.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

What makes etymology an interesting subject?

LIBERMAN: "Everything in our world leaves a trace in language. If you know the history of language and understand the main forces that make language change, you have one of the most important windows into the growth of the human mind, civilization, and even politics. Take any word, from guitar to democracy. While studying their development, we inevitably learn a good deal about music and the rise of social institutions. And only the history of language is able to reveal the history of thought, for, unfortunately, an examination of the gray matter in our heads is not sufficient for that purpose. Let me repeat: there is nothing in the man-made world that is not reflected in language.".

The Hidden History of Words is just one entry on the fascinating University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts Discoveries blog. An intellectual labyrinth to get delightfully lost in. The College offers studies in many languages and cultures, including Asian, African, American Indian, European, linguistics, anthropology and more. See departments and majors, Research Languages & Literatures or Language instruction. You can even hear Prof. Liberman on public radio Word origins with Anatoly Liberman - the Minnesotan equivalent of Australia's Roly Sussex.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

World Languages Day (University of Minnesota) 2010

Conversations in the Language Center: World Languages Day! (University of Minnesota)

What a difference one day makes!If ever you think all your promotional efforts are in vain, here's reassurance. World Languages Day: Step One on My Journey to Italy by Teran on April 13, 2010

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Testing words to their utmost power

"When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them." From Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, probably the best fictionalised life of Thomas Cromwell ever written. What skill is needed to avoid cliché when an artist resurrects such well known material and characters, as people did with stories and figures from the ancient classics and the Bible for thousands of years. Henry VIII, Wolsey, Cromwell, More, the Boleyn woman, Pope Clement, the whole cast, even the period, have become stock characters in so many plays, films, novels and 'serious history'. For language teachers this book is full of interest, given that most courtiers and merchants of that time were adept in four or five languages required for scholarship, diplomacy, trade, war, law and even marriage. See Washington Post Review

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Hugh Lunn, 1989, Over the top with Jim, Latin class

Hugh Lunn, 1989, Over the top with Jim, University of Queensland Press.

Latin was a subject I just could not do, no matter how many times I got the cuts for not knowing my vocab, or no matter how many declensions I learned by heart, like "amo, amas, amat,amamus, amatus, amant". We used to say in the C class: "Latin is a dead language, dead as dead can be, it killed off all the Romans, and now it's killing me." We sang hymns in Latin, like Tantum Ergo; we said Mass in Latin; and we even said whole prayers in Latin - but still I knew nothing about the language. I just memorised sentences, like when I first learned to read at the convent. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa I knew was "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault" - only because both Latin and English versions were said when beating your chest with your right fist.

The good boys from the A class used Latin whenever possible, to show how superior they were. Even school reports on football matches contained Latin phrases. When our first 15 disastrously lost a rugby union match to Brisbane Grammar in my junior year, the school magazine said: "Fluctuat, nec mergitur", whatever that meant.

(Page 191)

Phil: I love Hugh Lunn's book of 1950s and 1960s reminiscence and biography. So much I can relate to as a fellow inmate of the Catholic schools and education system of those days. Ah, the good old days when language learning really meant something (different?) Perhaps that Catholic beating the chest with your right fist and chanting mea culpa can be viewed as an early form of Total Physical Response. Unlike Hugh, I loved Latin and French and still can spend hours looking up origins of words in my OED. My daughter says I am just like the Dad Gus in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding: Now, gimme a word, any word, and I'll show you how the root of that word is Greek. See Hugh Lunn's website - an Australian journalist and author of great humour and down-to-earth insight into human reality.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Learning languages 'boosts brain'

Learning a second language "boosts" brain-power, scientists believe.
Researchers from University College London studied the brains of 105 people - 80 of whom were bilingual.

They found learning other languages altered grey matter - the area of the brain which processes information - in the same way exercise builds muscles.

A BBC story from 2004 but still useful to convince the doubters.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

World in Words - Podcasts

The World in Words focuses on language. We cover everything from bilingual education to the globalization of English to untranslatable foreign phrases. You’ll learn how to insult someone in Icelandic, among other things. Hosted by The World’s Patrick Cox.
Listen, for example, to "Bilingual tots and the language of smell" by Patrick Cox June 1, 2010. "We hear from a Jerusalem-based journalist who is sending his kid to Arabic/Hebrew bilingual preschool. Also, a Seattle rabbi visits the Cairo Genizah, and explains why so many sacred Jewish texts were written in Arabic. And we hear from experts at the New York Public Library on the secrets that a book’s smell will reveal to an educated nose." Hear Audio on the webpage or download mp3

Friday, May 28, 2010

A nation adrift in Asia literacy

To those who care about languages education and Asia literacy in Australia (or who ought to - yes, you!)

Interesting cross-section of opinions among commentators on Greg Sheridan's A nation adrift in Asia literacy Some talk about the difficulty of character based Asian langages. "It's all too much like hard work." "To expect this of the average Australian student is unrealistic." Yet most Europeans successfully learn languages with very complex grammars. I had a brilliant German girl in first year Indonesian (!) tell me the other day I move them along faster than would be the case in Germany BUT she said they do endless exercises and they have years and years of school languages behind them. We might do better selling languages study as "highly demanding" and so respected, shows persistence and brains (as Japanese in Hobart used to be able to afford to do). Phil M.
See Greg Sheridan, A nation adrift in Asia literacy w reader comments
Chinamat of Melbourne Posted at 2:01 PM May 27, 2010 Comment 15 of 21

The industry in which I worked was decimated in the financial crisis. Considering joint-ventures with China critical to reviving that industry in Australia, I decided to turn disaster to opportunity and packed myself off to university at the age of 38. Despite an extensive CV, I couldn't get an offer at any good university for a place to study Chinese. I wrote to Julia Gillard to raise the issue with no result. I have to say my experience of the pointy end of trying to get re-trained with an Asia focus sees very little real support. I'm presently paying full-fee. To add perspective I can also tell you Chinese is the most difficult thing I've had to do in my life and I have a substantially higher work ethic than the typical school-leaver student. There lies the difficulty. The study of a language is extremely difficult but there's no additional consideration for it beyond perhaps an extra hour of tuition a week. Addressing this requires more fundamental reform than the recurring 'programs'. It needs more time to teach all the way from primary level, more credit in courses and a higher academic profile. The Asia Education Foundation is doing their bit but it's barely a start...

Go, Chinamat. Allez, all who care about languages education and Asia literacy in Australia.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Speaking is what it's all about (Irish polyglot) - or is it (Peter Morgan)?

"Why studying a language will never help you speak a language." The whole blog of Irish Polyglot is provocative, challenging, entertaining and hopefully encouraging for languages teachers. I have always thought that if you can speak a language, it means you must deploy, not just have stored in your brain, a whole network of knowledge - many kinds of knowledge. He reminds us that we actually develop that network in interaction and communication with people, not merely in rote learning [the indispensable] words and rules and conventions. Compare his thoughts to mine on grammar below and to a newspaper article about Prof. Peter Morgan's assertion that teaching "just the basics of language acquisition" is not so important to universities as applying language in "a broad engagement with real questions of culture and language". Language Departments risk losing their essence by Bernard Lane in The Australian, March 24, 2010. "This is all part of penetrating, understanding deeply the mind, the culture, the history of whatever language it is."

Morgan is talking about levels of language beyond the old fluency versus accuracy debate: he would assume both are developed in schools and language institutes. And yet when schools go for the intercultural awareness more than linguistic proficiency, too few arrive at university with any decent proficiency (either conversational ability or sound grammatical and literature proficiency. Many are not teaching even "the basics of language acquisition".)

So, school language programs are vitally important and need to produce palpable language learning results that the learners and teachers [and later tertiary lecturers] can all find satisfactory and enabling of communication at all sorts of levels. How do we achieve this in current Australian educational culture when so few even wish to continue any language study beyond a compulsory taste? Would the Irish Polyglot's truly communicative approach have any value or chance in schools?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Some suggestions for future online seminar topics

  • Why do we overlook Esperanto, the perfect apprenticeship language [which every primary school school teacher and child could be using after 100 hours]? Penelope Vos and friends to be invited to present and lead discussion. Some websites from Penelope Vos's Book Talking to the Whole Wide World: The Language Prism:
  • Can't live with 'em, can't get far without 'em - are the education systems, bureaucracies and universities more of a hindrance than a help to languages education?
  • Fourth largest population in the world, right next door to Australia, yet Indonesian teaching/learning languishes despite 50 years of huge effort. The Asia literacy argument does not bite deep while old prestige European languages are having a resurgence, surtout le Francais. Pourquoi? Kok bisa begitu? Why is it so?
  • There is much to celebrate about languages education in Australia: many successful immersion programs, in-country programs and trips, endless experiments with new ICTs, lots of children experiencing - if not always advanced proficiency - broadening of linguistic and cultural awareness and skills, dedicated policy makers, researchers, thinkers, advocates, curriculum writers, teachers, professional associations and parent organisationswho refuse to give up; about 12% of year 12s across the nation studying a language. Are overly high expectations what keep us constantly depressed about languages? Should we be realistic in our Australian context: be content with a cup 12% full?

Looking for presenters and discussion leaders. And your ideas for other seminars.

Monday, April 26, 2010

"We still believe in grammar" - Nietzsche

All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth. Friedrich Nietzsche

And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh. Friedrich Nietzsche

"I am afraid we cannot be rid of God because we still believe in grammar." Friedrich Nietzsche.

[Entering Neitzsche + God + grammar in google will bring up the variations of this quote and some excellent articles and discussion. Nietzsche had a real wit and sense of humour, I've discovered.]

I still believe in grammar. Those who fantasize that instructed second language acquisition can occur without understanding of the patterns [systematicity and variability] of a language do students a disservice. Krashen would have us believe it can all be implicit. Not in Australian classrooms, except perhaps some immersion programs. Grammar is a gift from our ancestors (a 'glamour') - their cognitive solutions for encoding reality - and in teaching, it should be made enthralling in its intricacy. Grammar explication and exercises should be only a part of a language program. There are drama approaches, story and song - all of them exist because based on grammar (and semantics, pragmatics and discourse rules etc) and all manner of literature and culture studies are possible. But I suppose everything depends on what goals and activities your context allows, what your teacher knowledge, experience and confidence equip you with and the disposition of students and the community who put values and borders in their minds. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The joyful release of meaning

"Until then, my forays into written French had been purely utilitarian, the completion of almost mathematical exercises. When I comprehended a new phrase, it was merely a bridge to the next exercise. Never before had I known the sudden quiver of understanding that travels from word to brain to heart, the way a new language can move, coil, spring into life under the eyes, the almost savage leap of comprehension, the instantaneous, joyful release of meaning, the way the words shared their printed bodies in a flash of heat and light. Since then I have known this moment of truth with other companions: German, Russian, Latin, Greek, and - for a brief hour - Sanskrit." From The Historian, (p. 188), a novel by Elisabeth Kostova (about Vlad the Impaler alias Dracula, about the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, about books, readers, libraries and historians) Interview with her at

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

'The citadel of established practice will not fall to the polite knock
of a good idea...'
Barry MacDonald - educational evaluator.

Sent by Aaron Peeters in Ghana. As was the following email on 31 January 2010.

I've been thinking a bit lately about language learning. Since
Indonesian, I have added Japanese to my belt, and started on Tigrinya
and Dagaare (Eritrea and Northern Ghana) respectively. Somehow, I seem
to pick up these obscure languages relatively quickly, especially
compared to people around me. I think it has got something to do with
my previous knowledge (constructing sentences, identifying useful
vocabulary, etc.) but also possibly something to do with attitude (not
afraid to make mistakes for example, i've made plenty of those!) I've
even started to pick up some French from a CD course i've picked up
(Learn French with Michel Thomas, he's really good!). I figured that
you would know how to best utilise this knowledge to encourage others
to have a go at a new language also...

Also, I read about the links between multilingualism and creativity
some scientists have found in the Guardian newspaper and thought you
might be interested, it's what prompted this email: (written by Europublic researchers for the European Commission, The Contribution of Multilingualism to Creativity, Part One 16 July 2009. Link)