Parle français? Read English? ¿Una palabra a la vez? Oy.

Inspired by guest Veronique Greenwood‘s three-part series (part 1part 2, part 3) about learning a foreign language, some of the contributors to LWON volunteered for a week’s worth of essays about their own encounters with the challenges of linguistics.
French book

When my younger son was in high school, my wife and I realized we would need to hire a tutor for his French class. Sometimes I would overhear their lesson, and I would think: He’s hopeless. I didn’t mean that word in a critical or disapproving way. If anything, I invoked it out of empathy. I had been hopeless with high school Spanish. How hopeless? To this day it’s the course I avoid attending in my version of the nightmare where you wind up one credit short of graduation.

I was perhaps less empathetic about my son’s reading habits. His school-issued paperback copies of The Odyssey and King Lear were full of doodles. I printed out an essay I thought he might like—all of two pages long—and left it on the living room coffee table, where it sat unread for months, until I finally surrendered and threw it away. He never read for pleasure. He’s the son of two writers: How dare he not read for pleasure? Your parents are pleasure-givers. Here’s a book. Have some pleasure. Are you experiencing pleasure yet?

One day I decided to accept the fact: His brain just doesn’t work that way. Mine certainly doesn’t. How many times have I felt frustration at the slowness of my progress through a book? How often have I found out after finishing a book or a short story that I’d missed a major plot point? How often—

Oh, wait.

I asked my son if he was a slow reader. Yes, he said. Then I asked him if frustration feeds his disinclination to read for pleasure. Yes, he said.

And then I asked myself: Does a correlation between reading speed and a facility for learning foreign languages actually exist?

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All the Chinese You Need to Take a Shower

This is the third and final post in a series about learning a foreign language long past the age when it comes naturally (if you missed the earlier posts, you can find them here: part 1, part 2) .  Guest Veronique Greenwood begins at the pro level, with Chinese.

The character for "study," which appears in the words "student," "university," and many others. (Credit: Steve Webel, Flickr)
The character for “study,” which appears in the words “student,” “university,” and many others. (Credit: Steve Webel, Flickr)

On Monday evenings, I ride my bike into the leafy faculty quarter of the university and teach four ten-year-olds in English. Very suddenly one night, around 6 pm, I started to hear the particles in their speech. They holler and chatter at each other in Mandarin until I shush them and make them speak English, and now my own knowledge of their language is such that these specific parts of speech jump out at me. Even when I don’t understand the rest of the sentence, they tell me something about what the kids mean.

Particles contain information about the speaker’s desires and expectations—even the tense. They can transform the meaning of a sentence, but they’re simple, single syllables—ne, ba, le, la, among others—and so you can start to pick them out, the same way someone learning English might hear “the,” “a,” and “and” in my words. A “ba” often means that someone is asking for confirmation. A “le” often means they are speaking about something that’s past. A “ne” asks a question about something that’s already been mentioned. A “la” makes an order sound more like a request.

These exist in part because Mandarin uses tones to convey meaning and thus cannot use them to convey emotion or expression quite as easily as English. Instead, a particle climbs on to the end of a statement and gives it the specificity that we would give it with the rising and falling of our voices. Continue reading

The Last Word

Friday March 25, 9 a.m., with science writer for scale

April 25-29, 2016

This week, Veronique Greenwood’s glancing knowledge of Mandarin becomes a daunting challenge, spurred on by some tentative communicative exchanges in China.

Some argue that Shakespeare couldn’t have written some of his plays because the author of the plays knew too much. There’s another explanation: Perhaps he acted like a journalist.

Helen bore witness to the passing of a gigantic snow bank in Washington, DC. Just look at it.

Test yourself: can you tell which of these photos are taken by an eight-year-old? Ann thinks her experiment is a failure (but I got 90%).

Starlings look to half a dozen of their flying mates to coordinate their movements. The result: a murmuration, and bliss for the viewer.

Image: Helen with the remains of her ice pile

Redux: Murmuration. The poetry of the morning walk.

This post first ran on January 15, 2013.Starflag6

This morning I awoke to the kind of day that offers an easy excuse to skip the walk. The temperature gauge read -3F (-19C) when I crawled out of bed, and by the time I’d finished the tea and hot porridge my husband had prepared, it was still only -1F. But the dogs were eager, the sun was shining, and my day never feels quite right without our morning ritual.

And so we pulled on our snow boots, bundled up and headed out the door. The snow was squeaky cold, and the air had a briskness that put a hustle in our strides. Halfway up the hill to the lookout, a loud ruckus. Dave turned to me. “Stop. Shhhh…” We looked at each other. “Hear that?” A lush symphony of bird song. Starlings, from the sound of it. But where?

We looked skyward. Nothing. Upslope, only a crow in a nearby piñon pine. Then I spotted them in our neighbor’s willow trees down below. Starlings, yes. Hundreds of them. The moment I pointed to them, as if on cue, they rushed skyward in unison. The birds formed a rising crescendo, then swooped down, and then up and across the sky, like a ribbon, wrapping around itself.

If nature has ever produced a more perfect thing than the mesmerizing beauty of this starling swarm, I have yet to encounter it. No other phenomenon has ever stopped me in my tracks quite like this, made me forget everything else in the world except the brief moment of grace unfolding before me.

A flight of starlings in concert is called a murmuration. Murmuration–even the name is poetic. Continue reading

Pictures with an 8-Year Old: A Failure of Citizen Science

I’ll start this at the beginning.  Recently Friend of LWON, Chris Arnade, posted a picture of himself — which itself was not unusual because Chris is, among other things, a photographer and posts pictures of himself right along with pictures of other people. But the picture was unusual.  Chris is a very serious guy and always looks it.  This recent picture, though, was something else.

Chris by a friendChris by an 8-year oldHere are the pictures. The one on the left is the serious Chris, taken by another adult, the way I’m used to seeing him. But the picture on the right, the recent one?  “Chris!” I said. “Look how delighted you look!”

“The picture was taken by an 8-year old,” he said.

I had an epiphany.  I’d take a bunch of pictures of people, an 8-year old would take pictures of the same people.  The ones I took would look sternly grownup.  The ones the 8-year old took would look like they’d seen full-on blooming lilacs for the first time.

I couldn’t find an 8-year old, but Nora was nearby and she’s 10 — close enough.  Then oh joy! Cameron generously said she’d add data; she has a 7-year-old.  We conducted citizen scienceContinue reading

The Biography of an Ice Pile

2016-01-23 08.35.06I love snow and cold (although I hate ice) and, for the most part, this winter did not come through for me.

But there was one exception: a blizzard in late January that dumped a couple of feet of snow on Washington. I ran around in the snow with dogs and did snow angels and appreciated, yet again, living in an apartment where snow removal is someone else’s problem. Indeed, snow removal was a big problem for a lot of people. It took a long time; the commute was messed up for days after the snow stopped.

At the transit center in Silver Spring, Md. a whole lot of snow had to be removed from the top deck of the concrete structure. Someone apparently thought the best thing to do with all of that snow was to dump it over the side, onto a bit of land that was originally supposed to hold a hotel or something but is currently holding a very steep hill and a lot of weeds.

And that is where our story begins. Continue reading

Shakespeare Was a Journalist

ds0926_b-1This past Saturday, the world celebrated the birthday of a guy named William Shakespeare. He was born in Stratford-on-Avon in England on April 23, 1564, and died on or about the same date in 1616. Pretty much every reputable Shakespeare scholar and literary historian argues—based on historical evidence—that this William Shakespeare was the author, alone or in collaboration, of the plays we know today. But since at least the mid-1800s, a few of those who love Shakespeare’s plays have insisted otherwise.

Shakespeare, these dissenters say, was just a frontman for the plays’ true author or authors, who were surely more educated, better traveled, and more distinguished than the glover’s son from Stratford. This is a minority view, to be sure, but it’s kind of like climate-change denialism—it’s sustained by a few prominent backers, some real and imagined uncertainties, and we the media’s love of controversy.

I don’t know if it really matters whether Shakespeare the man wrote Shakespeare’s plays. We have the plays, and the play, as someone or other said, is the thing. And as a purely recreational appreciator of Shakespeare, I’m in no position to argue the authorship question point by point (far more knowledgeable people have done so here and here, and the multi-generational back-and-forth is thoroughly summarized here). But as a journalist, I’ve always been annoyed by this kerfuffle.

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Shop Owner! Bring Me a Sheet of Table!

This is the second in a series of posts about learning a foreign language long past the age when it comes naturally (if you missed it, here is part 1 ).  Guest Veronique Greenwood begins at the pro level, with Chinese.

The character for "study," which appears in the words "student," "university," and many others. (Credit: Steve Webel, Flickr)
The character for “study,” which appears in the words “student,” “university,” and many others. (Credit: Steve Webel, Flickr)

A month into learning Mandarin, I notice that something has changed. When I am out riding my bike now, the sea of sound that surrounds me at all times sometimes parts, and words leap out. On my way to teach English to some kids the other day, I heard the word “now” three times. It’s staggering the clarity with which I hear things I would not have noticed a few weeks ago.

On the university campus, the azaleas and camellias are blooming. The place is full of birds whose songs I hear but whom I can never see in the thick foliage. And today it rained like there was no tomorrow, starting with a hiss and rising to a roar as it pounded against the courtyard tiles. I picked my way through leaf litter and bent ferns to reach the teaching building. In the lobby, I encountered an army of umbrellas, like the tents of a very damp invasion force. Spring is definitely here. Up in the classroom, the windows were open, and the calls of the birds distracted me while I was trying to understand a new measure word.

What I’m realizing now, having never thought about it before, is that nouns in English fall into two categories. There are things like “a sock” or “a table,” and there are things that you preface with a unit, like “a cup of water” or “a pound of flour.” You wouldn’t usually say “a flour” or “a water” (unless you were really saying “a [bottle of] water”). If you think about it, you’ll see that English nouns fall mostly into the first category.

But in Mandarin, a huge proportion of the objects in the world, from paper clips to computers, falls into the second. Each is spoken of as if it were part of a greater whole—a drop from the great well of sock or table. To say “a sock,” you must say “one unit of sock.” Continue reading