Voting, vowing and singing in a foreign language

You may know this type of person: the guy — and it usually is a guy — who needs to know everything that everyone around him is saying. This is  a problem if everyone around him is speaking in a language he doesn’t understand. I have trained myself not to be that guy, but I know plenty of other reporters who are him. In a potentially insecure situation, you want to know what people are saying, especially if those people — say, your translator and your driver — appear to be in vociferous disagreement.

So even though I try not to be Mr Need-to-Know, the pod this week pays tribute to him. We have a couple of stories in which it really would have been useful to know what was being said.  First, we hear about Korean-Americans in Flushing, New York.  A community group, MinKwon Center for Community Action, tried to persuade some of these Korean-speakers to vote in November’s midterms. They found that many of these potential voters didn’t speak much English. And they didn’t speak much American election-ese either. All of which made it difficult for them to choose candidates, or see any point in doing so. Check out Alex G’s photo-set here.

Then, one of those throwaway-funny stories that’s also quite sad.  You may have seen the recent video of a wedding vow renewal ceremony in the Maldives. The couple in question were Swiss. The language of the ceremony was Dhivehi, not a word of which the couple understood. During the ceremony, things were said that shouldn’t have been said — curses, insults. The couple was oblivious until it was too late. They’re probably mortified. So is the tourism-dependent Maldivian government.

Also in this week’s pod,  a  master offers classes in Islamic calligraphy his Arlington, Virginia home. Mohamed Zakariya has been teaching calligraphy for more than 20 years, and practising it for more than 50 years. Zakariya grew up in California and was first turned on to Koranic calligraphy during a trip to Morocco. As well as teach, he has designed a stamp for the US Postal Service. He wrote an inscription that Barack Obama gave to the King of Saudi Arabia.

Finally, performing in a language that you don’t understand. I remember performing in a play at an art school in Denmark. At the time, my Danish was virtually non-existent. So my Danish friends were astonished to hear me utter complicated phrases perfectly. (Don’t knock memorization and repetition…) It so impressed them that they didn’t notice that I couldn’t act to save my life. Broadway star Amra-Faye Wright (pictured) went several steps further: first, she can act. She performed her role as Velma Kelly in the musical Chicago in Japanese, in Tokyo. Doing that got her interested in the language; she’s still taking classes in Japanese.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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12 responses to “Voting, vowing and singing in a foreign language

  1. Elle Simon

    In situations without knowing what is going on can be very distrubing to one-self. For example, I totally agree with the wedding vow ceremony that was engaged in this blog. It should have been in their own language that is Swiss, so the couple knew what was being said. Also, with Amra-faye Wright, if I was in her position I would have been frustrated on learning how to act and the intructions were being told to me in a different language. You’d have to work your brain off too while your working your body off and memorizing it at the same time!

    Elle Simon
    NVCC Student
    CST 229

  2. Uyen Phung

    I know how it’s like to be in certain situations where people around you are speaking a different language you don’t know and you feel paranoid or insecure because they might be talking about you. I know this base from experience. I too admit that at times I try not to be Miss “Need-To-Know,” but it’s kind of hard not to when it’s happening right there in front of you. I feel terrible for the wedding couple in Maldives, to be completely oblivious as to what’s going on around you – it’s a horrible feeling. I must say it’s pretty interesting that you performed in a language you didn’t understand for a play. I always wanted to know how that was like.

  3. Raphy Valdez

    As an inter cultural communication student at Northern Virginia Community college, cultural diversity and language has been a big role in communication with each other. I find this technique of community groups trying to persuade “new Americans” to vote in elections a good idea. Persuading immigrants in their own language increases the chances of getting the immigrant to move forward and be more responsive in these political campaigns. I agree that relating to their culture with language helps more then just blindly trying to make them understand English.
    As for the wedding ceremony in Maldives, I think the ceremony should be spoken in the couple’s language, which was Swiss. Not being able to have a language translated especially when it is directed to you can make you feel somewhat uncomfortable. Learning a new language is something that takes time and practice. As for Amra-Faye Wright, for her taking on a role in a Japanese musical is quite a challenge. Kudos to her in being able to do that and for her to explore the Japanese language.

  4. Lhagvadorj Sergelen

    After listening to the audio radio, it makes me realize just how much people don’t understand different cultures. The story with the Korean community however is a big step up to try to understand a different culture. The interviewers working to efficiently communicate with native Koreans and Korean Americans is a great way to close the gap between the differences of cultures. It can teach us a lot about how to reach out to other communities. Another story about Mohamed Zakariya, who teaches Islamic Calligraphy is also a break through. When anyone tries to teach and spread different culture to the people, it spreads knowledge and acceptance. The students of the calligraphy class would understand the culture and the history of Islam and its routes of writing. I think teaching different languages and having festivals dedicated to different cultures will help people accept what would seem like a bizzare. Understanding and being exposed to a variaty of culture, people would be able to slowly accept people of every culture. I am of a different nationality and I have noticed that many American’s are curious about my culture. It is a good sign to know that they want to expand their knowledge of my culture.

    Lhagvadorj Sergelen
    NVCC Student

  5. Mai Huynh

    I totally agree and understand that it would be terrible when people arround us are speaking a different language. we feel annoyed because we don’t know what they are talking about us and how to react. However, it is a nice experience any way. Especially, now we live in America, a melting pot, we have to encounter it a lot, so just get used to it and learn a language.
    CST 229-002N

  6. ivan veskov

    I have been in situations where i didn’t understand what people were saying all around me. I never perceived it as something negative though because i never thought of it as someone trying to insult me behind my back. Being a Serbian citizen i get in a lot of situations where i find myself speaking serbian in-front of non-serbian people and they always think i am saying something offensive but i never am. Im usually talking about where the other person is from or some random conversation that has nothing to do with the non-serbian person. So because that situation has happened to me a lot o never think that someone is talking about me behind my back in another language. What happened to the swiss couple at their wedding is horrifying, and i think its a rare occurrence that something like that would happen.

  7. Michele Chounlamountry

    Being a part of such a multicultural community, it is somewhat inevitable to not be around people who speak different languages. It’s intriguing to listen to others speak in their native tongue, but although you may not understand what those are saying; whether it be an insult, a compliment, or even just a random thought — you never really know what it is that person may be saying, and that, I do find somewhat irritating. So, with the incident of the Swiss couple, personally the situation is disturbing. I would be mortified to think that I was just blessed in another country, but really it was out of spite, and the Maldivians did it because they could. With such a wide variety of multicultural communication, people today are more curious to learn different languages, and to expand their knowledge of other cultures around them.

  8. abiel nugusse

    being from another country i had a first had experience with being thrown into a place where you didn’t the customs, culture, or language of the country. I know exactly what the feeling is because as soon as i came to this country i was enrolled into school with out any prior teaching of English. but what makes it a great place to learn is being part of a multicultural community in which you don’t only learn the language and cultures of the language but also some minor things from your neighbors.

  9. Christian Escobar

    Adapting to a new language and culture is difficult. Coming to a new country I would try my best to learn the language and customs to adapt myself to a new environment. The couple that renewed the vows should have at least known what was going to be said or had someone to help with translation. I understand doing it in another language is romantic and beautiful but at least I think you should know what is going to be said at your own ceremony.

  10. Abby

    It is very hard to keep up with different people if they’re living at different places or given the wrong address. It’s like giving a cake with half of the directions in a foreign language. In the wedding vows I would be so irritated that someone was verbally abusing me in a different language. If you were not aware of what they were saying in a foreign language then just have your wedding in your own language. That’s degrading because your wedding day is the most important day. The lady stated that, “his knowledge of Arabic imbues his writing with a sense of reverence for the past and a sense of value and traditional styles” and I agree because you could learn so much with a writing style and being able to understand that can lead you to understand the nation’s history. Just as learning how to write a language is difficult but speaking in Japanese is very difficult because it contains so many characters. I think that it’s amazing that she’s taking learning a whole step further.

  11. Tess Carter NVCC Student CST 299-001N

    I remember actually attending a wedding that was entirely in Twi. Not only was it in a language that was completely foreign to me, but my family and I were the only people there who were not African American. I knew without a doubt that people there were talking about me and my family because of all the stares and finger pointing we were getting. It made us feel a little uncomfortable. And because the ceremony was in Twi, we weren’t sure when to stand, sit and we definitely could not repeat back the passages being read to the congregation.
    It’s always more settling when things are familiar to you and when you are aware of your surroundings. Especially when it’s your own wedding ceremony.
    On the other hand, it is very important to show respect for other cultures and languages. We live in a world where cultures are mixing together, and I think it’s more important than ever to be more aware of other cultures.

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