Every few months it seems, another article or blog post comes out making sensationalist claims like “Texting is destroying our language!” and “Kids today don’t know how to write anymore thanks to texting and emoji!” In this great TED Talk, linguist John McWhorter makes the case for why texting does not mean the death of good writing skills, and even shares some positive linguistic and cultural aspects of this new communication medium.
“Linguistic discrimination”, also known as “linguicism”, is one of the darkest corners of sociolinguistics, but also one of the most fascinating. Though it’s a complex and highly controversial topic, in simple terms, linguicism is defined as: The unfair treatment of an individual based on their native language, dialect, accent, vocabulary, word choice, syntax, etc. Sadly, this form of discrimination can be found in every corner of the globe. As I’ve traveled the world—and even different pockets of my home country—I have witnessed countless cases of people being treated better or worse based on their native tongue or regional dialect.
As a teacher, blogger, and coach in language learning, I’ve heard just about every excuse there is for why one can’t learn a foreign language. Here are the most common, limiting, and ultimately untrue beliefs: 1) “Learning languages is really difficult, especially non-Romance languages like Japanese.” 2) “I don’t have enough time, money, or language ability to learn a language.” 3) “I don’t live where the language is spoken.” 4) “I’m too old to learn a language.” While learning to speak a new tongue might be easier or more convenient for some people (e.g. those who have hours of free time available each day, deep financial resources, the freedom to travel frequently or move abroad, etc.), it is imperative to understand that anyone can learn a language well if they: 1) Prioritize language learning in their lives. 2) Do the right things consistently (heaps of listening and reading input and heaps of active speaking and writing output). 3) Change their beliefs about language learning.
In the world of language learning, there are actually two main kinds of memory, not just one: declarative and procedural. Both play a role but it’s important to understand the difference between the two and get a balanced “language diet” of both.
One of the most frustrating challenges I have encountered throughout my diverse career in language, linguistics, education, government, startups, consulting, and nutrition is the widespread use of clunky, confusing language. In many ways, learning the ins and outs of Academese, Bureaucratese, Corporatese, Legalese, and Medicalese have proven much more challenging than Japanese and Chinese! And it turns out I am not alone in my frustration with overly complex, stilted language. In this great talk by cognitive psycholinguist Steven Pinker, an academic who refreshingly avoids most Academese himself, he argues that w e should simplify written communication using “Classic Style” (a clear, conversational writing style that places the writer and reader as equals so that the latter can see the world through the former’s eyes) as opposed to the Postmodern Style (a cumbersome, bloated style that prioritizes communicating the intelligence of the writer).
We’ve all been there. We find ourselves standing in the language section of Barnes and Noble staring lustfully at the colorful rows of shiny new books, thinking naïvely to ourselves, “This is the missing resource. If I just buy this book, I can finally make some real progress!” It’s a perfectly natural instinct, and I admit that I have succumbed to it myself an embarrassing number of times. I’ve excitedly purchased language learning books that ended up sitting on my shelf unopened. I’ve joined online membership sites, bought apps, or made in-app purchases, only to rarely (if ever) open the sites or apps. It saddens me to think of how many trips I could now take using the money I have wasted on language learning tools and resources I never ended up using. You would think I would have learned my lesson by now, but the frustrating truth is that I will likely do the same thing again. Why do so many of us fall into this trap again and again?