Thursday, December 26, 2013

Snark/asm and Second (3rd, 4th,...) Language Learning

For the past few months, I've been trying to learn Portuguese. It is definitely one of the hardest things I have done in a long time. I use interactive websites. I write in elementary grammar books. I listen to podcasts. I even try reading the news and books in Portuguese. Acquiring even the most basic conversational skill has been a painfully slow process. Despite keeping at it everyday, I can make only a few full sentences-- nothing in past tense or conditional or the million other tenses Portuguese has. As someone who is almost a doctor in the English language, it feels so odd to me not to be able to craft complex sentences or find the right vocabulary for the ideas I want to express. I haven't given up yet, though.

The reason I continue to fight it out is partially because I want to be able to converse with my boyfriend's friends and family, but even more so because I've had positive encouragement. My significant other will let me ask him one million questions about the language. He'll sit there and help me try to pronounce words. If I message him in Portuguese, he'll answer me back and show me the correct way to say what I was trying to say. He does this all with patience and kindness, and he reminds me how far I've come. At a birthday party, his family friends made me feel proud of how much I was catching on. One of my best friends is also learning Portuguese, though she is much more advanced than I am, and she also consistently reminds me that I've learned a lot and celebrates my small victories. Even online, when I chat on with native speakers, they never put down my poor grammar or the length of time it takes me to construct a thought. They are all supportive. This has made it easy to learn.

I contrast this with my attempts to learn Greek as an adult. My father is a Greek immigrant and several of my family members and close family friends speak Greek. I've been to Greece twice. I thought it was important to learn the language. The problem is that whenever I tried to speak Greek, I was met with sarcasm or playful mocking. The first time I went to Greece, my cousin would poke fun at me every time I spoke, whether my accent was incorrect or not, simply because I was an American struggling to speak the language. The second time I went to Greece, my grandmother was the only one who encouraged others to speak Greek to me in an attempt to help me learn the language, but she didn't help much with the spoken aspects. At home, my dad made no effort to encourage my Greek learning, even after I dished out a large fee for Rosetta Stone. After a while, I just didn't want to try anymore. No one would engage me. The learning process felt solitary. There was no one to practice with, and as I already felt self-conscious, the playful jests made me not want to try, even when there was.  

Sass doesn't belong in feedback to student writing. 

I spent the first five years of my life in Brooklyn, NY, grew up in Jersey, relocated to Queens, and then returned to Jersey again. I was raised by a native Staten Islander and a Greek transplanted in Brooklyn. Needless to say, I am fluent in sarcasm and teasing. I admit that I will often tease my students when they ask seemingly obvious questions, but now more than ever, I see that there is a time and place for it, and I am trying to train myself to act accordingly.

Learning a new language outside a formal educational settings has really helped me empathize with the plight of students who are learning English or even just learning to craft better Standard American Written English/Academic English/whatever fancy term you want to use to describe the English of the socioeconomic elite. It's become obvious to me that if we want students to learn, we have to tone down the sarcasm and the playful mocking.

The worst case I ever saw was on a student's paper from a law professor. A student was proposing a thesis statement for a research paper, and the professor had written things like "REALLY?????????!?!?????? Are you even trying? Can you think? Oh, so X, Y, Z happened? Really?" in a paragraph long email of harsh sarcasm that addressed his vague, overly general thesis statement. While I guessed that this professor was just offering a bit of tough love, her comments made the student feel incapable of performing the assigned task. They completely alienated him and made him feel far beneath the average student. He didn't want to ask her questions. He didn't feel playfully challenged. He felt defeated and didn't want to write anymore.

I also saw a professor who demanded that his student attend the writing center because he had a slew of grammar issues, which the professor guessed were a result of learning English as a second language. The professor thought he was being encouraging by writing snarky comments, then sending the student for extra help instead of failing him. However, the student's native language was English, and the professor's list of things to work on (which, again, he thought was encouraging) only served to make this student feel stupid and incapable of correcting what were really just small surface-level grammatical errors. He could have learned so much more if the professor just took the time to explain and perhaps actually let him play around with language.

Like I said, language learners definitely need play and playfulness. We need to make learning fun and encourage mistake-making in a nurturing environment. It clearly needs to be interactive. But fun doesn't have to be at the expense of our students, a reminder that we are superior to this, which is what snark and sarcasm both do. These students already know we have mastered something that they are struggling with. Sarcasm should be reserved for those who have already established skill and confidence, who know that they can do better. Those who are already questioning their abilities will only find further doubt in those seemingly harmless teasing remarks. In the process of building confidence, play has to be about discovery and socialization, making new connections.

Boa sorte!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Haters Gonna Hate: Victoria's Secret and Ugly, Jealous Women

Last night was the highly-anticipated annual Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, the runway that in many ways sets the standard for "sexy" in America. As expected, my social media feeds flooded with statuses about the show-- or I should say, about the models. Not a single one of the posts was about the production or the garments; they were all about the women working the catwalk.

Most of the posts fell into two categories: adorers and "haters." Some of these people thought the models were absolutely stunning and some were unhappy with the how thin the models were. However, this one Instagram post really seemed to capture the theme of the conversations:
In case you can't read the text, it says "Hating on her makes you fat, ugly, miserable, and jealous." Indeed, across the board, those who were supporting the models weren't just saying, "they're pretty," but that if you don't like the models, it's because you're insecure. The idea behind this post is that women don't like the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show simply because they are jealous of the models, not because they actually see something wrong (of course, we're women; we're incapable of thinking rationally).

This quote perfectly demonstrates everything wrong with the media's representation of female beauty. I refuse to watch the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. It's not because I'm jealous of these women or hate them. It's because I recognize that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way beauty is portrayed, and it's not that the models are thin.

The problem with Victoria's Secret is that it sells an idea of what's sexy that is extremely limited. Yes, these women are beautiful. There's no doubt about it. But all of them are extremely thin, light-skinned (even the women who are not Caucasian, who are the overwhelming majority), and much taller than most women. The problem is not that they are these things, but that they are ONLY these things. 

There are no dark-skinned women. There are no short women. There are no bottom-heavy women or women with broader shoulders. Essentially, according the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show (and most of the media), the only people who are sexy are tall, thin, fair-skinned women. THAT is a problem.

Let's go deeper: The problem with the tall, thin, fair-skinned model is that it is not attainable for the majority of the female population. As super model Cameron Russell said in her TED Talk, having the features to be a supermodel is basically hitting the "genetic lottery." So, why, then, is that the standard if it is anything but standard?

Because CAPITALISM, duh. 

Consumer culture relies on the purchase of commodities. People only buy commodities when they feel need. People with money typically are able to meet many of their physiological needs without spending much. How, then, do we get them to part with the excess? 

We create social need or fear. The media presents a standard of beauty, which is anything but standard, so that women purposefully feel dissatisfied and imperfect. And we use the words "sexy/beautiful" or "ugly"  and "confident" or "jealous" to foster this feeling. We create a fear of rejection and convince women that they are lacking, so that they will fill the void with things-- cosmetics, clothes, hair dye, skin bleach, laser hair removal, gym memberships.... lingerie. 

This should piss you off.

If doesn't, also think about the fact that with Victoria Secret's PINK line, this dislike of the self is being sold to young girls, not just women. And remember that studies show that girls as young as 9 years old now think that they are fat and need to go on diets.

And because, PATRIARCHY, duh.

And on top of the media broadcasting these images, the messages embedded within are internalized and shared. Men tells us that sexy is tall, thin, and fair-skinned. They circulate images of heavily photoshopped, unrealistically thin women (women who are photoshopped to look thinner when they are already underweight) who somehow magically still have large, symmetrical breasts and butts. Also, they don't have pores, lines, or cellulite. We have people of both sexes telling us that if we don't worship these women as the most beautiful women on earth, we're jealous.

When we don't buy into the standard, we are quite literally stripped of our voices-- called ugly and ignored. Ugly is basically a word for useless women in our patriarchal society. If you aren't aesthetically pleasing, you become ugly. But of course, now that you see how the media markets beautiful, you also understand that most women easily fall into the "ugly" category.

So, these standards of beauty not only make women feel unhappy and drive us to buy products (that are mostly produced and marketed by men), but also create a culture where it easy to suck the power from women by simply insinuating that those unable to meet the unrealistic standards of beauty are not worthy of notice, not capable of saying anything worthwhile. They're just "fat, ugly, miserable, and jealous."

And just saying....

we all know Victoria's multi-billion dollar secret now: Victoria was a man, Mr. Roy Raymond, and the store was created so men didn't feel humiliated when they wanted to buy lingerie for their ladies, not to make women feel sexy.

Are you angry yet?

You should be.