Monthly Archives: January 2014

The world according to Gary Shteyngart in four languages

Photo: Random House/Brigitte Lacombe

Photo: Random House/Brigitte Lacombe

Gary Shteyngart writes in English, but his memoir draws on the Russian and Yiddish of his Leningrad childhood, and the Hebrew of his schooling in New York.

The memoir is called “Little Failure.” The title is based on an English-Russian mashup expression (“failure” plus a Russian diminutive) invented by his mother.

“I love the way [my parents] play with language,” says Shteyngart. “Even when it’s a little bit hurtful.”

Hurtful goes both ways in Shteyngart’s family. “Little Failure” won’t be a comfortable read for his parents. It’s full of fraught family moments—and worse. The memoir also delves into the past, documenting the terrible suffering of some Shteyngart’s grandparents and great-grandparents.

And although his parents do have a copy of the book, Shteyngart says their English isn’t great, so they may wait till the Russian translation comes out.

Shteyngart has previously written three novels, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” “Absurdistan” and “Super Sad True Love Story.” The memoir reads like a novel—gripping narratives, expertly-etched characters, telling details.

When Shteyngart was seven, his family moved from the Soviet Union to the United States. Like many Soviet Jews they’d been trying to leave for years to escape anti-Semitism. But Soviet authorities blocked the immigration of many Jews until they could strike a deal with the United States. It was 1979. The Russians needed grain—their harvest had failed. So they allowed Jews to leave in exchange for American grain.

So the family became “Grain Jews.”

“I was worth maybe 300 loaves and a croissant or something,” says Shteyngart. “I don’t know who got the better deal.”

The family settled in New York, where Gary was sent to Hebrew school. He didn’t bother too much with learning Hebrew. He was more interested in picking up English from TV shows like “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

At the dinner table, though, the family spoke only in Russian, for which Shteyngart is grateful now.

“Retaining Russian meant retaining all those memories,” he says. “Whenever I write, it’s in English but there’s always a Russian soundtrack in the back.”

It took Shteyngart about seven years to lose his Russian accent: “Lots of practice in front of a mirror.”

He would repeat words he couldn’t pronounce, trying to “get rid of a bunch of consonants to get English right.”

One such word: attic. The family had moved to an apartment with an attic and Shteyngart was anxious to master this expression. But one of those pesky extra consonants came back to bite him. He pronounced it addict, as in: “We have a new apartment with an addict.”

Shteyngart recently became a father for the first time. He’s relieved that his son wasn’t born into the kind of calamitous world experienced by previous generations of Shteyngarts.

“The Yiddish word is tsuris—troubles,” he says. “I don’t know what the future is going to hold. I mean pretty soon, Manhattan might be underwater, so I hope this kid learns how to swim real good. But there is a feeling that…he’s growing up in relatively wonderful circumstances.”

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    No room for African or Indian languages in Disney’s multilingual version of ‘Let It Go’

    Images from the Tumblr, “This Could Have Been Frozen”

    Images from the Tumblr, “This Could Have Been Frozen”

    Disney has released a version of the Oscar-nominated song “Let it Go” from the animated movie Frozen that includes lyrics sung in 25 languages. It sounds global and inclusive, but most of the languages are European.

    This is the Epcot World Showcase of songs: a trip around the linguistic world — or at least the one according to Disney.

    The song opens with a line in English, followed by French, German and Dutch. That sets the tone.

    Seventeen of the languages are European, including some that are not exactly widely spoken — Catalan, for example, and the dialect of Dutch spoken by the Flemish of Belgium. Regular Dutch is also included, as well as Serbian (but not Croatian), Bulgarian and many more.

    Danish is represented too — appropriately enough, given that “Frozen” is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

    From Asia, there’s Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian and Thai. And from the Americas, Latin American Spanish and Canadian French. (Interestingly, there is no Brazilian Portuguese, or for that matter, British English.)

    From Africa there’s … nothing. Not one language. The same goes for South Asia. Between them, these two regions acccount for for more than 3,000 of the world’s languages.

    I contacted Disney to ask why they ignored such a huge part of the world. But no one returned my calls and emails. (One Disney representative did say to me as she connected me to a colleague’s voicemail, “Thank you, Sir. And you have a magical day.”)

    Disney, of course, has long been criticized for its preference for white-skinned heroines. Before the release of “Frozen,” a Tumblr called This Could Have Been Frozen re-imagined Elsa the Snow Queen as black, Tibetan, Mongolan, Iniut and other ethnicities.

    Given that dissatisfaction, the release of this song seems like a missed opportunity. It wouldn’t have taken much to have had “Let it Go” recorded in say, Zulu or Yoruba, and included in the multilingual mash-up.

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    The language of sports motivation

    German water polo player Moritz Oeler (Photo: Benjamin Lau)

    German water polo player Moritz Oeler (Photo: Benjamin Lau)

    Here’s a guest post from reporter Katie Manning.

    Many athletes are awaiting what may be the highest-pressure event of their lives at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Staying focused during the competition is easier said than done.
    To combat their nerves and to aid motivation, many turn to words. Which words they choose goes deeper than their personalities and the particular sports they play. It also depends on their cultures.

    Somdev Devvarman is India’s highest-ranked tennis player. His pre-match ritual is to hunch over his racquet and meditate.

    “My style is very much being silent, being still,” says Devvarman.

    Indian tennis pro Somdev Devvarman (Photo: Katie Manning)

    Indian tennis pro Somdev Devvarman (Photo: Katie Manning)

    He focuses on “being by myself, being aware of what every situation is and warming up the right way, then going out and performing. If there’s a lot of dialogue within yourself, that means there’s a lot of stuff going on in your head, which means you’re not present to react to things that are happening around you.”
    In India, meditation and spirituality are part of life. Indian athletes draw on that and other, more global strategies.

    Younger Indians follow Michael Jordan and other famous athletes on Twitter. That’s changed the language they use for motivation, according to Devvarman. “You basically use the exact same words in different languages,” he says. “In Hindi, ‘let’s go’ is chal.” He knows the Serbian equivalent too: ajde.

    Mortiz Oeler of the German national water polo team uses a variation of Devvarman’s approach.

    He spends many hours studying videotapes of his opponents before he jumps into the pool to face them. He becomes calm and focused not through meditation, but painstaking analysis of his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses.

    “It makes me nervous if I just hear my heart all the time and act like ‘I feel like this,’ and ‘I feel like that,'” says Oeler. “I need a structure.”

    Oeler plays his best when he can reign in the chaos of the water polo pool. It may be a cliche, but he says it is the German style.

    Yet if calmness is ideal, why do some athletes huddle, chant and seemingly work themselves into a frenzy?

    That, too, may depend on where they are from.

    Polo player Mauricio Diaz lives in the US, but he grew up in Costa Rica. He says the American approach couldn’t be more different than in his homeland.

    In Costa Rica, “Everyone is super chill,” says Diaz. In the US, “Everyone is out to kill each other. It’s ‘let’s go out there and hammer the opponent.’ It’s a lot of yelling … ‘Let’s wreck them into the wall. Rip their mallets apart.’ It’s all these big aggression words.”

    During matches, Diaz mentally eggs himself on by calling himself a “sissy.” Players even toss the insult around at each other. They try to get their teammates worked up to help them play better.

    “That’s a little more Latin American culture. In the US, they cater to you a bit more, so they’ll say, ‘Hey, great playing. You’re doing fantastic,’” says Diaz. “That’s not the feedback I like to get.”

    He also likes to recall a Costa Rican saying while he plays, pura vida, or pure life. It became his on-field nickname in the US.

    Diaz tries to balance a pura vida mindset with the more aggressive approach he’s learned in the States. It’s not an approach he’s always comfortable with.

    “I thought it was a little extreme, but it also kind of fires that blood again. It’s a good motivation because the pressure helps you build the fire in your blood, but being able to keep it cool in your mind is where you can actually play your best,” says Diaz.

    What works for one player might not for another, but Chilean sports psychologist Alejandro Serrano says you can’t ignore local culture.

    “In team sports [in Chile], they try to motivate with emotions,” Serrano says. “In the States, it’s a little less emotions, but a little more, kind of, if you love it, do it. You can do it. ‘Let’s do it!’ Here [in Chile], you will find a lot of sayings like, ‘We’re going to war;’ ‘Let’s do it for the family.’”

    Motivating an entire team with the same words doesn’t work, says Serrano. In soccer, a striker might benefit from an adrenaline-revving pep talk, but a defender needs to be patient and wait for the right moment. While a war-like speech might be fun, it won’t actually help a team’s performance.

    Self motivation can also backfire, if it piles on too much pressure. Serrano’s advice: cut out the pre-game chants, don’t get down on yourself, understand that the game isn’t everything. Just be in the moment.

    “If they have a glove, I write something like FS [for ‘Feel the Sensation’],” he says. “If you think most of the time, you’re dead … I try to teach them not to think.”

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    Babies, apologies and “huh?” with Cartoon Queen Carol

    Photo: Anishahamedsaifi via Wikimedia Commons

    Photo: Anishahamedsaifi via Wikimedia Commons

    Cartoon Queen Carol Hills and I went round the linguistic block in the pod this week. (See bottom of post for all stories and links.) Among the topics we discussed: two new studies concerning language acquisition.

    There’s plenty we don’t know about how we start speaking. We are constantly trying to discover more, but much of the process remains a mystery. How do we start conversing, picking up the grammar as we go along? Two new studies cast light on the early stages of language acquisition.

    A study at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, considered infants’ recognition of a second language. It found that infants as young as 13 months could distinguish between languages. They could tell when adult speakers used different words for different things. The kids were shown videos of English and French nursery rhymes. Researchers concluded that the infants came to understand that certain items were described differently in English and French.

    “Infants appreciate that words are not shared by speakers of different languages, suggesting that infants have a fairly nuanced understanding of the conventional nature of language,” said study co-author Annette Henderson.

    “People often think that babies absorb language and you don’t have to teach them, and they do absorb it and they learn very passively, but they’re not just learning willy-nilly,” she said.

    Another way infants learn is through adult baby talk. Yes, that often annoying way that adults speak to babies — slowly, elongating some vowels: “How are youuuuuuu?” The more an adult talks that way, making it clear to the infant that this is a one-on-one interaction, the quicker the infant picks up words.

    Researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Connecticut studied thousands of verbal exchanges between adults and infants in reaching their conclusion.

    “Some parents produce baby talk naturally and they don’t realize they’re benefiting their children,” said the study’s co-author Nairán Ramírez-Esparza. “What this study is adding is that how you talk to children matters.”

    These studies were a couple of the topics Cartoon Queen Carol Hills and I discussed in the podcast. Here are the others:

    • Meaningless apologies. More especially among Brits and Japanese. And Brits again, as observed by an UK-based US Army officer.
    • Bosnia has three school systems and three languages of instruction. Tough luck if you live in the ‘wrong’ part of the country.
    • Is ‘huh?’ really used in all languages? It is in the 31 languages surveyed in this study.
    • Is the Endangered Languages Movement skewing linguistics research?

    All the the fun is in the podcast, and Carol’s a blast. So give it a listen on the Soundcloud player at the top of this page.

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    Silicon Valley is full of entrepreneurs — and some of them are native French speakers

    Jean-Louis Gassée, a former colleague of Steve Jobs at Apple. Gassée is now a venture capitalist based in Silicon Valley. (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

    Jean-Louis Gassée, a former colleague of Steve Jobs at Apple. Gassée is now a venture capitalist based in Silicon Valley. (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

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

    Steve Jobs has inspired many entrepreneurs in the U.S. and around the world. Today, some French tech innovators in Silicon Valley think of Jobs as an honorary Frenchman. The perception is that he was more focused on beauty and elegance, and less on money.

    But although many French admired him, they didn’t copy him. And, at least until recently, they haven’t created the conditions that would allow tech innovators to thrive.

    The French, of course, are known for their style. But some are asking: Why is it so hard to be an entrepreneur in France and much easier for a French entrepreneur to succeed in the United States?

    Here in Silicon Valley, the French are certainly leaving their mark. There’s Pierre Omidyar of eBay fame, semiconductor pioneer Pierre Lamond and serial entrepreneur Philippe Kahn.

    Jean-Louis Gassée is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. In the 1980s, Gassée was the head of Apple in France and worked with Steve Jobs. He believes true innovators are often a bit mad, but in France they need to be even more than that.

    “To be an entrepreneur in France you need an additional dose of madness … the rules are so onerous,” says Gassée.

    He’s talking about heavy government regulation and taxes of up to 75%. These, he says, force French entrepreneurs to be tenacious and to find loopholes. Legal loopholes, of course.

    “In France, breaking the law is a sport, it’s an honor, it’s a badge to find ways to cheat the rules,” says Gassée.

    When he established Apple in France, Gassée had to be creative since the government put up roadblocks to foreign competition. What’s more, Silicon Valley’s extravagant language was abhorrent to French ears.

    “When our dearly departed Steve Jobs came to France to make his usual brand of hyperbolic statements, people were taken aback, resentful,” says Gassée. “People rolled their eyes. They called him fou (mad), méprisant (contemptuous ), houtant (haughty), … arrogante (arrogant). … All this was part of his genius.”

    Today, that genius has made Steve Jobs a hero to many younger French entrepreneurs.

    I went to a gathering of DBF, a networking group for Francophones in Silicon Valley, where I chatted with John Forge, a French entrepreneur.

    “We should make Steve Jobs an honorary Frenchman,” he laughed, praising Jobs’ style and detail-oriented approach.

    “Steve Jobs was very French in his approach. He was seeing technology through the eyes of somebody who studied fonts, characters, writing … on the detail, it had to be perfect.”

    Forge argues that the French obsession with elegance is very “Jobsian.”

    “It has to be beautiful; there’s an entire way of thinking,” says Forge. “Quelque chose qui vous parle … it speaks to you effectively.”

    But Forge says that even among the open-minded French entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, there’s still some insularity.

    “Where the French gather … they call that ‘The Frog Pond.’ There’s a little too much of that … ‘I want every day to have my steak pomme frites’ … to live like the French live,” he explains.

    Not surprisingly, Silicon Valley has dozens of French eateries. I met with Susan Lucas-Conwell at the Douce France Café in Palo Alto. She currently leads SVForum, an education network for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

    The Douce France Café in Palo Alto Lucas-Conwell is married to a Frenchman and says the French view business failure differently than in California. In Silicon Valley, it’s a badge of honor. In France, Lucas-Conwell explains, failure is one of the non-dit, the things that you never talk about.

    The Douce France Café in Palo Alto (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

    The Douce France Café in Palo Alto (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

    To make matters worse, according to Lucas-Conwell, French government officials are expert at the business put-down.

    “You will hear the administration calling entrepreneurs ‘les patrons voyous.’ Voyou is a thug,” says Lucas-Conwell.

    That’s pretty strong language — another manifestation of the anti-entrepreneurial culture in France. And just think, the word ‘entrepreneur’ is French.

    So while French innovators struggle Sisyphus-like up a steep mountain, the lucky ones can move here to Silicon Valley and feel an optimistic wind at their back.

    “We Silicon Valley people tend to think that we run the world, you understand, and there is some truth in that,” says Jean-Louis Gassée. “Je tweet, tu tweet, nous tweetons, vous tweetez, ils tweetent … It’s an -er verb. Usage trumps rules in any language.”

    “It is a wonderful thing … we are the melting pot’s melting pot,” he adds.

    Sophie Woodville Ducom, another French transplant with the French American Chamber of Commerce, calls Silicon Valley “The Mecca” — a place where entrepreneurs can thrive, even if they first fail. And, if they’re really lucky, they get to push that rock to the top of the mountain and enjoy the glory. That’s the promise of Silicon Valley, anyway.

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    How do you say ‘selfie’ in Danish, or French or Arabic?

    (Adam63/Wikimedia Commons)

    (Adam63/Wikimedia Commons)

    This is the time of year when dictionaries and linguists issue their words of the year. (My favorite choice is the American Dialect Society’s because.)

    There’ve been several choices, but the word that’s captured the global imagination is ‘selfie.’ And it hasn’t been limited to the English-speaking world.

    The big moment of course, was that snapshot at Nelson Mandela’s memorial featuring Barack Obama, David Cameron, and the leader who took it, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. After that, there was no escaping ‘selfie.’

    So when the Danes were debating whether it was appropriate selfie etiquette for their Prime Minister to take a picture like that at a memorial service, what word did they use for selfie?

    They used…’selfie.’

    “We stole your word,” says Karl Erik Stougaard, online editor of Denmark’s Politiken newspaper. “We also call it a ‘selfie.'”

    ‘Selfie’ began as English slang (it may have come into being in Australian English), and then saturated the entire world via social media. It all happened in a linguistic nanosecond, far too fast for speakers of other languages to come up with their own native expressions.

    Of course, there’s always been lending and borrowing among languages. English is great loaner of foreign terms. But the difference now is that words like ‘selfie’ and ‘twerk’ enter popular parlance among English speakers and non-English speakers at roughly the same time, thanks largely to social media. There’s nothing like a popular hashtag to globalize a word. After that, you have little option but to use the default English term if you want to participate in the conversation.

    To me, that speaks much more about our times than the word itself does. Yes, we in the early 21st century are having a narcissistic moment, but it’s not the first one. Narcissus, after all, was a figure from Ancient Greek mythology; we’ve been unhealthily obsessed with our own image for quite some time. (Don’t forgot all those painted self-portraits either.) The speed of selfie’s adoption seems more significant than any claims that it embodies the zeitgeist.

    Have you heard a version of ‘selfie’ in another language? How does it translate? When did the start being used? Let us know in the comments below.

    Here’s a selection of recent political cartoons from both the English-speaking and non-English-speaking worlds featuring selfies.

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    How to make a living as a Spanish teacher in Guatemala. Hint: Skype

    Marco Antonio Tabin Garcia, in Antigua, Guatemala, Skypes with a student in Chicago. (Photo: Laura Knotts)

    Marco Antonio Tabin Garcia, in Antigua, Guatemala, Skypes with a student in Chicago. (Photo: Laura Knotts)

    Here’s a guest post from reporter Emily Files.

    When Marco Antonio Tabin Garcia was younger, he considered emigrating from Guatemala to the United States.

    “Because I had heard in United States, there was gold,” he says.

    He knew he’d need to travel illegally, crossing through Mexico, so he decided against the journey. Instead, he got a job teaching Spanish at a local language school, where he earned about $2 an hour. He continued teaching at local schools for more than 20 years.

    Now 49, Tabin Garcia has found a way to make a much better living without leaving his own home. He teaches Spanish lessons on Skype, mostly to American and Canadian students. He makes $10 per hour, five times what he made at the local schools.

    Erin O’Reilly, a veteran language teacher based in California, teaches in traditional classrooms and online. She’s seen online language lessons take off globally in the past three years. She says it co-incides with growing Internet access in developing countries.

    “This is transformational for language learners who are trying to learn outside of a traditional classroom setting,” O’Reilly says.

    But she doesn’t think classroom teaching will die out any time soon. She says language learners often need the structure and motivation that comes with in-person lessons.

    Photo courtesy Laura Knotts

    Photo courtesy Laura Knotts

    For Tabin Garcia, Skype lessons have been so profitable that he quit his job at the language school last month. He’s been able to buy luxuries he and his wife could not previously afford, like a washing machine. His dog, Manchas, used to sleep on a cardboard box. Tabin Garcia recently bought him a cushy dog bed.

    On a recent Thursday evening, Tabin Garcia had a one-hour Skype lesson with student Laura Knotts, who lives in Chicago. They made small talk about weather and their families and Tabin Garcia corrected her mistakes.

    Knotts is one of a dozen students Tabin Garcia teaches each week. He’s brought his wife and sister into the business as well. The two women now have a few of their own students.

    Tabin Garcia’s weekly income of about $150 to $200 supports not only himself and his wife, but his extended family. He says his 7-year-old niece used to be malnourished and became sick. Her parents didn’t have enough money to pay for a doctor.

    “She would have died,” Tabin Garcia said. “Her condition was very, very bad.”

    He used his Skype earnings to pay for her medicine and food. She’s doing better now.

    There are some roadblocks to teaching via Skype. For one, an Internet connection is expensive, as is the laptop he uses. Some people don’t know how to use Skype. Tabin Garcia has trained a few friends and family. And, of course, there are always technical glitches. But Tabin Garcia has been able to keep his independent business going despite those problems.

    Talking to students in different countries has made him more interested in traveling outside of Guatemala, something he’s never done before.

    “I would like to visit the country where students live,” he said. “I would like to visit Chicago. I would like to visit Canada. Winter Canada, for seeing the snow.”

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