Stand-up comedian Gad Elmaleh leaves fame, fortune and…French behind

Nina P. put together this episode.

In comedy, timing is everything.

And the timing was perfect for Moroccan-French comedian Gad Elmaleh to come by the studio recently to star in our wordy, nerdy podcast, The World in Words.

Oh my Gad! How do you say that in French? | The World on YouTube

Moroccan-French Comedian Gad Elmaleh (Photo: Caroline Lessire)

Moroccan-French Comedian Gad Elmaleh (Photo: Caroline Lessire)


In France, he’s huge, performing in arenas for thousands of fans. Elmaleh describes his style as a combination of physical and observational comedy. He’s often been compared to Jerry Seinfeld. In fact, he played the voice of Seinfeld’s character in “Bee Movie”

But Gad Elmaleh recently left fame, fortune, and French behind to pursue a stand-up career in the US in English for literally a fistful of dollars.

His new show, “Oh My Gad” opens in New York City this January.

It’s the culmination of a dream that he spoke about last year with Seinfeld in the web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”

“My dream is to be able one day to go on stage in English in a comedy club here and to do my thing in English.”

Elmaleh was born in Casablanca, Morocco, and grew up speaking a mixture of French, Arabic and Hebrew. He’s done stand-up sets in all three languages. However taking his act on the road to the US and doing a set in English has been hard work, says Elmaleh. He studies the English language and pronunciation for two hours every morning. He has been documenting this English language journey and recently put out the short film: “10 Minutes in America.” In the film, he gets advice from the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman.

Sarah Silverman warned him that mere translation wouldn’t work. “You have to start over,” she tells him in the film. “It’s not just translating — you have to craft a joke. You are going to need some years.”

It took getting on stage and bombing for Elmaleh to heed Silverman’s advice.

“In the beginning when I got here in the US I said, ‘You know what? I have a great show. It’s 90 minutes in French that killed every night. I’m going to translate that.”

And that’s what he did. He worked with his English teachers to translate his jokes.

“I immediately realized that that was not at all what I needed to do,” says Elmaleh.

All the jokes that had killed with a French audience didn’t make sense to Americans.

“For example, I had many jokes about when you go to the restaurant the air conditioning is freezing and the first thing they do is bring you a glass with ice water. So French people were laughing a lot and then I did this at a comedy club in English and Americans were like, ‘Yeah, well we do that.’”

His material has since morphed into observations about his move to New York City and observations about American culture and the trials of learning English.

And doing this new material in English has been unexpectedly liberating, he says. He is more free and daring in English than in French.

“It’s stressful, it’s hard but it’s also liberating,” explains Elmaleh. “With English it’s not that I have nothing to lose but I take a little risk — I like it.”

PODCAST CONTENTS

00:00 Gad Elmaleh explains his English dream to Jerry Seinfeld

1:22 Gad receives advice from Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman

3:09 Gad figures out that translating comedy from French to English isn’t as easy as merely translating jokes

4:03 English lessons

5:00 Gad, born in Casablanca, Morocco speaks four languages

6:00 English is exhausting

6:29 The first joke that Gad ever told in English

7:51 Feeling like a different comedian in English versus French

8:56 Gad is “blown out of the water”

9:11 The cliché about Texas is not true (For more about Texas clichés check out the World in Words episode: “Talking Texas in Iran”)

9:31 Nina critiques Gad’s NYC cab driver joke

10:26 PC, PDA…what does it all mean?!

12:50 Gad isn’t as balanced and together as you may think

14:00 Gad jokes about restaurants in America: Are you still working on that?

15:00 Gad’s thoughts on being alone and starting all over again

19:00 Answer to last week’s NEH accent quiz

MUSIC

“Bad Scene” by Podington Bear

“Little French Song” by Carla Bruni

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The Shinnecock tribe of Long Island is trying to raise its language from the dead


Alina Simone and I put together this episode.

PODCAST CONTENTS

0:20: “We live on Long Island, which is very removed from what people think of as Native America.” Tina Tarrant and her daughter Tohanash (pictured above).

1:10: “The hardest thing is to feel like you don’t know your own culture.”

1:40: This is first of several podcasts we’ll be doing in 2016 about people trying to keep speaking or bring back their languages. We’re planning to bring you stories from Kenya, Japan, the Netherlands, Canada and China, as well as several stories from the United States.

2:00 Is it always worth saving a language?

4:21 Alina Simone visits the Wuneechanunk Shinnecock Preschool in Southampton, NY.

12:28 Two unrelated events: the American Dialect Society names the singular “they” its word of the year; David Bowie dies, age 69.

13:45 How those two events are linked.

14:05 Bowie’s “they” adrogyny.

15:13 “I can switch accents within seconds of meeting somebody”

16:10 Bowie’s 2002 interviews with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air and with John Wilson on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row.

17:13 “The words started appearing out of nowhere, and I just couldn’t control them.”

18:41 “It’s the lack of years left that weighs far heavier on me than the age that I am.”

20:03: Please write us a review at iTunes. Thanks!

20:20 Guess the accent. Post your answer at our Facebook page, or tweet us.

20:58 Lavinia Greenlaw reads “Listening to Bowie”.

MUSIC HEARD IN THE PODCAST

00:02 “Dramamine” by Podington Bear

11:33 “Februum” by Alexander Boyes

14:32 “Starman” by David Bowie

15:44 “Always Crashing in the Same Car” by David Bowie

17:40 “Heathen” by David Bowie

19:21 “Fashion” by David Bowie

20:03 “Dramamine” by Podington Bear

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The pleasures of an unsolved mystery

In this World in Words podcast, we pry open (but not too wide) a mystery or two. Strange to listen to it now: we recorded it a month before David Bowie’s death.

PODCAST CONTENTS

0:10 Nina Porzucki and Pien Huang tell their mysterious day stories. Both involve monks living in the mountains.

3:02 Me on the pleasures of incomprehension. It’s all down to DH Lawrence and David Bowie.

5:49 Cartoon Queen Carol Hills on how her Twitter followers help her curate foreign-language cartoons. If you like cartoons and satire, you absolutely must follow Carol on Twitter.

7:10 At the of Carol’s obsession list right now is Japanese manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, who died on November 30.

9:05 Mizuki’s English translator Zack Davisson on how Mizuki saved Japan’s supernatural culture.

10:37 Mizuki’s influence in Japan is akin to Disney’s in the US. “If you removed him from the equation, you would actually have a different Japan.”

12:27 The many mysteries of the “Codex Seraphinianus” by Luigi Serafini, a encylopedia of a fantasy world, written in an imagined script. (Nina is working on an entire podcast episode on this!).

17:53 “China Online” by Veronique Michel demystifies (though not completely) Chinese wordplay and netspeak.

20:01 “Lingo: a Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe” by Gaston Dorren is a funny and opinionated whistle-stop around Europe’s languages, large and small.

21:55 “Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness” by Jennifer Tseng, a novel about a librarian living on an island who harbors an infatuation for a high school student. I’m not letting on what happens, except to say there’s plenty of exploration of the mysteries of love and friendship. By the book’s end, though, mysteries they remain. Quite right too.

MUSIC HEARD IN THIS EPISODE

“Dramamine” by Podington Bear

“Blackstar” by David Bowie

“The Resolution of Mr Clouds” by Alexander Boyes

“Life on Mars?” David Bowie

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Who says humor doesn’t translate?


Nina P. put together this episode.

Happy New Year all of you swell World in Words listeners! May your upcoming new year be full of fun — wait, make that multilingual hilarity.

To help kick things off The World in Words leaves you with one of our favorite interviews from the archives with the multilingual comedian, Samir Khullar AKA Sugar Sammy. He grew up in Quebec speaking Punjabi, Hindi, French and English and he now does stand-up in all four languages. Patrick Cox sat down with him back in 2013.

Sugar Sammy

PODCAST CONTENTS

00:37 Listen for the answer to last week’s “name that accent” quiz

1:18 Gad Elmaleh, French stand-up comedian dabbles in English

2:18 The multilingual, multitalented comic, Eddie Izzard

4:14 Meet Samir Khullar AKA Sugar Sammy

5:47 How Sugar Sammy first started his comedy career at school

6:35 Why Sugar Sammy decided to do a bilingual comedy show

7:09 Bridging Anglophone and Francophone culture

9:26 Did Sugar Sammy’s ethnicity make it easier for him to poke fun at both Anglophone and Francophone cultures?

11:00 How does speaking different languages affect the comedy? Does funny translate?

14:00 National Endowment of the Humanities funding credit and the “name that accent” quiz for next week.

MUSIC

“Re Bop” by Marie et les Garçons

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What’s proper English? In South Korea, it starts with sounding American

The reporting for this podcast is by Jason Strother. He lives in Seoul.

Sometimes speaking English isn’t enough. Sometimes it has to be the right kind of English.

When Eve Coffey first applied for English teaching positions in South Korea last year, the job hunt didn’t get off to a good start. The 23-year old was talking online from her home in Ireland with a Korean recruiter who she says seemed puzzled by her nationality.

An English-language class in South Korea. (Photo: Jason Strother)

An English-language class in South Korea. (Photo: Jason Strother)

“He asked where am I and I said, ‘I’m in Ireland.’ He said, ‘Oh, Irish people speak English?’ I said, ‘Yes, Irish people speak English,’” Coffey recalls in this week’s World in Words podcast.

The conversation took a turn for the worse when she turned away from the computer to say something to her mother in a mix of Irish and her natural brogue. Coffey says the man lost it.

Irish ESL teacher Eve Coffey was taken aback when a South Korean recruiter told her she wasn't an English speaker. “You’re not an English speaker!” she recalls the recruiter shouting. “You’re never going to get a job in Korea. You don’t speak English!”

Coffey says the man told her that he would add her name to a teacher “blacklist,” but that proved to be a hallow threat. She quickly found a job via another recruiter and now teaches ESL to middle and high school students in the city of Jinju.

Irish ESL teacher Eve Coffey (Photo: Jason Strother)

Irish ESL teacher Eve Coffey (Photo: Jason Strother)

Native speakers such as Coffey are in high demand in South Korea, where learning English borders on a national obsession. Some 20,000 foreign ESL instructors work in the country’s public school system as well as in private tutoring academies called hagwons.

Local law allows only citizens from seven English speaking countries to teach: Canada, the US, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Ireland. But some teachers who aren’t from North America say schools won’t hire instructors with their accents and some say their bosses even ask them to fake an American accent in the classroom.

Many South Koreans prefer the American accent over others because of their country’s historical and cultural ties with the United States, says Jasper Kim, who lectures at Seoul’s Ewha Women’s University.

He says this preference fulfills an academic objective, too.

“I think for many South Koreans, having the American accent means it’s the right path,” Kim says. “So the American accent is to get their children to where they want them to be, in essence the Ivy League.”

Anything else, Kim adds, “wouldn’t make sense” to these ambitious Korean parents.

Some tutoring schools specifically advertise that they teach North American English, such as the Sweet English Language Institute in Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district.

For Kim Geon-young, his English instruction comes from North America teachers. He says he plans to do an MBA in the US. That’s why he wants to become more familiar with what he calls the “American accent.”

“I know there’s a difference between American and British English,” Kim says. But after being told that there are many regional accents in the US, the student admitts that he wasn’t aware of those differences.

The institute’s curriculum is based on what some phonetic textbooks refer to as Standard American English, says director Kevin Kang, who has a background in speech pathology. But he believes that the type of accent a student learns doesn’t really matter, despite what some Koreans think — consistent pronunciation is more important.

“It doesn’t need to be an American accent, or a British accent or even an Australian accent,” Kang says. “Once the learner sticks to one certain language, that will improve their sound a lot.”

Kang says one English sound that Koreans can’t seem to get right is the difference between an R and L. This causes some confusion when saying words like “read” and “lead,” or, famously, “rice” and “lice.”

To help students improve their North American accents, Kang’s school is developing a smartphone app called Sound Fit. Displaying an animated mouth on the screen, the program shows how the user should shape their lips and tongue to form vowels and consonants. It also compares the student’s pronunciation of English sounds to that of a native speaker.

Some other teachers in Korea do not agree with the Sweet English Language Institute’s approach to language learning.

“Students need to hear a range of accents”, says Eve Coffey, the Irish ESL teacher in Jinju. “It would be very rare that they’re actually going to hear a particular “ideal” accent”

Coffey adds that after a year of teaching in Korea, her students have gotten used to her voice.

So much so, she says, that one has even started to sound a little Irish when he speaks English.


PODCAST CONTENTS

00:00 A quiz for Nina Porzuki: a song and its singer’s accent.

03:24 South Korea’s pecking order of English accents.

04:21 “Irish people speak English?”

08:50 Jason passes the “L” test.

10:30 Are American accents still #1 in South Korea?

13:00 Are the most valued English teachers white Americans?

16:45 “Everyone take out your homework now.”

17:50 There are many Korean dialects too.

19:02 And then there’s North Korean version of the language.

MUSIC HEARD IN THIS EPISODE

“Dramamine” by Podington Bear

“Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues

“Bad Scene” by Podington Bear

“Cathaedrabysmal” by Unsettling Scores

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Signing with a Philly accent

Nina P. put together this episode.

Cheesesteaks, Peanut Chews, Tastykakes, oh yeah, the Liberty Bell — there’s so much to love about Philadelphia, but one of the best things about the city of Brotherly Love is the accent. We’re not talking about spoken English — we’re talking about American Sign Language. This week on the podcast we learn about the Philadelphia accent in ASL.

What is an accent in ASL? ASL speaker and researcher Jami Fisher explains it all. Fisher, along with University of Pennsylvania linguistic professor Meredith Tamminga, is working on a study to document and explain this “weird,” as Fisher calls it, way of signing. (For the hearing impaired or those who cannot access audio immediately, there’s a full transcript here.)

Also on the podcast, we hear from the actors of the Broadway musical, “Spring Awakening.” This production features eight deaf actors. John Hockenberry from our friends at The Takeaway got the chance to interview some of the actors.

PODCAST CONTENTS:

0:00 Sean Monahan doing the Philly accent. He does a series of PhillyTawk videos on YouTube.

1:18 Murph (Nick Kroll) of Pawnsylvania

1:39 Meet Jami Fisher, ASL Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania. She is studying the Philadelphia ASL accent

2:54 What is an accent in ASL?

3:56 Why does Philadelphia have an accent in ASL?

4:29 Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet found the first deaf school in Hartford, CT in 1817

5:35 Pennsylvania School for the deaf is founded in 1820

6:27 Theory about the Philadelphia signs

7:54 Theories as to why the ASL Philly accent may be disappearing

9:31 Jami Fisher recruited her father to help interview deaf participants in the study

10:31 What are some similar sign language accent studies around the world?

11:07 Growing up “CODA” (child of deaf adults)

12:16 The story of Jami’s parents learned to sign

13:55 Broadway actor Daniel Durant on speaking American Sign Language

15:37 John Hockenberry, the host of The Takeaway interviews some of the cast members of the current ASL Broadway production of “Spring Awakening”

Music heard in this episode:

“Peas Corps” and “Bad Scene” by Podington Bear

Music from the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening

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A tale of two linguists and the conflict that separates them

Shaina Shealy reported this one in Israel and Gaza. She and I had a great conversation about it in the podcast.

The windows of Arik Sadan’s classroom at Hebrew University in Jerusalem look over the Silwan Valley, a sloping desert dotted with tall, white, rectangular Palestinian houses. Inside his classroom, most students are Jewish. Sadan teaches them Arabic.

Sadan wrote a book, “The Subjunctive Mood,” tracing Arabic linguistic thought from pre-Islamic Arabia to the 19th century, which earned him the title of the world expert in Arabic’s subjunctive tense. His native tongue is Hebrew and he can talk about Arabic grammatical thought — specifically, his philosophies behind ancient linguistic decision-making — for 15 minutes straight. “When you look at the structure,” he says, “you can see a logic of thinking that’s common across borders.”

Arik Sadan (L) and Sobhi Bahloul (R). Photos: Shaina Shealy

Arik Sadan (L) and Sobhi Bahloul (R). Photos: Shaina Shealy

Beyond Israel’s southwest border, Sobhi Bahloul also wrote a book: Kitaba Wa’Ti-ibrya. It was published in seven parts (Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced Hebrew; Hebrew Writing I and II; and Hebrew Editing I and II) and adds up to Gaza’s Hebrew language curriculum. Bahloul trained all of the twelve Hebrew teachers in the Gaza Strip.

Sobhi Bahloul is Palestinian, 53 years old and has been speaking Hebrew for over half of his life. After graduating from Tel Aviv University with a MA in Hebrew Language in 2002, he became Hamas’s go-to guy for all things related to Hebrew. He teaches at universities, consults with businessmen and translates documents for Gazans in Israeli hospitals and prisons.

“Hebrew is the language of an enemy,” Bahloul says. But he also believes Hebrew can bring Gazans closer to Israeli culture by helping them understand customs and daily life.Sobhi Bahloul and his Hebrew students in Gaza City.Bahloul and Sadan’s deep understanding of a language that is not only foreign but potentially adversarial brings them uncommonly close to other cultures. Both men are so passionate about language that they teach everyone who expresses interest — including soldiers, informants and militants. But they are driven by a belief that language’s unifying power outweighs its other uses.

PODCAST CONTENTS

00:00 Learning the language of your enemy

01:53 Music: “Habib Galbi” by A-WA. More about these three singing sisters here.

02:33 Israeli linguist Arik Sadan, an authority on the Arabic subjunctive.

Linguist Arik Sadan05:15 Jews are turning their backs on a language that used to be central to their culture: “The Jewish heritage– a great percentage of it– is Arabic.”

07:30 The way Arabic is taught in the Israeli army: “Know thy enemy, in order for you to stop the next explosion. You tend to forget that it’s a language.”

9:10 Sadan’s sad joke: “I only wish that the Hebrew people and the Arab people would be a bit as close as the languages are.”

11:20 But is he in the Mossad?

12:45 Searching for Arik Sadan’s Palestinian counterpart.

13:20 Sobhi Bahloul has trained all twleve of Gaza’s Hebrew teachers and developed Gaza’s Hebrew curriculum.

14:42 “If you understand each other, it’s good.”

16:35 Bahloul’s students don’t learn about Passover, but he wants them to learn other cultural references.

17:45 Learning Hebrew to survive in an Israeli prison.

19:40 Bahloul breaks the ice with Israeli soldiers.

21:14 Have Arik Sadan and Sobhi Bahloul ever met?

23:30 Gaza’s Hebrew students’ Facebook friends in Israel.

24:08 Learning Hebrew in order to understand the labels on cosmetic products.

27:10 Music: Eich Efshar by Jane Bordeaux

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