Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Slang: Beyond a knee-jerk reaction

Here is a snippet of what was going on in a Malay language classroom. At the beginning of one particular tutorial discussion, the compound word air [water] mata [eye], or tears in the lyrics of a Malay song, entitled Sahabat (Friend, performed by Najwa Latif and featuring Sleet and Shamkamarul) was highlighted for discussion.

Before the lesson could proceed to the next Malay compound selected for discussion, one female student raised a question, “Isn’t air mata boyfriend?”  This knee-jerk reaction in foreign language learning indicated that Malay learners at tertiary level may also be interested in the slangy meanings, i.e. boyfriend or girlfriend beyond the dictionary meaning of air mata. In terms of language pedagogy, the learning diversion was an exciting topic to some male students who began to show a heightened interest in the morpheme.

The learning episode makes an interesting discussion of slang words in this blog post, not least because many young people incorporate slang in verbal communication when they make reference to a romantic partner. Actually, mata air, the inverse of air mata (tears) is the slang for romantic partner in Malay, which may imply that a boyfriend, or girlfriend has the potential to provoke tears.

                                        Mata air (image taken from http://travellermeds.blogspot.sg/2013/08/pemandian-air-panas-mengeruda-soa-ngada.html

In Standard Malay, the word mata air has a dictionary meaning which is spring, or water source. Reflecting further on the meaning in mata air may suggest that the reason for tears to be co-opted into the slang has to do with (erratic) emotional reactions that may come with maintaining a relationship. 

Turning to English, the slang for the same reference is associated with a popular word often uttered in American movies and television programs, namely chicks. From a second speaker viewpoint, the slang chicks may well be referring to small and cuddly qualities, reflecting further a functional aspect of the relationship in the particular speech culture. I welcome alternative explanations as the slangy meanings of chicks in American English. 
                                       Image taken from http://www.jackasscritics.com/movie.php?movie_key=557
Interestingly, the slangy chick has established itself as a force to be reckoned with in literature studies. Reflecting a particular literary genre, the term chick-lit is coined for writings about women of all ages. It is an indisputable fact that chick-lit has received considerable amount of media and academic attention across the globe (cf. Donadio, 2006). Among others, Indigeneous Australian writer, Anita Heiss' work, Not Meeting Mr Right and Avoiding Mr Right are regarded as significant works of chick-lit (Ommundsen, 2011).

During my undergraduate years, my peers co-opted the Cantonese word vegetable [choy] as the slang word for a potential boyfriend or girlfriend. Due to the multiple uses of this slang in Hong Kong drama and movies, the Cantonese morpheme remains a robust slang currently cutting across different types of speech situations. The slangy use of vegetable as romantic partner is also true among young speakers of Southeast Asian Mandarin.

Recently, vegetable or 菜 cài has become a slang word in Taiwanese Mandarin. The Mandarin 'vegetable' was used as slang in the interview between a host and a famous Taiwanese actress on television, as she replied to the local host, “You are not my vegetable” [ni bu shi wo de cài...] to reject the tongue in cheek offer from the male host as her boyfriend. 

Along the green vein, so to speak, many fruit names such as apple, banana, cucumber, and grapes are part of the descriptions for referring to certain human characteristics in English (Sew, 2014). The derivation of human references based on vegetables and fruits may have started as slangy references before the full acceptance and common use of the meanings in verbal communication.
There are several reasons for speakers to include slang as part of their utterances in communication. Peer-group bonding, or aping may be a reason for the use of choy when a young speaker is chatting with his friends casually. Peer-group identification or the desire to connect with her clique underpins my Chinese student's interest in using mata air as slang when she interacts with her Malay friends. One study reports that the use of slang is a self-protecting strategy for interaction in certain Malay speech community (Noriah & Norma, 2006). In this instance, slang becomes a masking tool in face-to-face communication.

In claiming that texting occupies an important position among youngsters, Deborah Tannen has noticed that young people prefer a digital text to a phone call, which is considered to be intrusive (McLaughlin, 2010). As a typical semiotic culture in using social media, inserting slangy lingo in electronic text augurs well with texting as an intimate form of communication for young people. For example, Eva Lam (2004) has studied the digital records of two female chat room users and noticed that certain texts contained hybrid phrases combining English and Cantonese. Lam's digital data such as open laugh mei (are you kidding) and hate 4 nei (hate you forever) are slangy digital exchanges. 

Ontologically speaking, our mind may be more poetic and capable of making hybrid connections to many abstract, or metaphorical notions derived from the original linguistic meanings when we operate digitally. The medium of communication is a relevant factor contributing to slang production because it is easy to text slangy morphemes via a smart phone, or utter slangy references face-to-face than to spell them out in print for mass distribution (Sew, 2010).

The inclusion of an alternative lingo within the electronic discourse runs parallel to the use of slang as a pragmatic diversion in oral communication. It is logical to assume that young netizens' construction of semiotic codings while interacting with each other, as a form of personal texting in the digital spaces, may be the underlining pragmatic reason for online advertisements to include hybrid Chinese expressions and phrases that are different from the standard grammar (Feng & Wu, 2007).

We may equate mata air in Malay with chicks in American English, 菜 or choy in Cantonese, or cài in Taiwanese and Southeast Asian Mandarin as the slangy lingo of young speakers, although chicks is limited to a female reference. (Perhaps, cock may be the English slang word referring to the male counterpart). 
Readers who know any slangy words communicated in the same way as mata air, chicks, or choy are invited to share their collection of slang words, as well as their reasons for making use of the slang words in daily communication.

Donadio, R. (2006). The Chick-Lit Pandemic. The New York Times, 19 Mar. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/19/books/review/19donadio.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Feng, J.W., & Wu, D. (2007). Cultural value change in mainland China's commercial discourse. In Shi-xu (Ed.), Discourse as cultural struggle (pp. 73-90). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Lam, W.S.E. (2004). Second language socialization in a bilingual chat room: Global and local considerations. Language Learning & Technology 8(3), 44-65. http://llt.msu.edu/vol8num3/lam/default.html

McLaughlin, J. (2010). To text or not to text: Even young people don't know the answer. Inside Fordham. http://www.fordham.edu/campus_resources/enewsroom/inside_fordham/december_6_2010/news/to_text_or_not_to_te_77749.asp

Noriah Mohamed, & Norma Baharom. (2006). Pembentukan kata dalam slanga lelaki gender ketiga. In Paitoon Chaiyanara et al. (Ed.), Bahasa: Memeluk akar menyuluh ke langit (pp. 126-171). Singapura: Universiti Teknologi Nanyang.
Ommundsen, W. (2011). Sex in the global city: Chick-lit with a difference. Contemporary Women's Writing 5(2), 107-124.

Sew, J.W. (2010). Persembahan@Media.com. Kuala Lumpur: Universiti Malaya Press.
Sew, J.W. (2014). Going bananas. Grammar Gang, 1 February.  http://thegrammargang.blogspot.sg/2014/02/going-bananas-with-green-tomatoes.html

Jyh Wee Sew
Centre for Language Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, National University of Singapore

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Games for language teaching and learning


Following on from Jyh’s post about the play museum, I thought I’d write about how we can use games in language teaching and learning. 

As a language teacher in Portugal in the 1990s, there were lots of games I used with my students. One favourite was the grammar auction, where students had an amount of (imaginary!) money and had to bid for sentences. If the sentence was correct, they doubled their money; if it was ungrammatical, they lost their money. Fortunes were made and lost in the space of a lesson! 

Another favourite activity was picture pairs, where cards represented pairs of words and pictures. For example, a picture of an umbrella was matched by the word ‘umbrella’ on another card. All the cards started off face down, and students could turn over two cards at a time in order to find a perfect pair. These cards could be difficult for the artistically challenged teacher to make, but fortunately there were several good books of grammar games with photocopiable activities. Two very useful  books were Penny Ur’s Grammar Practice Activities and Mario Rinvolucri’s Grammar Games. There were others whose names I’ve forgotten, but perhaps you’d like to share your ideas in the comments box below?

Another game was snakes and ladders, in which students threw a dice to go round a board and answer questions on aspects of English grammar. If they answered wrongly when their counter was on the head of a snake, down they went to the snake’s tail a few rows below. However, if they answered correctly at the foot of a ladder, they could go a long way up the board.

We also played dominoes, with words and definitions, or pictures and written words, on different domino rectangles. And of course, we played a lot of bingo, with numbers and words. A
photo by Julia Miller
slightly less lugubrious variation on the word game hangman was the spelling shark, in which students had a limited number of opportunities to guess the letters that made up a word. If they weren’t quick enough, and didn’t guess the word in number of chances available, the stick figure on the whiteboard walked off a cliff and fell into the mouth of a hungry shark.  The number of chances increased if the teacher was feeling generous!

photo by Julia Miller
With very young students, musical colours was a winner. The children danced around to an English song, and when the music stopped they had to stand on a large piece of paper in the colour called out by the teacher. We also did this activity with shapes.

Many games were enjoyed by students of all ages. However, some adult learners and parents of younger students worried that games were not a ‘serious’ learning activity. Their fears were unfounded, as students in my classes were motivated by the games and did well in exams. 

Although, as a teacher, I spent a lot of time preparing materials, these games could be used again and again, and brought a lot of pleasure to my students, while at the same time stimulating them in their language learning. Nowadays, of course, there are so many opportunities for online language games too. What are some of the language learning games and websites that you like best?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Playing in Singapore

Currently, there is a worldwide movement acknowledging the importance of play in the development of children. Playeum, or The Play Museum places several play stations in an enclosure emulating the concept of museum without walls. The aim is to provide multi-disciplinary cultural experiences for families and such a concept is well-received because Playeum has found its sponsorship in major cities.

                                  Parents and children collaborating at the pictorial wall

According to the organizer's flyer, Playeum has found its way to Melbourne through ArtPlay Arts Grant in 2011, won a Traiblazer Award presented at the British Museum, London, in 2010, and earned a Whitmore Drawing Inspiration Award, London, in 2009. In Singapore, Playeum became a reality at Tampines Central Community Complex, on 23 February 2014. It was a well-organized event attended by many parents and close-knit family members along with young children.
                                  Playeum at Tampines Central Community Complex Feb. 2014

There are many play stations set up for children to create, innovate, shape and design with confidence. Some of the playful activities included drawing on a large pictorial wall, using flour to mold various shapes with plastic casts, assembling hand-made designs on cards as part of the creative display for the wall mounted on the stage, and running through a maze of cloths to draw on the paper found in selected panels.

Designing on a T-Shirt is another interesting play form that offers much scope for creativity. Young children were captivated by the task. Some put their hard work to practical use by wearing the shirt immediately after they had put their heart and sweat into the designs.
                                          Molding with flour was a captivating activity at Playeum
The Guest-of-Honor, Mr. Heng Swee Keat, Minister of Education in Singapore, was present at the Community Centre. In his speech, he informed parents that unstructured play is an important part of a child’s life. At present, schools in Singapore are also putting emphasis on the EAGLES Award that speaks of students' leadership achievements as an integral part of holistic education. EAGLES stand for Edusave Award for Achievement, Good Leadership and Service which is awarded to Singapore students based on their co-curricular activities and contribution to community services over a one-year period.

At the Community Complex, many parents picked up useful tips from experts who shared some of their observations from studying children at play. One panelist shared her findings that all children wanted to be with their parents as indicated in their narratives for the pictures they drew, which always contain a participating parent event though the parents were not made visible in the picture. Another expert noticed that a child might develop a routinized feeling towards extracurricular classes  that they are enrolled in if they are not provided with their own play time. Going to a music lesson, for example, is not the same as playing the instrument on their own and recognizing their particular strength in the musical genre.
                                          A sense of satisfaction: wearing a self-designed T-shirt

More importantly, an expert also informed that pre-school children lacking drawing ability may indicate a lack of confidence due to the fear of drawing something incorrectly. The resolution is simply to encourage the child to draw openly according to her own view. Confidence would eventually develop from the drawing task. Another expert reminded parents that it is acceptable to have play-talk with young children as a form of bonding. Conversation need not always be a question-answer formulaic sequence. Questions may lead to more questions as a form of interactivity between parents and children.

The message is clear from Playeum that as part of a normal childhood, children must be given the space to explore with colors, glue, flour, paper, ribbon, cloth, straws, etc., not least because such behavior might not be readily available nor would it be a welcome way for some children to spend time at home. The organizers might have generated the realization that it is alright for children to make a mess during play and have fun through the experience even though there is no practical outcome simply because such activities are part and parcel of the personal development in childhood.
I still remember how American television programs such as Sesame Street and The Electric Company enhanced my own command of alphabetical compositions and counting in English. Puppet characters like the Count, Cookie Monster, Ernie and Big Bird successfully reinforced my English counting and spelling that I painstakingly learned in primary school with plenty of fun via rhythmic beats and melodious tunes.

Playeum reminds me that, despite a nightmarish experience in primary school, my language development was rescued by means of playful methodology such as mimicking a cartoon's words, or aping the puppet characters' pronunciation through pseudo-personification. The joy of watching and listening to English on television was all the more important because English as a subject was only spoken occasionally during contact time for a total of 4-5 hours a week many decades ago. One might recall the mimicking effort of a three year-old girl learning to sing in formal Mandarin phrases while dancing in front of the television according to the Chinese music video (Sew, 2013). 

Readers of this blog entry are welcome to share their experiences of playing or playful activities that have contributed to their language or personal development.

Further references

Playeum http://playeum.wordpress.com/

Sew, Jyh Wee. (2013). Sing to read. Grammar Gang. http://thegrammargang.blogspot.sg/2013/08/sing-to-read.html

Jyh Wee Sew
Centre for Language Studies
Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
Kent Ridge Campus, National University of Singapore

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Immediately on Top

Year 2014 is the year of the horse in the Chinese Zodiac. One word that revolves around the concept of horse in Chinese, English and Malay is horsepower. As a specific value, horsepower is a common unit of measurement for mechanical power. The horse notion is iconically prevalent in horsepower in some other languages, such as /马力; mǎ (horse) lì (power)/ in Mandarin, or /kuasa [power] kuda [horse]/ in Malay. A short discussion on iconicity is available in Sew (2005).
                                     image taken from http://thedesigninspiration.com/photos/horsepower/

Cataloging lexical compounds between Chinese, English and Malay for a contrast of morphosyntactic variation makes a typical comparison. The morpheme horse is at the initial position of the English and Chinese lexical composition in contrast to the final position of the Malay compound. In terms of lexical combination, the Malay bipartite compound kuasa kuda  exists in an opposite combinatory to horsepower and /马力/ in Mandarin. 

In the remainderof this blog post, the focus is on the Chinese characters horse and top. / shàng/, which initially denote on top of a running horse, is currently an adverb meaning immediately. Jim Gibney (2011), who teaches English in China, observes that /mashang/, which literally means 'at horse speed', turns out to be 'eventually' when it comes to getting repair work done for his building.

In the visual representation below, the idiomatic /mashang/ combines with two other Chinese characters have 有 and presents 礼 to denote a wish that is synonymous to receive gift immediately. From a semiotic viewpoint, the visual representation depicts a gift (written with the character fortune) sitting on top of equine as the main component of /mashang/. If iconic symbolization may be part of cultural semiotics (Sew, 2005), the red paper cutting represents an original aspect of /mashang/.

In Chinese culture, apart from material objects, gift as a cultural concept may refer to the money offered to the host of a wedding or birthday banquet (see the Mandarin skit illustrating the plight of a married Chinese couple who hatched a plan for throwing a 10th anniversary wedding banquet as a strategy to make some quick money in Chun Wan 2014, http://www.chun-wan.com/). Receiving gifts is a double-edged sword, as it may be interpreted as bribery, although it is a cultural practice in many parts of the Chinese-speaking world for establishing guang 关 shi系 (relationship), or networking in a cultural-specific corporate world. The delivery of hampers among business associates normally peaks during the month before Chinese New Year in Singapore and Malaysia.

                                      Image taken from http://www.fudan.org.cn/archives/20119/mashang

Interestingly, there is a reversal of meaning change in the pragmatics of /mashang/. Diachronically, the horse character // and top character // undergo the process of semantic bleaching becoming less equine- and top-like in //. Semantic bleaching is related to grammaticalization - a process in which a lexical word loses its original meaning in time. In terms of diachronic grammar, many claim that grammaticalization is unilateral, i.e. a one way development in which a full lexical word becomes more grammatical gradually. There are others who do not subscribe to the unilateral direction of grammaticalization. This post merely recounts a usage-based situation in which a grammaticalized word regains its original lexical meaning.
For illustration and comparison of Chinese wishes in the real world  that begin with /mashang/, Table 1 contains two types of wish shared verbally during Chinese New Year in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore and Malaysia. The first type is the immediately-have-thing wish such as immediately own money, house, and car. The second category, in contrast, is the immediately-be-in-a-state wish including immediately be prosperous, immediately be lucky, and immediately be happy.

Mandarin wishes
Hanyu Pinyin
ma shang you qian 
(Tho, 2014)
Get rich immediately (Tho, 2014)
ma shang you fang
(Tho, 2014)
Own a house immediately
(Tho, 2014)
ma shang you che [hao] (Tho, 2014, brackets mine)
Obtain a car [licence plate] immediately (Tho, 2014, brackets mine)
ma shang cái
Strike a fortune immediately
ma shang hǎo yùn
Become lucky immediately
ma shang xin
Blessed with happiness immediately

Table 1: Select Chinese New Year Greetings in Mandarin

The year 2014 offers an immediate opportunity for the horse and top characters to spring into life, as it were, via a zodiac-based fortification in the semantics of wishing repertoire invoked as a face-to-face cultural practice. Both characters /mashang/ reverberate an on-top-of-the-horse meaning because the immediately-wishes in Table 1 are not commonly shared with each other in Chinese New Year yet become relevant and popular in conjunction with the ushering in of the year of the horse.

After knowing that /mashang/ is used to wish for something immediately, or get into a wonderful state immediately, we may append many things or states that are desirable for listeners in our verbal interaction. A well-tailored wish in the year of the horse will definitely enhance one's CQ (cultural intelligence) immediately, so to speak. The scope that follows the immediately-wish is definitely diverse ranging from good health, youthfulness, longevity, pregnancy, daughter, son, or promotion for everybody in accordance to one's preference(s).

Data base and work consulted
Gibney, Jim. (2011). What ma shang really means. Chinadaily.com.cn  http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/mychinastory/2011-12/26/content_14327802.htm
Sew, Jyh Wee. (2005). Iconicity. In P. Strazny (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Linguistics (pp. 487-488). New York: Routledge.
__________. (2014). Spring in other dialect. Grammar Gang. http://thegrammargang.blogspot.sg/2014/01/spring-in-other-dialect.html
Tho, Sin Yi (2014). Cheeky equine greetings of the Horse 2014. Rightways: Sowing the seeds to success. http://rightwayssuccess.blogspot.sg/2014/01/cheeky-equine-greetings-of-horse-2014.html

Jyh Wee Sew
Centre for Language Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
Kent Ridge Campus, National University of Singapore