Apropos of nothing, here are some babies

How could one possibly know what sounds an infant can hear, and how could one possibly know that they’ve lost the ability to hear the differences between some of them, but not others?  

Differentiating between R and L sounds: American infants and Japanese infants at 6-8 months and at 10-12 months. American English differentiates between the R and L sounds, but Japanese doesn’t. At 6-8 months, the American and Japanese infants do equally well/poorly at telling the difference between R and L sounds. At 10-12 months, the American infants have improved, while the Japanese infants have gotten worse. Picture source: Kuhl et al. (2008), Phonetic learning as a pathway to language: new data and native language magnet theory expanded (NLM-e).
Apropos of nothing but my frustration with my inability to understand the French phrase à propos, here’s a couple of videos on how you do experiments to study how children learn language.  (Linguists use the verb to acquire to describe what you do when you learn your native language(s), which we call language acquisition–hence the title of the second video.)  You’ve probably heard things like this: humans are born capable of hearing the differences between the sounds of all of the languages of the world, but they lose that ability when they start learning their native language.  How could one possibly know what sounds an infant can hear, and how could one possibly know that they’ve lost the ability to hear (the differences between) some of them, but not others?  These videos show you.

I picked these specific videos in part because they’re subtitled, and if you’re not a native speaker of English, they’re great for listening practice.  They have some differences, namely:

  1. The first one, a TED talk by the pioneering child language acquisition researcher Patricia Kuhl, is a presentation by one of the giants of the field.  It has nice graphics, but her language is sometimes much more idiomatic than one might expect, and it might be more difficult for a non-native speaker—or a non-scientist—to understand than the second video.
  2. The second one, from the YouTube channel The Ling Space, features very clear explanations of how the experimental paradigms work, but lacks the great graphics of the Patricia Kuhl TED talk.

Enjoy, and see the English and French notes at the bottom of the post for my best shot at apropos in English and à propos in French.  No guarantees on the French stuff…

Shorter explanation of the experimental paradigms, without the nice graphs of the Patricia Kuhl video, but with very clear explanations.

English notes

Apropos: the dictionary actually doesn’t help much with this.  There are three uses of this that we need to talk about.  One use of apropos in English is as an adjective, in which case it means something like relevant.  Another use of it is in the phrase apropos of, in which case it’s a discourse connector, or a preposition, or something–I’m not entirely sure.  Finally, there’s a special use, apropos of nothing, in which case it’s definitely a discourse connector.  Here are some examples of its use as an adjective meaning relevant or pertinent–all examples but the ones from Twitter are from the enTenTen corpus, via the Sketch Engine web site:

  • The one most apropos in this instance seems to be: to pacify or attempt to pacify an enemy by granting concessions, often at the expense of principle. 
  • Only the cheesiest and best pop song ever! And I found the lyrics to be quite apropos at the time.  
  • It’s tradition to give wood for a fifth wedding anniversary, which is quite apropos for me since I’m married to a blockhead.  (A blockhead is a stupid person, and a block is a particular sort of piece of wood)
  • It is like the modern day holy grail in the face of disruptive tech trends that usurp business models, not to mention Moore’s law being ever more apropos.
  • It might’ve been cool and apropos if blood started coming of the showerhead, but no go. 

Apropos of means something like with respect to, in relation to, as far as … is concerned.  Some examples:

  • I have been thinking about this apropos of the numbers of children claimed to be known to children’s social care.  
  • In 1807 Napoleon wrote Louis, apropos of his domestic relations, a letter which is a good example of scores of others he sent to one and another of his kings and princes about their private affairs.
  • In a letter to Mian Bashir Ahmed, Iqbal has emphasised the point that a comparative study of Ghalib and Bedil apropos of their poetry is necessary.

Now, there’s a particularly common form of this: apropos of nothing.  It is used to indicate that something is not relevant to anything that preceded it, or to introduce something that is not relevant to anything that has preceded it.  The first example explains it about as well as I could:

  • So when you say “ apropos of nothing, person X said this” it means “out of nowhere (relating to nothing) person X said…
  • “Definitely probably,” Wurtzel said, and then asked, apropos of nothing, where I went to school.

…and there’s an especially common use of apropos of nothing, which is straightforwardly a discourse connector used right at the beginning of something that you’re saying.  You use it to introduce a topic that you’re just now introducing and which you’re pointing out is not relevant to anything that’s come before it in the conversation.




…and that’s how I used it in the post.  Why did I use it at all?  I don’t know… I guess because not only is the post not connected to any previous post (other than that it contains a reference–see the first tweet just above–to Trump’s crappy behavior), but there isn’t even any connection between the linguistic thing under discussion (apropos and à propos–this is very meta) and the videos in the post (which are about child language acquisition).  So:

  • Apropos of nothing but my frustration with my inability to understand the French phrase à propos, here’s a couple of videos on how you do experiments to study how children learn language.  

It’s worth noting that this is not what you might call “everyday language”–you would expect any of these uses of apropos in English to come out of the mouth of someone who went to college, is relatively articulate and well-spoken, etc.  This example is a good illustration of that fact:

  • And it’s a weird choice, considering the language Jenna uses (she alternates between swearing and using phrases like “ apropos of nothing”… seriously, what 14-year-old says “apropos of nothing”?), the fact that the boys in her middle school are potheads, and her best friend dresses like a hooker.

Criminy–I’m almost at 1200 words already, and I haven’t gotten to the French à propos at all yet–and WordReference tells me that it’s complicated!  Another time, perhaps–native speakers, please feel free to jump in here…

I am a true American–here’s what that means

I am a true American.  One thing that means: it means that my four grandparents were of four different national origins–and my Russian grandfather came here as a refugee.  (My French grandfather stuck around ’cause he had a cute little student–kisses in Heaven, Grandma.)  My family is Jewish, and Muslim, and Catholic, and Protestant.  Our marriage ceremonies are in English, or Hebrew, or Italian, and we mourn in Aramaic.  My niece speaks English to her mother and myself, but throws tantrums in Mandarin, and if my baby brother and I need to have a discrete discussion about ice cream in her presence, we do it in Spanish.

Another thing that it means when I say that I’m a true American: it means that I spent nine and a half years of my life in the US military.  It means that my cousins were in the service, that my father’s approach to raising me was largely based on what he learned in boot camp, that his cousins were in the service, that my Uncle Leonard’s portrait in his Army uniform still hangs in my cousins’ homes–and that Uncle Leonard’s brother died in the Battle of the Bulge. On French soil, and in the US Army.

Another thing that it means when I say that I’m a true American: I believe in American exceptionalism.  (I believe in French exceptionalism, too, but we can talk about that another time.)  That means that I don’t think you have to “Make America Great Again”–it already is great, and will continue to be so, if our current president doesn’t totally fuck it up, as he is well on the way to doing.

Those are all part of what make me an American.  But, none of them are essential.  Here’s what is the essence of being an American.  Being an American means that in my DNA, you will find an absolute, total, complete commitment to the following:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of the press
  • Freedom of religion

I say “in my DNA” because it’s not enough to say that I believe in those things.  Belief is changeable.  Freedom of speech, of the press, and of religion are somewhere in my bones, my blood, my soul.  They are what make me an American.

Consequently, I’m offended by the idea of Donald Trump giving speeches on July 4th, the national holiday on which we celebrate our birth as a nation.  For context, please be aware that I don’t offend easily.  For example, although I’m Jewish, anti-Semitism doesn’t bother me in the least–as far as I’m concerned, if you’re not trying to toss my grandmother in a gas chamber, you and I can sit down for a beer and a cigarette, or you can go fuck yourself, as you prefer–your anti-Semitism is not something that I’m going to get offended about (modulo any desires that you might have to kill my grandmother, although in that case, I would not get offended (I hope)–just shoot you).

Nonetheless: Donald Trump standing up in public and pretending to represent my country is offensive.  Why?  Let’s look at the difference between what makes me a real American–and what makes Trump un-American.

Trump select service
Trump’s Selective Service record. Picture source: http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/article/2015/jul/21/was-trump-draft-dodger/

Forget where his parents came from–in America, that’s something that we at least try not to hold against you.  Instead, let’s talk about where his children are going.  More precisely, let’s talk about where they’re not going: they’re not going into the US military.  They’re adults, they’re healthy, and as far as we can tell, they’re mentally intact–but, like their father before them, not one of them has volunteered.  (More precisely, Trump avoided the draft on the claim that he has bad feet, then some decades later claimed that he would be the healthiest president ever.)  The schmuck is happy to send your kids to war, but he’s sure as hell not sending his.

Let’s talk about American exceptionalism–the idea that America is special, and has something to offer the rest of the world.  Here’s Trump’s take on the subject.  Bill O’Reilly, of Fox News–Trump’s most faithful defender amongst the mainstream news media–asked him about his positive remarks about Russian president Vladimir Putin:

“But he’s a killer,” O’Reilly said to Trump.
“There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump replied.
You can watch the video here.
Here’s the thing, though: none of that is of the essence.  What is of the essence is three things:
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of the press
  • Freedom of religion

…and those are the three things against which Trump has most consistently fought.  Advocating changes to the libel laws to make it easier for him to sue people who are critical of him; attacking the press sans répit; and most of all–and, to an American, most horrifyingly–unremittingly advocating prejudice against people because of their religion.  Here’s the thing about Trump’s Muslim ban, his anti-Muslim hate-mongering: The whole récit national of America–our entire national history, creation story, myth, call it what you will–is based on freedom of religion.  If you look at the settlement history of our country, the colonies were all founded by different religious groups who wanted to do their different religious things without being persecuted for it.  Massachusetts was Puritan, Virginia was Anglican, Pennsylvania was Quaker.  And, you know what?  We got along.  There have been exactly zero religious wars in this country–ever.

That’s why you’re seeing Americans all over this country protesting against Trump’s Muslim ban.  A good American is not someone who wears a flag in his lapel (I don’t, and neither do my fellow veteran cousins, or my father, or his cousins; neither did my Uncle Leonard; neither did his brother, who did something that neither Trump nor his children will ever do–he gave his life in our military).  A good American is, in the end, this: someone whose commitment to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion is absolute; someone who will not give one fucking inch on that commitment for safety, or money, or cheap gas; someone who will defend to the death his enemy’s right to speak, to publish, and to pray as he sees fit.

That’s not Trump.  That’s not his kids.   In the US military, we take an oath.  It’s not an oath to defend the president, or the country, or the government, or a flag.  It’s an oath to protect the Constitution–the place where those freedoms are enshrined.  And by the way–me and the other generations of military veterans in my family?  We vote Democrat.  Happy 4th, and may the true America thrive.

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