Lost Words: Multilingualism and Neurological Illness

One thing that frustrated me a little during my MA studies was that while my Second Language Acquisition class talked about language loss/proficiency changes due to social and cultural factors (e.g. the all-too-common case of a child who speaks an indigenous language as their L1 and then goes to an English-only residential school, partially or entirely losing their proficiency in their L1 as a result), but there was comparatively little discussion of how physiological changes can affect language ability. Not that the social and cultural forces that cause language loss aren’t important to examine, discuss, and criticize, but I often wondered about how, say, Alzheimer’s Disease or a traumatic brain injury might manifest in or affect a multilingual person, as opposed to a monolingual person.

It’s well known that neurological injuries and illnesses can have a profound effect on spoken and written language. Researchers analyzed the writing of the novelist Iris Murdoch (who was portrayed by Judi Dench and Kate Winslet in the film Iris), and found that her final works used markedly simpler language, and employed much more circumlocution (talking around something because you can’t find the exact word — a common symptom of dementia), than the novels she wrote in her cognitive prime. This change in her writing style occurred before she was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1995. Scientists also found similar patterns in the works of Agatha Christie, leading them to speculate that the famous mystery novelist may have also suffered from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia towards the end of her career.

Thus far, research on the effects of neurological injury and illness doesn’t seem to take into account multilingualism very often (though there are numerous studies concerning how multilingualism can delay the onset of dementia, and reduce the risk for developing it). We see from the research on Agatha Christie and Iris Murdoch that dementia robs its sufferers of their language skills in their L1 before it’s even diagnosed, but how does it affect L2, L3, et cetera?

In an article in their 1989 book Bilingualism Across the Lifespan: Aspects of Acquisition, Maturity, and Loss , Kenneth Hyltenstam and Loraine K. Obler (1989) found that bilingual people with aphasia (disturbances in how someone processes or produces language*) displayed a few interesting linguistic characteristics. For one, bilingual sufferers of aphasia often have difficulty moderating which language to use (and keep using) when speaking to someone else (Hyltenstam and Obler, 1989, p. 202). However, Hyltenstam and Obler (1989) say, many studies of multilingual people with neurological illnesses or injuries often mark language mixing as a symptom of dementia/aphasia, and do not consider that such speech behavior might be normal speech for that person, or their speech community as a whole. Perhaps the bellwether, which Hyltenstam and Obler (1989) mention, should be “appropriate” use of languages. In other words, a bilingual English/Spanish speaker code-switching or code-mixing with English may not be a red flag for dementia/aphasia, but a bilingual English/Spanish speaker speaking only English to a monolingual Spanish-speaking companion (whom they know to be monolingual) may be.

A year after Bilingualism Across the Lifespan was published, Obler, along with Susan De Santi, Helene Sabo-Abramson, and Joan Goldberger (1990), wrote an article on the effects of dementia among multilingual individuals (De Santi et al, 1990); De Santi et al (1990) came to a similar conclusion to Hyltenstam and Obler (1989): that a characteristic sign of impairment or decline in multilingual individuals was a breakdown in how they followed the rules of discourse, or communication, in one or more of the languages they speak. “For the healthy bilingual or multilingual speaker…decisions concerning language choice or code-switching are based on sophisticated linguistic and social rules (Grosjean 1982). In dementia…these rules seem to break down” (De Santi et al, 1990, p. 224).

I’ll confess that I’m too cheap to bypass the paywall on De Santi et al’s (1990) article, but I wonder if the discourse difficulties the researchers describe are related to breakdowns in impulse control and judgment that occur in dementia. If a person with dementia lost their ability to follow social norms and unwritten, unspoken rules of interaction (very common in people with dementia), it would make sense that this could cause them to lose sense of the rules of multilingual engagement.

In what I can read in the article, De Santi et al (1990) describe the “rules” which multilingual sufferers of dementia can no longer follow as “constraints” of code-switching, i.e. grammatical forms that multilingual individuals use when they code-switch — for instance, the syntax must be the same in both languages being used in a phrase or sentence (the example De Santi et al (1990, p. 225) use illustrates that “j’ai acheté an American voiture” (I bought an American car) would be incorrect, because adjectives come after nouns in French). So in De Santi et al’s (1990) study, the focus is more on the “innate” rules of grammar and code-switching, not on the social aspects of discourse. Would this give weight to Chomsky’s idea that understanding of grammar is an in-born neurological feature, not something learned and stored in long-term memory, which seems to be more resilient in dementia?

A 1999 study at UCLA by Mendez, Perryman, Poton, and Cummings also found that “cross-language interference” (aberrant use of two languages) was common among bilingual Alzheimer’s patients. In addition, Mendez et al (1999) found that L2 is often the “first to go”, so to speak, when bilingual individuals develop dementia and L1 is preferred and preserved for longer, and will “intrude” into L2 more than the other way around, which is consistent with other patterns of cognitive loss and decline in dementia.

With growing aging populations around the world, growing awareness of the effects of neurological injury and illness, and advances in both neuroscience and linguistics, understanding language’s role in detecting, treating, and living with neurological conditions is more important than ever. And with globalization and increased migration making multilingualism more and more common around the world, understanding the unique needs and struggles of multilingual individuals with neurological conditions also matters a great deal. In the 28 years since Hyltenstam and Obler’s (1989) article, we may have moved forward somewhat on these goals, but there’s still a long way to go.



*The two best known forms of aphasia (there are many, many forms) are named after the areas of the brain that help us process and produce language: Wernicke’s and Broca’s. In Wernicke’s Aphasia, patients have difficulty understanding and processing written and spoken language, though their ability to speak and put together sentences is undiminished — this results in them speaking in “word salad” or fluent sentences that don’t make sense. In Broca’s Aphasia, patients’ receptive skills are unaffected (i.e. they can still understand spoken and written language), but they find it extremely difficult to form full sentences or words. Here are two YouTube videos which demonstrate the speech patterns of people with these types of aphasia:




Day, A. (2016, September 29). Alzheimer’s Early Tell – Issue 40: Learning. Retrieved November 18, 2017, from http://nautil.us/issue/40/learning/alzheimers-early-tell

De Santi S., Obler L.K., Sabo-Abramson H., Goldberger J. (1990) Discourse Abilities and Deficits in Multilingual Dementia. In: Joanette Y., Brownell H.H. (eds) Discourse Ability and Brain Damage. Springer Series in Neuropsychology. Springer, New York, NY DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4612-3262-9_10

Hopkin, M. (2004). Iris Murdochs last book reveals early Alzheimers. News@nature. doi:10.1038/news041129-4

Hyltenstam, K., & Obler, L. K. (1999). Bilingualism across the lifespan: aspects of acquisition, maturity, and loss. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Mendez, M. F., Perryman, K. M., Pontón, M. O., & Cummings, J. L. (1999). Bilingualism and Dementia. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 11(3), 411-412. doi:10.1176/jnp.11.3.411


Kazakhstan’s Transitions in Transliteration

In a post I wrote a while back, I talked about the many different kinds of writing systems, and briefly touched on the politics involved in choosing and using a system to put a language down onto paper, signs, or the digital world. It turns out a year later that writing systems are in the news now as Kazakhstan begins to transition from using the Cyrillic alphabet to using the Latin alphabet to write its national language. According to the BBC, Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, aims to have the country fully switched to the Latin alphabet by 2025: a tall order after years of Cyrillic domination.

Most of my fellow Americans really only know about Kazakhstan through its (extremely inaccurate) portrayal in Borat, so let me give a quick rundown of the country and its language to give some context for this major linguistic change going on in the country. Like many of its Central Asian neighbors, Kazakhstan was a Soviet republic until 1989, and was in Russia’s sphere of influence well before 1917. Before the modern era, Kazakhstan was at the center of the Silk Road, home to nomadic and semi-nomadic Turkic and Mongol peoples. The Kazakh language belongs to the Turkic family of languages (which also includes Turkish, Uyghur, Uzbek, and Azerbaijani), and because of Kazakhstan’s status as a geographical crossroads, it’s been written in three different alphabets throughout history: Arabic, Cyrillic, and Latin. Arabic came first, and was used until 1929 (with abortive attempts to introduce Cyrillic before then), when it was replaced with the Latin alphabet. Since 1940 (with some modifications in the 1950s to accommodate Kazakh’s distinct phonological features), Kazakh has been written in Cyrillic script.

Kazakhstan’s switch to Latin after 77 years of using the Cyrillic alphabet will bring it more in line with many of its linguistic cousins which use the Latin alphabet (e.g. Turkish), and away from one major component of Russian cultural and political influence. We see headlines every day about Russia’s ever-growing influence around the world, but in Central Asia, Russian linguistic, political, and economic influence seems to be waning, or at least taking a backseat to new players on the scene. Half of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia now use Latin script rather than Cyrillic, and with the growth of the One Belt, One Road initiative, many of the “Stans” are now looking eastward towards China, rather than towards Russia.

I mentioned that in the 1950s, a few extra letters were added to the Kazakh Cyrillic writing system to accommodate for sounds that simply don’t exist in Russian. While Moscow was not and still isn’t exactly a model for anti-imperialistic language policy, keep in mind that this is far from the only example of a writing system being modified to fit a language with unique orthographical or phonological needs; consider ñ, ç, ø, and ü in the Latin alphabet, or the way Farsi (Persian) has modified Arabic letters to reflect the P and CH sounds of Farsi that do not exist in standard Arabic (incidentally, that’s why Farsi is generally called Farsi, and not Parsi).

Modification and adaptation of writing systems are common across the world, but what spurs a language community to switch to a new alphabet, or create a new one (e.g. as King Sejong did for Korean)? Obviously, nationalist sentiment (or its medieval equivalent in Korea) plays a role. So does the development of literature and commerce, with whom that commerce is conducted, and other culturally dominant forces and trends in the region; consider how Turkish was once written in a Perso-Arabic script, but switched to a Latin alphabet in 1928 as Turkey turned its cultural and political gaze westward. Kazakhstan’s transition to the Latin alphabet is likely a combination of these factors.

While the move to write Kazakh (or Qazaq as it will soon be known) in Latin script will likely not make major political or economic waves, it’s nevertheless a move away from Russian influence in Central Asia, and an assertion of Kazakhstan’s national identity, nearly 30 years after it became an independent nation.



The Power of Language in Marketing, and the Power of Marketing in Languages

Since a lot of my job involves solitary work at my computer and I like to have background noise while I’m crunching numbers or doing research, I’ve become an avid podcast listener. One of my favorites right now is Spycast, which is a weekly podcast hosted by Vince Houghton, the head curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC (which I regret not visiting when I was there earlier this year for a work trip). A few months ago, Vince Houghton interviewed Sven Hughes, who served in the British military in Afghanistan doing PsyOps (Psychological Operations) and now applies his military experience to marketing and political campaign management. He has recently written a book called Verbalisation: The Power of Words to Drive Change (2016), which I of course snapped up as soon as the podcast was over. I guess I roundly proved Mr. Hughes’ points about marketing and persuasion!

While the book is very much directed at marketing execs and campaign managers, reading it made me think of how Hughes’ methods and theories could apply to some of the aspects I was researching in my MA dissertation on the growth of Mandarin Chinese as a taught foreign language.

Verbalisation talks about Hughes’ product RAID, which uses four factors to understand an audience, and subsequently market an idea, a product, or an action to them: Cognition, Flow, Lexicon, and Environment (Hughes, pp. 37-41).

After reading Hughes’ conceptions of each of these factors (pp. 45-46), I like to think of them as “zooming out” on a person and from there, being able to understand how to get them to buy what you’re selling.

Cognition (pretty obviously) focuses on what’s going on in their own minds: how do they feel? What do they think about their own cultural/racial/national/linguistic identity? What are their aspirations, fears, and motivations? How do they process information that they receive (visually, verbally)?

Flow is how a person receives information: which “informants” do they trust? Do they use technology or social media to receive information? What are their social networks? Where do they go to receive information? How is information traditionally transmitted in their culture?

Lexicon is how that information is transmitted to them and how that person then transmits information to others: how do they use humor? What sentence structures do they use? Do they use formal or informal language, and when do they switch/change? Do they use different forms of language on different communication channels and with different people? How does culture or religion play into language use? Do they use more measured or more emotional language?

Finally, when we zoom all the way out, we get to Environment: how does identity play a role in how they receive, process, and transmit information? What are the social or cultural expectations to which they must adhere? Are there political or legal factors that affect the flow of information they receive and who transmits it to them? How does their socioeconomic status affect the flow of information they receive, how they process it, and how they use/transmit it?

After reading this section in Verbalisation, I was a little disappointed that this book came out when I was either most of the way through my research, or had already submitted my dissertation, because it articulates so much of what I hoped to examine when I was exploring how Mandarin Chinese was growing as a taught foreign language.

Better late than never, I suppose; here, I’m going to apply these four “quadrants” of RAID to my own research findings, and frame my dissertation (or at least one aspect of it) in a new way.

Let’s start with Cognition. My interviewees were mostly university-educated British adults of various cultural and racial backgrounds, and of varying ages. When I asked them why they were learning Mandarin Chinese, I found that while there were a plurality of reasons why they were choosing to learn Mandarin Chinese, the most prevalent one was a desire to understand China and Chinese culture. With China’s international economic and political influence growing, learners, especially those who were not of Chinese descent (a few of my interviewees were, and that led me down yet another fascinating sociolinguistic rabbit hole), saw Mandarin Chinese as a conduit to understanding the nation and being able to relate to its people as friends or business partners. Others hoped to look for work in China, or had already worked or studied there, and liked the culture, food, and job opportunities. Others wanted to advance their academic or professional careers and demonstrate a willingness to learn new and difficult things. Some who were of Chinese descent spoke of their family history and heritage (though some of my Chinese-descended interviewees also spoke of conflicting feelings because their families spoke other Chinese languages, not Mandarin). Their aspirations and hopes centered greatly on making connections and increasing their understanding of the world.

As for Flow, many of my interviewees spoke of using technology and social media (such as WeChat) to learn or practice Mandarin and going to language “meet-ups”, in addition to going to private classes or taking courses in school. By and large they received information about the language from more “informal”, individualized channels typical of tech-savvy, socially-minded professionals and students in a large city. However, it should be noted that I connected with the majority of my interviewees via a regular language “meet-up” run by the Confucius Institute, which I have discussed in previous blog posts. While my interviewees were able to find a variety of sources of information about China and Mandarin Chinese through a combination of individual social networks, technology, and the commercial sector, many of them were receiving most of their knowledge about Mandarin Chinese through a government-sanctioned and controlled institution. I found this extremely interesting.

With regard to Lexicon, when I examined both how the Confucius Institute marketed itself, how the British government promoted its initiatives to increase the number of Mandarin Chinese learners in the UK, and how my interviewees talked about their experiences as learners, I found a significant emphasis on novelty and the instrumental value of learning Mandarin Chinese; it was new and unfamiliar, and it could lead to better career prospects. In my research interviews, while many participants expressed pessimism about their ability to attain fluency, they still couched their motivations and learning experiences in aspirational terms: better-paying jobs, career prospects, achievement, fascination.

The Confucius Institute’s promotional materials and teaching resources similarly emphasize both the utility and novelty/cultural significance of Mandarin Chinese. On Hanban’s About Us page, the first words that jumped out at me were “economy”, “rapid growth”, “demand” – while the second paragraph directly references comparable cultural/linguistic promotion institutions and the promotion of (a very specific version of) Chinese culture, the motivations behind Hanban’s promotion of Mandarin Chinese and the creation of Confucius Institutes are couched in economic and business terms. If you look at the main page, colorful pictures of performers in cultural costumes, children and educators meeting Chinese dignitaries adorn it, along with news of cultural events around the globe, which promote Chinese food, dance, and visual arts. Hanban/Confucius Institute’s promotional materials and curricula quite neatly match the cognition, flow, and lexicon of the learners I encountered in my research.

Finally, we come to Environment. My interviewees (few as they were), while diverse in age and ethnic background, were all relatively well-educated residents of London: a vast, multicultural, multilingual city with several universities (and associated Confucius Institutes) and easy access to individual, group, online, and offline Mandarin teaching and learning resources. London’s status as an economic hub (and the anxieties related to Brexit and general geopolitical changes at the time of my research) also likely played into my interviewees’ focus on Mandarin Chinese as a means to improve job opportunities.

So all things considered, I think that it’s safe to say that if we’re examining all of this through Hughes’ framework, at least in the context of my research, the Confucius Institute has done very well at reaching out to well-educated adult city dwellers by fulfilling their need for multiple learning platforms/options (language meet-ups, formal classes, online materials, official proficiency tests), and matching their aspiration/practicality-focused lexicon.

As I said earlier, I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t have Verbalisation when I was working on my dissertation, because I think that Hughes’ methodology for understanding an audience’s motivations and actions would have been an incredibly useful framework for my research, and for understanding sociolinguistics from a policy and marketing perspective.

In my last post, I briefly touched on the impact that the Catalonia independence referendum may have on other minority language communities and on how language and identity may play an ever more important role in geopolitics. As the world is torn between increasing fragmentation (independence movements, Brexit, US isolationism/protectionism) and the forces of globalization that may slow but likely will not be much diminished, how speech communities promote and transmit their languages, and information about their languages and cultures, to other members, to learners, and the world at large is becoming increasingly important.

Hughes, Sven. Verbalisation: The Power of Words to Drive Change. London: Verbalisation Limited, 2016.

Language Profiles: Catalan

It’s been a minute. Between my job, a lot of hectic-ness, and just plain forgetting, I haven’t updated this blog in a long, long time. But I’m back and ready to write more about all the wonderful things about language. I started this particular post a while ago, and in light of recent events, I think it’s a good one to put up. Enjoy!

My last language profile was on a European minority language (Breton), so I figured I would continue the pattern and give my first “C” language in my series of language profiles to Catalan: a Romance language spoken by about 9.5 million people in northeastern Spain, the Balearic Islands, southern France, and the island of Sardinia.

Catalan, a Romance language, is related to Spanish, French, and Portuguese (and by extension, Latin). If you look at Catalan text, you might think it looks a bit like a mashup between French and Spanish; for instance, let’s take a look at the first clause of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights):

Tots els éssers humans neixen lliures i iguals en dignitat i en drets. Són dotats de raó i de consciència, i han de comportar-se fraternalment els uns amb els altres.

(All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience, and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood)

Now of course, Catalan is grammatically, lexically, and phonologically distinct from French and Spanish, despite the similarities it shares with those two languages. Unlike Spanish, it elides (slides together with the next word) definite articles (e.g. instead of saying “el avi” – the grandfather – you would say “l’avi”). Unlike French, it has fewer words that change drastically with gender; compare and contrast the French garçon/fille (boy/girl) with the Catalan noi/noia. Make no mistake: Catalan is a unique language, and it has a rich and tumultuous history to boot.

Catalan first emerged as a written language in the Middle Ages, and after centuries of repression by Spanish-speaking kings, underwent a revitalization (the Renaixença) in the 19th century, as Catalán-speaking poets and other literary figures helped the language flourish artistically.

However, Catalan was again suppressed heavily in the 20th century. In France, as I mentioned in my post about Breton, Catalan and other minority languages were not recognized, protected, or promoted until the 1950s. In Spain, the dictator Francisco Franco (who ruled from 1939 to 1975) actively suppressed minority languages in favor of Spanish/Castilian supremacy — a slogan of the time was “si eres Español, habla Español” (If you are Spanish, speak Spanish).

Photo Credit: Carbonated.tv

Catalonia, the region of northeastern Spain where Catalan is spoken, had long agitated for independence or greater autonomy (which has culminated in the controversial independence referendum last week); by forcing Catalan out of the public sphere and tying nationality to language, Franco sent a message: your language and your nationality are illegitimate.

To that end, during Franco’s regime, Catalan lost its status as a co-official language. Teachers could not conduct lessons in Catalan. Films could only be in Spanish. Publicly performed songs could not be sung in Catalan — in fact, when a Catalan singer, Joan Manuel Serrat, was chosen to represent Spain in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest, he was forbidden from singing in his native language.

Today, Catalan is no longer as actively suppressed as it was under Franco, though groups in Catalonia continue to advocate for greater use of Catalan in schools and universities, government, the media, and the arts. Irene Boada of The Atlantic writes that paradoxically, Franco’s efforts to suppress Catalan and modern-day discrimination and under-representation only helped it flourish, and strengthen the bonds of the Catalan speech community.

Indeed, the power of Catalan language and identity is sometimes not considered in high-level discussions of the recent Catalonia independence referendum; while many analysts focus on the (quite important) economic issues that are driving calls for independence in Catalonia, it’s important to recognize that Catalans, like the Bengalis in what was then East Pakistan, are fighting for more than keeping a bit more tax money and trade revenue in their pockets; to many Catalans who voted “yes” in the referendum, this is a fight for self-determination. Whether or not you support Catalan independence, it’s really interesting to see how a minority language that survived centuries of repression is now taking center stage in world affairs, and what it means for other minority languages and speech communities around the world.


This Place is a Message: Linguistics and the Logistics of Nuclear Waste Disposal

Deep beneath the deserts of New Mexico, there is a repository of radioactive waste left over from researching and building nuclear weapons. This repository, called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), will, God and 19 billion dollars willing, store nuclear waste safely underground for the next ten thousand years.

When working out how to store nuclear waste safely for the next 10,000 years, language is a more crucial consideration than most people may think. Just for perspective, recall that 10,000 years ago, woolly mammoths were facing extinction, and known writing systems wouldn’t appear for another 5,000 years or so. If over the span of 10,000 years, humans went from no discernible writing systems, to simple pictographs, to the incredible plurality of ways we now communicate, imagine what changes another 10,000 years will bring to how we process and convey information.

A nuclear waste repository, as you may have guessed, has a lot of important information to convey. Most crucially, it has to tell people to stay away, or if they must enter, how to do so safely. In 2016, a simple multilanguage warning sign that says “DANGER – NUCLEAR WASTE STORED HERE. STAY OUT!” probably suffices; will it in 10,000 years?

A group of researchers brought in to consult the Department of Energy on the construction of WIPP grapple with this specific problem. How do you talk to people (or Klingons, for all we know) who may process and convey information in ways radically different from how we do today?

The researchers conceptualized their task as imparting multiple levels of information on future interlopers:

Something man-made is here.

The man-made thing here is dangerous.

The dangerous man-made thing is nuclear waste, which the US government buried 700 meters beneath this area in [YEAR].

From here on out, the information can become more complicated: charts, scientific reports, survey maps, et cetera.

In a way, we go through these multiple levels of information any time we interact with information of any sort. Let’s apply this system to a picture of the White House:

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is a building.

This building is very important and grand.

This building is very important and grand because it is where the President of the United States lives and works.

This building is called the White House, it was completed in 1800 and has been the residence of every US president since John Adams…

We might get to the third level or layer of information in a split second. Our brains can process all of those levels of information fairly quickly. This is because we have a wealth of cultural and historical resources to draw from when we decode what that picture is of and what both the picture and its subject might mean in a given context (and as I’ve hammered home on this blog repeatedly, context is everything).

The importance of context and culture in the levels of information we convey cannot be understated for warning signs. Take, for example, this symbol:

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This container has something in it.

What is in this container is dangerous, perhaps something that could kill me.

The potentially deadly thing in this container is a poisonous chemical.

And so on.

That’s all well and good, but we run into a very big problem when we use this symbol. What if you saw this on a container:

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

This container has something in it.

What is in this container must be related to pirates.

The contents of this container are fun pirate-themed accoutrements.

Now, most people can glean from context whether or not the container they’re holding is sulfuric acid or a bottle of pirate rum (why is it always gone?), but this demonstrates how similar symbols can mean very different things.

When proposing plans for WIPP’s construction, researchers wanted to avoid this very problem. The main plan of attack was to find symbols that universally mean danger or something inhospitable and bad, and to make sure that the facility couldn’t be mistaken for something valuable, historically interesting (though it is a historically interesting space, just not in an 8th grade field trip hotspot sort of way), or inviting to explorers or looters.

To that end, the researchers discouraged using symbols that suggest fear, toughness, or awe, since those symbols haven’t discouraged humans from exploring and looting ancient sites.

“We decided against simple “Keep Out” messages with scary faces. Museums and private collections abound with such guardian figures removed from burial sites. These earlier warning messages did not work because the intruder knew that the burial goods were valuable. We did decide to include faces portraying horror and sickness…Such faces would relate to the potential intruder wishing to protect himself or herself, rather than to protect a valued resource from thievery.” (Sandia National Laboratories, 1993)

This design principle has also been applied to the poison warnings I mentioned earlier. Doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center saw that the standard skull-and-crossbones warning did little to deter children from drinking or eating poisonous substances (especially in the home city of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team). With the help of child focus groups, UPMC developed Mr. Yuk, whose unappealing green color and disgusted facial expression may better convey the message “don’t eat this! It’s bad for you!” than a skull and crossbones.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

The warning symbols the WIPP researchers used were very similar to Mr. Yuk:

Photo credit: Department of Energy, Sandia National Laboratories

In both of these cases, we see how human facial expressions — more culturally universal than many “danger” symbols — can better convey danger and avoidance than “fearsome” symbols that can have dramatically different meanings and connotations in different contexts.

Besides warning messages, the researchers at Sandia National Laboratories brainstormed ways to use the architecture of the WIPP site to reinforce the verbal and graphic warnings. The researchers cautioned against using symmetrical forms or valuable, attractive materials, which can suggest commemoration or a hope that future generations would come to venerate, appreciate, or use the site, but they also stated that the site should be grand in scale and demonstrate vast human effort to construct it. When you looked at the picture of the White House and recognized that it was a very grand and important building, that was because it was large, well-maintained, and beautifully ornamented in the Georgian/Greek Revival style, topped with the national flag. Its size and workmanship say “I’m important to a lot of people! Look at me!” The WIPP site’s size and workmanship must say something similar, albeit in a very different context: “I’m here on purpose! I’m important! But stay far away!”

One of the researchers suggested a field of “thorns” or giant spikes covering the site, since those shapes, both in nature and in human cultures, suggest intimidation and danger — keep away from me. Plants have thorns to prevent animals from eating them. Many animals have spikes or quills for self-defense. Humans sometimes wear clothing or hairstyles with spiky or thorny motifs to suggest toughness and ferocity, deviation from social norms, or suffering (i.e. a crown of thorns).

The field of thorns and the other proposed designs all endeavor to convey at least the first two levels of information we’ve previously discussed:

Something man-made is here.

The man-made thing here is dangerous.

However, for a little more poetry, the proposed message to display and convey at the site best sums it up:

This place is a message…and part of a system of messages…pay attention to it!

Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here…nothing valued is here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

The danger is in a particular location…it increases toward a center…the center of danger is here…of a particular size and shape, and below us.

The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.

The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.

The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.

(Sandia National Laboratories, 1993)

When we think and talk about language, we cannot overlook the role symbols and images play in communication, and how we translate images and emblems and concepts into words, emotions, or actions. Maybe 10,000 years from now, our words and symbols will be very different, though if all of our messages in stone and concrete fail to deter curious future earthlings, at least Keith Richards will be around to tell them to steer clear.

Switch It Up: Code-Switching as an L1 English Speaker

If you study linguistics even in passing, you’ll come across the phenomenon of code-switching: when a language speaker switches between one or more languages, dialects, or registers in their speech, as often as in mid-sentence. It’s incredibly common among multilingual people; I’d hazard to say that it’s almost inevitable when two or more languages collide, whether in society at large or in one person’s brain.

Until far too recently, people commonly regarded code-switching and code-mixing as “impure” or “incorrect” speech. However, this attitude is being challenged in the linguistics world, and scholars and language teachers are beginning to see code-switching as a valid, vivid form of communication and self-expression.

Code-switching among English learners or simultaneous bilinguals/multilinguals is quite well-documented, but there are far fewer studies of code-switching among L1 English speakers learning another language.

I’m mainly interested in this because of my personal experiences as a language learner. As a Mandarin learner living in China, I frequently code-switched — in fact, I code-switched in different ways depending on whom I was talking to. When I spoke to other L1 English speakers who were learning Mandarin, I spoke primarily in English peppered with Mandarin phrases. For instance, you might hear me or my friends say something like: “Ugh, my students were so 调皮 (tiaopi — naughty) today…where should we go out tonight?” “I dunno, I’m pretty 无所谓 (wu suo wei — indifferent). Let’s grab a 面包车 (mianbaoche — minivan/minibus) and go to that 耳丝 (ersi — rice noodles) place downtown.” “Awesome, 走吧! (zou ba — let’s go, or just go in the imperative)”

In my particular experience (which I acknowledge some Western expats might not share), using Mandarin words while speaking English was primarily a way to signal a form of cultural competence. It was a way of demonstrating your proficiency in Mandarin as an English speaker and your knowledge of Chinese culture. However, as I mentioned earlier, I mostly spoke this way with other English speakers, not with Mandarin speakers; my cultural posturing, conscious or unconscious, was directed at other expats.

When I spoke with L1 Mandarin speakers, it was the opposite; I mostly spoke Mandarin, but threw in an English word here and there, or switched entirely to English when I reached the limits of my language skills. Here, my code-switching was less to demonstrate how devastatingly clever and culturally integrated I am, and more a practicality. Every day I ran into words and expressions that never came up in my textbooks or classes. Sometimes the Mandarin translation of a word was a tad clunky. At first I felt bad for doing it — using English as a crutch — but I was relieved when I would hear my Chinese coworkers code-switching constantly. “你收到了我 email 吗?” (did you get my email?) “我还没做完了那个 quarterly report.” (I haven’t finished the quarterly report yet).

I put two characters in bold in my last example: 那个 (nage, though pronounced in some areas as neige, pronounced nay-guh*). 那个literally means “that [measure word]” (in Mandarin, a measure word is similar to the English “a loaf of bread” or “a glass of water”; 个 is the most general, catch-all measure word — there are many others used for specific classes of things, like long and thin things, flat objects, clothing, pairs of items, et cetera). 那个 has come to function a lot like “like” in American English, in that it has a specific grammatical function, but is frequently used as a filler word. In particular, I noticed that native Mandarin speakers and Mandarin learners tend to use 那个 before an English word. In my own speech and in my coworkers’ speech, using 那个 both signaled that you were about to switch to English, and/or that you were searching for the correct word in either Mandarin or English. The more you said 那个, the more elusive the word was.

The words I observed people code-switching the most tended to be related to technology, business, and pop culture, especially if there was no direct translation into Mandarin, or if the Mandarin translation sounded too formal or stilted. Email, WeChat, Facebook, OMG, Private Equity. Of course, my observations are colored by the Chinese friends I made in Shanghai and London: young, tech-savvy professionals and students who had been positively steeped in both Chinese and American popular culture. I observed and took part in far less (and quite different) code-switching in rural Yunnan Province.

As is true for code-switchers in any language, I wouldn’t code-switch unless I was sure that my conversation partner would understand the second language in my speech. Unless I knew that a fellow expat spoke Mandarin, I’d stick to plain English. Unless I knew that a Chinese person knew some English and was my social equal, I would try to speak only Mandarin. My general rule of thumb was not to code-switch until my conversation partner demonstrated or at least indicated that they understood both Mandarin and English.

When I was studying Mandarin in school, I was constantly discouraged from this sort of code-switching: mixing up your English and your Mandarin, contaminating them, revealing that you don’t know a word. I was supposed to employ circumlocution, and then write the elusive word ten times, not say 那个 three times and just say it in English before abruptly switching back to Mandarin. It took me a long time to embrace code-switching in my everyday speech. Now, I’m glad that I have, and I think that it’s enriched my vocabulary and taught me a lot about both languages. Nothing in English rolls off the tongue like 无所谓. Email is less of a mouthful than 电子邮件. More broadly, switching between two languages has helped me learn to think on my feet and employ multiple ways of conceptualizing the world around me and expressing myself.

It’s also helped me feel more confident as a Mandarin speaker; contrary to the popular wisdom I heard when I was still in school, knowing that I could just throw in an English word here and there while speaking Mandarin didn’t make me complacent or lazy as a language learner — on the contrary, it lessened my language anxiety and spurred me to speak more; I could always get corrected or consult my dictionary after I’d said what I wanted to say. I feel confident saying that my Mandarin improved immensely after I allowed myself to code-switch more.

In the future (maybe in that weird alternate universe where I go nuts and decide to get a PhD), I’d love to do an in-depth study of code-switching by L1 English speakers, especially those who learn a second language later in life. I wonder if the sort of dual code-switching I experienced and absorbed during my time in China happens to other language learners. I also wonder if the social rules for code-switching, known almost instinctively by simultaneous multilinguals and English learners, are different for L1 English speakers. I also wonder how common my experience in which code-switching improved my language skills really is among language learners, and if and how teachers can make code-switching an effective tool in language classrooms.



*Yup, it’s pronounced similar to the word you’re thinking of. It’s pretty awkward when you first learn it.

Language Profiles: Breton (Brezhoneg)

When we think of Celtic languages, we imagine the lush green hills of Ireland, the windswept coasts (and absurdly long place names) of Wales, or perhaps the rugged landscapes of Scotland. But one Celtic language springs from somewhere a bit different: France.

Breton is a Celtic language spoken in northwestern France, first brought to the European mainland by emigrés from the British Isles in the early Middle Ages. It’s most closely related to Cornish, which is spoken in the far south of England (sadly, the last purported L1 speaker of Cornish died in the 19th century, but today there are relatively successful efforts to revive it). It’s also distantly related to Welsh.

Unfortunately, like its Celtic siblings, Breton has quite a sad history as a suppressed minority language. According to the International Committee for the Defense of the Breton Language, efforts to quash Breton as a spoken and written language began in the 1840s and continued, with official sanction, for over a century. Until 1951, with the passage of the Deixonne Law (note: linked content is in French), children were forbidden from speaking, let alone learning, Breton and other minority languages (such as Catalan, Occitan, and Basque) in French schools. Today, only just over 200,000 people speak it as an everyday language. Only quite recently have there been efforts to promote Breton and encourage children to learn and speak it.

Because Breton is so severely endangered and was suppressed as an everyday language for so long, there isn’t very much mainstream or international media that features it, but it does appear in some unexpected places. The soundtrack to the 2001 film Black Hawk Down included a song in Breton called Gortoz A Ran (I’m Waiting) by the Breton singer-songwriter Denez Prigent, who writes lyrics exclusively in Breton and draws from Breton musical traditions to create and perform songs that comment on contemporary environmental and social problems.

You’ll be heartened to know that thanks to the work of Breton-speaking artists like Denez Prigent and minority language rights activists, Breton is staging a comeback. If you drive through Brittany in northern France, street signs are bilingual. There are now Breton-language television and radio programs, and schoolchildren can now speak and study Breton in their classrooms, though there is a shortage of teachers and many Breton-language programs are losing funding, which has sparked vigorous protests from Breton activists. People are finally beginning to recognize and celebrate Breton, but there’s still a long way to go.

In my last Language Profile, I talked about the Bengali language, and how the passion with which its speakers defended their rights to speak and celebrate it fueled social movements that changed South Asia forever. Breton is another example of how central language is to our political and social identities, and how important language rights are, especially in a rapidly globalizing world where English and a few other “standard” languages dominate.

Note: The research I did on the history of Breton as a minority language in France was incredibly interesting, and I’m hoping to expand that into a companion piece of sorts about the history of minority languages in France and how France’s language policy contrasts with those of other countries.

I’m also trying to figure out if it’s better to keep my sources as hyperlinks within the text of the post, or to list everything as a bibliography at the end. I’m trying out both formats to see which one has a better look and feel.

Throwback Thesaurus – Retronyms and How Technology Changes Our Vocabulary

“When I was your age, a rotary phone was just the ‘phone’,” my mom told me many years ago. That’s just one small example of a linguistic phenomenon called “retronyms”: words and terms invented to reflect technological advances, and retroactively distinguish old technology from new. Acoustic guitar, black and white television, landline phone, dial-up internet, brick-and-mortar store, the list goes on. If “rotary phone” is anything to go by, a retronym is often a sure sign that a form of technology has become obsolete, and what’s taken its place is the new normal.

But what I find especially interesting isn’t the end result when the new technology is the default — TV vs. black and white TV, for instance — but that in-between stage: color vs. black and white, digital vs. analog, et cetera. That moment before a new piece of technology’s qualifiers (color, electric, digital, e-whatever) disappear marks when two forms of tech exist side-by-side and must jockey for position in our lives and culture. Sometimes, they can peacefully coexist, as the need for the old technology is still there: acoustic vs. electric guitar, for example. Other times, the new technology’s qualifier slowly fades from the public lexicon. Cellphone comes to mind. At least among my peers, who often don’t even bother to install landlines, a cellphone is just one’s phone. Even still, the qualifier cell/mobile is still necessary in many contexts, because landline phones (your work phone and your home phone) are still a part of our technological landscape, just in a greatly reduced capacity.

In an age where it seems like newfangled tech is announced or launched every week, we’re seeing this in-between stage more and more. Smart/streaming TV vs. cable TV, e-cigs vs. nicotine cigarettes, CG vs. traditional animation. Some qualifiers will be here to stay, but how long until smart TV is just TV, and cable TV is some old relic from your grandparents’ younger days? How long until “electronic boarding pass” is just your plain old boarding pass? Maybe in a few years, we’ll be sitting back in our sleek Teslas giggling at the old fuddy-duddies in their human-driven cars.

These lexical transitions reveal a lot about how we use language. When we drop qualifiers for new technology, it indicates changes to what we perceive as “normal” or obvious enough to be left unspoken. I don’t need to tell the saleswoman at Best Buy that I want a color TV, for instance, because I can easily and rightly assume that color comes standard on every TV available. It is no longer worth noting that a television has color.

I’ve cautioned against over-extension of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis — the idea that language dictates thought, culture, and mindsets — but the emergence and evolution of retronyms is a great example of the way we use and curate language to define what is normal, commonplace, or taken-for-granted in our everyday lives, and what is abnormal or unexpected. Furthermore, retronyms are a great example of how quickly we can adapt language to changing circumstances and contexts. If we think of language as a tool for interpreting and navigating our world, that we can bolt on or take off certain lexical items as needed makes it a very useful tool indeed, and makes us highly adept and innovative tool-users.



Leaders of the Free Word: Presidential Neologisms Past and Present

Believe me, a lot of people –the best people– have told me that Donald Trump used the adverb “bigly” in the first presidential debate on Monday (though others say he was saying “big league”). Now, however you feel about The Donald, I think it’s important to remember that he is not the first guy with his eye on the Oval Office to use some unexpected phraseology.

Just a few short years ago, American satirists, writers, and pundits had a field day with George W. Bush’s famous “they misunderestimated me” — was it a portmanteau of “misunderstood” and “underestimated”? Was it just an extra syllable added to “underestimated”? Either way, the word came to represent the popular image of President Bush as a bit of a buffoon with a penchant for malapropisms (Bushisms, as they came to be known).

Another president popularized a word that we frequently use today, though not without the same sorts of contemporary criticisms levied at Bush. On May 14th, 1920, then-presidential candidate Warren Harding delivered a speech in which he appealed for “normalcy” in American society after the cataclysm of World War I. Journalists of the day roundly mocked Harding for using the word, which they viewed as a corruption of “normality”. However, “normalcy” was indeed a word, with its first recorded use in print ten years before Harding’s birth.

Although her White House (well, Blair House) dreams were never realized, former VP hopeful Sarah Palin tweeted in 2010 that American Muslims must “refudiate” a mosque in Lower Manhattan near the site of the World Trade Center. Like Bush 10 years before her, Palin seemed to create a portmanteau of two words which would both work in the context of her statement: refute and repudiate.

After coming under fire for her missive (which she soon deleted), Palin responded that the English language is not set in stone and new words are coined all the time. I make no secret of my vehement disagreement with Sarah Palin’s views, but for once, I agree with her here. As Harding’s “normalcy” demonstrates, we can and do add new or unfamiliar words to our lexicon pretty readily; that’s one of the beauties of English and language in general. As I mentioned in my review of Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech, the flexibility and adaptability of language reflects our own adaptability, flexibility, and ingenuity as a species, which has allowed us to dominate the planet (for better or for worse).

Of course, having an extensive, flexible vocabulary that one can use correctly is an important asset, especially in a speech-heavy profession like politics; however, no matter how we may feel about a politician, we should not be so quick to vituperate (or refudiate, as it were) perceived verbal gaffes — after all, we may be saying those words completely unironically soon enough.


Condon, Stephanie. (2010). Palin’s “Refudiate” Tweet on Mosque Near Ground Zero Draws Fire (for Substance and Style). CBS News. Accessed 30 September 2016. Retrieved From: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/palins-refudiate-tweet-on-mosque-near-ground-zero-draws-fire-for-substance-and-style/

No Author. (2016). Did Warren Harding Coin “Normalcy”? Merriam-Webster. Accessed 30 September 2016. Retrieved From: http://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/did-warren-harding-coin-normalcy

No Author. “Top 10 Bushisms”. Time. Accessed 30 September 2016. Retrieved From: http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1870938_1870943_1870945,00.html.

Harding, Warren G., “Back to Normal: Address Before Home Market Club,” Boston, Massachusetts, May 14, 1920. From Schortemeier, Frederick E., ed. Rededicating America: Life and Recent Speeches of Warren G. Harding. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill), 1920, pp. 223-229. Retrieved From: http://livefromthetrail.com/about-the-book/speeches/chapter-3/senator-warren-g-harding.