Tag Archives: United States

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.

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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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A Persian insult, a northern dialect, and Urdu directions

Iran’s leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Photo: Daniella Zalcman) is known for his fruity prose. This month he outdid himself with a new anti-American insult . In a speech to Iranian expats, he  used the expression the bogeyman snatched the boob. It’s old Persian saying that mothers use when they’re trying to wean their babies off breast milk. But what’s acceptable for mothers to say in the privacy of their homes is considered über-coarse in a public setting. Some Iranians are astonished that their President would use the phrase. Their President, though, is a man who likes to show he has the common touch, especially when dissing the United States.  He appeared quite full of himself  too, in a recent interview with John Lee Anderson of the New Yorker.

Also, we hear from Cambridge University linguistic anthropologist Stephen Leonard who’s spending a year in Northwest Greenland, documenting the planet’s northernmost dialect. That dialect, or language — it’s been classified both ways — is called Inuktun, and it’s spoken by the Polar Inuit, or Inughuit of Northwest Greenland. Leonard doesn’t have much to go on. He speaks Danish and has been learning Standard West Greenlandic, both of which are understood by many of the Polar Inuit. But he only has a word list for Inuktun. The Inughuit’s way of life is severely threatened by global warming: the giant block of ice that recently broke off a glacier is close to their hunting grounds. As for cameraderie, this photo of a groups of Inuits near Cape Dorset, Canada (photo credit: Ansgar Walk) may paint too rosy a picture; also, people generally use snowmobiles these days, not dogsleds. Not many people. Not many dogs. Not much warmth. It may be a very long year.

Also in this week’s podcast, we have a report on how foreign language movies in the United States are seeking new ways of finding their audiences.  And World in Words listener and self-professed language nerd Sofia Javed tells us about the difficulties of getting from Point A to Point B in Urdu, a language that has the same word for go straight and turn right.

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Deciphering ancient script and contemporary politicos

In this week’s podcast, another  five language stories that didn’t make headlines. Well, aside from the Sarah Palin one.  Discussing these stories with me are Rhitu Chatterjee, host of The World’s Science podcast, Clark Boyd, host of The World’s Technology podcast and Kevin II. Yup, that’s a picture of Kevin II, in The World’s broadcast studio.

5. An Israeli-British study shows bilinguals may respond differently depending on the language of the questions. According to the study, Arab Israelis are more likely to respond warmly to certain Jewish names if they are asked about them in Hewbrew, as compared to Arabic. Does this mean we think differently in different languages? No, but it might help explain why someone who is bilingual (or trilingual in Rhitu’s case) is “more polite” in one language.

4. New research points to a possible breakthrough in deciphering ancient scripts.

3. Sarah Palin compares her coinage of new English words to Shakespeare’s. Her most recent coinage, of course, was refudiate, which she said on Fox News and then tweeted a few days later. (She somewhat refudiated her own invention by zapping the tweet, before acknowledging it and making the Shakespeare comparison in a subsequent post.)  For his part, Shakespeare came up with gnarled, premediated, fitful, and hundreds more, none of them via Twitter. Maybe in time we’ll prize refudiate as highly. My guess though, is that like wee-wee’d up, an Obamaism, refudiate ain’t gonna make it. Let’s face it: most of Shakespeare’s coinages appear to have been based not on ignorance but inventiveness.

2. A science writer argues in a Discover magazine blog post that language diversity condemns a society to poverty. I don’t fully understand the argument, but it made for a lively conversation.

1. Clark’s adventures in linguistically confused Belgium. Yes, The World’s tech man about town has just moved to the land of beer, waffles and linguistic discontent. So which of the country’s two main languages should Clark learn, Dutch or French? And in choosing one, has he upset speakers of the other?  Mr Boyd reveals all, including the surprising nationality of the podcaster/language teacher he’s following.

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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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Spy accents, sign language, and not my bad.

Our top five language stories this month:

5. Making Tamil even more official. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Tamil is an official language. It’s widely spoken there. Indeed it was the very first of India’s languages to be recognized as a classical language. But proponents of the language, and of the Tamil people, don’t think that Tamil gets the respect it deserves. So they have enlisted Tamil politicians to  issue an order requiring that commercial signs prominently display the language. Most signs are in English.  Opponents worry that Tamil Nadu is needlessly cutting itself from the rest of the world, and from possible trade opportunities.

4. The expression that Manute Bol didn’t invent. After Sudanese basketball great Manute Bol died, many eulogies praised him for, among other things, coining the term my bad. Speaking on the Senate floor U.S. Senator Sam Brownback lauded Manute Bol for that (as well as for his basketball skills, and for killing a lion with a spear while working as a cow-herder). The source for the my bad coinage claim was a five-year-old post in the blog Language Log. The belief apparently was that as a non-native English speaker, he thought he was saying my fault. As posters on Language Log have recently pointed out, my bad was almost definitely around before Manute Bol first arrived in the United States in about 1980. So Manute:  sorry. Our bad.

3.  A translator recalls the Nuremberg Trials. Ingeborg Laurensen, 96, recalls her work as one of 24 interpreters at the international military tribunal after World War Two.

2.Those (alleged) Russian spies and their faux Euro/Canadian accents. One of them claimed a she was Belgian; another that she was Canadian; yet another had “the faintest hint” of “an accent”.   OK, so their covers were blown, but it wasn’t because their accents didn’t match (what’s a Belgian accent anyway? ).  Let’s face it, most of us are pretty inept when it comes to pinpointing an accent. In the pod, we get a crash course on the difference between the French spoken in France and the French of Quebec.

1. A sign language that doesn’t have signs for some Islamic words. American Sign Language doesn’t have signs for Mecca, Mohammed and other words common to Muslims. In Toronto, an ASL teacher is working with group of students from a diversity of linguistic backgrounds (Pakistani Sign Language, Arabic Sign Language and Turkish Sign Language)  to try to come up with signs for a few religious words.  In the pod, we also discuss new research into Nicaraguan Sign Language that shows that language may affect how we solve spatial problems.

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Turkish, Stalin, and just say non!

The avidly pro-Western Georgian government has just torn down a statue of Joseph Stalin in his hometown of Gori. Many people think of Stalin as Russian, but he was Georgian, much to the embarrassment of many Georgians today. There’s an exception: Georgians who live in Gori adore the former Soviet leader; for them it’s a case of local boy made good bad and all of that. As it happens, I visited Gori in 2005, and filed a story from there on Stalinphilia and the language of denial.

The newest star of Germany’s national soccer team is an ethnic Turk. And the  popularity of Mesut Özil is one of the reasons why Turkish has become just a little more accepted in Germany today. There are other reasons: the emergence of a small middle class, as well as  the rise of writers, filmakers and politicians (our report from Cyrus Farivar includes comments from Cem Özdemir, Germany’s first member of parliament of Turkish descent). Turkish in Germany remains nowhere near as prominent as Spanish is in the United States. It’s the exception rather than the rule to find a German corporation marketing a product to ethnic Turks in Turkish. Earlier this year Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Germany to offer Turkish as a language of instruction in high schools.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded by promising more bilingual education. Related articles: a blanket ban on foreign languages at one German school, and the influence of Turkish and Arabic on urban, spoken German.

World Cup notes:  this World Cup is breaking TV viewing records from China to Chile. A story here on U.S. TV ratings, which are especially impressive on the Spanish-language Univision channel. The Argentina-Mexico game was the most-watched  Spanish-language telecast in U.S. history, with nearly 10 million viewers. Combined with English-language coverage, that game attracted nearly 14 million viewers — impressive for a contest that did not feature the United States. In contast, a combined 19  million watched the U.S.-Ghana game.

And there’s a nice video montage from BBC Mundo here of the eleven official languages of South Africa.

Finally,  British politician Chris Bryant has called French a “useless” language to learn. He suggested that children should instead learn Chinese or Arabic. After he made those comments, the BBC hauled him into a studio to defend himself, and to debate the issue with a German diplomat. (Late replacement for a French diplomat? Peut-être.)



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The language of the beautiful game

At the World Cup in South Africa, it’s not just Brazil vs Spain and Argentina vs Everybody Else. It’s Bafana Bafana vs Les Éléphants, soccer vs football, cleats vs boots and the coach vs the gaffer.

We kick off with a story on the new adidas ball and its globally correct corporate name:  Jabulani, which means celebrate in the isiZulu language. There is, famously, a new ball for every World Cup.  Each time, the new ball is presented — and heavily marketed — as a engineering masterpiece and an advance on the last one. Maybe: the new  certainly moves through the air faster than its predecessors (which include the horrifyingly management-speak name, the Teamgeist from 2006 ). On the Jabulani, there are eleven lines and eleven colors, representing South Africa’s eleven official langages. Those linguistically-inspired lines create slight ridges on the ball, which are  controversial. Many World Cup goalkeepers think the ridges will cause the ball to swerve in the air, making it more difficult for the goalies to position themselves for saves. Of course, if that’s the case, most people — apart from goalies — will be happy: more goals, more TV viewers, more money. Fancy that: linguistic diversity acting as a fig leaf for commercialism. And just think if South Africa had 111 official languages…

There are thousands of websites and blogs to choose between for  following the World Cup and the cultural hoopla surrounding it. For stuff you won’t see anywhere else I recommend Davy Lane’s one-man South African show.  It’s full of smart, funny, non-touristy, interviews with locals. Davy also sports a not-so-mild obsession with Uruguay and its colors. Also, check out my colleague Jeb Sharp’s latest podcast on soccer and French colonialism.

Next in the podcast, a story on the race to rename streets in South African cities. The old names — usually in Afrikaans or English — are often associated with the apartheid era. As noted in previous podcast/blog posts here and here, naming and renaming places is a way of  shaping history, of controlling how it is told.

Next, we focus on a few words rooted in South Africa’s eleven official languages that may go global after this tournament. One already has: vuvuzela, even if most non-South Africans aren’t crazy about the sound this plastic horn makes.  One other word from the African continent that’s gone global, at least in the francophone world: Drogbacité. This means a spirit of reconciliation and humility, named after Ivory Coast superstar –and Africa’s finest player Didier Drogba. Three years ago, Drogba used his celebratory status to help jump-start peace talks between warring factions in Ivory Coast. Quite how central a role Drogba played is up for discussion, but suffice to say, the expression Drogbacité stuck.

Finally, a meditation on a US-English confrontation off the soccer field (or football pitch: take your pick). It is the linguistic battle over soccer/football terminology. It speaks to the nature of the often awkward, not-so-special relationship between England and the United States. England is represented here by New York-based writer Luke Dempsey; the US by broadcaster and former national team goalkeeper Shep Messing.

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In every word, a microhistory

Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee

14-year-old Anamika Veeramani won 83rd National Spelling Bee on June 4 by correctly spelling the word stromuhr. It’s one of many English words in the contest that sounded decidedly unEnglish. Other words from this year’s contest: barukhzy (from a Pashto word that went through Russian before becoming English) , tanha (from a Sanskrit-derived Pali word), izar (originally Arabic, then went through Hindi before becoming English) and uitlander (from Afrikaans, which formed it from two Dutch words, plus a Latin-derived combining form).

These are all English words…yes, English words, even if they’re spelled according the rules and pronunciation of other languages. There are many reasons for this mongrelization of English spelling, and that’s where David Wolman comes in.

His book  Righting the Mother Tongue traces the anarchic evolution of English spelling. Unlike some languages, English is barely policed: foreign words — often with their foreign spelling intact — migrate unhindered into English. From time to time, people try to impose order, to simplify or regulate the spelling. Even President Theodore Roosevelt tried (and humiliated himself in failing).

The reason for contact between English and all those languages in the first place is colonialism, first British, then American. American colonialism has been as much cultural as political, which has only encouraged the English language to colonize smaller languages.  But the great openness of English is key too:  foreign words, with all those loopy spellings, will thrive in English’s  marketplace of linguistic ideas, if they are descriptive and original enough. Wolman told me he thinks of English spelling as jazzy: rootsy yet improvised, rule-bending, dangerous and inventive. Most kids don’t like jazz any more than they do spelling.

Finally, we remember John Shepherd-Barron, the man who invented the ATM. He died recently, which gave The World’s Alex Gallafent an excuse to point out that you shouldn’t really say ATM machine or PIN number.

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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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