Words, phonemes and Wordle

One great use of words is to hide our thoughts.
Thus spake Voltaire.

One great use of quotations in translation is to hide the original. That is what I say. My web search skills must still be in need of improvement. I have not found the original French yet. Any light anyone can shed on the matter would be much appreciated.

I am now contemplating words from a different perspective. This is partly because I am developing a tailor-made approach to teaching English to a Mandarin native. She is 22, has a fairly good grasp of basic to intermediate English, but needs to improve her vocabulary, her pronunciation, reading skills, listening skills, and general conversation. I should mention that I know no Mandarin, and indeed, I am generally in awe of anyone who masters a language which uses a non Roman alphabet (especially if it is not their mother tongue).

Niu Niu (name chosen by her mother to make it easier for Westerners) is also extremely intelligent. I am treating her more or less like a highly absorbent sponge. Occasional wringings are called revision in teaching circles, I gather. I am not a trained teacher, but having recently learned quite a bit of a language new to me until three years ago (Portuguese) I feel close enough to the frustrations involved to be able to impart something of value to Niu Niu. I also need to try to see things from her perspective, and build on what she already knows.

In this context, conveying the myriad sounds in English and how these are graphically represented (words, phonemes) seems equally important to me as the meanings we assign to them. Look at this, for example:

Rice, rise, rises, rising, risen, raising, raisin, resin, reason, reasoning, ratio, ration, rationing, rational, rationalize (also: -ise!), rationalization.

Perceiving the phonetic differences between this fairly random string of words, how to produce these sounds effectively, their graphic representation (spelling), what parts of speech each word is, their meaning, how to use them in a sentence, not to mention synonyms, antonyms, and where applicable, the prepositions which accompany such words: all these things constitute an holistic approach. This is one approach I have decided to integrate into what I am discovering Niu Niu needs to know to master the English language. And, I hope, I am making it fun. (Having fun improves retention of new information.)

You would think that as a translator for almost a quarter of a century I would have a handle on the words in my mother tongue by now. The truth is that I have taken them all for granted for too many years. Is this the linguistic equivalent of sinning “in thought, word, and deed”? Perhaps so. It might, stripped bare, also reveal gross negligence on my part. I have neglected to acknowledge the abundance of richness contained in our every utterance, the letters we write, our contributions to social networks and even musings such as this one. I have also, it seems neglected to explore fully the conceptual interconnectness of a language in particular, and the concept of language as a whole. I am not wriggling out of this confession by saying that perhaps I have been too busy translating all these years to notice. I am merely saying that when I stopped to smell the roses, my nose had to do considerable overtime.

None of what I am saying is original. I am simply rearranging what I have learnt from from far greater linguists than I. It should also be said that I could have made a far more erudite account of my recent thoughts. The point, I suppose, is that I am really excited about this rediscovery.

I am also excited about something which may seem passé to many: Wordle, which you can play with for free here. Click on the “Create” tab and start creating your own word cloud. I used it to find the salient words (and the concepts behind them) in a number of articles and reading material I was preparing for Niu Niu’s lessons. The new collocations which arise from this apparent jumble are interesting on a conceptual level. I also ran a number of my own blogs through the machine, and took screenshots of them. It might sound child-like, and so what if it is? I do wish this Wordle thing had existed when I was a child. A piece of paper, twelve coloured pencils and a blunt pencil sharpener were quite inadequate to the task back in the semi-Dark Ages, for your information. I am going to Wordle this once I have finished, and post the screenshot it as a page here on my blog. You could also Wordle this article – and make your own. Then see how different it is to mine. Guaranteed, it will be.

The other exciting thing, which seems such a great learning tool for just about anyone is Thinkmap’s Visual Thesaurus. I should mention that no-one is paying me to say these things. I am simply sharing! Now, that cute little spider diagram in the top right hand corner of their screen is the kind of thing that I and fellow walking dictionaries around the world “see” in our minds all the time. My interconnecting dots, or nodes, are more colourful, bigger, and have a drawn-by-hand feel to them. My “spiders” are also messier. But essentially, they share the same structure as this website’s examples. What is amazing to me is that someone, or a group of someones, has conceived of a system to computerise it all. Yay!

Off I go to Wordle this. 🙂


The word in bold appeared in the previous post.

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