February 2007 Archives

Authentic Application for "Cathedral Architecture"


When I (and many others) are designing instructional materials (e.g. algebra, nutrition, Spanish) I normally focus on finding "authentic uses" for the material. For instance, a Spanish instructor might focus on how to ask for directions or a nutritionist might focus on being able to accurately interpret food labels.

But a recent project was a quiz to help students in an intro Western Civilization course memorize architecture terms. I love cathedrals, but even I was stumped here.

This is a harder question for the art history because most instructors are NOT in the field for practical purposes (i.e. they do it for the love, not the money). Many instructors may feel their topic is interesting enough for everyone to pay attention. Of course, if that were true, I would be in hot demand for my expertise in Distributed Morphology.

Yet I wasn't ready to give up on the "relevance" angle so for the audience desiring "authentic application" (or the "Why is this relevant?") I give you:

The cocktail party conversation

You may not be interested, but if you enter corporate America, you will encounter someone who has been to France/Spain/Germany/Britain and has absolutely fallen in love with the cathedral. And why not...they are beautiful buildings. Isn't it nice to have something to share in a conversation emergency?

This may sound silly, but this is exactly why my grandmother taught her daughters to watch football...so they could talk with the menfolk in their lives. In this case, it actually means I get to enjoy Penn State Bowl games, and yes it has been a conversation helper in some cases.

Instructional Tip: Provide amusing stories for your students to relay!

Appreciate Western Cultural History

There was a time in Western History when most of the populace were practicing Christians and the cathedral was a key social institution. Understanding the usage for the parts of cathedral helps you understand how Western societies were structured in that time period. For students from rural Pennsylvania, there are likely to be differences from how a cathedral operated to how a small-town church (often Protestant) now operates.

On a related note, the innovation of the cathedral is a reminder that the Middle Ages weren't just a "dark and grungy" period before the Renaissance. The medieval era was a time when major Western social and technological innovations occurred which are still in place today.

Of course this assumes you explain these mechanisms and don't just provide a list of words to memorize.

You may visit a Cathedral...Someday

We associate cathedrals with Europe, but they do exist in many U.S. cities on the East Coast (although some may have slight differences in form). And you may actually get to go to Europe!

Instructional Tip: Maybe it's worth examining local cathedrals as "later innovations".

Building Your Own

In an ideal world of Problem Based (PBL) learning, you would probably get a chance to build or design your cathedral, maybe within a few specific parameters. I know this would probably get the most attention from me. You probably would be learning your parts that way.

However, instructional technologists still haven't solved the ways to build interactive applications quickly or to convince all instructors of their effectiveness. And it certainly is a more time consuming process.

Interestingly, this isn't "authentic" per se (unless we admit that many of us do build shrines of some sort at home), but it is kinesthetic and "active". Sometimes learning should just be fun I think!

What About Beauty?

This is interesting because if you think an item in beautiful, you may be more interested in learning more about it. It does enhance intrinsic motivation. However, there are times when judgments on "beauty" differ.

I do love the cathedral, but I'm not necessarily a fan of other art forms others consider "classics." Saying "It's beautiful" won't motivate me to learn about the "ugly" art forms. However, I do find that learning about the culture behind the art may make it more "tolerabe" and "interesting"...so "relevance" may actually enhance "beauty" in this case.

FCC NOW Paying Attention to Spanish Language TV


One of the benefits of being a minority language is that sometimes the government isn't paying attention. The Washington Post Post IT Tech blog (Frank Ahrens) posted a news story about how the Spanish language television/media companies are under-policed in comparison to their "mainstream" English speaking counterparts.

That is more swearing can go on by Spanish shock jocks and larger vertical monopolies can be built before being investigated for anti-trust. For instance Ahrens notes that Univision, based in Los Angeles is a TV network, three record labels and a radio chain who can garner a 90% share of the Spanish speaking audience in some markets. There must be a conflict of interest in there somewhere.

Ahrens asks if it's a language issue and my answer is "Sure is". Rumor is that the first vulgar reference to female genitalia on the BCC was in Welsh (all thanks to the need to fill in a Welsh-language music show with a Welsh punk band). This is definitely the funnier side of seeing a minority community "pull one over" on the majority.

Oddly though, there are now enough Spanish speakers in the US for there to be serious complaints. Apparently the FCC is deciding if Univision violated their obligation to provide appropriate children's television programming. It appears that Spanish-speaking members of the United Church of Christ do NOT think telenovelas, or the beloved Spanish language soap opera, should count. I have to wonder...did Univision mean the ones set in the 18th century Spanish colonies? Maybe they were considered more "educational".

Paula Deen: "Hard Boil" vs "Hard Ball" Merger


Even if you don’t like to cook, the Food Network is always entertaining for listening to speech patterns of the hosts, especially Georgia gal Paula Deen. Although she now lives in Savannah, she actually grew up and lived in Albany Georgia in the the southwest for about 40 years, so I’m not sure which Georgia accent she’s using. I suspect it’s the Albany accent.

In any case, the Paula Deen dialect has monophthongization so that boil /bojl/ and oil /ojl/ in standard English becomes /bɔl/ and /ɔl/. Similarly, pie which is /paj/ in Standard English is /pa/ or “apple pah” in the Deen dialect.

In fact, the monophthongization is so pronounced that she’s merged boil and ball (also /bɔl/). So during a toffee making demo, she had to explain that the toffee had to come to the hard ball stage (like candy), not the hard boilstage (like soup). It reminds me that historical linguists can sometimes date a phonological merger by looking for glitches like these.

And yes, apparently the South is still preserving the /ɔ/ phoneme. In standard English, this is starting to be lost, even east of the Mississippi.

Will Project Runway Make German Fashionable?


Like many otherwise sensible adults, I have caught the reality show bug, especially contest shows like Project Runway with host and former supermodel Heidi Klum. She looks good and definitely has a “cute” German accent.

When contestants (aspiring fashion designers) are asked to leave, Heidi hugs each one and says Auf Wiedersehen. It’s become such a signature that Bravo TV now asks viewers to shout “Auf” their thoughts (Auf = “out” in German).

This leaves me wondering...will German become a “fashionable” language like Italian or Spanish? When I was growing up, German was mostly associated with Nazis or mad scientists and the language, as my mother once commented, was very “useful for watching WWII movies”. The stereotypical “accent” was meant to be “harsh” and “authoritarian”...hardly the stuff of romantic fantasies of travel and glamour. It’s no wonder that when Die Hardwas looking for a good European terrorist archetype, they went with Hans, the psychotic German superthief!

As for learning German, unless you were stationed at a German military base or conducted business in Germany, it didn’t seem as useful to me as Spanish or French would be, especially since the former West Germany was one of the countries willing to teach their children English (and we didn’t worry about East Germany so much).

But since then, German has been making a comeback. Supermodels and athletes like Claudia Schiffer, Katerina Witt, Heidi Klum and Boris Becker have shown ... there ARE good looking people in Germany and that German accents are not always “harsh”.

I think the new “romantic” stereotype may be gaining ground because in the romantic historical thriller The Illusionist, set in pre-WWI Vienna in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Edward Norton (the hero) created his own cute German accent (sweet). It’s actually a return to the pre War era of Marlene Dietrich and Little Women (remember that Jo married a German emigré) when German was as “romantic” as French or Latin icons are today.

I don’t know if enrollment in German classes are increasing yet, but it is nice to see that our perceptions of German are evolving beyond the WWII movie.

Read the Cognitive Daily Blog!


I just found this blog which reports cognition studies at

If nothing else, it's interesting to think about the neural wiring for activities we assume are "automatic".

Language ≠ Thought


One of the great philosophical debates of cognition (and science fiction) is whether language is identical to higher thinking or just a way to encode thought. One version of the theory of language as thought is called the “Strong Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” which essentially claims that the structure of your native language’s grammar and vocabulary exclusively controls how you “categorize” the world.

A classic “example” Whorf cited was Hopi which did not use “tenses” such as English has. In the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, this would mean that these speakers might not be able to distinguish the time of events in the same way someone speaking English would.

However, you may be surprised to learn that many modern theoretical linguists do NOT equate language with “thought”. That is, many theoretical linguists feel that many key aspects of thought are outside of language. Some examples are listed by Stephen Pinker in his book The Language Instinct, but here are examples of what I have found.

In terms of the Hopi example, discussions with native speakers did show that they could distinguish past, present and future events (and even have some grammatical cues for them).

Grammar Bypassing Meaning

Many people assume that grammar represents "thought", but there are many counterexamples to this. Two include:
  • The word for "car" in French can be either masculine l'auto or feminine la voiture.
  • English lacks the hodiernal past tense (past events happening today), yet English speakers can distinguish past events happening today from those which happened before yesterday.

Visuals Bypassing Language

Some information can be stored in "picture form" only and may be hard to translate into words.
  • I can drive home almost automatically, but have to “think” about how to give written directions in words. My internal driving instructions are not stored as a set of linguistic procedures but in some other format (visual, kinesthetic?). And I remember very few road names around town, just at which building to turn.
  • I’ve been to enough shows in Impressionist art that if I see a new work by Monet, I’m often able to identify him as the artist before seeing a description. However, I absolutely cannot describe in words or even pinpoint which combination of colors/strokes I’m using as cues.

Other Senses Bypassing Language

Ever try to describe a new flavor to someone? It’s almost not worth the bother. Yet, you can probably “taste” your favorite flavor of ice-cream.

Here are two way's to describe "cumin". I wonder which works better?

  1. One of the spices found in taco mix
  2. Spicy and nutty and almost sweet

There are no Words for:

Intuition Bypassing Language

I think we’ve all had that sense that “something’s wrong” or “doesn’t sound right” but could not describe what made you think that.

Language does have some influence on thought, but even so, it is possible for thought to go beyond the confines of the target language.

An interesting case is that Arabic distinguishes “aunt” (mother’s sister) from “uncle’s wife” whereas English only has the one word “aunt.” Yet divorce has actually given English speakers access to the distinction that Arabic already defined even if you have “no words” to describe it. If your mother’s sister gets divorced from her husband, it’s clear that she remains your “aunt.”

But what happens if your uncle divorces his wife and remarries? Do you have two aunts, one aunt? Is length of marriage a factor. Does having a cousin from either marriage count? Remarriage after all is why we have the famous question - “Do I have to call you Mommy now?”

What impact does this have on education

1. I think most educational specialists a priori assume that what you teach is somehow stored as words. Thus, it is assumed that instruction contains words which are “supplemented” by images or simulations. Yet, is that always valid? When it is valid?

An interesting case is learning new software. Newer users may desperately want a step by step users manual, but more technically adept users may be just as comfortable clicking buttons and seeing what happens.

Do we need a manual to help users or is it too much of a “crutch”? I confess I still believe in the manual for new users, but also know that a manual cannot ever represent the full capabilities of a technology (nor can it be used all the time if you want to gain any proficiency). Somehow a user must transition from manual (verbal) to manual (non-verbal) usage.

2. We have seen many language campaigns where alternate words are suggested in order to “change” people’s thinking. But do the campaigns change attitudes or must attitudes/reality change before language shift truly takes hold? When I was a child, the notion of a “Congresswoman” was almost a joke among some older men. Now that we have many more women in Congress, no one thinks twice about the term, and it was certainly necessary to designate the title “Madam Speaker” for Nancy Pelosi.

You could argue that you might need a term like “Congresswoman” to imagine a different reality, but some queens of Egypt like Hatshepsut were perfectly able to “imagine” the concept of "independent female rule" - they just co-opted the preexisting male terms and went about their business of suppressing rival opposition and administering the government. Language is powerful, but maybe not as powerful as imagination.