Month: April 2020

Slow Down Tools

Ben Slavic once wrote that “the single most-important skill in language teaching is going slowly,” and he’s right: audiologist Ray Hull responded to my inquiry about ideal language speeds with “[f]or an adolescent, spoken speech at around 135 words per minute is perfect for speech understanding, particularly when the student is learning a new language. So, 130 WPM may be even better. It will seem very slow to you, but the central auditory system of the student will appreciate it.” We should note that adult speech is about 170-180 wpm, so…no slow = no go for kids.

Linguist Bill VanPatten also added that clear “spaces” between words are useful, as the learner’s phonological and other systems need clarity.

People speaking too quickly is always a problem for language learners in any context. Luckily, for input outside class, we now have some options.

YouTube has two useful features, both accessed through the gear icon. First, it can generate subtitles. Second, you can slow down the playback speed without changing the pitch. This is a feature I regularly use for learning tunes (because you can hear individual notes without the pitch dropping) and it works wonderfully for watching L2 video. Before COVID, when I occasionally used Spanish YouTube videos, I turned on subtitles and slowed to 80% speed and the kids were happy with that.

(Side note: as an English, Philosophy & Social Justice teacher, I have learned to always put on English subtitles in English-language films. All kids find adult speech too fast, and half of my kids in any class are ELLs who can process writing more easily than fast English speech)

If you watch Netflix through a Chrome browser, you can add the free Language Learning With Netflix extension. This has a whack of cool features. I have two faves:
a. two-language subtitles. I watch & listen in Spanish, read Spanish subtitles, and can read English subtitles when I don’t get the Spanish.
b. slowed playback. You watch the show at 70-90% of original speed (pitch stays the same) so the sound gets much clearer.

I find Spanish Spanish basically incomprehensible– it’s fast, it has slang that Mexicans don’t use, it uses vosotros— so I tried the slow-downer. And guess what? It wasn’t 90% speed or even 80% speed that worked. It was, yup, 70% of standard speed! That is where I could hear most of the words clearly.

Anyway, two good tricks.

Dear White Guys

We white guys basically run much of the world, own even more of it, and have ruined it for a lot of people…but the world is changing, and so, how us white guys should interact with people who question us is changing. There are two reasons to change these interactions:

a. you are a human being and want to treat others like they are too
b. you want to look progressive. Even if it’s just a look, it’s a good look.

I’m 51 and I learned all this the hard way. You can @ me in the comments.

1. Hey. That’s racist! If you hear that from a person of colour, a Black person, or whoever, it’s probably racist. This means…

2. …it’s your job to figure out why, and not the job of person who pointed it out to you. The person who told you hey that’s racist! has heard and experienced racist stuff like 900,000 times in their life, they know what racism is, they know racism better than you do, and they are probably tired of explaining it to white people. After you go and do your reading or discussion, and you still have questions, then you get to ask your interlocutor “so about what I said/did…”

3. That’s sexist! If you hear that from a woman, proceed as for hey that’s racist! Women aren’t stupid, women aren’t habitually liars, and women generally let a lot of dumb stuff slide, so yeah, there is a very good chance it’s sexist. Yes, there are dumb women and women who misread feminism…but your odds of meeting one such are fairly low.

4. “I find that offensive,” Never, ever use this sentence. Why?

A. the issue is not what you find offensive. The issue is what actually is offensive.

B. “offensive” locates displeasure in the speaker’s feelings. Nobody cares about your feelings.

C. “offensive” isn’t respondable-to. What does it mean? How is it offensive? Call a spade a spade: say it’s sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, what have you. I’m a teacher. I don’t tell a kid who says “that’s gay” to “be nice!” I tell him– and it usually is a him– that “saying gay like that makes it sound like gay is bad, and gay isn’t bad.” I also add “that makes you look homophobic. Is that how you want to look?”

D. “I find…” makes you sound like a judge. You aren’t.

Also, as Zeb Brown pointed out years ago, have you noticed that people always say I find that offensive, rather than that offends me? Hmmm…

5. “If we base discussions and judgements around feelings, we aren’t discussing objective reality: we are just talking about the insides of people’s heads. And anyone can say they don’t like anything and anyone can feel any way they want to.” This is a stupid alt-right argument. When eg a woman says “I don’t like that, because it’s sexist,” it is not her feelings that are the main issue. The issue is the sexist words or actions to which the feelings are a response.

6. Just because somebody else says it doesn’t mean you can say it. Yes, rappers use the word nigga constantly, and you loooove rap music, and you have Black friends. You still can’t use that word. You have gay friends? You can’t use fag. A general rule: if we aren’t a member of an oppressed group, we don’t get to use diss words about that group. Yes, you can use these words if you are discussing them: it’s not wrong to say “dude, saying nigger is racist,” but it’s better to say “dude, the n-word is racist when you use it.”

7. You have privilege. Do you know what that is? Here it is: privilege is an unearned benefit. If you are white, you didn’t do anything to be white. You just got handed that card when life was dealing. And because you’re white, you generally don’t have to deal with racism. That’s a benefit. If you’re a man, you didn’t choose to be a man, but you benefit: you don’t have to deal with sexism, or giving birth, or sexist double standards and so on. Relax: nobody’s dumping on you because you have privilege. But you– we— gotta use it wisely. By– at a minimum– not being eg sexist or racist.

Having (any degree of) privilege also doesn’t mean your life has not been difficult. It just means that being white (or male, or straight, etc), has not made your life any more difficult. Again: a working-class white man has less privilege than a rich white man. Being white hasn’t been a problem for the poorer guy, but being poor sure has.

8. Privilege is intersectional. All this means is, privileges interact with systems of oppression and our identities in different ways. A man has gender privilege vis a vis a woman, eg, a man doesn’t have to worry about rape or forced birth by Republican politicians. A middle-class woman has socioeconomic privilege vis a vis a working class man, but he has male privilege compared to her: she will probably have a longer and healthier life, and less stress, and more opportunities than he will, but he will almost never have to deal with slut-shaming, sexual violence, sexist double standards and so on. You are better off being white and gay than Black and gay. Chris Rock notes of white audiences that “none of you would trade places with me, a Black man, and I’m rich.”

9. No, it’s not cool to take other people’s cultural stuff for fun, aka doing cultural appropriation. No, you cannot wear e.g. the Indian/First Nations feathered head-dress. Why?

First, ask an Indian/First Nations person. If they say no, here is why: cos you– we– are part of the white family tree, and people like us fucked Indians/First Nations people over. No, you personally didn’t fuck somebody over. But we still do. So wearing that ___ is a double fuck-you.

Second, a lot of cool culture-specific stuff– like Indian/First nations head-dresses– have to be earned. The head-dress is worn by somebody who has done things like held political office, served a community, gone to war, etc. Going to Burning Man or Coachella does not qualify. Like dreads, cos you’re chill and Rasta, man? Dreads are by and for Black people, and also they make you look like a trust fund douche or ’90s wanna-be hippie.

10. Who can I make fun of? Thank you for the question. The general guide is, we criticise privilege and choice, not inherent qualities. You can have a laugh at

  • yourself, and people just like you
  • people who are objectively more privileged than you (fuck Elon Musk, Republicans, etc)
  • me
  • people who are assholes (eg Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Republicans, religious fuckwits, etc)

Another way to think about this is, are you punching up, sideways or down?

Saying it ironically or satirically? Remember: satire is meant to criticise power, privilege, cruelty and hypocrisy.

11. Are there stupid women, Black people, etc? YES! And sometimes you run into one, and they say “that’s sexist!” or “that’s racist!” For example, on a language teachers’ Facebook group, I shared some cartoons about sexism, some of which I suggested would make for good class discussion. I was pilloried by a Karen who said “these are sexist.” This woman did not seem to understand that a depiction of sexism is not the same as actual sexism. By her “logic,” the feminist classic Thelma and Louise would be sexist, because the film’s characters do sexist stuff and experience sexism.

When this is the case, ask other people from the group what they think.

12. Aren’t there Black conservatives, women who aren’t feminist, etc? YES, absolutely. When a member of an oppressed group takes up the ideas of oppressors, the question we must ask is cui bono?, or, follow the money. Money, as Marx noted, trumps everything (although, as we have seen, Chris Rock disagrees). Somebody like Candace Owens (who parrots Faux News talking points and despises liberals, feminists, Black Lives Matter, etc) is very well paid to do so. One must also compare objective reality (eg, in the US, Black people are overwhelmingly disadvantaged) with the claims of minority douchebags like Owens or Kanye West.

When you hear the claims of an Owens or a West that eg racism can be overcome by individual will, ask, why hasn’t it? There is a reality out there and we can measure and report it.

13. What makes an “ism”, anyway?

A Republican or other Con questioned on race relations will generally say two things: I’m not racist, and constantly discussing racism is hateful and divisive. Both of these illustrate the central fact of racism (and are like, but not identical to, sexism, homophobia, etc): racism is neither a set of bad words nor an attitude, but a system of oppression.

The term “systemic oppression” or “systemic racism” (or any other -ism) means that racism (or whatever) consists in a mix— a system— of language, attitudes, laws, institutional practices, historical views, etc etc which work together to make life miserable for a specific group.

Here is a condensed factual example. In Canada, we are systematically racist against First Nations (FN) people. How?

A. Racist language— chug, nitch, Indian, savage etc.

B. Policing that over-focuses on FN people

C. A court system which makes the 5% of Canadians who are FN over 50% of the prison population.

D. Popular stereotypes: the drunken Indian, the natives who live on welfare, the pre-Colombian “noble savage,” etc.

E. Discriminstion in employment, and systematic underhousing.

F. Systematic underfunding of First Nations schools.

The list goes on and on. This is the system that makes life so awful for so many First Nations people. Whatever your words and your attitudes are, the system is doing its thing. Just because you don’t say “nigger”— or “chug”— doesn’t mean you aren’t participating in (and benefiting from) a racist system.

14. If you wanna see your own privilege, try this. Here are a set of word pairs. For each, figure out which— on average— it would be easier to be. Every choice on the right = one point. Every one on the left = zero points.

  • LGB or straight?
  • Female or male?
  • Black/PoC or white?
  • Working class or wealthy?
  • English learned as adult, or as first lang.?
  • Immigrated to 🇨🇦 or US, or born here?
  • transgender or cisgender?
  • Indigenous/First Nations or settler?
  • Muslim or Hindu, or Christian?
  • Renting or owning?

My score— I am a cis white het man, who was born in Canada with English as a first language, etc, is 9/10 (if I owned poperty it would be 10). A white woman “just like me” would be an 8. A First Nations woman like me would be a 6. The higher your number, the more privilege you have.

15. But it looks like everybody is racist, sexist etc! 😩😩

Yup…but don’t worry, it’s where we are going that matters, not where we’re from. We can unlearn an awful lot, and learn even more. Say you’re white in North America. At least during this lifetime, we are going to benefit from whiteness (ie you and I are at minimum not going to get screwed over by the racist parts of our society). What are our white-person options?

a. Be an active racist eg be in KKK, be a Republican, etc.

b. be a passive racist eg don’t do anything (activism, voting, education, calling your racist friends out) about racism but don’t personally be a dick.

c. be an active anti-racist

If you move from A to B, or from B to C, your and others’ lives are getting better. Nobody wants/expects you to be perfect…but it’s a human imperative to try.

16. Q: What do feminists, Black people, the LBGTQ+ community etc really want?

A: to be treated like others.

I have been working in anti-racism, pro-LBGTQ+ etc circles my entire life, and the end goal of all repeat all social justice movements is, people just wanna be people. Nobody wants “special rights” for gays, or women to hate men, etc. What women and gay ppl want (as nearly as I can tell) is for their differences from others to not be a problem for anyone. This does not mean that women want to, or should, act like any kind of men, or gays like straights. It simply means, what your gender, race, sexual orientation etc is should be an aspect of identity and not a barrier to a fulfilling life.

17. What about when oppressed minorities do/say bad stuff?

Here is some nasty rap from NWA-era Dr Dre:

cos if a bitch try an diss me while I’m fulla liquor/I smack the bitch up, shoot the nigga that’s with her

This is violent and misogynist, obviously. How bad is it? Here are some things to think about

  • is Dre saying this is real? that it should be real?
  • could the staggering powerlessness of Black men be the soil from which this strange plant sprung?
  • is this a description of reality, or is it a verbal game?
  • what does a woman say about this? a Black woman? a white woman? How does this sound different to Black or white people?
  • is this more offensive than the fact that in 2020, Black people were 13% of the US’ population but 38% of its prison population?
  • is this more offensive than Johnny Cash singing I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, or Axl Rose singing I used to love her, but I had to kill her?

Is Dre a violent, misogynistic asshole here? Yes. Is this to be taken as real? No. Would you want your kids to listen to this? Probably not. Is it understandable that a bunch of Black guys would write this and that it would have broad appeal? Absolutely. Was this written 30 years ago in a much more sexist time? Yes. Does NWA get a “pass” because they— unlike, say, Andrew Dice Clay, who made a career of being a douchebag— are Black? Probably, to a certain extent.

You can probably see where this is going, and I’ll put it crudely: the fact that some people in some oppressed groups sometimes act like dicks neither invalidates the/their struggle nor gives them a free pass.

18. But my freedom of speech is being

Gents— and Karens— let’s get something straight. The only thing the US’ First Amendment and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantee you regarding freedom of speech is that the government cannot prevent you from saying or writing anything. That’s it.

The 1st Amendment and Charter do not

a. guarantee anyone freedom from the consequences of speech. If, for example, you are publicly racist, and your boss sees that and thinks, our company is committed to inclusion and diversity, and your name is linked to the company, your boss can fire you. You have a right to speech/writing, but you do not have a right to associate your views with another person or business without their consent. You also do not have the right to potentially harm that person or business’ reputation. Just because you aren’t physically in the office does not mean you aren’t an employee.

b. guarantee anyone a platform. Nobody is required by law to host/distribute/preserve etc your words. With every social media company— all of which are privately owned—you sign terms of service. Break those terms? They can de-platform you. Want a platform? You are free to make your own.

c. allow for unlimited freedom of speech. Almost all speech is regulated, and for good reason. For example,

• You cannot slander or libel people or businesses. • You cannot operate in a profession (eg engineer, lawyer, teacher , doctor) and demean that profession, or lie while practicing your profession. • You cannot yell fire! in a crowded theatre. • Most businesses, all professional organizations, many charities etc have standards of speech and behaviour. These exist to preserve the organization’s reputation, and to make its customer base and employees comfortable and welcome.

The easiest way to summarize this is, nothing is free except what you choose to say or write or record.

19. “We should debate all sides of an issue.”

Uh, not always. Why?

A. Some issues are settled and some ideas are dead or bad. Nazis are bad, period. So is the KKK. So is anti-Semitism. Trans people are real. Gay is not a choice. Human-caused global warming is real. There are facts and science behind all of these. As Greta Thunberg notes when asked her opinion of climate change, “I have the same opinion about climate change that I do about gravity and the laws of physics.”

B. Debating eg “should there be Black and white parts of the US, or an integrated society?” assumes that— like choosing ice cream— both options have equal moral weight. They don’t.

Trans People Facts

Trans ppl get the worst treatment so listen up.

A. Trans ideology. There is no such thing, and if your reading or viewing is far-right bullshit like Ben Shapiro or Faux News, there still is no such thing.

B. “A man can’t have a baby, and a woman can’t have a penis.” This misconception rests on not understanding that sex is not the same thing as gender. Sex = physical body. You can be male, female or be gender-binary. Start here. Gender = to what extent do you feel male, female, neither, or a mix.

Trans: your sex and your gender don’t align.

C. “Trans ideology is a modern idea and trans people are an invention of liberalism.” (There are many variations on this).

First, why would anybody, given the amount of transphobia, want to be trans?

Second, trans people have always existed everywhere. Whether— and how— they are visible has to do with the culture they are/were in. Again, start here.

Third, Caitlynn Jenner.