Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Deaf Culture and Language Politics
I've been following the NPR coverage of the student protests at Gallaudet University with interest. For those who haven't, or have no idea why Gallaudet is unique, well, the opening blurb of the most recent story sums it up nicely:
In Washington, at Gallaudet University, the nation's only liberal arts school for the deaf, many students, faculty and alumni continue their protests against Jane Fernandes. She's the woman chosen to be the school's next president. She's deaf, but some protesters don't like that she grew up speaking and reading lips, before she learned sign language. Others resent the tough decisions she's made as a long-time administrator.
The second sentence there is representative of what I find so fascinating about the whole thing, and the Deaf Culture movement in general.

She's deaf, but some protesters don't like that she grew up speaking and reading lips, before she learned sign language.

Deaf Culture, to me, seems to be in a rather unique place, in that it is so inextricably linked to its language. Many Deaf Culture supporters don't just want people to treat deaf people like normal human beings, they want deaf people to accede to and conform to a distinct culture apart from the culture of the hearing. The idea that Fernandes learned to speak vocally and to read lips says to them that she will be a president of the college who will be more willing to bend to pressures from "the outside." Kind of a touchy subject, since the president she is taking over from, I. King Jordan, was the first deaf president of the college, ever. (To be clear, he supports Fernandes and is saddened by the protests.) The use of sign language is to some the only acceptable form of non-written speech, and is often used as the demarcating line in the sand.

When I was briefly able to take an ASL class while in college, I really enjoyed our instructor's explanations of different aspects of Deaf Culture. The positive and affirming aspects of it are excellent, and the sense of community is very empowering. But then I also hear stories about DC advocates who claim that deaf children born to hearing parents should be taken away and placed with DC approved deaf families, so that they might grow up only among "their own kind," and needless to say will always speak through signing.

I thought they also did a really good job of showing the two sides of this struggle several years ago on the TV show ER, when Peter's son was diagnosed deaf and he immediately began considering a cochlear implant. As the explanatory website there states, "An implant does not restore normal hearing. Instead, it can give a deaf person a useful representation of sounds in the environment and help him or her to understand speech."

The doctor he was consulting with about his son, though, was also deaf, and she argued with him convincingly about allowing his son to grow up as deaf, celebrating that part of him, rather than mechanically forcing him to conform to the hearing world's perceived norms.

The NPR commentary report following the Gallaudet story was an interesting look at how such disability acceptance and disability culture movements are moving beyond the deaf community: Limbaugh, Not Fox, Has His Priorities Wrong*

*And it makes Rush Limbaugh look like the idiot he is, which is always a bonus.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Tatami Fern
I am in the process of killing another plant, a fern this time. The woman I bought it from said that I could put it the shower and let it enjoy some pretend rain. So I did, and then my entire apartment smelled like wet fern. I became confused, though, when I realized that the smell was making me feel rather disconnected, like I was in the wrong place, the wrong apartment.

And then I realized... the wet fern smelled like tatami mats, and my apartment here only has wooden floors. I was in the wrong apartment, as far as my nose was concerned.

I do enjoy my central heat and hot water, but I miss Japan, too.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Pragmatics Cause Split Personalities!
For no particular reason the other day, I found myself mulling over the effects of pragmatics on speech in multiple languages, or rather, its effects on the speaker. Then David Beaver at Langauge Log posted about a study on the apparent change in personality that happens when bilingual speakers answer a questionnaire in one language and then the other.

As Beaver points out, the Daily Telegraph doesn't really get it right when it reports that, "The results showed that English-speaking Americans are typically more conscientious, agreeable and outgoing than native Mexicans, but also less neurotic." I actually think he was kind in saying that he can find some results in the study that are close to what the Telegraph interpreted the overall results to be, but then, he was trying to be nice on purpose.

The attitude that started me thinking about the whole thing, and which the Telegraph seems to be operating under, is the persistent Sapir-Whorfian idea that languages can change our personalities and the very way we think. Many people have been convinced that such power exists in the words, the vocabulary of the languages, such as in Samuel Delany's Babel-17 and the trusty example of George Orwell's Newspeak. It's an attractive theory, and I can see why. People often act differently when they speak different languages. What are languages made up of? Words. Why would we act differently when speaking different words? Because they form our thoughts! They influence our thinking! Insidious, sneaky words.

However, I was pleased to see that the researchers themselves put it more reasonably:
...However, many bilinguals report a slightly different experience, suggesting that their personalities actually changes as they switch languages.

We recently attempted to examine this question (Ramirez-Esparza, Gosling, Benet-Martinez, Potter, & Pennebaker, 2006). In particular, we hypothesized that since language can trigger thoughts and feelings associated with a particular culture, then the personality shift should be in accordance with the values and attitudes associated with that culture.
To me, though, what they are not really addressing is that all that contextual stuff "associated with a particular culture" is already a part of linguistics, namely, pragmatics. A huge part of communication, as opposed to just speech, is all the stuff that happens to the side, or just under the surface. Communicatively competent people change the way they try to communicate with different people with whom they have different shared contexts. My IT-ish friends, for example, have to talk to me much differently than they talk to each other, because I do not share much of the same background when it comes to technological subjects. I, of course, have to adjust my explanations of linguistics for them as well. Does this mean I'm splitting my personality? That I'm changing the way I interact in accordance with the vocabulary I'm using? Not really.

In foreign/second language teaching, every teacher quickly discovers that a lot of what they have to figure out how to teach is pragmatics, or "politeness." Yes, we can teach our students vocabulary and let them wander off to another country translating everything directly from their native language to their second language. But if we do, we know they'll be treated like aliens, idiots, and most likely considered rather rude. They have to learn to conform to the communicative norms of the society they will be entering with their new language, or they will not actually be communicating what they wish to.

I've had arguments with Mark about this, mostly over how when he was in Japan, he refused to refer to McDonald's as "Makudonarudo," because he was pronouncing it right, dang it. But he wasn't conforming to the pragmatic communicative norms of Japanese, and thus, native speakers could not communicate smoothly with him.

This of course extends beyond phonology to body language, speech patterns, social positioning, and on and on. Some countries' communicative contexts differ more widely from our own, and are therefore more jarring. The fact that the sounds and vocabulary of the language is different draws more attention to the fact that the difference is one between two groups, leading people to blame the language. But it's the social communicative context that demands a shift in communicative strategies. The words aren't affecting the speakers' minds, except as a further cue that they have to use a different set of rules. In the end, this usually results in using a different approach to the world as a whole, but I don't see this as a creation of dual personalities so much as a broadening of one's horizons.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Inspiration from Margaret Sanger
I just came across Margaret Sanger's "This I Believe" recording from 1953. Sanger's work and life is inspiring enough, as a person dedicated to contraceptive rights and the founder of (what eventually became) Planned Parenthood, but hearing her talk about it, and what in turn inspired her, is amazing. From her speech:
There is an old Indian proverb which has inspired me in the work of my adult life. "Build thou beyond thyself, but first be sure that thou, thyself, be strong and healthy in body and mind." To build, to work, to plan to do something, not for yourself, not for your own benefit, but "beyond thyself"–and when this idea permeates the mind, you begin to think in terms of a future...

No matter what it may cost in health, in misunderstanding, in sacrifice, something had to be done, and I felt that I was called by the force of circumstances to do it. Because of my philosophy and my work, my life has been enriched and full. My interests have expanded from local conditions and needs, to a world horizon, where peace on earth may be achieved when children are wanted before they are conceived. A new conciousness will take place, a new race will be born to bring peace on earth. This belief has withstood the crucible of my life's joyous struggle. It remains my basic belief today.
I have no really concrete idea about how I might turn my own interests to building beyond myself, but it's a worthy goal to have.

NPR has revived the "This I Believe" series for more current inspiration as well. Past essays are chronicled here.

And I have now managed to talk about NPR often enough that a friend told me last night he associates it with me now when he listens to it. They should be paying me.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Is Cheap Housing Really Cheap?
Yesterday, Marketplace covered an issue that is becoming a bigger problem in the US, but which not many people seem to be thinking about: Housing costs vs. costly commutes.

When I moved back to North Carolina, I ended up in an envious position. I have a reasonably priced apartment in a very convenient semi-urban location, only a mile from my 30-hour-per-week job (with benefits.) Though not full-time, it's a job I can enjoy doing, and it leaves me with plenty of time to pursue my own interests as I try to figure out what direction I want to take my life in next. My apartment may not have the best bathroom tiling or the most up-to-date electrical wiring, but it's plenty big enough for me and in a nice neighborhood. However, the most important thing that I understand about my situation is that it is unusual and I am incredibly lucky.

If I hadn't found this apartment, the only other ones with comparably reasonable rent rates were another 20-30 minutes away, on the outskirts of what might really be considered the city. If my job were located in the Research Triangle Park, or Durham, or Chapel Hill, again, it would be 20-30 minutes away. If my job didn't provide benefits, I couldn't afford them for myself. And if my job or my apartment required me to drive so far so regularly, I'd be hard-pressed to afford all the gas for my car, (which I am borrowing from my parents, and for which the pay the insurance, because they are wonderful people.) Were my situation only a tiny bit different, I would be in dire straits, and I know it. This scares me, because there are so many people out there who are trying to live their lives on less than me.

Where has all the affordable housing gone? Why does it seem that the affordable housing keeps moving farther and farther away, negating whatever benefit the lower rent might have by correspondingly higher transportation costs? Why are no real estate development companies interested in constructing socially responsible, good, affordable housing in economically sensible places? Why do they only seem to want to tear down the affordable housing to rebuild giant, energy-inefficient, unnecessary megahouses?

Why does it seem like the world runs backwards in our country right now?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Book Recommendations from the Literati
I've been interested to note a sort of pro-books and reading, anti-airport-literature trend going on in the parts of the media world I am willing to expose myself to. I doubt this should be much of a surprise, but I'm interested in the way it's being structured so similarly, but from two different, seemingly unrelated places.

Last year, a publisher sent me a copy of Anne Fadiman's edited book Rereadings. She put together 17 columns from the journal American Scholar in which various authors wrote about rereading their favorite childhood books, and how the experience changed with their own change in life perspective. The idea was fascinating to me, and the columns very good, although my overall impression ended up being that most truly "literary" people don't read the same kinds of things I do. There's probably a reason I wasn't an English major.

Now, NPR has been running a series for a while as well, called "You Must Read This". Again, authors are asked about their favorite books, though in this case it's more of a straightforward recommendation, rather than an introspective exploration of the act of reading. It's interesting to hear the reasons people recommend the books they do in such a public forum, sort of like being in a book club without having to interact. And really, they do end up just being people recommending books, from my perspective, because inevitably I haven't heard of the authors giving their recommendations before, but that's okay.

I would be kind of interested to know if the NPR series is having an impact on what people are reading, since it is a much more widely accessed way of getting the word out than the Fadiman book. Perhaps I'll write more about Fadiman's concept of rereading in the future.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Fort of Knowledge Under Construction

I noticed I'm going through one of those stay in my house and read all the time with little social interaction phases again. It's rather fun. I'll probably come out of the fort once I feel sufficiently knowledgable again. Or I find something fascinating I have to share.

(Yay, Sinfest!)

Friday, October 06, 2006

"Ignore Your Rights and They'll Go Away"
Today, one of the people on an email discussion list I'm a part of posed the following question:
I was listening to NPR interviewing rural voters this morning and they were all talking about how, despite the controversy that the Republicans have been getting into, they consider themselves pro-life, and thus they will continue to vote Republican. So my question for today is:

Should the Democrats give up the pro-choice battle to regain relevance in rural America (thus leading to more power, etc?) Is the pro-life/pro-choice issue worth alienating such huge swaths of the country as it seems to?
I certainly have very strong feelings about this issue, but I found it particularly interesting right now, coming as it does right after hearing several complaints from a German friend who recently moved to South Dakota and has been shocked at how permissive the university is there toward anti-abortion activists. The interesting thing is that I object to both the idea of anti-abortion legislation and my German friend's desire that such activists be restricted for the same reason.

For me, it has always been obvious that every woman should have the option to make a personal choice about whether or not to have an abortion. That's why it's called pro-choice. This is why I equate the issue of pro-choice laws with freedom of speech laws. There are lots of people who say things I don't agree with, and I may really wish I could change their minds, but I will certainly defend their right to say whatever they want, because freedom for them is freedom for me is freedom for everyone, and this kind of freedom is what our country is supposed to be based on.

Ruling against abortion takes away freedoms and rights from at least half the population, with no choice at all allowed, and that is wrong. Just because some people believe life starts at/before conception, or that women deserve to be barefoot and pregnant, or the Pope's direct line to God forbids it, or any other thing, that does not give them the right to force their own personal beliefs on the rest of the country just because they disagree. They have every right to try to convince women not to have abortions, but they do NOT have the right to forbid it.

As I said at the end of my email in response to the question, we can't give up on this issue, because it is a slippery slope, not just for reproductive rights and women's rights, but for all rights.

This is why I have such a hard time finding ways and reasons to argue about this issue, because the right, obvious, human, American answer seems so blatant that it seems almost rude to have to bring it to anyone's attention.

More on other thoughts on patriotism later.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Rolling Stone Attracts No Allergens
There is a distinct danger in my living in one place for very long. You see, this is the first month of my lease renewal, marking the beginning of the first time I will have lived in one dwelling for more than a year since I graduated from high school. And indeed, the danger has come to pass: the allergens have found me.

I haven't had allergies this bad in forever and ever, and because I'm no longer used to them, they feel that much worse. After I had been on antihistamines pretty much non-stop for a week, I decided to seek professional help. I staged a contest between Eastern and Western medicine that Monday morning, calling both an accupuncturist and the allergist/asthma doctor who has seen me since I was two years old. The accupuncturist saw me that afternoon. The allergist scheduled me three weeks away, with orders that I take no antihistamines for 5 days before I arrived, so he could do a new panel of allergy tests. I figure if I had been only relying on the allergist, I'd be dead by the time the appointment rolled around, or at least wish I was. (On the other hand, I have jury duty two days before that, so I figure I'll get out of being selected simply by looking like I'm going to keel over any minute.) After my first trip to the accupuncturist, I was able to stop existing solely by reliance on antihistamines.

I've actually seen the accupuncturist twice now, and I have to say that the one good thing about living in one place long-term is that I can actually take the time to have enough treatments to have a significant effect on my allergies. My dad had his seasonal allergies essentially killed by his accupuncturist years ago, and I've been wishing I could do the same for some time. Maybe, at the end of this, I'll be able to travel to Florida again, land of asthma-inducing pollens! That would please my grandparents, certainly. Oh, the possibilities!

It'll be interesting to see the Western allergist in two weeks and find out what all I'm really allergic to now, but other than that, I'm betting he'll just want to put me back on steroid treatments that only target the symptoms and not the root problem. This all sort of reminds me of the argument I heard between two of the doctors at the hospital I was teaching at in China, about the merits of the two different medical approaches. Perhaps when my allergies clear some more, I'll have something insightful to say.

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