Saturday, November 27, 2010

Reading about reading and how we use language

42. How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die by David Crystal.

 This is a well-balanced and coherent look at all the elements that are included in the concept of language. Crystal discusses these language elements in short chapters, more to give an idea what the issues are about rather than to take an in-depth look at them. For a language teacher the sections about physiological elements such as where sounds are formed in our mouths is always intriguing and a good reminder that although our letters look the same, we might produce them differently. This is something I learned while trying to teach American English speakers to roll an R by telling them to first keep on repeating meaningless babble with /d/ in it, such as "dadadadaaa dididiii," just to train their tongue to go to the right place in the mouth for a rolled r. Soon I realized, though, that the Finnish /d/ is produced somewhere else than the English one although it sounds very similar. Unfortunately, you need the Finnish /d/ to know how to roll an R if you are having problems with it... So we had to go back to learn a Finnish /d/ although the learners had already been producing wonderful sounding Finnish words with /d/ in them.

As this book works as a handy guide to what language really is, I admit to just skimming the parts where there is nothing to be disputed anymore, really: how words are formed, how we hear sounds, and what kind of language groups there are in the world and what their histories are. I found the chapters on more debatable issues more intriguing, such as the status of sign language and how non-signing people often have misconceptions about it; how and why was language born; how we give meaning to words and how we mean something else than what we say; and of course my favorite, the issue of what is "good" language, which is of course largely dictated by prestige and not any universal value of the language. Although I did enjoy Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves and I'm a grammar nerd, I had to nod in agreement when Crystal points out that such demonization as shown by Truss of people who do not follow an arbitrarily constructed model chosen by a prestigious class would not fly if it was applied to gender or race, but apparently it's fine in the realm of language.

Yes, Crystal takes prescriptivist to task. There is nothing wrong in writing or speaking good, understandable language, and we all should strive for making ourselves understood--which is where grammar and punctuation comes in to help us. The problem with prescriptivists is, however, that they apply their very strict rules even to situations where everyone understands the message. As a descriptivist, I agree with Crystal--which is not a surprise to anyone who has been reading this blog. Clarity in communication is important, but when someone begins to moan about how people collectively use a word wrong*, it makes me wonder whether these people ever heard of such a phenomenon as constant changes in language and vocabulary. Nobody is up in arms about the word "hilarious" now being used to describe something knee-slappingly funny and saying that we should go back to the old, Latin-based meaning of simply someone being "cheerful." But I'm sure at the point where people began to use the word differently the Trusses of the time were predicting the downfall of civilization.

Another issue that is closely related to "good" language is how we view dialects, and how one dialect always rises above others to be used as the standard (and we promptly forget that it's a dialect, too, and start mocking people who speak in another dialect or with another accent...)

The other sections I enjoyed were focused on bi- and multilingualism and how to protect or revive languages.

All in all, the book is a wonderful guide to all the issues you might encounter when you think about language: the way speech is produced, the way language is heard, the way we give meanings to words and phrases, and what we do with language in general.

A special Tut-tut to the editor: the book refers to African American English Vernacular (AAEV) for two pages, and then later on the correct usage, African American Vernacular English (AAVE), pops up. How did this error manage to slip through the cracks?

(*I may moan about this, too, when I am editing a text that is supposed to follow certain writing conventions or a style sheet. Or worse, when the person thinks that the non-standard way is the only right way to do it...)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Two tiny books

40. Translation in Practice: a symposium, edited by Gill Paul

A wonderful booklet created from a translation symposium. It details the best practices for a fiction translator. I was already familiar with most of this information, but it was nice to get all the pointers and discussions on problematic translation issues within one book.
The symposium discussed issues that translators often run into, such as how to translate puns and jokes (if the equivalent does not exist in your target language, you should rather leave them out rather than confuse the reader) to how to deal with novels where awkward phrasing has been used for an effect (don't translate it into awkward target language--everyone will think you're a bad translator. Explain the awkwardness somehow). In addition to these problems and some dos and don'ts bullet lists for translators, the book also discusses the business side of translation, namely how to deal with the author of the novel, the acquiring editor and the editor/proofreader.

41. Laulajan paperit by Anja Erämaa

Let me preface this by saying that I do enjoy poetry every now and then. When I was in high school, I went on a real Pablo Neruda binge--I just loved his style (or rather, the style of the Finnish translations).

This poetry book by a small Finnish publisher, though, did nothing for me. The poems are in paragraph form, so they read like very short, one-page long stories. Except that the author uses very free-form, "poem" punctuation. Now, I understand than in writing prose the author has much more leeway in punctuation and style than in writing nonfiction. And that's fine. But some of the punctuation was just so random that when I encountered a spacing error it read to me more as if nobody had proofread or edited the book (even the author herself) than the punctuation being an artistic choice.

Reviews have described the poems absurd and ironic. I found them very self-conscious, especially when some of the rhymes seem to have been thrown in not for their meaning, but just because they rhyme and may sound funny to the reader.

With that said, there were a couple of poems that I really liked, where the author seemed to stop thinking about how she's a Real Poet who Writes Poetry Really Seriously, and where she was just being honest. No gimmicky language, just wonderful descriptions and fresh metaphors.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fictional psycopathy beyond Dexter

39. We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

I'm a sucker for books that instantly reveal a horrifying event, and the rest of the story is dedicated to tracing the steps that lead to the event. The thrill of the read is to find out how and why the characters get into a situation. And yes, I have begun reading John Dies at the End, which seems at first glance to be the most extreme example of this kind of storytelling--it's all given away in the title, for heaven's sake! I love it!

This fiction offers the reader a chance to be an armchair psychologist. The mother of Kevin, a teenager who sits in jail for a school shooting, writes letters addressed to Dear Franklin, who is soon revealed to be Kevin's father. Eva, the mother, writes about her struggles in continuing with her life after the school shooting and about visiting Kevin in the prison, but the majority of any single letter focuses on retelling Eva and Franklin's history together, how they decided to have a child and then another, and how for Eva it was clear that Kevin was growing up to be a disturbed individual, whereas Franklin would dismiss Eva's concerns as exaggeration. In these letters Eva reveals secrets she kept from Franklin in order to either protect him, or to avoid confrontation. Or who knows why. For leverage, maybe. While it is obvious that Franklin is clueless and his behavior seems to worsen the situation with Kevin and only Eva sees Kevin as who he really is, Eva is unable to discuss her rearing methods and reactions to Kevin objectively--which leaves this job for the reader.

It is an absolutely thrilling a job to figure out what Eva thought the reasons behind Kevin's behavior were, and to also read between the unstressed, subtle and not-so-subtle cues of how Eva's behavior toward the child might have had an effect of some kind as well.

Also, I'm very much used to epistolary novels being used for romantic purposes (not their sole purpose, I just associate them thus), so the format of this novel was a great choice. It completely disagrees with the cold, calm, very unemotional tone of Eva's letters.

This novel is a real heart-pounder to the very end, where what we already know is going to happen happens. And yet the shooting is much more chilling than I had imagined. A wonderfully written book, if that adverb can be used for a book about multiple murders and other horrifying events perpetrated by a sociopath.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

I'm bad at titles, so let's just say I've been reading nonfiction.

36. Don't Shoot the Dog! The New art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor

I saw a friend read this book on a camping trip, and at first sighting I bought it from a second-hand store. It's a wonderful book on positive reinforcement, and how it has longer lasting results in training than punishment or negative feedback which, according to Pryor, often leads the person who gives negative feedback to intensify it even when it is not needed. A good example of this is the mother who whines when her children are visiting her, "Why won't you ever visit me?"

And yes, the book is not just about training dogs and other animals: it's about how positive reinforcement works on rowdy kids or on a messy roommate. Some have criticized positive reinforcement as manipulative (because you can't tell your target that you are trying to reinforce him or her--if you do, they'll probably start acting exactly the opposite way just to show you who's boss), but then again, isn't negative reinforcement also manipulative? Or heck, isn't any other way of trying to make a change in behavior manipulative unless the person whose behavior is going to change is in a complete vacuum and decides him- or herself to suddenly change?

The most delightful bits in the book are Pryor's anecdotes about training "untrainable" animals such as hermit crabs and chicken to do a variety of things, simply through positive reinforcement. Also, she explains why people think that cats are untrainable--it's because punishment doesn't work on cats. They just don't really get the point of punishment as dogs do. But if you use a clicker and do any of the positive reinforcement methods mentioned in the book, you'll soon have a cat who thinks she has the power to make you use the clicker with her behavior. Yes, the cat thinks she's training you.

Oh, and the bits about the reinforcement game are also hilarious. Anybody want to play it?

I also enjoyed the comparisons of a multitude of traditional training or conditioning methods compared to positive reinforcement. Pryor of course acknowledges that there are times and cases where positive reinforcement might not work as well as some other methods, so she lists a variety of scenarios and the outcomes of them when you use different conditioning methods.

I'd highly recommend this to anyone with animals and people around them. Now I really can't wait to get a cat and a clicker!

37. Colorblind by Tim Wise

Just like Between Barack and a Hard Place, Colorblind is a small book that is stripped of any tangents or rambling. There is nary a spot in the book where the opponents of its message could refute it. If they wanted to, they would have to refute all the scholarly work and statistics that accompany Wise's thesis.

And what is that message? It's that post-racial liberalism, which relies heavily on the flawed concept of colorblindness*, is not merely just short-sighted in its attempt to solve economical problems, but in the worst case scenario it ends up promoting racism. By saying that eventually people of color (POC) will also see improvements in their living standards if we remain colorblind and help all poor and low-income families, regardless of race, we will eventually create negative sentiments toward POC if and when they still are not doing as well as white people from working classes or poor backgrounds. The only reason for their challenges is then thus in their race: there's something wrong with POC if they can't succeed like the white people can.

One of the strongest arguments for why this thinking is faulty is the idea of privilege and inherited wealth.
The G.I.Bill is one of the examples Wise gives. This bill provided education and unemployment benefits as well as loans for houses or to start a business for veterans returning from WW2. Except that black veterans were disproportionally denied the benefits of the bill compared to their white veteran counterparts. So let's say your imaginary average white grandfather was in the war, came back, and got a good loan to buy a house. Now he owns property. In addition to that, he got his schooling (whether college or vocational) paid by the government. Compare this to your imaginary average black grandfather, who came back from the war, did not get a G.I. loan and could not buy a house; the same person also could not collect unemployment money or get a college education funded by the government. Now, whose kids are going to have an easier time getting college education and monetary support from their parents?

This book is not out to guilt trip white people--even if you disagree with Wise, there's still a lot of food for thought there. The book attempts to open a dialog about race, and how we cannot afford to be colorblind. Colorblindness is just paying lip service to structural, societal problems that POC face every day, and ignoring a person's race is not going to help them get past problems that have been created by racism.

Problems do continue to exist because of racism. Wise goes on to discuss a variety of research done on prejudices, varying from psychological testing on people's reactions to various races to finding out that hiring practices in companies are still benefiting white people much more than any people of color (even if your friend is now the president of the United States it doesn't mean that on average POC are doing great). All the research points out to this: people love to say that they don't think about race, and that race does not matter--but it does. And if race does matter, we should then have an honest dialog about it instead of hiding behind colorblindness.

This book was written after Between Barack... and I felt like Wise had probably gotten people attacking his book for not being clear enough on some issues, because he revisits quite many of them in Colorblind, but this time with a lot more details.

(*Colorblindness: not seeing the color of the applicant, your student, your employer while dealing with him or her. Ideally this would mean that everyone is treated equally. But this is not what happens because people are biased, even when they say they are not (and this has been proven through research). What happens is that you will treat everyone as you would treat a person of your own race, or of your own background--which is bound to fail because your experiences are not the same as that person's who does not share your background. And then you are left wondering why that other person just doesn't get ahead in life the same way as you have.)

38. The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

We happily spend 2 dollars for a cup of coffee at Starbucks, but if we have to pay more than 2 dollars for a dozen of eggs, we are suddenly up and arms about it. When did food, which is so essential to our well-being, become an item that we must get as cheaply as possible? How did we become consumers who do not have any idea of how and where our food is raised or grown?

Pollan goes from the macro to the micro in his search for good food: at first he attempts to follow the path of a steer he bought, and to find out how the steer will end up as beef in the huge cogs of the meat industry machine.

As that fails (because no large slaughterhouse lets outsiders to come in to view their practices--lest someone be appalled and/or gives their cows a disease of some kind in additional to whatever bacteria they are already carrying), he goes to a small farm where all animals are free-ranged, naturally fed and slaughtered, and where the farmer actually invites the meat buyers to see how their animals are raised and slaughtered. This they do partly so that the consumer can make an informed, ethical choice: do I approve of the way this animal was raised and slaughtered? We can postpone thinking about that when we see a vacuum-sealed, artificially tinted slab of meat at the grocery store.

Lastly, to minimize any middle man in the process of acquiring food, Pollan attempts foraging and hunting, and admits freely that he is pretty embarrassed by the flowery prose he comes up with for the imagery of hunting.

The title refers to the dilemma omnivores have: we can eat almost anything, but we have to find out by trial and error what it is that we can consume. The dilemma originally meant a simple choice between dying upon eating a mushroom or making a wonderful snack out of it, but now the dilemma is behind multiple turns in the road because we don't have direct contact with our food anymore. If I want to buy just cheap meat, am I willing to risk my health because feedlot cows spend their days ankle-deep in their own much, and are fed antibiotics so that they wouldn't get sick, which means that viruses might get more immune because of the amount of antibiotics that I unknowingly eat? By supporting the genetically modified corn industry, am I really willing to take the risk that the beef that was raised on purely corn and not grass (the food cows were evolved to eat) might be carrying E.Coli because its stomach's bacteria is all messed up?

These days the omnivore's dilemma also extends to the ethical treatment of animals (even if you didn't care about it much, you would care that the meat just doesn't taste as good and is not as healthy for you if the animal has been raised in terrible conditions), so in in addition to looking at the evolution of the American meat industry from small farms to humongous, mostly unregulated (health-wise) complexes Pollan also discusses the ethics of vegetarianism and veganism.

The book was a breeze to read, from all the historical insights to the food industry in the US to Pollan's personal experiences at feedlots, in killing chicken, and his mushroom hunting trips. The book does not promote a certain kind of a diet or a style of living: it promotes thinking about where your food comes from, and making eating decisions based on that.