Growing Up with Two Languages

Since learning that Yuriko is pregnant, I have been reading books about child rearing. Obviously, it’s true that there’s a lot of stuff you can’t learn from books, or indeed from any source other than personal experience, but there is still quite a lot that you can learn from reading. So, recently I read Growing Up with Two Languages, the topic of which should be clear from the title. Yuriko and I both want to raise Yudetamago speaking both English and Japanese, for several reasons. The most important is making sure that our child can communicate with my parents; since we anticipate being in Japan for at least the next few years, learning Japanese should not be a problem.

This is the second book I’ve read on this topic, and so far both agree that One Parent – One Language is a good way to go. Indeed, they both agree that parents should talk to their children in their native language, so that the parent can be fully comfortable when explaining things. So we’re going to do that.

This book put a strong emphasis on the need to provide substantial input in both languages. In other words, I have to spend lots of time talking to our child, reading stories, and singing lullabies. Oh, the burden! It also emphasises the work involved; children might be very good at learning languages, but learning two is still harder than learning one. Thus, it is, apparently, very common for the languages to be at different levels of competence. In particular, the majority language (Japanese, in this case) tends to be stronger than the minority language (which will be English). Finding other children who speak the minority language is recommended, because a monolingual playgroup is a good context for learning to use the language like a child. I’ll have to look into that; fortunately, English speakers are not unheard of around Tokyo.

Actually, in a lot of ways it looks like we have almost the ideal combination. The minority language (English) has a very high status in the majority culture. That is, almost all Japanese people want to be able to speak English. The ease with which I can sell my services as an English teacher is evidence for this, but the use of English in adverts also reveals it. No-one is going to suggest that it is bad for our child to learn English, and it’s quite likely that some parents will want to get English lessons for their child through ours. Materials in the minority language are easily available, and other minority language speakers live in the local area.

One thing that this book emphasised was the importance of having two cultures as well as two languages. Visits to countries where the minority language is the sole or main language are highly recommended. Thus, it looks like we might have to plan for somewhat extended visits to the grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Fortunately, the grandparents have not been indicating that this would be a serious problem. Obviously, that only becomes necessary when the child can talk, so we do have a bit of time to work out details.

This book avoided the term “bilingual”, due to lack of clarity over its meaning. By the standards that are sometimes applied, a large number of people do not even count as monolingual: they cannot converse fluently about any arbitrary subject in their native language. On the other hand, on other definitions anyone who can say “hello” and “goodbye” in a foreign language counts. I count on just about all definitions, but I don’t sound like a Japanese native. (Yet.) Still, I think it’s a useful shorthand.

Overall, this was a very useful book. It made the process sound rather more work than the last one I read, and it will probably be even more work than that. On the other hand, it also made it sound very definitely worth doing. So we’ll just have to try our best.

Midnight, Second Edition

I think I might be able to catch up a bit on writing about the books I’ve been reading. The problems with my blog meant I fell behind, and then I was busy with work. However, today is a public holiday here (Spring Equinox), so I have no students, and my other work went well this morning, so I’m finished very early.

So: Midnight, Second Edition. This is a setting for d20 (Dungeons and Dragons, basically) that can be summed up in two words: “Sauron won”. It is a hundred years after the Dark Lord won the final battle against the forces of good, and you get to play the resistance.

The setting is Tolkienesque, as it really has to be to work. The basic idea, after all, is that the thing you can absolutely rely on in Tolkienesque fantasy didn’t happen. The elves are perhaps the most reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings, bringing Galadriel and Lothlorien irresistably to mind. The dwarfs are also a lot like Tolkien’s. The humans and other races, however, are rather different. The Dark Lord (called Izrador) is served by armies of orcs, but also has human priests.

Characters themselves are made rather more powerful than they are in standard d20 games, unless they are spellcasters, in which case they are weaker, particularly at high levels. In addition, there are few magic items, and treasure means food or tools, not gold or gems. This makes the basic experience very different from standard D&D, and, probably not accidentally, rather more like The Lord of the Rings.

And that brings me to the only real weakness with the setting book: it is not quite clear enough how you should run adventures in the setting. Overthrowing Izrador is explicitly beyond the scope of the game, reasonably enough. In the setting, holding the line against him is the best that has ever been achieved. The book is not clear on what could be achieved, however. Could the PCs reasonably hope to liberate a city and hold it against the armies of the Dark God? Unite the dwarfs? Destroy the great tower of Theros Obsidia, the fortress where Izrador’s presence manifests? Kill one of the Night Kings, the four dread lieutenants of Izrador? The guidelines do say that it is important to keep hope alive, but don’t make it clear what the designers envisage you hoping for.

I have the first edition as well, and the second edition does spend more time on this topic, but it still isn’t enough, in my opinion.

Of course, I can make my own decisions. Personally, I’d let a group of player characters achieve any of the things on the list above, although I probably wouldn’t let one group achieve all of them. The setting does provide lots of places where adventure can happen, and in that respect it’s an excellent piece of work. It also covers a wide range of possible styles of play; it’s even possible to get away from the constant threat of Izrador and play more “classic” adventures, although doing that all the time would rather miss the point.

Overall, then, I can recommend this book. It does what it sets out to do very well, and the only flaw is one that any competent GM can easily rectify.

Word Choice

From the book on childhood neurological development I’m reading at the moment:

“Obviously, Timothy’s auditory system did not develop in a vacuum.”

Man in the Middle

Well, I read all of John Amaechi’s autobiography this afternoon. See the previous article, “As Others See Us”, for my reaction to the bit about me. Since the book isn’t about me, I’ll try to keep this post about him.

It was very interesting. He worked very hard to achieve something he wanted to do, and now is using the influence and money gained to do something he believes in. It’s something I can wholeheartedly approve of, too. While I wouldn’t do basketball, the ABC Foundation is the sort of thing I’d like to think that I’d do with the money if I had that much. John, of course, actually has it, and actually is doing it, which puts him a long way above my pure talk.

It’s also clear from the book that it is deeply unpleasant to be gay and in the closet, particularly in a homophobic society. I’m glad he’s been able to come out.

Overall, though, it sounds like his life has not been very enjoyable. Starting from the betrayal by his only friend at primary school (it wasn’t like that, honest), he doesn’t seem to have had much luck with friends, and wasn’t even doing a job he particularly liked. It’s hard to shake the impression that it all starts now: now that he can give his time to mentoring young basketball players, and doesn’t have to worry about the press picking up on his sexuality, he can actually get on with living his life.

I guess you would get more out of the book if you knew anything about basketball; I’d heard of some of the people he mentioned, but not all, by a long chalk, even of the ones mentioned without any other reference, as people “everyone knows”.

With the perspective of the whole book, it looks like I really hurt him back when he was 12, enough that it still smarts 25 years later. It would be nice to have the chance to apologise for that. Alas, I can’t think of any way to do it that might sound even vaguely sincere (“Hey, famous millionaire, I’m really sorry I was mean to you at primary school, can we be friends again?” Hmmm…), and 25 years after the fact is, after all, a bit late. I don’t even have any clear memory of what I did anymore, although, as I mentioned, I do remember feeling that I’d got it wrong, somehow. I’d like to apologise, because it hurt him and I think I must have been in the wrong (I can’t even directly remember that). Public expressions of regret don’t count; I would need to apologise directly. And that looks impossible.

On the other hand, it looks like it smarts 25 years later. It doesn’t look like I played a major negative role in his life. I certainly hope not.

Anyway, I can go on playing no role in his life, as, I can hope, the best is yet to come.

Amazon Advertising

If you scroll down a bit, you will see that I have added some Amazon advertising to the sidebar. There are a couple of reasons for this.

One is that these are called “Omakase” links, which is a Japanese word. It means that Amazon’s computers decide what to display. Right now, they seem to be deciding to display links to my books, which I approve of. Of course, that might well change over time, and it is also supposed to depend on the content of the particular page, and possibly even on the identity of the visitor. (If you have an Amazon cookie in your browser, Amazon knows it’s you.)

Another is that I’m a professional writer, so I might as well see whether I can generate an income stream from the blog too. I’ve been registered as an Amazon affiliate for ages, so setting it up was very easy. It shouldn’t be too obtrusive, tucked away in the sidebar, and I’ve put it below the links that are definitely and always to my books.

Since it doesn’t cost me anything to have the links (oddly, Amazon have elected not to charge people for putting adverts for Amazon on their websites) there’s a good chance that they’ll stay there. I’ll also be curious to see what turns up in the automatic selections. Amazon’s algorithms for that tend to be pretty good, but occasionally they do produce rather peculiar results.

The Collected Stories of Henry James

I’ve just finished reading the Everyman’s Library edition of Henry James’s stories. They only published a selection, but they still run to two volumes, totalling 2400 pages or so. Henry James was quite productive.

Henry James’s style is interesting. The word “lapidary” comes to mind: hard, precise, glittering, and very carefully crafted. It’s not the easiest prose in the world to read, but I do rather like it. I should just make sure that I don’t try to write like that; it isn’t my style, so it wouldn’t work very well.

Reading the collection finally confirmed for me that The Turn of the Screw really is by Henry James. I read quite a lot of his novels some time ago, and they are so far from being ghost stories that I assumed that The Turn of the Screw was actually by M. R. James, who did write a lot of ghost stories. On reading the collected stories, however, I discover that Henry James actually wrote quite a lot of ghost stories: Owen Wingrave is another example. It is interesting that the stories constantly reminded me of White Wolf’s World of Darkness. There are definite similarities of tone, although the writing styles are very different (and I suspect that WW would not be happy if I tried to write a supplement in the style of Henry James).

The jacket blurb claims that the stories have no match in fiction for variety. This is a blatant falsehood. They are almost invariably about the rich and privileged, where “poverty” is having only one servant. They are commonly about writers or portrait painters (in one notable case, about a writer engaged to a portrait painter). One of the characters frequently dies at the end, particularly in the early stories. I think my fictional writings have more variety than that.

They are, however, very rich, and deeply concerned with the psychology of the characters, which is what most literary critics like. They are good stories, and I enjoyed reading them, although I don’t know that I would necessarily recommend reading both volumes over a couple of months, as I did. They might be better taken in small doses.

One point that struck me on a purely personal level. The family of the main character in one story is called “Chart”. That’s the first time I’ve come across our name in fiction.

Power of Faerun

I’ve just finished reading Power of Faerun, a Forgotten Realms book for D&D. I have to confess that I wasn’t over-impressed with it. It wasn’t actively bad; quality control at Wizards of the Coast is far too good for that to happen. However, it was distinctly uninspiring.

It’s a background book, dealing with high-level (powerful) characters in the Forgotten Realms setting. Each chapter covers different sorts of things that they can do. Unfortunately, most of these chapters failed to inspire me with lots and lots of ideas. A good RPG setting book should inspire the reader with more ideas than he could possibly use in a lifetime, and quite a lot of the previous Forgotten Realms books have actually done so, for me. I like the Forgotten Realms setting, because it’s “classic” high fantasy done well. It’s a good roleplaying setting, in a style that I find appealing. Thus, good setting books for that world tend to inspire me.

This book generally failed. The chapters seemed not to go beyond “Your character could become a high priest!”, “Your character could lead an army!”, and so on. There was very little that generated ideas beyond the obvious, or looked likely to save me substantial amounts of time if I actually wanted to use the material in play.

It wasn’t a complete failure; there were a number of vignettes and examples that inspired some ideas. But it did strike me as weaker than most books in the line. It’s also not obvious how it should have been done, because there are a lot of options. I think this format could have been done better, with a heavier emphasis on adventure and campaign ideas, but the format could also have been changed. For example, one chapter is about becoming a religious leader. That could easily be a whole book, with each chapter giving details of the current politics of one major faith in Faerun, and pointing out how a player character could rise through the ranks, and the problems he would face. Or a book could cover all the aspects of power for one region of Faerun, including a discussion of how to get all the characters in a standard party into positions of power at once: the cleric leading a temple, the wizard the power behind the throne, the fighter a border lord with an important keep, and the rogue a merchant prince.

So, a bit uninspiring. Essential for Realms completists, obviously, but probably not for anyone else. Although you should still buy it through my link to Amazon. (I suspect I’m not going to get much money from the link from this review, but then I don’t get much money from the links anyway.)

Watch Me Grow!

My Mum sent us this book as a present, so that we could follow along with the baby’s development. It’s really good, because it isn’t a technical discussion of what goes on and the sorts of problems there might be. Instead, it’s basically a collection of 3D ultrasound pictures of various babies, at various stages from the very beginning to the verge of birth.

The pictures are great, because they really look like pictures, as opposed to the rather fuzzy grey blobs that you get from 2D ultrasound. Obviously, pictures of our baby are even better, but these images have given me, at least, a fairly definite feeling for the process. Seeing the images goes beyond just knowing what happens when; I can imagine what our baby probably looks like right now, which means that the whole thing feels a lot more real.

Actually, the book was very good in conjunction with the 2D pictures of our baby. From the 2D picture, it was easy to work out which page was appropriate, and thus get a better idea of what the foetus looks like overall. Some movement is, apparently, possible at that stage, so I probably did see our baby move its arm on the screen.

So, thank you Mum for the book. It’s great.

An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding

Yesterday, I finished reading David Hume’s An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. It was, naturally, interesting. Although I read his Treatise of Human Nature years ago, and taught the causation and induction sections for something like ten years at Cambridge, I’d not previously read the whole of the first Enquiry.

One of the most notorious sections is chaper 10: Of Miracles. In this chapter, Hume argues that there can never be any reason to believe that a miracle happened. The basic argument is simple: it is always more likely that the sources are mistaken or lying than that a miracle occurred, so the reasonable conclusion is always that there was no miracle.

Hume’s reason for that belief seems to be that we have lots of empirical evidence that the laws of nature are never broken, so that testimony, which we know is sometimes false, can never be enough to convince us otherwise. It is interesting that he assumes that one will never personally witness a miracle.

This could be read as saying that it is irrational to believe something that you haven’t seen for yourself. That’s not what he means, however. He’s perfectly happy for people to believe testimony of the sorts of things that they have themselves seen; if someone tells me that they saw a flock of starlings flying through the air over Cambridge, I should generally believe them. When I lived there, I saw similar things many times. The problem comes with things that are very different from anything you have experienced.

Actually, I think there is a deeper problem. When Matthew’s Gospel says (27: 52-53) that, after the resurrection of Jesus, many formerly dead and buried saints went into Jerusalem and were seen by many, we can safely conclude that this never happened. Matthew was either lied to or lying. Somebody else would have mentioned it; at the very least, this mass resurrection would have got a mention in the other Gospels. More likely, it would have been reported, at least as a rumour, by the numerous Roman historians writing at the people. Large numbers of dead people getting up and walking around is not a common occurrence, after all.

However, consider the cases of resurrection that were reported to medieval shrines. These were reported within a few weeks of the event, by people who were there, with witnesses. A typical pattern is as follows: A child falls into a river, and, being unable to swim, sinks. After some time the child is pulled out of the river, but he is not breathing and has no apparent heartbeat. Efforts are made to revive him, but they fail, and he is pronounced dead. The child’s mother, deeply distraught, petitions the saints to save him. (Sometimes, she petitions several saints, but nothing happens at first.) Suddenly, the child coughs, sits up, and is well. The miracle is attributed to the saint who was being invoked at the relevant moment.

Now, I think it is much less reasonable to reject this account out of hand. This sort of thing happens today, particularly, in fact, with children who have fallen into water. As I understand the cases, even modern equipment cannot immediately find signs of life, but after warming up a bit, the child revives, apparently none the worse for wear. It’s rare, but it happens.

However, even if we accept the event, that does not mean that we accept that it was a miracle. A miracle is the direct intervention of God, suspending the laws of nature. It is true that, as far as I know, doctors do not currently understand exactly what is happening in these cases, but that is not enough to assume a miracle. There are lots and lots of perfectly common, everyday, events that science does not yet fully understand, including my ability to type. That doesn’t make that a miracle, so why should lack of understanding make these apparent resurrections into miracles?

And that, I think, is the deeper problem here. No matter what you see, that can only give you a reason to believe that you have seen something you do not understand. It cannot give you a reason to believe that you have seen something that breaks the laws of nature. One event is simply never enough to do that.

This does not mean that there are no circumstances under which it would be rational to believe in, say, ghosts. If the ghosts of several people appeared frequently to a number of people, appeared when being filmed for television, and appeared even when massive batteries of scientific instruments were set up, then it would be reasonable to believe that there was something there. After further investigation, it could even become reasonable to believe that there was something there that could not be explained by current science. There are, in fact, numerous examples of such things. Radiation is one; when it was first detected, it seemed to be impossible, but it kept showing up, and so eventually it was brought within the ambit of science.

There may even be things that happen lots of times, but which are not predictable, and so which do not get explained. Ball lightning is an example of this; the scientific consensus appears to be that the events happen, but there is no consensus on what causes them (other than that they are not lightning). The events are just not common or predictable enough to investigate properly. But that still doesn’t show that they are miracles.

The problem here, then, is that the supporters of miracles have not finished their job when they have proved that people rise from the dead. They still need to prove that they rise from the dead because an undetectable, ineffable deity wills them to. And there can never be any evidence for that. In fact, they need to show that the dead rise because the particular undetectable, ineffable deity described in their scriptures wills them to, and I cannot see any way to even begin doing that.

There is even some textual evidence that this is the sort of miracle Hume has in mind; he says that the miracles of different religions cancel out, which is only true if the miracles are supposed to imply the truth of the religion. If they are treated merely as events, there is no reason why all the events could not have happened. Obviously, a lot of people will be wrong about the causes.

And now, before I get distracted into epistemological relativism (because things are different for people who believe in God already, just as reports of radioactivity are different for people who believe in that already), I will leave things there.