Tag Archives: Japanese language

Voting, vowing and singing in a foreign language

You may know this type of person: the guy — and it usually is a guy — who needs to know everything that everyone around him is saying. This is  a problem if everyone around him is speaking in a language he doesn’t understand. I have trained myself not to be that guy, but I know plenty of other reporters who are him. In a potentially insecure situation, you want to know what people are saying, especially if those people — say, your translator and your driver — appear to be in vociferous disagreement.

So even though I try not to be Mr Need-to-Know, the pod this week pays tribute to him. We have a couple of stories in which it really would have been useful to know what was being said.  First, we hear about Korean-Americans in Flushing, New York.  A community group, MinKwon Center for Community Action, tried to persuade some of these Korean-speakers to vote in November’s midterms. They found that many of these potential voters didn’t speak much English. And they didn’t speak much American election-ese either. All of which made it difficult for them to choose candidates, or see any point in doing so. Check out Alex G’s photo-set here.

Then, one of those throwaway-funny stories that’s also quite sad.  You may have seen the recent video of a wedding vow renewal ceremony in the Maldives. The couple in question were Swiss. The language of the ceremony was Dhivehi, not a word of which the couple understood. During the ceremony, things were said that shouldn’t have been said — curses, insults. The couple was oblivious until it was too late. They’re probably mortified. So is the tourism-dependent Maldivian government.

Also in this week’s pod,  a  master offers classes in Islamic calligraphy his Arlington, Virginia home. Mohamed Zakariya has been teaching calligraphy for more than 20 years, and practising it for more than 50 years. Zakariya grew up in California and was first turned on to Koranic calligraphy during a trip to Morocco. As well as teach, he has designed a stamp for the US Postal Service. He wrote an inscription that Barack Obama gave to the King of Saudi Arabia.

Finally, performing in a language that you don’t understand. I remember performing in a play at an art school in Denmark. At the time, my Danish was virtually non-existent. So my Danish friends were astonished to hear me utter complicated phrases perfectly. (Don’t knock memorization and repetition…) It so impressed them that they didn’t notice that I couldn’t act to save my life. Broadway star Amra-Faye Wright (pictured) went several steps further: first, she can act. She performed her role as Velma Kelly in the musical Chicago in Japanese, in Tokyo. Doing that got her interested in the language; she’s still taking classes in Japanese.

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Windows 7 in African languages, unfortunate name translations, and the new Klingon

For the latest podcast, I have five language news stories from the past month:

5. African languages to get their versions of Windows.

Microsoft says by 2011 it will release versions of its new Windows 7 operating system in ten African languages:  Sesotho sa Leboa, Setswana, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Afrikaans, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, kiSwahili and Amharic. It’s a big boost for those languages, as well as for the people who prefer to speak and write in them, rather than English or French.

4. The government of Moldova moves to change the name of the country’s official language.

Most people who live in small eastern European nation of Moldova speak a dialect of Romanian.  But in Moldova, the language is known officially as Moldovan. This is an act of  placation: it placates non-Romanian- speakers in Moldova and, more importantly, in Moscow. Calling the language Romanian is seen by some in the Kremlin as tantamount to a vote for unification with Romania. Russia, of course, doesn’t want that: it views Moldova, a former Soviet republic, as part of its “Near Abroad”.  But Moldova recently elected a pro-Western government. One of its first acts was to change the name of the language on its official website from Moldovan to Romanian. What’s more, the President-elect has declared himself a speaker of Romanian. (He also declared himself “a Romanian.”) That’s in sharp constrast to his  pro-Moscow predecessors, who insisted on translators when they had meetings with Romanian officials.

3. South Korean birthing centers go multilingual.

South Korea doesn’t have much of a history of immigration; very few foreigners have learned Korean, at least with a view to settling there. Now though, there’s a shortage of women, especially in the countryside. So South Korean men have starting marrying women from other Asian countries. And they’re having children.  Most of women speak very little Korean, so doctors and nurses are learning a few words in Chinese, Thai and Tagalog.  That’s just the start of what appears to be quite  an ordeal. Even with Korean speakers in their families, the women and their children have a hard time integrating, linguistically and otherwise,  into Korean society.

2. Unfortunate foreign meanings of baby names and how YOU can protect yourself (should you wish to).

A London-based translation company with an eye for publicity is offering what appears to be a unique service: for about $1,700, it will run a translation check on the name you have chosen for your baby. It will, of course, alert you if that name means say, pickpocket  in Japanese (“Suri”) or shut up in Yoruba (“Kai”). Maybe the celebs, with their surfeit cash and zany name choices will be tempted. For the rest of us, there’s Google Translate. Or we could just call our firstborn, I don’t know, Jessica. Or John.

1. Na’vi, invented for the silver screen, hopes to emulate Klingon.

Klingon’s been in the news a lot recently. There was the (recycled) story of the man who tried to raise his son bilingually — in Klingon, and just to be on safe side, English. Then there’s the story of a new Klingon dictionary in the works. Now, there’s another nod to Klingon. James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar is scheduled to annex and occupy the cinematic world on December 18.  Much of the movie takes place on a planet whose inhabitants are 10 feet tall, have tails and blue skin, etc etc. And they speak their own language. Tolkein created Elvish . Star Trek came up with Klingon. And now Avatar has midwifed Na’vi. Cameron  commissioned University of South California linguist Paul Frommer to dream up a new language. And he did.

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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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Bilingual metaphors, the passion of place name changes, and interpreting for the Dodgers

SWEDEN-NOBEL-LITTERATURE-MUELLERNobel literature prize winner Herta Mueller grew up in Romania. She spoke German at home, and Romanian at school. As a result her writing is infused with mixed metaphors. Not as in “he careened between lovers till his private life went completely off the rails.”  No, Mueller’s metaphors are linguistically mixed. She connects Romanian images and metaphors with German ones.  That’s what she did with the title of one of her novels: Hertztier (which literally means “heart animal”).  That’s an invented German word with roots in a piece of Romanian wordplay. The Romanian for heart is  inimă and for animal is animală — the words sound quite similar. In German, hertz and tier don’t sound at all  similar.  That suggests that in every language, thoughts and ideas cluster uniquely and somewhat randomly. Yet if, like Mueller, you’re bilingual, you’re more likely to transpose word clusters, punning and otherwise, from one language to the next . Of course, by the time an expression like  inimă-animală is translated into English (via German) it loses resonance and meaning. Which is why translator Michael Hoffman avoided it completely. He called the novel The Land of Green Plums.

tanganikaAlso, a conversation with Harry Campbell, the author of Whatever Happened to Tanganika? The Place Names that History Left Behind. This interview is long and full of infamous, and some less well-known, episodes from colonial history. Typically, colonists like to leave their mark in the form of a place or two, whether they were British imperial officers, unscrupulous Belgians or Soviet true believers. The names, of course, rarely stick. Local populations have a healthy disrespect for the monikers of their former masters. But this leaves some people nostalgic for the old names, and others wondering what those names, and their replacements, reveal. I’m struck by how important place names are to people, even in cases where people have never visited the name in question. Much of comes down to power and influence. And occasionally, money. A shorter version of the interview ran on The World’s regular broadcast; it generated a ton of posts and comments.  Post your own at this site or here.

Finally in this week’s podcast, a profile the Japanese interpreter for the Los Angeles DodgersKenji Nimura is actually trilingual — he speaks Spanish, as well as Japanese and English — which comes in handy in Major League Baseball, where those three languages are most used.

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Banning Hungarian, swearing for pain relief, and dog barks translated

clarklostFor this month’s language news podcast, I roped in The World’s Online Editor Clark Boyd. In a former life, Clark taught English in Hungary — yes that’s a barely younger version of him posing beneath the signpost. He, of course, has some choice stories about that time. (I wish I could offer up a hyperlink here…) He and I chose the following stories:

5. Slovakia passes a law banning Hungarian in official communications in some of its Hungarian-speaking regions. The is just the latest in a long-running series of bureaucratic battles between this small country’s Slovak-speaking majority and its Hungarian minority. Hungarians are getting used to this. Because they found themselves on the losing side in World War One, their country contracted. That left millions of Hungarian speakers living in surrounding nations, primarily Slovakia, Romania and Serbia. And aside from –in some cases — sharing the same script, the Hungarian language bears no similiarities to the languages spoken in these countries. Cue suspicion, fear and loathing.

bilingual4. New research out of Italy seeks to show why babies and young children are so adept at learning two languages simultaneously. It’s more evidence of the possible advantages — social and neurological — that bilingual speakers have over monolinguals. Above is a picture I took inside a Phoenix-area elementary school that has had to change its curriculum because it was deemed to be teaching “too bilingually.”bowlingual
3. Stereotyped Japanese toy story alert: toy maker Takara Tomy has come up with a device that claims to translate dog noises into human language. . That language, for the time being, is Japanese, so it might not work for you. This may or may not be entirely a gimmick. But even if there is something to the translation “algorithm,” do you ready want to know what pooch is saying? $220 will buy you a Bowlingual.

2. Six years ago, the Malaysian government ordered its public schools to start teaching math and science in English. After several protests, mainly from ethnic Malays, the government has lifted the requirement, so that schools can choose which language to use. The main languages of instruction there are Bahasa Malay, Chinese and Tamil. This will please rural schools where finding a English-speaking math or science teacher was vitually impossible. But the fear now is that Malaysia may fall further behind the the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong in producing a tech-smart, English-speaking younger generation.

swear1. Good news for people who occasionally swear: results from a new study show that the trangressive nature of cursing helps when it comes to tolerating pain. You can keep your hand submerged in a jar of ice for longer if you put filthy words to your feelings. Try it at home! However, this methodology won’t work if you are a over-sweary person, you swear constantly even in your most painless moments: the curses will have lost their meaning.

A bonus this week: our favorite hated words. This is inspired by the Ledbury Poetry Festival in England which asked poets to come up with their least favorite words. The winner: pulchritude — not a bad word till you know what it means: beauty. Clearly, it needs a meaning reset. How about the lingering smell of garbage? Other words Clark and I discuss: benign, dadrock, homeland and alien.

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