Some US Presidential candidates seem embarrassed by their ability to speak a foreign language. Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich speak at least some French. Romney picked his up while on Mormon mission in France. Gingrich acquired his as a teenager while his father his US serviceman father was stationed there. Yet Gingrich made fun of Romney in a TV ad because he “speaks French.” The implication seems to be that speaking a foreign language muddies your 100% all-American vision.
No wonder Jon Huntsman didn’t catch on as a Presidential candidate. Huntsman speaks some Chinese (those Mormon missions come in handy for something). And, unlike the rest of them, he didn’t shy away from showing off his Chinese while campaigning.
For his part, President Obama has oscillated between a populist boast of ignorance (“my French and German are terrible!”) tempered by chagrin (“I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing!”).
The Obama Administration has tried to make funding more available for foreign language learning. (Part of the problem has been the “No Child Left Behind” law which leaves languages behind. The law’s relentless testing in English reading and math offers teachers little incentive to stray from the subject of the next exam. Instead, they teach to the test.) In recent years Congress has cut federal foreign language learning grants.
I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this list of the languages spoken by each American president since Washington, but it makes for fascinating reading.
Going to the Idiomatic Bathroom
Also in the pod this week, we hear from a hospital in King’s Lynn in the English county of Norfolk. Foreign nurses there are expected to speak and understand English, and just to make sure they understand British-English hospitalese, they now take an additional course. They learn some of the many variations for going to the bathroom, especially the ones favored by the mainly elderly patients who like to “spend a penny” or “go to the lavvy.” Other key colloquialisms: “jim-jams” (pajamas), “tickled pink” (delighted) and “higgledy-piggledy” (in a muddle).
As well as those British English terms, there is the regional Norfolk dialect. Among the pertinent (and not so pertinent) words the nurses may learn are: “blar” (to cry), “mawther” (young woman: somewhat derogatory), “mardle” (chat, gossip) and “bishy barney bee’ (a ladybird/ladybug).
Those nurses might have got more than they bargained for.
Garifuna Revival Through Song
Finally, reporter Nina Porzucki profiles Belizean singer James Lovell who is trying to keep the Garifuna language relevant.
The Garifuna people come from the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. But no one speaks Garifuna there any more. No one has since the 18th century, when the Garifuna were exiled by the British to Honduras. The diaspora is now spread throughout Central America in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize.
The Garifuna language has survived but over time, Spanish, English and several creoles have become more dominant. The pattern is familiar: parents speak in their native tongue. Kids answer back in the language of the adopted country.
As a child, Lovell would hear his parents and grandparents speaking Garifuna, and though he understood it, he spoke Belizean Creole. It was only when he heard local musician Pen Cayetano singing in Garifuna that Lovell became interested in the language.
Cayetano sang about contemporary social issues. And his music was part of a new sound called Punta Rock.
That inspired Lovell to learn to speak and sing in Garifuna, which eventually led to his current project. With backing from the New York-based Endangered Language Alliance, Lovell is translating popular English language songs into Garifuna. He’s also helping Lovell raise money for an after-school program to teach Garifuna to kids in Lovell’s Brooklyn neighborhood—kids who, like Lovell, came from Garifuna backgrounds but don’t speak the language.
Lesson one for these kids: the pre-school hit I Love You as sung by Barney, the giant purple dinosaur.
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