The sign language cultural divide: Or, duh! African Americans have their own sign language

I love when something mundane comes out and surprises.

Did you know there is African American sign language, just as there is African American English (AAE, or more popularly, Ebonics)? It is a distinct version of American Sign Language, often including signs and mannerisms entirely different from the standard counterpart.

Researchers have been studying this phenomenon and have found, not surprisingly, "a rich signing system that reflects both a history of segregation and the ongoing influence of spoken black English." Students who learn the sign language taught in their schools return home and use the sign language they grew up using there. Simple words like "shoe" and "school" are communicated with signs entirely unique from one another across the two sign languages.

This is highly fascinating, and yet, absolutely logical. It seems like a no-brainer for a group with a distinct culture and linguistic system to also have its own language for communicating with the deaf. Of course there are differences in style and meaning, in slang, and in body language. It makes total sense that, just as those who are deaf outside the realm of American Sign Language would have their own versions of sign languages, so to would various cultures within the U.S. It just never occurred to me. A Washington Post article addressed this interesting issue:

... It’s hardly surprising, Miller says, that Americans’ segregated pasts led to the development of different signing traditions — and that contemporary cultural differences continue to influence the signing that black and white Americans use.

Some differences result from a familiar history of privation in black education. Schools for black deaf children — the first of them opened some 50 years after the Hartford school was founded, and most resisted integration until well after the Brown v. Board of Educationdecision of 1954— tended to have fewer resources. Students were encouraged to focus on vocational careers — repairing shoes or working in laundries — rather than pursuing academic subjects, Lucas says, and some teachers had poor signing skills.

But a late-19th-century development in the theory of how to teach deaf children led, ironically, to black students’ having a more consistent education in signing. The so-called oralism movement, based on the now controversial notion that spoken language is inherently superior to sign language, placed emphasis on teaching deaf children how to lip-read and speak.

Driven by the slogan “the gesture kills the word,” the oralism theory was put into practice in the United States predominantly in white schools. Black students, Lucas says, were left to manage with their purely manual form of communication.

Ultimately rejected by people who felt it prevented deaf people from developing their “natural,” manual language, oralism fell out of favor in the 1970s and ’80s, but white signers continued to mouth words.

This brings up all sorts of interesting questions for me. Like, which do you sign at a public event, especially if there might be a predominantly African American audience? As someone whose only use of the Englis language is spoken, it is already hard for me to conceptualize a sign or motion for every concept we have in the spoken language, though I know sign language is complex and has its own depth. It just mystifies me even more to imagine that you might fully understand sign language and still not understand someone in your same country, that they could be signing the equivalent of gibberish. Then how do you address the situation, move forward, and communicate among one another? It's probably one of the smaller obstacles deaf people face in their life, really, but it is a foreign to me, which is why I've never thought about it in terms of different races and cultures living in a context of the same spoken language. But it makes perfect sense.

What language can tell us: reflections on dying words and meaning

Two things I love to talk about have collided: National Geographic has published in their July 2012 issue a stunning 33-page spread on the crisis small languages face in a world run by business, the Internet, and a demand for global citizens to all be able to communicate across political and cultural boundaries. On my favorite podcast, we've been discussing the many crises and endangered languages for years, and all the many facets of culture and identity that are threatened by the loss of these smaller languages. Let me first say, that is a truly large amount of printed space to dedicate to this topic. Add to this, the challenge photographer Lynn Johnson faced in trying to capture the story of three dying languages in the frame of her camera, in frozen, singular images. The whole thing is brilliant. Her photos absolutely succeed in telling a complicated story of words, meaning, and meaning lost as fewer people learn these fascinating, enigmatic words and phrases.

Russ Rymer, the author of the article, has perfectly introduced this complex piece of globalization to the regular public, and then highlights three specific languages under threat: Tuvan, spoken in the Russian Federation territory Republic of Tuva; Aka, spoken in the Arunachal Pradesh state of northeastern India; and Seri, spoken in Mexico by two remaining settlements along the Gulf of California.

SERI: [ Miixöni quih zó hant ano tiij? ]: Where is your placenta buried? Caption: This is how the Seris ask, Where are you from? Those who were born before hospital births know the exact spot where their afterbirth was placed in the ground, covered in sand and ash, and topped with rocks.What we can take away from this story are some of the larger questions involved in the phenomenon, because the answers are neither obvious nor easy. Yes, it is actually quite inconvenient to have over 7,000 languages spoken on this planet, but so much is lost culturally, deep-rooted perspectives and beliefs from tiny corners of the world are slipping away, as one language dies every 14 days (as its last speaker passes away). What it comes down to is reckoning with what will remain, and what will be folded in to the larger culture. For example, people who speak Aka might also speak Hindi or Bengali, which both have millions of speakers and are holding strong in the international boxing ring, but what elements of Aka culture will never be properly translated into Hindi? Rymer writes:

Increasingly, as linguists recognize the magnitude of the modern language die-off and rush to catalog and decipher the most vulnerable tongues, they are confronting underlying questions about languages' worth and utility. Does each language have boxed up within it some irreplaceable beneficial knowledge? Are there aspects of cultures that won't survive if they are translated into a dominant language? What unexpected insights are being lost to the world with the collapse of its linguistic variety?

These are excellent, complicated questions that are brilliantly captured with actual words littered below each of Johnson's photographs. The perfection of this combination, word and definition alongside image, still astonishes me, days after first exploring this article. I keep coming back to the words. I'm having an experience with these words and images. Here is an example of the way the story plays out on the pages of the magazine:

The word accompanying this image is [tradzy]: a necklace of yellow stone beads. The Aka have more than 26 words to describe beads. Beyond being objects of adornment, beads are status symbols and currency. This toddler will get this necklace at her wedding.Not only is this a topic I already find important and fascinating, but here my favorite magazine has most exceptionally presented the real and complicated lives, stories, and meanings within threatened languages in a way that appeals to those outside the field of armchair linguistics. (Maybe, it will convert a few more to that pastime.)

One of the most important components of culture that language variation clues us into is the vast difference in worldview across linguistic borders, which widens across continents and geographic distances as well. It is something that first blew my mind as I was learning about other religions, and which continued to surprise me as I studied language as well (and is a reason I love both subjects so much).

Western civilizations, for example, have developed their cultural and mental timeline and calendars on the concept of time as linear, heading in one direction, ever forward. Hindu culture places time in a circle, curving round itself; this is why reincarnation makes much more sense within their concept of time than that of western culture and order. You're circling back on yourself, rather than moving ever onward into future time.

The Tuvan language featured in the article has its own notions of past and present that also highlight these basic, structural differences in world view:

Different languages highlight the varieties of human experience, revealing as mutable aspects of life we tend to think of as settled and universal, such as our experience of time, number, or color. In Tuva, for example, the past is always spoken of as ahead of one, and the future is behind one's back. "We could never say, I'm looking forward to doing something," a Tuvan told me. Indeed, he might say, "I'm looking forward to the day before yesterday." It makes total sense if you think about of it in a Tuvan sort of way: If the future were ahead of you, wouldn't it be in plain view?

These are the kinds of concepts and cultural traits that risk being forgotten. As anyone who spends time with words-- whether in their native tongue or another they have learned--readily knows, language is part and parcel to one's identity. Expressing emotions, dreaming, bonding with other humans all revolve around language. This is the kind of comfort and familiarity entire tribes have to lose as their language languishes against the bigger, tougher giants.

If Aka, or any language, is supplanted by a new one that's bigger and more universally useful, its death shakes the foundations of the tribe. "Aka is our identity," a villager told me one day. "Without it, we are the general public." But should the rest of the world mourn too? The question would not be an easy one to frame in Aka, which seems to lack a single term for 'world.'

Aka might suggest an answer, though, one embodied in the concept of mucrow--a regard for tradition, for long-standing knowledge, for what has come before, a conviction that the venerable and frail have something to teach the callow and strong that they would be lost without.

This is one of the most beautiful and well-conceived articles and photographic essays I've ever read in this magazine, whose journalism and photographs set the standard in the field.

These are a few of my favorite photo/word pairings from the story.

From the Tuvan langauge:

From the Aka language:

From the Seri language:

This doesn't even scratch the surface. Explore the online gallery and the print edition for more of these stunning pairs. Like this one. 

Expectant parents, back away from the baby-name books

I collect names. I love spotting a new one (my job working in naturalization records, etc. at the national archives means I get many opportunities to collect and find new muses), saying it, relishing the syllables and imaging what type of person is a Josefina or a Beryl or Basilia or Louise. But many of these names I will never have the chance to name a child, for the elemental reason that I won't have more than a few kids, and I have scores of names on my "short" list. The other major reason is that many of these names, though romantic and incredible in my mind and when I write them out in notebooks, are serious handles to put on infant babies that will have to wear them the rest of their lives. Some, like Francis/Frances, are harder to wear as they can sound dated. And some are just stupid (see here).

A recent article points out that as more and more names, variations, and spellings are used in our age, the name you give your cute little newborn does mean more, says more about you as a parent and your child's household, than it might have fifty years ago. According to Wattenburg, a name blogger and one of the article's sources:

According to Wattenberg, it took a list of six names to cover half of the population of children born in England in 1800 (U.S. Social Security Administration records don't begin until 1880). By 1950 in the United States, that number was up to 79. Today, it takes 546 names to cover half of the population of U.S. babies born.

What that means, Wattenberg said, is that names send more tailored messages now than in the days when there were significant numbers of little Johns and Marys running around.

This is an extraordinary increase in a short span of time. And we don't add this many names without handing at least a few kids some very heavy handles. As parents seek out that perfect name--unique, yet appealing--baby name books have swelled to include 14,000 of them (a number that includes many spelling variations). But baby names are the same as salad dressings and ice cream: more choices doesn't really help at all, and in fact is probably more detrimental.

And so, the buyer's remorse effects have also been increasing:

Some are frustrated because their unique baby name keeps getting mispronounced. Others learn of some distressing association with the name after they chose it and stamped it on Baby, she said. But most parents she hears from simply feel that another choice on their top 10 list would have fit their baby better.

Another effect? NAME HATRED. There are some names that absolutely make my skin crawl. I feel sorry for the generation who carry these monikers. There have been surveys of the most-hated names, and many include names with many spellings, like Caitlin (the traditional spelling) or Mackenzie.

The ones I loathe made the list, too. All the Jaydens, Braydens, Craydens, Aidens, and Kadens (what?!). Also still-hated are those kind of creepy ones like Heaven, Destiny, and Precious.

We weirdos who are fascinated by names spend time each year observing, reviewing, critiquing the names that wound up on the list of most popular baby names of the previous year. But I think it's healthy to look at lists on the other end--and to continue to make lists like this--of the most-hated, yet popular names, if to serve no other purpose than as forewarning for expecting parents. Beware the Jaydens!

No offense to anyone whose name is Jayden or Precious.

If you are the parent of someone named Jessyca, then please, take high offense by me. What on earth were you thinking, giving your poor daughter that name? If you don't want to give her a common name, go for Josefina or Basilia. But at least spell it right. (This is a real name, and a real pet peeve.)

Pep talk from mom: find meaning, serve others, survive

Not my mom. Translator Aya Watanabe has been translating tweets coming out of Japan in the weeks following the devastation they have been facing. I found her story, actually, also via Twitter, and she was reading some of her favorites. The translations are obviously longer than 140 characters in English, since in Japanese, far more can be said in the space of one character, and so many of them were quite poignant and in-depth, and beautiful.

This was my favorite.

Mom’s Pep Talk Called my Mom to let her know I survived the quakes. She lives in Kagoshima, on Kyushu Island, a thousand miles south of Tohoku. Thought she was worried about me and wanted to calm her down. Instead of tears, what I got from her was a pep talk. “Know, with all your heart, the meaning of your being where you are, at this timing and age in your life. Do the best you can to serve others.” Mother, I am proud to be your son. I will live through all this.

See more of them here.

The charm of Indian English, filled with literary gems

"And what would your good name be, sir?" asked the greeter, with the Dickensian formality that only India has preserved.

So begins writer Benjamin MacIntyre's visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival (read it all here), an event that's been held the last six years to relish in and appreciate the colorful wordplay, rhyming, and dose of formality that characterizes Indian English, and makes it its own distinct entity from the its British source. A few examples:

Unconstrained by received pronunciation, Indian-English delights in wordplay and internal rhyming, eliding words, inventing new ones, but also retaining the elaborate, grammatically correct constructions of an earlier age. A hair-washing is a "headbath"; when a politician scrambles from one place to another, he is "airdashing"; sexual harassment is "eve-teasing."

Couples without children are "issueless", and when a meeting is brought forward, it is "preponed", the opposite of postponed.

The Indian love of English words is on daily display in the crime reporting of Indian newspapers, where "sleuths nab evildoers" or "miscreants abscond" after committing "dastardly deeds."

Spring a year ago, I got to spend a whole semester thinking a lot about India, Pakistan, and larger South Asia, and grew to appreciate the charming quirks and vast diversity of the area even more than I had before. (There's at least one blog about that, here.) The whole concept of a taxi wallah or a chai wallah is stunningly sensible: "wallah" means "someone who does this" or "a person from here," so you might call me an Atlanta wallah. Saves a lot of syllables, and characteristically delightful Indian English. Last spring, it made my job as a mall sales associate a little easier, being instead a retail wallah.

Great listen: World in Words #114 on political language & Tucson

I've lost count how many times a story featured on the World in Words language podcast has shown up on my site, but it continues to be a thoughtfully produced weekly pod that clues me in to stories from the news that I might otherwise have missed. (It's produced by PRI and WGBH Boston, the people who produce The World, and hosted by Patrick Cox.) This week's podcast was on a story that is impossible to have missed, the shooting in Tucson, and political language surrounding it before and after the tragedy. But once again I learned a bit more, heard more debate on it, as the pod brought together some of the most interesting perspectives and soundbites that I've heard to date.

The whole controversy surrounding the use of the term "blood libel" in popular politics today--and especially since Sarah Palin's use of it in the aftermath of the shooting is discussed particularly well. Also stellar is the commentary on President Obama's remarks at the memorial service for the six victims of the Tucson shooting, and its comparison to President Clinton's similar position after the Oklahoma City bombing, and how their two approaches were distinctly different in their tone--Obama's lacking any politicized jabs at all.

Some of the most interesting stuff, the stuff I mentioned above, starts around 9:00, if you want to skip the first part (which is also interesting, on political language in a few European countries and how it differs!) and get to the best bits. Definitely worth a listen if you've got a few minutes. Patrick Cox pulled out some of the best discussion I've heard yet on the subject.

I land somewhat in the camp of supporting Palin's use of the term "blood libel," in that I see where she was trying to go with it. And some of the anti-Semetic backlash has been unnecessary. Even so, her entire video has some bizarre elements, which also confuse me. Making it, in my mind, all the more fascinating, given that I can see where the lines of contention fall between each side, and I understand both.

Anyway, listen.

[audio:|titles=World in Words Podcast #114]

America and nationality, a troubled love story

For a long time, leaders (and many citizens) saw the United States as a country of, and for, white people. This is clear in our treatment of Native Americans and our trampling of many of the contracts we drew with them, and obviously, in our treatment of African slaves who then developed an African-American identity long before they were seen as legal citizens. With the powerful, nearly mythological construct of their "Manifest Destiny" backing expansion, Americans blazed across the continent, reaching the West coast and declaring nearly all that land, save for a small portion for Natives, as theirs.

But when it came time to seek other pieces of the Americas, there was a marked reluctance and not nearly the same sense of a God-given right to any land. We like to think that this was our sensible side taking charge, smartly avoiding the mishaps of other more established imperial powers, like England and Spain, whose empires were waning, and we saw the utter hassle of maintaining that much territory. There is a bit of truth in that.

More compelling, however, is this uninterrupted notion of America as a republic for white citizens. The colonization of African Americans back to Africa lay on the table long enough in American policy history to stand as a solid example of just how incompatible some saw a United States that contained large minority groups; need we even mention the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants for twenty years upon its signing in 1882? (Asian immigrants weren't even allowed to earn citizenship until the 1940s.) We've had a treacherous, scarred, love-hate relationship with our immigrants, even while we became known as "the Melting Pot," but this relationship was especially acute when it came to annexing territories not contiguous to the North American continent.

Historian Eric Love argues that racism in the era of American imperialism was not used to support imperial annexation, harking on the "white man's burden," but was actually what anti-imperialists used against that cause. In the cases of Santo Domingo (today the Dominican Republic) and the Philippines, large populations of non-white natives was a large deterrent in making these islands part of the United States. Alaska had no such trouble, as Americans could more easily see it as assimilating with the nation as it was. In the case of Hawaii, that far-flung acquisition, the islands were annexed after enough convincing was done in showing that a large number of whites already lived there, the natives were docile, and populations like the Portuguese were, for all intents and purposes, white already. Plus, they argued, we need to protect those whites already living there.

So whether the Unites States has sought the land that happens to be occupied by non-whites, or whether non-whites have showed up at our doorstep and requested residency here, determining the fine line between citizenship and race has never been easy.

I would like to take this further and consider this fickle, slippery past in terms of the notion of nationality and self-identity. As the twentieth century developed around what started a bit earlier, with the world's structure as all land drawn up and broken into nation-states, we added another layer of personal identification: nationality. Before that the world operated on a more local level, and people's lives were far more contingent on what township you were from than anything else. Also significant was the language you spoke.

Fast forward a hundred years past Americans' fixation with non-whites standing as majorities in any hypothetical new states, and we are still discussing the issue of assimilation and "American" identity, though with far less racist undertones and with more modern logic. (Check into Love's book for some juicy stuff on our imperial era and his argument, which breaks the conventional historical narrative. He backs up his gutsy point with solid research.)

Case in point: the controversy surrounding the hypothetical admittance of Puerto Rico as a state, which, with its current school system and organization, would be a Spanish-speaking state. Seem like we have the same qualms with this concept that we did a hundred years ago--not along the lines of race, but along the lines of cultural assimilation and American nationality; really, we're still very much talking about what it means to be American and what things you must inherently give up from your old country when you chose to reside in another.

Tim Schultz, a lobbyist with the group U.S. English, spoke to PRI corespondent Patrick Cox recently on this subject, in Cox's World in Words podcast (which shows up regularly here). He made some interesting points throughout the interview, but on the subject of Puerto Rico, all I kept thinking about was how much his statements harked back to the rationale of more than a century ago, when we could not fathom the idea of having non-whites and non-English speakers as a majority in any state in the United States. It would mean a completely new voice added to our national congress, which was abominable back then. But in 2010, Congress looks a bit different; so the issue today is not ethnicity as it is language--that hugely significant linguistic identity, and the problem of citizens whose primary language is Spanish as somehow bad for our country, and certainly bad for our national unity. Both of those notions are fraught with cracks, as the country's past can attest to: it's not had an easy relationship with its immigrants, but it need not be said that the immigrants who've fought their way in over the centuries have benefited our larger "identity."

To Schultz, it in unconscionable to have any American kids going through school never learning English, which he feels would be the case in Puerto Rico if it became a state. Under the current federal education laws, children have to take standardized tests in English within three years of entering into a public school in this country; this is an incentive for students from non-English family backgrounds to learn the language quickly. As a territory, Puerto Rico is exempt from that law, he points out, and he argues that this sets an unhealthy precedent were it to become a state. I have to pause here to wonder, if it did become a state, wouldn't that exemption be called into question? If Puerto Rico became a state, there would be many things about their now-standing status that would change--tax exemptions for one--and it is a bit premature to suggest that we would just overlook this language issue upon seriously admitting Puerto Rico as a state.

He cites their economic troubles as an incentive for Puerto Ricans to learn English if admitted. "They're going to fall completely behind economically," if they do become a Spanish-speaking state, he says. He argues this based on the fact that if incorporated now, it would be the poorest state by far. Again, these are far-reaching hypothetical issues, and I think many Puerto Ricans could argue against him on this, while still others would agree, and would certainly expand their English language skills. After all, as Schultz also says, there are immigrants and Hispanics who agree wholeheartedly in English as the language of the U.S.

The main resolution his organization seeks is ensuring that the incentives exist for immigrants to learn English. As he said to Cox: "English is more important for American now than it ever has been, because we live in a globalized, information-age economy. And we're all connected more than we ever [have been]," Schultz says. I would agree, and add that the incentives are quite similar no matter what country you're educated in.

If Spanish rises to a sort of co-official status with English, Schultz says later on, "It's not that everybody would suddenly become bilingual; it's that Spanish speakers would less and less need to learn English to survive in the United States, and that creates a sort of second mainstream, if you will, a sort of second linguistic mainstream, in which Spanish speakers would become, you know, doing worse economically, and frankly, probably a lot less likely to self identify as Americans."

There it is again, this pernicious, pervasive tendency to define things in terms of nationality, and national identity; the reality is, without veering too far into postmodernism here, that there are millions of Americans who identify themselves as such while also holding Chinese heritage, Mexican heritage, Indian heritage-- and for many, their appearances and family languages will ensure that those identities remain with them as well. The hyphenated nationality (Chinese-American, Italian-American, even African-American) is synonymous with being American, even when we're born and raised in the U.S. So it is a funny thing, nationality, and our preoccupation with it.

Modern-day "Peril"? Chinese language in American classrooms, and that long-standing friend-or-enemy dilemma

China has the second-largest economy in the world, a fact that looms ominously over the shoulder of El Numero Uno: the United States. And when you are as connected economically as China and the U.S., it behooves each side to attempt friendliness; it also means it would be nearly impossible for either side to start a conflict with the other, as the economies are so dependent on one another that any such move could bring collapse to both.

And perhaps the most important lesson for the United States to learn, the one it struggles with most, is coming to honest terms with the fact that China is not a democracy. It functions as a fast-paced consumer economy, and does allow more economic freedoms today (like job choice and sometimes location of residency, for example), without really having changed its governmental system at all; much has been written on this unique breed of national existence, this "socialism with Chinese characteristics," and so the basic system remains today--with obvious cracks and some severe humanitarian issues on its plate. America has trouble with this sometimes, this issue of engaging as an ally a country with fundamental differences from its own governmental policies.

Neither condoning nor condemning China's policies, though, it must at least be admitted that China cannot be ignored. Without condoning their humanitarian infractions, myself and many Americans have been able to learn about the Chinese people's language, culture, history, food, and customary idiosyncrasies; each American who speaks Mandarin Chinese is contributing positively to the larger relationship between these two economic powers, to the extent that it is hard for me to understand the neglect this language currently sees in U.S. schools. In urban areas, more is inherently available to students; but in smaller towns, like the one where I went to high school, French and Spanish are the only options, and only through the required level "two." (Let's not get into that larger discussion on our monolinguist nation.) Meanwhile there are 264 million children in China under the age of fourteen, going through school right now, and I'll give you one guess what language they're also learning. It just seems so very clear that we're putting our own children at a disadvantage for their lifetime and their job choices, if they are unable to compete with the bilingual Chinese children who can communicate in both directions in the business and politics of the twenty-first century.

Photo by Mustafah Abdulaziz for Education Week; link to story: the Chinese government has "stretched its linguistics muscles" this year by committing millions of dollars to U.S. schools to build Mandarin language programs in more K-12 schools. In a time of near economic crisis, and definite panic at least, in many schools across the country, this should be a welcome supply of funding, to get kids involved in their global world, and to infuse their studies with a new diversion--beyond their math, science, and social studies regulars. A connection with an Asian culture gives kids a much wider perspective on lifestyles around the world, connects them to a new level with Chinese-Americans in their communities, and, quite simply, gives them a "cool" language to study. Decoding Chinese characters is a thrilling revelation, for anyone who's studied the language.

But naturally, given the menacing vision of China as an economic bully (granted, the fixed Chinese currency is a festering thorn in the side of economic negotiations and discussion), and given its less than stellar past of censorship, political freedom, and dissemination of information, there are bound to be cries of cultural infiltration: these Chinese will infect the minds of our kids! It's Yellow Peril for a new age.

In a recent article from Education Week, this issue was explored. Some see it as accepting resources from a country who will provide language, with a heavy dose of propaganda on the side.

That dust-up caught the notice of Chester E. Finn Jr., a former education official in the Reagan administration and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank. He argues that public schools should not accept aid from the Chinese government.

“This is not an ally. This is the country on the planet from which the United States faces the largest and most worrisome long-term threats,” he said. “And for its government to be funding our schools to teach its language, I think, is an alarming and menacing development. And that our schools are welcoming this development strikes me as outrageous.”

Countering this, some educators see its value for the future or global relations, as well as for the schoolkids.

“It’s a great opportunity,” William C. Harrison, who chairs the North Carolina state board of education, said of his state’s program, to which China is expected to supply more than $5 million in direct aid and “in kind” services. “The best way to become globally competitive is to develop an understanding of those with whom you compete, being able to communicate with them, and being able to collaborate with them.”

He added: “We’re looking at the number-two economy in the world with prospects to be number one. ... I think it’s in our best interest to develop positive relationships.”

The key lies somewhere in the balance of being economic allies while respecting differences; we don't have the best reputation with that. Shortsightedness now will have a crippling effect on our country's standing in the future, and the people leading it then will be the ones in school now, learning minimal Spanish and French. Our world will look mighty different then; can we find those areas of change now, and adapt?

UPDATE 12/9/2010: Here is another article on America's trials and tribulations in building a Chinese language program in K-12 schools. From Newsweek: "America's Chinese Problem"

I'd like to buy the world a Coke...

"What the world wants today" is both that elusive peace, and a Coke, as the commercial famously puts it. Buying a Coke is one form of peace, I guess; but how else do we define it?

War, in the name of peace...

The thought is bewildering, paradoxical, and also quite present in our world, both now and in the past--even if it has been defined differently throughout time. Recently, Patrick Cox mused over the meaning of the word "peace" in his podcast, The World in Words (which I've cited several times before--great listening), starting with President Obama's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In itself, this oratory does a number on the definition of the easily-rattled-off but elusive-to-conceive word.

Here's a segment from President Obama's speech:

"We must begin by acknowledging a hard truth: we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations, acting individually or on concert, will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: 'Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem, it merely creates new and more complicated ones.' As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive, in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King; but as a head of state, sworn to protect and defend my nation, and I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake, evil does exist in the world."

Maybe it's a side-effect of my historiographical debates class, where we examine the words of great orators of the past, and where we're reading and arguing weekly about Hegelian and Marxist views of history as an up-hill march towards perfect societies, but President Obama's speech incited several things in my mind: as Patrick Cox says in the podcast, these things, phrases like "evil exists," and "morally justified use of force," are all things we have heard before in political speeches. Joseph Stalin defended force and violence many times, as a means of improving the Soviet state; Mao Zedong incited suspicion and approved violence amongst his Red Guard youth devotees. These are keywords used by politicians that justify a nation's actions, and also ensure that the people are enthralled and uplifted by the leader's response to evil. This means of inspiration, that we are improving, that we see our goal in sight and so violence is justified, appears throughout political oratory, and indeed nearly every leader in every country in the post-Enlightenment modern world harks back to the idea that we are improving, moving towards something better. Classic, and proven to be effective.

The remarkable thing about this speech, which makes it quite unique among political addresses, is that he is accepting the peace prize; he is not rallying his countrymen, but is speaking to a large crowd of educated people, many of them not Americans. But the President readily admits that he is no Martin Luther King, Jr., nor can he defend a nation using only the practices of history's peacekeepers. His speech certainly adds another meaning to the word peace, Cox argues, making it "a bit more slippery" than it had been. Obama: "So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace." Pause, and consider.

One may write the whole thing off to being a political speech written to speak to both sides, the peacekeeping America and the two-wars America, and indeed the sentiments somehow seek to provide both at once. And that is not such a terrible thing, for nothing exists in a vacuum and nation-states tend to be bundles of juxtapositions.

So how do we define peace, within ongoing global disunity and war? What is its nature? Does it in fact, contain war, as has been argued? "The word 'peace' is either taken as a given or used very lightly," said Dennis Ross, a U. S. diplomat and author. Can you have a commitment to peace but never come through, or in fact, consistently perform opposite to such peaceful notions? And on a larger scale, is progress the ability to reduce both good and bad in the world?

Listen to the entire discussion and hear the speech in the World in Words podcast #79 (the peace discussion begins around 11:30 minutes in). Then tell me what you think.

Danger and escape along the Tumen River: North Korean refugees, the struggle to survive, and the effort to tell their story

Laura Ling and Euna Lee must have quite a story. What they have recently published, in the form of an Op/ed in the LA Times, is a brief explanation of their reason for being in that part of the world, and a narrative description of how and what happened when they were detained by North Korean forces.

Assisted by a Korean Chinese guide, they were doing research and conducting interviews near the Chinese-Korean border, along the Tumen River. They state in their explanation that they are neither prepared to discuss in detail their experiences as prisoners nor looking to take any attention away from the dire situation they were there to cover in the first place.

As both of the articles I have linked to will suggest, the "underground" crossing North Korean citizens are making to escape the totalitarian state is dangerous and heart-breaking-- and means either death or a life sentence in a labor camp if they are caught and deported. Ling and Lee were near the border where this journey begins when they were arrested, interviewing refugees and the people helping them escape in an effort to highlight their stories. It is a frightening reality to imagine that for just a 90-second stint on North Korean soil, these two American citizens were apprehended and subsequently sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp. This is a government that clearly has some issues, and seriously takes action against anyone trying to escape or trying to illuminate the situation.

Screen shot 2009-10-16 at 10.21.23 PMIt is important that these refugees' stories be told. In early 2009, I read an article about the dangerous crossing in National Geographic; the article also added the story of the trouble North Korean citizens have even after a safe settlement in, most often, South Korea. After thousands of miles traveling under-the-radar through China (the Chinese-North Korean border is still a much safer bet than the most heavily-guarded border in the world: between North and South Korea) down to Laos, they trek across mountains and finally reach Thailand-- where they can apply for asylum. Months and much paperwork later they can be granted a refugee's visa and are able to move to South Korea. (I am of course giving the ideal course of a refugee's story; many times, it is neither this smooth, quick, or simple.)

A refugee who has landed safely in South Korea, or maybe even one waiting on placement back in Thailand or China, still has cultural and linguistic barriers to overcome. These people have been living in a hermit society, speaking a somewhat archaic and nowhere near modern version of the Korean spoken by South Koreans. Down to the phrases and greetings used in everyday life, it can be a struggle for North Koreans to communicate with their Southern counterparts. Oftentimes looked down upon for their accents, it can be difficult for them to find good jobs in the South Korean job markets; sometimes they are not qualified educationally. Every day is a struggle.

Screen shot 2009-10-16 at 10.03.25 PMSince April, I have been donating $9 per month to the 9 Lives Campaign, through the organization LiNK (Liberty in North Korea). LiNK uses donations to assist refugees in language training, cultural adaptation, education, and job placement while they are settling into new lives in other countries around the world. The 9 Lives campaign in particular aims to end the 9 different violent and tragic lives that befall some of these North Koreans--including sex trafficking and child labor-- when they cannot find  any other work or are tricked by people who claim they can help them. There is additional tragedy in the fact that many of these people leave their families behind, with very little chance of seeing them again.

Journalists Ling and Lee have been making headlines since March 17 when they were arrested. But the more important story has been going on much, much longer.

I urge you to listen to PRI's The World in Words podcast from February 19, 2009: "Two Koreas divided by language," which takes the listener on a journey into North Korea, from the point of view of a Korean-American young woman who is granted permission to visit with her uncle and mother. Some of their family members were suddenly enemies when the line was drawn through the peninsula in the 1950s. She is quite aware, during her stay, that their lives could just as easily have been hers; her story is stunning, and highlights the Korean split in a starkly personal way.

哈利 波特 or, a way to improve my Mandarin

"Harry Potter" in Chinese is one of those transliterations that is necessary when translating names across languages; and the sounds are nearly perfect-- jokes aside regarding Chinese natives' English pronunciation. Harry Potter's antics retold in Chinese

哈利 波特 literally sounds like "ha li po te," with the "r" sound coming out like an "l." In fact, when I say those syllables out loud, I am tickled by my own Chinese accent. English-speaking Asians who have been in the U.S. for years can still laugh at themselves and refer to their form of communication as "Engrish."

There is a difference between translation and transliteration, and Chinese and other Asian languages in particular do much of the latter. Translation is taking the word "cat" and saying it in Mandarin as mao. Transliteration is taking my name, Jessie, and creating its Chinese form, Jie Xi. Hence the term, it is a literal translation of the sounds made to form the word. This second practice allows words that have foreign origin to become part of Chinese vocabulary, oftentimes necessary when there is no Chinese equivalent. Coca-Cola is a good example, as there was nothing similar to it in the Chinese language. In the 1920s, Coke was transliterated by store owners as ke kou ke la, sounding similar, but meaning literally "bite the wax tadpole" (as I learned from self-described language addict and writer Elizabeth Little). Anytime a foreign name or term is transliterated into Chinese characters, a new sort of nonsense phrase is created, like the Coca-Cola phrase. Chinese doesn't have an alphabet, like English, so "you don't have a script that is independent of meaning," says Little. Any translation encounters this problem, and so speakers simply ignore the literal meanings of foreign and western names, and things that clearly come from foreign terminology. Little illustrates with Bill Clinton's name: Co lin den, meaning, literally, in Mandarin, "repress forest pause." A Chinese person would know right away that this is a western name.

It should be noted that Coca-Cola had been searching for a better transliteration of their product's name in the years after its introduction in China, and eventually came to a satisfying decision. The current ke kou ke le translates in Chinese to mean "happiness in the mouth." Quite fitting.

When a word like "cell phone" must be added to the language, Chinese speakers do not transliterate such terms. This is an element of delight the foreign student of Mandarin runs in to; the Chinese term is shou ji, shou meaning "hand" and ji meaning "machine." So, the foreigner thinks, this is a "hand machine," and a laugh follows. But terms like this are not to be taken to mean quite such a literal thing when translated. A student must simply absorb the term to mean "cell phone," even while the parts of the translation do not individually mean "cell" and "phone." That would be nearly impossible to achieve, and makes the nuances of languages and the mysteries of learning a new one that more challenging and exciting.

Elizabeth Little, who I discovered within my favorite podcast, The World in Words, has been featured in two separate episodes in regards to her obsession with learning languages, fiddling with modern and even ancient languages (she reads ancient Chinese and Greek both), and in particular for her experience with the Chinese language. She has written a book about her life as a language addict, which I have not read yet-- but it is on my list. She sounds like a person I would love to invite to a dinner party. And why does she come up here? For two reasons: first, she taught me about the brilliant "bite the wax tadpole" transliteration.

Secondly, and to bring this back around to the start of the post, she encourages taking language learning beyond textbook- or CD-style repetition. She says she enjoys watching movies or reading books that she loves (and therefore knows well) in your subject language. I took this to heart, and bought myself a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in Mandarin Chinese. Side by side, the reading is slow and tedious, but in the sort of exhilarating way of figuring out a difficult puzzle. I am surprised how many characters I recognize, considering my level of comprehension, and by looking at the context, I am able to build new meanings onto words I have already learned. New words are still hard to learn based only on character, because looking a word up in a Chinese dictionary is a lot harder than it may seem at first (remember... there is no alphabetizing going on...). But the internet is there to help me, for some words. Reading in Chinese is also rewarding for its grammar lessons, as Chinese grammar still makes very little sense to me.

It was great advice, which I must pass on. It is not the most original suggestion, people have been reading books in foreign languages forever, but it has been a useful nudge. I remember being in China and searching for something to read besides our textbooks for class, and feeling utterly overwhelmed by the idea of picking up a book in Chinese. My roommate Stacey, who had taken some Chinese previous to the trip, bought a book of poetry. I bought an audio book online, desperate for some English. (Granted, most books I would have even attempted that were available were older, and rather boring ones-- things I don't prefer, even in English.) I think the connection I was missing was tackling the language barrier through a book that I love. 哈利 波特 is the answer to that.

Do You Speak Chinglish?

As a native English speaker arriving in China, one of the first things I noticed was the English translations of many signs, billboards, advertisements, brand names, labels, and other items. Initially, I found it helpful. It is also a telling piece of evidence to both the growing popularity of English as a second language in China and an increased number of non-native English speakers visiting, doing business, and studying in China. It does not take long to find oddly-phrased, jumbled, or even nonsensical translations is these signs, providing a little comic relief while perhaps visiting a historical sight, using a public restroom, or throwing something in a trash can. It is a largely lovable aspect of daily life for an English speaker in China.

As one of my friends in the general studies program pointed out, the translations can sometimes point to aspect of Chinese society, values, and language characteristics, and can be quite telling. The signs warning against walking through the grass or harming the trees, for instance, usually personify the plant, asking guests not to harm the plant. Stating that the protected plants have feelings offers a subtle insight into Chinese and Confucian values of existing in harmony with the earth and everything it contains. I found this intriguing and quite accurate.

There is an effort among government and its officials, however, to adjust these “Chinglish” translations, as they have come to be known. English-speaking university faculty are being called upon to assist in the effort to put better, more aptly-stated English translations on many signs on streets and in major tourist locations across China. Beijing in particular is being targeted for Chinglish clean-up, in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games and the arrival to the city of hundreds of thousands of visitors, many among them English-speakers.

Some of my favorites I captured on film, and they are an interesting, funny collection so far.


Instead of "King of Beef Noodles"... NO SNOKING!!! A place for you to put your organisms

Someone named "carefully" has the electricity...