Tag Archives: Chinese language

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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Colombian Spanish, U.S. Spanish, and Dora the Explorer Spanish

In Colombia, you can hear Latin America’s clearest, crispest Spanish. As a result, Bogota is home to everything from call centers to telenovela production houses. The original Yo soy Betty, la Fea was shot and produced in Colombia. It was broadcast in most Latin American countries, before new versions were produced all over the world: in the U.S. Ugly Betty; in Vietnam Cô gái xấu xí; in Turkey Sensiz Olmuyor.

Also in this pod, a conversation with philosopher Oscar Guardiola-Rivera about what the spread of Spanish in the United States is doing to the language, and to America. There are now particular identifiable dialects of Spanish specific to certain U.S. regions, and sometimes specific to certain groups: Cuban-American, Puerto Rican, Mexican-American, etc. The language is leaving its mark on the country too. It could be argued, for example, that in Miami, if you don’t speak at least some Spanish you’re at a disadvantage.  Guardiola-Rivera is the author of What if Latin America Ruled The World?

Finally, Dora the Explorer and Kai-Lan: two fictional TV stars who introduce American kids to their first words of Spanish and Chinese. In Dora’s case, she also introduces Spanish speakers to their first English words, which may be why  this doctored online image of Dora garnered so much attention earlier this year.  The intention of the illustrator wasn’t clear. Was she sympathizing with opponents of the spread of Hispanic culture and language via illegal immigration, or was she mocking them? Both sides embraced the image, and poor Dora got it in the neck.  For the record, Dora does plenty of travelling in her cartoon world; she appears to cross many borders, quite unhindered. As for her nationality, she appears to be American — at least that’s how she sounds — of undefined Hispanic heritage.  (This is totally beside the point, but it doesn’t stop many of us from speculating…). One other thing about Dora: We English-speakers know her as a character who introduces kids to Spanish words. Well, the Spanish language version of the show Dora la Exploradora introduces kids to English words.

 


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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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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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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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Rosetta Stone: the method behind the hype, a spelling bee with a twist, and Hillary’s Congo adventure

rsThis week, the rise and rise of Rosetta Stone. With big government contracts and a huge advertising campaign, Rosetta Stone is now America‘s #1 language teacher. It offers software-based language teaching programs in 31 languages (their assumption — perhaps well-founded — is that British English and American English are distinct languages, as are Castillian Spanish and Latin American Spanish). The company went public earlier this year, so with the money raised from that, expect to see and hear plenty more of its advertising.

If you learn the Rosetta Stone way, you’ll absorb a language the way an infant does. Well, that’s the theory. Can you really turn back the clock and re-create the conditions of babyhood and infancy on adults who already speak one or more languages?  Rosetta Stone says you can in certain key ways. ichineseThis infant method means that you learn through images and conversation, not grammar and translated vocab lists. Not everyone agrees, including many classroom-based language schools. The advice from Georgetown linguistics professor Alison Mackey is to use Rosetta Stone as one tool among many. And these days, there are plenty of tools out there. Me, I’m learning Chinese right now. I take classes at a small institute in Boston’s Chinatown, and I supplement that with podcasts. I’m struggling badly with Chinese characters, so I’ll probably download this iPhone app.

spellAlso in this week’s cast, non-native English speakers from around the world take part in an English spelling bee in New York. The backers of this competition, seemingly without irony, have christened it a “SpellEvent.” Not a word you’ll find in the dictionary. We hear from the winner and from other competitors.  Finally, a note on Hillary Clinton‘s not-so-lost-in-translation moment in Kinshasa, Congo.

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