ESL Blogs

Ryan's linguistics blog

Rocket Languages
Over the summer I was asked if I would review Rocket Languages, a language learning company that sells online and physical media for language learning. I'm not typically the language course type (I prefer to buy grammars and dictionaries and dig through them with no hope of ever speaking the language conversationally), but I had a lot of fun poking around the online course I was given access to (the Premium online version of the Beginning German course). I found the site set up easy to navigate, with a simple table-of-contents style interface to choose lessons from. I've checked out sites in the past that make it virtually impossible to do one thing at a time and then come back to the content later, so this was a plus for me. As always, I wanted more overt grammatical content (one of the reasons I've never tried Rosetta Stone), but overall there was a decent balance between learning conversational phrases and looking at things like verb conjugations (biased towards the former, as with most popular language courses). There's also a handy "My Vocabulary" section where you can save words you find interesting or difficult to memorize for later reference. The feature I was able to use the least (because of my own busy schedule) is probably also the most exciting: the site has a community section where people can post about their language learning experiences. I think this is a great feature of Rocket Languages, and one I haven't yet encountered elsewhere (though surely it has been done before). The only way to learn a language is to use it, so the forum feature is in my opinion a necessary component to online course, even though many lack it.

In summary: if what you're looking for is an online language course, I can recommend Rocket Languages more than most. Note that for those who are looking for CDs, these are included at the higher levels. As with any online course, you're not going to be a fluent speaker just because you completed the course, but the forum feature goes some way toward encouraging learning to actually use the language rather than just reading about it. While this is no replacement for oral conversation, it's definitely a step up from just reading and listening on your own. For those who are turned off by the high price tag ($299.95 for physical media, $149.95 for online), they have a promotion through November 7 where you can gain access to the online version for $99.95.
Author : (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 05 Nov 2011 13:33:00 +0000

Since I began working in theoretical linguistics several years ago, I've been struck by a specific usage of the word "crucially". In common parlance, we typically use "crucial" to mean "absolutely necessary" or "the best course of action". We might say "It's crucial that we arrive before midnight", perhaps because the road closes at that time. But I'd say the adverbial form is less common. COCA returns 15344 hits for "crucial" and 417 for "crucially", for a ratio of 37:1 in favor of the adjective. On the other hand, "quick" returns 33060 hits, and "quickly" returns 61284, showing the adverbial form is significantly more common, with a ratio of 2:1 in favor of the adverb. In scientific parlance, on the other hand, "crucially" is typically used to indicate a piece of data that shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the argument goes through. As an abstract example, let's say we want to show that the numeral "one" is more common than the numeral "two" -- in all languages. We compare a number of languages, and all but language X show "one" with a higher frequency than "two". This goes against our argument, unless we can show a specific reason why we would expect "two" to be more frequent in language X in a way that does not predict this in the other languages. We might say "Crucially, the numeral 'two' in language X forms a part of the common idiom 'blah blah blah'". This crucial piece of data shows that language X does not form a counterexample.

I was interested in seeing if this use of crucially (or rather, the overwhelming commonality of using "crucially" when relating an argument) was specific to theoretical linguistics, or if other fields also present arguments this way. To examine this, I did a text search for "crucially" in the New England Journal of Medicine (non-social science), Natural Language & Linguistic Theory (theoretical linguistics), International Journal of American Linguistics (less theoretical linguistics), Political Behavior (non-linguistic social science), and Philosophical Issues (non-science). NEJM returned 19 articles in the past 10 years, for a rate of around 2/yr. NLLT returned 198 in the past 28 years, for a rate of around 7/yr. IJAL returned 23 for the past 18 years, for a rate of around 1/yr. PB returned 10 for 1979-2007, a rate of less than 1 every 2 years. PI returned 212 for 1991-1998, a rate of over 30/yr. My inability to verify how all of these journals and web sites conduct text searches makes it impossible to draw any conclusions from these numbers, but it does seem that compared to at least some other fields, theoretical linguistics uses the word "crucially" more often. (I'm for the most part leaving aside the issue of whether every article uses "crucially" in the sense I'm talking about; however, I did hand-check a number of the articles, which did indeed use it in the argumental sense I described above. Additionally, "crucially" is fairly rare in standard language, as evidenced by the COCA search.) The PI numbers I believe are ridiculously inflated; it looks like the results I got were for any issue of the journal that contained the word "crucially", rather than searching within the individual articles.
Author : (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 19 Nov 2011 16:28:00 +0000

nominal tense
I read a headline the other day that gave me pause: "Cleveland to demolish serial killer's home". The reading I got initially was that someone charged with murder was living in a house, and the city of Cleveland was getting ready to tear it down, perhaps as additional punishment for the man's heinous crime. Of course, in reality the article was about the demolition of the house where the serial killer had lived and disposed of the bodies of his victims. It would be rather strange to demolish a home just because a criminal had formerly occupied it, but it makes perfect sense to demolish a home that had been used as a crime scene and tomb. I think it was "home" that threw me off -- this calls to mind homey connotations for me, rather that simply referring to an inhabited structure.

Another source of ambiguity is that English has no nominal tense. (There are numerous theoretical reasons to distinguish nominal "tense" from relative-to-utterance-time markers on verbs, but I'll stick with the term here since it's descriptively useful, especially in languages that use the same affixes on nouns and verbs.) In English, when I say "my house", it could mean a number of different things depending on context. I could say "I like my house", meaning the one I currently occupy, or I could say "My house was small", discussing the one I grew up in. To overtly signify that the house in question either no longer exists or is no longer attached to me, I could use "former". Some languages (such as Wakashan languages), on the other hand, have tense affixes that attach to nouns as well as verbs. The most natural translation in English is usually something like "my former house", with the ambiguity between whether the house is former because it no longer exists or still exists but is no longer in my possession. If we all spoke Nitinaht, maybe the headline would have been less ambiguous. Or maybe not.
Author : (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 10 Dec 2011 18:48:00 +0000

The suffix -kin seems to have a somewhat variable distribution across speakers. For some it appears to be a productive suffix that means "little" or "baby": if you have a wug, a wugkin would be a small or juvenile wug. For other speakers, like myself, -kin is not productive, and in fact I barely noticed the fact that it has any sort of smallish connotation until this was pointed out to me. How can this be the case for a single language like English? Because we're all exposed to differing dialects, registers, and ultimately, types and amounts of data. Someone growing up as an only child on a rural farm during the 13th century is certain to be exposed to less language that a child from a family of fourteen growing up in modern day New York. And even leaving aside such differences, we all hear slightly different corpora from slightly different speakers as we grow up. (This is, of course, the source of language change, especially when speaker communities have little interaction with each other.)

Perception also plays an important role. Words ending in -kin have a fairly fixed distribution in English. Despite what I said in the previous paragraph, I'd be surprised if words containing it varied significantly across regions, registers, or dialects (and of course this could be empirically tested). When I was acquiring English, I perceived the suffix as being rare enough that I did not generalize it to other forms, unlike very common suffixes like -er for 'one who...', e.g., farmer 'one who farms'. It also may be due to the fact that if you ask me for a word ending in -kin, the first one I go to is "munchkin", which is certainly not "a small munch". So why is this interesting? I find it interesting because it shows that even when exposed to (essentially) the same data, speakers will or won't generalize different patterns. Patterns that are pervasive in a language (75% seems to be the magic number in Artificial Language Learning tasks) are for the most part generalized by all speakers: everyone who speakers English has the suffix -er and is willing to use it on novel forms. Patterns that derive from a previously productive affix but are now opaque are almost never generalized: the prefix "with-" as in "withstand" indicating "against" is, I would wager, never used with novel forms. The interesting patterns are those that occur in a small but semi-regular subdomain of English, as with the Germanic "strong verb" pattern of strike/struck generalizing to sneak/snuck, or the case of -kin. (Firefox won't recognize "snuck", but it gets millions of ghits, including an entry on Speakers have to decide when confronted with such data whether these cases are simply a handful of random exceptions, or if there is some regular pattern that applies to only a small subset of lexemes.
Author : (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sun, 27 Feb 2011 01:01:00 +0000

heritage languages
Many Americans don't give a thought to what their heritage language is. No doubt this is partly because we are titans of assimilation and monolingualism (and I don't mean that entirely as a bad thing -- it's no doubt the reason why it's not ridiculous to speak of "Americans" in a country with dozens of ethnic groups spanning almost 4 million square miles). I'm only the third generation born in the U.S. on my maternal side, and I know exactly three phrases in German (excluding things I learned outside my family), and one of them is "Gesundheit". I think another reason we don't think about heritage languages is that we have so many of them. I don't know if I know a single second-generation (or greater) American who has ancestors from a single ethnic group. Depending on which line I'm tracing, my "heritage language" might be German or Scottish or Irish (or maybe even Italian or Hungarian -- old census and shipping records aren't the clearest).

In another sense, we all speaker our "heritage language", if we define heritage language to refer to the language of the culture we identify with. While the U.S. has no official language, English has become the de facto lingua franca, with 82% speaking it natively and up to 96% fluently. Insofar as English is the national language of the U.S., and insofar as I consider myself an American, English is in some sense my heritage language. But I think for many people that use the word "heritage", it means a lot more than this. It's not just about genes or cultural affiliation, but about self-identification. If a German child is adopted by Lakota parents and grows up speaking Lakota without knowing a word of German, is Lakota his heritage language any less than his parents? I don't doubt that there are many who would say "yes", but it's a touchy subject trying to foist heritage languages on others.

It's not by accident that I chose Lakota in the above example. The concept of a heritage language is of utmost importance for people who are losing their language. For native peoples of the Americas (I'm choosing North America because that's where I live and those are the languages I've studied the most), language is much more bound up in culture than for Europeans. European traditions, religions, and politics have been translated and adapted so many times that I have met very few people of European descent who identify strongly with the language they speak. While nuances are of course lost in translation, I would wager that few would say that the ideas in Machiavelli's The Prince would be lost if we lost the original Italian printing. On the other hand, there is a very strong feeling among American language speakers that losing their language means losing their culture, and means losing unique ways of looking at the world. (NB: there are other American language speakers who feel equally strongly for the opposite view.) Thus the concept of a heritage language is a very important one.

These are just musings. You may disagree with some or all of them. That's fine. One final thought: given that languages evolve, where does our "heritage language" begin and end? If English is John's heritage language, is Middle English? Old English? Proto-Indo-European?
Author : (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sun, 02 Jan 2011 03:37:00 +0000

might didn't
A few weeks ago I caught myself saying "might didn't". When it came out I was confused, and assumed, like my cohorts, that it was a speech error. But the next day I did a bit of google searching, and realized that in fact "might didn't" is a construction associated with the use of double modals, and that perhaps I was successfully integrating double modals into my grammar.

One example: "Great Tools For YouTube And Online Music Streaming You Might Didn't Know Of"

In standard English this would be "Great Tools...You Might Not Have Known Of", or hypercorrect "...Of Which You Might Not Have Known". The "might didn't" construction indicates to me that syntacticians are missing the boat if they claim double modals are merely lexicalied constructions inserted whole into T. "Did" isn't a modal, and there are clear syntactic parallels between "might could" and "might did". What we need is a theory of grammar for double modal dialects that correctly accounts for the pattern of usage, not a theory that best fits standard dialects and half-heartedly accounts for certain superficial aspects of double modal grammars. Personally, I'm interested in a proper syntactic account of double modals because I'm all for accurate description of minority languages and dialects, but I have a feeling that such dialects could also reveal important things about what might could be a part of Universal Grammar.
Author : (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 27 Nov 2010 17:35:00 +0000

allophones and marginal phonemes
One of the most basic concerns of phonology is determining what phonemes constitute the phonological inventory of a given language, i.e., which sounds are used contrastively. Sounds are used contrastively if switching one pronunciation for another could result in a change in meaning (it may not be the case that a new word thus formed actually exists, but I think the point still holds for pairs like brick~blick). I can pronounce the word "atom" with an alveolar flap or with an alveolar stop, but the choice does not produce a difference in meaning. At worst I sound British if I use an alveolar stop rather than a flap. One of the ways phonologists look at contrastive versus non-contrastive sounds is the distribution of sounds. Contrastive sounds will typically have the same distribution. In English, for instance, /t/ and /d/ are contrastive, and we can find them in the same environments. Each one can occur in the onset or coda of a syllable, including before sonorants in a complex onset or after sonorants in a complex coda. As mentioned before, alveolar flaps and stops are non-contrastive in English, and are viewed as variant pronunciations. Another example is aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops -- we perceive the /p/ in "pit" and "spit" to be somehow the same, even though one is aspirated and one is not.

Problems arise when phonemes are in complementary distribution but don't in any real sense seem to be allophones. An example from English is the case of /h/ and /ŋ/. /h/ occurs only in onset position, and /ŋ/ only in coda position. We might have to do a little bit of hand-waving, but as long as we don't insist on following our rubrics with machine-like strictness, we can say something about the fact that we don't have any external evidence that these two sounds come from the same phoneme, e.g., alternations that we do find in "atom" (with a flap) versus "atomic" (with a stop). We also have evidence from historical English sources (including modern orthography) that explains why /ŋ/ only shows up in coda position -- it arose from place assimilation when /n/ appeared before /g/, which is why we spell /ŋ/ as ng, as in "sing". Another difficulty appears when sounds only contrast in some environments. This is called neutralization. For instance, in Blackfoot, /t/ and /ts/ contrast in most environments. Both can appear in onsets and codas. However, only /ts/ appears before /i/. Thus we can't simply say that /t/ and /ts/ are or aren't contrastive; we have to specify the specific environments in which they are contrastive.
Author : (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 14 Jan 2012 20:45:00 +0000

an eggcorn and a spelling pronunciation
In this post I just wanted to quickly document two items I came across recently.

The first is the substitution of "upmost" for "utmost". This fits the classic definition of an eggcorn: mistaking a particular turn of phrase for a phonologically similar word or phrase that makes more intuitive sense. When we talk about something "of the utmost importance", we mean something of the highest import, something that should be at the top of our list. Thus it makes perfect sense that some people would reanalyze "utmost" as "upmost", especially given that the stops are in coda position next to a bilabial /m/, making the phonetic distinction between the two probably very slim. This substitution seems to be fairly common; I got almost 5M ghits, and the top one was an article called "Don't Confuse 'Utmost' with 'Upmost'", hosted on a site related to grammar tips. COCA only returns 8 results, not all relevant, but given that "upmost" is most likely to occur in speech, and transcribers may simply hear "utmost" since that is the standard, most likely there would be significantly more results.

The spelling pronunciation I came across recently is "half to". While not an eggcorn ("half to" makes no more intuitive sense than "have to", in fact I'd say it makes less sense), I still find this interesting. Most likely the writer here is thinking of the fact that the word 'have' contains a /v/, and since the /v/ in "have to" is devoiced (obligatorily, at least for me), "half to" more accurately represents the phrase phonetically. Voicing the /v/ in "have to" sounds quite archaic to me, and primes constructions like "I still have homework to do" much more than the relevant meaning "I am required to X". Unfortunately constructions like "one and a half to two" and "half to death" make it almost impossible to turn up genuine results of this online. A similar situation obtains with "supposed to": if you tell me you're "suppo[zd] to do" something, my first thought is that someone's making a supposition about you, rather than giving you a requirement. The devoicing here is so necessary in my idiolect that voicing the final cluster sounds like hypercorrection to me. The spelling "suppose to" again seems very common: almost 7M ghits, with several grammar sites warning against this "mistake". COCA actually turns up some instances that seem to be genuine as well. This type of phonological reduction is common with set phrases, and I'm guessing is assimilation in voicing to the following /t/.
Author : (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sun, 30 Jan 2011 03:12:00 +0000

another crash blossom
As those who are regular Language Log readers know, a crash blossom is a news headline that leads us to an incorrect parsing of its meaning. In many ways crash blossoms are similar to garden path sentences, the classic one being "The horse raced past the barn fell", which lead us down a metaphorical garden path by presenting information that can be parsed easily into a certain structure, only to ruin our structural hypothesis later on. In the case of "The horse raced past the barn fell", our hypothesis is that "raced" is the main verb of the sentence, rather than part of a relative clause describing the horse. Thus we parse "The horse raced past the barn", and then have to completely redo our structure when we get to "fell".

The crash blossom that caught my eye the other day is similar: "Stepmom charged with murder has baby". The main headline on the full story is no better: "Alabama stepmom charged with girl's murder gives birth". Again we have a relative clause with the relative pronoun omitted, leading us to think that what is in fact part of a relative clause is the main verb of the sentence. So in the full headline, we think the story is about a stepmother in Alabama being charged with murder, when in fact the story is about the woman in question giving birth.
Author : (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 25 Feb 2012 15:20:00 +0000
Contact ATI