Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for November, 2009

Improving Conversational Skills

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Marnie Kaur recently raised a question I’ve heard many times before. This time I will share my thoughts on it with everyone within eyeshot of this blog.

I have always been fascinated by words. Having never had the chance to study them I was wondering if you could give me some pointers on being able to converse with the best of them. Regards, Marnie.

Conversation is an art, which means it requires practice. To become an excellent conversationalist, you must converse with excellent conversationalists. The best conversationalists tend to be people who read a lot, thereby developing a large vocabulary that they can use to make subtle distinctions that other well-read people pick up.

Repetition plays some role in learning. That is why we repeat our Good Words so many times in our essaylets. We always give two or three examples, play with the words creatively, and repeat them in discussing their derivational history—even in our acknowledgment to the people who suggest them.

However, human learning is more complex than repetition. Sometimes we can hear a word a hundred times and never remember it, as kids often exhibit a problem remembering “no” no matter how many times it is repeated. Other times we hear or read a word once and never forget it: once is usually enough for a kid to remember “candy” the rest of his or her life. 

Reading is the starting point for vocabulary building. My students often asked me what they could do to improve their spelling. I always told them that there is only one way: read more. Reading builds our word recognition or comprehension but does not bear directly on conversational skills.

We have a far larger vocabulary in our memory than we can actively use. This is another way of saying that we comprehend far more words than we can use in speech. However, the passive and active levels are connected, so the larger our passive vocabulary, the large our active vocabulary becomes. Our active or spoken vocabulary trickles down from our passive or comprehensional vocabulary. (For ages I thought this was the “trickle down” theory.)

Every language has four aspects familiar to every language teacher: (1) reading, (2) writing, (3) comprehension, and (4) speaking, ordered here from easiest to most difficult. That’s right: reading any language is far easier than speaking it. Actively using grammatical skills and vocabulary on the fly is by far more difficult that slowly reading the words on a printed page, where we may reread them and mulling them over as long as we wish. In conversation we don’t have time for all that.

Still, language written by clever writers contains a larger vocabulary more sensitively deployed than even the writer can use in speaking. If we read a lot, remembering the words that stick out, examining them closely as we do in our Good Words, that passive vocabulary eventuallly meanders into our speech. It is therefore the best way to improve spelling and the best if not only starting point for improved conversational skills.

More Shenanigans over Henanigans

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Lenn Zonder sent such profound comments on my recent treatment of the Good Word shenanigans that I just have to share them with everyone. Here is his response:

“I was so glad to read your definition of shenanigans and noting that it has nothing to do with the female gender as there is no henanigans.”

“Historectomy used to scare the daylights out of me until I found out it actually should be called a herstorectomy.”

“Seriously, though, you let the Germans off the hook in charting the etymology of shenanigan. I would point out that the second through the sixth letters of this word, H-E-N-A-N, names a large Chinese province on the south bank of the Yellow River. and remember, San Francisco has one of the finest Chinatowns in America.” [A great lead to follow were the word henanigans—REB]

“Also, if you take those same five letters and add a second ‘E’, it spells Heenan, a fine old Irish name. And lord knows the Irish have produced some of the finest practical jokers to have ever walked this earth.”

“Just blowing some smoke up Smoketown Road in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. :-)”

‘Nuff said.

Language Consolidation

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

A good deal has been written and is being written on the topic of language death. Linguists and anthropologists don’t like the idea though they are hard pressed to present any reasons for their dislike. I suppose it emerges from the dislike of death itself and the implication that a culture is dying if not the peope speaking the language themselves.

Another way of looking at language death, however, is the way the commercial world looks at the death of companies: language consolidation. The native languages around the world are being consolidated, not in the usual sense of that word, but in the financial sense that they are being replaced by larger entities that must grow larger and larger.

In North American, for example, the hundreds of Native American languages are being consolidated into English and Spanish with a bit of French tossed into the mix. In France, the Celtic languages to the south are being replaced by French. The result of language death is the same as consolidation in the world of business where small businesses die out so that large businesses can grow larger.

The great difference between commercial and linguistic consolodation is that in the commercial world, small businesses reappear. Once a corporation reaches a certain size, it loses interest in small niche markets and new, small businesses appear to service them.

The beer industry is a prime example. As the breweries of the last century grew and put smaller breweries out of business, they were forced to produce beers of universal appeal, which is to say bland, inoffensive tasting beers. Drinkers with a taste for beer were ignored because the larger breweries thought them too small a minority to cater to. So, microbreweries began to appear to cater to that minority on a local level.

This does not happen in the linguistic world. Once a language is gone, it is gone forever and no other language will ever arise to take its place. Language consolidation is permanent. This means that the number of languages in the world will continue to dwindle but the number of people speaking the surviving languages will continue to increase. Attempts to preserve the smaller languages, like attempts to preserve small businesses in competition with large corporations, are doomed at the outset to failure.

Acquaintance Overload

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

About mid-career, I realized one day that I was passing my friends in the hall without making eye contact. If I did, I would stop and chat and that would take 2-3 minutes (or more) out of preparing lecture plans or research. If I did that 15-20 times a day, we would be talking about major time loss for an academic. Academics have two jobs, after all: teaching and research. Add a family and house-repair on top of that and the time squeeze becomes a major one.

Upon retirement, I found myself not only talking more with friends but adding to that crucial and interesting group. My circle of friends began to expand. As I built the alphaDictionary Agora, Dr. Goodword’s blog, joined Facebook, LinkedIn, Xing, and Twitter, and added these contacts to my circle of friends here in Lewisburg and around the world and my alphaDictionary e-mail friends, I began finding myself having more and more difficulty keeping up with everyone. Will all the various types of social networking made possible by the Web lead to acquaintaince overload?

Friendship should be close, between people who know each other and enjoy company and conversations with them. But the brain has limitations. It is stuck in the skull so there is only so much it can retain. Don’t get me wrong. There are millions of interesting people in the world and I would love to be acquainted with them all. Now that we actually have the tools to do that, do we have the time and mind space required?

I write this because I have grown quite close to people I’ve never met and I really don’t understand what that means. Of course, when we communicate via websites and e-mail we present ourselves at our very best. Friends generally know our shortcomings and love us despite them. Perhaps this is the attraction of the Internet: we can protray ourselves at our best, shuck off our warts and create a new and shining self. We connect by our common points and delight to discover how many of them there are.

The question then follows, will these new and shiny selves that we create on line actually become us? Will we arise in a new decency that we never realized was in us as a result of the Web? That isn’t clear in light of the many genually evil websites out there, websites that protray the worst human beings can be.

I suspect as time grinds on, we will discover that most of us share most of our most important features. We will discover that we are all in this together. Together. That is not a bad thing that should make us angry, but a very good one. But then on a halcyon and idyllic autumn day like today I can’t help being a cock-eyed optimist.