Sunday, February 7, 2016

Revisiting Endangered Alphabets and Languages


Once again, the confluence of coincidences has evoked a post; this time it all involves a new Kickstarter effort (The Mother Tongues Campaign) on behalf of Tim Brookes's Endangered Alphabets, New Scientist's cover story this week on "The Eloquent Ape" and related commentary, and the growing chagrin experienced by my Beloved Spouse, my colleagues, and myself about the demise of language skills among college students.

I've written about the Endangered Alphabets Project a couple of times before (Losing Languages in 2011 and Endangered Languages Revisited in 2013--partly about BASAbali), and so will try not to repeat myself this time. But if you've got the wherewithal to support a worthwhile project, please visit the links above, or see the Kickstarter page (the small campaign has been funded, but more donations will result in its enrichment).

What makes this kind of project all the more meaningful is watching less endangered languages (English and the major European languages, for example) suffer from the onslaught of technologies based on reflexive, instantaneous responses that require neither linguistic acumen nor simple thoughtfulness.  I've frequently railed against the twitter-machine (although not by name) and gave up a gig as a community voices volunteer for the Daily Poop because they wanted me to feed them occasional one-paragraph comments on things that really need more than soundbites.  And while I much prefer text-messaging to telephone calls because texting allows me the possibility of passing ideas through my brain-filters before they exit my mouth, I rue the effects of texting on the general public. This doesn't make me a Luddite computer-hater, however. I'm a great lover of e-mail because it allows me to respond to messages and engage in long discussions over time about important topics.  I've made more than a few on-line friends through the blogs and through MOOC fora, and these have led to rich and enjoyable conversations that I probably would not have been able to participate in if handwritten letters were still required.

Nevertheless, the Beloved Spouse and I spend part of each morning's newspaper-reading session grousing about the demise of vocabulary and the inappropriate use of prepositions. Our students constantly seek to "base off of" rather than "base on," or to "center around" rather than "center on." And while these might seem insignificant (after all, language changes), they indicate a growing lack of precision and subtlety in common parlance. What might it mean to base an essay "off of" a poem? How does a question "center around" a particular event?  As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson once noted (in Metaphors We Live By), prepositions often indicate orientational metaphors (waking up) that have to do with spatial relationships. So what could it possibly mean to center around something, or base something off of something else?

Of course, some prepositions are variable enough that regional differences arise (New Yorkers stand on line, while Californians stand in line; Brits use "difference to" where we say "different from"),  and arguments can be made that the implied orientations in these cases make some sense. But if we lose appropriate prepositions, or rich, varied vocabularies, how can we retain any level of literary or other communicative sophistication?

Another observation, somewhat related to the loss of vocabulary, is the loss of second language acquisition in the US. A not-so-recent, but still useful article from Forbes (August 2012) explores "America's Foreign Language Deficit." The upshot is that our kids are missing out on learning other languages and this isn't without consequences:

We should care – a lot – about our foreign language deficit.  We need diplomats, intelligence and foreign policy experts, politicians, military leaders, business leaders, scientists, physicians, entrepreneurs, managers, technicians, historians, artists, and writers who are proficient in languages other than English.  And we need them to read and speak less commonly taught languages (for which funding has recently been cut by the federal government) that are essential to our strategic and economic interests, such as Farsi, Bengali, Vietnamese, Burmese and Indonesian.

My periodic queries in my classes about who speaks a language other than English reveal a few Spanish-speakers whose parents came from Mexico or Central America, or an occasional Vietnamese, Chinese, or South Asian child of immigrant parents. A few Anglo kids have taken French or German in high school, and over the years I've found that some animation students or martial arts devotees have studied some Japanese. But hardly anyone who is not him- or herself an immigrant can speak anything but English fluently. 

In the end, what this means for real fluency in English is that too many speakers lack the depth of training necessary to really understand how language works. They develop only a superficial notion of how nouns and verbs work together, or how prepositions indicate the underlying cases of nouns. Adverbs dangle all over the place, introducing sentences in which they are completely unrelated to any verb or adjective that follows. This may sound nit-picky, but "Hopefully, the aliens won't attack" suggests that the aliens won't attack hoping to kick our collective fannies; I'm pretty sure they would. This kind of subtlety is, unfortunately, lost on most of the writing students I've taught in recent years.

The linguistic pleasures experienced in this house stem from long association with other cultures or wide-ranging literary and philosophical interests.  My early encounter with Japanese makes watching Studio Ghibli films in Japanese enormously fun; familiarity with Classical and modern European languages has widened the range of literary treats available to us--not only because we can read some of them in the original tongues, but because we can understand allusions in the works of the far more adept English-speaking writers of the past. 

It saddens me that so many of my students will never enjoy the richness of language, and they won't even know what they're missing. But I do wonder what will happen in a generation or two, when we old fanatics and nit-pickers are gone, and very few American college graduates really understand what they're reading. Even if the second language the 53% of Europeans are speaking according to the Forbes article (in contrast to the 18% of Americans speaking another language) is English, I wonder if in the end they'll actually speak it better than Americans do.

But as Tim Brookes, Alissa Stern, and others who work so tirelessly to foster the survival of truly endangered languages and writing systems have reminded us, some cultures are in imminent danger of losing their linguistic heritages altogether.  We can help them by contributing to their efforts; but we can also do so by reminding ourselves and others that language is a fundamentally human accomplishment. By ignoring its gifts, we diminish ourselves, and the potential impact on our future is problematic--and certainly not promising.

Image credit: Tim Brookes carved the above plaque, which spells out the word for "owl" in Balinese. It was my reward for backing the original Endangered Alphabets Kickstarter campaign. The plaque was photographed in the Burr Oak tree in my back yard, and illustrated the original post on the Farm.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

How We Live and How We Might Live

Morris's Red House, watercolor by Walter Crane

Although it's a relatively fine day (good sun, but chilly in the shade), I'm indoors, having just moved from the fire-warmed living room where I'd been reading all morning. Part of that reading consisted of my new avocation: pornography of the architectural variety.  I'm down to teaching one day a week (a long one, with two classes back-to-back), so I tend to while away my day less frugally than I once did.

I have borrowed as subject and description for this post the title of a lecture that William Morris delivered at Kelmscott House before the Socialist Democratic Federation (Hammersmith branch) on 30 November 1864 (it appeared in Commonweal in 1887). This is not to be confused with his unpublished lecture, "How Shall We Live Then," (1889) although, as always, the sentiments overlap. But I'm absconding with the title for my own purpose, which is to describe the dilemma the Beloved Spouse and I face as we meander toward real retirement and the realities of living a life of reduced means and (thankfully noted) less tsuris. We have led short professional lives by most standards, having only begun to teach full-time in our thirties (him) and forties (me).

But as teaching has become less rewarding and more angst-enducing, the idea of leaving the profession has become inescapably appealing. I would like to point out, to any of my students who might chance upon this blog, that this is not their fault. They are the products, through no failing of their own, of a damaged education system that has reduced them to test-taking automatons and has denied them the most fulfilling aspects of learning how to learn. This is, in turn, the result of an economic system that privileges monetary success above the life of the mind and makes being an educator one of the most frustrating jobs one can hold.

And, as I have noted repeatedly in my more recent posts, living in Texas has become more of a trial than we had ever imagined it would be.

Thus, my essay into living and being is only flimsily connected to Morris's, although my reasons for writing are firmly rooted in his social philosophy: especially in his idea of work. I should also note that in our case "reduced means" doesn't truly mean that we will be poor, in the sense against which Morris raged, and in which many of our fellow retirees find themselves after they either lose their livelihoods (having been made redundant, often because they've grown "too old" for their jobs) or leave on their own despite diminished 401Ks.  Even teachers, who used to be able to count on decent pensions, have been encouraged to choose market-based accounts, gambling on the possibility that the stock market might yield higher returns than the standard, guaranteed annuities of the past. Fortunately for us, my Beloved Spouse chose the latter (unlike many of his cohort) and his pension will allow him to retire early enough to enjoy some time with me. And although I have a small retirement account, I've seen it diminish considerably during the recent market downturn, so we've never counted on it much in our future plans; instead we will make do with his annuity and my Social Security check.

Those plans are, in fact, the real subject of this post.  And the question is not simply about how we live now and how we might have to adjust things for the future; it's also about where we might live, because place is such an important aspect of our concept of the good life.

Thus, I spend inordinate amounts of time surfing the interwebs for affordable locations that might be less philosophically difficult retirement venues, or at least so beautiful that we could deal with dodgy politics a bit more affably than we can here. Using online real-estate sites, I peer voyeuristically into peoples' homes, ever critical of their taste, but always eyeing their rooms for possibilities. The basic criteria involve big sky, deserts or prairies, mountains or oceans, lack of proximity to major thoroughfares, a hospital with available cardiac care (I'm "fixed" but need occasional maintenance), a smallish town, and reachable by children who may be enticed to visit a really great place.

As I mentioned in the last post, western Montana was high on the list, but a recent article in Sunset on the best places to live in the west mentioned Bisbee, Arizona, and Lander, Wyoming--both of which (upon investigation) have much to offer.  So they join the Owens Valley as possibilities, as do some of the university towns in Oregon and Washington (as long as they have enough sunny days per year to stave off my self-diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder).

What I didn't mention last time was what kind of house would work.  The House (which has so far avoided being named) we live in would be a hard act to follow. As problematic as it's been, especially in terms of the amount of work it takes to maintain a 93 year-old antique house, we love this place. And the problem with thinking about leaving it is that any new work or adjustments carry with them the subconscious, if not overt, question of how change would affect the sales value.

Two winters ago, before the mulberry in front was cut down.

Because we live in a relatively desirable area, and if the requests to buy the house (a couple a year) we get in the mail are any indication, we can probably sell it fairly easily. But getting a decent price--one that helps mitigate the 150K we've put into it on top of the mortgage--will depend on the market, and the passion of the prospective buyer.  We knew that this was The House almost as soon as we walked in the front door, despite the gold shag carpet and the doll collection. And the white aluminum siding that hid all the great exterior details. And the Astroturf on the front porch.  I can only imagine what visitors might ask about what we've done: Why isn't there any air conditioning? Why haven't they refinished all the floors? Why did they remove the sheetrock and leave bare shiplap? Why haven't they modernized the kitchen?  Why do they have so many books? Etc.

What I look for in a substitute: Either a log cabin with good wall space or a craftsman-style that hasn't been "modernized." (That means no new cabinets, no granite, no stainless steel, no new fixtures, etc.) Preferably no carpet, but at least wood floors under existing stuff (that hasn't been stuck down). If in town, walking distance to necessities, big enough yard for a garden. If out on land, space and view, possibility of off-grid with not too much investment. Not in a forest, but some trees on property OK. If major work needs to be done, the price has to be low enough that we could afford to do it, even if that means living in the Shasta while work gets done. Ah, and space for the Shasta in the back yard.

In a future post I'm going to sort out the "before" and "after" shots of the last major upgrade (a year ago last summer). Some of the changes were so heart-pleasing for us that they would be hard to leave. But sometimes circumstances just occur that make leaving necessary--as they did for William Morris, who had to give up Red House because it was too far from London, where the work was.  Instead, he found Kelmscott Manor, which inspired some of News From Nowhere.

Frontispiece to News From Nowhere

Kelmscott Manor, 2006

Kelmscott Manor, by May Morris (1862-1938)

The ruminating and searching and discussing will continue for at least another year, by which time we will be getting close enough to a retirement date for the Beloved Spouse to get serious. And the process will probably continue after that, because we'll have time to take the Shasta out to visit prospective venues. During that time we'll probably keep messing with the place, making it more and more of our own, and then having to decide, in the end, if we're really willing to give it up.

Image credits: all images except the one of The House are from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Sheltering In Place

Last summer I spent my first weeks as a quasi-retired educator doing what I called "philosophy in the garden." This involved spending a couple of hours reading Mary Midgley or John Ruskin whilst sitting on comfy chairs out back with the puppies. Sometimes I read aloud to them (which no doubt made folks who walked by in the alley wonder about my sanity; but then, they probably already do), and sometimes I just sat and enjoyed not doing anything productive.

Just this week I came across several articles and/or blog posts about leisure (the sources are recorded in the latest Cabinet post), and revisited John Hodgkinson's Brave Old World for his advice on what to do in November ("Kill Pig"), which took me back to his page on The Idler (to which I used to describe in a digital edition, but it seems to have disappeared). I'd subscribe to the print edition, except that I'm trying to winnow down my stacks of periodicals I can't bear to toss by trying to get at as many as possible online. So I'll just mosey by every once in a while, and read his books. It is, in fact, time to read the chapter on December: "Feast."

And just a couple of days ago, I wrote in the Cabinet about Maria Popova's wonderful page called Brain Pickings, in which she discusses Josef Pieper's book (1948), Leisure: The Basis of Culture. So even if I'm not now hanging about at the bottom of the garden with puppies (they're snoozing here in the study with me), I'm still philosophizing about doing very little in the traditional sense of work.

Given the state of the world at the moment, I might also seem to be hunkering down, trying to stay away from it all.  It's not just the blowing people up and the guns, although that's probably not a bad reason to stay home and out of it, but the sheer idiocy that seems to be taking over in the public sphere.  Donald Trump's ridiculous pomposity; Ben Carson's willful ignorance; everyone else's ideological shortsightedness and terror at the possibility of losing voters if they admit that climate change isn't just a communist plot. 

Thirty years ago I'd be out doing something--volunteering, teaching, trying to combat the Dark Side in imaginative ways. But now I'm not. I'm reading more, writing more, and cooking more, fighting personal battles against household food waste, mouse infestations, dreary days, and (twice a week) treading educational water by teaching and trying to prepare lessons that will engage and inspire. The Beloved Spouse has it much harder, because rather than trying to teach art history to art students, he's trying to teach students to think when they flat out don't want to. So, two years down the line, the plan is for him to retire and for us to do something more enjoyable with the rest of our lives.

And so the decision that faces us is whether to shelter in place (stay here and do the best we can in a part of the world that seems to abhor the life of the mind, but where we have a well-loved daughter and a house), or to move to somewhere, not here. I've written about the fantasies (Living In Interesting Times), but my desires ebb and flow as we weigh the possibilities. For example, for a time we were intrigued by the idea of Montana, but realized that it's too far away from either child and any family, and that we'd be more isolated than we might really want to be. So now the exploration of possibilities has moved west, to eastern Washington State, or perhaps Oregon, where we have family and friends, or even to Owens Valley, should a reasonable place show up when/if we start thinking seriously about any of this. But the ties that bind us here--all the work on the house, the proximity to other family--are pretty compelling, especially when I'm feeling particularly tired, and particularly (mentally) lazy.

This probably seems extremely trivial and self-serving in the moment. But having spent some serious time fighting the good fight, trying to help make meaningful changes, and ultimately achieving only very small victories, I think we might have earned a respite. Some of our (admittedly few) friends feel much the same way, so perhaps these sentiments really reflect a coming of (old) age, or another rite of passage. 

Or, they might simply stem from more than a week of dreary, driving rain, mud, soggy leaves, and post-Thanksgiving capitalist overload.  We did go out over the weekend--but only to buy coffee filters and have a nice lunch-time conversation after not leaving the house for six days. But we didn't participate in any of the buying frenzy that doesn't even wait for the holiday to end. Last Thursday's binge-watching of the original Star Wars films and an appropriately themed Thanksgiving meal with the Daughter, the Boyfriend, and the Dog provided a bit of an anodyne to the weather-related malaise. And that's probably reason enough to tick the "shelter" column on the decision list. By the time we can actually do anything, maybe we'll have built a strong enough argument for one or the other that the final choice won't seem nearly as onerous as it does now.