Cambridge Reflections: Covid-19

Reflections of a tree in a puddle

Written by Alex Wright, Senior Executive Publisher and Head of Humanities at Cambridge University Press

The coronavirus and its challenges of immediacy have thrown into sharp relief the apparent disjuncture between intellectual endeavour and what a society goes through in the grip of a pestilence. When the difference between life and death is measured in terms of having enough ventilators in hospitals, or adequate PPE, should we even be talking about characterisation in Shakespeare? It is right to ask such a question, and proper too to give priority to what people need to do to survive the present emergency. But a moment of crisis helps us to see that we live out our lives perpetually threatened by loss; and gives us space too to reflect on the fact that the life of the mind has always attempted not just to make sense of the world but also to make it a better place.

Throughout its long history Cambridge University Press has tried to ask larger questions about meaning and value. Because our publishing has always at its heart been about outreach, and education in the broadest sense, we wish now to make some of our authors’ keenest insights available in the form of short blogs. The aim will be to provide a resource in times of need: crystalline, bite-sized chunks – digestible nuggets of reflection – which can be drawn upon anywhere where someone has access to the internet. Our hope is that this new digital library of concise contemplations will prove diverting and engaging: even consoling. That it will provide, at a critical moment, a reliable repository – gratis, and easily and immediately available – of ‘the best of CUP’.

The collection includes writing from all aspects of humanities and social sciences including linguistics. Explore the collection at www.cambridgeblog.org/category/cambridge-reflections-covid-19/

ELT and me: A story with no history?

Written by Michael McCarthy

I was recently invited to contribute an article to the CUP journal Language Teaching, looking back over my career as an English language teacher, applied linguist and academic. In a strange sort of way, I discovered my own history by writing about it, a truly pleasurable experience. But in doing so, I realised how much I had lacked a proper historical perspective during most of my fifty-odd years in the profession. Great changes have happened during that half-century, and they happened all around me as I soldiered on, blissfully ignorant of the ideas that were pushing the profession forward.

My career started in the mid-1960s, when structuralism was popular in language teaching, alongside traditional Latin-modelled grammar-translation approaches, and most English language teaching was a mix of the two. At the time, and for a couple of decades after that, I knew almost nothing of the giants whose shoulders I was standing on. It is only in the last decade, for example, that I have taken the time to familiarise myself properly with the works of Harold E. Palmer, that great pioneer and father-figure of modern applied linguistics. In the course of corpus work on spoken grammar with the late Ronald Carter in the mid-1990s, which subsequently bore fruit in the Cambridge Grammar of English and the Touchstone and Viewpoint courses published by CUP, I became aware that Palmer had published a grammar of spoken English in 1924[1], almost seventy years before we embarked on our project. It was only about five years ago that I read it, and what a truly monumental work it is. Palmer’s approach was founded on the tradition of ‘scientific’ grammars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with an emphasis on phonetics as the starting point of understanding and learning a language. His grammar was strong on dialogue: in his examples, we see not only what speakers say but how listeners react, something that we have been able to observe more closely nowadays with the luxury of spoken corpus data. Palmer would have probably given his eye teeth to have access to a spoken corpus.

It was not only Palmer’s contribution that I was ignorant of. My first job, in a Berlitz language school in Spain, demanded no more of me than delivering a pre-ordained structural syllabus through the official textbook. I didn’t understand the principles of structuralism and slot-and-filler paradigms; I suppose I just assumed it was the right way of looking at language. Meanwhile back in my homeland of Britain, J. R. Firth and his followers, most notably Michael Halliday and John Sinclair, were forging a new grammatical and lexical approach, based on the relationship between language and its contexts of use, quite different from structuralism, an approach later to crystallise into systemic-functional linguistics and corpus linguistics.

I caught up with the missing history of my profession when I became a university academic in the 1980s and I have tried in recent years to pay homage to our applied linguistic forebears. However, because of the explosion of research in books and journals and now online, and the dizzyingly increasing pace of publication, we are in danger of losing our sense of historical continuity. As a frequent reviewer of scholarly works submitted for publication, I never cease to be amazed by how few lists of references ever cite anything published before 1990. What I learnt in my quest to discover my own history is that so many ideas we think of as novel and ground-breaking are in fact reinventing wheels and turning over already well-tilled ground.

We ought not to neglect ‘old’ research. It’s often a treasure-house of gems and pure gold; you just have to be patient, track it down on library shelves instead of instantly downloading a pdf, dust it off, and take plenty of time to read it.

[1] Palmer, H. E. (1924). A Grammar of Spoken English on a Strictly Phonetic Basis. Cambridge: W. Heffer and Sons Ltd.

 

Adventures in English Syntax – an author’s perspective

Book cover of Adventures in English SyntaxBlog written by Robert Freidin, and was originally posted on The Cambridge Core blog

The seed for this book was planted almost 60 years ago when my 10th grade English teacher, taught us the elements of English sentence structure: prepositional phrases and relative clauses; finite vs. infinitival and gerundive clauses; compound vs. complex sentences (and thus the difference between coordination and subordination). For me, this was a revelation – leading to a 50-year career in linguistics as a syntactician. My high school understanding of English sentence structure allowed me to engage with my own writing at a fundamental level where I could view my sentences as syntactic structures that connected to other syntactic structures, and thus to different sentences for expressing the same thoughts – providing a basis for comparison/evaluation. From the 10th grade on, I had an intellectual tool for crafting inevitably imperfect first drafts into prose that presented my thoughts clearly. The process of writing became a way to clarify my thinking on the topic I was writing about – what Francis Bacon had in mind when he wrote in “Of Studies” (1625) that “writing [makes] an exact man”. Externalizing thoughts in black and white is perhaps the best way to discover what is unclear, illogical, or based on questionable assumptions – if you are paying attention. And as a result, writing is never surprise-free. It ceases to be a chore, and becomes instead fun and interesting – if you enjoy exploring your thoughts and how best to express them.

Today, regrettably, the elements of English sentence structure (syntax) are no longer taught in either the high school English curriculum or college writing programs, and haven’t been for decades. One goal of this book is to make a start at changing the situation by providing anyone who wants to improve both their writing and their experience of writing (especially high school and college students) with an essential tool. This book demonstrates how an understanding of sentence structure can also be used to evaluate various prescriptions about “good style” (e.g. avoid the passive voice and never end a sentence with a preposition) as well as to achieve a deeper appreciation of the linguistic artistry in great literature.

Another goal of this book is to construct a broad and detailed portrait of English in terms of its basic syntax from the perspective of modern linguistics—specifically generative grammar of the past six plus decades. Each chapter focuses on a specific example, building a progression from the simple to the complex. Together these chapters build a foundation for further exploration of English syntax.

In these ways, this book serves as a demonstration of the utility of the generative enterprise in linguistics for all users of English. In writing it, my hope has been that the understanding of English syntax it provides will equip you for your own adventures with the sentences you write and read.

Developing intercultural competence through Avatar, Black Panther and the Jungle Book?

Book cover for The Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural CommunicationWritten by Guido Rings – co-author of The Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural Communication

In a connected world, the ability to communicate effectively with people from other cultural backgrounds is a necessity. It is also an opportunity to widen our horizon and learn from good practice elsewhere to improve our lives.

But how can we improve that competence?

There are numerous ways, but we could for instance choose more wisely what we watch and read, and could do this more consciously. We may have already actually watched or read something that enhances our intercultural competence, but we are not aware of it.

For example, who has not watched Avatar, Black Panther or The Jungle Book, some of the highest-grossing movies of all time? Or more recently The Green Book, Blackkklansmen or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Or perhaps you read some of the Black Panther comics and/or the Jungle Book stories.

Watching or reading these stories for entertainment, can also connect you with other worlds and worldviews. Many people feel inspired learning from these other perspectives.

Avatar, connects you with the Omaticaya, a Na’vi forest tribe from Pandora that cherishes nature and fights under Jake Sully and Neytiri’s leadership against a global company, aiming to exploit Pandora’s resources. It is Science Fiction – the Omaticaya are a fictional tribe, living on a fictional planet – but there are parallels to the destruction of our rain forests today.

When Neytiri explains the importance of the Home Tree for her people, she highlights an essential link between tribal people and their natural surroundings that is echoed ‘in real life’ by people from the Penan tribe in Borneo. One Penan man highlights: ‘The Penan people cannot live without the rainforest. The forest looks after us, and we look after it. We understand the plants and the animals because we have lived here for many years, since the time of our ancestors’ ( Survival, 2010).

This is of course only one example of a different world view.

Black Panther, The Green Book and Blackkklansmen are examples of films fighting racism, in future and past worlds as well as ours (watch out for the documentary link to Trump and white supremacist perspectives at the end of Blackkklansmen).

On the other hand, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sheds light on fast pace change in the Hollywood film industry, which you might recognise from your company or institution. The film makes the point that fast pace change consumes us and could be handled better if we were able to learn from others – in this case people from another class, rather than a different ethnicity.

In this sense, intercultural competence is really an ‘action competence’ and the ability ‘to handle uncertain situations in a constructive way’ (Bolten, 2020: 57), be it in encounters with people from another nation or ethnicity, or simply with people with another worldview.

It is worth stressing that we don’t really think a lot about our own worldviews, and often do not even see them as a worldview, rather as the only ‘natural way’ to understand and handle things, implying that other ways might be wrong.

In this ‘single story’ context, the numerous and often competing stories developed in films, TV episodes, novels and short stories are useful, because they can describe other worldviews developing cognitive competence by presenting knowledge about other cultures, and enhancing affective competence by awakening our emphatic and even compassionate interest in other cultures. And they can help to develop pragmatic competence by projecting and examining the communication standards in another culture. In all these ways, a narrative can ‘become an agent in advancing intercultural understanding’ (see Neumann 2020: 138).

Does this mean we can understand your ‘Greenpeace obsessed’ neighbour, who keeps donating money for the preservation of the Borneo rainforest, better by watching Avatar?

Yes, we can. The Omaticaya stories and the Penan stories address a very similar existential problem, and your neighbour might actually want to help the Penan, or shares the same basic concern about the destruction of the rainforest without knowing about the Penan at all. In both cases, you experience a different worldview, connecting tribal concerns with your neighbour’s concerns, and that helps to address a key issue in contemporary public consciousness: global warming.

You might simply not connect to their genres or particular stories that much, everybody is different.

If you have examples of how your intercultural competence has increased thanks to film or literature, leave your comments. Which films/TV series/novels/short stories gave you a different worldview and why? How and when did you watch/read them, e.g. with your partner after a stressful day, and did that make a difference to your experience?

This might help you to reflect, and it could also help others to find the best text for the development of their intercultural competence.

 

References

Bolten, J. (2020). Rethinking Intercultural Competence. In: Guido Rings, Sebastian Rasinger (eds.): The Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Neumann, B. (2020). The Power of Literature in Intercultural Communication. In: Guido Rings, Sebastian Rasinger (eds.): The Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Survival (2010): ‘Avatar is real’, say tribal people, in: Survival International, 25 January 2010 (https://www.survivalinternational.org/news/5466) (last accessed 8 February 2020).

An interview with Susan Gal and Judith T. Irvine

Cover for Signs of Difference bookSusan Gal (University of Chicago) and Judith T. Irvine (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) discuss their new book Signs of Difference: Language and Ideology in Social Life.

Firstly, tell us what motivated you to write Signs of Difference?

Our interest in collaboration began some years ago when we discovered a curious parallel in our findings from the two very different places where we had done research: small towns in Senegal and Hungary. Our collaboration started with those unexpected parallels between our separate ethnographic projects. Reading each other’s papers and listening to each other at AAA meetings, we saw amazingly similar processes in two fieldsites that were utterly worlds apart.

The happy result has been a semiotic approach to difference, an approach that is much wider than our own ethnographies but is well illustrated by them. Our book is mainly devoted to developing and explaining that approach, but it begins by showing how it applies to the two ethnographic cases.

In the German-Hungarian town in Hungary as in the Wolof-speaking town in Senegal, people were making distinctions among themselves not only through the way they spoke but also through different forms of emotional expression, clothing, houses and numerous other signs and activities. Language, social organization, geography, history, were all quite different. But in both towns, as it happened, one social category of people spoke and acted in relatively reserved, restrained ways; the other category, by contrast, seemed to be more elaborate in everything, more vivid, dramatic. These were stereotypes of difference. People oriented to these social types, often enacting them in their everyday lives. But how to understand the weird parallels between the two towns? “Restrained” vs. “elaborate” were the ways the people in our two towns characterized their own differences. But when we read fieldwork by others, we saw that although there were always overarching cultural distinctions that organized relations between contrasting sets of people and signs, those distinctions could be quite different from ours. For instance, there was: tough vs. soft in one place but in another pragmatic vs. political. To understand our own examples and others, our explanations would have to be quite abstract. And semiotic.

The book explicates step-by-step a semiotic process of differentiation, with several aspects, that encompasses all the cases. Contrast – as axis of differentiation – is the fundamental idea. Contrasts in expressive signs pointed to contrasting categories of identity; and the qualities attributed to the signs were also attributed to the people-types indexed by the signs. For those familiar with a particular cultural context, the signs of each identity seemed to cohere and to display the same qualities as the people types they point to. We also turned our hand to American and historical examples: How did Yankees come to be thought different types of people than Southerners in 19th century US?  How do faculty differentiate among themselves at an American university? How did the National Rifle Association divide in the course of a crucial political battle? And how do the axes of differentiation themselves change? It was very exciting to work out how the semiotic process we propose illuminates relations between whatever culturally-specific qualities are involved.

You are both regarded as recognized authorities on language and culture. How has your past experience of work on language and culture helped to shape this book?

Although we studied at different doctoral institutions, we were both part of a movement in anthropology and linguistics toward sociolinguistics and the ethnography of speaking, in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. As it happens, too, our mentors had collaborated on some of the leading works in the field at that time. So our training was parallel, as was our experience of trends in language study and the social sciences in the decades that followed. One of those trends was the semiotic turn that has made the work of C.S. Peirce prominent in cultural and linguistic anthropology. Another trend was anthropology’s increasing interest in political economy, power, and social inequality – a trend which, when linked to the Peircean approach, resulted in a focus on ideology of language. A third trend has involved history and scales of analysis. We have participated in the development of these themes, and in various conferences and working groups that have pressed them forward and in some of which we have worked together. These groups have produced some influential publications, including edited collections to which we have contributed, either separately or together.

The book argues that ideological work of all kinds is fundamentally communicative – can you tell us more about this?

A key point here is that ideological work is both interpretive and productive. It selects an object of attention, something that is picked out and distinguished from a background, and it places that something in a semiotic field of relevant comparisons, differentiations, and inclusions. This is not something that can be done just by an individual brain acting totally in splendid isolation. Instead, it is informed by social experience, by available narratives, metaphors, and theories, and by awareness of one’s interlocutors, past, present, and potential. So there is always, as Bakhtin taught us, some implicit dialogue in semiotic processes, even in those cases where there is not literally a conversation. “Communication” includes all these dialogic relations, even internal dialogue and the ways we unconsciously build upon our social experience.

Actual interactions matter to ideological work, however: interpretation requires uptake, if it’s to amount to anything much. That is, placing an idea, or some focal object, in a web of semiotic relations would ultimately be a social act, involving joint attention. Private contemplation can go a long way, but at some point a concept of ideology – because bound up with moral and political values – means that the interpretive act must be relevant to other people too.

Your book has been described as an “influential approach to understanding ideologies of linguistic and social difference.” What contribution do you feel the book makes?

Well, we feel it makes many contributions! To begin with, in our work ideologies of linguistic and social difference are the same thing, not two different avenues of investigation. But perhaps the first thing to emphasize is, as we’ve indicated in our response to the previous question, that we focus the study of ideology on ideological work: that is, on the activity of interpretation and the social processes that follow from interpretations and enlist them in projects. There are several other important contributions we feel our book makes, as well. We explore ideological work in everyday life, even in the most mundane activities and trivial moments, rather than focusing on the grand doctrines and “isms” (fascism, socialism, and so on) that are the starting point for many scholars in studying ideology; we prefer to consider how the ongoing practices and actions in social life involve ideological constructions. To investigate how those constructions are built up, we take a semiotic approach to the analysis of ideology; and we highlight comparison and difference, as key concerns and fundamental aspects of semiotic processing. Taken together, what these several points allow us to do is to link ideology to perspective and point of view, recognizing that there’s always more than one perspective on the social world. They allow us to focus on contrast and comparison as fundamental in cognitive processing as well as in how people organize their views of society and language. They provide us with methods for analyzing discourse, social interaction (in both its linguistic enactments and its material dimensions), social groupings and ways of speaking. We see ideologies as regimes of value, socially based and semiotically constructed; pertaining to practices and actions in everyday life as well as to grand projects; and incorporating a point of view.

The approach to comparison in our book is important to us, and it’s an approach that connects the ethnographer’s interpretive activity with that of the people an ethnographer studies. Your education and research training and, perhaps, your outsider status (if you come from somewhere else) affect your position and your view of the ethnographic scene, but the people you study are analyzing it too, and that’s something you want to find out about. Besides, those people form views of you, and those views affect the research as well. Everyone is interpreting what’s going on, from their own points of view, all the time, and that includes the activity of doing field research, whatever that research consists of. We have been concerned here with ways of being comparative without assuming we have the ultimate grid on which to place everybody in the world. Drawing on a semiotic analysis lets us see how to do that kind of comparison, and it lets us show that the same kind of analysis works among so many different examples and cases around the globe, including our own social worlds.

Literature, Spoken Language and Speaking Skills in Second Language Learning

Blog written by Christian Jones and originally posted on the fifteen eighty four blog

What’s the big question you are trying to tackle and to what extent will Literature, Spoken Language and Speaking Skills lead to new avenues of enquiry?

I am interested in how we can best understand spoken language and in connection to this, how second language learners can best understand /use spoken language and how they can develop their speaking skills. There are many reasons why people learn English as a second language but most learners want to interact with others in some way. They can do this, primarily, via the conversations they have with others.

This book seeks to explore how literature can be used as a model of spoken language and a vehicle to develop speaking skills. It presents research studies which look at this in different contexts and using different designs. Advocating the use of literature is not a new idea in second language learning but there is relatively little research which shows how it can help to develop spoken language or enhance speaking skills. This is one attempt to fill the gap. We hope this will lead to more studies which investigate the effects on spoken language awareness and enhanced speaking skills in the many and varied contexts in which second languages are learnt.

What really excites you about this field of research and keeps you enthused? How do you see it developing in the short to long term?

I think really, it’s trying to understand spoken language and the idea that in some small way this type of research may help somebody.
The development of spoken corpora have helped us understand what people say much more clearly than ever before. But there is much we do not fully understand. We know, for example, that discourse markers such as ‘like’ are very common in conversations, particularly among younger speakers but why has its use become so frequent?  How can second language learners learn to use/understand such items? Do they need to? How are such items shown in the conversations we find in literature and could these help with this process of understanding? Are such conversations more motivating from a pedagogical viewpoint than looking at corpus transcripts?

Perhaps a teacher or researcher may read one of the studies in this book and find the evidence convincing. This may push them to try using literature to develop speaking skills in their classroom, for example. Hopefully, this helps them, in a small way, to develop evidence-informed practice. A researcher may read a study and seek to build on it. This may help, again in a small way, to push research forward.

Read an extract here

Interview with Sali A. Tagliamonte

SALI A. TAGLIAMONTE is Canada Research Chair in Language Variation and Change and a Full Professor and Chair of the Linguistics Department at the University of Toronto, Canada. She is a member of the Royal Society of Canada and a Fellow of the Linguistic Society of America. She is the author of six books, including: Making Waves, Variationist Sociolinguistics (Wiley-Blackwell 2012, 2015) and Analysing Sociolinguistic Variation, Roots of English and Teen Talk (CUP 2006, 2013, 2016). She has published on African American varieties, British, Irish and Canadian dialects, teen language and television across the major journals of the field. Her research has been funded by agencies in Canada, the US and UK. Her most recent research program is the Ontario Dialects Project, which focuses on cross-community and apparent time comparisons in corpora of spoken vernacular dialects to explore linguistic change. She is editor of the new book series, Studies in Language Variation and Change, published by Cambridge University Press. Cambridge Xtra asked her about the inspiration behind the series. Interview by Andrew Winnard.

 AW: What motivated you to establish the book series?

ST: I started noticing that there was no serious, advanced venue for publication of a cohesive research program in Language Variation and Change. CUP’s journal Language Variation and Change publishes journal length articles on one linguistic variable or another or a specific topic, but at the time I started thinking about this there was no venue for work that had reached a point of synthesis. At the same time, the field was evolving in all kind of new directions and importantly, there was a whole generation of scholars reaching a point in their careers when they had made a significant contribution. I wanted to harness that intellectual energy and creativity and bring it into the field in a more comprehensive way. I wanted to convince scholars who were putting things together to write a book bringing their ideas into a coherent whole. I also think I had a mission in mind to make books that would set the new foundations of the field. So, I have started watching and listening and noticing when someone working in the field is ready to do that. Then, I ask them out for a coffee.

AW: What, broadly, is the concept behind the series?

ST:The concept in a nutshell is synthesis of a research program, by that I mean a book that is not simply about a linguistic feature or a language phenomenon of interest but a work that encompasses a research enterprise that has started to extrapolate beyond a single thing to make more general observations about language variation and change. When a scholar’s research reaches this stage, it has become something that Labov has always striven for — research that reaches beyond a series of analyses or a superficial reality to something that unifies and explains and makes sense in the world. A novel and I believe decisive component of the series is the requirement that all the books follow several general principles: 1) replicability of research findings; 2) consistent reporting; and critically, 3) a cogent discussion of the implications of the research for Sociolinguistic Theory. These three operating guidelines ensure that the series has a unifying component and builds informatively on existing foundations. The requirement of cutting-edge research of the field and this consistent ‘signature’ will give the series reliable value.

AW: What is the first book to appear in the series?

ST: Sociolinguistic Varation in Children’s Language, co-authored by Jennifer Smith and Mercedes Durham, synthesizing their decade long work on child language acquisition. The examples are absolutely hilarious! Several more books are in the pipeline, including an edited volume on studies in sociosyntax, syntactic variation in World English, game theory pragmatics and a book unifying linguistic variation with an historical linguistics perspective. There are many more possibilities. When I go to conferences, I strategically go to presentations that I think are about research that is on the cusp of having the key ingredients I am looking for —research ideas that are making connections to the bigger questions of language.

 

Upcoming titles in this series:

  • Explanations in Sociosyntax
    • Tanya Karoli Christensen, Torben Juel Jensen
  • Synchrony Meets Diachrony: Linguistic Variation and Linguistic Change
    • Alexandra D’Arcy
  • Syntactic Variation in World Englishes: Comparative Variation analysis
    • Benedikt Szmrecsanyi and Jason Grafmiller
  • Meaning, Identity, and Interaction:  Sociolinguistic Variation and Change in Game Theoretic Pragmatics
    • Heather S. Burnett

The English major crisis in China

Blog post written by Ningyang Chen, author of the article ‘The English major crisis in China: Why did the once-popular major fall out of favor among Chinese students? recently published in English Today.

There was a time in China when becoming a foreign language major was the dream of many aspiring young minds. The English major, in particular, enjoyed the greatest popularity and was associated with many advantages: a better social reputation, better-paid jobs, and above all, the chance to go out and see the world. Over the years, however, the English major has been losing its appeal to Chinese students. Some critics have questioned its validity or even proposed closing the major. This concern was brought to the fore by a recent Chinese newspaper article in which the opinionist described the major as suffering from “a guilty conscience”.

How to explain this drastic change? There are some obvious reasons such as the expansion of choices. But other factors may have also played a part. According to an analysis of WeChat (China’s most popular social media channel) comments on the “guilty conscience” article, three types of attitudes portray the social media response to the English major crisis. In the first place is practical attitudes, followed by the pessimistic and the optimistic. The majority of the student and teacher commenters find elements of truths in the motto of “Being practical is everything”. The English major in the modern era falls behind other majors in securing a financial future. Success models like Jack Ma serve only as reminders to choose a major that is more “worth” the “investment”. This prevailing attitude of being practical echoes a critical paper on ‘the practical turn’ in English studies, in that the successful turn seems to have exerted a lasting influence. The pessimistic views of the English major in China find fault with the teachers and the courses. Courses taught by less qualified teachers can be a waste of time, and irresponsible teachers increase students’ dismay even further. The small number of optimists are mainly proud English majors who share an interest in literature and the language. Yet their voices seem hushed by the overwhelming negativity and criticism.

The bulging purse of the Chinese is an economic reality we find difficult to ignore. With this comes wider options and opportunities. What used to be an accessible and promising way to pursue a “modern” education is now among the least efficient ways to achieve that goal. Let’s face it: Why sitting through a boring class taught in Chinese-accented English when one can get a more “authentic” English experience by watching a Hollywood blockbuster? What’s the point of spending four years in a program to learn skills that can be readily acquired by studying in an English-speaking country at a reasonable price? Even those with a less superficial understanding of the major may doubt, quite rightfully, if a Chinese professor can interpret Shakespeare as adequately as Lu Xun.

Although the decline of the liberal arts subjects seems a shared concern across institutions and cultures, the English major in China has its specificities. After all, it is pathetic to find what started out as part of the “solution” to the country’s modernization has become a “problem” of its own. As globalization deepens, a similar pity is likely to be felt in other contexts around the world where the program once played a big part in training personnel who pioneered international communication and engagement. Yet opportunities are born out of crises. The raised concerns could inspire creative changes to the system. And while we are a long way away from figuring out what the future holds for the English major in China, getting a sense of the distressing reality can be the first step.

An interview with Jürgen M. Meisel

Jürgen M. Meisel is Professor emeritus and former Chair of the Research Center on Bilingualism at the Universität Hamburg, as well as Adjunct Professor and Distinguished Fellow, Faculty of Arts, University of Calgary. He has been engaged in parent counselling for more than thirty-five years. He is a founding editor of the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, and the author of seven books and numerous articles. Cambridge Extra asked him about his new book, Bilingual Children: a guide for parents, published by Cambridge University Press.

Interviewed by Andrew Winnard, Executive Publisher, Cambridge University Press

What motivated you to write ‘Bilingual Children’?

Soon after I had begun to study language acquisition by children growing up with two languages simultaneously, more than 30 years ago, I was asked by parents who considered raising their children bilingually whether this might not have negative effects for children’s linguistic, intellectual, or even social development. I thus got involved in various kinds of counselling activities from early on and am still involved in this today. I soon realized that the questions asked most frequently, for example whether children would not get linguistically or cognitively confused when exposed to more than one language at an early age, concerned issues that were also in the focus of research during the late 1980’s and the 1990’s. In fact, already at this time, some of these questions could be answered with much confidence, given that the findings on which the answers are based are widely agreed upon among researchers – a not so common state-of-affairs in the humanities. This is, of course, not true for all those aspects of child bilingualism that parents consider as potentially problematic. But research on this topic has made such significant progress over that past 40 years that even the more controversial issues can be addressed with sufficient confidence. Today, early bilingualism is viewed much more favourably then 40 years ago, at least in many parts of the world. However, in spite of considerable efforts trying to inform about what is known about bilingualism in preschool years, one still encounters a surprising mixture of facts and fiction when media report on bilingual children, and parents receive contradictory advice and recommendations from family members and friends. I therefore think that a book that provides fact-based answers to the most pressing questions by parents or other caregivers should be useful.

What do you hope readers will get from the book?

My experience in counselling parents of children growing up bilingually over all these years has taught me that the majority of those who ask for advice are already quite well-informed about many aspects of early bilingualism. In fact, many of them have a good idea about what they want to do or do not want to do in raising their children bilingually. However, they are confronted with conflicting opinions in the media, in the advice offered by others, e.g. pediatricians. A guide for parents must take this into account. It will not suffice to present basic information about child bilingualism and offer advice reflecting the author’s opinions and beliefs. People who are willing to buy and read a book on this topic deserve in-depth information on the pros and cons of bilingualism at a very young age. My main goal is to help them to disentangle facts from fiction and to enable them to make decisions that will help them to reach their educational goals. Needless to say that I myself view child bilingualism positively, but this does not mean that I might try to talk parents into raising their children bilingually. Rather, I hope to have provided them with much of the information necessary in order to achieve the goals that they have set for themselves and for the linguistic development of their children. And I also hope to have given sufficient practical advice on how to go about when confronted with difficult or problematic situations that might arise in bilingual families.

What relation, if any, is there between a child’s intelligence and their ability to learn more than one language as they’re growing up?

There is definitely no relation between a child’s intelligence and the ability to learn more than one language. All children are born with what we can call a ‘Language Making Capacity’ that unfolds and develops in the course of children’s first years of life. The perhaps most important insight gained by studies of bilingual acquisition is that this Language Making Capacity is an endowment for multilingualism. In other words, children can acquire more than one ‘first’ language simultaneously. All that is required is exposure to more than one language in meaningful interactions where parents, other family members or other caregivers address them in these languages. One might even say that monolingualism is the result of a situation in which children are exposed to an impoverished input consisting of utterances in only one language although a bi- or multilingual setting would have allowed them to acquire more than one native language.

Discover more about Bilingual Children: a guide for parents

Image Credit: University of Calgary 

An interview with Peter Trudgill

Peter Trudgill, FBA, is one of the world’s best-known sociolinguists and dialect experts.  I interviewed him ahead of the publication of his latest Cambridge book, ‘Millennia of Language Change: Sociolinguistic Studies in Deep Historical Linguistics’.

Can you tell us about ‘Millennia of Language Change’?

Millennia of Language Change takes a (very) long view of important historical sociolinguistic developments which occurred during the thousands of years stretching from the Old Stone Age, through the Neolithic era and the Classical Age, and on to the Early Middle Ages, concentrating on processes involved in long-term linguistic change and long-distance migration and contact, with examples from a wide range of – in particular – European, Pacific Ocean and native North American languages.

What new things are we going to learn about language change, from your book?

In Ancient Greek, verbs could have more than 275 different forms. The West Greenlandic language has about a thousand different verbal affixes. These two languages came into being in very different communities, in very different parts of the world, but they have in common the fact that they are extraordinarily complex. One of the things which Millenia of Language Change considers is how many thousands of years it takes for such complexity to develop – and what linguistic processes might be involved.

Can you give us a brief overview of the topics the book will cover?

Major themes which are covered in the book include linguistic complexification; linguistic simplification; substrate theory; migration and conquest; geographical diffusion; koinéisation; and transitivity of contact. An example of “transitivity of contact” would be that, if the Brittonic Celtic precursor to Welsh was infuenced by contact with the Late-Latin/Northwestern Romance of the Roman provinces of Brittania and Gallia; and if Old English was subsequently influenced by contact with Brittonic Celtic; then some aspects of the structure of the Old English language might be due to the indirect influence of Northwestern Romance.

Who will benefit from reading this book?

The book will be of particular interest to academic linguists and graduate students in all parts of the world – the text takes examples from a very wide range of languages and linguistic areas – who are concerned with the great puzzles presented by linguistic change; the big challenges of historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, and historical sociolinguistics; the important insights provided by dialectology and variationist linguistics; the complexities involved in the investigation of language contact; and with the relevance to all these topics of work in linguistic typology.

What are the key benefits that the reader will take from reading it?

All of the papers which make up this book were originally published between 2004 and 2018 in – in some cases rather obscure – festschrifts, conference proceedings, handbooks, and journals. Millennia of Language Change now makes available some of my most important and innovative pieces, freshly revised and updated, and centring as a coherent whole around the big-picture theme of deep historical-sociolinguistics.

‘Millennia of Language Change: Sociolinguistic Studies in Deep Historical Linguistics’ is due to be published in April, and is available for pre-order.

Helen Barton
Commissioning Editor, Language and Linguistics
Cambridge University Press

Peter Trudgill has also featured in The Linguist List Famous Linguists, read the full entry here.

Image credit: The Academy of Europe