Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Language DOES influence thought! I have proof...

You know that feeling, when you have a knot in your stomach? If you could draw a picture of that knot, what would it look like?

One of the many challenges of learning a second language is understanding figurative language. Metaphors and idioms vary across different languages; for example, when something costs "an arm and a leg" in English, it costs "an eye of the face" (un ojo de la cara) in Spanish (and also Italian: costa un occhio della testa). As a general rule, idioms do not translate well. Instead, you have to learn the equivalent expression. Here are some great idioms unique to various languages.

Based on this, it was totally predictable that one of the adult ESL students I tutor, from China, didn't understand the expression, to have "a knot in one's stomach". Trying to help the students infer the meaning of this idiom, I asked, "Well, what is a knot?" (looking for a literal explanation). To my surprise, my Chinese student drew a picture that looked something like this:

Image excerpted from
Wait a minute! That's not the kind of knot I envision in my stomach when I feel nervous or upset. In fact, that's not even my image of a literal knot. Explaining this, I drew my version of a knot:

My drawing of "knot"
To explore this difference, we googled images of "Chinese knots", and discovered a bunch of things that look like this:


Again, at least for me, this is not a "knot", and is definitely not the type of thing you have in your stomach just prior to, say, a public speaking engagement.

So, I came away from that tutoring session with an enhanced understanding of how language affects the way we think, a topic that has woven itself (hey, there's another metaphor!) throughout my current semester. It's easy to see how our thoughts might influence our language, but does it work the other way around?

As an opener for my Language Development class this term, the students listened to the Radio Lab program, "Words", which recounts a series of intriguing stories of people who experience ways in which language has a clear impact on cognition. My class had a great discussion about this program, and the language-thought relationship has continued to be an important theme of the course.

Shortly afterwards, NPR published an article on the same topic, which I actually brought in to read with my ESL tutoring students. The article was a challenging read for my students, and they didn't seem to really connect with the idea that language could influence our thoughts. Until, a couple months later, we had the conversation about knots.

Hence, I hear, "knot", and imagine a tangled up ball of string: the mess you can't get out of your shoelaces, or a necklace. My Chinese student hears, "knot", and thinks of a beautiful, intricate and organized pattern used for decoration and good wishes. Certainly, this divergent conceptualization of "knot" would influence the interpretation (and perhaps even existence) of the idiom, "knot in the stomach". One thing I am not sure of is whether there is a similar idiom in Chinese to express this feeling of anxiety. However, I am sure of this: language -and all the cultural connections that come with it- do influence our thoughts and the way we see the world.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Speaking "the wrong kind"

Have you ever been somewhere where you speak the language, but speak "the wrong kind" of that language? Languages often have different varieties, AKA dialects. For example, the way English is spoken in the U.S. vs. Australia vs. Ireland. Speakers from these countries are mutually intelligible; however, we use different phonological patterns and lexical items. You don't even have to go to another country to experience this: within countries there are also regional and cultural dialects. Here's an excellent illustration of regional varieties of English in the U.S.

At the West Side Market, Cleveland, OH.
Lately, I have seen a few examples of this, speaking the wrong kind of a language, and they reminded me of some of my own experiences. Last year, in Italy, for example, it was a very lonely day when I realized I spoke not only the wrong kind of English (Italians often learn British English and I also happened to be working with a British, English language immersion school), but also the wrong kind of Spanish (duh... Spain is a lot closer to Italy than Latin America). I clearly remember the disheartening sensation. I was already feeling like an outsider thanks to my "emerging" Italian. Speaking English, of course I could communicate fairly easily with the teachers and students at the British school; however, they sometimes used mysterious expressions like "tuck shop". One day, I overheard a Spanish teacher talking to a student there, ¡en puro español de España! I decided right then and there, I simply would never fit in in Italy.

Speaking the right or wrong kind of a language is definitely a question of fitting in. Yesterday, a student sent me an episode of TED radio hour, "Spoken and Unspoken". An excellent program... the second episode was based on the work of Mark Pagel, who researches evolution in language and culture. He explained this idea:

"... it's as if we use our language almost instinctively and subconsciously as a marker of tribal identity. As soon as someone opens their mouth and we hear their accent, we start to place them. And what we're subconsciously doing is saying, are they one of us?"

What happens if you are the one who is not part of the tribe? This reminded me of one of my current students, who immigrated from Guyana, an English speaking country, but always talks about how much she had to learn when she first arrived in the U.S. She spoke English, but not the right kind. 

Another friend confided recently that her brother, a native English speaker, had been an undocumented immigrant and was recently deported from a different, English-speaking country. Why? In part, because he couldn't "pass" for a local due to his accent.  

Along these lines, the powerful documentary film, El Coyote, by Chema Rodríguez, chronicles the supposedly final voyage of Mexican coyote, Maco, as he leads a group of migrants from Honduras to cross the U.S. border. In part of the film, he explains how he coaches his clients to speak like Mexicans, so they can pass for locals as they cross the country.         

You might not imagine that people in Mexico would speak so differently from people in Guatemala, or Honduras, but it's true. As it turns out, Spanish is a great example of a language with many kinds. I mean, how many different ways can we say, "beans"? Frijoles, habichuelas, porotos... After living in Chile for a few years, I visited Buenos Aires. Claro que sí, I spoke Spanish, but I had a very serious case of Chilean Spanish, which conflicts with Argentinean Spanish on so many levels! 

Nowadays, my Spanish is more "generic", but I still run into a lot of differences. For example, I was taken by surprise when, at a restaurant in Puerto Rico, I asked what kind of juice was available and didn't understand any of the four options! As it turned out, two were fruits I knew, named in different ways (e.g., "china" for "naranja"), and two were local, tropical fruits whose names I had never heard.

Of course, that feeling of belonging seems to come back when you run into someone or something that reminds you of "your kind" of language. Growing up in Ohio, I used words like "pop" (the fizzy drink) and "tennies" (athletic shoes). Although nowadays, I usually say, "soda" and "sneakers", I feel a fond connection whenever I hear someone use my "native" terms. I guess we never forget our original language kind.  

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Haciendo la turista en Antigua, Guatemala

One week of service learning in Guatemala was an intense endeavor; however, we did get to enjoy one free day before we left. While almost all of our students signed up for an excursion to hike a nearby volcano, my colleague and I decided to sleep in, treat ourselves to breakfast out (including some good, local tea), and, finally, wander the streets of beautiful, La Antigua Guatemala.

A typical, cobblestone street in Antigua

Iglesia La Merced, exemplifies the Baroque style of many buildings in Antigua
Antigua is the historic capital of Guatemala (founded in 1524), and a UNESCO World Heritage site. At various points in history, the city was damaged by earthquakes and fire; however, buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries still exist, and several, even older churches and monasteries lie in ruins around the city. A couple of these were on my must-see list, but we discovered others as we walked through town and chatted with locals. Here are a few of the fascinating sites in Antigua. Note, there is a standard admission fee for each of the ruins, but there is a 1/2 price rate for students. Take your ID!

1. Our first stop was the city's large, outdoor markets: one with food and the other crafts, side by side.  When I visit any city in Latin America, "el mercado" is usually my first stop. It's a great place to get a sense of the local culture: what people eat, how they do business. In Guatemala, haggling (especially for the handicrafts) is expected. It seems the shopkeepers triple their prices for gringos, so be ready to talk them down.

Typical Guatemalan sweets, toys, and la lotería (card game) at a market stand

2. Next, we headed to Santo Domingo, one of the city's various monasteries in ruins. As it turned out, the structure is huge and well-preserved, and is, in fact, now a luxury hotel with lush grounds and various museums inside. There is also a spa and artisanal chocolate shop! This is a relaxing, beautiful place to walk around and enjoy.

Glimpses of gorgeous gardens through ancient windows... Santo Domingo

3. Trying to get oriented after Santo Domingo, we stopped to chat with a local man who told us that the ruins of the convent, Las Capuchinas, could not be missed. So true! What a gem. The round building that was the nuns' living quarters was intact, and it was possible to get a sense of each woman's spartan living quarters.

Ruins of the Capuchinas convent, surrounded by beautiful gardens

The peaceful courtyard of the Spanish Cultural Center

 4. Lunch!

My most authentic, local meal: jocón, a hearty stew in cilantro broth (the vegetarian version from La Casa de las Sopas)

5. The last and most intriguing ruins we visited were La Recolección, highly recommended by a Guatemalan friend. Light years away in look and feel from the pristine Santo Domingo, La Recolección was a convent that is now a complete disaster zone. Visitors climb over giant chunks of the toppled architecture to explore the site. We arrived just before closing and sunset, and were the only ones wandering around this weird and wonderful landscape.

Finally arrived at Ruinas La Recolección

Serious ruins! Felt like the earthquake was yesterday at La Recolección

Antigua is a charming city with many unique places to see. It's also one of the most touristy places in Guatemala, and home to a lot of expat missionaries and Spanish language schools. This place, in comparison to the rural village where we held a clinic, illustrates well the socioeconomic disparity in this country. The juxtaposition of well-preserved, brightly painted Baroque architecture vs. the pieced-together homes of corrugated aluminum offers a superficial glimpse of these differences.

"The other" Guatemala


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The global service learning conundrum

A few days ago, I wrote about my first experience as a faculty advisor to a service learning project in Guatemala. Interestingly, since then, I have attended two, very thought-provoking presentations on international service learning.

I'll reflect here on the second presentation, a webinar by Eric Hartman, from Kansas State University, and Anthony Ogden, from University of Kentucky. Hartman and Ogden opened the conversation by reflecting on an example of what might be a typical -but not ideal- global "service learning" experience for many university students from the U.S.: a brief (1-2 weeks) visit to a developing country during which students take part in some, often externally-developed, project intended to "help" the local community, which students carry out with limited or nonexistent knowledge of the local language and/or culture, yet perceive as a life-changing experience.

Another aspect of this example was the typical outcome for participating students: developing an overwhelming sense of gratitude for their own life circumstances, and feeling rewarded for having helped people in what are perceived to be less fortunate situations.

Of course, gratitude is not a horrible outcome (gratitude is good!), and it can be argued that even a brief exposure to life in another country can increase students' intercultural competence. However, for the experience to be truly effective and equitable for everyone involved, we must push beyond these initial responses and achieve a deeper understanding of the host culture. Most importantly, for Hartman and Ogden, global service learning must be reciprocal in nature: from the start, everything about the exchange should be collaborative, equally economically advantageous, and with equal opportunities for learning and social change. Hartman and colleagues call this "fair trade learning".  

Guatemala: Do these girls want books? In one week, what could we do to learn from and with them? 
In a way, these principles seem obvious, as they lie at the heart of the very definition of "service learning". It seems, however, that in the current zest for programs that offer a quick and convenient global experience for students, many well-intending programs have left them by the wayside.

Certainly, I have been having conversations about this, global service learning conundrum since last fall, when I learned I would be going to Guatemala with students for a week-long experience. As it would be my department's first experience there, it was difficult to do anything but trust that the already-established community partnerships were of the fair trade sort. The goal became to build connections in areas related to literacy (e.g., schools) while in Guatemala and, after returning, continue to communicate with these connections to collaboratively develop future projects.

In practice, this is challenging, but we are making progress, keeping reciprocity and sustainability in mind. We have been in touch with the schools, planning our next visit. In October, a few of the students who went in January will return, offering some degree of continuity. I have to admit, my Spanish language skills are a huge resource in this process. Being bilingual, it's difficult for me to see how service learning can take place at all without a working knowledge of the the local language (but I'll address this challenge in another post).

Speaking of the Spanish language... This journey makes me think of one of my favorite quotes, by Antonio Machado: "Caminante no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar".

Guatemala: What is the path to a reciprocal partnership with this community?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Service learning in Guatemala: Who learned the most?

One of our students making books with girls at a free clinic
In January of this year, a colleague and I served as faculty sponsors for a service learning trip to Guatemala. Our college has run this trip, various times per year, for several years, but it was the first time that students from our, rather new Speech-Language Pathology Department went along. Of the six students who volunteered to go, five had brand-new, completely blank passports.

I tried to remember when I had been in this situation, and realized I was a similar age. My first year in college, I traveled to Coyhaique, Chile to visit a friend I had met when she was an exchange student at my high school. Her family invited me to stay with them for the month of January. I organized the trip as an independent study project, and even received some funding. That month in Chile, my first international experience, certainly changed my life, as I know Guatemala did for my students.

I'll follow up with a touristy post about our home base, La Antigua Guatemala, but here I want to reflect on the service learning experience: highlights, challenges, and its impact on my students.

The big question was: What could we possibly do in one week that would have a sustainable impact on the communities we would visit? We didn't want the trip to be an exercise in "voluntourism". While Nursing and Physical Therapy students provided free clinics in rural communities, the SLP team decided to focus on literacy enrichment. We joined our colleagues in the clinics; however, instead of medical supplies and remedies, we carried suitcases full of Spanish language children's books donated by generous publishers. We read and wrote stories with children of all ages and gave all the books away to children and schools. Most importantly, we developed positive relationships with schools that wish to partner with us in future projects. We will return in October.

Exploring books and making books: Even the older kids got into it!
The days were long, and every night, my colleague and I would stay up late, watching a melodramatic telenovela and brainstorming ways to "fix" the many "problems" that we observed:

  1. How could Guatemala increase access to education in the rural, indigenous areas, especially for girls?   
  2. How could these communities address the needs of young adults who want to go back to school? I met an 18 year old young woman who had left school at an early age. It was her greatest regret. As she got older, she wanted to go back, but family responsibilities prevented it.  
  3. How could there be better access to health care in general, and in particular, in the areas of women's health and family planning?
  4. What about clean water and food? In these communities, people are spending hours carrying water and have constant food insecurity. Considering Maslow's hierarchy, if a family is struggling to meet these basic needs, education and its expenses will not make the priority list.   
More than 1,000 tortillas were given away at a free lunch attended by about 500 children weekly 
I have no doubt that our students were pondering these questions as well, and also trying to reconcile the hard injustice of economic inequality, and the resulting, gigantic differences in their lives at home and the lives of the people they were meeting everyday in Guatemala. At any rate, the students were undaunted. Two of them turned out to be quite proficient in Spanish, and the others used whatever they had and learned more. They had all practiced reading in Spanish and asking questions about picture books and stories. They were fully engaged, all the time, interacting with the children and, at times, their parents. They got a glimpse of Latin American culture: the warmth and friendliness, strong sense of family and community, and resourcefulness. For all of them, it was a transformative learning experience.

Talking about books at a clinic

Friday, April 10, 2015

Welcome Back

It's been a while. Actually, a year ago at this time I was blogging about metaphors of bilingualism and my travels in Italy... Of course, I have been back in the USA now for almost another academic year, and it has been a full one. I have missed blogging and, although I am no longer in Italy, my passions and scholarly pursuits remain the same: multilingualism, multiculturalism, and travel, on various levels and in various contexts. As a university educator, I am fortunate to be able to integrate these passions into both teaching and research, as well as my life outside of work. This year, I have made connections with great new colleagues and had some awesome new opportunities. A few more are on the horizon. I am eager to share them with you.

Three of my students reading with kids in rural Guatemala, January 2015