English and the EU

Theresa May

Theresa May: No Brexit negotiations in French

One of the interesting questions surrounding Brexit is the status of English in the EU. This was raised in an article in the Guardian yesterday in which it was reported that the EU’s chief negotiator has indicated that he expects the talks to be conducted in French. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May has said that will not be the case. Just in case, the Guardian has published a tongue-in-cheek guide for the PM, Le Brexit: a linguistic guide for Theresa May. Included are French translations of such helpful phrases as “Brexit means Brexit. How many times do I have to say it?” or “Can I interest you in a some tea and biscuits? I also have some very innovative jam to sell you”. The latter phrase is in connection with a recent tweet from the British trade secretary, “France needs high quality, innovative British jams & marmalades”.

The unhappiness in the EU over Brexit may be reflected in the recent comment by Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President, that he will no longer speak English in public. According to the article, “Speculation that English would be abandoned by Brussels emerged on the day after the referendum when the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, who is fluent in English, conducted his Brexit press conference in French”.

With Great Britain leaving, Ireland is left as the last native English speaking EU member. Irish Gaelic is one of the 23 official EU languages, so if English were to go, Irish officials may need to brush up on their likely rusty Gaelic (spoken as a mother tongue by less than 1% of the population). In reality, it’s not likely that there will be a change in the status of English, as it is widely used as the lingua franca in the EU, as it is elsewhere in the world.

As it happens, I am currently in London, having come over for a conference at the Open University on “MOOCs, informal language learning, and mobility”. Brexit was something which came up frequently, as a number of the projects presented at the conference were funded by the EU. For language educators, Brexit is unfortunate not just due to possible loss of project funding, but also for the isolationist message it sends. Of course, the kind of nationalism Brexit represents is not just to be seen in Britain, it’s been on full display in the US presidential campaign. I’ve had frequent pub conversations in the last few days about the election, with most Brits expressing incredulity over Trump and how far he’s gotten. Yesterday I was asked in separate conversations the same question: “Aren’t you ashamed?” Being in this situation as a US citizen abroad takes me back to the conversations I had in Europe during the Vietnam war and the war in Iraq – like the Trump candidacy, events that don’t show the US in the best light. However, during one conversation last night, “Tangled up in blue” played over the pub’s sound system, so I was able to say, there are things about the US I’m proud of, like our newly minted Nobel Laureate in literature!

Tech ruining travel?

woman-texting-overseas-paris-liveworkanywhereA post today in the Forbes blog by Monty Munford laments the millennial generation’s use of technology in planning travel. In the post, “Too Much Technology Is Making Travel Boring, Exhibitionist And Inauthentic,” Munford cites a recent study by Expedia, which he says shows that millennials do not have the “adventurous” attitude towards travel of earlier generations. His gripe is that before venturing abroad young people get information online the places they want to visist: “The shocking aspect I mentioned earlier about the report was the degree to which Millennials are using technology to check out the places they want to travel to before they leave.” He compares that experience to his own travels: “In my day you bought a Lonely Planet travel book, read it, remembered the places you’d read about and left the book at home. That was that. Onwards, empirical discovery and adventure. That was all the technology that was required.” He laments as well the fact that travelers post their experiences on social media, which, in fact, may be in part be a driver in deciding where to travel.

This point of view, I would imagine, would strike most people as very strange – who wouldn’t use the internet to check out in advance places one is hoping to visit, not just to find out about tourist sites, but to read travel journals, book hotels, even to make contact with folks at the sites abroad. Most people would be sure as well to find out what options there would be at the destination to stay connected. But having recently written a piece for Language Learning & Technology on “Integrating Technology into Study Abroad”, I’ve found that the view expressed by Munford can be frequently found in advice given to students going abroad:

It is not difficult to find numerous warnings for students going abroad about the downsides of remaining digitally connected, with articles such as “How the Internet screwed up study abroad” (Roberts, 2010) or “Benefits of study abroad WITHOUT technology” (Lee, 2015). National Public Radio in the US recently ran a story on how “Tech may get in the way of good culture shock while studying abroad” (Keck, 2015). In that report, a US student studying in Brazil described the epiphany she had when her phone (used for Internet connections) broke: “Without my phone I would just stay downstairs and talk with my [host] family. And it was like…it was great.” In a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Facebook can ruin study abroad”, Robert Huesca (2013) recommends a media pledge for study abroad programs, similar to the pledge students often take to use the target language exclusively. In this case, the pledge would be not to use their digital music libraries, stream home television shows, or use instant messaging. Study abroad guidebooks frequently issue recommendations to students that they minimize their use of the Internet and mobile devices (Doerr, 2012). At least one study abroad provider, Carpe Diem Education, prohibits students from bringing cell phones on study abroad programs.

I argue in the article that this perspective is misguided – technology, used both in advance and during travel abroad – can considerably enrich the experience. But tech use is more likely to be effective, if thoughtful and guided, and oriented both to maintain contact back home and to establish relationships with the target culture:

The overreliance on home networks may indeed mitigate the value of the experience abroad as a means to gain a new perspective on one’s own cultural values and beliefs as well as those of people in the target culture. This makes orientation, guidance, and support before and during the program of great importance. The advice given needs to go beyond turning off cell phones, but should instead offer concrete tips on how both to maintain contacts back home and to engage with the host community electronically and in person.

Part of that preparation for going abroad should include at least some effort to learn both about the target culture and, if applicable, some elements at least of the language spoken.

3 miles apart and worlds away

hallwayThe current story in the radio show This American Life illustrates through an individual experience the reality of the gap between rich and poor in the United States as played out in education. It tells the story of New York city high school students participating in an exchange in which they visited each other’s schools. Both schools were in the Bronx and just 3 miles apart, but as put in the story, it took the equivalent of a foreign exchange program to bring them together. One school, University Heights High School, is a public school and is 97% black and Hispanic. The other, Fieldston, is one of New York City’s elite private schools, 70% white with an annual tuition rate of $43,000. The story follows several students who participated in the exchange visits and in particular one girl, Melanie, from University Heights, who reacted to the visit to Fieldston with shock and dismay. She was a bright student who seemed sure to go on to college and be successful in whatever career she would take up. But after managing to track Melanie down 10 years after the exchange between the schools, Chana Joffe-Walt, the producer of the episode, discovered that she had in fact not followed that path. In conversations with Melanie, we learn of the dream she had to attend a prestigious university and her struggles to get by working in a grocery store and her profound shame over her situation. Melanie had been close to winning a scholarship to attend an elite college (Middlebury) but was not selected. A student who did win a scholarship through that same program is also followed in the episode. The young man, Jonathan, attended Wheaton College, but dropped out. Although he had a full scholarship, he had no money to buy his textbooks, and felt out of place among the other students. Their stories demonstrate in poignant ways how difficult is to cross socio-economic boundaries, even with the support both students received from teacher-mentors.

In interviewing Melanie, Joffe-Walt went back to that initial visit to Fieldston and her shock at seeing the radically different environment:

It was just like, OK, this is private. So everything kind of is a fucking lie that you see your whole life growing up on TV shows or movies. It’s like, OK, this is not free. This is not available for kids of color. This is something that only privileged or the elite can have. I know I looked at it and I said, well, I know that we’re only being taught to flip burgers in Burger King or McDonald’s or to hold doors for students like them that will probably live in those buildings on Madison Avenue, and we’ll be wearing the uniform, servicing these people.

Joffe-Walt comments:

So that’s what she found so upsetting. It seemed that the people around her must believe that this was the natural order of things. Melanie knew there was no innate difference between her and a kid born into wealth. She could see that this division we’re all so inured to was not a reflection of her inferior worth or ability, she just didn’t know what to do with the idea that she might be alone in seeing that.

Carefully taught

south_pacific“You’ve got to be carefully taught” is both a song title, from the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, and an entry in the Race Card Project. Having grown up partly in Hawaii, I have a special feeling for the musical, but had not thought much about the message of tolerance it contains until a story this morning on NPR on the song, suggested by multiple entries for the song title in the Race Card Project, which happens to have the same number of 6 words called for by the project. The song lyrics are surprising for the year in which they were composed:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

The message is clear: prejudice is not something you are born with, but is culturally conditioned. It’s so sad to see children spouting racist or homophobic slogans, as those early learned views are so hard to lose.

I, too, am Harvard

harvard2An article over the week-end in the NY Times discussed racial “microaggressions”, an increasingly used term on U.S. college campuses to describe “the subtle ways that racial, ethnic, gender and other stereotypes can play out painfully in an increasingly diverse culture”.  The Times cites examples: “A tone-deaf inquiry into an Asian-American’s ethnic origin. Cringe-inducing praise for how articulate a black student is. An unwanted conversation about a Latino’s ability to speak English without an accent.” These are clearly not examples of full-blown racism, but are indicators of a lack of awareness and sensitivity.  At a number of universities currently there are discussions of microagressions, through Facebook pages, photo projects, or blogs. There is debate in these forums as to whether the examples given are legitimate reasons to feel slighted or whether, as the Times states, they represent “a new form of divisive hypersensitivity, in which casual remarks are blown out of proportion.” The term’s prominence comes in part from the popularity of a blog begun by two Columbia University studens, the Microagressions Project.

At Harvard, a photo project called, “I, too, am Harvard” explores microaggressions experienced by black students at the elite university.  Many cite references to the appearance, often centered around hair, or casual statements about it being nice to be black when applying to Harvard.  That latter comment reflects one likely origin of such comments, the perceived experience of minority students receiving preferential treatment through affirmative action programs.  The photo project at Harvard has since morphed into a play.

An interesting take on such slights comes from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In a recent interview on NPR, Adichie recounts the bafflement she felt when a black fellow student at Princeton took offense at a classmate talking about watermelon.  As an African, she has had to learn the cultural dimensions of being black in the U.S.  Interestingly, she has a lot to say in the interview about hair and the importance of how Nigerian women chose their hair styles, a topic that also comes up in her wonderful novel, Americanah.

Fortune Cookies in Shanghai

Co-owners David Rossi and Fung Lam of the Fortune Cookie

Co-owners David Rossi and Fung Lam of the Fortune Cookie

A few years ago I went with two visiting colleagues from our Chinese partner university, Fudan University in Shanghai, to eat at what was considered the best Chinese restaurant in Richmond. They had a hard time with the menu, despite the fact that dish names were given in both English and Chinese.  What really baffled them, however, were the fortunes cookies, which they not only had never eaten, but had never heard of. Anyone who has visited China has experienced how different authentic Chinese restaurant food is from what is sold as “Chinese” in the U.S. This is not unique to the U.S. or to Chinese food.  Consider “Indian” or “Mexican” food in the U.S., but the same applies to Chinese food in India or Russia. In India, for example, adding cheese to a “Chinese” dish is common. Jennifer 8. Lee in her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles discusses the various origins of American Chinese food.  She also has done a nice TED talk on the same topic, the hunt for General Tso.

These thoughts were brought on by a story on NPR on a recently opened restaurant in Shanghai, called Fortune Cookie.  It features, of all things, American Chinese food, including General Tso’s chicken, and has turned out to be popular, especially for ex-pats from the U.S. who are nostalgic for the particular variants of Chinese food they grew up on.  The comments from Chinese diners, however, were not universally positive, with the majority finding the dishes too sweet or too salty. Intriguing to the Chinese customers, however, are the white cardboard takeout boxes, something else unknown in China.

Power of stories


More Jane Austen needed?

Interesting study released this week in Science about the effect of reading fiction on our capacity to interact empathically with others. The study shows that even brief readings of excerpts from literary works of high quality can have a positive effect. The study found that not all fiction works equally well.  Popular fiction, with more simplistic and one-sided characters and a heavy emphasis on plot doesn’t stimulate emotional intelligence in the same was as “literary fiction”. According to the NY Times review of the article:  “The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.” Good fiction leaves gaps for readers to fill in, something reader response literary criticism in the 1980’s and 90’s explored in depth. We tend to think of reading as an isolating experience but the study points to the social benefits that reading fiction can provide. The NY Times comments: “The study’s authors and other academic psychologists said such findings should be considered by educators designing curriculums, particularly the Common Core standards adopted by most states, which assign students more nonfiction.” Maybe our kids need to read fewer biographies and more Jane Austen.

The article for me also calls to mind the nice TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie on the danger of a single story, in which she warns against using simplistic narratives as a basis for understanding other people and other cultures. Rich stories and multiple narratives open up new perspectives.  Stereotyping stories close minds.

Trapped by language

Rachel Jeantel620x408In the past month there have been several big media stories in the U.S. dealing with language. One was the use of racist language (and behavior) by Paula Deen, the celebrity Southern cook, which has resulted in her losing most if not all of her business contracts. The other was the use of English by a witness in the Travon Martin case, 19-year old Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Martin’s who had been on the phone with him just before he was shot by George Zimmerman. As detailed in a post on Language Log, her use of vernacular Black English was widely reported with a number of negative and offensive comments. There was a view expressed that Jeantel was just being lazy or contrary in not speaking standard American English and that she was using English incorrectly with random grammatical mistakes. As linguists pointed out (including John McWhorter on the Time web site in a segment on the NPR series “Here and Now“), she was not willfully distorting standard American English, she was speaking a version of English well known in linguistics and usually called African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Ebonics. As John Rickford points out in his post, AAVE has rules and patterns that are fixed, giving the following examples from her testimony:

  • Stressed BIN, as in I was BIN paying attention, sir, meaning, “I’ve been paying attention for a long time, and am still paying attention.”
  • Preterit HAD, ax, and inverted did in embedded sentences, as in He had ax me did I go to the hospital “He asked me whether I had gone to the hospital.” [The use of the pluperfect form where other varieties use a simple past or preterit was first discussed by Stanford undergrad Christine Theberge.]
  • Absence of auxiliary IS: He ø trying to get home, sir.
  • Absence of possessive and third present s, as in “He a momma ø boy” and “He love ø his family.”

The defense attorney expressed at times difficulty in understanding Jeantel’s testimony, although it is unclear whether that was indeed the case, or whether this was being used as a strategy to discredit the witness. If the latter was the case, it seems to have worked, as one juror afterwards commented:

Juror B37 said Jeantel was not a good witness because the phrases used during her testimony were terms she had never heard before. The juror thought the witness, “felt inadequate toward everyone because of her education and her communication skills. I just felt sadness for her.” [from the cnn blog post]

Ironically, it turns out that Jeantel’s mother is a native speaker of Haitian Creole and that Jeantel speaks Creole and Spanish and thus in terms of speaking skills, has more language skills than most Americans.

Talk to Cavemen!

cavemenThat title is used in a Washington Post article this week about a recent article in the field of historical linguistics published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which claims to trace a group of words back through seven different language families to a common ancestor language spoken some 15,000 years ago. Historical linguists use cognates (words with similar sounds and meanings) to trace language evolution and are able to compare cognates that appear to be related in a variety of language back to common ancestral languages.  The best-known example is Proto-Indo-European, an ancestor of a number of language families in contemporary Europe and India.

Mark Pagel (University of Reading) and collaborators built a sophisticated statistical model to try to identify specific words across language families that are similar enough, they believe, to have had a common origin. They found 23 “ultraconserved” words. Some which one might expect, including hand, give, I, thou, old and mother, but some which may be surprising such as spit, worm, and bark (of a tree).  The original Washington Post article imagines what might have been said with these words:

You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!

It’s an odd little speech. But if you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying. That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age.

As intriguing as this theory is, many linguists are skeptical, as nicely explained by Sally Tompson on the Language Log. So maybe don’t count on being able to communicate with a caveman if you encounter one.

Turks in Germany

turksInteresting piece today on NPR on the changing situation of Turkish “guest workers” (Gastarbeiter) in Germany today.  These are workers who were brought to Germany in the 1960’s with the expectation that they would go back home after a few years.  But instead, the Turkish workers stayed in Germany and brought their families to join them – jobs were much better paid in Germany and the political situation in Turkey was unsettled. Today there are 2nd and 3rd generation German-Turks, who often stand between two cultures. The report indicates that increasing numbers of Turks are going back to Turkey.  In contrast to the economic problems in the European Union, the Turkish economy is doing well.  The earlier Turkish ardor for entering the EU has cooled considerably.

Another aspect of that movement back to Turkey has to do with the attitude changes in Germany (and Europe generally) since the economic downturn of the past few years.  Racism and islamophobia have increased, as jobs become harder to come by.  In Germany a group of neo-nazis murdered Turks over a period of several years.  This has led to much questioning in Germany about police lack of interest and/or competence in fighting violence against foreigners from far right groups.

One of the interesting twists in the story about Turks returning to their home land is the reverse culture shock described by one of the young returnees, who had gotten used to the sense of order in Germany society:  “He was surprised to find a Germanic desire for order welling up in him one day while walking down Istanbul’s teeming downtown thoroughfare, with masses of people jostling this way and that. ‘You know, I can’t understand why all the people are walking like this! And one day I was nearly to cry, “Stop! You go right and you go left!”, ‘ he says.” .Anyone experiencing everyday German life quickly sees the real life acting out of the German saying Ordnung muss sein (There must be order).

“Yellow Fever”: Seeking Asians

asianToday the fifth and the last episode of the great Web series, “They’re all so beautiful“, was launched.  The Web site features a forum on race and dating, dealing principally with the obsession some American men have with finding an Asian bride.  The episode today (see below) deals in general with interracial marriages and features snippets of interviews with partners from different races. The first episode explores the general topic of “yellow fever”.  The Web series is leading up to the showing of the wonderful documentary, “Seeking Asian Female” from Debbie Lum (who is also responsible for the Web site), on PBS on May 6.  The film does a good job in portraying the culture shock of the young Chinese bride who is suddenly thrust into married life in the U.S. While Lum’s videos give a good sense of the degree of obsession with Asian women for some men, the Web site “Creepy White Guys” gives the sometimes disturbing (and disturbed) side.

One of the things many of the white males interviewed mention that they like about Asian women is their eyes, exotic and mysterious. In fact, appearance plays a major role in the fetish, with likely the perceived submissiveness of Asian women playing a role as well. Ironically, Asian women sometimes wish they had Western-style eyes. There has been a big increase in plastic surgery by Chinese women to get “double eyelid” surgery.  This is a sign of the increasing wealth of the Chinese middle class, as well as its internationalization.  Some Chinese women also get treatments to whiten their skin. When I spent the summer in Beijing a few years ago, I was in constant danger in walking down the street of having an eye poked out by women holding umbrellas, so as not to allow the summer sun to darken their complexions.