Mother Tongue Tuesday: Russian

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After a day in Tian An Men Square with a trip to the mausoleum to see Mao Tse Tung, I stayed in a hotel nearby with many other tourists. I went down to the lobby to write for my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) because my mother was sleeping in our hotel room. I was surprised to hear Russian from the group sitting crowded together on the couch across from me.

After so many days and months of struggling to pull out words from Mandarin, the Slavic sounds felt comforting and reminded me so much of my life before that they made me homesick. I even felt slightly capable again because I could pick out the different words so much more easily. Slightly capable.

Russian has crazy verb changes, more consonants than I can often wrap my tongue around, and enough challenges to keep me occupied even when it makes me nostalgic to hear it in Beijing.

Russian Tidbits 

  • Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet with two letters that don’t make a sound in themselves but change the sounds of the letters written before them. My Russian speaking friends have enjoyed watching  me try (unsuccessfully) to get these sound changes right.
  • Russian changes words. A lot. Women put different endings on adjectives to describe their feelings than men do. An English equivalent would be something like: He is happy and she is happiette.
  • Probably because it has so many changes in the words to indicate the use of the words, the order is very free. A Russian speaker often uses Subject Verb Object order but can switch things up and still easily be understood.
  • The basketball star Sue Bird for the Seattle Storm has a father of Russian ancestry. Their name was originally spelled ‘Boorda.’

It feels somehow wrong because so many of my students would object to the lack of dignity, but here is one way I like to work on my Russian: My son watches kid videos on YouTube and doesn’t mind if they are in other languages. It gives me a little language challenge and keeps me from getting bored like I do in English with trains that have a very limited plot line.

 

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Off the Language Track: An English Teacher Tortures Herself with Mathematics

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slide rule

In a change from my usual programming, I am posting a math problem. Which goes to show that you never can tell what you will end up doing in your life.

I shared this problem on Facebook:

Optional Math Problem (courtesy of the math teacher who shares my office):
Use any operation (addition, subtraction, etc.) between the numbers to make the equation true. I filled in the 2’s for an example. The 1’s are the most difficult. I suggest doing those last. And any fault in the instructions or layout falls to the English teacher. I am writing this up from memory.

1 1 1 = 6
2+2+2 = 6
3 3 3 = 6
4 4 4 = 6
5 5 5 = 6
6 6 6 = 6
7 7 7 = 6
8 8 8 = 6
9 9 9 = 6

P.S. I need a word problem to stump him with for a time. The 1/5 Dr. Seuss thing was helpful.

I’m posting a picture of my messy answers a few space bars below if you’d like to see them. My mathematics friend said more than one answer is possible for a few of the numbers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Our Brains May be Shorting out on Skimming

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As I painted my son’s ceilings over spring break, I listened to the the radio streaming from my computer in the next room. A piece came on about our brains and the effects of skimming material while surfing the Internet in our Information Age. Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University, said that we have begun to lose our ability to process complex sentence structures even as we have created this amazing ability to look quickly for the information we need.

I found myself nodding my head as I dripped white paint into my hair and splattered it on my glasses with the roller.

Last week I talked about my bookmares and how I cannot get through tough scenes in audio books. When it gets too heavy in audio, I have to get the print book so I can skim to the safer parts. I’ve also written about how I often prefer reading with my ears because the audio versions make me slow down and drink in the images I might otherwise push through to find out what happens next.

I don’t imagine I can now let go of the actors reading to me in my car, but Maryanne Wolf made me want to try a bit of complex reading or, at the very least, do more print reading to keep my brain in shape. I’m always telling my students how good it is for their brains to learn a language. (I’ve got to say something encouraging about the gargantuan task now and then to keep them going.)

I’d feel insincere if I didn’t take some of my own medicine, so I am now shopping for dense language in well written books. Suggestions, again, are welcome.

Pictures of skimming escaped me today. But I did find a video of this crazy event I never knew of before: pond skimming. Maybe skimming in reading is just as fun as these goofy people who made me smile this morning. I’m hoping for warmer weather and water when I soak in the pool of words in a book.

 

Mother Tongue Tuesday: Vietnamese

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Not too long after I started working with the Ukrainian welders, I began a class with Vietnamese studying Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC). This class was much smaller – about 5 instead of 25 -and much quieter. Many of them had come to the U.S. when the war ended in 1975 and wanted me to learn Vietnamese almost as much as they wanted to learn English.

They had great confidence in me and my language abilities, but I’m afraid their mother tongue flew beyond my abilities. When people ask, I say I speak English, a good deal of German, some Russian and a little of a lot of other languages. Of all my little of a lot of langues, Vietnamese is my most challenging because of its tones and because of the need for formality in its pronouns. It’s called a tonal language because each syllable has the potential for seven tones. The UCLA Language Project says these tones are: ” mid-level, low falling, high rising, low, rising after an initial dip, high broken and low broken.” 

If you’ve never tried a language with tones, it’s a little like singing to get the pronunciation correct. If you don’t sing a syllable right, the word may turn into another word or simply not be understood unless you have a gifted listener.

Vietnamese also blows me away in complexity because it requires a different pronoun depending on my age and status in relation to the person I’m addressing. I once heard a guest lecturer talk for over half an hour about the different pronouns for ‘you.’

One thing is much easier in Vietnam than for a person learning English, though –it only has one verb form so there is none of the English monkey business with past, present, future or (gasp!) future perfect continuous is necessary.

Vietnamese Tidbits

  • It’s classified as belonging to the Austro-Asiatic family along with many languages in southeast Asia.
  • For many years, it was written in a script based on Chinese characters and within a few hundred years adopted a Roman script originally created by Catholic missionaries.
  • Jonathon Ke Quan, the famous actor in the movie The Goonies, was originally born in Saigon.

I stumbled on this YouTube video to give you a taste of a Vietnamese poem translated after each stanza. “Jealousy”, a poem about a ridiculously possessive boyfriend, has everyone in the audience laughing, even the reader. I picked it for the sounds of Vietnamese but I can’t help but also wonder at what is under that nervous laughter in a high school setting. For me, it wasn’t all that funny. 

 

Bookmares

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How I feel about choosing my next read.

How I feel about choosing my next read.

Lately, I’ve felt traumatized by books. Two of the books I was able to stop reading when they upset me. I didn’t care enough about the characters to make myself read any more about teenagers doing drugs and blowing up their lives or risk running into another scene like the botched horse euthanasia that I long to unread.

Two more recent books have had me fully bought into what happens. I care about those characters about as much as I care about my high school or Sunday school students. I need to know what happened to those kids and that they are okay.

I’ve been listening to their stories on audio (iPhones and libraries make great partners for my morning commute – I can’t even get late fines). So I have had to get the printed books to let me skim those scenes about parental abuse of the character kids I want to scoop up and rescue from their writers’ words.

All of these authors are skilled. Very skilled. Even the ones who wrote characters I didn’t connect to have an amazing writerly superpower: they make me see in my head what they experienced or imagined in their own heads.

When I first took a class on fiction writing, I couldn’t get past the idea of conflict in writing. I didn’t want to believe I needed it to make a good story. Even more, I didn’t want to create stories to fill people with more feelings of conflict. I used this excuse for a long time to stop myself from writing.

Recently I scared one of my critique group members with the opening scene to my book with too much conflict. So I try not to hold my readerly stress against authors, and I know I’ve accepted that fiction needs conflict to pull the story forward.

But I am shopping for books with a tad fewer chest tightening scenes for my next reads. I crave great stories that pull me through without ripping my heart out over imaginary people. If you’ve got a minute, I’d love suggestions. Bring on the Pollyanna. My reading heart needs mending. Maybe this makes me a wimp. I’m okay with that.

Mother Tongue Tuesday: Ukrainian

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Україна

When I first started teaching immigrants instead of international students like the Japanese young people in my last post , I had a classroom full of Ukrainian men mixed in with a few Russians along with one Armenian. Many had been welders or miners in their first countries. 

They studied in a welding program and my job was to teach them the English they would need to understand welding in the United States. I taught terms like butt joint, corner joint, direct current and bead

Everyday Anatoliy with the silver hair stood a foot above me and said: “Karrie! Ni Boom Boom!” “Karrie! No understand!” (Not exactly a teacher’s favorite words to hear.)

The shock of moving from Japanese university students and culture was matched by the joy of working with a happy crowd of learners who had recently immigrated and wanted nothing so much as to get enough practical English to make it in their everyday lives.

Ukrainian tidbits from the UCLA Language Project

  • Although it is in the Slavic language family, Ukrainian is distinctly different from Russian. For example, the word for goodbye in Ukrainian is “do pobachennya.” The Russian word is ” do svidaniya.” 
  • Ukrainian, like Russian, loves to change the adjectives and verbs according to case and gender. Perhaps because it changes the words to match their purpose (subject, verb, object) in a sentence, the word order is very flexible, especially in comparison to English.
  • Ukrainian is written in the Cyrillic script. 
  • Bob Dylan’s grandparents immigrated from Odessa, Ukraine. (I can’t determine if they spoke Ukrainian or Russian.)

With all that’s happening in Ukraine in the world news, I see my students in that welding basement before the remodel of the school. I hope and pray that we can all get back to building things by laying a bead or cutting apart metal with oxy-acetylene torches rather than tearing each other apart. 

For  a super quick six minute history of the area and the difficulties in the region, here is John Green with a video explanation, including maps and pictures. (I asked my Russian and Ukrainian colleagues to watch this and tell me what they think, but they shook their heads without watching, saying their history could not be squished into that short of a YouTube video. I can see their point but, short of studying the country for a semester or scanning scholarly articles, I thought watching Green gave me a glimmer of understanding.)