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Three books of the year 2013 and some books of the century 1900-2013

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I have been asked (as every year) to nominate three books of the year for Lidové Noviny (a Czech paper I contribute to occasionally). This is always a tough choice for me and some years I don’t even bother responding. This is because I don’t tend to read books ‘of the moment’ and range widely in my reading across time periods. But I think I have some good ones this time. Additionally, Lidové Noviny are celebrating 120 years of being a major Czech newspaper so they also asked me for a book of the century (since 1900 till now). It makes no sense to even try to pick ‘the one’, so I picked three categories that are of interest to me (language, society and fiction) and chose three books in each.

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Three books of 2013

Thanks to the New Books Network, I tend to be more clued in on the most recent publications, so 2 of my recommendations are based on interviews heard there.

A Cultural History of the Atlantic World, 1250-1820 by John K. Thornton is without question a must read for anyone interested in, well, history. Even though he is not the first, Thornton shows most persuasively how the non-Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic (Africa and the Americas) were full-fledged political partners of the Europeans who are traditionally seen simply as conquerors with their dun powder, horses and steel weapons. Bowerman shows how these were just a small part of the mix, having almost no impact in Africa and playing a relatively small role in the Americas. In both cases, Europeans succeeded through alliances with local political elites and for centuries simply had no access to vast swathes of both continents.

Raising Germans in the Age of Empire: Youth and Colonial Culture, 1871-1914 by Jeff Bowersox. This book perhaps covers an exceedingly specific topic (compared to the vast sweep of my first pick) but it struck a chord with me. It shows the complex interplay between education, propaganda and their place in the lives of youth and adults alike.

Writing on the Wall: Social Media – the First 2,000 Years by Tom Standage. Standage’s eye opening book on the telegraph (The Victorian Internet) now has a companion dealing with social communication networks going back to the Romans. Essential corrective to all the gushing paradigm shifters. He doesn’t say there’s nothing new about the Internet but he does say that there’s nothing new abou humans. Much lighter reading but still highly recommended.

Books of the Century

This really caught my fancy. I was asked for books that affected me, but I thought more about those that had an impact going beyond the review cycle of a typical book.

Language

Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure published in 1916. The Course (or Le Cours) Published posthumously by Saussure’s students from lecture notes is the cornerstone of modern linguistics. I think many of the assumptions have been undermined in the past 30-40 years and we are ripe for a paradigm change. But if you talk to a modern linguist, you will still hear much of what Saussure was saying to his students in the early 1900s in Geneva. (Time to rethink the Geneva Convention in language?)

Syntactic Structures by Noam Chomsky published in 1957. Unlike The Course, which is still worth reading by anyone who wants to learn about language, Syntactic Structures is now mostly irrelevant and pretty much incomprehensible to non-experts. However, it launched the Natural Language Processing revolution and its seeds are still growing (although not in the Chomskean camp). Its impact may not survive the stochastic turn in NLP but the computational view of language is still with us for good and for ill.

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published in 1980 while not completely original, kickstarted a metaphor revival of sorts. While, personally, I think Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things is by far the most important book of the second half of the 20th century, Metaphors We Live By is a good start (please, read the 2003 edition and pay special attention to the Afterword).

Society

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir published in 1949 marked a turning point in discourse about women. Although the individual insights had been available prior to Beauvoir’s work, her synthesis was more than just a rehashing of gender issues.

Language and Woman’s Place by Robin Tolmach Lakoff published in 1973 stands at the foundation of how we speak today about women and how we think about gender being reflected in language. I would now quible with some of the linguistics but not with the main points. Despite the progress, it can still open eyes of readers today.

The Savage Mind by Claude Levi-Strauss published in 1962 was one of the turning points in thinking about modernity, complexity and backwardness. Strauss’s quip that philosophers like Sartre were more of a subject of study for him than valuable interlocutors is still with me when I sit in on a philosophy seminar. I read this book without any preparation and it had a profound impact on me that is still with me today.

Fiction

None of the below are my personal favourites but all have had an impact on the zeit geist that transcended just the moment.

1984 by George Orwell published in 1949. Frankly I can’t stand this book. All of its insight is skin deep and its dystopian vision (while not in all aspects without merit) lacks the depth it’s often attributed. There are many sci-fi and fantasy writers who have given the issue of societal control and freedom much more subtle consideration. However, it’s certainly had a more profound impact on general discourse than possibly any piece of fiction of the 20th century.

The Joke by Milan Kundera published in 1967 is the only book by Kundera with literary merit (I otherwise find his writing quite flat). Unlike Orwell, Kundera has the capacity to show the personal and social dimensions of totalitarian states. In The Joke he shows both the randomness of dissent and the heterogeniety of totalitarian environments.

The Castle by Franz Kafka published in 1912 (or just the collected works of Kafka) have provided a metaphor for alienation for the literati of the next hundred years. I read The Castle first so it for me more than others illustrates the sense of helplessness and alienation that a human being can experience when faced with the black box of anonymous bureaucracy. Again, I rate this for impact, rather than putting it on a ‘good read’ scale.

My personal favorites would be authors rather than individual works: Kurt Vonnegut, Robertson Davies, James Clavell would make the list for me. I also read reams of genre fiction and fan fiction that can easily stand up next to any of “the greats”. I have no shame and no guilty pleasures. I’ve read most of Terry Pratchett and regularly reread childhood favorites by the likes of Arthur Ransome or Karl May. I’ve quoted from Lee Child and Tom Clancy in academic papers and I’ve published an extensive review of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction novel.

Finally, for me, the pinnacle of recent literary achievement is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve used this as an example of how TV shows have taken over from the Novel, as the narrative format addressing weighty issues of the day, and Buffy is one of the first examples. Veronica Mars is right up there, as well, and there are countless others I’d recommend ‘reading’.

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Language learning in literature as a source domain for generative metaphors about anything

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In my thinking about things human, I often like to draw on the domain of second language learning as the source of analogies. The problem is that relatively few people in the English speaking world have experience with language learning to such an extent that they can actually map things onto it. In fact, in my experience, even people who have a lot of experience with language learning are actually not aware of all the things that were happening while they were learning. And of course awareness of research or language learning theories is not to be expected. This is not helped by the language teaching profession’s propaganda that language learning is “fun” and “rewarding” (whatever that is). In fact my mantra of language learning (I learned from my friend Bill Perry) is that “language learning is hard and takes time” – at least if you expect to achieve a level of competence above that of “impressing the natives” with your “please” and “thank you”. In that, language learning is like any other human endeavor but because of its relatively bounded nature — when compared to, for instance, culture — it can be particularly illuminating.

But how can not just the fact of language learning but also its visceral experience be communicated to those who don’t have that kind of experience? I would suggest engrossing literature.

For my money, one of the most “realistic” depictions of language learning with all its emotional and cognitive peaks and troughs can be found in James Clavell‘s “Shogun“. There we follow the Englishman Blackthorne as he goes from learning how to say “yes” to conversing in halting Japanese. Clavell makes the frustrating experience of not knowing what’s going on and not being able to express even one’s simplest needs real for the reader who identifies with Blackthorne’s plight. He demonstrates how language and cultural learning go hand in hand and how easy it is to cause a real life problem through a little linguistic misstep.

Shogun stands in stark contrast to most other literature where knowledge of language and its acquisition is viewed as mostly a binary thing: you either know it or you don’t. One of the worst offenders here is Karl May (virtually unknown in the English speaking world) whose main hero Old Shatterhand/Kara Ben Nemsi acquires effortlessly not only languages but dialects and local accents which allow him to impersonate locals in May’s favorite plot twists. Language acquisition in May just happens. There’s never any struggle or miscommunication by the main protagonist. But similar linguistic effortlessness in the face of plot requirements is common in literature and film. Far more than magic or the existence of Vampires, the thing that used to stretch my credulity the most in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was ease with which linguistic facility was disposed of.

To be fair, even in Clavell’s book, there are characters whose linguistic competence is largely binary. Samurai either speak Portugese or Latin or they don’t – and if the plot demands, they can catch even whispered colloquial conversation. Blackthorne’s own knowledge of Dutch, Spanish, Portugese and Latin is treated equally as if identical competence would be expected in all four (which would be completely unrealistic given his background and which resembles May’s Kara Ben Nemsi in many respects).

Nevertheless, when it comes to Japanese, even a superficially empathetic reader will feel they are learning Japanese along with the main character. Largely through Clavell’s clever use of limited translation.

This is all the more remarkable given that Clavell obviously did not speak Japanese and relied on informants. This, as the “Learning from Shogun” book pointed out, led to many inaccuracies in the actual Japanese, advising readers not to rely on the language of Shogun too much.

Clavell (in all his books – not just Shogun) is even more illuminating in his depiction of intercultural learning and communication – the novelist often getting closer to the human truth of the process than the specialist researcher. But that is a blog post for another time.

Another novel I remember being an accurate representation of language learning is John Grisham‘s “The Broker” in which the main character Joel Backman is landed in a foreign country by the CIA and is expected to pick up Italian in 6 months. Unlike Shogun, language and culture do not permeate the entire plot but language learning is a part of about 40% of the book. “The Broker” underscores another dimension which is also present in the Shogun namely teaching, teachers and teaching methods.

Blackthorne in Shogun orders an entire village (literally on the pain of death) to correct him every time he makes a mistake. And then he’s excited by a dictionary and a grammarbook. Backman spends a lot of time with a teacher who makes him repeat every sentence multiple times until he knows it “perfectly”. These are today recognized as bad strategies. Insisting on perfection in language learning is often a recipe for forming mental blocks (Krashen’s cognitive and affective filters). But on the other hand, it is quite likely that in totally immersive situations like Blackthorne’s or even partly immersive situations like Backman’s (who has English speakers around him to help), pretty much any approach to learning will lead to success.

Another common misconception reflected in both works is the demand language learning places on rote memory. Both Blackthorne and Backman are described as having exceptional memories to make their progress more plausible but the sort of learning successes and travails described in the books would accurately reflect the experiences of anybody learning a foreign language even without a memory. As both books show without explicit reference, it is their strategies in the face of incomprehension that help their learning rather than a straight memorization of words (although that is by no means unnecessary).

So what are the things that knowing about the experience of second language learning can help us ellucidate? I think that any progress from incompetence to competence can be compared to learning a second language. Particularly when we can enhance the purely cognitive view of learning with an affective component. Strategies as well as simple brain changes are important in any learning which is why none of the brain-based approaches have produced unadulterated success. In fact, linguists studying language as such would do well to pay attention to the process of second language learning to more fully realize the deep interdependence between language and our being.

But I suspect we can be more successful at learning anything (from history or maths to computers or double entery book keeping) if we approach it as a foreign language. Acknowledge the emotional difficulties alongside cognitive ones.

Also, if we looked at expertise more as linguistic fluency than a collection of knowledge and skills, we could devise a program of learning that would take better into account not only the humanity of the learner but also the humanity of the whole community of experts which he or she is joining.

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