This post is from Nina Porzucki. Read it if you like but for the full effect, listen to the podcast above.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee plays out this week and while you may be excitedly watching the best spellers in the US battle it out in Maryland, halfway around the world in China, Beijing’s kids are competing for a different kind of title: China’s Best English Speaker.
The Star of Outlook English Competition, sponsored by CCTV, the Chinese State television network, is the largest English competition in the country and, ostensibly, the world.
Hundreds of first through third graders, middle school and high school students gathered at a compound an hour outside of Beijing in the hopes of winning a place to compete at the National Championship this summer. They’re up against a mere 5 million of their peers from around China.
Getting to the national finals, which is televised in front of a huge audience, is an almost Herculean feat involving round after round of exhausting, multi-day tests. But winning means fame, entrance to a good college, a bright future. That’s how former national finalist Michelle Cui explained it to me.
“Such exposure on TV if you make it to the national final and all the things that comes with it will look so good on your track record and CCTV is the deal. … It’s really the maximum exposure an individual can get,” Cui said.
Today, Cui works in advertising and lives in Seattle. All of her fellow competitors have gone on to do interesting things: Host TV shows, write books, one even became the CCTV White House correspondent.
The kids I met this weekend want to win. Perhaps their parents want it even more.
“I’m not nervous,” 7-year-old “Jack” Zhou Zihan tells me. “I’m looking forward to win the first prize.”
Jack is fairly typical of the Beijing kids I met. They’ve lived abroad, traveled extensively; they’re part of a rising, affluent middle class. Jack lived in Washington, DC, as a toddler. His mother worked at the Chinese Embassy.
He studied English at a very young age, his mother told me. The golden age is two or three, she says, the same age that native speakers learn.
“I want him to be an ambassador between the two countries and around the world,” she says.
There are many, many parents with high expectations and blind, or perhaps deaf, love. After witnessing the talent portion of the competition, it’s clear the kids can speak much better than sing English.
But their talents weren’t limited to songs. Contestants had just one minute to show off any way they chose. There were magic tricks, flute performances, one salsa dancer, a couple of Rubix Cube experts, a hockey skater. By dinnertime Saturday night, one of the judges, Hester Veldman, looked bleary eyed.
“I watched 450 talents today. I heard the Frozen song about 300 times,” she says.
Veldman’s originally from the Netherlands, but she’s been teaching English in Beijing for the past year. This is her first time judging this kind of competition.
“The parents are really serious about it. I saw a dad who was actually commanding his son to move this way and stand that way and don’t do this and speak louder. They’re used to that pressure. They’re used to it from being in kindergarten all the way to now. So, to them, it might feel like summer cam,p but with our western eyes we think ‘Wow that’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid.’”
And then there are kids like Xing Wang, who calls himself Harry.
Harry’s tiny, with glasses. He looks about 11, but he’s 13. Whatever he lacks in size he makes up double in confidence. Harry’s never lived abroad. His parents don’t speak English. They moved from Inner Mongolia to Beijing five years ago. Harry started learning English in the third grade, which is relatively late. Beijingers start in the first grade. But while Harry’s English isn’t the best, he is teeming with ideas. He tugs at my sleeve in anticipation of telling me his talent, which he eventually does.
“Today I’m going to study a part of Obama’s speech. His speech he said in Chicago. Maybe it’s the first time he became president,” he tells me.
Sure enough, Harry takes to the CCTV stage in a red tie and dress slacks and delivers Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech. He came up with this talent idea himself, he tells me. He’s a big Obama fan and he figures, many of the judges would probably be Americans, so this speech would surely make them feel patriotic and surely get him a high score. Clever kid.
Harry performs Obama’s speech to great applause. One judge calls out, “you should run for president.” Harry bows thank you and runs off stage. He is beaming. I whisper a question.
“How do you feel?”
“Very good,” he says.
Outside we speak a little about his feelings for his own president, Xi Jinping — or Chairman Xi as Harry calls him.
“You know Chairman Xi, he is trying to do something called Chinese dream,” he tells me.
President Xi’s Chinese dream, he says, is to help China rise again, to become an important and powerful nation.
“So what’s your Chinese dream?” I ask him.
“I’m going to do my best to help my country grow up.”
Harry may think his country may be in need of growing up, but he himself appears to be doing just fine. He finds out he’s survived the Beijing semifinal and final round. He’ll be headed to the National Semifinals in June — just one round away from the big televised event.
When I went to wish Harry good luck, I found him passed out, asleep in the back of the auditorium. He doesn’t need my luck anyway. He already told me he’s confident he’ll make it all the way to the TV. I wonder if he’ll give an encore performance of Obama’s speech on CCTV.
Read this post from Jason Strother who lives in Seoul. Or listen to the podcast above, which also includes a conversation with Korean-American Heidi Shin who recently made a trip back to Korea with her mom. Both found that they were speaking an antiquated form of the language.
Almost every language comes with an accent its speakers love to mock, and Korean is no exception.
South Koreans enjoy making fun of the North Korean dialect, which sounds quaint or old-fashioned to Southerners. Comedy shows parody the North’s style of pronunciation and make fun of North Korean words that went out of style in the South years ago. And all that spells trouble for North Korean defectors.
“I had a very strong North Korean accent,” says 28-year old Lee Song-ju, who defected to South Korea in 2002. “People just kept asking me about my hometown, my background. So whenever I was asked by them, I had to lie.”
Lee says South Koreans would have looked down on him if he’d told the truth. “I wouldn’t have made any friends,” he says. So Lee, like many of the 28,000 other defectors in South Korea, tried to pick up the local accent in a hurry.
But accent differences are just the start of the linguistic frustration and confusion that many North Koreans feel when they first arrive in the South. An even bigger challenge is learning all the new words South Koreans have acquired in the seven decades since partition, many of them borrowed directly from English.
“There’s been a lot of linguistic change, particularly in the South with the influence of globalization,” says Sokeel Park, the director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, a refugee support group in Seoul.
Now some South Korean researchers are trying to help recent arrivals from the North bridge that language gap.
One way is with a new smartphone app called Univoca, short for “unification vocabulary.” It allows users to type in or snap a photo of an unknown word and get a North Korean translation. There’s also a section that gives practical language advice, like how to order a pizza — or an explanation of some dating terminology.“To create the program’s word bank, we first showed a typical South Korean grammar textbook to a class of teenage defectors who picked out the unfamiliar words,” says “Jang Jong-chul of Cheil Worldwide, the firm that created the free app.
The developers also consulted older and highly educated defectors who helped with the South-to-North translations. Univoca’s open-source database has about 3,600 words so far.
The Univoca app includes a video explaining South Korean dating terminology.
Testing the App
Upon first hearing about the new app, defector Lee Song-ju says he was skeptical about its proficiency. So he gave it a test run around a Seoul shopping plaza, where borrowed English words are everywhere.
With smartphone in hand, Lee walked past several stores, cafes and restaurants, all with signboards or advertisements featuring words he says would have made no sense to him back when he first defected.
The results were hit-and-miss. He stopped in front of an ice cream parlor and typed “ice cream” into his phone, but what appears on the screen didn’t seem right. The program suggested the word “aureum-bolsong-ee,” which literally means an icy frosting.
“We didn’t use this word when I was in North Korea,” he said. “We just say ‘ice cream’ or ‘ice kay-ke,'” the Korean way of pronouncing “cake.” Apparently North Korea isn’t so good at keeping English words out after all.
But after entering the word “doughnut,” Lee brightened up. “This is correct,” he said. “In North Korean, we say ‘ka-rak-ji-bang’ for doughnuts,” which translates as “ring bread.” We asked an illustrator to draw some of the more interesting translations for us. You can check those out in this related story.
After testing out the app in a few more locations, Univoca won over Lee. All the app’s functions are “really useful for North Korean escapees who just arrived here,” he said.
Unified Korean Dictionary
Smartphones aside, there’s a more traditional method Korean linguists are using to confront the North-South language divide.
Han Yong-woo is a South Korean lexicographer who, for the past several years, has been assembling the first unified Korean dictionary. His researchers are meeting with their North Korean counterparts this month in China to identify and translate uncommon words from each side of the peninsula.
Some South Koreans regard the North Korean vernacular as more “pure” because of its perceived lack of foreign loan words. But Han disagrees, noting there’s no such thing as a pure language.
“All languages are living and growing, including North Korean,” he says. “Over the years they’ve borrowed foreign words too, but mainly from Russian and Chinese.”
For instance, Han says, the word “tractor” made its way from English to North Korea via their former Soviet neighbors.
Political tensions are getting in the way of completing the joint dictionary, but Han hopes the project will be wrapped up in a few more years. And even if no political unification seems likely, he’s optimistic the dictionary might help unify the peninsula linguistically instead.
The post comes from my Big Show pal David Leveille.
The Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton issued a quirky executive order on Wednesday concerning the spelling of the name of the small Minnesota city of Lindström (population, 4,442).
Somehow, it seems when highway crews last updated the road signs leading into town, they removed those little twin dots that hover over the O. Lindström became Lindstrom. The transportation department defended the decision, citing federal policy that highway signs include only letters in a standard alphabet.
The omission wasn’t much noticed, though, until a Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter spotted it. Soon enough, many of the town’s Swedish American residents were up in arms. They wanted the dots restored to reflect their heritage.
Keep in mind that the city of Lindström is nicknamed America’s Little Sweden. Many locals speak Swedish when buying Scandanavian donuts at the local Swedish bakery. A sign near the city center reads “Välkommen till Lindström.”
So on Wednesday, the governor predictably set things right by ordering the umlaut to be put back on the green highway signs that welcome tourists. “Nonsensical rules like this are exactly why people get frustrated with government,” Dayton said. “Even if I have to drive to Lindström, and paint the umlauts on the city limit signs myself, I’ll do it.”
“Underbar, and that means wonderful!” said local historian and tour guide Sally Barott reacting to the governor’s order. “We are ecstatic he’s making the umlauts come back.”
Barott says the dots affect the pronunciation and, more importantly, express the region’s cultural history and link to Swedish immigrants. “It’s important,” she says. “We have the old and the new. The blend is happening all over America, but I believe being able to retain our history and cultural ways, and to recognize and be traditional, honors the way we were taught and the way it was meant to me.”
Barott regularly escorts tourists around the city that was founded by Swedish immigrants back around 1850. One of her favorite stops is the Lindstrom Bakery where she orders Swedish glazed donuts and Swedish gingersnaps, called pepparkakor.
Those gingersnaps have likely just come out of the oven, thanks to baker Bernie Coulombe, the woman behind the counter.
“This is a Swedish town. It has always been known for the Swedish settlers who first came here. So it is important to our customers and people who live here,” she explains. She says the town proudly shows off its heritage to tourists with a statue of Karl Oskar (a character in Vilhelm Moberg’s novels about Swedish emigration to the United States) that honors the early Swedish immigrants. There’s also an old water tower that’s in the shape of a coffee pot and a small Lutheran church that’s “strictly Swedish.”
But Lindstrom isn’t just hanging onto the past. “This is the way we were brought up, this is our Swedish inheritance, and you’ve got to keep your inheritance going,” says Coulombe.
This case of what might be called Lindstrom’s “umlautgate” is on the radar of The World’s language editor Patrick Cox. “Generally speaking English is thought of as the language where diacritics go to die.” All of the accents and the dots usually disappear, he says.
“America is the place where when you come to America, you sort of drop your clothes from the Old World and you embrace the New World. Names, surnames get changed, also the names of towns and cities get changed, and generally speaking the accents go.” But keep in mind, he says, “there are no rules in the English language right? I mean nobody’s going to stop the governor of Minnesota from saying ‘throw in some Cyrillic letters if you want to do that.’ He has every right to issue a decree like this.”
Strictly speaking, the Swedish ö does not use an umlaut. It is considered a separative letter in the Swedish alphabet. The umlauted o is a German thing.
But if you want to learn more about the linguistic difference between Lindstrom and Lindström, or the distinction between an umlaut (which has its origin in German) versus the happy twin dots that show up in Swedish words, and hear why rock bands ranging from Blue Öyster Cult to a Ukrainian band named Flëur like to play with umlauts, then you really must listen to Patrick’s podcast, The World in Wörds.
Get ready to hear this tired joke a few times: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”
April marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. The president who won the American Civil War and abolished slavery has rarely left public discourse since then, but the play he was watching when he was killed has largely vanished. You could say it died, along with the famous guy who was watching it.
But this year, “Our American Cousin” is back.
There are several current revivals of the play, including one in Britain — the first production there in more than a century. And that’s significant because it’s a British play. Sort of.
“It was originally written to have the English laughing at Americanisms,” says Lydia Parker, director of the new production of “Our American Cousin” at the Finborough Theatre in London. “Then it became very popular in America.”
Parker told the BBC that the play started life as a melodrama with a few laughs, mainly at the expense of a naïve but earnest American character. But later, as Broadway beckoned, the play was rewritten as a comedy in which Brits became the objects of mockery.
The play’s 1858 run in New York lasted five months, which was almost unprecedented at the time. It was still going strong in other cities, including Washington, DC. That’s where Lincoln saw it in 1865, just days after the end of the Civil War.
The plot, such as it is, deals with an English family living in the countryside. They receive a visit from a long-lost American relative by the name of Asa Trenchard, who doesn’t shower and uses words like “skedaddle” and “sockdologizing.” British audiences viewed him as coarse; American audiences warmed to his honesty.
“It’s a silly play, entirely predictable,” says Adam Smith, a Lincoln historian at University College, London. Nonetheless, he found the London revival “really fun.”
For one thing, audiences get the chance to witness what made people laugh 150 years ago. One especially pompous English character tickled the American funny bone: Lord Dundreary. Smith says Dundreary is a “ridiculously stupid” caricature of a man, “with a lisp … and great big sideburns.”
All the additional laughs contained in the American version became helpful props for John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin. As an actor, he was familiar with the play and knew when the audience would be laughing the most — and that’s when he pulled the trigger. The laughter covered up the cries of Mrs Lincoln.
“It’s that wrench from hilarity to astonished agony that’s incredible,” Smith says. “Has there ever been a leader assassinated while 1,500 of his fans were in fits of hysterical laughter?”
That’s also the biggest problem confronting today’s producers of the play. Most audiences know the scene, and anticipate its arrival with a mix of curiosity and dread. It’s difficult to focus on the comedy.
Smith applauds the Finborough Theatre’s approach to the scene: A female character lets out a farcical scream, just at the moment when Mrs Lincoln was said to have screamed after her husband was shot.
But however you play it, it’s awkward.
The London production of “Our American Cousin” is now sold out through its last performance on April 14. That’s the anniversary of the play’s most famous performance.
We will be hearing plenty about Martin Luther over the next two years, as Germans gear up for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.
Luther is best known as the father of the Reformation. But he also wrote anti-Semitic screeds that were extreme—even by the standards of the time. In addition, he revolutionized the German language.
Before Luther, there was no single German language but a series of dialects. Two were dominant: Upper German and Low German. As a child, Luther lived on the linguistic borderlands that divide the two. His family moved back and forth across the boundary several times.
“He was totally bilingual,” says Alexander Weber, a linguist at Birkbeck College, University of London. “It’s a stroke of luck in terms of the development of the German language that the key figure [of the Reformation] would actually be able to address an audience in Low German and Upper German.”
Luther’s bilingualism allowed him to create a national language. But his genius was in his colloquial turns of phrase. Before him, the Bible was a theological text. His translations transformed it into everyday language.
“This language has a new purpose, to speak to everybody,” says Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, which recently staged an exhibition of German cultural history. MacGregor wrote and hosted an accompanying podcast for the BBC.
Macgregor says Luther’s translations turned the New Testament’s gospels into “conversations you might overhear: Jesus speaking as a German carpenter to German fishermen.”
“He listened to the man in the street, the woman in the kitchen to the child playing,” says Lutheran theologian Margot Kässmann. “Still today…our language is really Luther’s.”