Tag Archives: pri

The English-only movement in America

A conversation about making English the only official language in the United States. Tim Schultz, lobbyist with Washington-based US English makes the case for this, ahead of an English-only vote in Oklahoma.

This is not the usual fare on The World in Words: we don’t often offer the microphone to people who discourage the use of other languages. But Schultz argues that English is what keeps America — a land of immigrants and therefore of many languages — intact. He believes that Spanish in particular is fast becoming an unofficial official language here (if that makes sense). He says government agencies use Spanish and other languages without thinking about the message they are sending. What they should be doing, he says, is using English so that non-English speakers are encouraged to learn the language, and succeed in their adopted homeland. Finally, he acknowledges that bigots and racists may be among the supporters of English Only. But as far as he’s concerned, they do not form the mainstream, nor does he share their views.

Also, an election ad in Chinese, aimed at Americans who don’t speak Chinese. This comes courtesy of conservative think tank/advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste, which clearly doesn’t think this glossy ad in a foreign language is a waste of money.

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Aussie English and proper English

Not that Australian English isn’t proper…

English is so widely and variously spoken that it barely can be called a single language. That hasn’t stopped grammar stickler Simon Heffer from trying to re-establish order.  The man is seriously old school, and he doesn’t like what any of Britain’s new schools are teaching –or failing to teach — about English usage. We take a trip with Heffer to a school in Suffolk, where he makes the case for his version of correct English: the difference, for example, between I will and I shall. Heffer doesn’t like it when English speakers get in a muddle over foreign terms. The Italian term panini, meaning sandwiches, has essentially become an English word. Most of us either don’t know or don’t worry that panini is plural.  Heffer, though, does. If he’s buying just one sandwich, he will insist on asking for a panino.

No-one’s going to arrest him for that.

Heffer, of course, is far from alone in trying to control our use of  the language, before it descends into hellish and unseemly chaos, no doubt taking us with it.  In the eighteenth century,  English bishop Robert Lowth tried something far more proactive: he laid out a set of  grammar rules for English that were, essentially, borrowed from Latin. To that end, he criticized the likes of Shakespeare, Donne and Milton for their “false syntax”.   Podcast contributor Elise Hahl says Lowth partially won his fight for the Latinization of English grammar. She says that to this day, English is the poorer for it. That said, we  hold up Shakespeare today as the numero uno Literary God of the English language, not least because of his inventive rule-breaking. So maybe Shakespeare and loose English got their revenge.

Also in the pod, poet Les Murray describes some of the more colorful expressions of Australian English: papped, for example, means snapped by paperazzi (or, I suppose, paperazzo if there’s only one photographer, yes Simon?); a window licker means a voyeur.  The keeper of the Australian English flame, by the way, is the Macquarie Dictionary, well worth checking out.

Finally, we check in on a language school in India where the teachers have a strong sense of what constitutes proper English. Mr Heffer might approve.

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For more on the endless variations of English, check out our discussion of Rotten English in this podcast from 2008.


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Genders, geniuses, and Tamil onomatopoeia

Another top five language stories. In no particular order:

5. A new line of Tamil pulp fiction translated into English keeps the magnificent onomatopoeia of the original. The brilliant people behind this are Chennai-based  Blaft Publications. They have plans for more pulp fiction to be translated from other Indian languages. Blaft sums up its first Tamil anthology this way:  Guns, cleavage, and mallipoo! And the untranslated Tamil onomatopoeia? Listen out in the pod for words like visshkda-nang, pulich and labak. One of those, by the way — guess which — mimics the sound of spit landing on a wall.

4. New research shows that no matter you much some Germans have tried, they can’t make their language gender-neutral. A doctor or a teacher in German — as in many languages — is nearly always specified as male or female. Over the decades, feminist publications in particular have tried to tinker with some of the assignations, or at least neutralize the gender specificity. But according to Swedish researcher Magnus Pettersson, they have failed.  This comes off the back of Guy Deutscher’s take on whether noun genders in the likes of German and Spanish affect how we think of the objects in questions. (eg bridge is feminine in German, masculine in Spanish; Deutscher, as a native Hebrew speaker, always thinks of a bed as feminine). I wonder if linguists, or neurologists or sociologists, have considered not how we think of those objects, but how the gender designations of those objects may influence how we think of men and women (He bridges problems; she is as soft as a bed etc).

3. A new-ish Belgian video pokes fun at the country’s linguistic battles. We poke fun at The Big Show’s beer-loving Clark Boyd, who just happens to be our correspondent in beer-loving  Brussels.

2. We hear more about two linguists who have won 2010 MacArthur genius awards: Wampanoag revivalist Jessie Little Doe Baird, who acted on a dream, studied linguistics, co-edited a dictionary and is raising her daughter to speak the extinct Wampanoag language;  and sign language researcher extraordinaire Carol Paddon.

1. Carol Hill’s adventures in Sweden. She was at the 2010 Göteborg Book Fair. She struggled with Swedish. She interviewed dozens of African writers,  who also didn’t understand Swedish but appeared to speak just about every other language on Earth.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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Liberian proverbs, Ajami, and courteous interruptions

My colleague Jason Margolis recently went to Liberia to report a few stories for The World. While he was there, he spent some time with his childhood buddy Jason Hepps, who has lived and worked in Liberia for five years. Long story short, the two Jasons  found themselves judging a Liberian proverb competition.

Liberian English and its cousin Liberian Kreyol are littered with pithy sayings. Most of them, though,  are as incomprehensible as badly translated Chinese fortunes. For example:  Your child cannot poo poo on your lap, and you cut your legs off, you just have to clean them off.  Or: If one keeps pressing a young bird in his palms, the bird may one day stooled in his hands. So, on the face of it, lots of toilet humor. But the meanings of many of these sayings aren’t intended to be  funny. Several include refererences to Liberia’s civil war and refugee camps. Jason’s report centers around the night when he and his fellow Jason — with plenty of help from local experts — picked the best proverb.

Is this script a language? Yes and no. The writing system is Arabic. But the language isn’t. In this case, it’s Mandinka, one of many African languages that often use Arabic script. In fact, these languages have borrowed Arabic script  for more than a thousand years. What’s interesting though, is that Ajami has been overlooked by most historians;  African history has been told through the lens of  English, French or Arabic documents. Also, because Ajami isn’t a language, Africans who used it were often classified as illiterate, even though they were quite capable of writing sentences of Mandinka or Hausa or Wolof. Now Ajami is getting a bit more respect, thanks to people like Fallou Ngom of Boston University and Dmitry Bondarev of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Every year, 4,000 staffers at the United Nations in New York sign up for language classes. There, they learn not just how to say things in other  languages but how to say them diplomatically. Which can mean being clear, or being extremely unclear, depending on what’s required.  That takes practise, as does learning how to interrupt and assert yourself without being rude. Most of us have trouble with that in our mother tongues.

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Speaking in Tongues and Dreaming in Chinese

A new PBS documentary, Speaking in Tongues, follows four students and their families at dual immersion schools in San Francisco. The film offers evidence that the study of math, science and other subjects in more than one language gives students an edge, despite what some disapproving relatives might think.

I heard about this film many months ago. What really intrigued me about it was that the filmmakers — Marcia Jarmel and her husband Ken Schneider — have a big stake in this subject themselves. Ten years ago, they enrolled their older son into a Chinese immersion elementary school. A few years later, they did the same with their other son. It seemed to me that the best way to do a story about the film was to do a story about the Jarmel-Schneider family. So I interviewed them all at their house in the Richmond District of San Francisco (where many local stores are owned by Chinese speakers).

Of the four school students profiled in Speaking in Tongues, one is close in circumstance and motivation to the two Jarmel-Schneider boys.  Julian Ennis is a high school sophomore, whose white middle class American parents have no obvious link to China or the Chinese language. Yet their son is taking the highest level of Chinese offered in San Francisco schools. He — and they — are in it for cultural exposure, as global citizens.

Among the the others profiled, Durell Laury is attending a Chinese immersion elementary school. He is the only kid from his housing project going to that school. He mother says learning Chinese is “a way in and a way out.” There’s also Jason Patiño, attending Spanish immersion school. His Mexican parents — who didn’t attend a day of school themselves — listen to other Spanish speaking parents at the school, as they demand more English be spoken. But without the Spanish Jason is learning in class,  chances are he’d forget the language of his parents.

Finally there’s Kelly Wong, whose Chinese-American parents speak virtually no Chinese. Kelly is learning both Mandarin and Cantonese. This allows her, among other things, to have a meaningful relationship with her Cantonese-speaking grandmother. There’s one extraordinary scene at a family banquet, at which her great aunt objects to her learning Chinese, while another family member defends the decision to send her to Chinese immersion school. That scene feels like it could one day be America writ large, as migration and globalization bring the world to America, and the idea of bilingualism takes hold — and not just in polyglot places like San Francisco.

Local listings for Speaking in Tongues are here.

Also, I talk with linguist Deborah Fallows on living in China and learning Chinese. In Chinese, she says, rude is polite, and brusque is intimate. This comes out in all kinds of disorienting (no pun intended) ways, but the bottom line is, if people feel close to you in China, they will use a language of intimacy. That’s another way of saying they will dispense with please, thank you and other niceties. Their language is likely to seem harsh and abrupt.  Just remember:  it’s a compliment!  Check out other interviews Fallows did with Time and NPR. Better yet, listen to my interview with her, which is longer, weirder and funnier: we do Chinese names for foreigners, English names for Chinese people, and what happened to the language during the Sichuan earthquake. Here’s her book in the United States and the UK.



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Learning in two languages, and new Zulu words

A back-to-school edition about learning in a second language. We spend some time in the classroom with fourth grade teacher Stephanie Blanco of  Gauldin Elementary School in Downey, CA to explore the challenges of teaching English language learners. ELL came to the fore after 1998, when California voters approved Proposition 227, which ended bilingual education.  In ELL classrooms,  everyone — whether they or not they are proficient in English — learns in English.

Gauldin has a good record of improving ELL students’ English skills, in marked contrast to many of the schools in neighboring Los Angeles. The situation there is so dire that the the U.S. Department of Education has launched a investigation to determine if if the Los Angeles Unified School District is violating the civil rights of English Language Learners.  The feds are also taking a look at Boston schools. (A few months ago, Carol Hills and I  discussed Arizona’s decision to penalize ELL teachers whose accents are deemed too foreign. Arizona is still defending its policy, which itself has come under federal scrutiny.)

Also in the podcast, a Creole-speaking Haitian girl newly arrived in New York City enrols in a high school, with help from a community group in Brooklyn. The girl fled Haiti after the earthquake there earlier this year. Like most Haitians, she wants to master the language and stay here permanently.  But she only has a U.S. visitor visa.Then it’s back to California as an Arabic immersion program gets underway at FAME a public charter school in Fremont, CA. Reporter Hana Baba provided us with a nice slideshow of scenes from the school, including the photo above of school founder Maram Alaiwat. Not surprisingly, many of the students at this K-10th grade school are of Arab and/or Muslim descent.  More surprising is that the school has opened its doors to the FBI. The bureau offers FAME 5th graders the chance to become “junior special agents” .

Finally, the first Zulu-English dictionary in 40 years has just been published in South Africa. Some English speakers already know a few words of Zulu (also known as isiZulu) — words like ubuntu. Zulu has also borrowed from other South African languages such as Afrikaans, and many Zulu words offer their own linguistic takes on apartheid and AIDS. We talk with the publishing manager of Oxford University Press South Africa.

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Grammar tips in Brazil, and magic in a second language

Forget their laidback image, Brazilians care deeply about grammar. One city has a long-established grammar hotline staffed by Portuguese language experts. Now the state of Rio de Janeiro is following suit. This may, or may not, be  in response to the many times Brazil’s head of state, President Luiz Inácio da Silva has loused up his lingo. Lula, as he’s better known, has embarrassed and amused Brazilians for years now with all manner of grammatical gaffes. It seems unlikley, though, that will consult the grammar hotline, either as president, or when he retires on January 1, 2011.

Then, an interview with the newly-crowned world record holder in speed-texting. Melissa Thompson speaks with Marco Werman about why she is so fast at thumbing messages — and why her boyfriend is so very slow. The two sentences that she thumbed in record time (25.94 seconds) were : “the razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human”. Test your how your text-writing skills shape up to Melissa Thompson’s here.

After a diversion by way of a Norwegian word (lakenskrekk; literally, bed sheet dread, or fear of insomnia), we consider the art of performing magic. Specifically, performing in a language that’s not your native tongue. For magicians, this can be a huge challenge: so much about magic — the stories, the sell, the suspension of disbelief — is accomplished through language. So if a native English-speaking magician, for example, finds him or herself required to perform his routine in French, it requires far more than just consulting the dictionary for the equivalent of abracadabra or hocus pocus.  We speak with two magicians, native Hebrew speaker Asi Wind and native English speaker Prakash Puru (pictured), both of whom have made the transtition to performing in a second language.

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A Persian insult, a northern dialect, and Urdu directions

Iran’s leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Photo: Daniella Zalcman) is known for his fruity prose. This month he outdid himself with a new anti-American insult . In a speech to Iranian expats, he  used the expression the bogeyman snatched the boob. It’s old Persian saying that mothers use when they’re trying to wean their babies off breast milk. But what’s acceptable for mothers to say in the privacy of their homes is considered über-coarse in a public setting. Some Iranians are astonished that their President would use the phrase. Their President, though, is a man who likes to show he has the common touch, especially when dissing the United States.  He appeared quite full of himself  too, in a recent interview with John Lee Anderson of the New Yorker.

Also, we hear from Cambridge University linguistic anthropologist Stephen Leonard who’s spending a year in Northwest Greenland, documenting the planet’s northernmost dialect. That dialect, or language — it’s been classified both ways — is called Inuktun, and it’s spoken by the Polar Inuit, or Inughuit of Northwest Greenland. Leonard doesn’t have much to go on. He speaks Danish and has been learning Standard West Greenlandic, both of which are understood by many of the Polar Inuit. But he only has a word list for Inuktun. The Inughuit’s way of life is severely threatened by global warming: the giant block of ice that recently broke off a glacier is close to their hunting grounds. As for cameraderie, this photo of a groups of Inuits near Cape Dorset, Canada (photo credit: Ansgar Walk) may paint too rosy a picture; also, people generally use snowmobiles these days, not dogsleds. Not many people. Not many dogs. Not much warmth. It may be a very long year.

Also in this week’s podcast, we have a report on how foreign language movies in the United States are seeking new ways of finding their audiences.  And World in Words listener and self-professed language nerd Sofia Javed tells us about the difficulties of getting from Point A to Point B in Urdu, a language that has the same word for go straight and turn right.

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Deciphering ancient script and contemporary politicos

In this week’s podcast, another  five language stories that didn’t make headlines. Well, aside from the Sarah Palin one.  Discussing these stories with me are Rhitu Chatterjee, host of The World’s Science podcast, Clark Boyd, host of The World’s Technology podcast and Kevin II. Yup, that’s a picture of Kevin II, in The World’s broadcast studio.

5. An Israeli-British study shows bilinguals may respond differently depending on the language of the questions. According to the study, Arab Israelis are more likely to respond warmly to certain Jewish names if they are asked about them in Hewbrew, as compared to Arabic. Does this mean we think differently in different languages? No, but it might help explain why someone who is bilingual (or trilingual in Rhitu’s case) is “more polite” in one language.

4. New research points to a possible breakthrough in deciphering ancient scripts.

3. Sarah Palin compares her coinage of new English words to Shakespeare’s. Her most recent coinage, of course, was refudiate, which she said on Fox News and then tweeted a few days later. (She somewhat refudiated her own invention by zapping the tweet, before acknowledging it and making the Shakespeare comparison in a subsequent post.)  For his part, Shakespeare came up with gnarled, premediated, fitful, and hundreds more, none of them via Twitter. Maybe in time we’ll prize refudiate as highly. My guess though, is that like wee-wee’d up, an Obamaism, refudiate ain’t gonna make it. Let’s face it: most of Shakespeare’s coinages appear to have been based not on ignorance but inventiveness.

2. A science writer argues in a Discover magazine blog post that language diversity condemns a society to poverty. I don’t fully understand the argument, but it made for a lively conversation.

1. Clark’s adventures in linguistically confused Belgium. Yes, The World’s tech man about town has just moved to the land of beer, waffles and linguistic discontent. So which of the country’s two main languages should Clark learn, Dutch or French? And in choosing one, has he upset speakers of the other?  Mr Boyd reveals all, including the surprising nationality of the podcaster/language teacher he’s following.

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Colombian Spanish, U.S. Spanish, and Dora the Explorer Spanish

In Colombia, you can hear Latin America’s clearest, crispest Spanish. As a result, Bogota is home to everything from call centers to telenovela production houses. The original Yo soy Betty, la Fea was shot and produced in Colombia. It was broadcast in most Latin American countries, before new versions were produced all over the world: in the U.S. Ugly Betty; in Vietnam Cô gái xấu xí; in Turkey Sensiz Olmuyor.

Also in this pod, a conversation with philosopher Oscar Guardiola-Rivera about what the spread of Spanish in the United States is doing to the language, and to America. There are now particular identifiable dialects of Spanish specific to certain U.S. regions, and sometimes specific to certain groups: Cuban-American, Puerto Rican, Mexican-American, etc. The language is leaving its mark on the country too. It could be argued, for example, that in Miami, if you don’t speak at least some Spanish you’re at a disadvantage.  Guardiola-Rivera is the author of What if Latin America Ruled The World?

Finally, Dora the Explorer and Kai-Lan: two fictional TV stars who introduce American kids to their first words of Spanish and Chinese. In Dora’s case, she also introduces Spanish speakers to their first English words, which may be why  this doctored online image of Dora garnered so much attention earlier this year.  The intention of the illustrator wasn’t clear. Was she sympathizing with opponents of the spread of Hispanic culture and language via illegal immigration, or was she mocking them? Both sides embraced the image, and poor Dora got it in the neck.  For the record, Dora does plenty of travelling in her cartoon world; she appears to cross many borders, quite unhindered. As for her nationality, she appears to be American — at least that’s how she sounds — of undefined Hispanic heritage.  (This is totally beside the point, but it doesn’t stop many of us from speculating…). One other thing about Dora: We English-speakers know her as a character who introduces kids to Spanish words. Well, the Spanish language version of the show Dora la Exploradora introduces kids to English words.

 


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