Tag Archives: Chinese

In Vietnam, a Nation Learns English

In Vietnam, history is daily life. So says economist Le Dang Doanh. So history might be a good indicator of which foreign languages the Vietnamese would be more inclined to learn. French? Russian? Mandarin? English?

The Vietnamese have gone to war many times in the past few decades. With France, the United States, Cambodia, China. And themselves.

China is considered by many Vietnamese to be a permanent threat. Very few kids learn Mandarin at school.

Vietnam’s war with the United States was longer and bloodier than its short war with China in 1979. And even in the years after the Vietnam War, the government in Hanoi view the U.S. as its enemy.

Do Nhat Nam (Photo: Jennifer Pak)

But no more. Now wherever you turn in Vietnam, people are learning English. At least that’s what Jennifer Pak discovered in her reporting there for the BBC.

For Do Nhat Nam, it was “love at first sight.” Do, who is all of 10 years old, is locally famous for his mastery of English. He translated a book at the age of seven.

Nam fell in love with the language after seeing a video of Steve Jobs talking about computers on YouTube.

Other Vietnamese are drawn to English for the freedom it offers. Bloggers and song lyricists can get certain words and ideas past the official censors more easily in English.

For all of that, economist Le Dang Doanh thinks the Vietnamese are missing a trick in not learning Chinese as well as English. China is right next door, after all. And even if you’re not learning Chinese to increase trade, why not learn the language of your enemy, so you know what he’s thinking?

Most young Vietnamese, though, are wowed by the culture of the English-speaking world. So much so that some older Vietnamese worry about how it’s effecting society. Vietnamese culture frowns on confessional language. People don’t talk about their feelings. But watch “Oprah” or read “The Catcher in the Rye,” and people talking about their feelings is all you get. Steeped in English language culture,. Vietnamese youth are far more prone to this and taboo subjects.

Jennifer Pak and My Linh (photo: Jennifer Pak)

Well-known Vietnamese singer My Linh, herself a fluent English speaker, is raising her children to speak good English. Her kids communicate on Facebook mainly in English. But she has a family rule: at home, everyone must speak Vietnamese. “We need to protect our language,” she says. “If we lose our language, we lose our culture.”

Vietnam’s love affair with English is all the more surprising because in other parts of Asia, English appears on the wane. Jennifer Pak produced a companion documentary, featured in last week’s pod, out of Malaysia and Singapore. In Malaysia, nationalist politicians are promoting the Malay language. In Singapore, business-minded politicians are promoting Mandarin.

But in Vietnam English is king.

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The Chinese Yuan, the US Dollar and the Currency of Language

Imagine a time in the not too distant future when global business deals are mainly conducted in Mandarin Chinese. Contracts outlining  sales of, say, Brazilian planes to India are written in Mandarin, the payments made in yuan. The websites of the World Trade Organization and the G20 are in Chinese, with options to switch to Spanish, Portuguese and English.

That may be a bit hyperbolic for the near future, but in certain parts of the world there’s evidence of some resistance to English.

In Malaysia, a new generation of political leaders are embracing the Malay language (known to its speakers as Bahasa Malayu) as a nationalist symbol.  Schools have been told to stop teaching math and science in English, and instead teach those subjects in Malay.

In neighboring Singapore, English remains the language of instruction. It is also the “glue” language that binds the multilingual, multiethnic population together.  But the government also wants its citizens to speak Mandarin— the majority of Singaporeans are ethnic Han Chinese, but older Singaporeans tend to speak Hokkien and other dialects that are not understood by Mandarin speakers.

The Singaporean  government’s reasoning is the same is at was when it introduced English to the city-state many decades ago: then,  Singapore’s future depended on trade with English-speaking nations; today, its future depends on trade with China. For Singaporean businessman Lee Han Shih, if the Chinese yuan replaces the dollar as the world’s leading reserve currency, “then you have to learn Chinese.” What’s more, if trade deals are done in yuan,  “there’s no need to use English.” The decline of the English language, Lee predicts, will follow the decline of the US dollar.

Then there’s the growing popularity in Singapore of Singlish, a home-and-street language that’s a mash-up of English, Hokkien, Malay and several other languages. In this linguistic milieu, English is feeling the squeeze.  Even if it remains in schoolrooms, it may be on the wane everywhere else in Singapore.

The question is: are these two examples from the Malay Peninsula exceptions to English’s march to global supremacy? Or are they harbingers of the future decline of English?

I’ve talked about Singlish before in the pod, with the very entertaining Singporean ex-pats Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo. Also, there’s Mr Brown’s Singapore blog and podcast here, and more on Jennifer Pak, who reported today’s episode, here.

Incidentally, the next pod and post suggest that English doesn’t have much to be worried about in the immediate future.  Jennifer Pak will be reporting from Vietnam, where young people are clamoring to learn English.

Listen here or via iTunes.


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Inventing a Word for a Facebook Relationship

Whichever language any of us speak, we have rarely shied away from coming up with new words. Now of course, unnamed new things surround us every day—especially new things on the internet. We forget that only in the recent past, we have had to come up with words like email, podcast, blog, crowdsourcing, tweet, the cloud and countless more.

Most of these words (for the time being) originate in English, and migrate to other languages. Some languages go with two words: their adaptation of the English word, and something made up in their own language. Chinese, for example, has a couple of ways of expressing email: 伊 妹儿 (yimeir, which sounds a bits like email) and 电子 邮 件 (dianzi youjian: electronic mail, often shortened to 电邮: dianyou).

When it comes to naming the as yet unnamed, social networking sites are fantastically helpful. My colleague at The Big Show, Jonathan Dyer, used Facebook to great effect when he posted this request:

“Is there a word for someone you have never met yet you share dozens of friends in common and they like or comment on just about everything your FB friends post? If not, will someone invent one so that I know how to refer to <name withheld> when/if I ever meet him?”

Here’s what he got back:

Perifriends

Pre-friend

Viral acquaintance

Virtual friend potential or possible electronic frenemy

Franger

E-quaintance

Strend

Friends once removed

Pseudofriends

Digifriends

Half-lifes

Visiblings

Friendeavours

Friendvilles

Friends-once-removed

Second-friends

Secondhands

Seconnections

The Uninvited

Friendlings

2nd-degreers

Beyonders

Outsidekicks

Plus-twos

Members of my unnetwork

Twoodles

Stalkwards

Collabores

Commentals

Michele Bachmann

Facebrat

Jonathan’s favorite, though, was Facequaintance.

Also in the pod this week:

  • The Iran-based translator of Firoozeh Dumas’ “Funny in Farsi” has vanished, probably arrested.
  • Debunking myths about the Chinese language and things Chinese leaders are believed to have said.
  • Multilingual Angolan singer Lulendo.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Corporate Spelling Experiments and Fear of a Chinese-Speaking Planet


For our once-a-month-ish gab fest, Carol and I just couldn’t pass this one up.

Sometime, corporations knock it out of the park with their inventions, or re-inventions, of words. Who can argue with Coca-Cola? And it’s not like they’re alone. Shakespeare did it (0r at least he popularized recently invented words).  Kanye West does it. Soldiers do it. Prison inmates do it. Schoolkids do it.

But what about that sub-group of word reinvention, the spelling change? This happens most commonly when a word migrates from one language to another (Spanish for soccer/footbal: fútbol; Chinese for sandwich: 三明治  or sānmíngzhì).  It can be an act of rebellion against the colonial master (American English spellings).  It can be a way of transcribing an accent that may later be co-opted by the speakers of that accent (Lil thang, wassup, etc).

The corporate version of a respelled word is usually überclunky, probably because there is no reason for it to exist other than to satisfy the corporation’s desire to sell a product. The language, and the speakers who sustain the language, have not demanded it. Instead, it has been dreamed up in some boardroom or office. The result: terms like riDQulous and City Sentral .

Fear of a Chinese-Speaking Planet

L’arrivo di Wang (The Arrival of Wang) is an Italian thriller recently shown at the Venice Film Festival.  In this scene, a police officer questions a blindfolded Chinese interpreter, who is suspected of colluding with a Chinese-speaking alien. The presumption that the alien has chosen to communicate in Chinese because it — or its masters — have concluded that Chinese is the planet’s most prominent language. The film’s characters can’t decide whether the alien is benign. Has it come to forge some kind of partnership or to colonize the Italians with its language, culture and values?

The arrival of The Arrival of Wang comes at a time when Americans and Europeans are debating whether Westerners will really learn Chinese and even if they do,  whether it’s worth it.

Also discussed in this week’s pod:

The expanding reach of English means more varied accents.  Here is the source of the accent test that I sprang on Carol. Here are the 100 words that linguist David Crystal has chosen to tell the story of English. And here is an update on previous pod discussion about Arizona’s harsh line on English language teachers who have foreign accents.  (Under Federal pressure, Arizona has agreed to stop yanking such teachers out of the classroom and to retraining classes).

For Singapore’s Chinese, a challenge:  The country’s former non-nonense leader Lee Kuan Yew says the city-state became an economic power-house because the government made eveyone speak English. While Lee says this should continue, he is also urging Singapore’s Chinese (who make up about 70% of the population) to speak  Mandarin at home.

In Japan, English-speaking chatbots guarantee embarrassment-free conversations. Yup, if you don’t care for the constant humiliation of learning a language by trial and (mostly) error, a conversation with a chatbot is for you. And because a chatbot is not human, it will correct your errors without making you feel foolish– but also perhaps without your remembering them quite so well.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Are Chinese Kids Losing a Part of Their Language?

In China, authorities are worried that the technical ease of typing Chinese characters means that people are forgetting how to write them. As a result, they are urging schools to re-introduce mandatory calligraphy classes.

I’m learning Chinese, and so I have become accustomed to keyboard technology that does much of work for me. If I want to type out a sentence in Chinese, I switch my language preference in my word processing program from English to Chinese. Then I write the sentence in pinyin, the Latin alphabet version of Chinese. For each syllable, I am offered a variety of character options that correspond to a syllable or sound. For example if I type wo, I can choose between 我 , 沃, 握 and several other characters.

I must, of course, be able to recognize the character: I need to know what it looks like in order to choose the right one. But I don’t need to learn or remember how to write it. The computer does that for me.

The trouble is, it’s not just Chinese learners like me who are using this character-inputting shortcut. Native Chinese speakers do it too. If they have access to a computer, they don’t need to write characters. Naturally, many people are forgetting how to write. Others don’t adequately learn characters in the first place. So calligraphy, the traditional practice of writing characters with the strokes of a brush, is back as a mandatory part of the curriculum for many Chinese school kids. Without this, educators fear that many Chinese will never be able to write in their own language.

Abroad, it’s a different story. Across the globe, there’s an explosion of Chinese-learning. The government in Beijing is playing its part. In the past seven years, China has opened almost 300 Confucius Institutes around the world. Still, you might not expect to find an institute in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. But there it is, offering Chinese language classes to (mainly) young Rwandans.

Rwanda does not have great stability in its language policies. Most Rwandans are native Kinyarwanda speakers. But many also speak English and French. In the wake of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda switched its language of instruction from French to English (there are suspicions among some Rwandans that the French were complicit in the assassination of the Rwandan President, that led to the genocide). Now some Rwandans are learning Chinese. More on this in Mary Kay Magistad’s blog post.

Another example of the expansion of Chinese soft power: the government-run China Radio International is seeking out new audiences in the United States.

The latest place you can hear it: WILD, an AM station in Boston. For much of the last four decades, WILD broadcast soul music and talk shows hosted by people like Al Sharpton and Tom Joyner.

But In June 2011, the station began leasing its airtime to an English language service of China Radio International.

CRI’s programs offer a mix that Voice of America listeners might recognize: news, programs on Chinese culture and society, cheesy, retro pop music programing, and the occasional Chinese language lesson. Nothing especially controversial, and absolutely nothing cutting edge. The very softest of soft power.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Fictional Chinese Names, and the Value of Fiction

Fiction is good for you.  Good thing really, given the untold hours I’ve spent reading Voltaire, Dostoyevsky and um, Jackie Collins. I’ve always believed, in a vague, unsubstantiated way, that reading made-up stuff makes me a better person. There is now proof, of a sort, that it may have been worth all that time.

Keith Oatley is a cognitive psychologist, formerly of the University of Toronto, and a fiction writer (here’s his latest novel). Oatley and his research team measured the amount of fiction a group of people read, and then considered their levels of empathy. They discovered that the more fiction their subjects read, the more empathy they had for others. This is documented in Oatley’s book Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. Oatley says that demographic known as the Introverted Bookworm is a bit of myth: reading fiction, in most cases, opens you out to the world. When reading a novel, you’re living with other people — often inside their heads.

Back to Jackie Collins: Does “trashy” fiction help on the empathy front as much as Tolstoy or Jane Austin? Oatley is silent on this, at least in his BBC interview.

I remember reading a potboiler called Acapulco by Burt Hirshfeld. It was the usual fare:  film stars, psychedelic drugs, violence, sex. I read it while cramming for final exams at college. At night, I would be pretty wired from all the studying (not something I was especially used to). A chapter of  Acapulco was the perfect sleep aid.  Amusingly stilted dialogue, glamorous cocktails,  deals by the pool, late-night beach liaisons: it sure beat thinking about Ibsen and Flaubert. Much as I loved getting inside the head of Madame Bovary, entering the mind of Acapulco‘s obnoxious movie producer Harry Bristol was, in its own way,  more fun. And, who knows, perhaps it helped me empathize.

Also in the pod: rumors have been spreading that former Chinese President Jiang Zemin has died. In response, authorities have blocked searches of certain words including a word for river (jiang) and heart attack.

Then, another extravanza from Nina Porzucki…

California’s legislature is moving to regulate how political candidates’ names are translated. The state is home to the largest Asian American population in the nation. Nearly a third of Asian American voters in California are not proficient in English.

Election materials have been translated into several Asian languages for years, but the law doesn’t specify how candidates’ names should be translated.

Consider the case of Mike Eng. Five years ago he was a candidate for the California State Assembly. “When I saw how my name was spelled [on the ballot] I almost fell out of my seat,” Eng says.

Eng was running for a seat in the California assembly. About 40 percent of his district is Asian American, with sizeable communities of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean speakers. Under federal law, election materials in Eng’s district must be translated into those four languages. So when Eng was asked if he wanted his name translated onto the ballot, he thought, “Well of course.”

Officials translated Eng’s name literally, into what in Chinese sounded like Mike Eng: 麦 可 恩 (or Mai Ke En) Literally, the characters mean something like “wheat can be kindness.”

When Chinese characters are strung together to create phonetic transliterations of Western names, they can sometimes turn into pretty nonsensical sayings like well, “wheat can be kindness.”

Mike Eng wasn’t so happy with a name that “doesn’t mean anything.”

As turns out Eng, who is Chinese American, also has a Chinese name that was given to him at birth by his grandparents. His Chinese name has nothing to do with wheat or kindness, but means “pride of our national day.” This was the name used by the Chinese media, the name that many voters knew him by. So Eng ended up spending the rest of his campaign telling voters “that this person that sounded like wheat in Chinese was actually me.”

Despite the confusion Eng won the election. But the situation still bothers him.

Unlike English, written Chinese is based on meaning as well as sound. You might think Eng is hung up on the fact that his ballot name meant “wheat”. But meaning is a big deal in written Chinese, says lexicographer David Prager Branner.

Characters that are used in Chinese names are also part of everyday language. “The meaning is right in your face with the Chinese writing system,” says Branner. “You can’t escape it.”

Take Branner’s name. In English, no one really thinks about what “David” means. But when he uses his Chinese name 德威 (De Wei) Branner says the meaning of the two characters (“virtuous inner strength” and “the power to awe”) is right there.

Under the Voting Rights Act, certain jurisdictions are required to provide minority language assistance. This means translated materials, ballots, signs, bilingual poll workers. But federal law is silent about name translation.

Some states regulate how names appear on the ballot in character-based languages like Chinese, but not California. In California the rules change from one jurisdiction to the next. Assembly member Mike Eng’s situation was unfortunate but by no means the most extreme example of a name change.

Some candidates may even have used this grey area of the law to gain favor with Asian American voters. In 2010, someone named李 正 平(Li Zheng Ping) ran for San Francisco Superior Court Judge. Someone named Michael Nava also ran. It turned out that they were one and the same person. Michael Nava quite legally assumed the name Li Zheng Ping in some of his outreach to Chinese-American voters. Li Zheng Ping is a Chinese-sounding name, and a good one for a judicial candidate. In Chinese, it means “correct and fair.”

Assembly member Mike Eng likens the situation in California to the wild west. “If you want to say that my name means ‘giver of million of dollars in profits to local governments’ then one could list your name on the ballot that way” he says.

California State Senator Leland Yee has introduced a bill regulating how candidates’ names are translated into character-based languages.

“All of us want good sounding names that engender warmth with the Chinese vote” says Yee. “But when I think that when you do that solely for the purpose of gathering that vote and nothing else than I think it’s a little unfair.”

In 2009, an earlier version of the bill was vetoed by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who declared that individual jurisdictions should decide this matter on their own. But Yee re-introduced it this year.

“If Chinese Americans think that the voting process is a sham and that politicians are trying to trick them, then they are less inclined to participate in the electoral process” says Yee.

Dean Logan, the Registrar of Voters in Los Angeles County, says under the proposed law, he would have to decide on which translations to use in LA County. He’s uncomfortable with that.

“You could ultimately have someone challenge that in court which further delays the process,” says Logan.

It’s somewhat surprising that California, with its large Asian American population, lags behind other states like New York where policy about candidate’s names has been in place for well over a decade. But that may change in soon. Assembly member Mike Eng certainly hopes so.

“Your name is your identity. Your name is your heritage,” says Eng. He looks forward to the day “when we can have a ballot that does truly reflect the true identity of those that are running because that’s better democracy.”

Finally in the pod, a little thing on the people of South Sudan learning their new national anthem.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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From Cicero to Lynne Truss with Robert Lane Greene

As soon as I saw the new book by Robert Lane Greene You Are What You Speak, I know he and needed to speak. Not just because we both speak Danish (we didn’t even talk about that). It’s mainly because the book takes on so many of the same issues that I do in The World in Words podcast. It’s like the pod on steroids,  done with proper research.

Underlying You Are What You Speak is a love of the relative chaos of language. We can’t predict, let alone control how language evolves, Greene argues, so why try? Well, it seems we can’t help ourselves.

Sometimes it’s governments that issue linguistic admonishments: France and Turkey have been especially active. Sometimes it’s individual armchair stylists:  Cicero (“At some point…I relinquished to the people the custom of speaking, I reserved the knowledge [of correct grammar and pronunciation] to myself”);  Strunk and White (“Do not join independent choices by a comma”); and Lynn Truss (“Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”).  Of that lot, Turkey’s switch from Arabic to Roman script appears to have been the most successful. In France, the Académie française is admired but largely ignored. And most of the archair stylists lose out to common usage. The more free, open and democratic a society is, the less it is likely to follow anyone else’s language rules.

This is just one way in which language is bound up in identity. Another is via the power of our mother tongue: how much does our first language set and restrict how we think, and how we perceive the world? Think of all those people who write in a second or third language.Lijia Zhang, who grew up in China, but writes in English, is convinced that her English self is different from her Chinese self. For one thing, Zhang says, she’s ruder in Chinese (the Big Show’s science podcaster Rhitu Chatterjee says the same of her native Bengali self).

Not only does English have words that don’t exist in Chinese, says Zhang. Also, writing in English frees her to say things that in her native tongue are taboo. She recalls a time in the 1980s when she met a young Chinese man “who I rather fancied.”  She said to him, in English, “you look cool.” It was somehow OK to say that in English; had she said it in Chinese, it would have meant instant rejection and humiliation.

Now, that may have as much to do with memory and custom as it does with the instrinsic nature of English vs. Chinese. The words in Chinese were available to Zhang. They were just freighted with expectation and fear. In English, Zhang could be irresonsible, and blame it on the language.

Greene deals with this question of language and personality by citing a number of recent studies, some of which we’ve talked about in previous pods (here and here). In linguistic circles, the pendulum has swung back and forth between those who believe that language shapes thought, and those who argue that thought forms language.

Listen to the podcast here, or below via iTunes.


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Pharaohs, Cantonese and the Gang of Four

Was Mubarak Egypt’s last pharaoh? Maybe only if Putin is Russia’s last tsar. Names for strong men may say as much about public expectations as they do about a leader’s style.

There is a comfort to thinking of the year of your country as the father or mother of the nation. And it’s not just countries with dictators that name their leaders in this way. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher was the Iron Lady (soon to be a biopic of the same name starring Meryl Streep). Finland’s President Tarja Halonen is often referred to as Moominmamma— partly ironically, but also out of pride. (The Moomins are a cartoon strip and set of children’s fantasy stories that are as big as Disney in Finland).

In Mubarak’s case, the pharaoh moniker is an insult.  It’s shorthand for absolutism, state violence and destruction.

“If we go back four thousand years pharaohs were kings that ruled for life and built grand monuments to themselves,” says Joshua Stacher of Kent State University. “It’s not a good term.”

It wasn’t always that way. A few decades ago, the pharaohs were remembered proudly as demi-gods who “ensured the provision of water to the Egyptian peasants in the Nile Delta and upper Egypt,” says Tarek Osman,  author of Egypt on the Brink. That is “an extremely positive role in the deep Egyptian psyche.” Maybe that sense of the pharaohs will return, now that Mubarak is gone.

Check out this post on Language Log for Chinese signs held by protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Were these people protesting Mubarak, or sending a message to China’s Communist rulers?

Also in the podcast, fears for the future of Cantonese, once the lingua franca of many Chinatowns around the world.

Beijing is stepping up its efforts to establish Mandarin as the official tongue of China. As a result, Cantonese is spoken by fewer people — and in fewer situations outside the home — even in Cantonese-speaking parts of China. There have been protests in the cities of Guangzhou and Hong Kong about proposals to expand the use of Mandarin on TV and in other public settings.

In the rest of the world, students of the Chinese language and their teachers see the writing on the wall: they are choosing to learn Mandarin rather than Cantonese.

These days in New York’s Chinatown,  a mix of dialects is spoken. That means people often fall back on the common dialect Mandarin.  But not Kim Mui. She teaches a Cantonese class. It’s going to take many people like her to ensure that Cantonese survives in the long term.


Finally, British cultural revolutionaries Gang of Four talk about their name, which derives from a group of notorious Chinese cultural revolutionaries. The bandmembers also talk about their new CD, and about phrases that include the word farm.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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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.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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The English-only movement in America

A conversation about making English the only official language in the United States. Tim Schultz, lobbyist with Washington-based US English makes the case for this, ahead of an English-only vote in Oklahoma.

This is not the usual fare on The World in Words: we don’t often offer the microphone to people who discourage the use of other languages. But Schultz argues that English is what keeps America — a land of immigrants and therefore of many languages — intact. He believes that Spanish in particular is fast becoming an unofficial official language here (if that makes sense). He says government agencies use Spanish and other languages without thinking about the message they are sending. What they should be doing, he says, is using English so that non-English speakers are encouraged to learn the language, and succeed in their adopted homeland. Finally, he acknowledges that bigots and racists may be among the supporters of English Only. But as far as he’s concerned, they do not form the mainstream, nor does he share their views.

Also, an election ad in Chinese, aimed at Americans who don’t speak Chinese. This comes courtesy of conservative think tank/advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste, which clearly doesn’t think this glossy ad in a foreign language is a waste of money.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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