Late Summer Reads

Here in Berkeley, the warm afternoons are met on both sides by chilly, foggy mornings and evenings—a reminder that summer is advancing and the fall semester is just around the corner. But before you rush off to start lesson planning or finish buying your school supplies, how about taking advantage of the remaining time and doing a little late summer reading? Below are a few suggestions for reads both long and short, new and old, in a variety of media, and grouped around a few focal questions related to language, culture, and society with (hopefully) useful implications for language teaching and learning. In its initial days, this article will be a work in progress, with new readings and resources being added; your suggestions and comments are most welcome and, where possible, will be incorporated into the article.

How are language, culture and thought related, and why does it matter?

With lectures at the BLC over the last year by Alice Gaby of Berkeley’s Linguistics Department, and Lera Boroditsky in Psychology at Stanford, questions surrounding the relationship of language, culture and thought have been at the forefront (see article about Boroditsky’s talk on the BLC site here. Foundational texts in this area include Benjamin Whorf’s Language, thought and reality (1956) and, going back even further, Language, culture and personality (1949) by Edward Sapir. These two figures are often invoked even today in discussions about linguistic relativity (which asks, in a nutshell, in what ways the languages you speak influence how you perceive and interpret the world). Boroditsky, marshaling evidence from fieldwork and laboratory experiments across a number of languages, argues in a recent article from the Wall Street Journal (“Lost in Translation”, July 30 2010) that “the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express”. Meanwhile, a tireless critic of such views is Steven Pinker, of the Psychology Department at Harvard. Well-known for writing about linguistics and the evolution of the human mind with a great deal of his own evidence and wit to boot, Pinker argues in his recent book The stuff of thought (2007) that language shows us mental universals across human civilization much more than it shows more surface-level linguistic and cultural differences.

Are differences in language and worldview becoming a moot point anyway?

In its 2007 report, “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World”, the Modern Language Association’s Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages argued for a foreign language education that teaches “differences in meaning, mentality, and worldview”. Yet political, economic, and technological changes in the world give rise every year to questions about the vitality of the world’s languages, the role of English and other lingua francas, and people’s ability to mean different things even as they use different languages. Robert McCrum’s book Globlish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language (2010) has been garnering significant attention in recent months, and might give the MLA and language teachers cause for concern. He argues that English as a global language has been largely decoupled from its colonial past and now even brings with it a “sense of liberation” when it is used as a language of business communication or common culture. See a recent interview here with Ray Suarez on PBS NewsHour (thanks to Rebecca Estes on Facebook for this). David Crystal, another recent visiting lecturer at the BLC, is also well-known for his writings on the past, present, and future of the English language. He gave an interview recently with the BBC here; for a more in-depth exploration of processes of localization, internationalization, and mixing of English and other languages worldwide, see the book he co-edited with Roberta Facchinetti and Barbara Seidlhofer, From international to local English – and back again (2010). A few BLC fans have recommended the Italian-American linguist and Esperanto advocate Mario Pei’s The story of language (1949) for its sweeping narrative of the languages of the world; for a more recent academic look at issues of lingua francas, globality and locality, see Volume 26 (2006) of the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics (requires CalNet ID to view; see also in UCB Library), edited by Northern Arizona University’s Mary McGroarty. Lastly, for recent, day-to-day perspectives on heritage languages in California and the United States—and what’s being done to help them flourish—keep your eye on the work of the Center for World Languages and the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA.

This looks pretty serious for a summer reading list! Are there any lighter reads out there in and from other languages?

Unfortunately, this article suffers from the same weakness as much of the readings referred to above—it’s all in English! If you have recommendations for readings in or about specific non-English languages, please share them in the Comments. Of course, a first stop for books for children and adults in English, Spanish, Chinese and other languages of our local communities is…you guessed it…the library! The websites for the Berkeley Public Library, Oakland Public Library, and San Francisco Public Library are good starting points; or, better yet, just pay them a visit directly. If you’re looking online for literature in English translation, one wonderful resource is Words Without Borders. In addition to shorter fiction pieces published monthly, their site features book reviews, international graphic literature, and other resources. Or, if you’re in the mood for shorter nonfiction writing, on current events in other countries, take a look at Global Voices Online, “an international community of bloggers who report on blogs and citizen media from around the world”. Note there that you can view different content on the site in at least 17 other languages! One final recommendation to get you thinking about language before classes this fall is to pick up a language memoir (also called “linguistic autobiography”)—a record of an individual’s experiences with language language learning, loss and change over the span of his or her own life. Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons (1993) and Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (1989) both figure prominently in BLC founding Director Claire Kramsch’s recent book, The Multilingual Subject: What Language Learners Have to Say about their Experiences (2009). Other memoirs include Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory, David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), The Philosopher’s Demise (Learning French) (1995) by Richard Watson, and Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) by Gloria Anzaldúa.

There are no doubt many other directions this collection of readings and resources could take in addition to what’s been mentioned above. What have you read this summer? Are there any books that are on your to-read list? And what language-related media of other sorts (poetry, movies, radio shows, blogs, etc.) would you recommend? Please leave a comment below.

Happy reading!