Tag Archives: English only

Ride New York City’s N train, with a Spanish twist

New York's new look N line (Photo: Bruce Wallace)

New York’s new look N line (Photo: Bruce Wallace)

Here’s a guest post from New-York-based reporter Bruce Wallace

New York City’s subway lines sometimes take on cultural meaning, maybe even pop­-cultural meaning. Duke Ellington made taking the A train famous. Rap icon Jay-Z’s name gives the parallel J and Z lines more cred (although his moniker is probably not a reference to them). The L line has become synonymous with the hipsters it ferries into Brooklyn. Listen to the audio:

Now the city’s N line is giving winking acknowledgement to Spanish-speaking culture. A few days ago, a number of its signs sprouted tildes — the curving accent mark that turns the N into the Spanish letter “Enye”.

The N line begins — or ends, depending on your perspective — by the water at Coney Island, way south in Brooklyn. 30 stops and an hour later, it ends (or begins) in the Queens neighborhood of Astoria.

The enye fairies, who sprinkled tildes on the yellow-and-black N-line signs at various stops, apparently didn’t make it out this far. The amended signs are concentrated toward the middle of the line, as it runs through midtown and downtown Manhattan and central Brooklyn. These are busy stops, though, and not many people there seemed to have time to take notice.

The enyes are the work of Z Street Art, a project that’s throwing up new pieces of art in public places each day for six months. The enyes, which went up Saturday, are their first strike. The group explained on its Tumblr page, “The N-line is now the Ñ-line for the 24.28% Spanish speakers in New York City.”

A multicultural advertising agency called Globalworks launched a similar effort last year, urging New York City’s MTA to change the N line to the Enye line annually during Hispanic Heritage Month.

Down at the N stop in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that’s nearly half Hispanic, some commuters were intrigued.

“That’s crazy man, I don’t even know what that means,” said Deshaun Sumpter.

I told him the rationale for the tilde — how it was a recognition of the city’s Spanish speakers.

“Oh, okay,” he said, laughing. “I got Spanish friends, you know what I’m saying? I give props to them, you know? We’re all American people, we all gotta give props to each other.”

A couple of riders had ideas about other lines with possible Spanish implications. One guy suggested the L line could be re-spelled “El” to make the Spanish article “the.” Another worried about the possible confusion of a rolled R in the R Line.

A few Spanish-speaking school kids who walked by said they thought it was cool that their language was getting some recognition.

Claudia Lechuga (“‘Lechuga,’ which actually means ‘lettuce’ in Spanish,” she explained) lives right by the Sunset Park N stop, and she’s into the enye.

“I love it!” she enthused. “I think it’s really great. It’s so cute. It’s kind of a nice homage to what the neighborhood has been, historically.”

The enyes found a fan in Blanca Gonzalez, too. She’s originally from Mexico, and runs an employment agency nearby, where the clientele is largely Hispanic. She likes the message, although she’s a bit worried about the delivery.

“It’s like two sides of the story,” she said. “First of all, I think it’s not good to be doing graffitis. But on the other side, they want to be heard, you know what I’m saying? There has to be a message that they want to send saying, ‘Yes we exist in here and we need to be represented and you can’t just deny we’re here, so listen to us.’”

John Lee works around the corner in this neighborhood, which is also home to a big Asian community. Like a good New Yorker, he’s skeptical. “People don’t pay attention, they’re too busy in their own world, right?”

He paused and pointed out a young couple hugging near an enye. “Look at these lovers — they don’t care about the N line. Do you care about the N line? Hell no, they don’t care about the N line. Nobody cares.”


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Perils of Campaigning in Spanish

[This is a guest post from my colleague at the Big Show, Jason Margolis.]

This summer Mitt Romney appeared on a Cuban-American radio program in Florida. Romney was on his way to a fruit juice stand, so, the host asked him: What are your favorite types of fruit?

“I am a big fan of mango, papaya, and guava,” said Romney.

The hosts couldn’t suppress their laughter.

The chuckles were because Romney said he likes papaya. That might not strike you as all that that funny. But papaya is Cuban slang for vagina.

Now, c’mon. Let’s be mature and fair here. Who, besides a Cuban or Cuban American, would know that?

But that’s not the only Spanish slip-up from Romney. His most notorious one came five years ago when he was giving an impassioned anti-Castro speech in Miami.

“And at the end of speech, Romney had the crowd fired up,” said Joe Garcia, a Cuban American in Miami who unsuccessfully ran for US Congress in Miami as a Democrat. “And he (Romney) ended, ‘Patria o Muerte, Venceremos — the nation or death we shall win,’ which is the closing line of all of Fidel Castro’s speeches, right? It’s a great line. Unfortunately for Romney it was the wrong line in this crowd.”

But Romney is far from alone having problems with Spanish.

In 2008, then Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told the crowd, “Sí, se pueda.”

She meant to say “Sí, se puede,” instead of “Sí, se pueda.” Not a huge deal, but it is among the most famous American political phrases in Spanish, made famous by Cesar Chavez in the 1960’s.

Then there’s the downright bad Spanish from Newt Gingrich.

But at the end of the day, does it really matter if an English-speaking politician has a bad accent or mess up a few words?

In Denver, I met American voters Maria Young, originally from Mexico, and Martha Caban from Puerto Rico. I asked them what they thought of candidates who mangle their Spanish.

“I will say a couple of brownie points, yes, because at least they tried,” said Young.

Caban said, “I give them points too, following what Maria said, because at least they’re honoring and respecting us and trying to do something to connect with us.”

But what if they really, really screw it up like Romney did in Miami, speaking to Cuban American voters and quoting Fidel Castro?

“It will not matter. I am used to bad translations, so it doesn’t matter,” said Young.

And that’s coming from an Obama supporter.

But Christine Marquez-Hudson of the Mi Casa Resource Center in Denver said, “I think it can come across as patronizing.”

She said if a politician’s message is inauthentic, she doesn’t want to hear their Spanish.

“When someone comes out who has absolutely no personal connection and says, ‘hola, bienvenido,’ and they say it in a really terrible accent. I think it can be offensive.”

But Marquez-Hudson doesn’t see this from either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. She says Romney’s connection to Latin America gives his attempts at Spanish some authenticity. And she appreciates when President Obama uses his favorite Spanish phrase, “Sí, se puede.”

Marquez-Hudson said, “The thing about Obama is that he was a community organizer, and Sí, se puede is a community organizing chant, and so that’s the connection for me.”

Presidential candidates and their surrogates have been speaking some Spanish as far back as the 1960’s.

John F. Kennedy “Viva Kennedy” campaign reached out to Latino voters.

Since then, many presidential candidates have tried some Spanish here and there, most notably President George W. Bush who often spoke the language.

President Bush was applauded by many for speaking Spanish. Though, many also made fun of his Texas accent.

Democratic presidential candidate US Senator Obama campaigns at the Los Angele Trade Technical College. (Photo: Jason Reed/REUTERS)

Democratic presidential candidate US Senator Obama campaigns at the Los Angele Trade Technical College. (Photo: Jason Reed/REUTERS)

So, at the end of the day, what’s a candidate do? Try a little Spanish? Not try? Why bother if it can result in endless ridicule?

I asked Diane McGreal what she would advise. McGreal works with the language company Berlitz and directs the company’s global leadership training program.

“I would inoculate the audience. I would say to them right up front, I would start out by saying, I want to apologize for any mistakes that I make and then say a few words. And then the next step would be to ask their permission to continue in English, to say it’s important that that the message I get across is clear and understood.”

And there is one other way to make absolutely certain you get your Spanish correct. Pre-record the message. Mitt Romney ends his Spanish-language campaigns flawlessly staying, “Soy Mitt Romney y apruebo este mensaje.”



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A trip around America’s languages with Elizabeth Little

At some point during Elizabeth Little’s gargantuan road trip, she realized that her book, A Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages, was morphing from something whimsical to something serious.

Perhaps it was in Florida, where she found a life raft of Haitian Creole struggling to stay afloat in an ocean of  Spanish and English.

Perhaps it was Montana, where she attended competing re-enactments of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Or perhaps in Forks, WA, where she came across an obscure native American language and an anything-but-obscure vampire book and movie series.

Little was in Washington State to check in on other indigenous languages. She only went to Forks because it was barely out of her way. She describes it as a formerly “sleepy lumber town.” Now it’s turned itself into a sort of vampire theme park. The reason? Rain.

In 2003, writer Stephenie Meyer decided to set what would become the Twilight series in Forks because, according to a Google search, it was the rainiest place in the U.S. She made one of her characters, Jacob Black, native American. The Quileute tribe is local to Forks, so Black became Quileute.

In the second movie of the series, The Twilight Sage: New Moon, Jacob Black says something in the Quileute language. The circumstances suggest it’s a declaration of love—he whispers the words to the object of his affection, Bella Swan.

Quileute speakers have confirmed that the words are genuine Quileute. But they’re not saying what it they mean “out of respect for Jacob and his feelings for Bella.” Yes, out of respect for two fictional characters.

As Little experienced, Forks has become a magnet for Twilight fans, with bustours and motels playing off the vampire theme.

In itself, this episode might have gone into either version of Little’s book—the  whimsical one or the serious one (the book ends up managing to be both). But it points to just how arcane and exotic native American languages have become in this country—and how that can be intensely attractive to mainstream Americans.

As Little’s book progresses, you can sense her indignation rising. Time and again, she is confronted with old stories of attempts to eliminate Native American languages. In our podcast conversation, she talks about how she perceives the same impulse today in the English Only movement that’s sweeping across states with laws that restrict the official use of any other languages. Many Americans, she says, still believe that schools and other institutions of the state should insist on English, for the good those who don’t speak it.

This conversation is part one (of two). I’ll feature more with Elizabeth Little in a future podcast.

Listen via iTunes or here.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

10 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Listen in iTunes or here.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized