Colors and body parts

donald-trumps-hands-suck-1457116346-crop_desktopThis past week there have been some remarkable public comments on personal appearance and body builds. In the most recent Republican debate, “Little Marco” (Trump’s term) tangled with “Big Donald”, with Donald Trump commenting on Marco Rubio’s statements about his hands, clearly referencing his male prowess: “And, he [Rubio] referred to my hands — ‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.” This follows Rubio’s comments about Donald having wet pants in the breaks from an earlier debate. In a press conference, Trump commented on how much Rubio sweats: “Can you imagine,” Trump said of Rubio meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, “and he walks in and he’s drenched. I have never seen a human being sweat like this man sweats. … It looked like he had just jumped into a swimming pool with his clothes on.” Speaking of Putin, there we clearly have a politician who feels that projecting a hyper-masculine persona is important for his image. He frequently is seen in press photos bare-chested, playing sports, or engaging in other activities that highlight his body build. His walk is best described as a swagger. It’s sad to see US politicians engaged in outdoing each other in terms of masculinity – the last thing that should determine who is best able to be President is the level of testosterone (or the ability to hurl insults).

Nina Simone and actress Zoe Saldana

Nina Simone and actress Zoe Saldana

A controversy over skin color emerged in the last week in reference to the movie of the life of singer Nina Simone. This has brought out for public discussion the issue of colorism – the idea that skin tone (how light or dark) and not just race, can lead to prejudice and discrimination. The actress selected to portray Simone is Zoe Saldana, who is Latina, but self-identifies as black. Her parents are from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, where, as elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, there is a mix of ethnic and racial backgrounds which results in a broad range of skin tones. Saldana is light-skinned, in contrast to the dark-skinned Simone. This has been seen as one more example of “Hollywood’s attempt to sideline women with dark skin”. What makes the issue particularly troublesome is that for the movie Saldana wore black face, recalling past racist practices in the entertainment industry. Many have pointed out also that it’s not just a case of trying to cast someone that comes close to the appearance and background of the person portrayed, but that in this case Nina Simone famously made a point of talking and singing about her blackness, which she celebrated but which also resulted in missed opportunities, such as being refused entry to the Curtis Institute of Music.

Another issue of appearance arose in an interview this week-end on NPR with Joanna Hausmann, a Venezuelan comedian who makes videos for The Flama, focusing on Latino culture. Hausmann has a Jewish father, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, and a Cuban mother. She uses her personal background as one of the main sources of her comedy:

I think that I grew up explaining who I was, right? As a white Latina with a Jewish last name. That does not make sense in the conceptualization of what a Latina should be. Also I’m not particularly suave, I’m incredibly awkward. There’s something about my identity that does not mesh with what people think the identity should include. …

[Growing up] I was trained in explaining my identity in a way that wasn’t surface level. And it also opened me up in understanding that people can literally have absolutely any background and what we conceive to be their identity, or their reality or their background is usually not the case.

Hausmann celebrates not only the variety of appearances of Latin Americans, but also the variety of ways in which Spanish is spoken, as in the video below:

Learn to code or to communicate

President Obama writing JavaScript

President Obama speaking Indonesian

The President speaking Indonesian

Our Virginia General Assembly, according to Wikipedia, the “oldest continuous law-making body in the New World” has in recent years been responsible for some real screamers in terms of proposed new laws. Those include proposals to ban low-riding pants and measures that would allow legally blind people to drive motorcycles. Some have attracted national attention, such as a law to give fertilized eggs legal status as persons or, most recently, the proposed requirement for invasive transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking an abortion, which included the stipulation that the woman’s medical record indicate whether or not she viewed the ultrasound or listened to the fetal heartbeat.

This session a proposed law would allow high schools in Virginia to consider computer programming as a substitute for learning a foreign language. Currently, either 3 years of study of a single foreign language or two years each of two different languages is required for the college-prep diploma. Virginia is not the first state to consider such a step. Florida is currently considering a similar change and Kentucky has implemented it.

In a story from my local NPR station, a high school student was all for it:

“That would actually make my year, not only does it make sense, it’s something that I’m interested in…Because in Spanish class earlier today I was just sitting with my head down like, ‘Why do I have to do this?’ But here I feel like I can express my interests better.”

 His comment may say more about the quality of local language instruction than about the wisdom of changing the requirement. Interestingly, a computer science teacher at the same school, Chris Neville, had a different track:

“Some kids aren’t necessarily ever going to use Spanish, the kids who really need it, are probably the kids who don’t want to take it,” Neville said. “I don’t believe in really locking kids into what they want to do right now, because I changed my mind 14 times before I decided what I was going to do.”

And besides, says Neville, the fundamentals of programming, like logical reasoning and problem solving, are more in line with math than foreign language.

Indeed, the idea that a programming “language” is equivalent to a human language is strange and misguided. The procedural steps, hierarchical reasoning, and logical branching in coding are closer to mathematical skills and concepts. In math and programming, there tends to be a particular (and often unique) correct pathway or answer. Linguists would be happy to explain that this is far from how human language works. Language is rarely used to simply transfer information back and forth, as common folk wisdom might assume; instead it is full of stops and starts, interruptions, broken sentences, simultaneous speaking. Mostly, there is little logic involved. Rules of grammar may be cut and dry, but that is a small part of what constitutes human communication in any language. The study of language pragmatics, the branch of linguistics that deals with the significance of speech in real human discourse, has shown how tied language is to the particular context in which it is used, and therefore how dependent all conversation is on cultural cues and clues. The inextricable connection between language and culture is one of the major insights that comes from the study of a foreign language.

Monolinguals typically see differences among languages as being mostly semantic, i.e. just using different words for the same concepts. But the word designating the same object in different languages may have very different real meanings. The word for forest in German is Wald, which, as in English conveys the idea of a lot of trees together. But the word in German has rich overtones that harken back to the Germanic tribes’ pagan worship of trees, the mysterious forest happenings of the best known Grimm Brothers fairy tales, and place names like the Schwarzwald (Black Forest), all of which (and more) imbue the word Wald, when used by speakers of German, with historical and cultural associations unique to that language. Learning a language provides entry into the deep recesses of a culture – a proficient second language speaker gains an insider’s perspective.

One of the real tragedies of not providing an incentive for adolescents to start learning a language while in school is related to the age at which it is easiest to learn languages, namely early in life. The critical period hypothesis points to the biological and psychological developments in humans that make it difficult to learn a language well when starting language acquisition as an adult. In fact, children, given their innate curiosity and lack of self-consciousness, are ideal language learners, eager to imitate and not afraid to make mistakes.

I am totally in favor of high school students learning computer programming – I see this as fundamental to 21st-century life (see my piece on digital literacies). However, there is no reason coding should be considered as an alternative to language learning. In our interconnected world, the ability to communicate with others requires both computer skills and sensitivity to cultural issues in language use – something best learned through second language study.

Watson as Life Coach

IBM's Watson analyzes a Twitter account of a user

IBM’s Watson analyzes a Twitter account of a user

Interesting story recently on NPR about Watson, the IBM super computer that won the “Jeopardy” game show. It apparently has now been retooled to analyze texts written by an individual on social media in order to provide insight into personality traits. The assumption is that our choice of words unconsciously reflects who we are. In itself this is nothing new. In the 1990’s James Pennebaker used a computer to analyze individuals’ use of personal pronouns. An abundant use of the first person pronoun, according to Pennebaker is revelatory of someone’s personality and/or state of mind:

If someone uses the pronoun “I,” it’s a sign of self-focus. Say someone asks “What’s the weather outside?” You could answer “It’s hot” or “I think it’s hot.” The “I think” may seem insignificant, but it’s quite meaningful. It shows you’re more focused on yourself. Depressed people use the word “I” much more often than emotionally stable people. People who are lower in status use “I” much more frequently.

According to the NPR story, the Watson program goes well beyond the analysis of pronoun use. It created “personality dictionaries”, correlating words in English to 5 different personality traits, with the acronym of OCEAN: “O for openness, C for conscientiousness, E for extroversion, A for agreeableness and N for neuroticism”. Texts an individual has written on Twitter, Facebook, blog posts and in other online services are collected and parsed. For the story, Facebook posts for the reporter, Aarti Shahani, were analyzed, which she found reflected fairly accurately at least some of her major personality traits. But, as she pointed out in the story, our online identity may be quite different from the identity we have in other contexts. Our behavior and language may differ significantly if we are at home with family, for example, rather than in the workplace. Likewise, our language use online may depend on the medium being used, as well as on the purpose of the communication, and on the particular situation or people we are addressing.

Watson was less accurate in its function as an “emotions analyzer”; it misread the emotions behind some of the statements in letters between Shahani and her ex-boyfriend. You can try out how well your emotions are analyzed using a trial version of the Tone Analyzer available online. A demo version of the writing analysis tool is also available. Given the interest in both big data and social media, it seems likely we will see more such tools, probably as mobile apps. One could well imagine their use in dating services.

Texas in Norwegian

people-in-norway-are-using-texas-as-slang-for-cra-2-28065-1445536485-5_bigI’ve been familiar for some time with the small German-speaking community in Texas, centered around towns in the Texas Hill Country, particularly Fredericksburg and New Braunfels (home to a very nice German restaurant). Unfortunately, the Texasdeutsch dialect is dying out. The clip below describes the dialect – note the opening scene in the wonderfully named town of Weimar.

But apparently, Norwegians in Texas are doing fine, according to a recent article in The Guardian, about Clifton, the “Norwegian Capital of Texas”, although it’s not evident that the Norwegian language has survived there.

The piece was prompted by an article in Texas Monthly about the use of the word “texas” as an adjective in contemporary Norwegian, meaning crazy or wild. The article cites a number of articles illustrating the use of “texas” in spoken and written Norwegian. It most commonly appears in the expression, “det var helt texas”, describing something wild and chaotic. In a report from the BBC, the use of the word is traced back:

[The use of texas] became part of the language when Norwegians started watching cowboy movies and reading Western literature, according to Daniel Gusfre Ims, the head of the advisory service at the Language Council of Norway. ‘The genre was extremely popular in Norway, and a lot of it featured Texas, so the word became a symbol of something lawless and without control,’ he says.

Ims mentions in the interview that Texas is not the only US state that is used in this kind of metonymy (a thing or concept being called not by its own name, but by another name which is associated with it): “Norwegians also use the term ‘hawaii football’ to describe an ‘out-of-control’ match”.

The Guardian actually asked people in Clifton if they had heard of the “texas” adjective use in Norwegian – no one had.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Mandarin

zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg speaking Mandarin at Tsinghua University

The Facebook CEO recently gave a talk at a Beijing university (Tsinghua) in Mandarin Chinese. This follows a public question and answer session in Mandarin with Zuckerberg conducted last year in Beijing. The reaction to his talk has been mixed, with many praising his courage to give a 20 minute speech in Chinese, given that he has not studied the language that long. James Fallows had some interesting comments in the Atlantic. There has been an interesting discussion on the languagelog blog. Victor Mair commented:

He’s intelligent, he’s confident, he has a nimble tongue, possesses strong communicative skills, and is blessed with all the other attributes that make him potentially an excellent speaker of Mandarin. But Zuckerberg has gotten off on the wrong foot with his Mandarin learning. I don’t know what methods he is using, but they clearly are not the right ones.

Mair says the grammar and vocabulary were fine, but the tones were way off. Using the right (of the four) tones right is essential to understanding what a specific phoneme means, as the same short syllable can have 4 or more different meanings, depending on the tone. It’s a similar issue for non-native speakers of English who do not use standard intonation and stress patterns, but can be even more problematic in tonal languages (which include Thai, Vietnamese, other Asian languages and some African languages). Still, Mair says he was able to understand almost everything in the speech, although other linguists who asked native speakers to listen, indicated that for them there were some parts of the speech which were difficult to decipher.

One commenter on languagelog pointed out that how problematic getting tones wrong is in terms of comprehensibility depends on the context:

There is a pretty low upper limit to how complex your vocabulary can get with bad tones. When you are using very common words and constructions, people can infer most of what you mean even if it isn’t clear. But once you are trying to quote weird technology terms from a newspaper or use words that native speakers might themselves have only heard a handful of times, poor tones will make you completely incomprehensible.

In my experience, if you provide enough context (i.e. speak not too slowly and say more than a few words) and have some tones wrong, you are likely to be understood. Despite pronunciation problems, many on languagelog and elsewhere praised Zuckerberg’s willingness and courage to give a public speech in Chinese. Native Chinese are appreciative (and surprised) when non-Chinese (especially Americans) make the effort to speak their language. In fact, the Washington Post last year, after Zuckerberg’s first public use of Chinese, ran an article entitled “A brief history of white dudes wowing people with Mandarin.” It certainly does not harm the cause of promoting Chinese language learning in this country to have the CEO of Facebook make the effort to learn and use the language. And that in a country in which Facebook is banned.

What language?

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush

Sarah Palin on Jeb Bush’s use of Spanish in conducting a town hall meeting in Florida recently:

“I think we can send a message and say: ‘You want to be in America? A: you better be here legally, or you’re out of here. B: when you’re here, let’s speak American.'”

Donald Trump was critical as well: “I like Jeb. He’s a nice man. But he should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.” Later, he retweeted an attack on Bush for “speaking Mexican”.

Aside from the awkwardly incorrect naming of languages, the real bafflement here for me is why the Republicans would go out of their way to discourage their own candidates from trying to connect with Hispanic voters, a group the party badly needs for success in 2016. Jeb Bush may not be a super exciting candidate, and his views may not be conservative enough for many Republicans – while for others, his having actual experience holding political office is a clear disqualification – but he does seem like someone likely to attract at least some Latinos to vote Republican. Of course, that holds true potentially for Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

This is not just a Republican issue, and points to general views on the ability to speak other languages in the US. One would think that we would be happy to have our leaders be able to communicate directly with foreign leaders in a second language. In fact, US voters (and non-voters) tend to be suspicious of politicians who speak other languages. French seems to be particularly suspect. John Kerry downplayed his fluency in the language when he was a candidate for President and Mitt Romney was particularly loathe to admit to his ability in the language. Apparently one may be tainted with socialism by speaking French.

In the case of Spanish, many US citizens are living in denial that the country has become – and certainly will remain – multilingual, with large numbers of US citizens and non-citizens speaking Spanish as their mother tongue. If Republicans continue to embrace the views of this group of deniers, it seems likely they will again go down in defeat in 2016.

Language & Identity

Traditional Navajo clothing

Traditional Navajo clothing

The language we speak is a crucial part of our individual identities. Language can also be a social identifier – a way to tell who’s in and who’s out. This has been the case within the Native American Navajo Nation, where a candidate for president was disqualified last fall because he didn’t speak Navajo fluently. That candidate, Chris Deschene, had an impressive resume, having graduated from the Naval Academy, and subsequently earning a law degree and a master’s in engineering, before serving one term as a state representative. But he doesn’t speak Navajo fluently, having grown up away from the Navajo community. According to a story last year on NPR, “Deschene blamed his limitations on what he calls the tribe’s cultural destruction. Up until the 1960s, the U.S. federal government forced thousands of American Indians to attend boarding schools – among them, Deschene’s mother. While there, she was punished for speaking her native language. The U.S. government later relocated his parents to Southern California, where Chris was born.” This summer the Navajo Nation held a referendum on whether the president of the Navajo Nation should be required to speak fluent Navajo. The majority voted no. The story on NPR about the issue included laments from members of the Nation that the vote will erode the connection between the members of the tribe and their culture. It will also, they say, lead to less interest among the young in learning the language. They point out that many rituals and traditional aspects of the Navajo culture are tightly linked to the language.

The Navajo Nation has been in the news this summer also because of the action taken to tax junk food and soda. This too has a cultural side to it. The action was taken because of the very high rate of obesity and diabetes. The intent is to encourage members of the tribe to eat healthier food, especially more fruits and vegetables. One of the problems on the reservation has been the paucity of grocery stores; as a consequence, many people rely on convenience stores and fast food restaurants. To get to a good grocery store, tribal members need to drive off the reservation. According to Denisa Livingston, a spokeswoman for the grassroots group that pushed for the tax:

When people have to drive that many miles across the Navajo Nation in this food desert, it definitely is discouraging because healthy fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy foods will not last a very long time when you have to take it back hundreds of miles across the Navajo Nation.

The tribe plans to use the funds generated from the junk food tax on local farm initiatives. This is the socio-cultural aspect of the plan. Traditionally, Navajo people traditionally lived off the land. New initiatives such as the North Leupp Family Farms have helped about 30 families return to subsistence farming and eat healthier foods.

Moving the Navajo people – or any other community in the US – in the direction of embracing traditional ways of life, including native language use, family farming, and healthy food culture, is likely to be an uphill battle, given the ubiquitous presence of mainstream US media and advertising which point decidedly in opposing directions.

Whistled languages

Oaxacan in Mexico using whistling language

Oaxacan in Mexico using whistling language

I am currently visiting the Manassas Battlefield Park in northern Virginia, where the two battles of Bull Run took place during the US civil war in the 1860’s. It’s amazing to follow the strategies of how the generals on each side placed their troops in anticipation of battle. A major part of that process was the need to gather information about the other side – how many soldiers, how much artillery, where located, etc. There was also the need to communicate within armies during the battles, particularly among groups of the army separated out on the flanks and in other configurations. No telephones or Internet were available, but they did have the telegraph, signal flags, and signal rockets (so-called wig-wag).

As far as I know, they did not use a form of communication which was highlighted in a story on NPR this week: whistling. We’re not talking about whistling songs or whistled cat calls, but rather a fully functioning, long-distance whistling language. The story was about a German scholar studying Turkish whistling in northeastern Turkey, which he fears may be dying out, as mobile phones make long distance communication more efficient (and more private). According to the story, whistled Turkish can be heard as far as 4 miles away. A recent story in the New Yorker discusses whistle Turkish.

This is not the only example of a whistled language. One of the most studied is Silbo Gomero, which is whistled Spanish used in the Canary Islands. It was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009. Silbe Gomero is complex, using the tongue, lips and hands and requiring users to vary the frequencies at different speeds. Whistled speech is also used in Sochiapam Chinantec in Mexico.

Whistled language of the island of La Gomera (Canary Islands), the Silbo Gomero

Character amnesia

MairChineseTypewriter2

Typing Chinese characters in the 1970’2

I’m at the LEARN Conference on autonomous language learning and have just had the pleasure of hearing the keynote today from Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania (I gave the opening keynote yesterday). Mair is a sinologist and regular contributor to the LanguageLog, a wonderful resource for informed comments on issues related to language. He is an entertaining speaker as well as an excellent blogger – his posts are both informative and entertaining. He had a lot to say both about how the Internet is changing the Chinese language and about his views on teaching Chinese.

He talked about the different ways that Chinese characters have been typed over the years, which given the number of characters in Chinese (over 50,000), is a challenge. Early solutions featured elaborate typewriters (see image above), huge keyboards, or keys on a rotating drum. The early keyboards required use of a stylus, as there were so many characters to fit in. Today, Chinese is typed by using Pinyin, the romanized writing of characters. This has led to a de-emphasis on the ability to write characters, which has been a concern in China in recent years, similar to the issues in the US on cursive writing no longer being taught in primary schools. Mair has coined the term “character amnesia” to describe this phenomenon. In his talk, he showed an example of a grocery list by a native speaker of Mandarin in which there was a mixture of characters and pinyin, with some of the words having been begun to be written in characters, then scratched out and written in pinyin, indicating that how to write the characters had been forgotten. Mair calls this “creeping romanization” or “emerging digraphia”. One consequence of the concern over this loss of character literacy is the emergence of Chinese versions of spelling bees, with the contestants having to write the characters that had been read aloud.

Mair says that with the availability of tools for working with Chinese characters, this is a great time to learn the language. He has little good to say about traditional teaching methods, which rely on memorization and writing. He advocates (at least for speakers of European languages) learning to speak first, then learning the characters. He describes the typical four skills approach to beginning Chinese as “inhumane”. He sees no point in teaching characters early.

One of the most interesting remarks from Mair’s talk was his take on his contribution to the Languagelog blog. He writes regularly and estimates that it takes about a third of his professional time. In addition to writing the blog posts, he responds to the many emails he receives asking Chinese language related questions. This “public teaching” activity points to the changing role of language teachers today. For many teachers, this kind of extracurricular work has become a major regular activity. In fact, Mair stated today that he sees this as the most important work he does – more so than classroom instruction or scholarly research and publication. This corresponds to the trends of more and more people learning language outside of formal classroom settings. Internet technology enables this in many different ways.

Irish in Ireland

Talk-IrishI’m in Limerick, Ireland for a conference and have just been watching Irish TV (RTE 1) which was broadcasting live a session from the Irish parliament, the Oireachtas, meeting in Dublin. The Members were giving condolence speeches following the death of 5 Irish students and one Irish-American in Berkeley, California, when a balcony in an apartment collapsed during a party celebrating a 21st birthday party. A couple of things struck me. One was the fact that a number of the members spoke in both English and Irish. Irish is the national and first official language of Ireland but it is spoken natively by only 5 to 10% of the population here. In certain areas within Ireland, there is a much higher percentage of speakers. But the members speaking in Irish were not all from those areas, and certainly not all, judging from their accents and hesitancy in speaking Irish, were native speakers of the language. In fact, Irish has been on the rise in recent years here, with a number of elite schools in Dublin offering immersive instruction in Irish. Traditional music sung in Irish is a booming industry. Similarly, in Wales, and Scotland, the Celtic languages there, namely Welsh and Gaelic, are thriving, which has long been the case in Wales. Unfortunately, the last native speaker of Manx, the Celtic language of the Isle of Man, died in 1974. But there have been substantial, and largely successful revival efforts. So, why were the Members of the Irish Parliament speaking Irish? I assume it’s because Irish has such a strong symbolic and national significance in Ireland, as an important aspect of Irish identity. Given that, it’s no surprise that politicians here would find it important, especially at a time of national tragedy, to speak Irish as a gesture of solidarity.

Another thing that surprised me in the TV coverage of the tragedy in Berkeley was the mention of “J1” visas, the work-exchange visas the Irish students were on. This came up incidentally by Members and others interviewed without any explanation of what a J1 visa is. Apparently, it is so common for Irish college students to go to the US to work or study in the summer (especially in the Bay area of California) that no explanation for Irish viewers was needed. In fact, the Irish Ambassador, talking about the tragedy, mentioned how sad it was that this had happened “at the beginning of the season”, namely the season of Irish students going over to the US. Of course, there is a long tradition of the Irish coming to the US, including the mass migration during the potato famine of the 19th century. During the session of the Parliament, there was mention of the “Minister for the Diaspora”. That there is such a minister in the Irish government is a telling statement of how many Irish and their descendants live outside the island.

The brings me around to another language note, namely the use of the term “Plastic Paddy”, to refer pejoratively to those outside Ireland claiming (unjustly or not) to be Irish, but not having any real knowledge of or experience with actual Irish culture. Paddy is a diminutive form of Padraic (“Patrick”). According to Wikipedia, “This is a reaction to and defiance of the diaspora-based celebration and increasing commercialisation and sponsorship of St. Patrick’s Day as being demeaning to the Irish. It can also be used in a derogative term for Irish people who support English football teams; while Irish journalists have used the term to characterise Irish bars in Sydney as inauthentic and with the ‘minimum of plastic paddy trimmings’.” This identification with a group to which one has only a tenuous relationship is sometimes called “symbolic ethnicity”. It brings to mind something else in the news recently, namely the controversy around the white woman, Rachel Dolezal, who headed up a local branch of the NAACP, and who identified herself as African-American. I’ll save that for a later post.

Brother Orange

car

Brother Orange and Matt Stopera from Buzzfeed

As a language teacher, I emphasize the importance of language in cross-cultural communication. It’s one of the direct pathways into another culture – it can mean that you’re looking from inside, not outside. However, connecting with someone from another culture without knowing the language is certainly possible – and it happens all the time. I am reminded of that fact by the recent story on NPR about “Brother Orange” and the lost cell phone.

Matt Stopera, from Buzzfeed, had his cell phone stolen last year from a bar in New York City. Then, months later, he noticed pictures showing up on his new phone that he hadn’t taken. They featured selfies by someone who looked Chinese and whom he started referring to as “Brother Orange” because a number of the photos included orange trees. Stopera posted one of the pictures on Buzzfeed, and the story was then spread on the Chinese social messaging service Weibo. Users of Weibo tracked down the man in the photo, who turns out to be a restaurant owner in the Southern Chinese city of Meizhou. In China, the story went viral and both men became minor celebrities. Brother Orange and Stopera started exchanging messages, and Matt decided to travel to Meizhou to meet him. On Buzzfeed Matt has described the experience. It turned out that the two found that they got along very well and despite neither speaking the other’s language, they became close friends. In the NPR interview with Stopera, he talks about the importance of non-verbal communication in their relationship:

We had two translators, but, you know, you’d be surprised about how much nonverbal you can do with each other. You know, how much you slept. Did you sleep well? We also, in the middle of the trip, we developed this, you know, symbol where we tapped our hearts and said happy, happy, happy, happy whenever we, you know, had a moment. And so when I think about that, that’s just big.

On the Buzzfeed page, Stopera also talks about the role of technology, describing the last day of his trip, being together with Brother Orange:

The last morning of our trip. We don’t have a translator for this part. This is it. The journey is over. What even happened?
We sit in the back of the car. We both are holding back tears. When’s the next time we’re going to see each other? What will it be like? When is he coming to New York to visit me? It’s all up in the air.
In that moment, I couldn’t help but think about the boundaries we had broken down. It’s 2015 and cell phones and computers have changed everything. Language boundaries aren’t that real. We had happily chatted with each other using a translation app. There’s an app for everything. Anything is possible. Thank you, Steve Jobs.

In the end, the stolen cell phone seemed to Stopera to align with an aspect of Chinese culture he had learned about:

I find out that part of the reason why my story resonated so well with the Chinese is that people learned about it during Chinese New Year. Bro Orange’s nephew actually heard about my story spreading on the first night of the lunar moon. This is not an accident. It’s a sign.
I start to believe more and more in the Chinese theory of destiny. It’s big in Chinese culture and another reason why this story was so big there. This is more than just a series of crazy, random coincidences that changed our lives — it’s fate.

The experience leads Matt not only to insights into Chinese culture, but through the natural tendency to compare cultures to think about U.S. cultural practices:

He let me into super-personal parts of his life. I went to his childhood climbing trees, a local temple, and his parents’ house. We even paid tribute to his ancestors. I have a moment when he asks me how I pay tribute to my ancestors. I don’t have an answer. Americans don’t really do that. It’s fucked up and makes me feel bad. Cultural differences, man!

The sense one gets from reading Stopera’s account of his visit to Brother Orange is that despite the language barrier, there was a deep connection made between the two men. That happened in large part because of the welcoming nature of the Chinese people, and of Brother Orange and his family in particular. But it was also made possible by the openness Stopera demonstrated in experiencing a variety of Chinese cultural experiences very different from his normal way of life and his willingness to share those together with his new Chinese friend.

mudbathThere’s a nice segment, for example, about his experience in the mud baths. From the many pictures included in his travel account, it is clear that for many of those experiences, no verbal exchange was necessary.

Multilingual Russia

North_Caucasus_regions_map_0The only official language in the Russian Federation is Russian and I would suspect that most Americans would think of Russia as a monolingual country, similar to the way many Americans see the U.S., despite the dramatic demographic changes in the U.S. that have made it multilingual in many locations. The reality about Russia’s language situation is quite different, as I have been experiencing in a visit to Pyatigorsk, located in the North Caucasus, in Southern Russia, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. I am here to establish a partnership between my university, VCU, and Pyatigorsk State Linguistic University (PSLU). As you walk down the street or ride the street car here, you hear almost exclusively Russian. But go into a local eatery or bar, especially one specializing in local cuisine, such as Ossetian pies (kind of like stuffed pizzas) or Schashlik (kebabs), and you’re likely to see groups sitting together speaking one of the 30 to 40 indigenous languages of the North Caucusus. These include the Dagestanian language family, represented in the Northeast and a variety of languages, including Abkhaz, Abaza, Circassian, and Adyghe, in the Northwest. The language diversity is extraordinary, considering the small territory in question (see map above). The diversity continues south of the Caucasus. Georgia’s last census (2002) counted over 120 languages. The three major peoples in South Caucasia – the Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, all speak different languages that are mutually unintelligible.

At the end of a meeting I had this afternoon with students at PSLU, students having a native language other than Russian were asked to raise their hands. Out of a group of perhaps 40 students, 6 or 7 indicated that, although they were all native-born Russian citizens, they did not speak Russian as their first language. In talking to PSLU professors after my meeting with students, they acknowledged that there is considerable linguistic and cultural diversity among their students, who are mostly drawn from the North Caucasus region. All three professors were themselves ethnic Russian, but indicated that they felt distinct from ethnic Russians in the North and, in fact, were treated differently when they traveled to St. Petersburg or Moscow. They jokingly spoke of having been effected by the regional culture here, becoming more vivacious and emotional, as they claimed was typically of the inhabitants of the region.

It’s been wonderful to see Russia in a positive light, given the political tension currently between our countries. As an individual American I have had nothing but positive experiences here, having been warmly welcomed at the university and elsewhere. It’s also been nice to see a different side of a region that we hear about only in terms of conflict and terrorism, with Chechnya nearby.

Smell and language

smellOne of the trickier issues that may arise in encounters across cultures is the difference in attitudes towards particular smells, especially body odor. There are distinct cultural associations with smell which vary considerably and can cause friction in cross-cultural encounters. One of the other aspects of smell that are interesting from an intercultural perspective is the connection to language, in particular to what extent languages have vocabularies for describing and distinguishing different smells. An article in the current issue of The Economist describes a presentation recently given by a well-known researcher in the field, Asifa Majid of Radboud University in the Netherlands. She studies Maniq and Jahai speakers (languages in the Austro-Asiatic family), who live in the Malay peninsula. She and her colleagues asked speakers to identify a variety of smells and discovered they could do so much more quickly and with greater confidence than a representative Western group tested. They also had many distinct terms for the smells, which in contrast to Western languages were not based on a smell’s source (i.e. lemony) or its properties (stinky) but were abstract terms used only for that smell. The article concludes:

This finding challenges the long-standing idea that something about the way human brains are wired limits their ability to put words to smells swiftly. Dr Majid says that in the West, “nothing should have a smell unless you put it there,” and that there are many taboos surrounding talking about odours. The smell-rich environment, scent-centric cultural practices and evident lack of taboos enjoyed by the Jahai and Maniq are, she believes, correlated with their recall and use of smell-related words. It may simply be that having more smells around, and talking about them, ensures that the varieties of smell all have names.

Anyone familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistic anthropology will find this familiar, the idea that cultures have an extensive vocabulary for objects and phenomena that are important in their way of life. Survival and success for hunter-gatherers in the bush is likely much more tied to smell than is the case for stock brokers on Wall Street. In an interview Professor Majid describes the extensive organized structure the Jahai and Maniq have for smell terms, akin to color terms in other languages.

Throw the man off the cliff? Depends on your language

footbridgeHaving just completed a book chapter on culture, language learning, and technology, I was intrigued by this past week’s episode of On the Media, which replayed a story I had missed from the spring, related to how using a second language can affect decision making and moral choices. The story was based on an article in PLoS One entitled “Your Morals depend on Language” by researchers from Spain and the U.S. The authors proposed to examine the wide-spread assumption that moral judgments about right and wrong are the “result of deep, thoughtful principles and should therefore be consistent and unaffected by irrelevant aspects of a moral dilemma. For instance, as long as one understands a moral dilemma, its resolution should not depend on whether it is presented in a native language or in a foreign language.” What they found was quite different. Using several different experiments they found that using a second language resulted in more dispassionate, utilitarian decision making. They used, for example, the well-known “trolley problem” – if you could save 5 people by sacrificing one (throwing a fat man over a bridge to stop a runaway trolley), would you do it. Typically only 18% of those presented with the dilemma sacrifice the man; but for those considering the problem in a foreign language, 44% were ready to throw the man off the bridge. Through this and other experiments, the researchers concluded that using a second language provides a helpful psychological and emotional distance to a difficult decision such as a moral dilemma.

An article in Scientific American reporting on the piece on PLoS One speculates that there may be cultural ramifications to the results: “Using a native language plausibly induces the feeling that one is reasoning about in-group members. Conversely, a foreign language could signal that the scenario is relevant to strangers, foreigners, or out-group members.” In fact, studies have been done which show different responses if it is implied that the people in danger are of a different ethnicity. Another question the study raises is that of bilinguals – do they decide differently depending on language used. This question was discussed in the interview from On the Media, with the researchers having found that with true bilinguals there was no distinction, with the assumption that the emotional resonance of the trolley dilemma is the same in both languages.

The idea that different languages can call up different emotional responses is consistent with what second language teachers experience in the classroom. Learning and using swear words in a foreign language, for example, can be tricky from a cultural perspective. The visceral reaction to certain naughty words does not normally carry over to a new language, thus making it likely to use them inappropriately. Linguists know that playing with language – experimenting with how to use new vocabulary or constructing nonsense sentences – can be quite helpful in acquiring a second language. One of the other findings of the study was that users of a foreign language increased their willingness to takes risks. This can in itself be helpful in language learning, i.e. trying out language combinations not used before. The study showed, however, it can also have a not so positive result – an inclination to gamble.

Languages in India

auto-rickshaw-advertising-in-delhi

Autorickshaw in India

One of the more interesting experiences I have had in my time here in India has been to experience the reality of the multilingual environment. Many Americans when they think of India and languages (which they do rarely), their assumption likely will be that English is all you need to communicate effectively in that country. In fact, I have encountered that view when discussing with colleagues at VCU the decision to start teaching Hindi as part of our language program. The reality on the ground is quite different. I had a conversation yesterday with a colleague from the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur), where I’m giving a series of lectures this week. She is from the north of India and grew up with Urdu, Hindi, and English (at a school run by an Irish nun). Now living in Kharagpur, she told me she had to learn Bengali in order to live here. In fact, she said that in her spare time she is also learning to read Bengali (which uses a different script from Hindi). She described her impression of speaking Bengali as speaking Sanskrit with your mouth full. Bengali is widely spoken in India and Bangladesh. In fact, it is the seventh most widely spoken language in the world (ahead of Russian, Japanese, German or French). When I was in Ahmedabad last week, I experienced a similar phenomenon, namely that everyone was not speaking either English or Hindi, India’s two lingua francas, but rather Gujarti. Gujarti was the mother tongue of Mahatma Gandhi. Both Bengali and Gujarti are Indo-European languages (Indo-Aryan branch), but other language families are represented as well among the 22 official (indigenous) languages of India: Dravidian, Austroasiatic, Tibeto-Burman, and a few minor language families and isolates.

In my experience here, English is in fact a language that lets you navigate everyday life, but it doesn’t allow you full access into Indian culture. That comes only through the local language, and to some extent, through Hindi. It’s also not the case that everyone in India actually speaks English. Even those who have learned it in school may not be proficient in spoken English. That includes Indians in service industries that cater to tourists. My difficulties undoubtedly derive not just from a lack of proficiency on the part of the Indians, but more from my lack of knowledge of the Indian cultural context. Not knowing how many things work in India, or what the expectations are for holding conversations are, means that often we are approaching a topic from widely different perspectives. Of course, sometimes, it comes down to differences in the meanings of common words in American and Indian English. When I arrived at the Ahmedabad airport, there was no taxi stand in front of the airport. After asking fruitlessly a number of by-standers (including a policeman) about taxis, I asked a young man running a small drink kiosk. He asked if I wanted him to get me an “auto”, which I was happy to accept. 45 minutes later (not the 10 minutes he had promised), what pulled up was in fact not a car, but a motorized rickshaw. In Indian English this is a autorickshaw or “auto” for short.