Culture & success

Mitt Romney’s comments in Israel during his recent trip abroad raise interesting questions about the relationship between cultural values and economic success.  He compared the much higher per capita income in Israel compared to Palestine:  “Culture makes all the difference…and as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”  He didn’t enter into any specifics on what cultural differences he had in mind, presumably aspects of the culture that favor industry, frugality, and an entrepreneurial spirit?  Or was it individualism (Israel) versus collectivism (Palestine)?

This echoes the discussion that has arisen from President Obama’s comments that successful businesses in the United States were not built exclusively by the business owners, but owed part of their success to the infrastructure created by American tax payers.  Objections were quickly raised that business owners created success exclusively through their own initiative and hard work – the triumphant result of unbridled individualism.  Reminds me of the hefty debates over Hilary Clinton’s “It takes a village” and the criticism of this advocacy of “collectivism”.  A particular virulent attack on collectivism comes from the “one government” critics.

Romney’s remarks were criticized in that he didn’t talk about the very unequal opportunities in Israel and Palestine.  He was also way off in stating that personal income in Israel is twice that in Palestine:  it’s more like 20 to 1. Of course what Romney meant by “success” was exclusively economic prosperity – as a businessman that is understandably his focus.  Is the point of his comparison that Palestinians would be well advised to change their cultural values?  It would be interesting to see where the Israel and Palestine rank in happiness indices.

“Public viewing”?

German or English?

Watching the German television news yesterday (Tagesthemen), it struck me that the use of English words stuck into the middle of German sentences is getting worse and worse.  The first was a reference in the broadcast to “der zweitgrößte airport” in Bulgaria  (second-largest), the second to a “Stasi connection“.  It’s not that there aren’t perfectly good and normal German words for airport (Flughafen) and connection (Verbindung) – it’s just that the English equivalents are used instead.  For me, the most perplexing aspect of this is that you will hear broadcasts in which an Angliscism such as “airport” will be used, then a few minutes later, the same presenter will use “Flughafen” instead – where is the vaunted German consistency?  If German TV execs like English so much, how about using subtitles rather than dubbing for the many instances in which interviewees speak English?  Or how about going further and, as is done in other European countries, subtitling all English language movies and TV programs?

It isn’t only on TV that this kind of strange and jarring code-switching goes on in Germany.  It’s particularly prevalent in advertising, where it’s maybe more understandable – use of (mostly American) English phrases gives the impression that the company or product is up-to-date.  It’s not surprising either that many Anglicisms show up in German hip-hop music.  I suppose it’s done on the news for the same reason, but I find it very annoying.  I imagine many native English speakers feel the same.

Particularly distressing are the English terms that either don’t exist in English or have a different meaning.  The German for cell phone – Handy – comes to mind as an example of the first and a term heard frequently during the recent European soccer championship – public viewing – for the second.  The phrase when used in Germany refers to an outdoor big screen set up to watch live TV (usually sports).  It’s not just nouns.  Here are some “German” verbs:  downloaden, leaken, trampen (hitchhike).  Of course, other languages import English expressions as well, especially technology terms, but I can’t imagine any others do it to the extent it’s done in German. It’s so common that there is a widely accepted word for the practice:  Denglish (Deutsch + English).  Are there reasons Germans do this more than any other culture?  Is it a sense of linguistic inferiority?

Non-freedom fries

Chip Butty – not at the Olympics!

Big bucks win over cultural preferences. There’s a ruckus in England over food at the 2012 Olympics, specifically the well-beloved Chips (French Fries). Seems that McDonald’s as an official sponsor has exclusive rights to sell fries at the Olympics. Only approved exception is fish and chips, no luck if you feel like sausage and chips, egg and chips, lasagna and chips, steak and chips or even the famous chip sandwich (Chip Butty, popular in York). Part of the problem is that the skinny McD’s fries are not the style the Brits like – they prefer fat and greasy.

Reminds me of the uproar in Germany at the 2006 World Cup when originally only Budweiser (an official sponsor) was allowed to be served at the games being played in Germany, quite a slap in the face to German beer drinkers. There is actually an excellent Budweiser beer, however it’s not the Anheuser-Busch brew but rather the original Budweiser from Budvar, in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately for beer drinkers, the relationship between the FIFA, which puts on the World Cup, and Anheuser-Busch InBev recently was extended to 2022. It remains to be seen, however, if beer will even be served at the 2014 championship in Brazil, since beer at soccer stadiums there has been banned since 2003 (too much alcohol-fueled violence). Same ban applies in Russia, the sponsor for 2018.

Side note:  There will be a new world’s largest McDonald’s for the London Olympics, taking over from the McDonald’s in Pushkin Square,  Moscow.  I visited that McD’s a couple of years ago – quite an operation there.  I went to have an American breakfast – which I have to say I enjoyed immensely, as a break from Russian food.  I have to admit as well that I have also visited the second busiest McD’s world-wide – at the Karlstor in Munich.  I enjoyed the chance to have a beer with my “Royale with Cheese”.

Stereotype threat

Interesting story today on NPR about research done at the University of Arizona that used an audio recorder carried by volunteers programmed to record for 30 seconds every 12 minutes.  One of the things they investigated with the data collected was the volume of speech of men versus women.  Turns out it’s not the case that women speak dramatically more than men (as the urban myth has it):  “Both men and women speak around 17,000 words a day, give or take a few hundred.”  This is something that Deborah Cameron pointed out in her book, The Myth of Mars and Venus (2008).

Another finding (the main one reported on in the story) is that female scientists talk differently to male and female colleagues: they had “male and female scientists at a research university wear the audio recorders and go about their work. When the scientists analyzed the audio samples, they found there was a pattern in the way the male and female professors talked to one another.”  They found that the women scientists talked about their work in a quite different, and less confident, way to men than to other women.  However, “when the male and female scientists weren’t talking about work, the women reported feeling more engaged.”  The investigators concluded that the women were (likely unconsciously) responding (through hesitation, unassertiveness, self-doubts) to the wide-spread belief that women aren’t as competent as men in science.

This is a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat”, well-known in social psychology.  Experiments have shown that stereotype threat affects performance in a wide variety of domains.  The lead scientist, a German, reported that he experienced it himself when going dancing with his wife (a Mexican) and other Latinos:  everyone knows German can’t hold a candle to Mexicans in salsa dancing and registering that thought in the act of dancing likely negatively affected his performance.

Vanishing Voices

“ak byzaa”

Wonderful article in the current issue of National Geographic Magazine (how can the magazine be so good and the TV channel so bad?) on endangered languages.  Great examples of vocabulary from sample languages showing the connection between culture and language.  In Tuvan (famous for its throat singers, spoken in Tuva, Russia), for example, the word for future (songgaar) is literally to go back, while the word for the past (burungaar) is to go forward, pointing to the Tuvan belief that the past is ahead and the future behind.  Demonstrating the importance of herded animals in Tuvan culture, there is a word, ak byzaa for a “white calf, less than one year old”, while the term of endearment for a baby is anayim = my little goat. Segments as well on the Aka lanugage of India and the Seri language of Mexico.  Great pictures (as one would expect) and portraits of last speakers of a variety of languages – very sad.

Who’s Italian?

The Italians may have lost in the recent European Soccer  Championships, but they did much better than anyone expected.  The most celebrated (and controversial) player for the Italian National Team was Mario Balotelli.  He’s the one who scored 2 goals to propel Italy to victory over heavily favored Germany. Balotelli was born in Sicily but speaks Italian with a broad northern accent. The big surprise, however,  is this:  he is black, born of  Ghanaian immigrants, but raised by an Italian adoptive family .  A story today on NPR talks about how the prominence of Balotelli is changing what it means to be Italian.  As with black players on other European teams, Balotelli has seen a lot of fan abuse and prejudice.  But the victory over Germany may change some opinions.

The photo above, with his mother, may contribute as well to a changed view:  “As the triumphant striker approached the stands, he gave this championship its iconic photo off the pitch — the 6-foot-2-inch black Italian Mario hugging his petite white Italian mother, Sylvia.  The sight of his mother’s hand caressing the Mohawk-topped head sent a powerful message in a society where la mamma still plays a crucial role and where immigrants are most often treated as second-class. And when Balotelli ripped off his T-shirt, proudly showing off his statuesque physique, it was as if to say, ‘I’m black, I’m Italian and I am here to stay'” (NPR).  Interestingly, something similar has happened in Germany with the Turkish-German soccer star Mesut Özil.  Are these echoes of Jackie Robinson in American baseball history?

Bilinguals smarter?

There has been quite a bit of controversy about bilingual education in recent years.  As schools have faced reduced budgets in the wake of the economic downturn, one program looked at critically – along with arts and foreign languages – is bilingual education.  A recent article in the NY Times suggests that we should instead do all we can to encourage bilingualism: “Speaking two languages rather than just one has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalized world. But in recent years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.”  This adds to the recent research that indicates that learning a second language late in life can help fend off the onset of Alzheimer’s.

The new research points in the opposite direction from the common view of bilingualism in recent years, namely that a second language hindered a child’s development, interfering cognitively. The new research, interestingly does not really contradict this view:  “They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.”  In the experiments carried out on bilingualism, bilinguals did better than monolinguals at solving a variety of mental puzzles.  The improvement in cognition points to a heightened ability to monitor the environment. Having to switch back and forth between languages requires speakers to keep track of who and what’s around them – so they can speak English to Mom and Spanish to Dad, for example.  The good news for language learners: “The bilingual experience appears to influence the brain from infancy to old age and there is reason to believe that it may also apply to those who learn a second language later in life.”