Tag Archives: United States

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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Slipping in out of foreign tongues with Yang Ying and Sherard Cowper-Coles

Yang Ying (Photo: Yang Ying/MySpace)

In the pod this week, Yang Ying’s polyglottish music. And Sherard Cowper-Coles’ polyglottish diplomacy.

Music as Language

Yang Ying grew up in the 1960s and 1970s during China’s Cultural Revolution. It was a time when people deemed enemies of communism were forced to work as manual laborers.

That happened to Yang’s father, who ended up working in a coal mine.

He thought his daughter might escape that fate if he taught her to play an instrument-well enough to enter an elite music academy.

And so she learned to play the traditional two-string erhu. She studied under her father’s tutelage for several hours a day. Because the family’s apartment was so small, and the walls so thin, she would practice the erhu in the park.

The hard work paid off. Yang won a national competition playing a famous piece of music called River of Tears.

Her success led to a place at a music conservatory in Beijing. From there she became a soloist with the Chinese National Song and Dance Ensemble. She performed for countless foreign dignitaries on their visits to China, including American presidents.

“I played for Ford, Carter and for Nixon,” Yang says. “I remember three. I probably performed for more.”

More important to Yang though, were her tours of China, where she learned about the country’s regional differences, the music and the dialects. The many dialects of Chinese “really had an effect on the music.”

But while Yang was being exposed to new sounds, she still had to perform the same old stuff.

As an erhu soloist with a renowned national ensemble, “you probably only play two, three, four repertoires your whole life.” Yang says it tired her out. “And I really wanted to do something new.”

It was the late 1980s. China was opening up. Yang started going to rock concerts put on by the US Embassy. Clubs were opening, bands were forming. She taught herself the bass guitar. She said it was like learning a new language.

Yang founded Cobra, China’s first-ever all female rock band. She knew that she was breaking several taboos at once, and that many people would disapprove.

Yang says her father was “not very happy.” And other classical musicians, “thought I was crazy.”

Yang tried to infuse some of Cobra’s songs with traditional elements. She even re-imagined a traditional folk song as a rock anthem.

That spirit of anything-goes fusion ultimately moved Yang in another direction. She emigrated to the United States, and began studying jazz. She recognized common elements between jazz and Chinese folk music. Both rely on improvisation, and make the instrument sound “as if it’s singing, like the human voice.”

She started playing the erhu with an American jazz group.

Today, that has brought her back to China, where she and her group are performing at the Beijing Nine Gates Jazz Festival.

Should diplomats learn the languages of the countries they’re assigned to?

Diplomat Sherard Cowper-Coles says yes. But, he adds, be careful not to  overreach.

Cowper-Coles tells two stories of foreign language overreaching.

The Hebrew Overreach

When he was the British Ambassador to Israel, Cowper-Coles liked to try out the Hebrew that he had learned.  So once,  in a restaurant, he ordered (he thought) chicken breast. He did this, logically enough, by combining the  Hebrew words for chicken and breast.  But to the native Hebrew ears of the restaurant’s staff, the dish he had actually requested was not one they had ever before served: a woman’s breast on a chicken.

The French Overreach

Cowper-Coles also tells a story about Tony Blair. Blair “had learned his French in a bar outside Paris” between high school and college. So it wasn’t perfect.

Fast forward several decades. Blair, as Prime Minister, was hosting his French opposite number Lionel Jospin. After a “drinky” lunch,  Blair decided to address the French media in French. Intending to say something like “I’ve always been envious of Lionel’s policies and whatever positions he’d taken,” Blair instead said “J’ai toujours envie de Lionel, même en toutes positions.”  (Roughly:  “I’ve always lusted after Lionel, in all positions”).

At least that’s the way Cowper-Coles tells it.

Also in the pod this week:  teaching in two languages in Massachusetts, where bilingual education is banned. And Pakistan’s Sindh province is introducing mandatory Chinese for schoolkids aged ten and older.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Does Banning Bilingual Education Change Anything?

Nine years after bilingual education was banned in Massachusetts, educators are still arguing over the effect on students’ language abilities.  Massachusetts is among of several states, including California and Arizona, to ban bilingual education. The fear seems to be that non-English speaking kids won’t learn English fast enough if they receive much of their instruction in their native tongue (which in the US is usually Spanish). The solution has been “total immersion” in English.

There’s no shortage of studies related to bilingual education. Here are the cases for and against . Also, the National Association for Bilingual Education, and some other links.

Reporter Andrea Smardon of WGBH-Boston has been looking at why the ban came into being, and its effects– whether  non-English speakers are now picking English faster, or whether they’re dropping out of school. There’s more on her series here.

Also in the pod, more conversation with UK-based American, Lynne Murphy. Murphy teaches linguistics at the University of Sussex. She also writes the clever and droll blog,  Separated by a Common Language. In the last podcast, we talked about twangy accents, pronunciation of the world water, and the declining status of British English in the United States. This time, we consider politeness, and why neither Yanks nor Brits live up to each others’ expectations. One word encapsulates this: toilet. Misuse this word at your peril. But there are others: excuse me and sorry have subtle differences in usage, which if you don’t get them right, may result in the locals thinking you arrogant.

Murphy has an entertaining theory about British people and the word sorry. If you’ve spent any time in the UK, you’ll know that the word comes up all the time, especially in official announcements (“We are sorry to announce that the 9:16 train to Chingford is delayed due to a staff shortage.”). But when Brits bump into people– which they do a lot on their crowded island–  they don’t always apologize. Murphy suspects this is because they are in denial about having made any physical contact.

We round off the pod with some girl pop from the 1960s, en español.

Back then, Francisco Franco was still running Spain with an iron fist, and his government resisted anything that smacked of  youthful rebellion.  But there were mini skirts (not quite so mini in Spain). And there were carefree female singers.

Spain’s best known singer was Marisel.

Marisel is one of many artists featured in a new CD called Chicas: Spanish Female Singers 1962 to 1974.

Most of the tunes on the CD were released as original singles, composed by Spanish song writers.

They had been influenced by British rock, American soul and dance crazes like the twist. The lyrics are Spanish, but the musical language is very much imported.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Twanging with Lynne Murphy aka Lynneguist

A conversation with University of Sussex linguist Lynne Murphy. An American in Britain, Murphy maintains the Separated by a Common Language blog, where she goes by the moniker Lynneguist.

Murphy’s accent is soft, but that doesn’t stop Brits from mocking it and labeling it twangy. If she has a twang, then the guitarist in the painting is Dolly Parton.

Among the many observations noted in her blog, Murphy has seen British English lose some of its status among Americans. We talk about that, along with the changing accent patterns in Britain surrounding social class, and pronunciation of the word water.

Listen via iTunes or here.

Photos: Wikicommons


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Punjabi immersion, Nigerian pidgin radio, and Annoying “Americanisms”

In the pod this week, Carol Hills and I pick our top five language stories of the past month.

5.The first Punjabi language public school in the US.  The Sacramento Valley Charter School is about to open. It will teach kindergarten through 6th grade in English and Punjabi. The school is aimed at the local Sikh population, which is largely overlooked in the United States (there are an estimated 200,000, compared to 278,000 in Canada and 389,000 in the UK. See here for more country populations).  In Canada, by the way, NHL games are broadcast with Punjabi commentary.

4. Bad translations with bad results. Hardly a week goes by without a business article or blog post extolling the virtues of global niche marketing. And that often means marketing in local languages to local tastes. Of course you have to make sure you don’t mess up the translations.  Many companies do — sometimes amusingly, sometimes tragically. This list, compiled by translation company Lingo 24, has examples of both.

3. Nigerian Pidgin radio is a hit.  Lagos-based radio station Wazobia FM broadcasts exclusively in low-status Nigerian Pidgin. After four years on the air, it is exapanding to other Nigerian cities. Nigerian Pidgin isn’t an official language of multilingual Nigeria, but it’s one of the more popular street vernaculars. On the pod, we hear some of it as broadcast by Wazobia FM, and as taught in an online language lesson.

2. The rise and decline of French as an international language. A new book, When the World Spoke French, traces the growth of the French language. Author Marc Fumaroli is a member of that protector of  the language, the Académie française. His book is a sort of intellectual love letter to French.

The spread of French was unintentional, according to Fumaroli. The language rose to prominence in the 17th century (along with France itself). After Louis XIV revoked a ban on persecuting Protestants, French Huguenots fled the country. These free-thinking refugees flooded the capitals of Europe with their ideas, and their mother tongue. And so French became one of the leading languages of the Enlightenment.

Fumaroli spends less time on the decline of French. And he is optimistic that what made French popular 400 years ago — that it was a precise and poetic conveyer of Big Ideas — will serve it well in the future, albeit among fewer people. Reviews of the book are here and here.

1. Annoying “Americanisms”

British journalist Matthew Engel has railed against the invasion of what he calls Americanisms into British English. His BBC article was hugely popular, and largely inaccurate according to Language Log. That didn’t stop hordes of BBC users posting their own irritating “Americanisms”.  It also, thankfully, didn’t stop fellow podcaster Grant Barrett from penning a riposte on the BBC site.

On public radio show The Takeaway, host John Hockenberry called up Matthew Engel (who was at a cricket match, of all things). The two of them jabbed and parried, mainly entertainingly.  And Language Log continued posting (here and here). Still,  as a Brit who has lived in the United States most of my adult life,  I am now confused and a little disheartened. Let’s call the whole thing off.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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The battle to own Bin Laden’s story

Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, a new battle has begun: the rhetorical fight to frame his legacy. The White House got off to a bad start, with its initial claims about the circumstances of the killing. We offer two stabs at this story, one from the perspective of the US government, the other from a cultural point of view. There have been many other such stabs: I especially like this one in Slate. And here’s something on the inevitable memorabilia-exploitation of the moment (if not the man).

Here’s a great blog post on Language Log on how 9/11 changed The Pentagon’s language priorities. Which transitions nicely into the next item…

The Big Show’s Alex Gallafent tries out a couple of instant translation devices. This comes as The Pentagon’s research arm, DARPA, prepares to decide on one or more devices to equip military personnel in combat and other field situations.  (This is the second of a two-part series on The Pentagon’s history of language training and interpretation. Part One is here).

Finally, a quixotic attempt by a retired government accountant to lighten up the lyrics to Peru’s national anthem. And these are some truly grim lyrics. Translated into English, the first verse –the only verse that’s usually sung– goes like this:

For a long time the opressed Peruvian
the ominous chain he dragged
Condemned to a cruel servitude
for a long time, for a long time
for a long time he quietly whimpered
But then the sacret shout
Liberty! in its coasts has been heard
the slave’s indolence beats
the humiliated, the humiliated,
the humiliated neck raised up,
the humiliated neck raised up, neck raised up.

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English-only in the US, translating tweets in Japan and satire in Egypt

The English Only movement in the United States is always active during times of high immigration (check out my previous interview with US English lobbyist Tim Schultz). Now, the movement has got a shot in the arm from the Tea Party. It may help convince lawmakers and voters in the 19 remaining states that don’t yet have a law on their books declaring English to be the official language.

The issue with most of these laws is that they are ineffective (here is a map of English Only legislation in the United States). Many are symbolic only: they don’t specify how and when English must be used. Some do get specific.  In Arizona and Oklahoma, for example, you can’t take a driving test in a foreign language. But even then it’s not clear how much English Only laws affect linguistic behaviour.

There’s a long-established pattern of English acquisition among immigrants and their children. The first generation often speaks little or no English. The second generation, born in the United States, is bilingual, but often more proficent at English than the home language. The third generation is usually monolingual English, unable to communicate with their immigrant grandparent. People like language writer Robert Lane Greene, interviewed in my story, believe that pattern is again playing itself out.

Still, that hasn’t stopped Tea Partiers from bumper-sticking their love of English and fear of (mainly) Spanish from Florida and Texas all the way to Wasilla, AK.

This video has more than 14 million hits on YouTube, and this duo have performed it numerous times at Tea Party events.

Also in the pod this week, a conversation with Aya Watanabe, who has spent much of the past month translating earthquake-related tweets from Japanese to English.

It’s part of a project started by Japanese blogger Gen Taguchi to collect tweets that may give succor and inspire Japanese people in the face of this tragedy. Volunteers have translated tweets into at least 17 different languages.

In English, many of the tweets have more than the 140-characters maximum permitted by Twitter. That’s partly because a single Japanese character conveys more information than a single letter in the Roman alphabet. It’s also because Watanabe has sometimes added contextual details (eg ” on Kyushu Island, a thousand miles south of Tohoku”).

Below are some of Aya Watanabe’s favorite tweets, starting with the two that inspired her to start translating them into English.

At a jammed crossing
I was driving home after the quakes. Streets were extremely jammed and at many crossings only one car could cross the street per green light. At a spaghetti crossing, all traffic was paralyzed for more than 5 min. All drivers, I encountered, waiting to cross streets were calm, giving way to others. All thru my 10 hr driving, I didn’t hear any honking except those showing gratitude to others. Of course this travel was scary but also heart warming. This experience made me like Japan all the more.

At Tokyo Disneyland
They distributed sweets that are part of their merchandise. High school girls with heavy makeup took away more candies than they would possibly eat and that raised my eyebrows. Later, I saw those girls giving the candies to kids at evacuation areas. Families with kids had limited mobility and couldn’t get to where the candies were distributed. Go girls!

My mother’s foot warmer
Mom goes, “Oh! My little foot warmer got away!” My sister goes, “No I did not! ;D” And Mom goes, “Oh, there you are 🙂 🙂 ” … Mom and sister were sharing a futon during a blackout and Mom was searching for my sis’s warm feet. Cute mom 🙂 🙂

A little knight
I was walking behind a mother with a little boy and a baby in a carriage. The mother said to her young boy, “What if another earthquake hits? Scary, isn’t it?” The kindergarten boy said, “No worries, Mom. I will do THIS!” Then the boy bent over the baby in the carriage to protect his young sibling. What a little knight in a shiny armor. My heart felt warm.

Disgraceful
A teenage boy walked into a drugstore, a package of toilet paper in hand. He said, “My parent hoarded and bought two packages yesterday. How disgraceful. I would like to return one.” –My friend who works for the drugstore was impressed to hear a word “disgraceful” from a high school boy. We have bright future ahead in this country.

Packing for a move
When I was packing for my move, my mother handed me a flashlight and survival food she had kept for the family, saying “Take these and don’t buy new ones. There are people who really need them now. Us? We are fine. We have family and neighbors. We can help each other if a disaster strikes our area. You will be living by yourself, a stranger in a strange land. You have all the reasons to be anxious about your new life. No need to be anxious about us, your family.” I felt so proud to be my mother’s daughter, to be part of this family.

Mom’s Pep Talk
Called my Mom to let her know I survived the quakes. She lives in Kagoshima, on Kyushu Island, a thousand miles south of Tohoku. Thought she was worried about me and wanted to calm her down. Instead of tears, what I got from her was a pep talk. “Know, with all your heart, the meaning of your being where you are, at this timing and age in your life. Do the best you can to serve others.” Mother, I am proud to be your son. I will live through all this.

In the podcast, I also mention an interview on the Big Show with Tik Root, a Middlebury College student. Root was arrested in Syria where he was studying Arabic. He was detained for 15 days, suspected of being a foreign agent provocateur in Syria’s pro-democracy protests.  Here’s the interview.

Finally in the pod, we hear from Egypt about an instantly popular news satire show whose host is being compared to Jon Stewart. Here’s a translation of the video clip:

TALAT ZAKARIYA: You must have heard what’s happening in Tahrir Square.

BASSEM YOUSSEF : No! What? What?

T: Drums and horns and dancing…girls…and boys…and drugs…and full sexual relations.

Y (on the phone to someone): Didn’t I tell you we need to go to Tahrir Square? Dude, they’re saying there’s music and women and sex, and we’re sitting here? … Sorry, sorry.

Y: Mr. Talaat, is there a video that proves what you’re saying?

[Belly-dancing video]

Y: Sorry, clearly we got the video mixed up. We’ll fix it. Mr. Talaat, sorry, go ahead, tell us what else is happening in Tahrir Square?

T: What happening right in Tahrir Square is a carnival.

[Carnival clip]

T: There’s a band..there’s a one act play..all of it against the president..there are snacks and drinks and sodas and tea.

Y: I’ve finally learned what’s happening in Midan Tahrir. Out of solidarity with the eminent Mr. Talat Zakariya, I’m going to show you the proof.

T: Drums and horns..

[Crowds singing the national anthem]

Y: So ill-bred. People singing in Midan Tahrir.

T: Full sexual relations…

[Protesters fighting police]

Y: You’re right. It was an orgy…Anything else to add, Mr. Talat?

T: And who knows how many Muslim Brothers, and God knows what else, there…

Y: What, with the music and the girls and the drugs and the sex? What kind of Muslim Brothers, dude?

Mr. Talaat, concentrate for a moment–are you sure of what you’re saying?

T: And I take full responsibility.

Y: So when we write the history of the revolution… There was music and dance, girls and boys, drugs and sex, and Muslim Brothers. They had a carnival, they ate snacks and this lead to the fall of the regime.

Y: Mr. Talaat, is there anything else you’d like to add– anything else bothering you?

T: “Depart”: What does that mean? What does it mean to simple people?

[Video of Wael Ghonim and friends]

“Depart” means get out of here! What don’t you understand?

Y: I hope we answered the question.

Listen to the podcast here.


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