by Kristin Van Tassel | 09.16.12 | 5:12 PM ET
Kristin Van Tassel's ideal window for learning a foreign language closed over 30 years ago. Is there still time?
by Jessica Colley | 08.07.12 | 1:09 AM ET
How to communicate when you don't speak the language? In Italy, Jessica Colley fumbled toward an answer.
by Michael Yessis | 07.06.11 | 9:15 AM ET
Travel-related hilarity from David Sedaris in the latest issue of the New Yorker, as he mines his efforts to learn languages.
Thanks to Japanese I and II, I’m able to buy train tickets, count to nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, and say, whenever someone is giving me change, “Now you are giving me change.” I can manage in a restaurant, take a cab, and even make small talk with the driver. “Do you have children?” I ask. “Will you take a vacation this year?” “Where to?” When he turns it around, as Japanese cabdrivers are inclined to do, I tell him that I have three children, a big boy and two little girls. If Pimsleur included “I am a middle-aged homosexual and thus make do with a niece I never see and a very small godson,” I’d say that. In the meantime, I work with what I have.
Alas, only an abstract is online.
by Jim Benning | 03.02.11 | 12:29 PM ET
There’s something to be said for speaking French, German, Spanish or other major foreign languages when you travel. I know my Spanish skills helped open doors that otherwise would have been closed to me in Latin America. There’s no way, for example, that a mariachi group in Chihuahua, Mexico, would have asked me to join them on their evening rounds—from bars to a quinceñera to a wedding—if I hadn’t, in Spanish, expounded upon my love for Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s heart-wrenching songs. A trumpet player literally opened the door to their minivan and invited me in.
But in the latest Smithsonian, World Hum contributor Tom Swick celebrates the unexpected joys of speaking minority languages—say, Polish—that are, as he puts it, on the D-list:
By learning a language that is usually considered difficult and not markedly practical, you accomplish something few outsiders attempt. And appreciation for your effort is almost always greater than that shown, say, to a French major spending her junior year in Paris.
Yet the benefits extend beyond appreciation. When you acquire a new language, you acquire a new set of references, catchphrases, punch lines, songs—all the things that enable you to connect with the people. And the smaller the community, the deeper the connection. Speakers of D-list languages often feel misunderstood; a foreigner who understands—gets the allusions, reads the poets—not surprisingly becomes like family. All languages open doors; minority languages also open hearts.
Makes you want to run out and learn a little Basque, no?
by Eva Holland | 10.18.10 | 3:53 PM ET
NPR’s Weekend Edition tapped writer (and Missourian) Calvin Trillin to tackle the longstanding pronunciation debate. According to Trillin, the confusion results from a geographical divide:
I think Missou-rah(ph) is particularly prevalent—I’ve read this, I didn’t know this of my own accord—in the northwest part of the state and a majority in Kansas City. And Missou-ree(ph) I’ve always thought of as a St. Louis and therefore eastern pronunciation.
There you go, travelers. Problem solved. (Via The Book Bench)
by Frank Bures | 09.21.10 | 11:06 AM ET
Frank Bures on the pleasures of traveling and learning foreign languages
by Jim Benning | 08.31.10 | 6:42 PM ET
Anyone who has ever tried to learn even a few words of Chinese will appreciate the difficulty of the task. It turns out it was a serious challenge even for a woman with a Ph.D. in linguistics and six languages already under her belt.
That would be Deborah Fallows, author of the new book, Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love and Language.
NPR just profiled her. My favorite passage from the radio piece concerned her attempt to order take-out Taco Bell, of all things:
Her tones weren’t very good at that point, though, so Fallows’ request for “takeout”—dabao—was met with a blank stare from the Taco Bell employee. Fallows tried saying dabao with every combination of tones she could think of—rising tones, falling tones—and when that didn’t work, she started pointing at the menu, and then miming the action of walking out the door with a bag of food. After a consultation with several other employees, finally—eureka! Yes, dabao! Yes, of course, they did takeout.
by Jim Benning | 08.30.10 | 2:07 PM ET
Fascinating story in the New York Times about how language shapes our thoughts and feelings.
Here’s but one interesting nugget:
In a different experiment, French and Spanish speakers were asked to assign human voices to various objects in a cartoon. When French speakers saw a picture of a fork (la fourchette), most of them wanted it to speak in a woman’s voice, but Spanish speakers, for whom el tenedor is masculine, preferred a gravelly male voice for it. More recently, psychologists have even shown that “gendered languages” imprint gender traits for objects so strongly in the mind that these associations obstruct speakers’ ability to commit information to memory.
For some reason, all this reminds me of Al Shamshoon.
by Michael Yessis | 08.12.10 | 1:56 PM ET
The numbers are still small-ish, but they’re growing fast. From the New York Times:
Between 2006 and 2007 the number of American students studying in Arab countries rose nearly 60 percent while China had only a 19 percent increase and England, 1.9 percent.
Many of the students are looking to gain a better understanding of the Arab world, and they’re also finding their experiences and Arabic-language skills are making them hot prospects for jobs.
by Rick Steves | 06.14.10 | 12:41 PM ET
On one of Ireland's national parks of traditional culture
by Eva Holland | 05.04.10 | 11:40 AM ET
In the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Games, we noted the government’s efforts to clean up the city’s more creative English signage. A couple of years later, Shanghai is ready to follow suit: 10,000 signs—and counting—have been tidied up by the Shanghai Commission for the Management of Language. Says one of the campaign’s leading proponents: “The purpose of signage is to be useful, not to be amusing.”
by Eva Holland | 04.26.10 | 2:53 PM ET
The New York Times has a fascinating piece on the globalization of French as a language—and, as the language diverges from its home nation, what that means for French culture. Michael Kimmelman outlines the battle between France’s cultural traditionalists and the immigrants and foreign French speakers who have adopted the language, but not necessarily the culture that has historically come with it. He writes:
French is now spoken mostly by people who aren’t French. More than 50 percent of them are African. French speakers are more likely to be Haitians and Canadians, Algerians and Senegalese, immigrants from Africa and Southeast Asia and the Caribbean who have settled in France, bringing their native cultures with them.
Which raises the question: So what does French culture signify these days when there are some 200 million French speakers in the world but only 65 million are actually French? Culture in general—and not just French culture—has become increasingly unfixed, unstable, fragmentary and elective.
Having grown up in a bilingual school system, a ten-minute drive from the Ontario-Quebec border, I’m plenty familiar with the dilemma. I can remember, at about eleven, being told firmly by my French teacher that Frenglish was “an insult” to both languages it drew on; even then, I thought that seemed limiting.
Seeing cultural and linguistic fusion as offensive is a non-starter in this globalized world of ours. There’s some amazing food, literature and music coming out of this sort of cultural cross-fertilization, around the world. Rather than viewing themselves as “under siege,” France’s cultural authorities might be better off getting out there and seeing some of it.
by Eva Holland | 04.14.10 | 4:21 PM ET
Slate writer Jon Lackman has a message for America’s Washington-watchers and op-ed writers: Stop using “kabuki” as a stand-in for “political posturing.” Lackman thinks the stylized Japanese theater tradition deserves better. He writes:
[T]here’s nothing “kabuki” about the real Kabuki. Kabuki, I’ll have you know, is one of UNESCO’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity! And it’s nothing like politics. It does indeed use stylized gestures, expressions, and intonations, but it’s far from empty and monotonous… Unlike a Dick Durbin stemwinder, the quintessential Kabuki moment (known as a kata) is colorful and ruthlessly concise, packing meaning into a single gesture. It is synecdoche, synopsis, and metaphor rolled together—as when, in one Kabuki play, a gardener expecting a visit from the emperor cuts down all his chrysanthemums except one, the perfect one. And in contrast with our own shortsighted politics, Kabuki concerns not the present so much as a “dreamlike time shrouded in mist but ever present in the subconscious,” to quote critic Shuichi Kato.
The history he digs up on the term’s arrival in American political discourse is fascinating.
by Jim Benning | 04.06.10 | 3:22 PM ET
It’s a boiled down version of English, Robert McCrum explains, comprising “1500 essential words for international communication, and the idiom-free turns of phrase in which they might be expressed by the world’s two billion non-native English speakers.”
McCrum makes a case for its rise in this intriguing essay, as well as in a book coming out this year, “Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language.”
Among the essay’s intriguing passages:
There’s also a sense in which the narrative of Globish makes some important cross-cultural connections. Here, I pay tribute to Magna Carta and Bob Marley, VS Naipaul, Shakespeare and the Founding Fathers, but also The Simpsons, Coldplay and the author of Dreams from My Father. Globish analyses Twitter, Iran’s green revolution and Slumdog Millionaire, and places them all in a new context: a Globish-speaking society.
by Eva Holland | 12.22.09 | 3:10 PM ET
Over at Gadling, Aaron Hotfelder’s come across a fascinating Swedish map of the world that shows countries re-sized in proportion to the number of languages they’ve produced. The biggie? Papua New Guinea.
by Michael Yessis | 12.17.09 | 11:03 AM ET
Great story in the Independent about efforts to preserve the “linguistic diversity stored in tiny pockets of speakers around the world.” Mark Turin is the point man.
The University of Cambridge academic is leading a project that aims to pull thousands of languages back from the brink of extinction by recording and archiving words, poems, chants - anything that can be committed to tape - in a bid to halt their destruction. Languages the majority of us will never know anything about.
Of the world’s 6,500 living languages, around half are expected to die out by the end of this century, according to Unesco. Just 11 are spoken by more than half the earth’s population, so it is little wonder that those used by only a few are being left behind as we become a more homogenous, global society.
by Eva Holland | 12.14.09 | 12:09 PM ET
The Telegraph has a fantastic slideshow from the Atlas of True Names, a collection of maps that displays alternate place names taken from the literal meanings and early origins of the official nomenclature. The result? Familiar places become “Ferry on the Bank of the Mighty River,” “Market by the Yawning Estuary,” and “Unfordable River Town”—otherwise known as London.
by Spud Hilton | 11.11.09 | 11:51 AM ET
On the benefits of language barriers in a Tunisian rug shop
by Eva Holland | 11.09.09 | 2:09 PM ET
Writing in the New York Times, Emily Parker ponders the changes being wrought on the Japanese language by the internet and cell phones:
Americans may fret over the ways digital communications encourage sloppy grammar and spelling, but in Japan these changes are much more wrenching. A vertically written language seems to be becoming increasingly horizontal. Novels are being written and read on little screens. People have gotten so used to typing on computers that they can no longer write characters by hand. And English words continue to infiltrate the language.
by Michael Yessis | 11.06.09 | 10:02 AM ET
That equation comes from a James Fallows post in the Atlantic, and he’s talking about language habits.
That is: in France and Japan, the deep-down assumption is that the language is pure and difficult, that foreigners can’t really learn it, and that one’s attitude toward their attempts is either French hauteur or the elaborately over-polite and therefore inevitably patronizing Japanese response to even a word or two in their language. “Nihongo jouzu! Your Japanese is so good!”
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