Monthly Archives: September 2013

Iran and the US Learn How to Flirt Diplomatically

Diplomatic body language: Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat at the White House 1993

Diplomatic body language: Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat at the White House 1993

Veteran British diplomat Sherard Cowper-Coles says that handling a meeting with Iranian diplomats “after a deep chill” will require patience. Western diplomats will need to “avoid the temptation to cut straight to the chase. It’s very important to spend time on what are much more than opening courtesies.”

It would important to display a knowledge of Iranian history and civilization—but watch out for little gaffes, “like calling the [Persian] Gulf the ‘Arabian Gulf.’”

It’s also not a good idea to overpraise, especially in public. In 1977, then-president Jimmy Carter went to Tehran. At a dinner with the Shah of Iran, Carter raised a glass to his host, and then raised his rhetorical glass even higher.

“Iran—because of the great leadership of the Shah—is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world,” said Carter. “This is a great tribute to you, your majesty and to your leadership and to the respect and admiration and love which your people give to you.”

A few days later, street protests began in Iran, leading eventually to the revolution, and decades of enmity with the United States.

There are, though, plenty of skillful ways to send a message in a diplomatic setting.

Nancy Soderberg, a diplomat under President Bill Clinton, remembers when the Administration agreed to receive Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the White House. For Arafat it was big coup to get invited to the president’s home. But there were limits.

Arafat wasn’t allowed to bring his pistol, which he took everywhere with him. And then there was the hugging: Arafat was a big hugger. It just wouldn’t do to have him photographed hugging the president of the United States.

“Right before the meeting President Clinton was being taught by his aides this jujitsu move where if you grabbed Arafat’s elbow, pushed your hip out, there was no way he could hug him,” said Soderberg. “That’s exactly what Clinton did to avoid a picture of him being hugged.”

Arafat did eventually did get his man—seven years later. He and Clinton were finally captured locked in embrace, on neutral territory—Switzerland.

Not that you’d expect quite such warm body language between Obama and Rohani this week. One step at a time.

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Having an Accent in America: An Actor Speaks

Sara Loscos working on an accent exercise. (Photo provided by Sara Loscos)

Sara Loscos working on an accent exercise. (Photo provided by Sara Loscos)

Here’s a guest post Sara Loscos. Born in Barcelona, she now lives in New York.

I am a journalist, but I’m also an actress — and I have an accent. On my first day of acting school in Manhattan, as soon as I opened my mouth to say “good morning,” a nice academic advisor enrolled me in an accent reduction course. I met a lot of foreign actors like me there.

Accent exercises (Photo provided by Sara Loscos)

One of the first friends I made was Nanda Abella, who’s from Argentina.

“The moment you walk in the audition room, you see the faces when you have an accent. You see how they look at you,” she says.

Nanda eventually hired a private teacher. Every other week she pays $90 dollars for 45 minutes with an accent coach who helps her to sound more American.

Actress Nanda Abella

One thing is clear to Nanda — the combination of being a Latina and having the accent limits the kinds of roles she gets. She’s been a maid, a dance professor of Latin rhythms, a Latino working in a tattoo parlor – all of them a Latino “doing something.”

“I don’t mind being a Latina doing something,” she says. “I mind when it is a Latina in a position that denotes some kind of prejudice against the Latino population. I want to be the Latina lawyer, the Latina professional. You can’t be a successful woman because you are a Latina? Oh, c’mon!”

For Latinas who don’t look Latina, it can be even harder.

“I’ve met this Mexican girl, who looks like she is German, and the poor thing can’t work because she has a Spanish accent,” Nanda says. “But she can’t go for Latina, she doesn’t fit the stereotype of the Latina.”

Things are starting to change, though. Big stars like Sofia Vergara, of Modern Family, and Penelope Cruz, show starred in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, are slowly training the ears of mainstream American audiences to accept thick accents.

“The fact that Penelope Cruz can be in a leading part shows you that people are more open to hear those accents,” Nanda says. “I feel things are opening more and more.”

Rüya Koman sees it that way too. She’s an actress from Turkey, but last year, she got a role as a Latina in a play in New York. The director saw her headshot and assumed she was Colombian or Venezuelan, so she had to learn to speak with a Spanish accent.

“I was listening to Sofia Vergara for days,” Rüya says. “I tried to imitate her, but I didn’t have enough time to do it. Apparently, I sounded very Russian.”

Rüya’s still working on it, though.

“I really see a lot of casting calls where they need a Hispanic actress. I think there is a huge market of things you can do with an accent.”

It’s not just a growing market for actors. There are also more opportunities for Spanish-speaking journalists. That’s good news for me. But once again, the accent comes into play. I have a Castillian pronunciation, so even my Spanish sounds different from the Spanish we usually hear in the U.S. I guess I’ll always have an accent no matter what language I speak!

Check out Nanda Abella’s accented English in this scene from an upcoming movie:

Sara Loscos is with Feet in 2 Worlds, a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.

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Tintin’s Adventures on “The Black Island” Now in Scots

"The Black Island" in Scots

“The Black Island” in Scots

Belgium’s favorite comic book son, Tintin, gets to speak Scots in a new translation by Susan Rennie. Listen as she speaks some of the dialogue, and explains why this particular Tintin adventure got the Scots treatment.

Also in the latest World in Words podcast: What do a soccer stadium and giant pandas have to do with a language dispute? In Belgium, everything. The Big Show’s expert on all things Belgian, Clark Boyd, fills us in.


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Why What’s Funny in China Might Surprise You

BIG improv group rehearsing in Beijing (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

BIG improv group rehearsing in Beijing (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Here’s a guest post from Nina Porzucki

Jesse Appell will do anything for a laugh.

“Food poisoning is funny. I got dysentery once. That was funny.”

Well, not quite that funny the moment we sat down to talk over dumplings in Beijing. Appell has lived in Beijing on and off for several years.

Recently Appell has been studying what’s funny in China, which he admits has not been easy.

“When I came to China I initially didn’t have the language ability to make a joke. I would try to make a joke but I didn’t know the cues that you would use to make jokes so when I said stuff wrong people just assumed that i was speaking wrong,” said Appell.

But as Appell’s Chinese language skills have developed — he’s now nearly fluent in Mandarin — so has his understanding of what’s funny in Chinese. He remembers the first day he made a successful joke in China.

“I got a nose bleed in class. The word liuxue means to flow blood but it’s a perfect pun for the word exchange student,” explained

So when Jesse left class to take care of his nose bleed, he called out to the class in Chinese, ‘Don’t worry about me I’m just an exchange student.’ His classmates erupted in laughter he says.

Word play is an essential element in the ancient Chinese art of comedy. There is a centuries old tradition of Chinese stand-up called xiangsheng or crosstalk according to linguist David Moser who has has studied crosstalk in China.

“Crosstalk is a folk verbal art form that similar to beloved classic skits that we know of like the who’s on first routine,” said Moser.

Much like Abbott & Costello in traditional crosstalk there’s the funny man and the straight guy. Crosstalk began in Beijing where some comedic skits go back to the Ming Dynasty. Modern times and modern politics have altered what can be funny in China and crosstalk has adapted. The humor is rather vanilla; this is the opposite of political satire.

“After 1949 they had to clean it all up. They had to get rid of country bumpkin jokes because the peasants were the heroes of the revolution. Of course, all the sex and bawdiness was gone. The one thing you can’t do is do political humor at all,” said Moser.

But according to Moser that doesn’t mean that Chinese people aren’t dishing out the political jokes.

“I almost feel that there’s two layers of humor. One is the public media labor. It’s very prudish, polite; it’s not rambunctious or impolite. Then there’s this other layer which is the average person on the street which is just how it is in any country. It can be really outlandishly anti-authoritarian or smutty or absolutely outrageous,” said Moser.

This other layer of humor takes stage on the internet sometimes inspired by humor from unexpected places like the “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Chinese netizens have taken to translating Stewart’s show. He’s actually Jiong Situ in Chinese.

“Very often the subtitles show they didn’t understand the joke, but some of the jokes do translate and that’s good enough,” said Moser.

Good enough that in April of this past year a clip of a joke about North Korea went viral in China. Turns out jokes about North Korea are funny to both Chinese and American audiences. Jiong Situ is still a long way off from gracing Chinese prime time. His jokes are far too politically sensitive.

There are other forms of comedy bubbling up in the bars and clubs of Beijing: improv for one. Fulbrighter Jesse Appell is part of a bilingual improv comedy troupe called BIG.

The troop rehearses in a makeshift theater with tiny stage. If you’ve ever been to an improv show, it’s a pretty familiar scene. The audience shouts out suggestions, the players improvise a scene. Except that here players mix English and Chinese.

The topics were rather tame, nothing bawdy or political. I kept waiting for something controversial to come up. But this is China after all. As I was reminded when a sudden discussion ensued just as I pressed record. Jesse approached me:

“You can record whatever but if we say anything about the government we need you not to use that,” said Appell.

It was a surprising request and as it turned out unnecessary. No one said anything about the government. However, it seems Jesse has learned much more about China then just comedy.

Jon Stewart taking in his Chinese celebrity:

Comedians Guo Degang and Yu Qian:

Jesse Appell performs stand-up comedy in Chinese:

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Easter Island’s Rapa Nui Language Attempts a Comeback

Gabriel Milatuke (left) with friend Vicente Matahiti, Easter Island. (Photo: Katie Manning)

Gabriel Milatuke (left) with friend Vicente Matahiti, Easter Island. (Photo: Katie Manning)

Ever since Chile annexed Easter Island more than a century ago, Spanish has been chipping away at the Polynesian-based language called Rapa Nui.

The South Pacific island’s towering stone Moai figures now lure in 60,000 visitors a year. Islanders smile, sing and dance in polyester costumes to cater to the mostly Spanish-speaking spenders.

But these tourists, fuelling the island’s economy, are also diluting the culture they came to see. Now, with only a couple thousand speakers left, the islanders are upping their effort to revive the Rapa Nui language.

Until the late 1990s, the Chilean government effectively outlawed the islanders from speaking in Rapa Nui. Any public sector job or office required Spanish. Anything involving the schools, police or property rights was in Spanish too.

Even the great, great granddaughter of a Rapa Nui King, Alicia Makohe, grew up speaking Spanish. She taught herself Rapa Nui at 14.

“There were many Chilean rules here,” she said. “Everybody in the school [spoke] Spanish. [Rapa Nui] was always forbidden. Also the places for the laws, the police… everything was ruled by the Chilean people.”

Chile changed its tune about ten years ago –– many say to protect the culture of one of its top moneymaking destinations. Chile stopped requiring Spanish in public institutions. It now funds new school programs, reading materials and music to reverse the decline of Rapa Nui.

Thanks to these funds, every school on the island has at least one class in Rapa Nui.

Virginia Haoa teaches language class to second graders at the Lorenzo Baeza Vega School, where all classes from science to history is taught in Rapa Nui.

She said in a class of 30 incoming students, four speak Rapa Nui fluently. Six months in, most students handle the language well.

“This program is the only space where kids learn Rapa Nui, and it’s important for any people to maintain their language because it is their identity, their worldview, their spirit. It’s their soul,” said Haoa.

But away from the classroom it’s a different story. Nine-year-old Gabriel Milatuke, for example, is happy to chatter away in Rapa Nui indoors. But once he’s on the basketball court or in the playground, he switches to Spanish.

At home, Rapa Nui families usually speak Spanish. Alicia Makohe’s brothers raise their children only in Spanish.

“They decided it’s better for them to speak Spanish because they’re going to go to school in Chile. They are going to be professionals there, and the Rapa Nui language is not going to help them. They think like that,” said Makohe.

But Makohe sings to her six-month-old son in Rapa Nui.

“I think the opposite because if you learn Rapa Nui then you have another language.”

Haoa said the employment situation on Easter Island needs to change.

“We need government policies—something that promises children speaking Rapa Nui they’ll get a job tomorrow. Jobs need to demand that they speak Rapa Nui, not just Spanish,” she said.

But the chances are slim. For one, the language was only recently written down. It had a strictly oral tradition. But now that’s changing.

The first ever Rapa Nui newspaper, Tāpura Reꞌo, hit the streets in 2010. Makohe’s husband Marcus Edensky publishes the paper.

“I tried to sell the first issue, though it didn’t work very well, and people mentioned to me in the street, you know, ‘I can’t read it because it’s hard,’” said Edensky.

Circulation jumped after the Rapa Nui adapted their reading style.

“Some commented to me that they came up with the idea of reading it out loud to themselves, then they would understand.”

A first dictionary is also in the works. One editor is linguist and Christian missionary, Robert Weber. He and his wife Nancy Weber have dedicated over 30 years to preserving Rapa Nui.

Robert Weber called Rapa Nui a complex language, full of expressions that can be tricky to define.

One example is hippi tiriti manaba, “which would literally mean a tucking or a tightening of the stomach,” Weber said. “That would to me mean that you’re feeling nostalgia or anxiety.”

In all likelihood, tourists will continue to flock to the island whether or not Rapa Nui survives. But without the language, the islanders’ music and dance routines would turn into pure nostalgia.

Despite Rapa Nui’s shaky future, Makohe clings to her optimism. Makohe does her part by writing new songs with Rapa Nui lyrics and creating educational videos for school programs. She said that she’s heard young islanders singing her songs in the streets of the island’s only town, Hanga Roa.

“Sometimes I speak to the little children, and they’re Chilean, but they speak Rapa Nui. It’s growing. It was going down, but now it’s coming up,” she said.

It’s difficult to imagine Rapa Nui coming back as a native tongue after its near-eradication. But it stands a better chance than it did a decade ago, now that young people speak it, and the Chilean government is backing the effort to save it.

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How Seamus Heaney Dug into Language

Seamus Heaney at University College Dublin,  2009 (Photo: Sean O'Connor)

Seamus Heaney at University College Dublin, 2009 (Photo: Sean O’Connor)

Irish poet Seamus Heaney passed away Friday. He was 74-years-old. The poet won numerous writing awards, including the Nobel Prize.

“I met him when I was a teenager,” says another Irish poet Paul Muldoon, about his friend. “I was about 16 at the time and he was 28 and already a very famous poet.”

Muldoon talks about how violence during The Troubles in Northern Ireland affected Heaney’s work. Indeed the Troubles seeped into many of the poems that Heaney wrote throughout his life.

But Muldoon says Heaney, “Refused, despite a certain amount of pressure, to come out on one side or the other. There were moments where he was more decisively asserting his more nationalist background when he describes how, ‘No glass has ever been raised to toast the queen of England.'”

Muldoon says it’s very difficult to for people in the US to understand what an extraordinary role Seamus Heaney as a poet had in Irish life.

Listen below to Paul Muldoon reading Seamus Heaney’s famous poem, “Digging.”

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