Monthly Archives: May 2011

Re-learning Spanish, Super-Injunctions, and UK hearts Obama

Thousands of kids from the United States are enrolling in Mexican schools. The reason: their Mexican parents are moving back from the United States. There are many reasons for this. Among them: deportation, fear of deportation, the poor economy in the U.S.  Some of the children were born in Mexico, some in the United States. But now they are in Mexico after years of English-language education, they are  struggling to learn or re-learn Spanish. We have a report from the border city of Nogales, Mexico.

The language  of the border and immigration has long been politicized. Whether you call someone who has jumped the border an illegal alien or undocumented worker depends on your politics. Neither term works for children whose families sneak them across the border. We have a report on these expressions, and many more from Michel Marizco of the Fronteras desk, run by several public radio stations based in the US South West.

Then, the pod travels to the UK, where British gag orders known as supin-injunctions aren’t working, thanks to Twitter. British judges can prohibit British newspapers and websites from talking about certain topics, but they can’t prohibit people tweeting from say, the United States. Britain isn’t China: it can’t maintain an internet firewall around its citizens. So politicians have concluded that the laws on injunctions will have to change. The lesson of this episode may be that it’s no longer possible to keep a secret about a public figure.  And if you try, you may well find that the secret rapidly becomes  subject to the Streisand effect.  (Yes, that’s Barbra).

Staying in Britain, we ask this: does Obama heart Britain as much as the Brits heart Obama? It’s not clear, even after the President’s recent trip to the UK, where he spoke many fine and admiring words about British institutions.

However, it seems that the so-called Special Relationship, held dear by British politicians and journalists, may no longer be  so special.

When it comes to its relationship with Downing St,  the White House appears not to want to be pinned down to an exclusive dating arrangement. Instead, the Americans are trying to balance multiple partners: Israel, China, Russia, India, Afghanistan and others. None of these partnerships is a candidate for a new special relationship; most are based on geopolitics and expediency rather than trust. But it’s nonetheless galling for Britain. After all, Tony Blair risked his political future on the Special Relationship when he stood by George W. Bush and sent British troops to war in Iraq, for better or worse.  So soon after cementing the Special Relationship, the Brits are now watching it fade into relative insignificance.

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Ai Weiwei’s translator, Belgium during linguistic wartime, and Rastamouse

Arrested Chinese artist Ai Weiwei wrote a blog that was, if anything, even more provocative than his art. We hear from Beijing-based translator and art critic Lee Ambrozy who has translated Ai’s blog posts into English.

Next in the pod, fellow Big Show podcaster Clark Boyd on the trials, tribulations and silliness of living in Belgium, where most people define themselves not by nationality but by  mother tongue. Clark lives in Brussels, which is officially bilingual. Most of the rest of Belgium is determinedly monolingual — Dutch in the north, French in the south.

I put it to Clark that Belgium is a bit like the former Yugoslavia, but without the guns. I was feeling pretty good about that thought until he told me I was by no means the first person to articulate it.  He also said Belgians have it way too good to take up arms over their linguistic differences — despite the fact that they cannot form a government, and they may even one day opt to slice the country in two.

That got me thinking: when we talk about conflicts sparked by language, are we missing the point?  There’s no question that language can be an emotional issue. But how often is is the root cause of a disagreement?  Mostly, it seems, language either awkwardly stands in as a symbol for the real cause, or it is used by the protagonists as a weapon to divide people in conflicts whose roots are material — land, water, minerals etc.

In Belgium, there’s not much of a material divide. The Dutch-speaking Flemish are richer than the French-speaking Walloons, but not that much richer. Nor do they control the preponderance of land and resources. Which may be why Belgians aren’t trying to kill each other.

Also, as Clark points out, even though there isn’t much shared culture in Belgium there is some, and it’s important:  Belgians, he says,  have a universal admiration for surrealism (Magritte is a native son). That must come in handy, given the topsy-turvy nature of Belgian public life.

In honor of all things Belgian, the pod’s Eating Sideways segment offers up one French expression, and one Dutch.  Listen to the podcast to decide which describes Belgianness most accurately…

Finally, Alex Gallafent has a report on  the latest children’s TV hit in the UK. It features Jamaican-British musical mice, with dialects that are offending English purists. This summer, incidentally, Rastamouse will be “playing” Glastonbury Festival, Britain’s premier music festival.

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The battle to own Bin Laden’s story

Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, a new battle has begun: the rhetorical fight to frame his legacy. The White House got off to a bad start, with its initial claims about the circumstances of the killing. We offer two stabs at this story, one from the perspective of the US government, the other from a cultural point of view. There have been many other such stabs: I especially like this one in Slate. And here’s something on the inevitable memorabilia-exploitation of the moment (if not the man).

Here’s a great blog post on Language Log on how 9/11 changed The Pentagon’s language priorities. Which transitions nicely into the next item…

The Big Show’s Alex Gallafent tries out a couple of instant translation devices. This comes as The Pentagon’s research arm, DARPA, prepares to decide on one or more devices to equip military personnel in combat and other field situations.  (This is the second of a two-part series on The Pentagon’s history of language training and interpretation. Part One is here).

Finally, a quixotic attempt by a retired government accountant to lighten up the lyrics to Peru’s national anthem. And these are some truly grim lyrics. Translated into English, the first verse –the only verse that’s usually sung– goes like this:

For a long time the opressed Peruvian
the ominous chain he dragged
Condemned to a cruel servitude
for a long time, for a long time
for a long time he quietly whimpered
But then the sacret shout
Liberty! in its coasts has been heard
the slave’s indolence beats
the humiliated, the humiliated,
the humiliated neck raised up,
the humiliated neck raised up, neck raised up.

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The butcher, the baker, and the cabbage gelder

As far as tedium goes, nothing competes with filling out a government form.  How best to relieve the tedium? Invent stuff. Not out-and-out lie, just get a bit creative  (OK, sometimes out-an-out lie: if I were to identify myself as a 90-year-old Azerbaijani woman or a Jedi knight, I would not be telling the truth).

Take the case of the Very Reverend Dr Peter Scrimshire Wood, late of Middleton in the English county of Norfolk. Wood was responsible for listing the job titles of his parishioners. In 1819, he described one of them as a “chopper of chips”, another as a “lamb gelder”, and a third as a “good workman”. He was back a year later with “cut throat of pigs”, “farmer and fortune hunter” and “cabbage gelder”. More are listed here, along with other details of the census research done by the University of Cambridge’s Peter Kitson.

Wood is my kind of man of the cloth– someone who makes the dull exciting, the drab colorful. Just think what he’d had done with the Bible, had he ever been entrusted to translate the Good Book.  He even came up with a wildly unconventional name for his daugher, born in 1815. She was christened Amelia Congress Vienna Wood, presumably after the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna, which redrew the boundaries of Europe. Kitson, incidentally,  thinks that a “cabbage gelder” probably plied his trade as a market gardener or a greengrocer.

For more than 200 years, the Pentagon has been trying to gets its personnel to learn the languages spoken by friends and foes alike. For most that time, it’s been an uphill struggle, complicated by changes in geo-politics and exactly which languages are considered “critical”. During World War Two,  GIs were given foreign language phrase books with pronunciation transcriptions of key phrases.  So you might find yourself in the company of, say, a Portuguese fisherman. You might wish to ask him: “Where have the anti-submarine nets been placed?” Here’s how you should do it, according to the Portuguese phrasebook:  “On-deh seh lan-sah-rahn uhs reh-dehs ahn-tee-soob-mah-ree-nahs?” Could be a long conversation.

After the war, many new language programs were established, taught primarily at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. There are some magnificent archival films made by the Pentagon about this.   Check out two of them here.

More on this subject — and the future of language-learning in the military — next week.

After Alex Gallafent’s report on the languages at the Pentagon aired on The Big Show,  Stephen Payne, who goes by the title of Command Historian at the Defense Language Institute, sent us this note: “I misspoke. We taught Pashto during the 1980s and stopped teaching it when the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989. We started teaching Pashto again after the September 11, 2001 attacks.”  In the report, Payne had said that it was Persian/Farsi, not Pashto, that had been suspended. In fact, Persian has been taught continuously for decades.

Also in the pod this week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is not amused at a Colombian telenovela which has named a badly-behaved dog after him.  And the word “princess” gets a workout, and not all for the good.

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