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Check out the promising new magazine, Babel, written by linguists for non-specialists. I’ve read a bit of the first issue and I thought it was at a fairly nice level–new ideas if you haven’t had any linguistics classes at all; not too challenging if you have, but still plenty of interest. There are some great people on board. I wouldn’t have heard of it if it hadn’t been for David Crystal’s blog post about it, due to being fairly absent from Twitter. (Thank goodness for Google Reader.)

For now, you can read the first issue of Babel online or download it. It has a very wide range of topics, including an article on xenolinguistics from someone who definitely knows his sf.

They were just looking for book reviewers via their Twitter account, too, if you’re interested (I probably don’t have quite enough of a linguistics background, alas, and there’s that appalling parentheses addiction, too).

“News of the Weird” Phenomenon

News of the Weird phenomenon is when we easily dismiss bizarre incidents from our own society, because we know they originated in a minor subculture, were committed by people with some kind of problem, were done by a marginalized group such as “rednecks” or criminals or fringe political elements, etc. However, we don’t have the same insider knowledge about “weird news” from most other cultures. As a result, when we read something sensational or peculiar, our attempts to practice cultural relativism kick into overdrive and we may accept the item as representative rather than anomalous.

I think of this as “News of the Weird phenomenon” because when we read the “News of the Weird,” “Weird,” “Odd News,” or “Auch das noch” section of our own newspaper, we don’t take it seriously. Yet when we–or our students–hear shocking things about the cultures in which we travel or study or work–there’s a greater tendency to place some kind of importance on the strange news. (At least, in my experience.) We and they lack context and have difficulty judging the representativeness or even the veracity of such news items.

Japan is particularly plagued by this, as countless American and British news outlets thrive on repeating stories about strange things that just appall my Japanese friends, who usually identify the reported incident as some kind of fringe activity (if they’ve even heard of it). This is almost never indicated in the reports. (Sometimes news items about Japan are outright false, like the one that circulates periodically about the see-through clothing. Trained on a diet of bizarre news about Japan, readers of English news will apparently swallow anything, no matter how outrageous.)

It’s important to think about whether news items that we hear contradict other knowledge we may have about a culture, and to check with a member of that society if we’re not sure. In general, I don’t think it’s constructive to pass on news articles that just highlight sensational or “weird” events, and I think it contributes to “bitter expat” syndrome when people living outside their home countries spend a lot of time focusing on this kind of thing. (I’m not sure how examining/unpacking weird news reports from the students’ countries/the teaching context/English-speaking countries could be turned into useful activities, but I imagine that has some potential!)

There’s probably a related phenomenon rarely experienced by American readers, but which affects us: Police Blotter Phenomenon. The police blotter is the section that some newspapers still have, in which crimes are briefly reported. Non-Americans aren’t generally literally reading a police blotter, but many of my Japanese clients have heard about crimes in the US on the news and in newspapers. Not having the local knowledge to understand whether those crimes are ones that could possibly affect them if they were living here, they often build up an unrealistic idea of widespread violent crime in the US.

Anyway, I don’t know if you’ve experienced either of these phenomena in yourself or your students, but it’s just something I was thinking about today.

(As far as I know, I came up with this particular term, but I’m sure I didn’t come up with the idea–there’s probably some better, more scholarly way to say it.)

By the way, I’ve added a new tag: lesson seeds. Lesson seeds are for posts that have just the tiniest seed of a lesson idea in them (as opposed to the lesson plan tag, and the lesson idea tag that I haven’t implemented yet). Sometimes a lesson seed is that’s all that’s needed!

P. S. Thanks to @olafelch and @lynneguist (of separated by a common language) for telling me what some “News of the Weird” sections are called in Germany and the UK!)