Tag Archives: World in Words

During the Olympics, Canadians are willing to drop their language arguments

Charles Hamelin kisses girlfriend Marianne St-Gelais after winning the gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics (Francesco Cataldo/Flickr)

Charles Hamelin kisses girlfriend Marianne St-Gelais after winning the gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics (Francesco Cataldo/Flickr)

Canada’s Sun News Network has been described as “Fox News North.”

Like Fox, it has its targets. It doesn’t like big government. It doesn’t like Canada’s promotion of the French language. And it really doesn’t like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Almost every Canadian is watching the CBC right now because it has the broadcast rights to the Sochi Olympics. So the people at Sun News decided they would make some news.

Host Brian Lilley brought “linguistics expert” Harley Sims onto his show to talk about how the CBC was pronouncing names — the names of Canadian medal winners: Justine and Chloé Dufour-Lapointe, Charles Hamelin and others.

Lilley and Sims didn’t like the French-sounding way that some CBC announcers were pronouncing these names. They had no objections to French-language TV using native French pronunciation. But on English-language TV, they said, the names should be anglicized. “Clo-AY” should become “CLO-ee,” and “Sharl” should become “Charls.”

“I’ll stick with the way we pronounce names in English,” said Lilley. “I will still say congratulations to Justine [pronounced the English way].”

The CBC’s overly-French pronunciations are “so selective and arbitrary of what’s politically correct and what isn’t,” said Sims.

It was classic Canadian button-pushing, like playing the race card in the US or playing the class card in the UK. In Canada, if you want to start a political fight — or if you just want attention — you play the language card.

Even though very few Canadians were watching, with the Olympics over on the CBC, word got out. By the next day, it was the talk of the talk shows.

The outrage quickly grew. People called Lilley a “redneck,” “mind-bogglingly stupid,” and worse. Much of the anger came from Quebec.

It proved too much for Lilley. He apologized.

This is the stage in the story when Canada’s Sun News stops behaving like America’s Fox News.

In his broadcast apology, Lilley said he worked in a bilingual newsroom, and his wife is from Quebec. He said some of his relatives are native French speakers.

“The focus should be on the [Olympic] athletes,” said Lilley. “It shouldn’t be on dividing Canadians, language by language, and trying to set French against English. It’s not what I intended. It is what happened, and therefore I apologize.”

Moral of the story: don’t play the language card during the Winter Olympics. It’s a time when Canadians of all stripes seem pretty happy about being Canadian.

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    Carinna Chamberlain’s beautiful Cantonese singing, and Coca-Cola’s beautiful multilingual America

    Corinna Chamberlain, aka Chan Ming Yan (Photo courtesy of Corinna Chamberlain)

    Corinna Chamberlain, aka Chan Ming Yan (Photo courtesy of Corinna Chamberlain)

    Listen to the audio above for a quick take on Coca-Cola’s multilingual Superbowl ad. That’s followed by a Big Show contributor Charlie Schroeder’s report on Carinna Chamberlain. Below is Charlie’s post…

    It’s rare to see Western singers attempt to sing in Chinese.

    Celine Dion did it last year during Chinese New Year. An estimated 700 million people watched the Canadian diva sing a famous Chinese folk song — in Mandarin — on China’s state-run CCTV.

    Dion’s appearance may have been a one-off event, but in Hong Kong, there’s a Western singer named Corinna Chamberlain who’s fully committed to having a career in one of the city’s most famous exports, Cantopop (Cantonese popular music).

    Her song “Yi Jung” opens with lyrics that are unlike any other Cantopop song. She sings that she feels like an “Alien from Mars” who’s landed on Earth.

    “In a body with this skin color,” she continues, “I’m not quite like them. In fact, what kind of race am I?”

    “Yi Jung” translates as “Different Breed,” which Chamberlain, also known as Chan Ming Yan (陳明恩) — is.

    Her parents are from Australia and New Zealand; she’s white and has long, curly blonde hair. But unlike most Westerners here, she grew up in a remote part of Hong Kong, far from any ex-pat enclave. She attended local schools and speaks fluent Cantonese.

    Growing up immersed in local culture caused something of an identity crisis for Chan. In high school, she had many friends. But not necessarily close friends.

    “When it comes, like, especially to the girls in Hong Kong, to have your best, best friend, it’s always somebody who is the same as them,” Chan says. “Somebody who likes Hello Kitty, somebody who likes Snoopy as much as them.”

    A best friend who’ll go everywhere with you — everywhere.

    “It’s like, you know, ‘Oh, I need to go to the toilet, come with me, let’s go to the toilet together,’ “ she says.

    At school, Chan wasn’t the same as anyone, so she didn’t have a best friend.

    “I started to really feel like ‘where do I belong, who am I?’ And I was like, ‘maybe I’m not one of these people.’ So I thought ‘well, maybe I better just be a Westerner like the rest of the Westerners’ or something.”

    The problem was she didn’t feel Western — direct, loud, independent. She felt Chinese — non-confrontational, humble, happy in a group.

    “If you’re in their circle of buddies, then you’re there for life. It’s really on the inside, the way of communicating that we get used to,” Chan says.

    As the daughter of missionaries, Chan learned to sing in church, and she listened to Christian singers like Australia’s Rebecca St James. She later studied musical theater at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, but didn’t listen to Cantopop until six years ago when she had a reality check. If she was going to have a career here, she thought, she’d have to sing local pop music that wasn’t like the Western music she grew up listening to.

    “I’ve noticed that Western pop is a lot more in-your-face attitude, really be tough, strong diva. But [in] Hong Kong, a lot of it’s very sweet,” she says.

    Those sweet songs and ballads give Hong Kongers the chance to escape from the territory’s hectic pace.

    Then there’s the Cantonese dialect itself. Chinese is a tonal language, so the smallest change in inflection will completely alter a word’s meaning.

    “If it goes up, it’s different. So it’s a lot more complicated, a lot more restricted,” she says.

    Chan’s big break came last year when she acted on a popular TV show called “Inbound Troubles.” Her combination of blonde hair and flawless Cantonese created a sensation. She’d just recorded “Yi Jung,” and the timing couldn’t have been better. After that, she appeared on an American Idol-like show, where she placed third in the singing competition, boosting her visibility even more.

    In her second single, “Ngoh dik gwai suk,” Chan again addresses her outsider status, but keeps the storyline old school: she wants to find a husband who’ll take care of her. It’s Chan’s understanding of traditional Chinese culture that’s earned her the respect of locals.

    “Now, when I go out on the street, everybody’s my neighbor. ‘Oh, Chan Ming Yan!’ You know, like ‘How’s your mom?’ ” she says.

    And they see beyond the color of her skin, which is just the sort of thing she’s been looking for.

    “I know it’s really not easy for a Westerner to have that kind of acceptance in Hong Kong,” Chan says. “Westerners are accepted as Westerners, but as one of your own? That’s something really touching for me.”

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    The world according to Gary Shteyngart in four languages

    Photo: Random House/Brigitte Lacombe

    Photo: Random House/Brigitte Lacombe

    Gary Shteyngart writes in English, but his memoir draws on the Russian and Yiddish of his Leningrad childhood, and the Hebrew of his schooling in New York.

    The memoir is called “Little Failure.” The title is based on an English-Russian mashup expression (“failure” plus a Russian diminutive) invented by his mother.

    “I love the way [my parents] play with language,” says Shteyngart. “Even when it’s a little bit hurtful.”

    Hurtful goes both ways in Shteyngart’s family. “Little Failure” won’t be a comfortable read for his parents. It’s full of fraught family moments—and worse. The memoir also delves into the past, documenting the terrible suffering of some Shteyngart’s grandparents and great-grandparents.

    And although his parents do have a copy of the book, Shteyngart says their English isn’t great, so they may wait till the Russian translation comes out.

    Shteyngart has previously written three novels, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” “Absurdistan” and “Super Sad True Love Story.” The memoir reads like a novel—gripping narratives, expertly-etched characters, telling details.

    When Shteyngart was seven, his family moved from the Soviet Union to the United States. Like many Soviet Jews they’d been trying to leave for years to escape anti-Semitism. But Soviet authorities blocked the immigration of many Jews until they could strike a deal with the United States. It was 1979. The Russians needed grain—their harvest had failed. So they allowed Jews to leave in exchange for American grain.

    So the family became “Grain Jews.”

    “I was worth maybe 300 loaves and a croissant or something,” says Shteyngart. “I don’t know who got the better deal.”

    The family settled in New York, where Gary was sent to Hebrew school. He didn’t bother too much with learning Hebrew. He was more interested in picking up English from TV shows like “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

    At the dinner table, though, the family spoke only in Russian, for which Shteyngart is grateful now.

    “Retaining Russian meant retaining all those memories,” he says. “Whenever I write, it’s in English but there’s always a Russian soundtrack in the back.”

    It took Shteyngart about seven years to lose his Russian accent: “Lots of practice in front of a mirror.”

    He would repeat words he couldn’t pronounce, trying to “get rid of a bunch of consonants to get English right.”

    One such word: attic. The family had moved to an apartment with an attic and Shteyngart was anxious to master this expression. But one of those pesky extra consonants came back to bite him. He pronounced it addict, as in: “We have a new apartment with an addict.”

    Shteyngart recently became a father for the first time. He’s relieved that his son wasn’t born into the kind of calamitous world experienced by previous generations of Shteyngarts.

    “The Yiddish word is tsuris—troubles,” he says. “I don’t know what the future is going to hold. I mean pretty soon, Manhattan might be underwater, so I hope this kid learns how to swim real good. But there is a feeling that…he’s growing up in relatively wonderful circumstances.”

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    Silicon Valley is full of entrepreneurs — and some of them are native French speakers

    Jean-Louis Gassée, a former colleague of Steve Jobs at Apple. Gassée is now a venture capitalist based in Silicon Valley. (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

    Jean-Louis Gassée, a former colleague of Steve Jobs at Apple. Gassée is now a venture capitalist based in Silicon Valley. (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

    Here’s a guest post from Silicon Valley-based reporter Alison van Diggelen

    Steve Jobs has inspired many entrepreneurs in the U.S. and around the world. Today, some French tech innovators in Silicon Valley think of Jobs as an honorary Frenchman. The perception is that he was more focused on beauty and elegance, and less on money.

    But although many French admired him, they didn’t copy him. And, at least until recently, they haven’t created the conditions that would allow tech innovators to thrive.

    The French, of course, are known for their style. But some are asking: Why is it so hard to be an entrepreneur in France and much easier for a French entrepreneur to succeed in the United States?

    Here in Silicon Valley, the French are certainly leaving their mark. There’s Pierre Omidyar of eBay fame, semiconductor pioneer Pierre Lamond and serial entrepreneur Philippe Kahn.

    Jean-Louis Gassée is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. In the 1980s, Gassée was the head of Apple in France and worked with Steve Jobs. He believes true innovators are often a bit mad, but in France they need to be even more than that.

    “To be an entrepreneur in France you need an additional dose of madness … the rules are so onerous,” says Gassée.

    He’s talking about heavy government regulation and taxes of up to 75%. These, he says, force French entrepreneurs to be tenacious and to find loopholes. Legal loopholes, of course.

    “In France, breaking the law is a sport, it’s an honor, it’s a badge to find ways to cheat the rules,” says Gassée.

    When he established Apple in France, Gassée had to be creative since the government put up roadblocks to foreign competition. What’s more, Silicon Valley’s extravagant language was abhorrent to French ears.

    “When our dearly departed Steve Jobs came to France to make his usual brand of hyperbolic statements, people were taken aback, resentful,” says Gassée. “People rolled their eyes. They called him fou (mad), méprisant (contemptuous ), houtant (haughty), … arrogante (arrogant). … All this was part of his genius.”

    Today, that genius has made Steve Jobs a hero to many younger French entrepreneurs.

    I went to a gathering of DBF, a networking group for Francophones in Silicon Valley, where I chatted with John Forge, a French entrepreneur.

    “We should make Steve Jobs an honorary Frenchman,” he laughed, praising Jobs’ style and detail-oriented approach.

    “Steve Jobs was very French in his approach. He was seeing technology through the eyes of somebody who studied fonts, characters, writing … on the detail, it had to be perfect.”

    Forge argues that the French obsession with elegance is very “Jobsian.”

    “It has to be beautiful; there’s an entire way of thinking,” says Forge. “Quelque chose qui vous parle … it speaks to you effectively.”

    But Forge says that even among the open-minded French entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, there’s still some insularity.

    “Where the French gather … they call that ‘The Frog Pond.’ There’s a little too much of that … ‘I want every day to have my steak pomme frites’ … to live like the French live,” he explains.

    Not surprisingly, Silicon Valley has dozens of French eateries. I met with Susan Lucas-Conwell at the Douce France Café in Palo Alto. She currently leads SVForum, an education network for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

    The Douce France Café in Palo Alto Lucas-Conwell is married to a Frenchman and says the French view business failure differently than in California. In Silicon Valley, it’s a badge of honor. In France, Lucas-Conwell explains, failure is one of the non-dit, the things that you never talk about.

    The Douce France Café in Palo Alto (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

    The Douce France Café in Palo Alto (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

    To make matters worse, according to Lucas-Conwell, French government officials are expert at the business put-down.

    “You will hear the administration calling entrepreneurs ‘les patrons voyous.’ Voyou is a thug,” says Lucas-Conwell.

    That’s pretty strong language — another manifestation of the anti-entrepreneurial culture in France. And just think, the word ‘entrepreneur’ is French.

    So while French innovators struggle Sisyphus-like up a steep mountain, the lucky ones can move here to Silicon Valley and feel an optimistic wind at their back.

    “We Silicon Valley people tend to think that we run the world, you understand, and there is some truth in that,” says Jean-Louis Gassée. “Je tweet, tu tweet, nous tweetons, vous tweetez, ils tweetent … It’s an -er verb. Usage trumps rules in any language.”

    “It is a wonderful thing … we are the melting pot’s melting pot,” he adds.

    Sophie Woodville Ducom, another French transplant with the French American Chamber of Commerce, calls Silicon Valley “The Mecca” — a place where entrepreneurs can thrive, even if they first fail. And, if they’re really lucky, they get to push that rock to the top of the mountain and enjoy the glory. That’s the promise of Silicon Valley, anyway.

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    How to make a living as a Spanish teacher in Guatemala. Hint: Skype

    Marco Antonio Tabin Garcia, in Antigua, Guatemala, Skypes with a student in Chicago. (Photo: Laura Knotts)

    Marco Antonio Tabin Garcia, in Antigua, Guatemala, Skypes with a student in Chicago. (Photo: Laura Knotts)

    Here’s a guest post from reporter Emily Files.

    When Marco Antonio Tabin Garcia was younger, he considered emigrating from Guatemala to the United States.

    “Because I had heard in United States, there was gold,” he says.

    He knew he’d need to travel illegally, crossing through Mexico, so he decided against the journey. Instead, he got a job teaching Spanish at a local language school, where he earned about $2 an hour. He continued teaching at local schools for more than 20 years.

    Now 49, Tabin Garcia has found a way to make a much better living without leaving his own home. He teaches Spanish lessons on Skype, mostly to American and Canadian students. He makes $10 per hour, five times what he made at the local schools.

    Erin O’Reilly, a veteran language teacher based in California, teaches in traditional classrooms and online. She’s seen online language lessons take off globally in the past three years. She says it co-incides with growing Internet access in developing countries.

    “This is transformational for language learners who are trying to learn outside of a traditional classroom setting,” O’Reilly says.

    But she doesn’t think classroom teaching will die out any time soon. She says language learners often need the structure and motivation that comes with in-person lessons.

    Photo courtesy Laura Knotts

    Photo courtesy Laura Knotts

    For Tabin Garcia, Skype lessons have been so profitable that he quit his job at the language school last month. He’s been able to buy luxuries he and his wife could not previously afford, like a washing machine. His dog, Manchas, used to sleep on a cardboard box. Tabin Garcia recently bought him a cushy dog bed.

    On a recent Thursday evening, Tabin Garcia had a one-hour Skype lesson with student Laura Knotts, who lives in Chicago. They made small talk about weather and their families and Tabin Garcia corrected her mistakes.

    Knotts is one of a dozen students Tabin Garcia teaches each week. He’s brought his wife and sister into the business as well. The two women now have a few of their own students.

    Tabin Garcia’s weekly income of about $150 to $200 supports not only himself and his wife, but his extended family. He says his 7-year-old niece used to be malnourished and became sick. Her parents didn’t have enough money to pay for a doctor.

    “She would have died,” Tabin Garcia said. “Her condition was very, very bad.”

    He used his Skype earnings to pay for her medicine and food. She’s doing better now.

    There are some roadblocks to teaching via Skype. For one, an Internet connection is expensive, as is the laptop he uses. Some people don’t know how to use Skype. Tabin Garcia has trained a few friends and family. And, of course, there are always technical glitches. But Tabin Garcia has been able to keep his independent business going despite those problems.

    Talking to students in different countries has made him more interested in traveling outside of Guatemala, something he’s never done before.

    “I would like to visit the country where students live,” he said. “I would like to visit Chicago. I would like to visit Canada. Winter Canada, for seeing the snow.”


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    Dementia and language loss: what we know and what we don’t know

    Photo: Wi2-Photography/Flickr

    Photo: Wi2-Photography/Flickr

    Here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Nina Porzucki.

    “It doesn’t matter whether you’re in London or Los Angeles, in rural India or in urban Japan — this disease steals lives, it wrecks families, it breaks hearts,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron this week at the G8 Dementia Summit.

    This is the biggest international summit to address the issue of dementia.

    While world leaders and thinkers pledged to identify a cure or a disease-modifying therapy for the disease by 2025, linguist Alison Wray has been thinking about how to address the social repercussions of the disease.

    Wray is a professor of linguistics at the Center for Language and Communication at Cardiff University in Wales, where she’s been researching dementia through the prism of language.

    One of the enormous challenges with the disease is language loss. Dementia patients forget words and phrases and it can often make communication difficult and strained between a patient and his or her family.

    Her work involves looking at how that breakdown of language strains the communication between dementia patients and their caregivers, and how to develop ways to ease that strain.

    One key to alleviate the breakdown in communcation, according to Wray, may be as simple as looking at how other cultures around the world deal with language loss and dementia.

    “In Western society, we view our older people in certain ways and we are frightened of dementia,” said Wray. “In other cultures in the world, they don’t necessarily see dementia as such a huge problem. They don’t make it into some kind of monster which is very frightening. It’s simply something that you deal with.”

    Wray said some studies show that being multilingual may slow down the symptoms of dementia.

    “When you’re used to using more than one language, you have several ways to express the same idea, therefore it gives you more routes to get around an obstacle that might come up,” said Wray.

    However, she also pointed to conflicting research that shows there is no difference between monolingual and bilingual dementia patients.

    All this is to say that more research is needed and this G8 Dementia Summit is just the beginning.


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    In Pakistan, No One Admits to Being a ‘Burger’

    Where it all began: Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

    Where it all began: Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)


    Here’s a guest post from Karachi-based reporter Fahad Desmukh, who often files stories for the Big Show

    It may be hard to imagine, given the pervasiveness of McDonald’s these days, but hamburgers were virtually unknown in Pakistan before 1981.

    Arshad Jawad is the manager of Mr. Burger, the first fast-food chain in Pakistan.

    “Believe it or not, a lot of people didn’t know what cheese was. When we were putting a slice of cheese on the patty, they were looking at us asking like ‘Is is this plastic, is it rubber?’” Jawad said.

    When Mr. Burger opened in Karachi, it initially got mixed reactions. It wasn’t a big deal for people who had visited the West. But many would-be customers didn’t know what hamburgers were, or how to eat them.

    “After we made the burger people were asking, ‘How do you eat this? We need a spoon, we need a plate.’ So we had to educate them. We said ‘Look, this is a wrapper. Grab the wrapper, open it gingerly and use that,’” he said, chuckling.

    Back then, going out for a hamburger was a big deal, and many people can still recall their first, clandestine, date at a Mr. Burger.

    It was only a matter of time before the fad caught on, and Mr. Burger was hot.

    For some.

    Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

    Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

    For many years, the average working or middle class Pakistani was unable to afford Mr. Burger. So the word “burgers” came to describe young, westernized urban elite, who studied at expensive schools, spoke English rather than Urdu and preferred eating burgers rather than local cuisine. They were derided for being, out of touch with mainstream Pakistani society.

    By some accounts, the term was first coined in a TV comedy called “Burger Family”, about a rich Westernized family in Pakistan.”

    Today, there are lots of fast-food burger chains – local and international. But the word is still associated with the elite class in the local lingo.

    And there’s a rap song called “The Burgers of Karachi” recently put out by local group “Young Stunners”.

    They describe a typical Burger as someone who wears skinny jeans and Nikes, uses a smartphone, and holds a US Green Card.

    One of the high school-age rappers, Talha Anjum, says a Burger is someone who wants to be someone they aren’t.

    “If you listen to Burger-e-Karachi, we’re not making fun of people,” Anjum said. “It’s just a message that you should be real to yourself and real to the people around you. You shouldn’t judge someone if they don’t have a branded T-shirt.”

    Burgers may be ridiculed for trying to be something that they are not, but they have mobilized recently.

    A Typical Bun Kebab Shop in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

    A Typical Bun Kebab Shop in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

    The urban elite have generally shunned politics in the past. But in last month’s elections, they rallied around former cricket hero Imran Khan, using their access to wealth and the media to help his PTI party. It won the second highest number votes. Misbah Khalid, a member of the party’s campaign team, says its not such a bad thing to have “burgers” on their side.

    “Because now they are taking ownership of the country. Now people in every class as you say own Karachi, own Pakistan. So I think that’s a great achievement, because you need people who have exposure to the outside world, who are maybe – what you say – the ‘intellectuals,’” she said.

    The spread of the term “burger” has sparked a counter-term: the “bun kebabs.” Bun kebabs are cheap home-grown versions of hamburgers made with lentils. So a “bun kebabs” is a person who’s a bumpkin compared to a burger.

    Burger e Karachi



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