Tag Archives: China

The vocoder, the linguistic robot and the Dead Rabbit

This is how it didn’t happen: Winston Churchill is at home tapping his toes to his favorite Afrika Bambaataa number. The robot-like distortion of the vocals means that Britain’s most famous cigar afficionado cannot make out the lyric. “Hmm,” he thinks. “If only FDR and I could speak through a device like that during our top-secret transatlantic phone conversations.”

Writer Dave Tompkins will tell you how it really went down in this week’s pod (For one thing, Afrika Bambaataa was seven years old when Churchill died). Tompkins’ book tells the the story of the vocoder, from World War Two-era voice scrambler to Hip Hop toy.  Along the way, it was used to give voice to daleks, the mortal enemies of British TV sci-fi hero Doctor Who.  You may laugh, but for my generation of Brits, who grew up on Doctor Who,  daleks were way scarier than Darth Vader.  And just like Darth Vader, it was all about the voice.

Also in the pod: English teachers in South Korea don’t come cheap. Schools often have to fly them in from abroad, and then house them. The Hagjeong Primary School in Daegu is trying a cheaper alternative: a robot.  The rotund yellow and white device — think of it as a benign dalek — is  hooked up via teleconference to the Philippines, where an English teacher conducts the class through a video monitor. (I don’t know whether the robot’s “face,” a picture of a female, is a photo of the outsourced Philippino teacher, or just a generic image).  The students like the robot and its teaching style,  though it may be many years before its effectiveness can be measured. Check out this video.

Press freedoms ebb and flow around the world. We ran a report recently on the improved situation in Tunisia. In China, authorities  relaxed limits on the foreign reporters before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now, with the uprisings in the Middle East and a would-be uprising in China, many foreign reporters are hounded, even roughed up, by the Chinese government. We check in with our correspondent Mary Kay Magistad.

Finally, the “marketing genius” who transformed the fortunes of the German herb-and-spice flavored digestif, Jägermeister.  This was a drink originally marketed to German hunters (Jägermeister means  senior forester or gamekeeper). But how many German hunters are there? Company executive Günter Mast decided a rebranding was in order. The rest is barely-remembered history, an alcoholic haze of campus parties, fuelled by mixed drinks with names like the Jägerbomb, the  Mexican Afterburner and the Dead Rabbit.

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Photos: Wikicommons, Jason Strother

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The events of English and the future of Tibetan

Five language stories from the past month with Patrick, Carol and Rhitu

5.Tibetan in schools

Tibetans have been protesting over the potential loss of their language in schools.

It started after the Chinese Communist Party’s Qinghai province chief, Qiang Wei reportedly called for “a common language” in schools.  He went on to propose that Qinghai use Mandarin as the language of instruction in all schools. Now,  it already is the language of instruction in most schools in Qinghai, as in the rest of China. But the province is also home to a significant number of Tibetans, who typically learn at elementary level in their own language. Those who stay on in higher grades switch to Mandarin.

Estimates put the number of protesters between several hundred and several thousand. They spread beyond Tibetan speakers, with Uigher-speaking students also taking to the streets in sympathy. They know they could be next.

4. Spain re-orders its family names

The Spanish government has drafted a law that would change birth registration rules. That could result in a dramatic transformation of naming customs. Spaniards have two family names.  Right now, either of those names can come first, though it’s customary for the father’s name to assume priority. Under the proposed law, the two names would simply be listed alphabetically, unless otherwise instructed by the parents. This may well result in gender neutrality, but it would certainly discriminate against letters at the end of the alphabet. Zapatero? Forgetaboutit! Just think: had the law been around in 1892, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco might have been known as Generalísimo Bahamonde. Would he have won the Spanish Civil War with a name like that?

3. Events that shaped English

A non-profit group in Britain called The English Project is putting together a list of historical events and places that have shaped the development of the English language. It’s a thoroughly UK-centric list. Which is fair enough, until that time in history when Britain began exporting the English language. Here’s the list.  Post your ideas for a more expansive global list on English either there or on this site.

2.When can you say you speak a language? There’s no widely-accepted standard for speaking a second language, nor should there be: people use languages in so many different ways that there can never be  a single answer to this question.  But it’s instructive to try to come up with your own definition.

For the writer of this Economist blog, it’s a test of linguistic skills in journalism: “If my editor sent me to a country where I needed to report on a topic of general interest for The Economist, could I pull off interviews and research?  If yes, I speak it.”

The comments after the blog post are all over the map, as they should be:  “When you find yourself dreaming in a language, you can safely say that you can speak it.” (I disagree: I dream more fluently than I speak).  I prefer this one: “When you have mastered all, I emphasize all, the nuances contained in a given cuss word, and know when and when not, to deploy the word, so that you obtain the precise effect you want, not more, not less. This you do a native speaker of the language.”

1. We speak, therefore we think. New research out of Australia on how the languages we speak may determine how we think. Pormpuraawans — aboriginals living in a remote part of Australia — relate spatially to things according to the position of the sun. So while they think east and west, we English speakers often think left and right,  Arabic and Hebrew speaker right and left, and Chinese speakers up and down.  This plays in nicely to the recently renewed debate over language and thought: does language arise out of thought, or does it give shape to thought? Are we all prisoners of our native tongues?

Musings on this here and here. And more coverage of the research in a recent World Science podcast.

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Speaking in Tongues and Dreaming in Chinese

A new PBS documentary, Speaking in Tongues, follows four students and their families at dual immersion schools in San Francisco. The film offers evidence that the study of math, science and other subjects in more than one language gives students an edge, despite what some disapproving relatives might think.

I heard about this film many months ago. What really intrigued me about it was that the filmmakers — Marcia Jarmel and her husband Ken Schneider — have a big stake in this subject themselves. Ten years ago, they enrolled their older son into a Chinese immersion elementary school. A few years later, they did the same with their other son. It seemed to me that the best way to do a story about the film was to do a story about the Jarmel-Schneider family. So I interviewed them all at their house in the Richmond District of San Francisco (where many local stores are owned by Chinese speakers).

Of the four school students profiled in Speaking in Tongues, one is close in circumstance and motivation to the two Jarmel-Schneider boys.  Julian Ennis is a high school sophomore, whose white middle class American parents have no obvious link to China or the Chinese language. Yet their son is taking the highest level of Chinese offered in San Francisco schools. He — and they — are in it for cultural exposure, as global citizens.

Among the the others profiled, Durell Laury is attending a Chinese immersion elementary school. He is the only kid from his housing project going to that school. He mother says learning Chinese is “a way in and a way out.” There’s also Jason Patiño, attending Spanish immersion school. His Mexican parents — who didn’t attend a day of school themselves — listen to other Spanish speaking parents at the school, as they demand more English be spoken. But without the Spanish Jason is learning in class,  chances are he’d forget the language of his parents.

Finally there’s Kelly Wong, whose Chinese-American parents speak virtually no Chinese. Kelly is learning both Mandarin and Cantonese. This allows her, among other things, to have a meaningful relationship with her Cantonese-speaking grandmother. There’s one extraordinary scene at a family banquet, at which her great aunt objects to her learning Chinese, while another family member defends the decision to send her to Chinese immersion school. That scene feels like it could one day be America writ large, as migration and globalization bring the world to America, and the idea of bilingualism takes hold — and not just in polyglot places like San Francisco.

Local listings for Speaking in Tongues are here.

Also, I talk with linguist Deborah Fallows on living in China and learning Chinese. In Chinese, she says, rude is polite, and brusque is intimate. This comes out in all kinds of disorienting (no pun intended) ways, but the bottom line is, if people feel close to you in China, they will use a language of intimacy. That’s another way of saying they will dispense with please, thank you and other niceties. Their language is likely to seem harsh and abrupt.  Just remember:  it’s a compliment!  Check out other interviews Fallows did with Time and NPR. Better yet, listen to my interview with her, which is longer, weirder and funnier: we do Chinese names for foreigners, English names for Chinese people, and what happened to the language during the Sichuan earthquake. Here’s her book in the United States and the UK.



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Packing flashcards, Pandas and Polyglotty Olympics

So it’s another edition top five language stories of the past month, with The World’s cartoon queen and podstar Carol Hills.

5. The End of Bo.  As repeat readers and listeners know, I’m on the fence when it comes to recording the death of  languages.  No, it’s not that. It’s really that I can’t come up with a storyline that isn’t just a repeat (in a tediously predictible public radio way) of the last time a language died. You know the drill:  elderly speaker of said language passes on, leaving a the very last speaker without a linguistic buddy. Cue  scratchy audio of aforementioned last speaker reciting a poem or prayer. That’s certainly also the case with Bo. Boa Senior (pictured left) was about 85 when she died earlier this year. You can listen to the scratchy audio of Boa Senior here. The difference though, with Bo is that it’s far, far older than most languages. Some linguists claim it is among the world’s original languages, possibly 70,000 years old. That’s where in this case, the storyline differs. RIP Bo.

4. Canada’s polyglot Olympics. The Vancouver Olympics were broadcast all over the world in hundreds of languages. But even in Canada they were broadcast in more than twenty languages, including Cree and seven other native languages.  (That’s Cree in the picture, rendered in Canadian Aboriginal Syllabic characters). We hear from Cree commentator Abel Charles who must have had occasion to yell Kitahaskwew pitikwataw! (“He shoots! He scores!”) a few times on the way to Canada’s gold medals in both men’s and women’s hockey. Cree is not an economical language: pretty much everything takes longer to say in Cree than in English, so Charles has his work cut out for him.

3. Bilingual Pandas. So two giant pandas that have been on loan to the United States have been returned to China. They were actually born in the U.S. but had to be “returned” to China under an agreement between the two countries.  In the U.S. they learned a few words of English. But what good will that do them in China? More importantly perhaps, will the body language and gestures of their Chinese keepers confuse them? Will they feel comfortable enough in the new — and, species-wise, original — environs to think about mating? Pandas being pandas, maybe not.

2. Two disturbing lawsuits. Americans’ appetite for suing each other sometimes takes my breath away. But– I know —  there can be good reasons for litigation. Consider these linguistic lawsuits: #1: Nicholas George, an American studying Arabic at Pomona College, California has teamed up with the ACLU to sue the Transportation Security Administration over his detention at Philadelphia’s airport. TSA officers grew suspicious when they saw the student’s Arabic flashcards, which included the words bomb and terrorism. The suit contends that the officers asked George whether he was Muslim or “pro-Islamic.” Lawsuit#2: School secretary Ana Ligia Mateo, hired in part because she was bilingual, is suing the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina.  A new principal at Mateo’s school had issued an English-only policy that banned Mateo from speaking Spanish, not just with students but with their parents. Mateo refused to comply with the new policy was “effectively terminated.”

1. Wartime translator. The Pentagon’s research arm, DARPA, is working on that holy grail of handheld translators: a device that can recognize up to 20 languages and  translate them with 98% accuracy. Previous attempts have met with  mixed success. Remember the Phraselator? The new device will have to do better with dialects: Arabic, for example, has a ton of them.  And even though this is military research, its application will be greatly felt in the civilian world.

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A Chinese Valentine’s pod

Hundreds of language programs at public schools have become victims of shrinking budgets. Not Chinese. We visit Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn, NY,  where 400 students are learning the language.

Many of the students at the school are immigrants, but only a handful are ethnic Chinese. This is one of the many counterintuitive aspects to this story. Another is that 90% of students come from poor families — poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches. So, forget any preconceived notions about only white and Chinese-heritage students learning Chinese: Chinese-learning appears to be going viral. But will it last? There’s a nice debate on that question here. The Asia Society is trying to make the current interest in Chinese more than just a passing fad.  Together with a partner in China, it has begun handing out grants to American public schools, including Medgar Evers. As well beefing up the curricula, the idea is to get the American schools networked with each other, and with schools in China.

Then, there’s our nod to Valentine’s Day.  Don’t be fooled: the language of love is not universal, not unless you keep you mouth shut. The moment you open it, you get into trouble, especially if your lover speaks a different tongue.  American writer Jen Percy knows this. She’s been dating a German-speaking Bosnian for three years.Percy endlessly misunderstands the amorous words of her lover and writes amusingly and touchingly about it.  I did two takes on my conversation with Percy: one, a straight one-on-one interview; the other a full production number with foreign love songs that I hope is not too much of a This American Life copycat.

Finally we bodice-rip our way out of the recession with romance novels that are more popular than ever. We hear from writer Suzanne Brockmann who’s having a a vintage year all over the world.

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Obama’s new words, Avatar in the Amazon, and a Chinese satirical extravaganza

As Barack Obama enters the second year of his presidency, he’s dropped some expressions — among them, war on terror, associated of course mainly with George W. Bush and AfPak, a conflation of Afghanstan and Pakistan, which didn’t go down too well in Pakistan. In his State of Union speech, Obama didn’t even mention the Middle East. His administration has invented a few phrases too: remotely piloted aircraft (drones) and overseas contingency operations (wars).  Also, a count of his favorite State of the Union words done by The Guardian kicks up some surprises:  Obama really likes the word I. Other presidents liked America (George W. Bush), government (Ronald Reagan. I don’t think he was being complimentary) and new (Lyndon Johnson).

Next, it’s to Quito, Ecuador, and a special screening of Avatar.

The 3-D screening was for a couple of Ecuador’s indigenous groups, the Shuar and the Achuar. Both are struggling to maintain control of their land in the face of attempts to exploit it by Ecuadorean and multinational corporations. Avatar, of course, is about much the same thing, albeit with a future setting on a far-away planet inhabited by tall blue creatures who speak a language called Na’vi.  (See my previous post on Na’vi, the new Klingon.) We have a report on the screening, and some language-related comments from Alejandro Mayaprua, an Achuar leader,  and Mayra Vega, president of the Women’s Association of the Shuar Nation of Ecuador. That’s them below. Also, check out this video on the screening from reporter Melaina Spitzer.

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After that, there’s a piece from Beijing correspondent Mary Kay Magistad on a new online satirical movie that’s all the rage in China. It features a Chinese double-entendre phrase aimed at avoiding government censorship (it didn’t avoid censorship; it was eventually banned).  People became aware of the expression here in the U.S. after the New York Times ran a story on it. The movie also includes a fantastic “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” rant, which you can hear in all its glory in the pod.  Or you can watch a version of the movie with English subtitles here.

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Spelling Obama in Chinese, oratory, and chop suey love

How do you spell Obama in Chinese? Depends who you are. The Chinese news media spell it 奥巴马 (àobāmǎ). But the US Embassy in Beijing recently launched a campaign to change it to 欧巴马 (ōubāmǎ). Why no agreement? The embassy says its spelling is closer to the American pronunciation of Obama. But the Chinese don’t appear to like how it sounds, or reads. For one thing, the Taiwanese already transliterate Obama the American way. Beijing likes to keep its scriptural distance from Taipei. More here and here.

Next on the podcast, the contrasting oratorical styles of presidents Hu and Obama. The two leaders draw on starkly different rhetorical traditions, and they may also have somewhat different audiences when they step up to a podium. There are personal differences too, mainly concerning charisma: Obama oozes it;  Hu doesn’t go in for oozing much of anything.  Some young Chinese have noticed.  Like their Japanese counterparts, they’re learning English by reciting famous Obama speeches.

Then, something on a type of Chinese idiom known as chengyu, as explained by the late James Lilley, former U.S. ambassador to China. Lilley says Chinese diplomats loved to hide behind these sayings. He recalls how he once turned the tables on them by coming up with an enigmatic saying of his own.

After that we travel to the UK, where Confucian philosophy has infused Chinese language classes in five public schools. It’s almost inevitable that when you learn a language, you learn about the culture of the people who speak that language. (Believe it or not, it helps.) But this new approach in Britain goes a step further: the schools draw on Confucian teaching methods. The idea is that students will learn more through thinking and enjoying a subject than they might through memorization.

And then, a grand finale:  poet and writer Marilyn Chin on why she loves the expression chop suey. It’s all in the onomatopoeia. More about the origin of the dish here and the song here (it’s a high point in the musical Flower Drum Song.) Much more, by the way, from Marilyn Chin next week, including a discussion of the role language plays in her new novel.

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Twitter freedom, a zeitgeisty Chinese word, and Lakota immersion

rusbridgerQuestion: what happens when a court gags a newspaper? Answer: The gag sags, 140 characters at a time. That’s what happened this month when microbloggers tweeted what The Guardian couldn’t report. Plus, they tweeted that The Guardian couldn’t report that it couldn’t report, thus making this a “super-injunction“. The case invovled multinational oil company Trafigura, which has been accused of dumping  toxic waste at various sites in Ivory Coast. Trafigura secured a ruling in a British court enjoining The Guardian from reporting on the issue in the event that it come up in parliament. The issue did come up, and The Guardian duly didn’t report on it. But editor Alan Rushbridger (pictured) did let the blogosphere know that it was being gagged from reporting on a parliamentary matter. That’s when human rights activist Richard Wilson got to work online. He and then thousands of others microblogged about this. And low and behold the gag order was broken, and then lifted. Which goes to show that in the age of the social networking,  it’s much tougher to suppress speech. Or put another way, if a government or judiciary wants to suppress speech, it has to suppress the internet.

In the days after the twitter-outing of Trafigura’s gag order, many members of the British parliament voiced outrage over this attempt to block public access to parliamentary speech. Now Gordon Brown’s government is  moving to put a stop to the most egregious super-injunctions.

cou huoNext in the podcast, a group of Beijing and expat artists discover a Chinese word that seems to convey the state of China today. The word is 凑合 or in pinyin, cou huo. It means…well, it’s difficult to translate. But it conveys construction on-the-go, assembling something through improvisation, making do. It has both positive and negative attributes, and the artists explore both.  The exhibit traveled around Beijing in an appropriately makeshift tent, as artistically rendered above.

Finally, two segments on endangered languages. First an interview with French linguist Claude Hagège who’s written a book about the death of languages. Then a report on the near-death of the native American Lakota language;  its potential rebirth comes with an assist from a German rock star.

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