Monthly Archives: October 2013

Silicon Valley gets linguistic enlightenment from India

Dancers relax after performing during a Diwali Festival in Silicon Valley (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

Dancers relax after performing during a Diwali Festival in Silicon Valley (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

Here’s a guest post from Silicon Valley-based reporter Alison van Diggelen

Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, will be celebrated around the world on November 3. In Silicon Valley, where Indian engineers make up one third of the tech workforce and have founded many successful startups, Diwali is an integral part of the culture and celebrations start early.

I went to a Diwali Festival in October in Cupertino. Silicon Valley’s Indian community was out in force.

On the main stage, Indian boys and girls danced; around them, vendors sold vibrant clothes and crafts. The smell of aloo gobi, chicken tikka and naan filled the air. Most women wore dazzling saris. Some elderly men wore embroidered kurtas, or tunics. But most wore the classic garb of Silicon Valley: jeans and T-shirts.

I chatted with Jasho Patnaik, a software engineer from Odisha state, in Eastern India. He said Diwali is much more than a festival of lights.

“It’s a festival of spreading love. Love is not specific to India, not to America, not to British, not to anybody.”

Patnaik added: “Love is love, light is light.”

For Patnaik, Diwali and other Indian traditions like meditation inform his view of technology. Take the word avatar, a Hindu concept popularized by the blockbuster movie. It pops up all over the place: in computer sciences, artificial intelligence and even robotics.

“Avatar is actually a Sanskrit Hindi word, it’s a spirit taking a new form for something,” said Padmasree Warrior, chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco Systems in San Jose. “Every time I see that word, it instills a sense of pride.”

This spiritual influence from India has become embedded in Silicon Valley culture. Of course words like guru and mantra have been around in America for decades but in tech boardrooms and coffee shops, expressions like coding guru and fail-fast mantra are now part of the Silicon Valley vernacular.

Junglee is a Hindi word meaning wild or ill-mannered. It was used by a Silicon Valley startup (founded, of course, by a team of Indians) that was acquired by Amazon.

Then there are the cultural differences. In Indian culture it’s hard to say “no.” Instead, according to Raj Oberoi, CEO of software startup Talygen, Indians obfuscate, often using what he calls the “bobblehead” gesture.

“A bobblehead is a unique Indian artform,” said Oberoi. “Indians have the unique ability to move their heads from left to right and it looks just like a bobblehead…on your car dashboard.”

I asked him if it always means no.

“No, it can also mean a yes. Which is what’s so confusing,” he chuckled. “Is that a yes, is that a no, is that a maybe, or are you having neck issues?”

During India’s colonial days, the English language absorbed many words from Hindi: words such as jungle, juggernaut and pundit. These words have migrated from India to Britain to America, but some well-educated Indians in Silicon Valley still talk in a stilted English of centuries past. Raj Oberoi shares some examples: Phrases like ‘do the needful’ or ‘I beg to stay.’

This old-fashioned talk sometimes leaves American colleagues in the IT world scratching their heads and seeking explanations.

Oberoi explains that it’s a rediscovery for Americans of a language that, even in Britain, is basically dying out. It’s more archaic, very formal, very flowery and it harkens back to the days of the Raj.

Cisco’s Padmasree Warrior shares an example of Hinglish, a Hindi-English mingling that adds Hindi suffixes to English words.

“Hey did you go to the Gym–shim yesterday?” Warrior said. “That means did you go work out?” Some, like me, consider Hinglish delightful. Others worry that people who use it too much will never properly master Hindi–or English.

Growing up in India, Warrior described how she was taught to conform. In Silicon Valley, her words and the way she thinks have changed.

“Close your eyes and say what words come to your mind…risk taking, entrepreneurship, out of the box…” she said. “In the [Silicon] Valley, we want talent that breaks the rules, creates disruptive innovation. These words have been added uniquely to my vocabulary.”

Silicon Valley’s Diwali Festival is a home from home for many Indians. It made Jasho Patnaik think about Indian concepts and how they may relate to his adopted home. Enlightened thought, he said, is the key to both computer programming and changing the world.

“It’s the way you think. That’s where it starts, ” he said.

It’s true: Enlightenment is coming from multicultural, multilingual India. But an American version of enlightenment is also rubbing off on the Indians who now populate multicultural, multilingual Silicon Valley.

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Don’t speak English? Doesn’t matter if you use baseball’s sign language

Here’s a guest podcast from my Big Show colleague Nina Porzucki

He may not speak English fluently, but Koji Uehara doesn’t need English to be fluent in the language of baseball.

It’s as easy as: A, B, C. Or, rather make that: one, two, three.

“One finger is a fast ball; sometimes that index finger’ll get swirled, that’ll mean a two seam fastball; sometimes there’ll be a sharp knifing motion, that means cut fastball. Then there’s two fingers, usely a curveball or breaking ball, three fingers means…” said Dirk Hayburst, a retired Major League Baseball pitcher who is fluent in the language of baseball.

Hayburst can go on and on. Maybe it’s not so easy after all.

All those swirling fingers and knifing motions are the way catchers speak to him. In fact, Hayhurst pitched many, many games in the minor leagues to a catcher who hardly spoke a word of English.

“We just broke camp from spring training and we’re driving the team bus and he’s sitting on the bus reading a book called English for Dummies,” Hayhurst recalled.

On the field, though, he was certainly no dummy.

“You spend one week throwing to this guy and he knows what to do,” Hayhurst said.

A pitcher and catcher learn from one another just by flashing a series of ones, twos and threes. But it goes beyond mere hand gestures, says Hayhurst. Speaking the language of baseball also means knowing the unwritten rules of the game. Rule number one: you don’t peek. That means the batter can never look back at the catcher to look at signs.

But if a batter did steal the signs — when Hayhurst was pitching to his Spanish-speaking catcher, language wasn’t an issue.

“My catcher, who doesn’t speak a lick of English outside of these baseball rules, said, ‘He peeking! He peeking!’ And my next pitch was high and tight and I put this guy in his place,” Hayhurst says. “I don’t think he read that in the English for Dummies book.”

When you want to nail someone, Hayhurst says, the sign is an over-turned palm with the thumb gesturing angrily.

So what are the origins of the baseball signs?

“The basis for signs and signals and sign-stealing pretty much go back to the American Civil War,” said Paul Dickson, author of The Hidden Language of Baseball.

Baseball was played before the Civil War, but coded hand signals became a common tool for soldiers on the battlefield trying to communicate with one another. Coded signs and signals were used by both the Confederate and Union armies. After the war, those coded signs were carried from the battlefield to the ballfield. The jump from soldiers in battle to men on a field isn’t a hard leap to make, says Dickson.

“The manager, who is the field general, is in uniform and he’s directing, the first and third base coach are the first lieutenants, the catcher is the sargeant directing the men in the field [and] the pitcher and catcher are the battery,” Dickson said.

Signs were not only meant to communicate with allies but to confuse the enemy who was actively trying to break the code. Just as the unwritten peeking rule is universa,l so it seems is the act of decoding the opposing team’s signs. And throwing “deeks,” or decoy signs — that’s part of the game, too.

“You have to disguise your signs. You’ve got your poker face out there in front of the world,” said Joe Vavra, a third base coach for the Minnesota Twins

Vavra has a pretty good poker face, and a good memory. While he’s throwing out deeks, he also has to remember the real signs for each player on the team as well as teach them the signs.

“We’ll go over them, we’ll go over them, we’ll go over them,” Vavra said.

As for teaching the players who don’t speak English. Who needs it? Vavra just mimes the movements for the players who aren’t completely comfortable in English.

“I can show them the actions and they understand,” Vavra said.

Still not every play in baseball can be reduced to a tap on the forehead or a brush of the arm. Language is sometimes necessary, like during a mound visit when players and the coach come together to discuss strategy. What happens when everyone speaks a different language? Hayhurst says yes, sometimes, you just have to bring the interpreter to the mound. But even then the situation is not quite clearcut.

“The interpreter will speak and the shortstop will try to reinterate what the interpreter is trying to reiterate from the coach to the second baseman who speaks really only fluent Japanese,” Hayhurst said. “And the funny thing is, is whether the Japanese second baseman understands or not, he will be bowing his head over and over again, which confuses the American coach because that’s a sign that [the Japanese player] understands.”

But the Japanese player may just be bowing his head as a sign of respect toward the coach.

“So it can be a recipe for disaster, it really can,” Hayhurst said.

Still, oddly enough, he says more often than not miscommunication has nothing to do with a player’s native tongue. In fact, according to Hayhurst, when two players do not speak the same native language they can actually be more attentive and careful when reading the signs.

“I’ve seen guys mess up signs who speak the same language way more than I see problems with guys who grew up 3,000 miles away from each other,” Hayhurst said.

So this weekend, when you’re watching the series, be on the lookout for the verbal and the nonverbal signs. There’s a whole lot language going on.

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Ride New York City’s N train, with a Spanish twist

New York's new look N line (Photo: Bruce Wallace)

New York’s new look N line (Photo: Bruce Wallace)

Here’s a guest post from New-York-based reporter Bruce Wallace

New York City’s subway lines sometimes take on cultural meaning, maybe even pop­-cultural meaning. Duke Ellington made taking the A train famous. Rap icon Jay-Z’s name gives the parallel J and Z lines more cred (although his moniker is probably not a reference to them). The L line has become synonymous with the hipsters it ferries into Brooklyn. Listen to the audio:

Now the city’s N line is giving winking acknowledgement to Spanish-speaking culture. A few days ago, a number of its signs sprouted tildes — the curving accent mark that turns the N into the Spanish letter “Enye”.

The N line begins — or ends, depending on your perspective — by the water at Coney Island, way south in Brooklyn. 30 stops and an hour later, it ends (or begins) in the Queens neighborhood of Astoria.

The enye fairies, who sprinkled tildes on the yellow-and-black N-line signs at various stops, apparently didn’t make it out this far. The amended signs are concentrated toward the middle of the line, as it runs through midtown and downtown Manhattan and central Brooklyn. These are busy stops, though, and not many people there seemed to have time to take notice.

The enyes are the work of Z Street Art, a project that’s throwing up new pieces of art in public places each day for six months. The enyes, which went up Saturday, are their first strike. The group explained on its Tumblr page, “The N-line is now the Ñ-line for the 24.28% Spanish speakers in New York City.”

A multicultural advertising agency called Globalworks launched a similar effort last year, urging New York City’s MTA to change the N line to the Enye line annually during Hispanic Heritage Month.

Down at the N stop in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that’s nearly half Hispanic, some commuters were intrigued.

“That’s crazy man, I don’t even know what that means,” said Deshaun Sumpter.

I told him the rationale for the tilde — how it was a recognition of the city’s Spanish speakers.

“Oh, okay,” he said, laughing. “I got Spanish friends, you know what I’m saying? I give props to them, you know? We’re all American people, we all gotta give props to each other.”

A couple of riders had ideas about other lines with possible Spanish implications. One guy suggested the L line could be re-spelled “El” to make the Spanish article “the.” Another worried about the possible confusion of a rolled R in the R Line.

A few Spanish-speaking school kids who walked by said they thought it was cool that their language was getting some recognition.

Claudia Lechuga (“‘Lechuga,’ which actually means ‘lettuce’ in Spanish,” she explained) lives right by the Sunset Park N stop, and she’s into the enye.

“I love it!” she enthused. “I think it’s really great. It’s so cute. It’s kind of a nice homage to what the neighborhood has been, historically.”

The enyes found a fan in Blanca Gonzalez, too. She’s originally from Mexico, and runs an employment agency nearby, where the clientele is largely Hispanic. She likes the message, although she’s a bit worried about the delivery.

“It’s like two sides of the story,” she said. “First of all, I think it’s not good to be doing graffitis. But on the other side, they want to be heard, you know what I’m saying? There has to be a message that they want to send saying, ‘Yes we exist in here and we need to be represented and you can’t just deny we’re here, so listen to us.’”

John Lee works around the corner in this neighborhood, which is also home to a big Asian community. Like a good New Yorker, he’s skeptical. “People don’t pay attention, they’re too busy in their own world, right?”

He paused and pointed out a young couple hugging near an enye. “Look at these lovers — they don’t care about the N line. Do you care about the N line? Hell no, they don’t care about the N line. Nobody cares.”

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A crowdsourced crowd is cool, but nothing beats a sports spectators

There’s an off-the-field contest taking place this season among US football fans: to be the loudest.

On Sept. 15, Seattle Seahawks fans roared their way to a world record for the loudest outdoor stadium crowd. Less than a month later, fans of the Kansas City Chiefs screamed six decibels louder. A week later, Clemson fans tried but failed to break the record.

The “12th man” is a staple of home-field advantage. But it’s not just the home players who get a lift — sports history is full of moments when a hostile crowd lifts the road team.

Sports consumers need to hear it too: the more crucial the contest, the louder the crowd must be. And you can only really get a sense of just how much we all crave that sound when it’s not there.

Last May, at the climax of the Swiss soccer season, two teams with a fierce rivalry, Grasshoppers and FC Zurich, played each other. Swiss TV station SRF broadcast the highlights, complete with the usual crowd “oohs,” “aahs” and less printable utterances. There was just one problem: for the first ten minutes of the match, the crowd wasn’t actually there. The fans of both teams were staging a protest outside the stadium. They only went inside later in the game.

The TV station said they wanted to make the show “as attractive as possible.” So they added fake crowd sounds — and later apologized. But you can see where they were coming from. What kind of enjoyment is there in watching a big game, even on TV, in silence — with virtually no one watching?

Usually when games are played behind closed doors, it’s a punishment, often for hooliganism. But it’s rare that more than one or two teams are punished. In Tunisia, nearly all professional soccer matches are played in empty stadiums. The country is still in post-revolutionary turmoil and authorities fear large gatherings could quickly turn nasty.

That’s what led advertizing agency Ogilvy and Mather to create not exactly a fake crowd, but not a real one either.

“We created an app that connected mobile phones and the Internet to big loud speakers,” says Ogilvy’s Nicholas Courant. “There were 40 speakers inside the stadium.”

Recordings of the fans’ chants were blasted out of the speakers in the stadium belonging to Tunisian first division team Hamman Lif. Fans watching games on TV could use the app to show their appreciation of their team.

“The users just had to tap on sound icons,” says Courant. “A simple tap was instantly transformed into powerful support, because the more you tapped on the icon, the louder it was in the stadium.”

It got really loud for Hamman Lif’s crunch game of the season. Some 93,000 fans used the app during that match — their finger taps roaring their team onto victory. The conventional fan capacity of the stadium is just 12,000.

There’s no question this crowd-sourcing of crowds has provided a valuable service in a country where real crowds are verboten. But the app, called The 12th Man, has its limits. It doesn’t have an icon for booing or heckling. And as much as the players may have enjoyed the noise, it was coming out of big boxes. You can’t beat a real crowd.

Double gold medal winner Mo Farah credits the crowd at the 2012 Olympics with his wins — especially the second one, the 5,000 meters. The crowd, he says, was “just amazing.” They gave him “that extra gear. They gave me that lift.”

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How do you say ‘shutdown’ in Spanish or Chinese? Crisis leaves translation contracts in limbo

Antonio Guerra, Cetra's Director of Interpreting Services, with his team of interpreters at the U.S. Pacific Command's 13th annual Chiefs of Defense Conference in Seoul, South Korea (Photo courtesy of Antonio Guerra)

Antonio Guerra, Cetra’s Director of Interpreting Services, with his team of interpreters at the U.S. Pacific Command’s 13th annual Chiefs of Defense Conference in Seoul, South Korea (Photo courtesy of Antonio Guerra)

Here’s a guest post from Philadelphia-based reporter Yowei Shaw

The US Pacific Command has canceled its 16th annual Chiefs of Defense Conference, scheduled for Oct. 21 to 24 in Honolulu — much to the chagrin of Cetra Language Solutions, a small foreign language services company that was contracted by the federal government to provide interpreters at the event.

“We are directly affected by the government shutdown,” says Cetra’s CEO and President Jiri Stejskal, who founded the Philadelphia-headquartered company in 1997 when he started getting so much work as a freelance translator, he couldn’t handle it by himself. He learned of the canceled conference last week, 13 days before the event was supposed to start.

“It was canceled last-minute,” Stejskal says. “The equipment has been shipped. We have about 25 interpreters who have flight tickets and everything. It’s just a total nightmare.”

The company is counting on the $141,000 federal contract, which is now a big question mark.

For the past several years, the language industry has been booming, due in large part to an uptick in federal contracts for defense and intelligence agencies after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Globalization and the federal government’s recognition of an increasingly multilingual US society have also contributed to this growth. A Common Sense Advisory report found that federal spending on language contracts skyrocketed from nearly $14.9 million in 1990 to more than $1 billion in 2009.

But the continuing government shutdown has put foreign language companies like Cetra in a hard place. “It’s been a little bit of a downer, to put it bluntly,” says Thaddeus Thaler, director of federal services at Cetra.

Thaler has been working hard on the situation at Cetra’s northern Virginia office, trying to get reimbursed by the federal government. He says, luckily, Cetra’s contract with Pacific Command included a 100 percent refund policy if the conference was canceled within 14 days of starting.

“And the reason why we have a 100 percent cancellation policy at that point is to make sure our interpreters are paid for those days regardless of the situation, because it’s so difficult for them to go out and find new work,” Thaler says. “Otherwise they’re going to be out several hundred dollars — if not more — for those number of days that they missed.”

But even with that policy, it’s not yetclear that Cetra will get all of its money back or that the federal government will cover the cost of the interpreters’ fees. The Defense Department notified Cetra that the conference was canceled due to the shutdown, much to the surprise of Antonio Guerra, Cetra’s director of interpreting services.

“I was very shocked to find out that this was considered nonessential military activity,” Guerra says. “It’s a very important event. It’s a very important conference and I’ve seen it year after year.”

This year would have been Guerra’s fourth time at the high-level conference, which brings together the chiefs of defense from 37 Asia Pacific countries on a yearly basis to promote cooperation and stability in the region. Guerra says that in the past, the conference has focused on issues like climate change, the economy and the political climate in certain countries, including terrorist factions in Indonesia, in addition to disasters like the Fukushima crisis.

In a somewhat cruel twist of irony, the very same day that Cetra got news of the canceled conference, an auditor from the General Services Administration came to the office to do a biannual audit, to ensure the company was reporting its sales properly.

“So he spent three or four hours in our office,” Stejskal says. “So that piece of government seems to be up and running happily.”

Jiri Stejskal (Photo: Yowei Shaw)

Jiri Stejskal (Photo: Yowei Shaw)

So far, the chiefs of defense conference is the only federal contract that has been canceled for Cetra. But the company is closely monitoring its other federal contracts. And even with the looming threat of a U.S. debt default, Cetra is in a better position than other foreign language companies that provide services only to the federal government. Federal contracts make up roughly a third of Cetra’s business, but Stejskal says he’s thinking of reducing that number in the future because of the shutdown — which was the last thing he expected to happen.

“We’ve been serving the federal government for close to 15 years now and even though it’s a difficult client, given all the bureaucracy and red tape, one of the reasons we’ve been doing it for the past 15 years is because we knew we would get paid,” Stejskal says. “And that’s changing now.”

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When New Yorker Rose Monintja speaks her native tongue, the memories of her rural Indonesian upbringing flood back

Rose and Alfrits Monintja outside of their home in the New York City borough of Queens. The Monintjas are originally from the village of Sonder in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, and are among an estimated 100,000 people who speak the disappearing language Tontemboan. Photo: Bruce Wallace

Rose and Alfrits Monintja outside of their home in the New York City borough of Queens. The Monintjas are originally from the village of Sonder in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, and are among an estimated 100,000 people who speak the disappearing language Tontemboan. Photo: Bruce Wallace

Here’s a guest post from New York-based reporter Bruce Wallace…

Manhattan’s East Village has a storied literary past, but on a recent Sunday, there was a different sort of bookish chatter in the neighborhood.

A group had gathered to celebrate the literary traditions of Indonesia–specifically the traditions of five of that country’s nearly 800 languages. It was the first in a series of events put together by a group called the Endangered Language Alliance to shine light on the literature of disappearing languages – ones that have a shrinking number of native speakers.

Tontemboan is the most endangered of the five languages — today it’s spoken by somewhere around 100,000 people. Like most disappearing languages, it’s not being passed along to younger generations.

Rose Monintja, a native speaker, read “The Story of Lumimuut and Toar,” which, like a lot of creation myths, is a strange one. It involves a crow and a perspiring stone, a couple handfuls of dirt magically turning into an island, and two main characters that are part Adam-and-Eve and part Oedipus.

“Our parents, they speak Tontemboan, “Monintja says. “But in the school I didn’t learn Tontemboan. In the school: Indonesian language.”

She says her Tontemboan-speaking parents actually encouraged her to learn Bahasa Indonesia—the country’s national language. Her parents thought it was key to their kids getting a better education than they had.

She and her husband Alfrits both left the thousand-person village they grew up in, moving first to a provincial capital, then to Jakarta. In the mid-90s they moved to Queens, an immigrant-rich borough in New York City. They both still understand Tontemboan, but their speaking is a little rusty.

The stories they’ve been asked to read by the Endangered Language Alliance are actually not known today among native speakers—they’ve been gathering dust in a study put together 100 years ago by a Dutch missionary.

“Many of these missionaries had a real authentic interest in the religious beliefs and the spiritual life of the people they were trying to convert. And, ironically, now our only window into that world is through their work,” says Daniel Kaufman, a specialist in Indonesian languages and founder of the Endangered Language Alliance.

The Dutch study collected tons of information about the Tontemboan language, but, since it’s written in Dutch, it’s been inaccessible to Tontemboan speakers. Kaufman thinks it’s high time that linguists start restoring this kind of knowledge to people who still speak these languages.

“Many, many people feel that knowledge, and history, and culture has been taken from them by Western academics and never returned,” he says.

It’s particularly fitting that the Monintjas are performing these stories, since the Dutch missionary originally recorded them in the same small village where Rose and her husband were born.

Reading through the Tontemboan story, and getting ready to perform it on stage, brought back strong memories of that village for Rose.

“When I’m reading this I just feel like so close,” she says. “Like I’m there–I’m here but I’m over there, I’m in my village. I just almost cry because I can…oh my gosh…my dad is pass away already three years ago. I just remember him all the time when I hear that. Because in my ear, he’s always calling me, ‘Oh, Rose, Kumano ko mayo oh.’ Tontemboan stuff, I love that.”

Rose and her husband get together regularly to speak in Tontemboan with other expats in the area, trying to keep the language and memories alive. And they were pleased to discover that their daughter had managed to pick up some. Rose’s parents spent a lot of time with them when their daughter was first born.

A few years later, her daughter noticed Rose’s leg bothering her. Out of nowhere, the daughter came up with the Tontemboan phrase for “your leg is in pain” that she remembered hearing her grandmother say. “I say ‘What!? Oh my gosh, she knows that!'” Rose remembers, smiling.

Rose said she even bragged on Facebook about performing Tontemboan in New York City. And she got props from her daughter, now 12-years-old, after her performance. Rose thanked her daughter, although she didn’t say it in Tontemboan, she said it in Indonesian, which her daughter understands better.

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Turkey offers to end a ban on Kurdish-associated letters of the alphabet

Here’s a guest post from Istanbul-based reporter Dalia Mortada

Kurds make up about 20% of Turkey’s population – around 15 to 20 million people. But until the early 1990s, it was illegal in Turkey to use Kurdish in public.

Turkey went even further by banning several letters of the alphabet – X, W and Q – because they are associated with the Kurdish language.

The taboo against these letters has been fading, and now the Turkish prime minister is proposing an end to the ban.

Turks have long flouted the ban because, even though these letters are not used in traditional Turkish words, they are common in words loaned from English and other languages. “These letters have been used widely in the Turkish society,” says Welat Zeydanlioglu, founder of a research group called the Kurdish Studies Network.

“You have like one of the biggest TV channels, like Show TV, that has a ‘w’ in its name, and you have major companies that use these letters. It’s when Kurds have used them when using their language that they have been persecuted.”

One example was in 2007, when the mayor of a city in southeastern Turkey sent out a greeting card wishing citizens a Happy “Nowruz”, the Kurdish and Persian New Year, or first day of spring. That’s with a “w”, as opposed to the Turkish spelling, “Nevruz”, with a “v”. A case was brought against him for using the illegal letter, but later dropped.

There are also plenty of Kurdish language instructional videos on YouTube.

Recently, Kurdish has become more commonly seen and spoken in Turkey. Many popular musicians sing in Kurdish. There are Kurdish TV channels, and even the Turkish state broadcaster, TRT, has a channel that airs solely Kurdish content. The channel’s website is in Kurdish and the illegal letters appear all over it.

But learning Kurdish is much more restricted. Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, has only a couple of Kurdish language institutes. The reforms announced this week would expand language classes somewhat, but only in private fee-paying schools.

Many Turkish commentators have welcomed the moves as progress in a fledgling peace process. Kurdish rebels declared a ceasefire earlier this year after a 30-year struggle.

But Kurdish leaders are saying the proposed language reforms do not go far enough.

Gulten Kisanak, co-chairwoman of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), an opposition party sympathetic to Kurdish issues, said it was an insult to Kurds to tell them they could learn their mother tongue only if they paid for it.

Zeydanlioglu agrees. “It is difficult at this stage to tell the Kurds they have to pay to teach their children their own mother tongue,” especially after decades of what he calls a “linguicidal” policy in which Turkish authorities sought to eliminate the Kurds’ ethnic identity by eliminating their language.

Today, Kurdish kids who enter school often do not know what is happening around them because they do not speak Turkish at home. International human rights groups have reported that Kurdish children have been held back because of discrimination against their mother tongue. In some cases, kids having trouble with Turkish are designated mentally unfit and sent to special education centers.

Meanwhile, Kurdish has been associated with ignorance and its linguistic development has stagnated, says Zeydanlioglu. “The main dialect, Kurmanci, is a very dire situation,” he warns.

“Although certain things have improved, but it’s not passing on to the next generation because there are no avenues for it to evolve like all the other languages.” The problem for the continued evolution of the Kurdish language is that it’s not just a language. It’s also a symbol of the Kurds’ desire for autonomy and, for many, independence from Turkey.

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Global leaders speak English, occasionally

Turkish president Abdullah Gül speaking with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev

Turkish president Abdullah Gül speaking with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev

In the podcast I set Marco a quiz. I play him five current heads of state speaking English. He identified two of them. Go on, you know you can do better…answers at the bottom of the post.

In the meantime, here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Aaron Schachter.

When Turkish President Abdullah Gul spoke at the UN General Assembly last week, he started with this: “At the dawn of the 21st century, we had every reason to be optimistic about the future…” And then he stumbled. But it didn’t matter. He had made his point already.

Just by speaking in English, Gul conveyed his support for the US, says Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“When choosing whether to speak in a foreign language … you have to balance symbolism, on the one hand, and the need to be understood on the other,” Singh says. “Speaking to a foreign audience in their own language can be a very powerful gesture of outreach and respect, even if frankly the phrase that you use or the attempt to speak the language is not particularly fluent.”

Israel’s former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, spoke English every chance he got, with a heavy accent, and pretty basic vocabularly — certainly more basic than when he spoke Hebrew. Many Israeli officials — and Israeli citizens — see speaking English as a sign of their importance on the world stage and their friendship with the US.

But English can send the wrong message for some leaders, and separate them from their people. Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks English, but rarely speaks it in public. And never in a diplomatic setting.

Russian president Vladimir Putin singing "Blueberry Hill" in English at a charity fundraiser.

Russian president Vladimir Putin singing “Blueberry Hill” in English at a charity fundraiser.

Phillip Seib, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, says sometimes diplomats refuse to speak English out of national pride.

“They have their own language,” Seib says. “Why should they speak someone else’s language? Particularly in developing countries, this is a way to assert themselves. And they just don’t see any reason to conform to others’ linguistic abilities.”

And there can be risk in speaking English. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, spent several years earning his Ph.D. in Scotland. And you’d think that if he can understand and speak that English, he could easily speak English to an American TV audience or at the UN.

But when the issues are so nuanced, and the relationship so fragile, says Iranian-American writer Azadeh Moaveni, Iranian leaders like Rouhani want to play it safe. So they use their native langugage, “just because it is the one in which they’re most forcefully articulate, polished and can have the most sophisticated statements and arguments.”

And there’s an added benefit from using an interpreter. The time waiting for interpretation gives you a few extra seconds to think. And if you’re seen as saying something controversial, you can just blame it on a bad interpretation.

Answers to the quiz on foreign leaders speaking English:

1. Vladimir Putin
2. Manmohan Singh
3. Angela Merkel
4. François Hollande
5. Rafael Correa

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