Monthly Archives: April 2012

Tourette’s Hero: Changing the World One Tic at a Time

Jess Thom dresses like a superhero. Mask, shiny blue cape, the whole bit. She calls her alter ego Tourette’s Hero.

Whether dressed as Tourette’s Hero or as herself, Thom speaks with an impressive array of verbal tics. She says biscuit a lot.

“Tourette’s is a condition that waxes and wanes BISCUIT,” says Thom. “So it changes over the course of somebody’s BISCUIT life.”

Thom is 31. She remembers having tics from as early as age six, though she wasn’t diagnosed until she was in her twenties.

The tics are more severe these days.

Tics can “change over the course of a day (HAPPY BIRTHDAY).”

Happy birthday is another of Thom’s regular tics.

And then there are the rude things that pop out. Thom is among the ten percent of people with Tourette’s who exhibit Coprolalia, the involuntary blurting out of taboo language: swearwords, body parts etc.

Whether taboo or not, Thom’s tics are often very funny. There’s a reason, after all, there are so many jokes about Tourette’s.

Thom welcomes the jokes. In fact, she likes to own them. Hence her website, Tourette’s Hero.

The point of Tourette’s Hero, Thom says is to “celebrate the creativity and humor of Tourette’s, and to reclaim the laughter associated with Tourette’s.”

And Tourette’s Hero isn’t just a website just for people with Tourette’s. It’s for everybody. (Though be warned: it may not be appropriate for young children or those offended by strong language.)

On the site, Thom posts tics that she has said in the past two years. She invites people to vote for their favorites:

  • Batman Breastfed my Mum
  • I Love You Chemical Weapon
  • Lucy in the Sky with Pencils

People can also submit artwork to illustrate them.

Thom delights in the poetry of her Tourette’s. Her condition, she says, opens doors. Her tic-filled conversations take her and others to unique places. And the website is part of that conversation.

Tourette’s Hero, she believes, is part of greater movement among disabled people to change attitudes towards disability by means of humor and creativity.

Biscuit. Happy birthday.

Also in the pod this week:

  • An Indian boy’s life changes forever when he is transported on a train to Bengal, where they don’t speak his native tongue, and he can’t figure out how to get home. Detailed article on this here.
  • Morse code signals to and from the Titanic in the days and hours before it sank.  The pod has excerpts. The entire BBC program is here.
  • Renewed interest in a Nazi-era German film version of the Titanic.


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In Vietnam, a Nation Learns English

In Vietnam, history is daily life. So says economist Le Dang Doanh. So history might be a good indicator of which foreign languages the Vietnamese would be more inclined to learn. French? Russian? Mandarin? English?

The Vietnamese have gone to war many times in the past few decades. With France, the United States, Cambodia, China. And themselves.

China is considered by many Vietnamese to be a permanent threat. Very few kids learn Mandarin at school.

Vietnam’s war with the United States was longer and bloodier than its short war with China in 1979. And even in the years after the Vietnam War, the government in Hanoi view the U.S. as its enemy.

Do Nhat Nam (Photo: Jennifer Pak)

But no more. Now wherever you turn in Vietnam, people are learning English. At least that’s what Jennifer Pak discovered in her reporting there for the BBC.

For Do Nhat Nam, it was “love at first sight.” Do, who is all of 10 years old, is locally famous for his mastery of English. He translated a book at the age of seven.

Nam fell in love with the language after seeing a video of Steve Jobs talking about computers on YouTube.

Other Vietnamese are drawn to English for the freedom it offers. Bloggers and song lyricists can get certain words and ideas past the official censors more easily in English.

For all of that, economist Le Dang Doanh thinks the Vietnamese are missing a trick in not learning Chinese as well as English. China is right next door, after all. And even if you’re not learning Chinese to increase trade, why not learn the language of your enemy, so you know what he’s thinking?

Most young Vietnamese, though, are wowed by the culture of the English-speaking world. So much so that some older Vietnamese worry about how it’s effecting society. Vietnamese culture frowns on confessional language. People don’t talk about their feelings. But watch “Oprah” or read “The Catcher in the Rye,” and people talking about their feelings is all you get. Steeped in English language culture,. Vietnamese youth are far more prone to this and taboo subjects.

Jennifer Pak and My Linh (photo: Jennifer Pak)

Well-known Vietnamese singer My Linh, herself a fluent English speaker, is raising her children to speak good English. Her kids communicate on Facebook mainly in English. But she has a family rule: at home, everyone must speak Vietnamese. “We need to protect our language,” she says. “If we lose our language, we lose our culture.”

Vietnam’s love affair with English is all the more surprising because in other parts of Asia, English appears on the wane. Jennifer Pak produced a companion documentary, featured in last week’s pod, out of Malaysia and Singapore. In Malaysia, nationalist politicians are promoting the Malay language. In Singapore, business-minded politicians are promoting Mandarin.

But in Vietnam English is king.

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The Chinese Yuan, the US Dollar and the Currency of Language

Imagine a time in the not too distant future when global business deals are mainly conducted in Mandarin Chinese. Contracts outlining  sales of, say, Brazilian planes to India are written in Mandarin, the payments made in yuan. The websites of the World Trade Organization and the G20 are in Chinese, with options to switch to Spanish, Portuguese and English.

That may be a bit hyperbolic for the near future, but in certain parts of the world there’s evidence of some resistance to English.

In Malaysia, a new generation of political leaders are embracing the Malay language (known to its speakers as Bahasa Malayu) as a nationalist symbol.  Schools have been told to stop teaching math and science in English, and instead teach those subjects in Malay.

In neighboring Singapore, English remains the language of instruction. It is also the “glue” language that binds the multilingual, multiethnic population together.  But the government also wants its citizens to speak Mandarin— the majority of Singaporeans are ethnic Han Chinese, but older Singaporeans tend to speak Hokkien and other dialects that are not understood by Mandarin speakers.

The Singaporean  government’s reasoning is the same is at was when it introduced English to the city-state many decades ago: then,  Singapore’s future depended on trade with English-speaking nations; today, its future depends on trade with China. For Singaporean businessman Lee Han Shih, if the Chinese yuan replaces the dollar as the world’s leading reserve currency, “then you have to learn Chinese.” What’s more, if trade deals are done in yuan,  “there’s no need to use English.” The decline of the English language, Lee predicts, will follow the decline of the US dollar.

Then there’s the growing popularity in Singapore of Singlish, a home-and-street language that’s a mash-up of English, Hokkien, Malay and several other languages. In this linguistic milieu, English is feeling the squeeze.  Even if it remains in schoolrooms, it may be on the wane everywhere else in Singapore.

The question is: are these two examples from the Malay Peninsula exceptions to English’s march to global supremacy? Or are they harbingers of the future decline of English?

I’ve talked about Singlish before in the pod, with the very entertaining Singporean ex-pats Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo. Also, there’s Mr Brown’s Singapore blog and podcast here, and more on Jennifer Pak, who reported today’s episode, here.

Incidentally, the next pod and post suggest that English doesn’t have much to be worried about in the immediate future.  Jennifer Pak will be reporting from Vietnam, where young people are clamoring to learn English.

Listen here or via iTunes.


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