Michael Everson


OK, I’m Michael Everson from the University of Iowa. M I C H A E L E V E R S O N.

Well anything that would be considered uh a a would be the Roman alphabet the Roman alphabet is the one that we use, 26 letters, and if you’re talking about a non Roman script this could include any alphabet that doesn’t use the Roman letters for instance like the Surilic alphabet that the Russians use or the Greek alphabet. Um but the thing about alphabets that makes them interesting is that that what defines them is that phonemes, the minimal units of sound of language map onto letters or letter clusters. But there are alphabets, I’m sorry there are scripts that don’t use alphabets like Japanese or the Chinese script. And these have different sound mapping correspondents. Um for instance the Japanese script uses Chinese characters that throughout it’s history it has borrowed and it also has 2 scripts of it’s own um that are called syllavaries and this is where the uh language maps onto print at the syllable level. Chinese characters are a little bit different, um and in fact they’re very difficult to define, they’re usually thought to be represent more phonemes or actual words um and are therefore considered to be a meaning based script. But um interestingly enough we have found that through more research and more understanding of the script that there are sound elements that the script indeed does carry.

Um actually I think that there’s a lot of different theoretical arguments about this this idea do people read the same way and do people um um uh read differently. And I think it’s important one to understand what you mean by reading and what you mean by this this idea of um of um um literacy. Certainly there have been arguments by westerners that languages such such as Chinese or Japanese have um have have symbols and scripts that are very cumbersome, very difficult to use and yet you would think well literacy in these countries would probably be very low because nobody can do it. Well uh if you look at South Korea if you look at Japan or if you look at uh Taiwan and China I mean they have very very high literacy rates. So it’s not a as simple as looking at the script itself. Obviously in learning to read and in helping your society to read and encouraging literacy these things are are obviously more important than the script itself. Um certainly um we we do know that there are a lot of similarities in in reading but the the main thing I think to understand is that it has to do with how the language is uh is actually transmitted onto that script.

Interestingly enough uh the way the Chinese language maps on to um the Chinese script is interesting because there are no spaces between words. Although there are there is punctuation that is used. But the Chinese script is in such a way that when you see it you can’t tell where any word boundaries are and certainly for second language learners who are trying to cope with this, this is a very very difficult proposition. Um traditionally Chinese is written from up to down right to left. And uh if if you would read a book that way you would actually open the book uh on the other side that we did and you would actually move the pages um so that if it looked like you were almost done with the book would be look different. Um however uh Chinese script is very very adaptable unlike letters um where you would not see words written in letters that were were written up and down, Chinese characters the way they are constructed are very easy to you can read them right to left or up and down. And I guess my point is is that sometimes you will if you look at a Chinese newspaper you are actually sometimes you can see Chinese uh the Chinese is written left to right like we see it or in other parts of the paper from up to down. So it’s a very robust script in the way that it can be read. But again traditionally it has been written from right to left but now a days well in many newspapers you will see it uh that’ll actually be left to right as well.

Probably the thing that they have the most trouble with is learning to read because learning Chinese characters is a very labor intensive proposition. It just takes a long time as far as study time goes. Um that’s the answer to the question but there are there are probably other things that that make Chinese a little bit more difficult for um for students. One is that because you cannot immediately learn Chinese characters and you want to learn the language we have to teach the language through what we call Romanization, it’s a Roman system so that people can start, the kids can start speaking Chinese immediately. And actually learning more of the voc vocabulary very quickly. The the main system that seems to be used um most commonly now is a system called Pinion which they use on the Chinese mainland and it reflects um um the Chinese syllables through through sa through letters and diacritical marks for tones. Oh I forgot to tell you Chinese is a tonal language.(interruption) the thing about the about the Chinese characters is that um unfortuantely when they are learning Chinese they don’t have any language to build the Chinese characters on. And so consequently what we do is we teach them a lot of language through Romanization. Now when to introduce Chinese characters is still a very contentious type of uh issue in the uh in the uh pedagogy field. People like myself feel that although you can introduce Chinese characters early it’s probably better to have more formal language support build from learning more Chinese through Romanization. That way they can um begin to have the language resources on which to map the Chinese characters. So a common strategy that you will sometimes see is books will be written in in Romanization and as they go along they start to replace the Chinese characters or the Romanization with the uh Chinese characters. But again the the idea of learning to to read Chinese characters and learning to write them is a very very labor intensive um process. And the thing that can be worry some is if the Chinese writing system is stressed too much at the beginning it actually controls how the rest of the curriculum’s going. Because the students are spending so much time learning characters and obviously as you know there’s a motivational factor here, we certainly want the students to be enjoying what they’re doing and not to be to be um uh getting tired of doing this because in foreign language study in America in all foreign languages we have very high attrition. And uh what is important to do is keep the students motivated and you know excessively dumping a lot of characters on them can be a problem.

They do early to uh uh to to phonetically sound out characters. I believe in early literacy in the Chinese mainland they do introduce things with Pinion, but I also believe that this is a band and fairly early once they they get going with the character system. In Taiwan they don’t, they use a um a phonetic kind of an alphabet to uh to start that out called called Julian and uh some some schools if you study Ta Chinese in Taiwan I believe that that’s what you would learn.

The uh which systems?(interruption) the well there is a little bit of politics here because the Pinion system is used in uh in mainland Chinese and the Julian system is used in Taiwan so there are some and they also use different character sets. Um there has been a great deal of Chinese character reform in mainland China uh during uh many periods um uh in uh after after World War 2 and I think actually uh before that to try to simplify Chinese characters so that they are not quite as difficult to write and maybe difficult to learn. It’s a political issue because the the Chinese government on Taiwan believes that this is cultural hearsay to actually change the characters in this way so they have not done that they have used what are called full characters, or traditional characters. This presents again another layer that as pedagogy people we have to deal with and I don’t know that there’s a real answer if you were going to ask me which one is preferred or which one is done. Uh I know when I studied Chinese we learned traditional characters first and then during the third year of Chinese we actually started to learn simplified characters when we started to read Chinese Communist documents. Um so that that was one thing how uh how that was handled. But as far as the uh Romanization system, um although it’s used to represent Chinese um certainly in America it’s actually used as a learning tool so it’s a uh it’s a it’s little bit different. They will use the Romanization I believe at the beginning of some of the literacy experiences that they have in mainland China for instance.

Sound symbol correspondence in Chinese is a problem because it’s irregular and it’s unsystematic. It’s thought that characters that are used today uh uh about about 85, 85, 95% of them are what are called compound characters. And this means that there is an element within the Chinese character that conveys meaning, this is called a radical or symatic element. And there is another element in the character that gives a clue as to how it should be pronounced. The problem with this is that it is very unsystematic and that it it has to do also with frequency. Oddly enough and and uh for pedagogy purposes what’s a little bit frustrating is the more frequent the character is the less that these this thing seems to hold very true. However if it’s a very rare character then that phonetic element can be used uh uh a lot more uh decisevly to to guess how it how it can be pronounced.

Tonal languages um um I think it’s believed that because Chinese is considered to be a a phonetically impoverished language, what that means is that there’s just not not as many sounds, and it’s believed by some that tones were were developed over the centuries to disambiguate some of the the the factors that the sounds seem to be very very similar or are often the same. So for instance of Chinese Mandarin has four tones and there’s a high tone that would be MMMAAA would be a rising tone that would be MMAAA. There would be a dipping tone which would be MMAAA. And then a dropping tone that would be MMAA. So uh if you were to say if the kind of nonsense sentence like well MA MA MA MA MA that actually means something, it means something silly like is my mother swearing at the horse? OK? But it’s interesting because students at first are are um they have a lot of trouble with that. They have trouble conceptualizing that idea that these things really matter and I don’t know how many students I’ve had who have gone to Taiwan and said I didn’t know until I got to Taiwan or I got to China or or Singapore that these really matter. And what I tell tehm is it’s kind of like a mispronunciation to the Chinese ear. Um if I want to say the word good I could say HHOOWW. Now if they say HOW to the Chinese that’s that’s really really a um uh uh uh a discord sound. It would be kind of like if someone said to you I lead the book. Now even though you know from context what they mean I mean that is clearly a wrong syllable to use and I try to tell my students that this is us what it sounds to the Chinese speaker. Um when you get your tones wrong and so it’s interesting we don’t have very much research that has to do with how tones are acquired um in this language and I think that’s always a very fascinating type of research subject.

Yes they do. Some learners have trouble actually differentiating which tone to use. Um or h which tones it sounds uh uh different. You know the idea of being able to uh differentiate the tone. Um interestingly enough on some language aptitude tests they will actually you know the this would be a test for how well how well you would be suited to learn a foreign language as an aptitude test. And what uh often times is used is the idea of they will give you 4 different sounds and they’ll say which one doesn’t belong, which one is different. And what we’re talking about is tonal discrimination. And yes sometimes students do have problems discriminating which tone is which.

I don’t think it’s too difficult um I think that um specially students who are uh enthusiastic and uh want to know more about the Chinese culture, these are things that often times get people uh involved. And one of the one of the problems that we have is selling that sometimes because there are um uh the the way it is sold sometimes is that these are are difficult languages these are hard languages and I always tell people it’s going to take you longer to get to where your friend in Spanish can get. But you can get there if you apply yourself and if you will if you are motivated to do that.

There’s lots of reasons why we think um uh languages differ and there’s been a lot of talk in this notion on of language distance, this idea of what is it that I bring to the table as lets say a learner of English? And I’m just going to specify English because if it were Vietnamese or Spanish or German person saying this that would be important too. Because what we think can happen is there are there is a closeness of language and there is a closeness of cultures that has to do with how much double duty I can do with the language that I come to the table with and the language that I learn. Clearly if I am going to study French the alphabet is the same, although there are sound syllables that are a little bit different that you must learn, um words are the same um and in fact there’s a lot of what we call cognates um words that are so close to English that we can pretty much understand what they mean, and also there is that whole notion that a lot of the culture um is closer than let’s say English and Thai or English and uh English and uh and and Japanese that getting into the culture of these languages and learning how to use language for appropriate cultural acts can be very very difficult. Uh this is something that is fairly recent, I mean we’ve always talked about culture in a way that we’ve somewhat divorced it, in other words, culture was the Eifle Tower, culture is um Vincent Van Gogh, uh these are the things that we use to call um Big Sea Culture or High Culture. And we we’ve often times taught it a part. But now what we’re learning is that it’s important to use culture to um to get things done in the language. Because language is not an antiseptic type of thing, one size fits all. I’ll tell you an interesting story that a friend of mine said once. He was having a little bit of difficulty in his Chinese class and he said you know what I think I’m doing, do you know what I think the problem is? I’m really teaching my kids to speak English using Chinese sounds. And what he was saying was that without help of a of a native speaker or someone who could inform him that he was kind of teaching a one size fits all, what I call an antiseptic type of language. And yet what language really is is the the whole notion of embedding the language within a cultural framework that gives us the ability to get things done in other cultures. At the same time not offending the people in that other culture. We want them to talk to use. We don’t want them to run away from us holding their ears.

Um let me think about that. Pragmatics is basically the whole notion of speech acts. Speech act theory um and getting into the idea of looking at kind of like speech events. Um and I’m trying to think of one that I could(interruption). Well uh an interesting example is uh in just talking about nehal which we are taught to understand means hello or how are you. And uh often times it’s it’s not something you hear Chinese people say to one another. One of the things that the Chinese people will say is have you eaten yet? And it’s interesting when you see these kinds of speech acts, cause Chinese people told me the same thing happens when we come to this country and someone will say to them how have you been or what’s going on or what’s happening. And the Chinese person stops and they start immediately giving them all this information that really wasn’t sought after. And it’s just a greeting and they say well well what do I say when they say what’s up or you can say not much. Or nothing at or or whatever and this idea that um uh uh that language differs in that way that some of these formal things that we learn aren’t used a lot I think is uh is an interesting type of thing.

Right you can or you could just or you could just say um are there um uh have you eaten yet and and sometimes they’ll just say no not yet. Yeah just as a hi how are you type of thing.

Lots of times with with uh greetings uh they’ll ask you where are you going or what or er or they’ll say things like that are obvious to you like oh you’re here or you’ve returned. You know so that’s uh, but I’d like to think of a better one uh one that I can really nail and I can’t think of one right now.

That’s a difficult question to answer because there are so many different variables. For one thing um most other countries or many other countries I should say institute English at in a curriculum within the school at uh at an earlier age. Um unfortunately for languages such as Chinese or Japanese um for a for a foreign language student they would probably have to wait for high school but maybe more commonly for people certainly in my generation we had to wait till we got to college. So there’s a uh there’s a different thing as far as time on task and as far as opportunity to learn. Um they don’t have quite as long of a time uh to do that. The other thing is the is the environment. Uh it’s important to have environmental support I mean for learning Chinese would probably be great if you were living in San Fransisco or in a place where you could actually use the language more than if you learned it in a place where the only times you could speak it were in class or with let’s say Chinese students who let’s say would speak to you um or to uh use materials that you were that you were given. Um certainly instruction is a variable that that’s uh that’s important. Um uh language instruction if it’s not done right uh can be uh can be very very problematic as well.

Can I come back to that I just thought of a good answer to the other question.(interruption) um the idea of pragmatics is the uh is the whole notion of speech acts of um oh events that use speech and how you negotiate them. I’ll give you an interesting example uh that has a uh I think has a very culturally embedded message. Um if someone pays you a compliment in English um the probably the the speech act or the the response that you will pay will be thank you. Now in Chinese culture this would be considered to be far too old. And perhaps even have a little bit of arrogance involved in that. And Chinese people will shy away from that. And they actually one of the things that they can say is where. And it’s like short hand for from where does this praise, this praise for such a worthless act come? And so they will say nalie, it’s one of the responses that they can give. Interestingly enough when Americans are paid compliments from Chinese people the most inappropriate thing they can say in Chinese is is thank you. And in fact Chinese people get kind of a kick out of Americans who seem to be thanking them all the time for everything. So I think that this is a is a pretty good example uh uh on a real basic level about how something that would seems so obvious is very very different.

Well if I knew the answer to that I could bottle it and make a couple million dollars. Um certainly there are all sorts of different models um that have been used um in within foreign language ourselves uh our history has seems to have been one that has been taken up with lots of methods. And certainly one of the most enduring is the uh audio lingual method um which was very much alive in the 1960’s and I think is considered to have ended around 1966 but we know that it is that it has continued on. This is the idea of of using dialogues very heavy memorization, mimicing, repitition, because it’s buttress by a very behaviorist type of philosophy of learning. And this is the whole notion of stimulus and response, errors are to be mercilously corrected because errors show that this habit is not developing. Well interestingly enough second language acquisition through the study uh of of of of language acquisition that we have has shown that maybe errors are not mistake but some signs of a developing language in progress that students have. And therefore the idea of something being an error is not really an error but merely a sign of developmental progress or of kind of like this idea of a work in progress. And um so I’m I’m framing the answer in this way because this has to do with the idea of how much can you actually teach in the classroom, how much does this repititon this drill really matter versus are they developing a system by hearing lots of input lots of communicative language lots of meaningful activities. Is that the better way to do that? And I guess that programs depending on what where you go and which country it is um will take different stands on that.

Uh this is this has been a very personal experience for me because interestingly enough I knew as a very young boy that I was going to be doing something with Asia, I didn’t know what. And I think that it started when my father was uh was a soldier in the second world war and so I had an introduction certainly to Japan from from him from him telling me that and then I would I would do some research on my own. And I remember when I was a little boy I I would explode firecrackers so that I could get the newspaper clippings that were inside. And my mother and I, I would show them to her, and I would say is this really writing and she would say yes that’s what Chinese people read. And when I was actually I grade school I would sneak down to china town in Chicago just to walk around. And so I don’t know exactly how you how you frame that. But there was never any doubt in my mind that I was going to do something with this area of the world. Fortunately when I got into high school we had a far Eastern history course and after that there was no looking back I was just hooked beyond belief. And what I want to tell the K through 12 folks who are watching this is that it’s very very important for us to give K through 12 students these kinds of experiences. Because I’m a very good example of someone who who had that guidance during his formative years. Unfortunately um Americans don’t realize that we have a destiny with Asia. They don’t understand that and it seems that we have had to run these clinics in the Pacific, in Korea, in Vietnam, in places like this for people to understand that this is not just sort of an arbitrary relationship that we have especially if you’re looking at globilization, especially if you’re looking at what’s going to be further contact with uh with Asia. Uh this is something that I feel very very passionate about an I know it’s hard because if you look at our schools now we’re not cutting anything from the curriculum we’re increasing it. I mean all the things that we’ve had to do with computers and and these this kind of learning um all of the things to make our students competitive in math and science. I mean I realize that the curriculum is very very crowded, but among these students are where you’re going to find your your diplomats, your military people, your teachers, um your economists, your peace corps workers that are going to go and become internationalist and the best way to start is to offer their foreign language. Because as we discussed there is so much to learn about a culture just by studying their language that I think is very very important.