Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Japanese and Social Positioning
Google Scholar is an evil, horrible, addictive timesink, and I did indeed recently get sucked in. All of which is just by way of introduction for how I came to be reading an article on learner subjectivity here in my supposedly post-academic life. The article, The Role of Learner Subjectivity in Language Sociolinguistic Competence: Western Women Learning Japanese, by Meryl Siegal, (Applied Linguistics 17(3), 1996) had some very interesting quotes in it that stood out to me as very neatly summing up exactly why true politeness in Japanese is so hard, and why I was often relieved to be foreign, so I could get away with not actually knowing.
[P]roper use of Japanese teaches one that a human being is always and inevitably involved in a multiplicity of social relationships. Boundaries between self and other are fluid and constantly changing, depending on context and on the social positioning people adopt in particular situations...

[A]wareness of complex social positioning is an inescapable element of any utterance in Japanese, for it is utterly impossible to form a sentence without also commenting on the relationship between oneself and one's interlocutor...
-Kondo 31
According the bibliography, these are from D. Kondo's Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace, 1990. It all just makes me wonder at how amazing our minds are, that we have the capacity to internalize this kind of complexity and have it become automatic. Of course, it also makes me rather frustrated at the kind of effort it would take to get it to become automatic, but oh well.

In case you were wondering, the main conclusion of the article itself was that most white foreigners in Japan, who are only there for a short time, even if they are studying Japanese intensively, will not be explicitly taught pragmatically appropriate language, or even regularly corrected, because it is assumed it would be too difficult, and not necessary for a foreigner anyway. Not at all an earth-shattering conclusion, and still seemingly true in my experience 8 years later.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Controversy over The Speed of Dark
I recently got to read Elizabeth Moon's novel The Speed of Dark for work, and I found it fascinating. I almost feel sorry for people who read it who aren't very aware of the autism community, because I'm not sure they'd grasp how controversial it is, and how masterfully Moon deals with the question of whether high-functioning autism is something to be irrevocably cured. (**Note**: Since the ending of the book is what fascinates me most, there will be spoilers.)

A brief summary of the story: Lou Arrendale is a successful man with high-functioning autism. He works as a pattern analyst for a large pharmaceutical company, which offers an incredibly supportive work environment for its employees with autism. They have a gym with trampolines and personalized music selections to allow employees to calm their sensory systems; each employee has their own office so they can create their own ideal work environments; they have a private parking lot so they can always park in the same spots, and get to their building on campus more easily. But Lou and his coworkers are in the last generation of people born with autism who were not cured at birth. The new executive in charge of their section at work does not believe the supports they receive should be necessary, despite all the strengths (and tax benefits) these employees bring to the company. As it turns out, the pharaceutical company has bought research that promises to cure autism in adults, and it needs human trial subjects, so the boss pressures the workers in his section to participate. The entire book is told from Lou's perspective, so the reader gets an inside view of what it is like to live his life, at work and outside. His main hobby is fencing, and his romantic interest is fellow fencing student. Unfortunately, one of the other fencing students is also interested in the same woman, and when she rejects him, he becomes jealous of Lou, going to the extreme of stalking and nearly killing Lou. But through this experience, those at work, and those at the fencing tournaments his coach encourages him to go to, Lou begins to question whether he is as limited by his condition, by his diagnosis, as he thought. When the medical trial is no longer a threat, but instead presented as a choice, Lou considers the possibility of being "normal" more seriously.

Through Lou's own thoughts and his conversations with his co-workers, the reader gets an idea of how two-sided the issue of "curing" autism is. Even in the present day, it's a volatile issue, often argued along the low- vs. high-functioning autism lines. Some parent advocacy groups, particularly for parents of children with low-functioning autism, have been very vocal in calling for and supporting researchers in an effort to find a cure. However, with the more recent rise in the diagnosis of people with high-functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome, other advocacy groups have formed to hold that people with autism have unique perspectives on the world, and talents that should be encouraged rather than eradicated. It is a movement sometimes compared to the deaf culture movement. Lou and his colleagues wonder what will happen to them if they undergo the treatment: Will they still be the same people? Will they still have the same abilities? The researchers insist that the treatment will only remake the parts of their brain that impair their social skills, that it will leave all of their likes, dislikes, and abilities intact. And yet, Lou notes that his perspective and his experiences as seen through that perspective are what makes him who he is.

This would seem to indicate that Moon is moving the book to the pro-autism culture side of the argument. But in the end, Lou decides to undergo the treatment. Okay, back to the cure side. But the book doesn't end there. The entirety of the book, save the last chapter, is told from Lou's perspective as a man with autism. The reader sees everything through his eyes and thoughts, and feels very sympathetic to his uniqueness and abilities. The last chapter is from his perspective as he undergoes the cure. He is changed. The reader nearly weeps along with his fencing coach at how different this makes his new, budding personality. Eventually, Lou regains enough of his awareness to get back his memories of his life before. He experiences a moment of dissonance, where his new understanding of his sensory system and social skills wars with the way he knows he used to perceive things, and in the end, his new skills win out over his old fascinations with calculations that used to steady him in unfamiliar situations.

Just as we are beginning to think that the message is that autism culture is right, that the eradication of autistic traits would be a crime, Moon hits us with the epilogue. The new Lou, years later, has achieved his lifelong dream of becoming an astronomer and scientist living on a space station, which he knew he never had a chance of doing as a person with autism. He does not feel regret for the old parts of his personality that the reader had become so fond of, because they are not part of him now. He is different, but he is happy with his life, and it is only the observer who is sad for the loss. Lou doesn't mourn for what he lost, because his new self doesn't really feel that those things are part of who he is.

And so the reader is left feeling... ambivalent, due to the way the book is structured. So much of our time is spent with the old Lou that we cannot feel truly happy for this new stranger in Lou's body, but nor can we deny that he has a life he couldn't have had otherwise. If there is a message at the end of the book, it is most likely that both sides of the argument have validity, and it is a decision that each person should be allowed to make for themselves. Lou made his.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Firefly Dialectology
I found myself needing to catch up on some Language Log reading earlier this week, and I noticed a post by Arnold Zwicky on sci-fi inspired slang. This reminded me that I had a related blog post idea more than a year ago, but which never got posted because it turned into an academic paper for my pidgins and creoles sociolinguistics class. However, it is time to rectify this situation, as I suspect people out on the internets will be more interested in this topic than people in my class were.

I got the idea for the paper when watching the extra features interviews on the Firefly DVDs. The actors talk about how hard it was to learn to pronounce Chinese, and admitted that they undoubtedly got it completely wrong. In class, we'd been learning about how the various contributing languages to a creole or pidgin influence each other, so I extrapolated that perhaps, in this portrayal of a far future supposedly bilingual Chinese-English society, such mispronunciation by the actors would actually be a more accurate representation of how people would speak.

From my paper:
The problem with the Chinese portions of the dialogue is not the grammar. Because the script writers included a Chinese consultant, all of the Chinese portions are correct, at least on paper. When the lines are spoken by the actors, however, the lines become mostly incomprehensible, due to the actors forcing the Chinese words and phrases into an American English sound system, as well as stripping off all of the lexical tones. It is here that we can begin to see the beginning of pidginization of one of the main languages in this cultural contact situation.

As we can see from Bakker's (1995) section on the standard phonological features of pidgins, the Chinese spoken by the actors here fits the pidgin pattern exactly. He notes that pidgin speakers "adjust words to the phonological system of their first language," (35) which we clearly see in Firefly. In addition, he notes that tones are rarely present in pidgins, even when one or more of the languages in contact utilize tones. In fact, he offers the example of pidginized Sango from Central Africa, which has no tones, even though all of the languages contributing to its formation are tonal (Bakker 35).

Therefore, in this case, it appears that the actors' "poor" pronunciation is actually more accurate for the representation of a true language contact situation. From a sociolinguistic perspective, this renders the society represented more plausible than before, giving it another hint of realism.

Interestingly, Bakker also notes that because speakers usually adjust words to fit their L1 phonological system, "in some cases, different groups may pronounce pidgin words in different ways," (35). From this, we might extrapolate that the Chinese portions of the population would have the reverse of the above phonology, in that their Chinese pronunciation would be normal, with the correct sounds and tones in place, but their English would be phonologically pidginized. More evidence for this can be seen from the past, in the Chinese Pidgin English developed around Canton (Guangzhou) and Macao from the 17th to early 20th century for Chinese and Western trade purposes (Bolton, 2003). Chinese Pidgin English also lacks tones, conforming to Bakker’s standards, but fits (primarily) English words into a Cantonese phonological system.
Then I looked at how bilingual the society Whedon created actually was:
At first glance, it appears that all instances of Chinese are expletives... These instances are the easiest to notice, coming as they do at plot points of high excitement and being fairly obvious in their intended meaning. Adam Baldwin, the actor who plays the coarse character Jayne, tells of his glee at getting to curse so extravagantly in Chinese while knowing that the censors would not catch it (DVD commentary).

But in closer examination of the scripts from 11 episodes of the show, only about 30% of the 81 instances of verbal Chinese prove to be cursing. Nor are all instances of Chinese negative or low-class. From an examination of the situations in which Chinese is used, and in which ways, we see that Chinese appears to be on equal prestige standing with English, and as naturally used and understood by the crew. For example, [intersentential single word code switches, endearments, intersentential phrasal code switches, whole sentence code switches, Chinese-English conversations, Chinese conversations, short Chinese conversational words (thanks, tag questions, affirmations, negations, etc.), as a lingua franca in some places, and in addressing people in formal, high-class situations.] (There were a bunch of actual examples from the scripts in between all these conversational types.)
My conclusion was this:
Given the necessary limitations of the medium, the Firefly television series does a remarkably good job of presenting the beginnings of what a fully Chinese-English bilingual society would sound like. The inevitable pidginization or nativization of one language’s sound system as adopted by a large society of non-native speakers is there. The widespread bilingual code switching is also present. However, beyond the mixing of strictly lexical items, there is little interchange of grammatical structures or calques. In a society that has no diglossic system to keep the languages separated, there are few barriers to prevent such interplay.

But what would such a language of the future be, if not a completely new language in the form of pidgin or creole, but instead a recognizable running interplay between two distinct languages? Clearly, it would not be a mixed or intertwined language, with the lexicon of one language and the grammar of another (Bakker & Muysken, 1995), as there is no evidence of this offered in the available data, and it would seem to go against the creator’s original vision of the society.

Instead, I think the closest we may be able to see an example of the kind of language contact situation proposed by Firefly is the developing language of Spanglish in the United States... It relies on the bilingualism of its speakers and listeners, utilizing code switching extensively without compromising the grammar of either the Spanish or English parts, but also manages to gain new meanings from the combination of the two languages. The speakers of the Chinese-English of Firefly live in a world of two languages, as the speakers of Spanglish do. They are actively engaged in the creation of their language every time they speak. It is left to our ability to speculate to imagine what the end result of the language of Firefly might be.
In the process of writing the paper, I learned all sorts of fascinating stuff about the use of English in Hong Kong, as well as the early influence of Chinese on Japanese male writing. In the interest of brevity, (though it is possibly too late,) I won't address that right now.

If you want to look at translations of the Chinese used by the characters on Firefly, I used this fan transcript site to collect all my examples. I think this was the most fun I ever had writing a paper.

(If anyone actually cares to read the whole paper, email me.)

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Word Appropriation Alert
I have just become aware of the fact that German possesses a word that English desperately needs. Please take note and use the word on all future appropriate occasions.
Ohrwurm, (tr. "ear worm"): a song that gets stuck in your head
We now return you to your regularly scheduled English usage.

Role Model
Last night, I got a visit from the Ethical Werewolf, who I've known since high school. At some point, the conversation got around to reporting on what's been going on with our various siblings. Neil told me his younger sister has recently gone through the college search and acceptance process, and had asked him for advice on how to figure out what she wanted to do. Since she wasn't really sure about what career she wanted to pursue after college, as is the norm, he said she might also consider what kinds of things she thought it would be interesting to do after graduating. The response?

"Well, all those things you told me about Dana doing, traveling all over the world and stuff, that sounded good." (Paraphrased, of course; I wasn't there.)

I feel all warm and fuzzy now. I mean, I've only met Neil's sister once, that I can recall, and I'm not entirely sure we even had a conversation at the time, but I'm happy to be held up as an example of someone who did interesting and exciting things. Yay, me! My time has not been wasted. And I have no doubt that she will do many interesting and exciting things that I will get to be envious of in the coming years, as well.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Long Time/Not Long Enough
I'm doing some data entry for my dad's company in the mornings this week, and today I remembered to bring my headphones so I could listen to music. Interestingly, data entry (with music) serves much the same purpose as cross-stitching and solitaire, in that it occupies my body in a mostly mindless way, and frees up my brain for thinking without wanting to kill itself from boredom. And so, when my brain was set free this morning to wander, it latched onto a song lyric.* Specifically, this bit here:
You've got your whole life to do something
And that's not very long
-Ani DiFranco, "Willing to Fight"
It reminded me of my "What I've done since college" entry, when I said that I couldn't tell if it seemed like I had done a lot, or not enough.

When I was little, one of my big fears about dying was that I would die in the middle of a really good book, and I'd never get to know how it ended. It is perhaps for this reason that I learned to read so voraciously and quickly. Now, though, it occurs to me that my fear is not so much that I'll never know how the book ends, but that I'll have missed out on an opportunity I should have taken. I'm starting to worry more about how my own story goes than someone else's.

Until sometime when I was nearing the end of high school, I think my parents used to worry they'd ever get me out of their house. I didn't have any desire to go out of the state to live on my own, or for college, or anything. Of course, at one point in my life, I wanted to be a professional cheerleader. People change. (Thank goodness.) I'm not really sure what prompted me to change, but all of a sudden, I was ready to go away to college. And then I was ready to go study abroad. And then I was ready to move to Japan. And all these things have shaped me now to the point of no longer fearing new, different situations, but fearing that I'll miss something that would have been amazing and fascinating.

I certainly wouldn't say that all my experiences getting me to this point have been always bright and shiny and good. When I was actually in Chile, I spent a lot of time watching the airport bus with envy, not to mention throwing up a lot for 3 months from stress. But it has been an experience I appreciated having and never regretted ever since I got back, and, at times, even while I was there. It taught me a lot about myself, gave me a huge amount of confidence in my ability to be independent, allowed me to go live in Japan, etc, etc.

I've been trying for a while to figure out what my time at MSU and in Taiwan taught me. I think it might be the flip side of college and Japan. Those things taught me that there's a lot out there that I very much want to see. The later years are perhaps to tell me that I should still be discerning about which experiences are worth having. College, Chile, Japan, those were all things I considered and really knew why I wanted or needed to do them. But I got too used to making decisions that turned out well for me, so the poor fit at MSU was a shock I didn't know how to deal with, and Taiwan was, well, just running away in the hopes that doing something new and different would be the exciting answer again, without really considering it.

I've got my whole life to do something, yes. And while I should make sure not to overlook opportunities that would be valuable to me, I don't need to waste my life on things that I know aren't right for me. It's not long enough for that.

So once again, the same lesson I've learned over and over: there has to be a balance.

*Yes, I know it is a blogging cliché to quote meaningful song lyrics and then have "deep thoughts", but you can all deal.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Halloween in June
Today I went to a neighborhood bagel place for lunch with my dad. As we sat down, I noticed that one of the women behind him was dressed in a skirt, blouse, and jacket of matching leopard print design. Then I noticed her shoes matched, too, which was kind of impressive. And then I noticed she had a matching tail attached to her rear end. Neither of the other people with her were in costume. They never said anything about it in their conversation, though at one point the leopard woman did proclaim that she was feeling so relaxed with her current life that she felt like she was in Jamaica. I never did figure that one out.

A few minutes later, a young woman from the private women's college across the street walked in in full sports practice horse-riding gear.

If I hadn't been sure it was June, I might have been confused. As it was, it made for a much more interesting lunch than expected.

Spam Subject Line #3
Another gem:
100,000 lemmings can't be wrong
I'm not sure this person really understands about lemmings.

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