Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Watch your Language

Acquiring a second language can be a lifelong task for some people and a simple feat for others. While improving proficiency can happen at varying speeds, the process of acquisition itself can be complex when examined carefully and systematically. Researchers can go as deep as analyzing what happens neurologically or simply stand aside and analyze transmitted language. Nonetheless, due to globalization and technology that brings global citizens closer together, language acquisition--especially second language acquisition--must be studied in order to improve communication skills and instruction.

Understanding second language acquisition does not have to start at the deepest regions of the human brain. Instead, one can look to motivation as the biggest determining factor in this process. Motivation, however, is no easy concept to understand or offer as an explanation. It can vary in type and across gender, as well as be influenced by teachers. Even the amount of time that someone has been in the country with the target language can influence his or her motivation.

While motivation is a strong basis for second language acquisition, other factors also play a role. One of these factors is the power of language as seen in social contexts. A language learner’s understanding of this power can have a positive impact on his or her language acquisition. Another important factor in the process of acquiring a second language is the amount of acculturation that has taken place. Based on this, it is possible to look at second language acquisition as a progression or journey in which motivation is the vehicle that is fueled by the power of language and navigated by acculturation.

If you are still reading this blog after that introduction, then you must really love me--despite the fact that that I am, clearly, a language NERD! The excerpt above came from my philosophy of second language acquisition. Don't be fooled by the academic discourse though! When I'm not slaving away on grad school assignments, I'm watching movies and getting a kick out of scenes that illustrate the power of language. Here are some of my favorite linguistic movie moments and my comments regarding them:

Jaws (1975)
Ellen Brody (Gary): In Amity, you say "yahd".
Chief Martin Brody: [with a bad New-England accent] They're in the "yahd", not too "fah" from the "cah". How's that?
Ellen Brody: Like you're from New York.
The above example is demonstrating a dialect, or a way of speaking in a certain geographic area and/or between a certain group of people. It may be the result of distinct variations in pronunciation (e.g., people from Boston) or it can consist of certain words or phrases used in an area (e.g., "pop" instead of "soda" in Indiana). It can even be grammatical features which, despite not following the norms of "Standard English," still present a distinct pattern (e.g., use of the verb "be" in African-American Vernacular English). If you know about different registers of language, that's similar to dialect. They're not exactly the same, but they're close enough for you to be able to understand the next movie moment...

The Departed (2006)
Staff Sergeant Dignam (Wahlberg) meeting Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) for the first time
: Your fuckin' family's dug into the Southie projects like ticks. Three-decker men at best. You, however, grew up on the North Shore, huh? Well, la-di-fuckin'-da. You were kind of a double kid, I bet, right? Huh? One kid with your old man, one kid with your mother. You're upper-middle class during the weeks, then you're droppin' your "R"s and you're hangin' in the big, bad Southie projects with your daddy, the fuckin' donkey on the weekends. I got that right? [Billy does not answer] Yup. You have different accents? You did, didn't you? You little fuckin' snake. You were like different people.
Oh, Marky Mark, only you could do such a brilliant job of illustrating how we "codeswitch" or use different dialects depending on where we are and who we're with. Now, dear Reader, you're probably thinking, I don't speak like that! You do--we all do--but like a fish in water, you're probably not aware of it. To revisit the idea of registers, you don't speak to your friends the same way that you speak to your grandparents, right? Think about the consequences: your friends would think you were weird. We match our language and/or certain aspects of our language to our audience and situation to fit in. Fascinating!

The Goonies (1985)
Mouth's translated instructions to Rosalita: La mota van en el primer cajón; la coca y la rapidez van en el segundo; la heroína en el de abajo. Siempre hay que separar las drogas. [...] Nunca suba arriba. Esta lleno de los instrumentos de tortura sexual del señor Walsh. [...] Si no hace un buen trabajo será encerrada aquí con las cucarachas por dos semanas sin agua y sin comida.
I would LOVE to show this scene to my ELD III kids to really show them the power that comes with knowing a language. Those of you who are familiar with the film, have seen the subtitles and know what he is really saying. Those of you haven't and/or are unfamiliar with Spanish just experienced a small sense of the disempowerment that comes from NOT knowing a language. (And yes, when we start speaking Spanish around you, we're talking about you.)

The Mummy (1999)
Imhotep, after hearing Beni pray in a variety of languages--the last one being Hebrew:
The language of the slaves. I may have use for you. And the rewards will be great.
No, I didn't include this movie because I think Brendan Fraser is hot. I included it because even at the age of 18 when I first saw this film, I understood the historical reference to the Jews being used as slaves in Ancient Egypt. Next, I reflected on the opportunities language brings and thought about how lucky I am to know two languages. Then I asked myself, when is Brendan Fraser gonna be on screen again?

I was 18 after all.