Thursday, November 25, 2004

More From Pinker

"More systematic evidence comes from the psychologist Elissa Newport and her colleagues. They tested Korean - and Chinese - born students and faculty at the University of Illinois who had spent at least ten years in the United States. The immigrants were given a list of 276 simple English sentences, half of them containing some grammatical error like The farmer bought two pig or The little boy is speak to a policeman. The immigrants who came to the United States between the ages of three and seven performed identically to American-born students. Those who arrived between the ages of eight and fifteen did increasingly worse the later they arrived, and those who arrived between seventeen and thirty-nine did the worst of all, and showed huge variability unrelated to their age of arrival." Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct.

What seems to be happening in Taiwan is that the drive to English proficiency is running into the buzzsaw of Taiwan identity politics, and the drive to strengthen indigenous languages (ben tu yu yan). It looks as if there will be three strata of language on the island: English, for communication with the world; Mandarin, as an island-wide lingua franca; and indigenous languages - Taiwanese, Hakka, and aboriginal languages. A foreigner needs to be a bit circumspect about coming down too hard on these kinds of identity issues, which the Taiwanese have to work out on their own. What sets alarms off for me, though, is when a political decision is made (i.e. Taiwanese before English), and then, extrapolating back, academic theories are constructed to conform to that political need. That is the process described in the L.A. Reader article on Krashen below. Politically inconvenient it may be, but ten and thirteen year olds do not acquire languages (first or second languages) faster than kindergarten children.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Taiwanese Dog Resurrected

As far as my imperfect Chinese can decipher it, it appears that this dog was struck by a truck, was lying in a pool of his own blood, was to all appearances, deader than Rin Tin Tin - and yet, as a cop was taking a picture of the corpse, he jumped up and walked away. Only in Taiwan, isla miraculosa!

Familiar Territory

Taichung. Chung-Yo Department Store. Sunday afternoon. Been there. Done that. hat tip: Jonah Goldberg at the Corner.

The Latest From London

"The first toilet paper was produced by the Bureau of Imperial Supplies in China, which made 720,000 sheets measuring 2ft by 3ft, for the emperor, in AD1391. Henry VIII employed a �Groom of the Stool� to ensure �the house of easement be sweet and clear� by cleaning the monarch�s behind with his hand. "
One of the first adjustments a newcomer to Taiwan must make is to get used to the ghastly toilet-side wastepaper bucket, necessary because Taiwan toilets cannot, or will not, take the paper. The most plausible explanation I have heard is that this is due to population density issues (see post just below). My own preference is for the wonderful Japanese toilets with an upward warm water jet option. I am, I must say, a rather warm opponent of the "Groom of the Stool" idea.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Pinker On Early Language Learning

My current reading material, Stephen Pinker's "The Language instinct," has some interesting observations on the language learning abilities of children. He relates that on small island entrepots, merchant traders from vastly different language groups had to find a way to make themselves mutually understood. They developed languages composed of words from their various languages, but with no grammar - so-called "pidgen" languages. Fascinatingly, when children were brought up on these islands with the pidgen language as their "mother tongue", the children spoke the languages in complete, grammatical sentences, though they'd been provided no grammar by their parents or teachers. These full, grammatical languages are called "creoles".

Also: in Nicaragua, prior to the coming of the Sandinistas, there were no centralized, public services for deaf children. When schools were establishes in the eighties, the classroom instruction provided was mostly ineffectual. Nevertheless, the children (average age nine to fourteen) , on the playgrounds and schoolbuses, created their own pidgen sign language out of the languages they used with their families. Even more interesting: later, kindergarten age children were introduced into the school, and learned the pidgen language at young ages. Sure enough, with no prompting, they evolved a fully grammatical, creole sign language.

Pinker argues that, for small children, starting from age three, grammar is an instinct, something that small children do even if the language they are provided has no grammar at all. Of course, for teachers in Taiwan who have extensive experience teaching both kindergarten and fourth and fifth graders, the response will be "Of course!"

Recycling Krashen

"Studies show that older children acquire language skills faster than younger children. Thus, starting later (eg, at grade three or grade four instead of kindergarten or grade one) is more efficient. It also means more time to develop a solid foundation in Chinese".
Does the Taipei Times realize: that they are essentially re-publishing the same letter from Stephen Krashen every several months? This article in the L.A. Weekly pai8nts a less than flattering protrait of Krashen. He does, however, seem to concede that the spectacle of police raiding kindergartens that teach English is over the top.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Dong Hwa Anniversary Bash

A tremendous, full day here at Dong Hwa Universary in Hualien. The school pulled out all the stops in a day full of surprisingly impressive performances by artists local and international. Personal highlights included a multi-ethnic dance performance by artists from Xinjiang in the morning, and an amazing African bongo drummer (bongoist?) in the evening. Here the perks of being a foreigner in Taiwan were obvious: being invited up to the stage for the climax of the dancing; being sought out afterward for English conversation; and later picked out of the crowd by the bongoite and allowed to bang on his drum in the middle of the performance ("not bad", he lied in Taiwanese). A day of adrenaline rushes, and if I can scrape up the jack, I'm going to Xinjiang to visit my new friends.

Unwelcome Message

"Philippine President Gloria Arroyo yesterday ordered the replacement of soldiers and police guarding a farm controlled by the family of former president Corazon Aquino after deadly riots involving striking workers claimed as many as seven lives."
More evidence that the second "People Power" movement in Phillipines never had the moral authority of the first. As bad a President as Estrada was, overthrowing the candidate duly elected by the poorest people in the country, using an alliance of the military, the church and affluent urbanites, was a catastrophe for Phillipine democracy. Keeping Estrada in jail all these years, and the questions about the latest election only compound the transgression. Arroyo and Aquino are not bad people. They do not believe they preside over an unjust, feudalistic economic order. That's why they allow elections. But the people of the Phillipines keep telling them something about their society that they don't want to hear. Sweeping that message aside doesn't make the reality go away, though, as these strikes indicate.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Coup Charges

"Chen failed to back his accusation with any solid evidence. When pressed by the opposition to prove his accusation, Chen insisted, through his office, that what he revealed was absolutely true � 'not something baseless,' but adding that he has no intentions of launching an inquiry into the 'soft coup.' "
The China Post claims Chen Shui Bian is making baseless allegations. But their case is not helped by the fact that Lien Chan has repeatedly compared Chen to Hitler, and encouraged people to assassinate the President. Given how unhinged Lien seems to have become in the wake of the election, it would actually be surprising if he hadn't explored the possibility of a coup with the traditionally pro-KMT military leaders.

New Investment Opportunity

"'These products have been very well-received,' said the general manager. 'Take ice cream, for example. At our ranch, this can be called a curiosity product, and we sell about 10,000 cartons a year.' Chen expects sales to increase over the next year after having teamed up with a company that makes and sells ice cream. " Ostrich ice cream is coming to Taiwan: Get in on the ground floor now.

Blogger Help : How do I make a link to another webpage?

My reading these days is "The Language Instinct", by Steven Pinker. His latest book, "The Blank Slate", I read earlier and found it fascinating. This one is more technical, and hard sledding in places. The serious and respectful presentation of Noam Chomsky's ideas confirms an impression: a moron on geopolitics, but, indeed a kind of genius in linguistics. I have no problem carrying both those ideas in my head at the same time. The dense discussion of the nature of language is leavened by Pinker's humorous and playful examples. A joke spawned by a discussion of irregular verbs: A lady gets into a cab at the Boston airport, and asks the driver, "Where can I get scrod?" The cabbie answers, "That's the first time I ever heard that in the subjunctive pluperfect."

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Taipei Times - archives

Taipei Times - archives: " was established was a settler colonialism in which the incoming Mainlanders were the privileged colonial overlords and the Hoklo, Hakka and Aborigines routinely discriminated against. For non-Taiwanese to put this in perspective, think of Taiwan as Ireland, and the Mainlanders as the Protestant ascendency. For the argument over Sun Yat-sen (???) this week you can substitute the argument over the 'correct' name of the city of Derry. " A concise distillation of the pan-blue take on Taiwan's historical development. It is difficult to argue with the gist of this argument. If I were going to make a devil's advocate arguement against, it would include: reminding people of the central role of Chiang Ching Kuo in the localization of the KMT - without him, there is no Lee Teng Hui, no evolutionary progress to democracy; also, while Taiwanese were discriminated against, it is also true that many of the mainlanders came here with few resources, while the Taiwanese have wealth in the form of inherited land and property. This does not justify the pattern of discrimination, but it gives pause to reflect that if the mainlanders had not dominated the public sector, they surely would have constituted an underclass in society. In retrospect, dominating the private sector wasn't really such a bad consolation prize for the Taiwanese, was it?

Monday, November 15, 2004

Taipei Times - archives

Taipei Times - archives: "We must go all the way, up to the termination of NATO. An alliance which should have wound up when the Soviet Union collapsed now serves almost entirely as a device for giving the US an unfair and unreciprocated droit de regard over European foreign policy." The point Steele makes that the gap in values between the U.S. and Europe is real and substantial is well taken. I wonder, though, what Europe would have done in the case of Milosevik. In the post-cold war euphoria, the Clinton administration actually took seriously the idea that Europe had the will to deal with genocide unfolding on its southern flank. In the end, only the U.S. led NATO would have - could have - dealt with the problem.

A Blog Is Born

Inaugural posting of a blog concerning all things in Taiwan and the world. Special emphasis will be paid to Taiwan's three English language newspapers: The Taiwan Times; Taiwan News; and China Post.