Month: March 2017


LCL’s Assistant Professor Chunsheng George Yang presented, on March 8th, his contribution to the departmental lecture series entitled ‘Acquiring the pronunciation of second language Chinese’. Since his graduate studies, Dr. Yang has been interested in language pronunciation and has wondered why people have an accent when speaking a second language. His pedagogical research examines the relationship between the first language and speech. During his talk, Dr. Yang spoke about how our accent in a second language (L2) is likely to become stronger the older we learn it, and how our first language (L1) will influence the second one we acquire.


In his research, Professor Yang named two important factors that affect L2 speech learning: the phonetic similarity between our first and second language, and the effect of the number of sounds and vowels comprising our mother tongue. He explained that if we lacked a sound in our first language, we might not be able to detect it in the second language; on the other hand, if our native language had a similar sound, we could struggle to produce it because we might put it together with another sound. In that sense, he said, the new sound can turn out to be easier than the similar one. As an example, he spoke about Japanese learners of English who struggle to pronounce the ‘r’ sound because it does not exist in their own language. Dr. Yang emphasized the importance of lexicon, as it helps to discern differences.


Two of his latest studies tested the effect of sound inventory size on L2 speech learning and showed that L2 learners with a larger and more complex L1 vowel inventory were better at L2 vowel learning than those whose first language had a smaller vowel inventory. Professor Yang exposed the complexity of mastering the tone system in Mandarin Chinese, which might lead learners to misunderstandings. He compared the 4 tones of Chinese to the 3 tones of Yoruba language and 5 tones of Thai language and shared the results of his cross-linguistic study with Yoruba and Thai learners of Mandarin Chinese. He found that Yoruba learners made more tone errors than Thai learners, supporting his theory based on tone inventory size and phonetic similarity. Between the two factors, sound inventory size seemed to be a better L2 learning predictor than phonetic similarity, although more research needs to be conducted in this area.


Lastly, Dr. Yang argued that L2 speech learning is a very complicated task and that learners’ proficiency level depends on a series of individual, social and affective factors. In addition, motivation, talent and age also play a fundamental role in learning a language. He concluded that in ESL studies, accentedness does not correlate with neither intelligibility nor comprehensibility, which are the ultimate goals of language learners.


By Adriana Alcina

Daniel Hershenzon gives UCHI Fellow’s Talk on Ransoming in the Seventh-Century Mediterranean

daniel screenOn March 1, 2017 Dr. Daniel Hershenzon, a Fellow at the UCHI, gave his Fellow’s series talk entitled, Captivated by the Mediterranean: Early Modern Spain and the Political Economy of Ransoming. Hershenzon’s field of expertise is Early Modern Spanish and Mediterranean history. His work illuminates how the close study of the motivations and categories that were mobilized in the trade of objects and people between Christians, Muslims and Jews in the seventeenth-century Mediterranean transforms our understanding of value, commodification, and by extension, narratives about the emergence of early capitalism.

In this talk, Hershenzon developed a fascinating case study to illustrate his argument, the story of 13-year-old Fatimah, the Muslim daughter of an Algerian pasha taken captive by Christians in Livorno, Italy. Fatima becomes a pawn in a vast trade network involving the capture and ransoming of slaves in the Mediterranean, that is, people being held for ransom by antagonistic religious communities. On the one hand, infidels are salable because they do not belong to the “sacred” community of coreligionists, whether Christians, Jews, and Muslims. On the other, each community leverages the moral outrage caused in its religious rivals when confronted by the prospect of loosing a soul from its sacred community. What is sacred is what is by definition absolutely singular, and thus, what cannot be commodified since its value cannot be translated in terms of any opposing value. What made someone salable, then, depended upon where they fell in terms of the boundaries that defined the spiritual community of both ransomers and redeemers.

The enslavement of religious prisoners took place in a context marked by piracy, economic competition, the fallout of the Spanish Reconquista, the dynastic rivalries of Italy, France, and Spain as well the growing rivalries in the Islamic world, between local factions in Algeria and Morocco and an emergent Ottoman Empire. As the capture and sale of religious prisoners became routinized, the ransoming of slaves became the object of specialized trade routes that included not only merchants, but also religious envoys. The collaboration between merchants and friars was a routine matter; ransoming was viewed as spiritual/social activity. (Different actors, in fact, employed different frameworks to refer to the process of ransoming – redemption of souls, liberation of kin, selling goods.) As the ransom trade became semi-institutionalized, political leaders, notably Philip III of Spain and the pasha of Algeria, began to want to exert more direct control over the ransoming process. This allowed the pasha to impose his own ransom agenda on the buyers (friars or merchants) forcing them to buy his slaves first, and then the slaves of his clients. This set up a rivalry between the state and those who had developed a business (whether they were merchants or religious groups) in the redemption of slaves. As Hershenzon noted, during this time period, “ransom created ad hoc coalitions that crossed religious and political boundaries.”

During her journey back to Algiers, the bishop of Corsica converted Fatima to Christianity. It is not clear whether Fatimah wanted the conversion or whether it was forced upon her, but once she had been converted (becoming Mary Magdalena) her status as a slave was complicated. She had suddenly become a member of the sacred community of Catholics, thus inalienable as property. She could not be considered a slave, nor could she be delivered to an unbeliever, and thus she could no longer in good conscience be traded back to her father.

Historians have tended to view the trade in slave through an economic lens: the trade in people interpreted as symptomatic of the rising tendency towards commodification and capitalism. Hershenzon uses the Fatimah example among others to complicate this narrative, by carefully re-constructing the details of how the valuation of people, the conditions for their exchange, and the networks that controlled these exchanges challenge the assumption that economic interests and categories trumped all others. In other words, the ransom market had multiple functions—sacred, social, and political—that influenced how individuals were valued (a hostage, a slave, and a converso are not quite the same). These overlapping functions force us to ask, for instance, whether the Trinitarian friars sent around the Mediterranean to redeem slaves were economic actors or pastoral ones. Meanwhile in freeing slaves, political leaders demonstrated their social and spiritual duty to free coreligionists, even as they helped themselves to a cut in taxes and licensing fees. Hershenzon thus illustrates how contingent value or even the question of salability turned out to be, defined as it was at the intersection of sacred communities and the rivalries between political and even professional spheres on an almost case-by-case basis.

For more information see or contact Daniel Hershenzon directly at