Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dr. Suzanne Flynn's Visit

This week Dr. Suzanne Flynn is visiting LEX/Hippo in Japan so we have been busy in the office preparing for the various lectures and workshops that she has been involved in. Dr. Flynn is a professor of linguistics and language acquisition at MIT in Boston and also a member of the LEX America Board of Directors. Yesterday she gave a public lecture which was attended by many Hippo members on raising multilingual children (and becoming multilingual adults as well). The session also included a lecture by Dr. Sakai, a Japanese brain researcher on language and the brain, followed by a question and answer session.

I was one of the MCs, along with 3 other interns, and introduced myself and facilitated parts of the session in English, Spanish and a little Japanese. One of the new things I learned was how to thank a speaker and solicit a round of applause from a Japanese audience: "Sakai sensei arigato gozaimashita, mo ichido hakushuo onegai shimasu." (It worked, everyone clapped!)

Unfortunately, I couldn't understand any of Dr. Sakai's lecture in Japanese, even though I wanted to, so I will focus on Dr. Flynn's, which I did understand. In this lecture she outlined 10 principals of language acquisition that sum up her years of research and also embody the Hippo philosophy of language learning. It was interesting to think about her points as they apply to the way that I am learning Japanese right now. One of the things that came up in the question and answer session was how speaking a different language can change one's perception of self-identity, as many of the year-long exchange students have expressed.

I felt a little like this when I was in Mexico, that there was a Stephanie who spoke English and was a university student in Madison, Wisconsin and a little bit different 'Estefani' or 'la güera' (the blond girl) as I was often referred to cariñosamente in Mexico, who spoke (rather broken) Spanish. I think this was because a lot of your self-identity has to do with how you express yourself and interact with others. In Spanish, I wasn't able to express things like sarcasm or wit in the same way that I could in English, so the way that I communicated and interacted with people was a little different. I was a lot more direct and concise and probably smiled and laughed a lot more when I couldn't respond well in words. I still get a little frustrated sometimes when I am trying to express a very complex idea in Spanish, but someone in Japan told me the other day that when I have a conversation with someone in Spanish I get really excited and expressive. I hadn't really thought about this but I know that the tone and rhythm of my voice changes, and maybe that expression is embedded within the language itself, or maybe it's just because I love speaking in Spanish.

Dr. Flynn's response was that this is because language is more than simply words and grammar, and contains a lot of cultural expression as well; especially when someone acquires a language in a natural immersion environment, it's very strongly connected to the culture and people that the language comes from. My own experience supports this completely. Dr. Flynn also mentioned body language, which is intertwined with spoken words when communicating in a certain language. In Japan I have noticed that I automatically bow slightly or nod my head forward when I say things like "hai", "arigato", "yoroshiku onegai shimasu", just like native Japanese people do. I was never taught to do this, but it seems to me that the body motion is almost a part of the word itself, just like the sounds that come from one's mouth, and it comes naturally.


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