Kimberly Cortes

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Theory Thursday: Mental Dictionaries

By Kimberly Cortes |   October 20, 2011

I’d like to share a couple funny and cute linguistics stories in this blog. I will be talking about how bilinguals recognize and speak words in each of their languages. What? That doesn’t sound cute? Just hang in there. I promise that this will be a cute but informative linguistic blog.

I am the mother of four children who are all bilingual in English and Spanish. Some time ago I was sitting with my now nine-year old son (I think he was 7 or maybe 8 at the time) as he read to me “The Digging-est Dog” by Al Perkins. He was doing an excellent job, but when he got to the page that reads, “I dug up fences, I dug up gates” without realizing his mistake he very confidently read, “I dug up fences, I dug up cats.”

So why would my son read “cats” instead of “gates"? Obviously “cats” and “gates” don't rhyme or even really look similar, at least not in English. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, my children are bilingual in English and Spanish. Well, the Spanish word for "cats" is "gatos." Ahhh, you say! “Gatos” and “gates” look very much alike! It is easy to see how he could mistake “gates” for this other word “gatos.” What makes this case even more interesting is that while his brain apparently recognized the Spanish word “gatos” he produced the English translation for this word: “cats.” Although my son was reading in English and produced an English word, “cats,” it is evident that his Spanish lexicon (or mental dictionary or vocabulary list) was still very much active.

On another occasion, my older son asked me if he could fill and use a salt shaker I had brought back from Cuernavaca, Mexico. To which I replied, “No! You can’t use that! It’s a memory!” Does it seem strange that I referred to a salt shaker as a “memory”? Well, it may help to know that the word for souvenir in Spanish is “recuerdo” which literally translates to…you got it…“memory.”

Yet another time, I recall shopping for a digital video camera with my husband. We had picked out the camera, a bunch of editing software and additional accessories. My husband approached the salesman who was assisting us and asked, “So, how much for todo?” The salesman just smiled and continued to talk about the different features of the products we had chosen. My husband asked again, “How much for todo?” I was standing right beside my husband and could not figure out why the salesman was not answering him. Until of course it dawned on me that while I understood my husband’s question, the salesman who obviously did not speak Spanish, did not, because my husband was mixing the two languages: English and Spanish.

The focus of research in bilingualism for a long time was whether or not bilinguals have a single lexicon (mental dictionary) that comprises all of the words they know in both of their languages, or separate lexicons. And additionally, whether access to these is selective or not. Multiple theories to address these questions have been proposed.

One of these, the hierarchical model, proposes that the lexicons are combined at the conceptual level but separate at the word representational level. Basically bilinguals have separate “dictionaries” but that the entry for a particular word in each language links back to the same "meaning" or "concept."

Another theory is the Bilingual Interactive Activation Model (BIA). This theory argues that letter strands activate possible lexical candidates (words) in both languages, which then compete for activation.

As with many questions in the field of Linguistics and specifically bilingualism, whether bilinguals have one or two “mental dictionaries” and how they access these is still not fully understood. However, for me as a Linguist it is exciting to be able to point to and analyze these everyday aspects of real life and apply it to my passion for languages.

Have you experienced a situation where you interchanged your "mental dictionaries"?

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Language Theory: UTAH Bound!

By Kimberly Cortes |   April 7, 2011

In this blog I would like to take a closer look at one of the linguistic theories I began to explain in my most recent blogs, namely: the Uniformity Theta Assignment Hypothesis (UTAH).

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The What and Who of Headedness

By Kimberly Cortes |   February 24, 2011

Hello again! My last syntax blog left off in the middle of a discussion of how some words draw other words to them in order to form a more complete thought. Recall the verb ate. Ate has to draw to it “the someone” who did the eating and “the something” that was eaten, in order to be a complete thought. You may wonder why ate is the element that draws the others to it. Well, ate, as we discussed before, describes a relationship between something and someone, that is, something was eaten by someone. Apple, on the other hand, does not describe a relationship or anything for that matter. Apple is a just a noun. We could say, “The apple is red” or “I ate the apple.” The same logic applies to any other noun.

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Thematic Roles of Predicates. Yay Grammar!

By Kimberly Cortes |   December 16, 2010

Hello again! My last blog left off with a brief introduction to different phrase types, e.g., determiner phase (DP), verb phrase (VP), etc. So let’s take a closer look at these phrases. For example, the phrase, “ate the apple.” This phrase is made of three components; ate (verb), the (article/determiner) and apple (noun). We have already determined that I can’t simply string these words together in any order I wish and convey the same meaning, if any. These lexical items (words) alone do not consist of a complete proposition.

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Syntax – It’s not another tax on beer?

By Kimberly Cortes |   September 16, 2010

If you follow my blog you will know that I briefly touched on syntax once before. The Linguistic Elephant in the Room: Syntax (contrary to what it sounds like, it is not an increase in the price of beer or gambling) is a subfield of linguistics which focuses mainly on the grammar of language. This blog is just a brief introduction to some syntactic concepts. I will follow up with additional blogs to build and expand on the concepts presented here and /or introduce additional ones.

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TBLL--No, It's Not a Medical Condition

By Kimberly Cortes |   August 12, 2010

The task based language learning (TBLL) approach is derived from cognitive and interactionist theories and research findings. TBLL attempts to avoid fitting language learners into a box of stereotypical language use, i.e., where the student is only familiar with a sentences in specific forms or specific context, by rather using the language to carry out meaningful tasks, such as visiting a doctor, conducting an interview, or even asking someone out on a date. Doughty and Long (2003) describe 10 methodological principles (MPs) of TBLL. This post will present the first and second principles of task based language learning (TBLL) and discuss how Mango incorporates these in our system.

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To Communicate Without Communicating: Is It Possible?

By Kimberly Cortes |   July 22, 2010

It is widely accepted that communication is needed for language learning. Rooted in this idea is the communicative approach to second language acquisition, or Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). Two main principles of CLT are: (1) the development of communicative competence, and (2) the supposition that communication is both an end and a means to language learning (Alcón, 2004). Dell Hymes (1972) identifies the development of “communicative competence” as the main objective of CLT.

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Affective Filter Hypothesis

By Kimberly Cortes |   June 17, 2010

In his most recent post, Learning By the Book(mark)s, one of our Mango employees, Joe Garofalo, talks about his personal experience and feelings about using online software to learn a foreign language. In Joe’s words, “There is only so much that can be absorbed during a few hours a week of instruction, but being able to, at my leisure, interact with what I’m learning gives me that much more motivation to do it.” Well, Stephen Krashen would back Joe up on this one. Krashen actually proposed what he termed the Affective Filter Hypothesis (Krashen, 1982).

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Practice Makes Perfect

By Kimberly Cortes |   May 20, 2010

This week I will keep with my current trend of analyzing the Mango language learning approach from different second language learning (SLA) perspectives, theories, and hypotheses. In this blog I will adopt the skill acquisition theory of SLA, specifically McLaughlin’s (1987, 1990) information-processing model and Anderson’s (1983, 1985) Active Control of Thought (ACT) model and see how and whether Mango Languages takes in to account this theory of SLA.

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Let Me Repeat Myself

By Kimberly Cortes |   April 15, 2010

This week I would like to turn your attention to a hypothesis that involves both the input and output of the second language — the Interaction hypothesis. Don’t worry there’s no algebra involved!

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