2018-08-20

Language Without Metalanguage 1:
Messages Over Deep Structure

To Learn Languages Faster, Abandon Theory

Imagine I were teaching you arithmetic how most language centers teach languages. This is how it would read:
Here's how you get 2 + 2 = 4: Define every natural number by a successor function S(n) on the empty set {}. Every successive natural number as a union (∪) of all of its preceding natural numbers. Since 0 is the first natural number, because it has no preceding natural number, it is equivalent to the empty set {}. We denote the values of the successor set up to 4 with the following values:
  • 0 = {}
  • 1 = {{}} = {0}
  • 2 = {0, 1}
  • 3 = {0, 1, 2}
  • 4 = {0, 1, 2, 3}
Under this model, addition (a + b) is a binary operation defined by the following scheme of the successor function on the successor set of natural numbers:
  • a + 0 = a
  • a + S(b) = S(a + b)
Therefore, 2 + 2 = 2 + S(1) = S(2 + 1) = S(3) = 4.
Now, here's the question: Did this explanation make you better at arithmetic? If I give you a harder calculation, will you faithfully follow these steps and get to the correct result? I bet most of you won't. If you try, it will probably take much more time. This is the problem of metalanguage. The explanation is correct, but it's impractical because the surrounding facts are tangential and more complicated than just saying this:
1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 4, and 1 + 1 = 2, so 2 + 2 = 4.
That explanation would be incomplete if you were a professional number theorist. However, most people who learn arithmetic don't have that goal in mind. Similarly, people who focus on grammatical structure are not training themselves to be good at a language. Instead, they're training themselves to be good at analyzing one. But, this is not to say that language theory does not have its place. Linguistic metalanguage is useful for building language curricula or analyzing languages' features. The problem, though, is that too many theorists waste learners' time. They're teaching language theory instead of teaching language.

Fine, but how can we learn a language's grammar without being taught it?

Well, there's a problem with the question. The phrase "learn a language's grammar" is ambiguous. There are two modes of learning grammar.

The first is what I've already criticized. It's to learn rules, and then to build sentences from those rules. It's a top-down approach. It's structural and analytical. And, it taxes learners. It forces people to (1) memorize patterns with categorical slots, (2) memorize grammatical categories, (3) remember a list of terms for each category, and then (4) plug those terms into their categorically correct places. A basic syntax tree can reveal this much:

"If you want to master several (types of) languages, then you need not study language theory."
To understand this sentence's grammar in the above way, you'd have to understand at least these categories and concepts: complement phrases (CP), complementizers (C), sentences (S), determiner phrases (DP), inflectional phrases (IP), determiners (D), nulls (), noun phrases (NP), adverbial phrases (RP), inflections (I), pro-forms (e.g., pronouns [N-pro]), verb phrases (VP), valency (e.g., transitive verbs [V-t]), part-of-speech transformations (→), adverbs (R), negations (R-neg), and auxiliaries (also I).

Complicated? Check. Theoretical? Check. Universal? Not quite. Exhausting? Most def.

And, I haven't even begun to explain how debatable the tree is. I didn't explain how "的話" is also a relativizer and a noun phrase that combines with a preceding sentence to generate a noun phrase that indicates the topic of the overall sentence. Even if I did, how important is that to you as a learner? How many articles on this subject are you going to read to find out the truth? The answer: zero.

Oh, and one final question: Who's going to teach this heavy theory to you? You may not know this, but most language instructors don't know their shit. I've taught languages, designed curricula, consulted on projects, and trained developers for over a decade. I've met only a handful of people who knew the relevant theory. Most normal people don't know anything about it. Many of them move to foreign countries and work as foreign-language instructors. Even if they're certified, they almost never learn the linguistics. The result is worse than receiving grammar instruction. You receive incorrect grammar instruction. Their limited and wrong folk grammar becomes your limited and wrong folk grammar. The blind lead the blind to blindness.
Ah, folk grammar! A nice drink of warm bullshit!
So, you don't need the theory and can't learn it easily. But, not all hope is lost. We can learn a language's grammar. We just do so by attending more to languages' messages and less to their structure. This lets us focus on languages' logical form (as understood in both logic and linguistics) as opposed to their theoretical structure. The techniques behind this approach will be discussed in future posts. Right now, though, an example should show the value of logical form over syntactic analysis when we study languages. Look at that same Chinese sentence when it's "message-parsed" instead:

Theory belongs in the background.
With this tree, we only see a language's surface structure. The maximally literal translations then help us understand what the sentences are saying. That alone can give us all of the semantics and syntax that we need. It just needs to be read attentively and from bottom to top. To prove this, I'll offer no instruction. Instead, I challenge you to translate these sentences:
接受挑戰


  • "You want to study theory."
  • "You master several types of theories."
  • "You need not master several types of languages."
  • "If you study theory, then you want to study several languages."
  • "你想學會幾種理論。"
  • "你不用想這麼做。"
  • "你不用學語言。"
  • "如果你想這麼做的話,你就想學這種語言。"
    (There's an extra challenge here.)
This is what competent "grammar instruction" looks like. The theory is left to the experts (in this case, me). Normal people get a product that eliminates the need to learn complex theory. That's because learners learn from the bottom up, not the top down. Competent materials, however, don't reflect this, even though they always should have been this way.

Okay, fine, but what can I do about that?

You mean, besides not paying money for crap products? You mean, besides using a free app (wink, wink) that was developed with this approach in mind? Well, I guess you could wait for my next posts to learn how to make these message parse trees for yourself, even if you don't fully understand the language.

More immediately, however, you can change how you think about language instruction. You're not learning math or history here. Languages don't reduce to top-down rules. They don't reduce to facts that you memorize and repeat. Language proficiency is a skill. Acquiring syntax is a product of that proficiency. It's not a goal to be sought. You don't learn a new language to learn how to conjugate its verbs correctly, or whatever. You conjugate verbs and say stuff correctly only after you've acquired the syntax, only after you've pursued the language and not the theory. Techne isn't episteme, and it never will be. They each have their roles to play, but unless you're a language nerd for fun or for pay, pursue the former. Nugget, sent.

2018-07-09

Gender: Or, Why US Pronoun Patrolling Will Fail

When They Insist On Being Called "Them"...

I have a rule about facts: They're boring. That is, that which is really true doesn't need advocates. Thus, as a corollary, anything that's politically charged is based on a lie. Sometimes, it's people with the power that defend nonsense. Think of examples like the Medieval Catholic geocentrism or slavers' biological justifications for racism. They were bullshit. They always had been bullshit. However, the vox populi was on their sides, and consensus is enough for bullshitters. This time, however, the bullshit is on the side of the unpopular view. And, when small groups of wrong people are very loud, many people seem to believe there's a "dialogue" worth having. There isn't, and there never was. That said, I aim to show that enforcers of transgender shifts in English grammar are no different from Westboro Baptist Church protesters. Their only differences are what delusions they worship and what facts they curse as a result.

If they're so wrong and doomed to fail, why should we even care?

To be brief, we shouldn't. If we ignore most nonsense, it will naturally go away. We shouldn't really care about gender beyond language. After all, gender is, first and foremost, a linguistic feature. This much is clarified by Michelle Cretella:

"Gender, as a term, prior to the 1950's, number one, did not refer to people; and, number two, was not in the medical literature. [...] And so, they [sexologists who invented sexual reassignment surgeries] basically looked at the word 'gender', which meant "male and female", referring to grammar— and you can go online. I went back to dictionaries in the 1700's, and you can actually see the definition[s] of gender all the way up. So, in the 1950's, one of the sexologists at the time was John Money, Dr. John Money, and they said, 'Well, we're going to take gender and say, for people, it means "the social expression of an internal sexed identity". That's what we're treating.' They pulled it out of the air."
And, as a feature, it's culturally arbitrary. A language can have a dozen genders or none. It has no direct binding to human sexuality, and there are only people of a few sexes (males, females, and some intersex folks). It's the same way with colors, but in the opposite direction. Most humans can distinguish around three million distinct colors. However, most languages only have a few dozen words for them. This alone has served as the key empirical disproof of linguistic determinism. That is, our words do not decide what things we can perceive or what really exists. Wittgenstein was wrong. Sapir and Whorf were wrong. We can move on.

Then, why are you still on about transgender people?

Trannies aren't the issue. It's this push for a transgender grammar that's annoying.

- "But, that means I'm not really a woman.
I'm just a guy with a mutilated penis."
- "Basically, yes."
Transgender grammar is just the opposite face of that same linguistic determinism. We can only identify sex in a few ways. Linguistic gender, when applied to people, refers to people with those sexual features. However, when they bloat a grammar with invented genders, new sexes don't magically come into being. Neither do they serve to "increase awareness" of other genders, because they made the bullshit up. Their only recourse in the English language is to appeal to "preferred pronouns", and that tells the whole story.

"Preference" Nonsense

First is the word "preferred". What is this preference? Well, all we can observe is a preference to be inconvenient to native English speakers. Their pronouns make no meaningful reference to people's sexual features. Nor do their pronouns have any clear features beyond individual preferences. So, their preference is just to say, "I want a unique pronoun, even though available pronouns already describe me." It's a plea for a false endowment. It's difference for the sake of difference.

"Pronoun" Nonsense

Second is the word "pronoun". This is telling for two reasons. First, it reveals a deep (even deliberate) ignorance of the relevant linguistics. Gender in language is all about agreement, and agreement is matching inflections between nouns and other connected parts of speech. Gender of this sort doesn't exist in English. Gender in English is only present in some nouns' morphemes and in pronouns. For example, English distinguishes "actors" from "actresses" and "waiters" from "waitresses". That's morphological. Also, English uses pronouns "he" and "she" to refer to male and female people. That's lexical.

English gender agreement only occurs in pronoun tracing. Take this sentence:
  • "John and Sue wanted to meet Mary, but she doesn't want to meet him."
This is only slightly ambiguous. "She" could refer to Sue or Mary. Most English speakers would assume "she" replaces "Mary". But, if these asshats got their way with "them", it would read like this:
  • "John and Sue wanted to meet Mary, but they doesn't want to meet them."
All I heard was,
"My so-called journey was a mistake."
Thanks a fucking lot, transgender community! Now, I have to force a noun-verb disagreement to suit your shitty preferences. Not only that, I also have to guess whether "them" refers to John and Sue, or just John, or just Sue. Yeah, and the absent anaphor means I have to make an extra cognitive effort to understand "they". Otherwise, I might infer that John and Sue don't want to meet themselves. Again, congratulations, trans people. You just asked us to break our language because you don't want to get clocked, or for some other stupid reason.

Worse yet, this inconvenience also extends to other languages. Spanish transgenders have been pushing to alter Spanish orthography to use suffixes "~x" or "~@" instead of "~o" and "~a". It's meant to avoid assigning "false genders" to people. The result? Less convenience, more confusion. In this case, it's so bad that Spanish speakers wouldn't be able to pronounce the sentences as read with such changes:
  • "El/la enfermerx me dijo que hay solo un@ médicx acá que es un(a) cirujanx pediátric@."
Exacto, que se cojan por el culo.

Or, consider Russian and German, which have a "neuter" gender. That doesn't mean that "neuter-gendered" people exist. It also doesn't mean that "neuter" gender is a human social role. Any claim otherwise is a category mistake.

More "Pronoun" Nonsense

Second, this inconvenience causes speakers to avoid any verbal interaction with those who make these dumb requests. It's supremely ironic. They seek more dialogue over gender. Then, they make requests (or assholish demands) that cause further isolation. It's another symptom of linguistic ignorance. The core syntax of a language changes for only a few reasons. I've previously explained some of them. However, these pronoun patrolmen can only hope to appeal to its convenience or group sensitivity. They're clearly failing in that first front. What about our wishes not to offend people?

Sorry, but history is not on their side, either. Plenty of special interests have tried to reform the English language. None of them stuck for more than a few years, and only among a small group of people. The proof is in the corpus data:
And, for you, the transgender community:
Trans people, most of us don't care that you want to masquerade as the opposite sex, or if you think you "defy traditional genders" somehow. Abnormal sexuality and genital mutilation don't make you special. We have no obligation to comfort your delusions. That's why you will never win this imaginary rights battle. Seeking normal speakers to meet your silly requests is not doing your kind any favors. If you become outraged, it's your own fault. You shouldn't have fallen for Dr. Money's profit scheme.

What should we do, then, if we don't want to offend them?

The only correct pronoun here is "whatever-the-fuck".
I'm really not the person to ask. Just use their proper names all the time, I guess. But, don't waste your life dismantling a language for the sake of people's feelings. Soon enough, activists will have abandoned this futile effort. They'll move on to getting animals elected mayor or some other stupid shit. They might actually succeed in that effort. I'd sooner vote livestock into office than dice my syntax to hell.

2018-06-17

The Ignoble Truth of the Private Language Industry

When Motives Are Misaligned…

"Money makes the world go round." It's a hard fact of life. If only "money talks; bullshit walks" were also true in the language education industry. It still astounds me. There are so many texts, apps, businesses, and methods that are dedicated to learning languages. And yet, acquisition rates are abysmal. But, why? Why does expending so many resources not produce many fluent speakers?

The short answer is this: What motivates businesses and what motivates language learners have never, ever been aligned. Because of this, outcomes are terrible. History already tells us this. In all of Earth's civilizations, only three social phenomena have ever led to large populations becoming multilingual. In other words, a major event has to happen to a society to create one of three motives that compel language fluency.

Being Conquered, The Survival Motive

There's no secret to why the most common languages on Earth today are what they are. Go back any number of centuries. Choose any land where the people speak a language that wasn't their native-born tongue. I guarantee you that a ruler's ambition was at the head of it.

- "Your master gave you a name. It's a nice name. It's Toby!"
- "Yeah, whatever, cracker."
To give a graphic example for my mostly American audience, have you ever stopped to think how African slaves, whose native languages have almost no common features with English, learned English? I'll give you a hint. Slavers didn't sit them in quaint schoolhouses and drill them on grammar. In fact, teaching slaves to learn to read or write was illegal many Southern states. No, no. The earliest African slaves in America got their English education via the end of a whip. Why else do you suspect American blacks' derogatory term for whites literally means "one who cracks (a whip)"?

The point is, if an empire decides that newly conquered subjects shall speak their tongues or have them cut out, you can be sure that those subjects will have a pidgin by nightfall.

Being Converted, The Religious Motive

Nine million speakers and counting...
Unlike the survival motive, the religious motive is unique in that it's not always done through violence. Religions like Islam, Catholicism, and Judaism foreign languages in order to perform certain rites or be deemed true followers. Others, like Mormonism, Protestantism, and others require their missionaries to learn new languages to attract more followers.

It's different from a survival motive because the fears and ambitions involved are more psychological than physical. Those features compel people to indoctrinate others into their religions. And, since indoctrination requires a doctrine, and because a doctrine requires a language, the compulsion to learn a foreign language also arises. QED.

Being Connected, The Prosperity Motive

"Euh, je peux avoir de l'aide, s'il vous plait?"
Beyond those motives that impose language learning upon a population, there is also the drive to thrive internationally. Intrinsic desires for wealth, social contact, and so on are now people's main reasons for learning a foreign language. Most of this is due to internationalization, which has increased the number of foreign dealings, bilingual households, and such. So, more and more people push themselves to acquire foreign languages to serve their personal goals.

For instance, I started teaching myself Mandarin because I wanted to pursue Chinese philosophy in graduate school in Taiwan. I didn't appreciate learning Mandarin in its own right until a couple of years later.

Okay, but why can't private businesses fit their models to these motives?

Well, private businesses can't force us to submit to a ruler, so the survival motive is out. That leaves the religious and prosperity motives. There are some religious groups that freely teach or require competence in their sanctified languages. However, they're less likely to outsource their instruction to third parties. And, even if businesses did cater to these motives, they can only appeal to them. Since they're businesses first, most appeal to the prosperity motive. For example, in countries where English is in demand, they often promote it as an "investment" because English is the international commerce language. In more affluent monolingual countries, they often promote foreign languages for use in social settings, vacations abroad, and so forth.

That, however, is a tiny problem when compared to the motive that corrupts private businesses' proper objectives:

Getting Rich, The Profit Motive

"Ah, so you want to learn English, eh?"
It may surprise you, but language experts do not start most education businesses. Instead, people found them with a single goal: Get rich. In every place I've worked, among the company presidents and CEO's with whim I've interacted, not one had even a basic grasp of the relevant linguistics. Many made their wealth in totally unrelated industries. Then, they opened an "institute", built an app, shit out PowerPoint presentations, or slapped some other crap together, and hocked their wares to the masses.

Normally, this is not a bad thing. A free market allows businesses to compete for customers. And, competition produces better and better products at lower and lower prices. Bullshit products and services then slowly die off. At least, that's how it should work.

There's just one flaw in that reasoning regarding the language education industry. Business owners are obsessed with customer retention; and, if their products produced fluent speakers, it would kill retention.

So private language businesses profit more by not teaching languages?

Exactly! Think about what would happen if enough speakers already knew a formerly foreign language. Bilingual parents would breed bilingual children. Those children would gain their language skills in their homes, churches, or public school curricula. The demand for future students would decline. And, in a generation, private language educators would lose most of their profits.

Almost all private language businesses function under this perverse incentive. That means that these businesses can't sell what learners actually want. It also means that what people buy from this industry is mostly bullshit. It's not because there isn't demand. It's because perverse incentives lead producers to limit the supply.

What the hell are private language businesses selling, then?

"Got the mumps? The bumps?
Those sticky, tricky clumps?
Why, I've got the perfect remedy!
Native speakers!
A world-class curriculum!
That perfect learning formula!
And language fluency in 30 days!
Guaranteed*!"

* Disclaimer: Results may vary.
Well, what they actually sell differs somewhat. Some "learning centers" just sell glorified day care services. Some sell the mere exposure to native speakers. Some sell overpriced materials, most of which are too incompetently designed to even be called "educational". But, they all sell one thing prior to all of that. Like any snake oil salesmen, the majority of language businesses sell the feeling of language acquisition. Their products and services are mere placebos. They make you feel like you're learning a foreign language. Many students leave a classroom or complete a textbook with psychological impression that they've learned a language. However, that impression is short-lived, and learners confront that harsh reality once they try out their shoddy language skills outside of a classroom.

Many language learners, unfortunately, reach a false conclusion: "It's not that the snake oil doesn't work. I just didn't drink enough of it," they tell themselves. So, they return to their bullshit dealer of choice to get another fix. People's mass self-deception guarantees the customer retention that language businesses owners crave. That's why, in so many of these businesses, the first lesson is always free.

The consequences for most language learners, though, is damning. Many convince themselves that languages are just too difficult to learn, even though practically everyone acquires at least one language without much difficulty. For many, the placebo effect wears off, and they quit, but either surrender themselves to their ignorance, or desperately seek out another placebo. And those business owners, who never cared whether you succeeded or failed, gladly take your money, and then hunt for the next group to emotionally exploit. To call them scum would be an insult to scum.

Wait, why should anyone trust you?
You built an app. You have a profit motive.

It's true. I did build an app with a hope to profit from it. However, some of us learned not to be deceptive cretins in the process.

First, I don't promote my app in the traditional, scummy way. For instance, I don't fill my users with false hope. Language acquisition takes effort and time. PollyGot is just one way to approach foreign languages intelligently. But, the private industry surrounding this process has muddied the waters with stupid catchphrases, with "guarantees" that no one could possibly guarantee, and with bells, whistles, and antics that are irrelevant to language acquisition. It's practically axiomatic: Any language product or service that starts with a sales pitch is, beyond any doubt, absolute bullshit.

This is why I didn't take out any loans for PollyGot. It's why I learned to code and built the damned thing, myself. I avoided the trap of entrepreneurship. I don't have a business loan to repay. I paid, instead, with my time and energy. I also don't have superiors breathing deadlines down my neck. I was able to take my time, test my work, scrap projects that sucked, and build them up again. I was able to operate freely, and held to the old maxim, "If you want something done right, do it yourself."

It's not only that, though. I didn't build my app with the vision of building a business. I built it with the vision of solving a problem. That's what these other dipshits don't fucking get. The point of a language product isn't customer retention. The point of a language product is for the world not to need language products. You leave the boat behind once you've crossed the river, but these business fucks sell you a leaky boat, and then try selling you all kinds of buckets and paddles instead of fixing the goddamned boat. Now you know why. Private language businesses, deep down, want you to sink, and they don't care if you drown.

“嘿,我聽説你們這些大陸人
都想改善自己的呼吸能力。”
"Hey, I hear you Mainland Chinese want
to improve your breathing ability."
To me, selling someone a language product is like selling a suffocating man air. Languages aren't a commodity. They're essential, and they're not scarce. Not even functional approaches are scarce. Functional approaches are just made artificially scarce. Hell, I made a comfortable living selling curricular approaches that I had rejected as incomplete to lots of my former employers and contractors. Because, really, fuck 'em! They didn't give a damn about what works and what doesn't. They only cared about what sold well.

Second, PollyGot costs people nothing. I even worked to make it not cost bandwidth, and I decided against running banner ads in it. Instead, its sole financial support will come from donations and Patreon sponsorships. If people are personally moved to pay me to work on my products exclusively, with no sales pressure or constant begging, that's a proper signal that people are getting use out of it. My endgame is to build a language product that ends language products. Mass bankruptcy of the surrounding language industry, including mine, is my goal.

Or, someone else will achieve this before me. I won't mind. At least they'll have the proper motives.

2017-11-13

Language Unbleached: Talking Street

You're Screwed If You Don't Catch Up

Languages, as I've already said, are not limited to the crap you learn in school. Every native speaker contributes to his community's language. While institutions are busy doing what they do best -- instituting -- actual speakers of the language are doing what they do best -- speaking. This leaves you, the language learner, in a precarious situation. You can go the route of schooling, and learn the language that institutions approve of. Or you can go the route of acquiring the language that speakers actually use. Fantasdeck, PollyGot, and this blog are dedicated to the latter. Feel free to visit http://www.emptypromises.org if you just want support for your delusion.

How do I know if my language isn't just school-sanctioned crap?

To answer that, you need to challenge language institutions head-on. Try translating something like this into your target language: "Fuck that shit! You faggot-ass wannabes tryin' to hold a nigga back." If you failed, you probably only learned as much as schools were willing to teach you. You got screwed out of your money and out of some really important competencies.

Few things highlight this disconnect better than a post by the international Latin rock sensation Juanes when he posted an image of himself wearing a "Mexico Is The Shit" jacket. The problem? Spanish speakers got pissed. Why? Because many failed to understand American English slang. It took the intervention of Juanes himself to clarify the matter:

It's true. Mexico is the shit,
if you know what that means.
Hola! La chamarra me la regalaron en México y me gustó muchísimo. ["Mexico is the shit"] es una expresión que significa que "México es lo máximo", no es una expresión ofensiva.
→ Hello! They gifted me the jacket in Mexico, and I liked it a whole lot. ["Mexico is the shit"] is an expression that means, "Mexico is the best." It's not an offensive expression.
That fact, however, didn't stop the mamones from feeling offended. And, honestly, they can only blame themselves. They should have understood American English slang better.

This example illustrates why learning to talk street -- learning the language that people "on the street" actually use -- matters so much. You don't only avoid looking stupid on Facebook. You also gain a competence that separates you from merely book-smart language learners. Knowing the difference between book smarts and street smarts is your first step out of failure.

Okay, I've taken your red pill. Get to the resources!

I've described various resources (here and here) to provide you access to resources online. That said, there's not much more I can recommend. You'll have to start your journey of acquiring the rest outside of your mom's basement.

Wait! Does that mean I have to move?

Not exactly. People will tell you that your only path to full fluency is to move to speakers' native lands. Unfortunately, this leads many people to assume that foreign language skills flow from the plane ticket. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Consider this analogy: Suppose you want to be a great football player, so you visit your local stadium every day. Now, how much better do you suppose you'll play football after merely watching others play? Exactly. It's the same thing with language. Language is a game, but not a spectator sport. Attending an away game won't "immerse" you in any meaningful way. To play sincere language games, you have to be a sincere language player, and that means you'll have to face some uncomfortable realities.

When You Start, You Ain't Shit

You're not going to prance before a bunch of "foreigners" (abroad, you're the foreigner) and wow them with your language abilities right away. You'll need to start small. You'll need to learn your essential "survival language" first if you want to continue playing. But, that takes humility, and it's hard to be humble when you're too busy being frustrated.

So, the most important thing to adjust when you start is your attitude towards making mistakes. If someone's willing to correct you or complete your sentences, take it as assistance instead of criticism, even if they're being critical. Especially in the beginning, native speakers will be more frustrated with you than you'll be with them. After all, they have to decode your foreign-ass noises into some sort of meaningful message. Count each successful exchange as points toward your language game score. Over time, the "聽不懂's" and "no-te-entiendo's" will become less and less frequent, and you'll be able to approach more natives with fewer issues. That's the only route to approaching the richer language you crave.

Bilinguals Can Be a Crutch, But Don't Hobble Yourself

It's hard to resist not putting yourself at a disadvantage against another player in a language game, and this is where bilinguals are like sirens that beckon you to crash into the rocks. They can make you complacent, and complacency breeds failure. However, bilinguals are also useful, because they can guide you toward more comprehensible and native-sounding speech.

"No te pongas entre la espada y la pared."
"Don't put yourself between a rock and a hard place."
This puts you in a subtle balancing act. You need to weigh the urgency of communication against the drive to suck less. The problem compounds when you realize that bilinguals seek to use you to suck less, too. And, if you let them, they'll suck you dry. If a bilingual speaks to you in your native tongue, and if you can respond in theirs, it's best to do so. Doing anything else guarantees a one-sided language exchange, and I can't count the number of expats who venture abroad with high hopes of multilingualism, only to befriend people who cloister them into their own language communities.

Oh, to hear them bitch about self-inflicted impotence!

That brings me to my next pointer:

Don't Be a Bitch

I mean this in almost every dimension one can in English. 
  • Don't be a whiny bitch. Don't complain about what you don't know. Ignorance is your own damned fault, and complaining wastes time that you should spend learning to play your language game better.
  • Don't be a bottom bitch. Don't let people take advantage of your lack of knowledge. This is especially crucial in places like Mexico, where police officers have targeted me on a handful of occasions, hunting for infractions to score mordidas ("bribes"). If you're not fluent, don't put yourself in needless predicaments. If you are fluent (and also, from a dominant country and not committing any crime), enjoy the shakedowns and grin as their eyes widen in surprise and roll in disappointment.
  • Don't be a psycho bitch. Don't think that fluency gives you a free pass to talk shit to everyone. Men, particularly, have egos to defend and are desperate to play hero in front of women. Mocking people when it's genuinely funny is all well and good, but there's a fine line between teasing and cruelty.
Also, it's a good idea, as basic street smarts, to learn how to diffuse anger and to learn how to defend yourself if others decide to escalate matters. Never assume anyone abroad (not even a cop) has got your back.

I get it. Being a bitch is tempting to many of you, and it's mainly because:

Language Games Are Sisyphean

"嘿,希臘暴君,你有空時,我就想跟你討論這份進步報告。"

You either continue playing or you quit. There is no language endgame.

You can't treat language acquisition like a race, because doing so would be like chasing the horizon. No matter how many steps you advance, there's an infinity beyond wherever you're standing. The best you can ever hope for, even in your native language, is to know the terrain better.

I've been speaking Spanish competently since 2002, Mandarin since 2011. Not once have I thought, "I know all the Spanish and Chinese I'll ever need," because my goal has been to pass for a (linguistic) native. That means nearly automatic speech and no inhibiting lexical gaps. That means adapting my speech to regionalisms and slang. That means keeping apace with neologisms and cultural memes. How could there be an end? Why would you want there to be?

The shit that matters for those goals can't fit in a curriculum. They can't be assigned, but have to be explored. If that upsets your pet delusions, don't hate the players, hate the game. Better yet, hate yourself. Whiny bitches get no sympathy here. Players, on the other hand, get mad respect.

2017-01-20

Language Unbleached: Talking Dirty

You're Screwed, or So You Hope!

Sex: We literally need it to survive! Much of what we do from puberty onward is meant to attract mates. As Dave Chappelle put it:
"If a man could fuck a woman in a cardboard box, he wouldn't buy a house."
Now, there are more nuances than that, but the core fact is true. We, men and women, have various standards that make us seek out various mates. And, as the majority of the Earth's population seeks long-term monogamy, one thing proves to be quite important -- communication! Or, as my sainted mother says:
"You can sleep with them; but, eventually, you'll have to talk to them."
In my experience, even to sleep with them, you have to talk to them. People crave stimulation, and they prefer it from proficient tongues. Thus, for anyone who lives where their native language is not the lingua franca, foreign-language skills can help you do more than survive and make friends. They can help you find lovers, partners, and even spouses.

Now, flirtation, loving communication, and "the dynamics of human peer bonding" have dimensions that (a) are less related to languages and linguistics, and that (b) my own romantic life disqualifies me from discussing. That said, you'll have to adapt what knowledge I have to your own methods.

Why should it matter what language I use?

To answer this, I'll turn to the SLA expert and an intellectual frenemy, Stephen Krashen. In his book, Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, he describes the "affective filter hypothesis," which states that negative emotions impede language acquisition. Now, the only thing that I like about this hypothesis is the term. The rest is unoriginal. Psychologists have long known that negative emotions (like fear) impede our comprehension of things. This is true for language, even if you're a native speaker.


But, fear is not the only affective filter. For instance, I hate being patronized for being foreign, and natives' simplifying their speech prematurely angers me even more. My anger, in turn, impedes comprehension of their speech. That impeded comprehension gives foreign speakers a false cue that further simplification is needed, and so a vicious cycle forms.

Sometimes I regret ever learning
the term micro-aggression.
Some expats whom I know, however, have no problem with this. They are happy to let their girlfriends order their meals for them at restaurants. They don't mind empty compliments about their language skills after they say six whole words in a foreign language. Instead, their affective filters are things like disgust with the foreign language, or feelings of pressure to respond perfectly. There is a wide range of such emotional triggers.

Filters aside, though, there is one more key reason to speak your target's language as well as you can. Foreign languages tax most people's energy. Because most non-natives learned your language in school, if at all, making them speak your language is like pushing them back into those dreaded years of vocab quizzes and grammar drills. How sexy can your target feel if he or she is pressured to recall irregular verb conjugations or determiner-noun agreement rules? As a rule, the seller speaks the buyer's language; so, if you're the horny one, bear that burden! Sooner or later, your naughty bits will thank you for it.

What should I learn to say, then?

Unfortunately, there's no useful pickup-line phrasebook or sex translation guide, because rehearsed flirtations are practically doomed to fail. Why? Because books like that don't know you. The sexiest parts of you can't be recited. They have to reflect and reveal what makes you such a catch. Instead, it's better to think of how you want to speak instead of what you want to say.

For instance, if you want to convey sexual undertones, you have to master a language's figurative sexual language. However, your sex and sexual orientation influence how much access you get to it. Men usually talk more openly about sex, and they're more willing to describe their desires, exploits, and so forth with vulgarity and double entendres. That means, then, that gay men and straight women often receive these terms more openly in the wild. Straight men, on the other hand, will likely need a cohort of single straight men to learn this piece of a language. That, in itself, offers an answer.

To answer the above question, answer this one: "Where do horny men go?"

Survey says…

Porn Sites

Most men enjoy sexual congress; and, if they're not having it, they're taking matters into their own hands, going online to watch videos of other people having it. About ten percent of all search engine searches are for pornographic content, and porn mainly serves male masturbators.

The challenge lies not in finding porn as much as finding porn in your target language. That may be much harder if mostly conservative people speak your target language (e.g., Arabic). Also, if the Internet is not very present where most of your target language's native speakers live, the Internet may be a dead end. For most language learners, though, entering terms for sexual anatomy into a video search engine will quickly yield results.

"Did somebody order a pizza? Extra sausage?"
"有人點比薩吧?加臘腸的吧?"
Any serious language learner should watch at least one complete pornographic video in his target language, but as if it were a normal film. Short of your sexual orientation, you don't need to pick a film based on your sexual preferences. You just want to learn the main terms used in sexual dialogue. The video, therefore, only needs to be appealing enough to keep your attention.

As you watch your porno with your hands off your junk, pay attention to commonly repeated phrases (there are a lot in pornography), and their tones of voice. Again, focus on how they talk, not on understanding every sentence. Then, at the end, see if you learned some key terms: tits, cock, balls, mouth, pussy, ass, cum (n.), cum (vi.), hard, wet, interjections for sexual arousal or encouragement, and pizza.

Comments Sections for Online Attention Whores

Thanks to sites like Instagram and YouTube, men can now receive regular media feeds of whomever attracts them sexually. The linguistic pay dirt of these sites, though, is in their comments sections. Here, men often post comments describing their reactions to said photos. Some even narrate whole sexual fantasies. Subscribe to a few feeds with high comment rates in your target language, and you'll be laughing your way to talking dirty.

However, these two sources have a limit. They only provide input. There's little to no feedback in what language you produce. For that, you need open sexual language exchange from human interlocutors. Luckily, there is a quick source for that, too.

Sex Solicitations

To be clear, I am not recommending that you hire prostitutes or escorts. If you're going to do that, the only sentence you will need is, "How much?" Instead, you just want to "catfish" sex solicitors. However, please do this cautiously, as prodding this underbelly of society could have real consequences if you don't use basic Internet "street smarts":
  • "Solicit" them with dummy profiles,
  • Never state that you want to purchase sex.
  • Never click their links,
  • Don't share your personal contact information, and
  • Never accept invitations or friend requests.
That is enough to avoid most trouble while you use them to refine your dirty talk. If you can find human sex solicitors, not automated programs, most will engage you for about ten messages before they catch on. At that point, some will start to insult you, and then you can practice your shit-talkingRemember that all exchanges, even the ugly ones, are opportunities to build your language skills.

I could go on, but this list need not cover everything. It just needs to guide you to some general sexual language sources outside of the barroom and bedroom. What's important to them is that you reach beyond your comfort zone in a comfortable setting. Propositioning a stranger, or even a third date, can be stressful. And, yes, it's that much harder to do it in a foreign language. But, nothing gives you charisma like confidence, and nothing gives you confidence like preparation. So, be prepared, stay relaxed, and always use protection!

This message was not brought to you by Charisma Man.

2016-09-18

Language Unbleached: Talking Shit

You're Screwed, or Are You?

Languages are not all that friendly. They're coarse, they're mean, they're gross, and (worst of all) they're fluid. Schools, on the other hand, strive to be none of those things. They're refined, they're kind, they're formal, and (worst of all) they're stagnant. In the field of foreign-language learning, most people complain about schools' formality. Linguists have known since Chomsky that we don't learn our first language by being taught grammar explicitly. SLA research since then has shown that we don't seem to learn foreign languages that way, either. So, what gives? More importantly, what needs to give?

This blog will be full of info on where and how schools, language centers, and the like drop the ball, so what gives is coming piece by piece.

What needs to give, though, is your attitude, and it needs to give in at least two areas.

"What a misfortune it is
that we should […] let
our boys’ schooling
interfere with their education!"
-- Grant Allen
(You were probably taught
in school that it was Twain.)
First, you need to abandon all faith in schools' teaching you most of what you need to know about languages. Schools are great for learning formal procedures, and they're designed to help people be "good citizens." The problem is that natural languages are not formal procedures. They aren't Markov chains. They aren't "sentence patterns." They aren't syntax trees. They're not what makes it into dictionaries or grammar books. What's even worse is this: Languages give two shits about "good citizenship." Languages belong to everyone, even drifters, criminals, and assholes. Schools often pretend that what you speak "out there" should not be what they teach "in here." And, unless schools break free from these biases (they won't), they will only give you as much language as their "educational culture" allows. Maybe you'll become fluent and comprehensible, but you're going to sound foreign and robotic as fuck.

Second, you need to branch out beyond your comfort zone. Learners often hear this and think only of a language's complexity. Being comfortable with reading or hearing longer sentences with rarer words is a worthwhile skill. However, it risks becoming a comfort zone, but one of kind instead of degree. News reporters speak like news reporters. Novelists write like novelists. But, you probably don't want to speak like a news reporter or write like a novelist. Chances are that you just want to be yourself, just in the other language. And, if you've ever struggled to express your true feelings or reactions in a foreign language, you understand that this discomfort is one of kind, not degree. Unless you want to be the "good citizen" as schools have defined that for you, you're going to have to be yourself elsewhere.

You'll have to make friends in places you never thought you'd go. You'll have to be "the foreigner" in the crowd. You'll have to have to risk pissing people off.

Classes only train you in aspects of languages that avoid doing these things, because "educational culture" aims to be inclusive and politically correct. Thus, schools are prescriptive in the semantics that they teach. Also, schools must appeal to a standard to grade work, and that makes them prescriptive in the syntax rules that they teach. And that prescriptivism means that you won't learn some key parts of speaking natively in any classroom. I am going to focus on three: talking shit (insulting speech), talking dirty (sexual speech), and talking street (up-to-date slang). Since Fantasdeck is not a school, but an avenue to learn all of a language, not just the whitewashed bits that schools are willing to teach, I'll light a path for you that most teachers never will.

What's the value in talking shit?

Do you love everyone? Do you go out of your way to make sure all of your words are kind and sweet? Or, are you a normal, sometimes insensitive, human being?

The truth is that most people feel hate, if not for whom people are, then at least for what they do. Insulting people for what you perceive as bad about them is not bad in itself. The world is full of backstabbers, gold-diggers, pricks, cunts, wannabes, pity whores, and fags. But, many of these words have dimensions that most translation dictionaries will not teach you.

A 2001 interview with Eminem summarizes this point nicely:
NYRock: There has been much controversy over your liberal use of the word faggot and what people perceive as gay bashing. It's put you right in the line of fire from gay and lesbian groups the world over.
Eminem: I'm not gay bashing. People just don't understand where I come from. Faggot to me doesn't necessarily mean gay people. Faggot to me just means [something like] taking away your manhood. You're a sissy. You're a coward. Just like you might sit around in your living room and say, "Dude, stop, you're being a fag, dude."
NYRock: But you can see how it would insult homosexuals?
Eminem: Yeah, but it does not necessarily mean you're being a gay person. It just means you're being a fag. You're being an asshole or whatever. That's the way that the word was always taught to me. That's how I learned the word. Battling with somebody, you do anything you can to strip their manhood away.
And he's right. Homosexual epithets are used among straight males in the US to emasculate them. It does not directly indicate straight males' views on homosexuality. Also, calling something "gay" does not imply that it's homosexual in character. Rather, it just means that it's inferior in some way.

These subtle senses and uses take time and exposure to really use "appropriately." For instance, it makes no sense to call women fags in the above sense, because women are not expected to be masculine in the first place.

"Everything looks good,
but her face." Get it?
An even bigger mistake would be to attempt a direct translation from your native language to the target language in these cases. If a Chinese speaker of English calls a woman a "rear-view killer" (背影殺手), that will mean nothing to a native English speaker. We use the word butterface to refer to such women.

Or, if you want to say in Chinese that a plan or idea "sucks ass," Chinese speakers will be both puzzled and disgusted by the response, "我覺得會吸肛門." That means, "I feel I will suck some ass." And I know this, because I've texted this to a girlfriend.

But, what if I'm a saint?

Perhaps you never will be talking shit about people; but, that doesn't mean that people won't be talking shit about you. Learning the ways in which people can be rude with their words is also a matter of defense.

Bigots and racists are real, and they're all over the world. So, failing to learn this aspect of language is no better than burying one's head in the sand. Sure, there's a brief comfort in not understanding that someone thinks less of you, but there's much less comfort in trusting in or relying on those who do. Without covering this aspect of whatever language you study, natives of your target language may feel free to speak ill of you. So, if you plan on using the language you learn with native speakers, you owe it to yourself to catch and call out those who would try to give you a bad rep.

Where can I start my trash-talking journey? 

Diss Tracks (Rap Music)

As I've hinted above, we can start with a thank-you to the United States' entertainment industry, since it has exported the rap genre to the whole world. That means that there are rap albums available in every major language.

As well as being a good source of slang in general, rap music also offers plenty in what are known as "beefs." A beef is a public grudge, and rappers can't seem not to step on each other's toes. What results is mud-slinging to a beat, diss tracks.

Finding these tracks will take some research. But, once you find them, take them in and spot how rappers craft their insults. You'll often find some common themes, even common morphemes, and they provide a template for how to construct slurs in the target language.

Films Featuring Criminals

The more, the better! When writers write dialogue for criminals, they often make sure to display how crude and harsh they can be to each other. A natural result of this is a wealth of hateful speech, or even outright hate speech.

If you know of such films in your native tongue, you may be able to find those same films with translated subtitles. However, I would recommend that you not use them to learn this kind of language. The issue is that there is rarely a good correspondence of epithets between languages, and translators, pressed for time, usually just pluck one that is close enough to match a general mood. Translators are not racking their brains trying to render the word asshat perfectly into Russian or Swedish. They have deadlines. Instead, let native writers show their prowess for shit-talking, and work out meanings from contexts that way.

Forums and BBS's

The trolls, feed them!
They're basically
free insult machines.
While many of the insults that you will read on forums will apply mainly to disliked elements in the online community, much of this language can extend to the offline world, too. The goal here, though, is not to follow forums on topics that you like. You'll be better off finding those sites where folks are free to be less than kind, and where clever insults win you respect, so think 4Chan and FYAD.

Social media boards that deal in controversy are also a good source of put-downs. And, if you venture into politics or public policy, you'll learn a good bit about the divides in those landscapes at the same time. So, don't be afraid to say something unpopular. Good or bad, you'll be getting useful language; and, in the end, that's what you're there for.

2016-09-04

Chinglish Explained: Yang Jia Cheng's
"Chinglish (中式英語)"

First, Mr. Yang's Two Cents; Then, Mine

What Is Chinglish?

Basically, any non-standard language that comes from foreign influences wins its own portmanteau. English speakers name theirs by mashing each first syllable of the foreign language into -nglish for its second. So English names Spanglish, Franglish, etc. For short, I'll just call them glishes. These refer either to a foreign language that English has influenced or to English that a foreign language has influenced. This post is about the latter, English that Chinese has influenced.

These latter glishes usually have to show that English is not the glish speaker's native language. A glish can't just be English plus some loanwords or code-switching. Foreign phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, and syntax all have to be there. A lot of foreign-language natives also have to make the same kinds of "errors" when attempting to comprehend or use English.

The word "errors" above belong in quotation marks. "As long as people can understand what the hell you're saying, then […] it's good English." In fancier terms, Mr. Yang defends linguistic descriptivism over prescriptivism. The difference? If an utterance doesn't fit an English description, English natives won't be able to recognize it as English. If, however, an utterance doesn't fit an English prescription, snooty English natives won't be willing to recognize it as English. Now, there are reasons to care about prescriptions. Sometimes we have to fit in with the snoots or produce clearer utterances. Mr. Yang's point, however, is that most foreign English speakers don't.

You can explain some Chinglish give me?

Mr. Yang's snapshot of Chinglish lightly pokes at Chinese English learners' failed acquisition of some standard English phonology and syntax. However, he funnily treats Chinglish as an argot which native English speakers can learn. What's interesting, however, is not that they "go wrong," but where specifically they "go wrong."

Chinglish Phonology:

How Mr. Yang puts it:
  • "Lesson 1: Pronounce every word extra clearly and with a weird tone."
How a phonologist might put it:
  • "Lesson 1.1: Speak English words by vocalizing all stop consonants if they are written in the language's orthography."
  • "Lesson 1.2: Break the final coda from the English word, and then add /ɤ/ to the dangling onset, or remove the dangling onset, whichever matches a Mandarin syllable more closely."
The results?
  • First, pronounced /ˈfɜrs⟨t⟩/ in English, becomes /ˈfɜrsɤˈtʰɤ/ in Chinglish;
  • Yes, pronounced /ˈyɛs/ in English, becomes /yɛˈsɤ/ in Chinglish; and
  • Right, pronounced /ˈraɪ⟨t⟩/ in English, becomes /ˈraɪ˧˥/ in Chinglish.
How Mr. Yang puts it:
  • "Lesson 2: Randomly put letters in words."
    • "We never pronounce the ⟨th⟩."
How a phonologist might put it:
  • "Lesson 2.1: If a consonant immediately precedes /i/ in the final syllable, replace it with /eɪ/."
  • "Lesson 2.2: Replace /ɪ/ with /eɪ/."
  • "Lesson 2.3: Replace /θ/ with /s/."
  • "Lesson 2.4: Replace /ʌn/ with /əŋ/."
  • "Lesson 2.5: Replace /mɪ/ with /mi/."
The results?
  • Sorry, pronounced /ˈsɒri/ in English, becomes /ˈsɒreɪ/ in Chinglish;
  • Lonely, pronounced /ˈloʊnli/ in English, becomes /ˈloʊnleɪ/ in Chinglish;
  • Carefully, pronounced /ˌkɛərfəˈli/ in English, becomes /ˌkɛərfəˈleɪ/ in Chinglish;
  • Ugly, pronounced /ˈʌgli/ in English, becomes /ˈʌgɤˈleɪ/ in Chinglish;
  • Fish, pronounced /fɪʃ/ in English, becomes /feɪʃ/ in Chinglish;
  • Something, pronounced /ˈsʌmˌθɪŋ/ in English, becomes /ˈsʌmˌsɪŋ/ in Chinglish;
  • Monday, pronounced /ˈmʌndeɪ/ in English, becomes /ˈməŋdeɪ/ in Chinglish; and
  • Miss, pronounced /mɪs/ in English, becomes /mis/ in Chinglish.
This is just a partial list of the rules that Mr. Yang is following. However, explaining it in full will have to wait for another day.

Chinglish Syntax:

Mr. Yang's Chinglish syntax lesson calls on us to "speak English with Chinese grammar." He then provides examples of common word-for-word Chinese-to-English translations.

In some cases, Mr. Yang is actually pointing out how foreign-language learners assume that ellipsis works the same way across languages, so they translate the Chinese sentence before inserting the words that English natives would not have removed:

Example 1:
  • 怎麼說?
    → How to say?
Now let's show what the ellipsis cut out and see what we get when we translate it:
  • 【你】怎麼說【‘X’這個字】?
    :: How do [you] say [this (i.e. that) word 'X']?
    → How do you say that?
    (Note: The English auxiliary do has no exact match in Mandarin, so is highlighted above.)
Example 2:
  • 我很喜歡。
    → I very like.
  • 我很喜歡【它】。
    :: I very much like [it].
    → I like it very much.

    (Note: '很' can translate to 'very' and 'very much'. Also, when it refers to a situation or is a dummy pronoun, to insert a pronoun '它' would be a symptom of Westernized Chinese [歐化中文].)
Example 3:

  • 你壞壞!
    → You bad bad!
  • 你壞壞!
    :: You are (i.e. so) bad!
    → You're so bad!

    (Note: Reduplications of Chinese "stative" verbs can intensify them, similarly to how English does with the intensifier 'so' in adjective phrases.)
Sometimes, Chinese speakers simply translate terms wrongly, as in this example:
  • 我想跟你在一起。
    → I want to hang out together with you.

    → I want to play together with you.
    (Note: This may be the result of confusing two senses of '廝混', one meaning 'hang out', and another meaning 'play around' in a more flirtatious or sexual context.)
And, in some cases, Chinese natives receive standard English input. Then, they translate that English into their native Chinese. Finally, they try to translate that Chinese back into English. But, since Chinese and English indicate mood, tense, and aspect very differently, English verb conjugation often doesn't make the trip:
  • I have already eaten.
    → 我已經吃過了。
  • 我已經吃過了。
    → I already eat. / I eat already.
  • I already went there.
    → 我已經去那邊。
  • 我已經去那邊。
    → I already go there. / I go there already.
  • I had already met her.
    → 我已經見過她。
  • 我已經見過她。
    → I already meet her. / I meet her already.

What's Mr. Yang's beef with drilling vocabulary?

Were I a Chinese English student,
my first wish would be
for the sweet release of death!
He's telling it like it is: Vocabulary drilling is a waste of time, especially how Chinese English students do it. Their first move is to buy mini translation dictionaries known as "word books" (單子書). Next, they drill each page for a few minutes, turn the page, and lose whatever they learned the page before. It's a cramming method, and cramming methods don't lead to acquisition.

These books are not made to be read, anyway. Rather, they're made to be made to be read. The purpose of word books is to pass blame from teachers to students. Instead of language teachers' actually giving their students broader, firmer comprehension of fewer English terms, they force them to buy these mini-dictionaries and read them like chapter books. This allows Chinese teachers to "test" their students' vocabulary retention each week. But, what about three weeks from that test date? Their answer: "Who cares?" If a student gets a good grade, the teacher and the student look good. If a student gets a bad grade, though, only the student gets blamed. "He clearly needs to study more from this book." After all, it offers:
  • No spaced repetition, 
    "是我閉目塞聽嗎?
    才不是啦!是孩子們犯錯了!"
  • Hardly any context, 
  • Barely enough word senses, and 
  • No sense of pacing.
Clearly, the student must be at fault…

Mr. Yang and I agree on this point: Honing all of one's efforts on any one aspect of a language will come at the cost of not attending to others. A sane language-learning method should engage as many aspects as it can at once, but not force you to cram any one aspect in its entirety. Like swimming, the coordination of parts from shallow to deeper waters is the best course I know around the Chinglish Channel.