Monthly Archives: April 2011

English-only in the US, translating tweets in Japan and satire in Egypt

The English Only movement in the United States is always active during times of high immigration (check out my previous interview with US English lobbyist Tim Schultz). Now, the movement has got a shot in the arm from the Tea Party. It may help convince lawmakers and voters in the 19 remaining states that don’t yet have a law on their books declaring English to be the official language.

The issue with most of these laws is that they are ineffective (here is a map of English Only legislation in the United States). Many are symbolic only: they don’t specify how and when English must be used. Some do get specific.  In Arizona and Oklahoma, for example, you can’t take a driving test in a foreign language. But even then it’s not clear how much English Only laws affect linguistic behaviour.

There’s a long-established pattern of English acquisition among immigrants and their children. The first generation often speaks little or no English. The second generation, born in the United States, is bilingual, but often more proficent at English than the home language. The third generation is usually monolingual English, unable to communicate with their immigrant grandparent. People like language writer Robert Lane Greene, interviewed in my story, believe that pattern is again playing itself out.

Still, that hasn’t stopped Tea Partiers from bumper-sticking their love of English and fear of (mainly) Spanish from Florida and Texas all the way to Wasilla, AK.

This video has more than 14 million hits on YouTube, and this duo have performed it numerous times at Tea Party events.

Also in the pod this week, a conversation with Aya Watanabe, who has spent much of the past month translating earthquake-related tweets from Japanese to English.

It’s part of a project started by Japanese blogger Gen Taguchi to collect tweets that may give succor and inspire Japanese people in the face of this tragedy. Volunteers have translated tweets into at least 17 different languages.

In English, many of the tweets have more than the 140-characters maximum permitted by Twitter. That’s partly because a single Japanese character conveys more information than a single letter in the Roman alphabet. It’s also because Watanabe has sometimes added contextual details (eg ” on Kyushu Island, a thousand miles south of Tohoku”).

Below are some of Aya Watanabe’s favorite tweets, starting with the two that inspired her to start translating them into English.

At a jammed crossing
I was driving home after the quakes. Streets were extremely jammed and at many crossings only one car could cross the street per green light. At a spaghetti crossing, all traffic was paralyzed for more than 5 min. All drivers, I encountered, waiting to cross streets were calm, giving way to others. All thru my 10 hr driving, I didn’t hear any honking except those showing gratitude to others. Of course this travel was scary but also heart warming. This experience made me like Japan all the more.

At Tokyo Disneyland
They distributed sweets that are part of their merchandise. High school girls with heavy makeup took away more candies than they would possibly eat and that raised my eyebrows. Later, I saw those girls giving the candies to kids at evacuation areas. Families with kids had limited mobility and couldn’t get to where the candies were distributed. Go girls!

My mother’s foot warmer
Mom goes, “Oh! My little foot warmer got away!” My sister goes, “No I did not! ;D” And Mom goes, “Oh, there you are 🙂 🙂 ” … Mom and sister were sharing a futon during a blackout and Mom was searching for my sis’s warm feet. Cute mom 🙂 🙂

A little knight
I was walking behind a mother with a little boy and a baby in a carriage. The mother said to her young boy, “What if another earthquake hits? Scary, isn’t it?” The kindergarten boy said, “No worries, Mom. I will do THIS!” Then the boy bent over the baby in the carriage to protect his young sibling. What a little knight in a shiny armor. My heart felt warm.

Disgraceful
A teenage boy walked into a drugstore, a package of toilet paper in hand. He said, “My parent hoarded and bought two packages yesterday. How disgraceful. I would like to return one.” –My friend who works for the drugstore was impressed to hear a word “disgraceful” from a high school boy. We have bright future ahead in this country.

Packing for a move
When I was packing for my move, my mother handed me a flashlight and survival food she had kept for the family, saying “Take these and don’t buy new ones. There are people who really need them now. Us? We are fine. We have family and neighbors. We can help each other if a disaster strikes our area. You will be living by yourself, a stranger in a strange land. You have all the reasons to be anxious about your new life. No need to be anxious about us, your family.” I felt so proud to be my mother’s daughter, to be part of this family.

Mom’s Pep Talk
Called my Mom to let her know I survived the quakes. She lives in Kagoshima, on Kyushu Island, a thousand miles south of Tohoku. Thought she was worried about me and wanted to calm her down. Instead of tears, what I got from her was a pep talk. “Know, with all your heart, the meaning of your being where you are, at this timing and age in your life. Do the best you can to serve others.” Mother, I am proud to be your son. I will live through all this.

In the podcast, I also mention an interview on the Big Show with Tik Root, a Middlebury College student. Root was arrested in Syria where he was studying Arabic. He was detained for 15 days, suspected of being a foreign agent provocateur in Syria’s pro-democracy protests.  Here’s the interview.

Finally in the pod, we hear from Egypt about an instantly popular news satire show whose host is being compared to Jon Stewart. Here’s a translation of the video clip:

TALAT ZAKARIYA: You must have heard what’s happening in Tahrir Square.

BASSEM YOUSSEF : No! What? What?

T: Drums and horns and dancing…girls…and boys…and drugs…and full sexual relations.

Y (on the phone to someone): Didn’t I tell you we need to go to Tahrir Square? Dude, they’re saying there’s music and women and sex, and we’re sitting here? … Sorry, sorry.

Y: Mr. Talaat, is there a video that proves what you’re saying?

[Belly-dancing video]

Y: Sorry, clearly we got the video mixed up. We’ll fix it. Mr. Talaat, sorry, go ahead, tell us what else is happening in Tahrir Square?

T: What happening right in Tahrir Square is a carnival.

[Carnival clip]

T: There’s a band..there’s a one act play..all of it against the president..there are snacks and drinks and sodas and tea.

Y: I’ve finally learned what’s happening in Midan Tahrir. Out of solidarity with the eminent Mr. Talat Zakariya, I’m going to show you the proof.

T: Drums and horns..

[Crowds singing the national anthem]

Y: So ill-bred. People singing in Midan Tahrir.

T: Full sexual relations…

[Protesters fighting police]

Y: You’re right. It was an orgy…Anything else to add, Mr. Talat?

T: And who knows how many Muslim Brothers, and God knows what else, there…

Y: What, with the music and the girls and the drugs and the sex? What kind of Muslim Brothers, dude?

Mr. Talaat, concentrate for a moment–are you sure of what you’re saying?

T: And I take full responsibility.

Y: So when we write the history of the revolution… There was music and dance, girls and boys, drugs and sex, and Muslim Brothers. They had a carnival, they ate snacks and this lead to the fall of the regime.

Y: Mr. Talaat, is there anything else you’d like to add– anything else bothering you?

T: “Depart”: What does that mean? What does it mean to simple people?

[Video of Wael Ghonim and friends]

“Depart” means get out of here! What don’t you understand?

Y: I hope we answered the question.

Listen to the podcast here.


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From Cicero to Lynne Truss with Robert Lane Greene

As soon as I saw the new book by Robert Lane Greene You Are What You Speak, I know he and needed to speak. Not just because we both speak Danish (we didn’t even talk about that). It’s mainly because the book takes on so many of the same issues that I do in The World in Words podcast. It’s like the pod on steroids,  done with proper research.

Underlying You Are What You Speak is a love of the relative chaos of language. We can’t predict, let alone control how language evolves, Greene argues, so why try? Well, it seems we can’t help ourselves.

Sometimes it’s governments that issue linguistic admonishments: France and Turkey have been especially active. Sometimes it’s individual armchair stylists:  Cicero (“At some point…I relinquished to the people the custom of speaking, I reserved the knowledge [of correct grammar and pronunciation] to myself”);  Strunk and White (“Do not join independent choices by a comma”); and Lynn Truss (“Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”).  Of that lot, Turkey’s switch from Arabic to Roman script appears to have been the most successful. In France, the Académie française is admired but largely ignored. And most of the archair stylists lose out to common usage. The more free, open and democratic a society is, the less it is likely to follow anyone else’s language rules.

This is just one way in which language is bound up in identity. Another is via the power of our mother tongue: how much does our first language set and restrict how we think, and how we perceive the world? Think of all those people who write in a second or third language.Lijia Zhang, who grew up in China, but writes in English, is convinced that her English self is different from her Chinese self. For one thing, Zhang says, she’s ruder in Chinese (the Big Show’s science podcaster Rhitu Chatterjee says the same of her native Bengali self).

Not only does English have words that don’t exist in Chinese, says Zhang. Also, writing in English frees her to say things that in her native tongue are taboo. She recalls a time in the 1980s when she met a young Chinese man “who I rather fancied.”  She said to him, in English, “you look cool.” It was somehow OK to say that in English; had she said it in Chinese, it would have meant instant rejection and humiliation.

Now, that may have as much to do with memory and custom as it does with the instrinsic nature of English vs. Chinese. The words in Chinese were available to Zhang. They were just freighted with expectation and fear. In English, Zhang could be irresonsible, and blame it on the language.

Greene deals with this question of language and personality by citing a number of recent studies, some of which we’ve talked about in previous pods (here and here). In linguistic circles, the pendulum has swung back and forth between those who believe that language shapes thought, and those who argue that thought forms language.

Listen to the podcast here, or below via iTunes.


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