Monthly Archives: January 2012

Inventing a Word for a Facebook Relationship

Whichever language any of us speak, we have rarely shied away from coming up with new words. Now of course, unnamed new things surround us every day—especially new things on the internet. We forget that only in the recent past, we have had to come up with words like email, podcast, blog, crowdsourcing, tweet, the cloud and countless more.

Most of these words (for the time being) originate in English, and migrate to other languages. Some languages go with two words: their adaptation of the English word, and something made up in their own language. Chinese, for example, has a couple of ways of expressing email: 伊 妹儿 (yimeir, which sounds a bits like email) and 电子 邮 件 (dianzi youjian: electronic mail, often shortened to 电邮: dianyou).

When it comes to naming the as yet unnamed, social networking sites are fantastically helpful. My colleague at The Big Show, Jonathan Dyer, used Facebook to great effect when he posted this request:

“Is there a word for someone you have never met yet you share dozens of friends in common and they like or comment on just about everything your FB friends post? If not, will someone invent one so that I know how to refer to <name withheld> when/if I ever meet him?”

Here’s what he got back:

Perifriends

Pre-friend

Viral acquaintance

Virtual friend potential or possible electronic frenemy

Franger

E-quaintance

Strend

Friends once removed

Pseudofriends

Digifriends

Half-lifes

Visiblings

Friendeavours

Friendvilles

Friends-once-removed

Second-friends

Secondhands

Seconnections

The Uninvited

Friendlings

2nd-degreers

Beyonders

Outsidekicks

Plus-twos

Members of my unnetwork

Twoodles

Stalkwards

Collabores

Commentals

Michele Bachmann

Facebrat

Jonathan’s favorite, though, was Facequaintance.

Also in the pod this week:

  • The Iran-based translator of Firoozeh Dumas’ “Funny in Farsi” has vanished, probably arrested.
  • Debunking myths about the Chinese language and things Chinese leaders are believed to have said.
  • Multilingual Angolan singer Lulendo.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Fear of Foreign Languages, Hospital English, and Garifuna Music

Some US Presidential candidates seem embarrassed by their ability to speak a foreign language. Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich speak at least some French. Romney picked his up while on Mormon mission in France. Gingrich acquired his as a teenager while his father his US serviceman father was stationed there. Yet Gingrich made fun of Romney in a TV ad because he  “speaks French.” The implication seems to be that speaking a foreign language muddies your 100% all-American vision.

No wonder Jon Huntsman didn’t catch on as a Presidential candidate. Huntsman speaks some Chinese (those Mormon missions come in handy for something). And, unlike the rest of them, he didn’t shy away from showing off his Chinese while campaigning.

For his part, President Obama has oscillated between a populist boast of ignorance (“my French and German are terrible!”) tempered by chagrin (“I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing!”).

The Obama Administration has tried to make funding more available for foreign language learning. (Part of the problem has been the “No Child Left Behind” law which leaves languages behind. The law’s relentless testing in English reading and  math offers teachers little incentive to stray from the subject of the next exam. Instead, they teach to the test.) In recent years Congress has cut federal foreign language learning grants.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this list of the languages spoken by each American president since Washington,  but it makes for fascinating reading.

Going to the Idiomatic Bathroom

Also in the pod this week, we hear from a hospital in King’s Lynn in the English county of Norfolk. Foreign nurses there are expected to speak and understand English, and just to make sure they understand British-English hospitalese, they now take an additional course.  They learn some of the many variations for going to the bathroom, especially the ones favored by the mainly elderly patients who like to “spend a penny” or “go to the lavvy.” Other key colloquialisms: “jim-jams” (pajamas), “tickled pink” (delighted) and “higgledy-piggledy” (in a muddle).

As well as those British English terms, there is the regional Norfolk dialect. Among the pertinent (and not so pertinent) words  the nurses may learn are: “blar” (to cry), “mawther” (young woman: somewhat derogatory), “mardle” (chat, gossip) and “bishy barney bee’ (a ladybird/ladybug).

Those nurses might have got more than they bargained for.

Garifuna Revival Through Song

 Finally, reporter Nina Porzucki profiles Belizean singer James Lovell who is trying to keep the Garifuna language relevant.

The Garifuna people come from the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. But no one speaks Garifuna there any more. No one has since the 18th century, when the Garifuna were exiled by the British to Honduras. The diaspora is now spread throughout Central America in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize.

The Garifuna language has survived but over time, Spanish, English and several creoles have become more dominant. The pattern is familiar: parents speak in their native tongue. Kids answer back in the language of the adopted country.

As a child,  Lovell would hear his parents and grandparents speaking Garifuna, and though he understood it,  he spoke Belizean Creole. It was only when he heard local musician Pen Cayetano singing in Garifuna that Lovell became interested in the language.

Cayetano sang about contemporary social issues. And his music was part of a new sound called Punta Rock.

That inspired Lovell to learn to speak and sing in Garifuna, which eventually led to his current project. With backing from the New York-based Endangered Language Alliance, Lovell is translating popular English language songs into Garifuna. He’s also helping Lovell raise money for an after-school program to teach Garifuna to kids in Lovell’s Brooklyn neighborhood—kids who, like Lovell, came from Garifuna backgrounds but don’t speak the language.

Lesson one for these kids: the pre-school hit I Love You as sung by Barney, the giant purple dinosaur.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Up Close With Language Super Learners

More in the podcast this week with Michael Erard about his new book,  Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. This is the second half of my conversation with Erard. Part One is here.

Erard talks about why hyperpolyglots are driven to learn so many languages. He also describes the lives and practices of several language super learners:

Alexander Arguelles, who spends nine hours a day, divided into twenty-minute chunks, on language-learning. It used to be fourteen hours a day before he got married.

Gregg Cox, dubbed the “Greatest Living Linguist” in 1999 by the Guinness Book of World Records. Guinness credits him with speaking 64 languages, though he says he doesn’t speak that many.

Helen Abadzi, who drills the sounds of languages into her brain with the help of a device called a digital language repeater. The repeater plays digitally recorded audio snippets over and over at various speeds.

Erard conducted an online  survey of hyperpolyglots. In the podcast, he talks about the results. He also talks about how writing the book influenced his own thinking—like when can you say that you know a language? As far as the US government is concerned,  it’s if you speak it at home.  But in Canada, the government is more likely to credit you for having learned a language, even if you don’t speak it at home or work or school. So, Erard now believes that the US government underreports the number of US residents who speak more than one language.

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The Road to Hyperpolyglottery with Michael Erard

Language writer Michael Erard’s new book is about people who appear to have a special gift. You, perhaps, and I (and Erard for that matter) struggle to learn one or two languages to a basic conversational level.

Hyperpolyglots aren’t like that. They take on Arabic after breakfast and will have mastered it by dinner.

OK, not exactly. But there is a gulf between  language super-learners and most of the rest of us. You only have to read about some of the hyperpolyglots in Erard’s book.

Erard says most hyperpolyglots are men. Many share a “geek macho profile” that in some cases demands that they don’t “leave any languages uncounted” in their repertoire, even when they don’t have full mastery of some of them. Another of Erard’s findings (based on a survey he conducted and interviews with some of the participants): hyperpolyglots are more likely to be introverted, gay or left-handed.

The patron saint of hyperpolyglots has to be  Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849). Though he never left his native Italy, he learned scores of languges– just how many is disputed.   One account claims that Mezzofanti learned as many 114 languages, though 60 is more likely (and of those, he had mastery of perhaps 30).  He’s far from the only hyperpolyglot on whose behalf  inflated claims have been made.

Like many hyperpolyglots, there was a sense of showmanship about Mezzofanti. He staged public displays of his linguistic prowess, and received guests from around the world. Not dissimilar to TV game shows in which more recent hyperpolyglots have performed (sometimes not all that well).

One of the big questions about Mezzofanti and other hyperpolyglots is: why? Why learn so many languages?

There is the geeky completism (not that you ever could achieve true completism: too many languages for that). There is the desire to learn. There is, for some, a devout faith in one’s methods. What sometimes isn’t there (but does exist in casual language learners)  is a desire to verbally communicate with others. That’s not always the case– some hyperpolyglots are professional interpreters– but for many, the learning is on the page or between the earbuds.

In the podcast, Erard compares a typical hyperpolyglot’s method (they “attack the languages” with grammar and vocabulary drills) with the immersive approach of Hippo Family Clubs (also known as LEX). The Hippo Clubs bring together groups of people, sometimes from the same families, who want to learn several languages simultaneously. The emphasis is on immersion, community and non-judgmental trial by error.

Erard also talks about a term he has coined: the will to plasticity. Linguists and educators have long argued over which is more important in learning a language: personal drive or brain plasticity. Erard argues that hyperpolyglots have both in abundance, and each sparks the other.

This podcast, incidentially, is part one of two. Erard will be back next week to tell the individual stories of some of the hyperpolyglots he met in researching his book.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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