Category Archives: General

Sojourning in Style

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I recently went to New York to look into the Airbnb situation. Thousands of people use the website to rent out apartments or houses for short stays, and it’s especially popular in New York. But there’s a bit of a battle going on there pitting renters against tenants and landlords…and I waded into it. I started out in trendy Williamsburg (pictured here). Have a listen to the radio story I did for CBC Radio’s The World This Weekend:
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As you say it

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Sometimes I watch TV programs in a language I don’t understand, just to hear the sound of it. Could be about a story about pandas, a political debate, a ballroom dancing contest. It’s weird, I know. But there’s something about the undulating sh-jo of Chinese, the staccato of Italian, the briskness of Hindi and the lyricism of those Spanish soap operas.

Music notes

It struck me again the other night when I was at a concert featuring baritone Luca Pisaroni. He was singing in Italian. I couldn’t understand a single word, but it didn’t bother me. It was operatic and isn’t it normal to not understand? It sounded splendid. Then intermission came and my friend and I realized the lyrics were in the booklet that had been foisted into our hands which we’d promptly shoved under our seats until intermission when we felt we should actually learn something about the show we were attending. So eyes scrunched up in the very dim light, I skimmed the lyrics in English to get the gist, then tried to follow in Italian. Lines like this:

Her troubles I fear
More than my own troubles
Because I live more in her
Than I live in myself

Lovely stuff. But it was exhausting to follow every word – and to what end? When it came down to it, I didn’t need to know the subject; you could tell what he was singing about by his smile or his furrow, his gestures. Natch. He is Italian, after all.

Music is language. And language is music. So maybe the next time you feel like listening to something fiery, forget iTunes and tune into an Italian talk show.

Music makes the word go round

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It’s easy to lapse into a sing-song way of talking to babies. Something along the lines of “I love you so much, oh yes I do, oh yes I do do do!”

It’s entertaining and elicitsIMG_1061 a smile or giggle – even some babble, in response. But the baby isn’t responding to what the mother is saying, so much as how she’s saying it.

University of Toronto Psychology professor Sandra Trehub has been looking into this, and presented at a symposium in May. It was the first one ever on music and language held by the Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music in Montreal.

Trehub says babies are captivated by maternal speaking, but especially, by singing.

She says the prevailing belief is that language is acquired rapidly and effortlessly, and that music requires more effort. But she stresses that infants are naturally musical. They imitate their parents’ pitch as young as three months.

“So the mother might say ‘hi’ or ‘what are you doing’ and the child might go ‘hu-uh’,” says Trehub. “And later in the first year when infants engage in meaningless babble – baba, gaga – those who have listened to it carefully and measured it carefully, can recognize what language that child comes from. It has some of the rhythms and some of the intonation patterns.”

So if an infant is naturally musical, having a caregiver sing to them can boost their language development. Trehub says even though babies don’t understand the words, mothers can help them buy into language, through song.

“They sell infants on that form – the notion that that’s really interesting to listen to,” says Trehub. “And you know, months down the road, infants buy the content because they’ve already been captivated by the form.” Now, that’s some selling strategy.

ImageSinging teaches infants about how language is constructed. The words are presented slowly and rhythmically, so it’s easy to catch on. Some songs are highly predictable so babies find it very comfortable, and eventually join in.

Trehub says regular singing can help infants absorb words and sounds before they speak. So that when they actually start talking, they have a leg up.

To be clear, it’s live songs, sung to infants because it promotes reciprocal communication. Not listening to a disconnected recording like, say Baby Mozart (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course).

Besides helping them develop language skills, song can actually help calm babies.

A recent study Trehub co-authored found a baby listened to a voice for four minutes before being distracted. But could listen to a singing voice for NINE minutes. It’s not known exactly why, but it could be due to vocal timbre, which creates pleasing sounds for baby.

Other research backs the benefits of singing lullabies and nursery rhymes to infants before they can speak, adding to a growing body of research singing the praises of song.

So if you like to sing, you might want to sing more to your baby. If not, well, just stick to talking. It’s also proving to give your child that linguistic leg up.

Have a listen!

The wisdom of Latin learning

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Introduction to the Latin Tongue

March 11, 2013

For a dead language, Latin has taken on a life of its own. Pope Benedict boosted its profile when he announced he was retiring, and the Vatican is all abuzz with it as well. The Rome revival adds to the language’s recent popularity in TV, film and books like Harry Potter. But Latin doesn’t just open access to other worlds, it can also help us improve our English.

Have a listen here

Sports metaphors can be a long shot

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February 4, 2013

We have to be faster, higher, and stronger! The media really jumped the gun on that story. Relax…Life is a marathon not a sprint.

Those are just a few Olympic terms we use to compare life to a high-level competition. And with one year to go to the Sochi Winter Games, we’ll likely be hearing more Olympic metaphors.

Metaphors help us understand the world by equating one concept with another. And whether you know it or not, we use them all the time. War is a game. A business is a family. Marriage is an institution; or, marriage is a partnership.

We use sports metaphors in particular.

Hail Mary pass

Hail Mary pass

We can use a football field to refer to making a desperate move like a Hail Mary pass or to run interference. A baseball field can represent struggle: we’re in the bottom of the ninth, or you need to step up to the plate.

Some Canadians stick with the ol’ hockey metaphor. Veteran communications specialist Barry McLoughlin gives an example:

“Look we’re ragging the puck on that issue right now, okay? You know we’re not going to release or announce this just yet, we’re ragging the puck. That’s a classic one that’s used extensively.”

McLoughlin says sports metaphors can be a great communication tool: “Whether you’re involved personally in sports, whether your kids are in soccer or in hockey, or whether your spouse is watching it on television, it becomes the language that everybody can share in”.

But McLoughlin adds that if you’re in the political or business world, using too many sports metaphors can be risky. “Because after awhile, it’s almost as if you’re taking the issue too lightly. Maybe you’re not getting the emotions and feelings behind it,” he says.

“This would be a concern in terms of your own sincerity and credibility.”

Indeed, the metaphors we use can tell us something about how we think. And what we think can determine how we act, and how we relate to other people.

Slap shot

Slap shot

So, what if you don’t see the world in terms of sticks and pucks?

McLaughlin says with more women in business and politics, sports metaphors could be on the way out: “I think we’re on a decline in the usage. It’s a heavy kind of legacy of a macho era, and it’s not seen as overly sophisticated.”

While some women do of course use sports metaphors, others prefer comparisons to home or family. For instance, describing government priorities in terms of balancing the household chequebook.

It’s less competitive – more cooperative.

New immigrants, too, are bringing different ways of seeing the world, and a passion for different sports. Soccer is Canada’s fastest growing sport, and there’s no shortage of people who see life as a soccer field where you don’t want to be shown the red card.

While the sports metaphors we use may be changing, it’s safe to say they’ll be around for as long as we play games.

May you ALL own the podium.

Listen to the audio here:

Digital Dictionaries

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January 7, 2013

You’re reading the morning news and suddenly you’re confronted with a word you don’t know. Perfunctory, let’s say. Rather than ignore it, or maybe look it up in a print dictionary, you just call the word up online.

Digital dictionaries are becoming increasingly popular; the Modern Languages Association even devoted a session to them at its recent annual convention.

So let’s explore what’s gained and lost in the shift from offline to online.

Ubiquitous, schadenfreude, bourgeois are some of the most sought after pronunciations in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. Hearing the word is a definite plus when you’re looking it up.

Peter Sokolwski agrees. He’s Merriam-Webster’s editor at large, and presented at the convention. “We know that is something people really highly value,” he says.

“Having an audio pronunciation that’s not some kind of a synthesized computer voice but a real human voice, especially from people who are learning English as a second language. And we know maybe a billion people are learning English who don’t speak it at home.”

Other websites, including Vocabulary.com, offer audio pronunciations as well. Executive producer Ben Zimmer, who also presented at the convention, says the website used several opera singers to make the 140,000 sound files because they’re adept at interpreting the International Phonetic Alphabet. Consider it a grammatical serenade.

Online dictionaries also allow us to tap into the zeitgeist. Merriam-Webster.com does that by measuring which words are looked up when. Sokolwski says we go online in times of crisis.

After 9/11, some of the dictionary’s most popular terms were rubble, terrorism and surreal. And when Michael Jackson died, we scrambled to look up stricken, resuscitate, icon and emaciated.

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Last year, m-w.com’s most looked-up words were socialism and capitalism, often together — people grappling with politics and the economy.

Online dictionaries can measure the words we don’t get (insidious or conundrum); the ones we can’t spell (there, their and they’re), and the ones we trip over (affect versus effect).

“People are using the dictionary more because it’s so much more accessible,” says Sokolwski. “That way they can confirm anytime, anywhere.”

And we’re seeing words added faster in online dictionaries: within several years, not decades. Consider some of the 2012 additions to Oxford (which includes the Canadian Oxford): urbanscape, bling (and blinging) and superbad.

On many sites, users can interact by adding their own word suggestions, and sites such as Wordnik.com compile data from many sources, including Twitter and Flickr.

Look up polythene and you’ll also get its Scrabble score (17), as well as a handy Beatles song title (“Polythene Pam”).

And then there’s Google. If you simply enter “define” and your word of choice, voila! Multiple definitions from multiple sources within seconds.

But, perhaps it’s all a little too much information. Which is why some digital dictionaries are offering simplified definitions, especially for ESLers.

Dictionary

Dictionary

In the online world, you also lose the serendipity of discovering other words besides the one you looked up.

While Ben Zimmer acknowledges that, he says we’ll simply develop different orientations to text as we go online. He’s also the head of Visual Thesaurus.com, which he says is modelled on how our brain works, and uses word maps.

Indeed, with print dictionaries in decline, the future is digital.

MacMillan Dictionaries just announced it will only be online, Encyclopedia Brittanica too, and the Oxford English Dictionary is considering. It’s a big switch. It means having to create a whole new business model, depending more on advertisers, and users who are willing to pay extra for perks.

Nonetheless, Peter Sokolwski is optimistic: “It is the age of also. In other words, we have so many choices. We have the dictionary as a book, we also have that same content online or in an app in your phone.

And as long as we make that content available in every possible way so that you can find it quickly and consistently, then we all win.”

Publishers, advertisers, and especially us, the users. More than ever, we can play with language and learn new words, like quixotic (which, by the way, has a Scrabble score of 26).