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Bilingual tots and the language of smell

Not many parents in Israel make the choice, but a few send their kids to Arabic/Hebrew bilingual preschools. The World’s Jerusalem correspondent Matthew Bell is one of them. His son is about to enroll in a preschool where Hebrew and Arabic are spoken on alternate days. To relax, this 3-year-old will speak English at home. (Matthew, he’ll thank you for it one day…)  Matthew says parents have different reasons for sending their kids to a bilingual preschool. For Hebrew speakers, it often comes from a desire to learn more about the culture of their Arab neighbors. For Arabic speakers, it’s more likely to be out of a wish to get a leg up the socio-economic ladder. For outsiders like Matthew, it’s a golden opportunity to have the kid learn a couple of foreign languages at a stage in life when those languages might stick.

Next in the pod is an interview with Seattle-area rabbi Mark Glickman (pictured, looking at the camera).  He recently visited the Cairo Genizah, which once boasted one of Judaism’s largest repositories of documents. Many of these documents dated back hundreds of years, but at the Cairo Genizah, they were, in Rabbi Glickman’s words, “a messy, jumbled dump.” They are now stored, in somewhat better shape, in archives around the world — in the UK, the US and Israel.  Glickman explains why so many sacred Jewish texts were written in Arabic.

Next, a report from Syria on book-publishing and reading in Arabic-speaking world. Books in Arabic have a long history (pictured is an Arabic version of One Thousand and One Nights from the 14th Century). But not many people these days read books in Arabic: a recent UN survey reported that less than 2% of native Arabic speakers reads even one book a year. That means that fewer books are being published.  However, you can still find bookstores in cities like Damascus and Beirut; they’re trying mightily to revive the practice of reading in Arabic.

A short plug here for Ed Park’s novel, Personal Days. The book is replete with inventive wordplay (unwanted backrub given by a character named Jack = jackrub; character called Graham with whiny British accent is renamed Grime). Plus, there’s a nice un-Eating Sideways moment. It’s when the narrator suggests that there should be a French expression, along the lines of l’esprit d’escalier, for the sensation of being initially amused but later unnerved by something that’s said to you.

Finally, we visit the New York Public Library for a smell test. What does a book’s particular odor convey to an educated nose, such as that of Shelley Smith (pictured) of the library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division?

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Translating disaster and disastrous translations

In this podcast, Carol Hills and I pick a few stories that had previously passed us by. We dust them off and turn them into out Top Five Language Stories of the month.

5.Translating Iceland’s economic collapse into English. Iceland isn’t exactly an opportunity-rich environment for job-seekers — unless you’re an Icelandic-English translator.  There are a handful Brits, Americans and Canadians who live in Iceland, often married to Icelanders. Some are now extremely busy translating complex financial documents,  most of which make depressing reading at least as far as the Icelandic economy is concerned. The translators find themselves translating back into English expressions that in some cases had only recently debuted in Icelandic:  collateralized debt  obligation  (skuldavafningur, also known as skuldabréfavafningur), payment mitigation (greiðsluaðlögun), winding up board (slitastjórn) and other linguistic markers of a nation’s meltdown.

4. Bad translations rule.  So, outside of Iceland at least,  translation remains hit and miss — mainly miss, thankfully. Mexican President Felipe Calderon recently visited President Obama in Washington, but their joint appearance before the world’s media turned into a translation amateur hour. Calderon’s translator, apparently a sub for the regular guy, rendered Calderon’s clear Spanish into murky English.

In Shanghai, that murky English known as Chinglish is in danger of vanishing. Local leaders hosting Expo 2010 don’t want their city to be the setting for mirthful photo-exchanges of all-too-literally translated expressions. Beijing tried cleaning up its Chinglish ahead of the 2008 Olympics. Good thing there are so many other cities in China, and so much more Chinglish.  One Chinglish expert — a German as it happens —  told the New York Times that beneath the flowery craziness of Chinglish lurk clues about Chinese language and culture.

Above is a picture I snapped at Beijing’s (old) airport in 2006. Without  the documentation, this fine example Chinglish might have become extinct.

Another great place to find bad translations is at the Eurovision Song Contest.  This is the über-cheesy music competition that many Europeans hate to love.  Songs from each of the competing nations go up against each other, and an international panel of judges decides the winner.  The podcast has done segments on the Eurovision here and here. This time round, we focus on the magnificently mangled English coined by the lyricists of Moldova’s 2010 entry, as described here.

3. A language for communication with extraterrestrials.  Not English, not Spanish, not even Globish. No, none of these languages is good enough for extraterrestials. The thinking, or my excessively simplified version of it, is that the aliens, when they come are likely to be brainy. I mean, they will have actually made it here. So, we may need to put our best linguistic foot forward. Hence, a language of  electronic beeps that would indicate — in a more scientifically precise way than, say, English does — just what we humans are capable of.  That was the proposal of National Security Agency cryptologist Lambros Callimahos 40 years ago. Stephen Hawking, meanwhile, thinks that if aliens do visit, they might not be too friendly.

2. Arizona moves against accented schoolteachers. The state of Arizona’s  Department of Education is requiring that all schoolteachers teaching English Language Learning speak grammatically and without too heavy an accent.  That’s yet another controversial move in a state that is being cast as the most anti-immigrant place in America.

1. People with animal names. Costa Rica’s new president Laura Chinchilla is one of millions of people worldwide who after named after animals. Interestingly, chincillas do not live anywhere near Costa Rica: they are Andean creatures.  (just as people called Lion or Lyon don’t all come from sub-Saharan Africa). Still chinchillas are super-cute, for rodents at least. So, the name might have done its bit to get Laura Chinchilla elected. And yes, there is a facebook group for people with animal last names.

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Translators working overtime, silverfin aka Asian carp, and counting in Chinese

Dead catfish washed up on the Gulf coast photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bgjohnson/4577801797/

Translators are proving their worth twice in this week’s podcast: in New York, where they’re helping elderly Russian speakers fill out forms from the  US Census Bureau; and in Louisiana and Mississippi where they’re interpreting for Vietnamese-American fishermen whose livelihoods are threatened by the big oil spill. The mind-sets of these non-English speakers are remarkably similar: they come from former communist countries where the government was a thing to be feared. Now they are confronted by a US government that is less invasive but, in its own way, just as confusing. Its announcements and forms are sometimes difficult even for native speakers to decipher. Bring on the translators, of whom — especially in the Gulf states —  there are not enough.  (See earlier blog post and podcast on Census Bureau efforts, mainly successful, to offer more outreach to non-English speakers.)

Which tastes better:  Kentucky tuna, silverfin or Asian carp? Well, they are one and the same fish. Attempts are underway to re-brand Asian carp, which has a nasty reputation as a bottom-feeding  invader of America’s waterways. In fact, Asian carp– or the variety that made it to the United States–  isn’t a bottom-feeder. It feeds on plankton; its meat, supposedly, is super-delicious. Worthy of a name like silverfin. The mouth waters. The price per pound rises. We’re all happy, right? Language is a beautiful thing.

And finally, a conversation about counting. Some languages are more numerate than others. If you’re a native English speaker, you may be in trouble. Words like eleven, fifteen, Thurday and August are not useful terms when it comes to mathematics. We might be better off with the less poetic-sounding ten-one, ten-five, weekday four and month eight. Mathematician-journalist Alex Bellos discusses this and other language differences in his book Here’s Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion through the Astonishing World of Math (UK edition: Alex’s Adventures in Numberland). Bellos also recites the numbers one to twenty in one of the UK’s medieval dialects.

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A language speed-dater gets serious, and a cross-dressing, cross-linguistic singer

A language-learning marathon is over, as the author of a blog called 37 Languages decides which language to learn for real. The first time I talked to Keith Brooks he’d speed-dated 13 languages: he read up on each one,  learned a few phrases, and posted a summary and a points-based evaluation on his blog. Of the original 37, six got a call back: Swedish, Albanian, Turkish, Norwegian, Portuguese and Croatian. On these second dates, Keith tried to immerse himself in the language for at least a week, again documenting his observations online.   Now, he’s chosen the language we wants to live with. I won’t spoil the surprise. It’s in the podcast, and by the time you read this, it may be on the 37 Languages site.

Next up is the story of a new film that documents a year in the life of an elementary school in Turkey. The kids speak only Kurdish, their teacher only Turkish. After a year, the teacher can speak three words of Kurdish. This is set against a backdrop of official supression of the Kurdish language, that the Turkish government is only now addressing. It has recently relaxed regulations so that it’s now possible to broadcast and publish in Kurdish. There’s huge opposition in Turkey to even these changes.

Finally, we profile one of Ukraine’s most beloved performers: the cross-dressing Verka Serduchka. Serduchka is the alter ego of Andriy Danylko. Serduchka is a bossy, Soviet-era train conductor turned trashy singer.  She represented Ukraine at the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest, and ended up in second place.  Danylko uses Serduchka to satirize Ukrainian life– and especially Ukranian-Russian relations. As part of that Serduchka uses a dialect called Surzhyk that had been viewed as a uneducated hybrid of Russian and Ukraine. But Serduchka has re-popularized Surzhyk, so that young Ukrainians now use it in a knowing, ironic way.  To get a sense of Serduchka talking, singing and dancing with her creator Andriy Danylko, check out this video.



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Census-taking, volcano-pronouncing, and why Thais win at Scrabble

Robert Groves, Director, U.S. Census Bureau. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lccr

The U.S.Census Bureau is firing on all linguistic cylinders to ensure that non-English speakers are counted in this year’s census. It has been getting the word out via ads, PSAs and handbills translated into 28 different languages (compared to 17 in the 2000 census). Now Census workers are starting to knock on the doors of households, many of them non English-speaking,  that haven’t yet mailed in their forms.

Much of the linguistic outreach seems to be working, but not all of it: in Vietnamese, the word census was translated to something closer to investigation.  Among some Somalis, the very notion of being counted is taboo.  And then there are the southern border states, home to millions of Spanish-speaking undocumented immigrants. Arizona’s recent anti-immigrant law has put them on edge: the last thing that many there would do is voluntarily offer up information about themselves to the government.

Next, a BBC news announcer gives us an Icelandic lesson. It’s a very specific lesson: how to pronounce Iceland’s most famous landmark, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. You may think, why bother now? The volcano is no longer  spitting ash into the air and planes are back in the sky. Well, volcanologists believe Eyjafjallajökull isn’t done belching yet.  More pronunciation tips here and here.

Another item recently in the news:  Scrabble. It turned out to be a faux story: as initially reported,  proper names were about to be permitted under new Scrabble rules. But that wasn’t the case. The proper name rule affected only a new spinoff game that won’t be sold in North America. But given how wrong the news media, including the BBC and NPR, were in their initial reporting, it’s no wonder Scrabble affionados reached for their botttles of Jack Daniels and other proper name beverages. All of which got me wondering what Scrabble obsession is all about  (I don’t play the game). After I heard a lively BBC discussion on the subject, I got it. I also came to understand why English Scrabble is so popular among so many non-English speakers, especially Thais.

Finally, five unique Japanese expressions. They are provided by kanji supremo (or perhaps suprema?), blogger and author Eve Kushner.  Here they are:

病床日誌 【びょうしょうにっし】  byōshō nisshi diary written while ill in bed:

日照権 【にっしょうけん】 nisshōken the right to sunshine

日向水 【ひなたみず】 hinata mizu water warmed in the sun

三日酔い 【みっかよい】mikkayoi hangover (that still lingers two days after drinking)

日猶同祖論 【にちゆうどうそろん】 nichiyū dōsoron hypothesis that Jews and Japanese are of common ancestry

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An American family, an Indonesian tribe, an oral language and its first book

In 1973 Sue (pictured) and Peter Westrum and their baby went to live among an indigenous tribe in Indonesian New Guinea. They had been dispatched by Wycliffe Bible Translators (check out my interview with Wycliffe President and CEO Bob Creson)  to learn the Berik language, develop a script for it, and then translate the Bible into Berik. They spent more than 20 years there. It was a time of great transformation for the Berik people, their beliefs and their language.

This week’s pod is entirely given over to a conversation I had with Sue Westrum. It includes two astounding pieces of archive tape recorded in New Guinea by her husband Peter.  The first is the Westrums’ first meeting with the Berik people who lived essentially in the jungle, in several villages a few dozen miles upriver of a modern Indonesian port town.  The second recording is of Berik singing and drumming: one night a large number of them gathered unnanounced outside the Westrums’ makeshift home, and they just started playing and chanting. In both cases, the Westrums weren’t sure how to respond, though they sensed that these were friendly gestures.

Over time, the Westrums learned the Berik language. They also began teaching some of the Berik about the Bible, with a view to selecting some of the best students to help them translate it into Berik. The Westrums — and Wycliffe Bible Translators — insist that they are not Christian missionaries, that their role as translators is different. And in some cases  the roles can be kept separate. But perhaps not in this case. The Berik had animist beliefs and had been barely been exposed to other religions. It’s difficult to imagine how language classes focused on the Bible would not sometimes morph into Bible study and discussions of belief. Certainly, during the time that the Westrums lived among them, many Berik converted to Christianity.

There are so many aspects of Berik language and culture that are different from American English that the process of translating the Bible was painstakingly slow. One small example: for the Berik, the emotional center of a person is his gut — something between the heart and the soul in western thinking. The Wycliffe method is to translate words, ideas and messages in ways that speak to the target audience.  But there are, presumably, doctrinal limits as to how far a translator of the Bible can stray. (True, this hasn’t stopped some Bible translators in the past from veering radically and quite imaginatively from the original).

Eventually, the Bible was translated into Berik– the very first book (aside from education and nutrition booklets) to be published in what had been an oral language: a cause for celebration among those who wish to spread Christianity, but far from that among those who argue against such cultural and linguistic intervention in fragile indigenous societies. I barely get into this debate in this particular podcast, but I feel duty-bound to do so at some point in the future.

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Google’s humanoid translator, accent phobia, and misleading job titles

In this podcast, our monthly top-five roundup of language stories:

5. Why Google Translate rules (and why human translators shouldn’t feel threatened.)  Google, as we’ve come to expect by now, does things differently. And that includes translation. We tend to think of translators as human or robotic. Google Translate combines the best of both. Which is why its translations can be poetic — yes poetic — as well as accurate. Of course, it’s still not difficult to outwit Google Translate, and make it fail. But with each new iteration, it’s getting better. However, it’ll only continue to improve so long as humans keep translating stuff (because Google Translate uses online human translations as its source material). Also, one day, Google may need to clarify that its translation tool,  however ubiquitous and accurate it becomes,  is no substitute for learning a foreign language. Humans live and thrive — and love and make money — by communicating  with each other. And they do that most effectively with their mouths, tongues and vocal chords.

4. Over-egging the job title pudding. The BBC reported that a weight-loss company recently advertized for a Product Testing Associate.  This job would consist of eating an extra 400 calories a day, as well as popping a few of the company’s Proactol pills. That got a bunch of readers of the online BBC article to relate their own favorite misleading job titles:  modality manager (translation: nurse, not to be confused with mortality manager); coordinator of interpretative teaching (tour guide); welcoming agent and telephone intermediary (receptionist); and field force agent (tax collector).  All of a sudden, I’m thinking my job title — language podcast host — isn’t  grand or pretentious enough. So henceforth, I will be known as a digitized philology presentation practitioner.

3. Accent discrimination. As a native English speaker with Brit accent (it’s drifted into the Atlantic after 20+ years in the United States) I think I’ve experienced positive accent discrimination.  Many Americans have told me they’ll  believe anything a Brit tells them — a good, if dangerous, thing for a reporter to hear. However, there are plenty of examples of the other type of discrimination. The latest concerns a US-based native French speaker who’s a senior partner in a global consulting firm. She speaks of being dis-invited to meetings with American clients, because of the fear that her accent would put them off.

2. The rise of Hindi (and English). My Big Show colleague Rhitu Chatterjee told me about an old friend of hers. He was born and raised in New Dehli by a Marathi-speaking mother and a Telugu-speaking father.  Because of the language divide, the languages of the household were Hindi and English; Rhitu’s friend neither spoke nor understood the native tongues of either of his parents. That story writ large is the linguistic story of modern India — multilingual marriages, migration to big cities, a big generational shift to Hindi and English. English has now eclipsed Bengali as the the second-most popular language in India, according to recent census analysis, and Hindi continues to dominate.

1. New French words to replace English invaders. The Académie française (pictured) is the jealous protector of all things French: it determines what can and cannot be said and written, even if people often ignore its pronouncements.  Often, the Académie finds itself with no alternative but to make up new words, usually when the hoi polloi are using one of those nasty English words (like podcasting).  Some officially coined terms stick (logiciel, meaning software); others don’t (frimousse, meaning smiley). Authorities have now taken a new tack: they have turned to the people themselves. Citizens sent in their suggestions for words to replace Anglicisms such as buzz and newsletter. A committee decided which to adopt.

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Street names, Bible translators and locavore language

When it comes to naming a street, you can go with the bland: Bella Vista Ave. Or not: Mugabe St (which has been among several contentious new street names under consideration in Durban, South Africa.)  In the Palestinian city of Ramallah, some recently named streets celebrate “fallen matyrs”, including American activist Rachel Corrie, who died in Gaza in 2003 in disputed circumstances. Israel too, memorializes  its “freedom fighters” from the early 20th century.

You might expect arguments over street names in Israel/the occupied territories and South Africa: these are places with profoundly traumatic recent histories.  But wherever there are streets — or other things to name —  there are heated debates over what to call them.  Why, some ask, name a new federal government building after Ronald Reagan, a small-government president whose administration tried to prevent such statist expansionism?

Also in this podcast, a conversation with Bob Creson, President and CEO of what appears to be the world’s largest Bible translation organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators USA.  According to Wycliffe, about two hundred million people lack access to the Bible in their native tongue. So, with the help of technology and donations, Wycliffe has set itself a deadline: it aims to have at least started translating the Bible into every language by 2025. Nearly all the languages that Wycliffe is currently working on are oral languages only: Wycliffe’s field translators must first design a writing system for any of these languages before committing a translation to paper.  So in those cases, the Bible will likely be the first book to appear in that language, and that culture.  The act of introducing the written word and an outside religion to a group of people who hitherto knew neither is, depending on how you look at it,  freighted with promise or fraught with peril. More on this in future podcasts.

Wycliffe, by the way, is named after 14th century theologian John Wycliffe, who translated parts of the Bible from Latin into Middle English.

Finally, language journalist Michael Erard makes the case for using only artisanal, locally grown and sustainably packaged words. His satirical essay first appeared in web magazine The Morning News.

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Swearing in Irish, storytelling in Scots, and rapping in Khmer

There may be many reasons why attempts at reviving the Irish language have not fared as well as those for Welsh, or even Scottish Gaelic.  You might think that Ireland, as a new-ish nation, would have embraced its ancient language — a language suppressed by the British colonialists. And certainly, Ireland ‘s first few governments tried that in the 1920s and 30s. Irish was mandatory in schools, and mastery of it was required to enter the civil service. Despite that,  it never really took off. Perhaps the British had done too good a job in near-wiping it out. (And did less well in Wales, where people persisted in speaking Welsh, even before its current government-sponsored revival). Or perhaps, people aren’t comfortable learning a language as a political act, as part of a nationalist agenda.

We hear from two speakers of the language: first, my Dad, who remembers hardly any Irish these days but studied it at school for many years. Today, many decades later, he wishes he’d paid more attention.  Then, a conversation with Manchán Magan, who made a documentary series for Irish TV about his attempt to travel around Ireland speaking only Irish. (That’s him in the picture, praying that he’ll meet someone who speaks Irish.) He was verbally abused in Dublin — a reaction Magan thinks has to do with the past, and feelings of guilt and shame. In Killarney, he asked people, in Irish, to help him rob a bank. In Galway, he sang filthy songs in public and was applauded by uncomprehending old ladies.  He also tried — and failed — to buy food and clothes, and to hire a mechanic. Middle-aged Irish people like him, Magan says, never really were interested in keeping up their Irish skills. But the young are different: for them, learning Irish doesn’t have an agenda attached to it. So there may be hope yet for this language.
Then, it’s Alexander McCall Smith. His latest offering in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is a children’s book in the Scots language. McSmith and other participants in a BBC round-table program (also featured  in the podcast) discuss books in translation. English is now so dominant and so widely understood, that many books written in English simply aren’t translated into the likes of Dutch, Danish or Swedish, let alone Scots. So, publication of this book in its translation a full year before it is published in the original English is a quite a statement from McCall Smith.

Finally, we profile hip-hop artist Boomer Da Sharpshooter. Boomer, who is ethnic Cambodian, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and raised in California. He grew up speaking English but now raps in Cambodia’s main language, Khmer. It’s not out of choice: in his late teens he was gang-banger, and was sent to prison on weapons offenses. On his release, the US deported him to Cambodia. That was seven years ago. Today, he’s a reformed character, and his  Khmer raps are considerably softer in tone and content than his English ones used to be.

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Moorish grafitti and texting in Yiddish

The Alhambra in Grenada, the crowning glory of Moorish Spain, has more than 10,000 prayers and poems in Arabic inscribed on its pillars and walls. We hear about an effort to decipher and catalog the inscriptions. It’s not the first time this has been tried. But previous attempts foundered, when researchers became distracted by their findings. This time,  Spain’s Higher Council for Scientific Research is taking a more rigorous approach. Even so, it must be  hard not set aside your tools and get meditative after you’ve discovered an inscription like “Be sparing with words and you will go in peace.”

The rest of the pod is devoted to the second part of the BBC’s documentary on Yiddish. Reporter Dennis Marks picks up the story in the 1960s, when Yiddish was staring extinction in the face, after many decades in which it language thrived among Jewish Eastern European immigrants, as in this World War Two-era poster).  But more recently in New York City, the language has began to  undergo a modest revival. A big contributor to that was Aaron Lansky who founded the National Yiddish Book Center, which rescused thousands of Yiddish volumes from depositories and dumpsters: as he puts it to take books “out of the dustbin of history and put them back into use.”

We also hear from YY Jacobson, a rabbi in the Crown Heights section of New York and editor of the Hasidic Yiddish newspaper Algemeiner.  His contribution to the survival of Yiddish is the most overtly religious. Others have cultural or ancestral reasons for investigating the language: people like klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals, novelist Dara Horn, and a family who speak with each other in both English and Yiddish. The teens in the family text message each other in transliterated Yiddish, complete with texting shorthand:  ZG is zei gezunt (be well) and BSH is biz shpeter (until next time/goodbye).

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