Archive for the ‘Linguistics’ Category

Interview with Language Master Stuart Jay Raj

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

Stuart Jay Raj- Master PolyglotA few days ago I had the privilege and honor of interviewing Stuart Jay Raj. This man is incredible, so instead of rambling on, let’s dive right in.

I’m T and Stuart is SJR.

T: First of all how many languages do you speak?

SJR: That’s a tough question. What is a ‘different language’, and what is the qualification for ‘speak’. I’ll send you a profile that has the languages listed and my ranking for speaking, listening, reading and writing. There are a total of about 25 on the list. [On a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is the best,] with speaking 3 or above, I speak about 11 languages. With reading 3 or above, I have about 16 to 17.

T: Wow. What language(s) do you consider your native languages?

SJR: English is my native language, but then soon after that, they started stacking up.

T: How old were you when you started learning your first 2nd language?

SJR: Well my father’s side all spoke Hindi, though back then in Australia, they felt that English should be used more.

T: That often happens when one language is a minority language. The same thing happens here in the US with Spanish-speaking folks who have immigrated. The second generation only has receptive bilingualism and Spanish is often lost by the 3rd generation.

SJR: Right.

T: Go on.

SJR: On my maternal Grandfather’s side, I guess Italian was the next language at about the age of 3, with Chinese and Japanese coming in soon after. I can remember when I was about 4 with the mumps, my Grandfather used to read an ‘Italian through pictures’ book to me. I can still remember all the pictures now.

T: So– English, Hindi, Italian, and then Chinese and Japanese– You started hearing/learning these from family members mainly?

SJR: Right. Years later, I actually went to stay with Indian relatives in the US for a while and saw that they really retained the language and culture. That’s when I really motivated myself to get into Hindi– more Shudh Hindi, and also Sanskrit. But my Hindi in the early days was just stuff you use around the house– long conversations were done in English. And then with the Japanese and Chinese, my Grandfather used to teach me how to write the characters, Hiragana, Katana and Kanji. One of the best books he used to use with me to teach Japanese and Chinese characters was written in Italian. We also had these flash cards that must have come from the 50’s. He used to teach me what EVERY part of the character meant– it’s function etc. Not just the radicals.

T: So your father was a language buff too?

SJR: No – Dad only used language… didn’t love it.

T: But he was still a factor in getting you acquainted with several langauges?

SJR: It was my Mum’s Dad that had a psychotic passion for language that eventually rubbed off on me. It wasn’t just languages- but I guess it’s the language thing that’s ‘in your face’ when you meet people. My Grandfather at the same time taught me to touch type (at the age of 4), to use Morse code, to design schematic diagrams and build radios, to programme computers, and to memorise numbers and words.

T: So it wasn’t only human language you were exposed to.

SJR: Right. Basically he was into getting more mileage out of the brain than your average joe blow.

T: When you talk about memorizing numbers, what was that? Just any numbers– or memorizing pi for example?

SJR: I remember when the Commodore 64 came out around 1982– he and I lived with it around the clock. Initially programming in BASIC, then Assembly Language. I can still remember many of the poke addresses and memory Hex values. One of the first things he taught me that I can remember is the Major method, that he learn back around 1940. – 0 s,z – 1 t,d -2 n-3 m – 4 r – 5 l – 6 ch, j sh zh – 7 k g – 8 f v – 9 p b, and in his wisdom, that system is a foundation for most languages.

T: That’s the same number scheme that Harry Lorraine taught.

The Major Method
The Major Method is a mnemonic memorization system where the 10 digits are mapped to
consonant sounds, so that you can use words and phrases to remember long, complicated numbers, among many other uses.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
S, Z T, D N M R L CH, ZH K, G F, V P, B
E. g. To memorize the sequence 02321290, just remember the phrase “snowy mountain pass”.

SJR: Right. If you look at Hiragana and Katakana, the 5 x 5 Indic sound system… even shorthand, it’s divided up like that. We’d create martices of literally thousands of words that we could then make crazy memory stories out of.

T: Do you think memory techniques are an important part of langauge learning?

SJR: I think that the principle behind the memory techniques helped me. He used to always tell me “don’t let words limit your thoughts”, which is the fundamental principle of many techniques. You have to think LOUD (not aloud).

T: Some cognitive linguists have said our native language actually limits how we think. So I really agree with what you say. Can you explain the LOUD concept in a bit more detail?

SJR: Sure, it’s like a ‘loud shirt’. Think in colours, emotions, experiences– anything that SCREAMS OUT on the inside.

T: I see.

SJR: I think that’s where he was able to nip it in the bud with me. Even things like doing the rubik’s cube was creating a ‘meaning’ (for example, getting all the 6 colours blocked) through tactile vocabulary. That’s another thing he taught me when i was about 5.

T: Sounds like you were really blessed with good guidance when you were young.

SJR: I was the only one of my siblings and cousins that actually enjoyed sitting through his stories (over and over …and over again) … they eventually rubbed off.

T: What single memory technique would you most recommend to someone who is embarking on learning their first foreign langauge?

SJR: Ahhh… there are a few things. I would say the first thing would be to get your mind separating the mechanical act of using language from the way your brain feels meanings… then you have more versatility.

T: Sounds profound, can you dive deeper?

SJR: One of the first exercises I get people to do [when learning a foreign language] is Language 1 –> Language 1 simultaneous interpreting. That is, turn on CNN or something and then just start speaking in real time. Not waiting, just interpret what the presenter is saying in your own words– interpret the meanings. That’s a fundamental skill in de-coupling yourself from your mother tongue.

T: In other words– hearing meaning, not words.

SJR: Exactly. Then, as far as the memory skills are concerned, start making associations… weird, bizzare, sounds, colours, similar meanings, similar sounds etc. And then create stacking stories. For example, for the days of the week in Indonesian, you have:

MingguYou’re mingling in church on Sunday.
SeninAnd then on Monday after church you go back to ‘sinnin’.
SelasaThen like an Italian waving his hands in the air, you exclaim ‘Selasa’ (at last) Monday is over!
RabuThen you call the ‘rabi’ to come and cleanse your sins.
KamisThe rabi ‘comes’ (Kamis).
JumatThe rabi performs a weird ritual by ‘jumping on the mat’ (Jumat) to cleanse the sins from Monday.
SabtuAnd then it’s the Sabbath… ready to go and mingle again the next day on Sunday (Minggu).

T: It takes some effort create the story, but that same effort helps it stick in your mind.

SJR: That was one that I made up on the fly many years ago when I was trying to get someone to remember the days in Indonesian. That’s the reason for the initial exercise with CNN interpreting… you need to get your creative juices flowing and stop thinking in ‘words’ and start thinking in ‘meanings’. I just did this exercise in Thai with the Thai senate last week. It was a real breakthrough for them, as Thais are trained from birth to memorise everything by rote. They found a new liberty with their language.

T: Were you giving them language training?

SJR: I am working with a number of departments on language, communication and a few other things. That day, many of the key people who are involved in International communications were present.

T: Most of my readers are learning Spanish or already speak it. I read on your website that you speak it as well.

SJR: That’s right. There are some cool things you can do with Spanish and other inflected languages.

T: Así que cambiemos a español tantito?

SJR: Sure… but i’ll respond in English 55555 Oops… in Thai, 5 is pronounced ‘ha’, so when Thais laugh online, they say 555555.

T: That’s like when I learned to laugh online in Spanish– jaja or jejeje.

SJR: But feel free to speak to me in Spanish. My Spanish came about later on when I was just in University.

T: How long has it been since you started with Spanish?

SJR: I started when i was about 18. Later, I ended up living with my Chilean girlfriend for 4 years… in which time my Italian morphed into Spanish. All my Spanish speaking friends would play games with me to get my conjugations up to speed. You have to make it fun… so we would conjugate the verb ‘cagar’ in as many forms possible. 5555

T: jajaja

SJR: yo cago, tu cagas… te cagé! But it STUCK. One thing that my Grandfather also passed on was the ability to hear (and extract) what is really ‘said’ and not the ideal that people will tell you is said. Many people think you have to learn the ‘ideal’ of the language and get offended when people learn slang. I say ‘bring it on’. When I first learn a language, I’ll find out how people say ‘wiggle your index finger’, or the sound of your hands rubbing together, or the ‘sound effect’ words people use when they’re describing a dramatic incident like a car crash. All these things bring you into the ‘heart’ of the language– What’s the sound of an egg hitting a brick wall– But I won’t ask directly though, I try and elicit it naturally.

T: So you wouldn’t last too long in a classroom setting where you learn how to say ‘pencil’, ‘car’, ‘doctor’

SJR: I would only use that as one small part of my language learning regime… the ‘dry’ part, but you have to get wet.

T: That’s important, natural elicitation, because if you ask directly, they often tell you something different than what they would naturally use.

SJR: Right. For example, in Thai, we work on a base six clock… not base 12. For many foreigners, this is very hard to conceive. For a Thai, to say 4 in the morning and 10 in the morning is the same thing.

T: In other words, it’s the same word.

SJR: So to demonstrate to one of my students that Thais really do think like this, i called over to the bar tender and said ‘what time did you start work today?’ The bar tender answered– seeing the farang (gringo) sitting with me– ’10 o’clock’. I responded in Thai “you started at 4 o’clock didn’t you”, and without batting an eyelid he responded ‘yeah’. He thought that my question was intended to find out what time he started work, but the real intention was to examine a language feature and psychological feature of the people. Right now it’s 11 AM, and Thais would interchange that for 5 o’clock.

T: Language definitely controls how you think.

SJR: They literally hear them as the same numbers.

T: cool.

T: I’ve kept you longer than I intended to… but I also wanted to ask you about your company Kogneit. Tell me about it, and tell me about what you do.

SJR: I started my company around 5 years ago. The name is a linguistic play on words [kogneit – cognate] two or more words that come from the same root. I was a Dale Carnegie trainer for years and did corporate consultancy and training under their banner with many companies in the region. Later on, I came out and realised that I could address companies on many other languages when you bring the language and culture into the business mix. So now, governments, companies, and non-governmental organizations like the UN, hire me to implement their international policies at a local level in a palatable fashion. I can package any concerns from the people on the ground in a way (hopefully with a solution too) to communicate with the executives without making it risky for the people to voice their opinions.

T: So you get to travel some then.

SJR: Yes, I travel a lot. I just returned home from running a negotiations workshop with the Thai Pepsico team, then I’ll be in Beijing with the UN in a couple of weeks. My Grandfather used to tell me that if I do what I love doing, people will pay me to do it. So I just enjoy my life and business follows.

T: Good advice.

SJR: I’m a true believer in the power of networking and surrounding oneself with positive people. Aside from my hardskills, it’s my networks that add the most value to what I do. From business to government, from social networks to the entertainment industry, I think that if I meet ANYONE, I’ll probably know someone else that can help them. But it’s the language that allows me to access these people at the levels that I do. And not just the language. A lot of people learn a language, but then bum everything up because they still commit cultural faux pas.

T: Yep.

SJR: The first thing I advise people to do when they think they know a language well enough is to shut up. You don’t learn a language to tell people what YOU think, you learn it to understand what THEY think. And hopefully what THEY think will change or enhance what I think.

T: That reminds me of the saying: Keep your mouth shut and appear to be a fool — open it and remove all doubt.

SJR: Those are wise words. For me, many a time has the doubt been confirmed!

T: Well thanks so much for the interview.

SJR: Thanks David. It’s been fun … first time doing anything like this via instant messenger.

T: Any last words for a Spanish learner who doesn’t have any foreign languages under their belt?

SJR: Yeah – my Grandfather used to tell me that the ultimate goal for learning any language is to have the native speakers NOT compliment you on your language ability. That is, they just assume you’ve spoken it most of your life, if not all. So ACCENT ACCENT ACCENT.

T: yep, that’s ultimate goal.

SJR: You can download some great software ‘SPEECH ANALYZER’ that allows you to graph where your vowels are etc. So, analyse your own accent, and then learn how to control it and change it. If I meet another native English speaker, and I were to compliment them on their English, they’d probably punch me in the face. You want people to feel like that toward you (not that you want them to punch you in the face!) 5555

T: I’m literally laughing out loud. Thanks so much for your time

SJR: That’s a good note to finish on. Have a great evening. Cuídate.

T: Tú también.

Visit Stuart’s sites:
Kogneit – Business site.
Behind the Curtain – Personal blog.

Stuart was also interviewed on Thai television, where he shows off his language abilities. See him in action here.

Part 1 – Polyglot – Speaks over 15 Languages.

Part 2Multilingual Interpreting. About 1:40 into this one, you get to hear him speak a teeny tiny bit of Spanish.
Part 3Dreaming Dictionaries.
Part 4Thinking in Meanings.
Part 5Hearing in Colours.

May we all be inspired.

Is agreement in number between pronouns and the nouns they represent disappearing from Spanish?

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

I just ran into the oddest thing in Spanish. Apparently you can and should say goodbye to number agreement, in some cases, in Mexican Spanish.

I was talking with a Mexican man today and I heard him say the strangest thing.

Ya váyanse, yo se los pongo.

Now that in and of itself sounds perfectly grammatical, but here’s the context. Two of his friends were walking by and said they were in a big hurry becuase they had to go over to another building to change a lightbulb before leaving for an appointment that they were almost late for. To this, my friend responded “Ya váyanse, yo se los pongo”, telling them to go ahead and leave and he would take care of changing the lightbulb.

Ya váyanse, yo se los pongo

Let’s analyze this.

Yo se los pongo
Subject Indirect object pronoun referring to the two buddies. This would normally be les, but it changes to se when preceeding another pronoun. Direct object pronoun referring to the light bulb verb

Then I responded ¿Qué dijiste?
– Yo se los pongo.
Me to a native speaker ¿Y no debiste haber dicho “yo se lo pongo”?
Blank stare

So I ask for a couple of examples and write them on a paper towel.

Remember that in these examples, the person is always talking to two or more people, and the object/action they are talking about it singular.

  • Un calentador está prendido, y ya deben apagarlo: Yo se los apago.
  • Unos amigos quieren cocinar un pollo: Tráiganme el pollo y se los cocino.
  • A varios niños: Si se mojan con el agua, se las voy a cerrar.
  • Unas personas tienen que irse y cerrar su casa: Si tienen que irse, yo se las cierro.

He also mentioned, in answer to one of my queries, that as far as he knows, that’s standard usage in Spanish. That declaration, along with the elicited examples, came from a 30+ year old Mexican male, who is a native Spanish speaker.

To me, the original utterance should have been Yo se lo pongo. The lo being singular, to represent a singular light bulb. But if this is how a large group of native speakers use the language [confirmation needed], then who am I to get all prescriptivist and tell them it should be different?

I would love it if some native or non-native speakers could confirm the extent of this usage. If you’ve heard anything like this, where did you hear it, and who was speaking?

Descriptivism Vs. Prescriptivism

Sunday, July 22nd, 2007

Descriptivism Vs. Prescriptivism

For a bit of background, see the Wikipedia articles on descriptive and prescriptive language policies.

A Humorous Look at the Question “Does Language Define Us?”

Sunday, May 13th, 2007

You may or may not find this +-3 minute language sketch amusing. What I find alternately funny and scary is the fact that the guy on the right really reminds me of one of my linguistics professors, both in his speech and gestures. It’s entertaining to see some Chomskyan (is that spelled right?) ideas used in this context.

Now, do you agree with him or disagree?

A Linguist Does Not (Necessarily) Speak Many Languages

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

I was minding my own business, reading the news when I came across this tidbit.

Former colleagues said Levinson, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of City College, was a master linguist who taught himself Spanish in less than two months.

There are two things I find interesting in this statement. Many people have the idea that a linguist is someone who speaks many languages. Now, a linguist could speak several languages, but a better definition of a linguist is someone who scientifically studies language.

Chopsticks and Spanish
Me trying to simulate
chopsticks with a pair
of drumsticks.

My second observation was the claim that this guy taught himself Spanish in two months. That makes me think of Spanish as if it were a pair of chopsticks. You learn how to eat with them and then you’re done– you have nothing more to learn. The truth about language learning is that you’re never done. I’m fluent in Spanish, but every now and then I hear a word in conversation that I’ve never heard before, and I often run across new-for-me words while reading Spanish. So don’t be discouraged when you hear that some smarty-pants autodidact taught themselves Spanish in two months. Just remember that they’ve learned a certain level of Spanish, which might very well be below the level that you’re currently at.