Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Arrival of the Card
I know it's my birthday, because this year's official birthday card from my card-making aunt and calligrapher uncle arrived in the mail today. I figured I'd share. Happy birthday to me!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Day That I Got Asked Out in the Post Office
(titling convention stolen from Amanda at Everyday Evidence)

Who knew tax time could be so enticing? This morning, I had to get up early to go get my taxes done. (No, I did not do them myself; I'm being taxed in 2 states and 3 separate tax areas. It is totally worth my hard earned money to have someone else earn theirs doing my taxes for me.) Anyway, I then drove to my office, which is conveniently right next to the post office. I am in there multiple times a week, mailing stuff for work. I know all the employees by sight, and some by name. It is never an eventful experience, unless the cranky employee yells at someone. No one ever talks to me.

Today, though, today I hear a voice behind me asking me where I got my coat. Now, I grant you, I think it is a pretty spiffy coat, too, which is why I bought it from the men's side of the downtown Sendai Uniqlo when I lived in Japan, but I never thought of it as a conversation starter.

Guy: Wow, where'd you get that jacket?
Me: Um, Japan.
Guy: Really? I was wondering if you'd gotten it at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. over there. *gestures at the shopping center across the street*
Me: Nope. In Japan.
Guy: Cool. I've got a kind of furry vest like that. It's really warm, when I'm out hiking and stuff.

Etc., etc. I also learned that he likes the Appalachian Mountains, lived in California for 10 years, (where they also have mountains,) and that he owns a business doing custom furniture design. Then I got called up to the desk to mail off my taxes.

He got done sending off his mail first, though, and was waiting for me by the door. He asked me out for coffee; I said I was busy. He asked for my number; I told him I wasn't available. He said that was okay, he had to try, because it's not every day he meets a girl in hiking boots and an interest in travel.

This is the first time anyone has ever just randomly asked me out. It was a very odd experience. Now I'm kind of inclined to look at the post office funny.

Friday, March 17, 2006

When I Was a Virgin
When Colloquialisms Strike!

I was thinking some more about using colloquial language, and it occurred to me that the flip side of purposefully using a colloquialism to sound more natural, and then failing, is using them inadvertantly, usually via overly direct translation. Direct translations often unintentionally stumble into the realm of euphemisms, leading the innocent speaker's audience to smirk and giggle like elementary schoolers hearing someone talk about "doing it." Some illustrative examples, for education and amusement:

My very first linguistics professor was also a Russian professor. She was quite fluent, having spent quite a while in Russian, and married to a native speaker. However, she told us, after living in Russia for several months, she discovered she wasn't quite as fluent as she thought. She had upon several occasions told stories to her host family, classmates, etc. about her childhood in the US, beginning with the phrase, "When I was young..." It was only after a few months that she finally told one of these stories to someone, (I think maybe her future husband,) who informed her that in Russia, that phrase actually meant, "When I was a virgin..."

And from my own former life abroad, I will never forget being asked on Valentine's Day, over and over, by students and coworkers alike, what I was going to get my "lover" as a gift. Seemed a rather personal question to me...

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Colloquial English, Scourge of the ESL Sea
For the past week or so, this Chinese menu has been making the internet rounds. It is so hilariously mistranslated some people declared it had to be a hoax. Fortunately, the friendly linguists at Language Log were all over that, with Ben Zimmer's post, Engrish Explained. Zimmer cites a comment left by an anonymous Chinese prof in defense of the authenticity of the horribly mangled item names, who gives an example explanation for one of the items. Part of his explanation states:
Finally: "gan si" meaning shredded dried tofu, but literally translated as "dry silk." The problem here is that the word "gan" means both "to dry" and "to do," and the latter meaning has come to mean "to fuck." Unfortunately, the recent proliferation of Colloquial English dictionaries in China means people choose the vulgar translation way too often, on the grounds that it's colloquial.
Note my added emphasis. I'm sure many ESL teachers are groaning. How many times do we hear that our students want to learn colloquial English? How many times do we have students proudly use their newly acquired phrases in horribly inappropriate situations, under the impression that it makes them sound more "native"? How many times do we find ourselves striking through "wanna" and "gonna" in formal academic papers? I grant you, this leads to many a hilarious classroom story* with which to entertain our friends, but it's hardly a good educational or linguistic goal. I wish students would believe me when I tell them that they don't really want to use colloquial English as much as they think they do.

I am all for students learning to recognize and understand colloquial expressions and idioms. I'm not even really against students using them if they understand the correct social context in which to do it. But often, second language learners end up sounding really bizarre, stilted, or comical without meaning to. I had a coworker in Japan who would watch Larry King on SkyTV, print out the transcript, and then bring it to me with all the idioms highlighted to demand explanation. I spent one very surreal afternoon of trying to explain the phrase "He fell out of the stupid tree and hit every branch on the way down," all the time being horrified by the thought that this poor man with absolutely no hint of natural prosody in his English would try to use it when speaking to a native speaker.

The idea that there are now people out there trying to use colloquial dictionaries to teach themselves more "native-like" speech is horrible. They should be plastered with warnings like "For receptive use only!", "Use with extreme caution!", or "Consult native speakers for correct use!" Why in the world anyone ever thought to use such a dictionary to translate a menu is beyond me. I'm not sure if this is better or worse than students who simply use whatever translated word is listed first in their electronic dictionary, leading to my mother getting emails thanking her for her "precious speech" at a conference. I wish more teachers would emphasize proper dictionary use in the early years, before I end up with college students who can't be separated from their electronic dictionaries, nor dissuaded from the idea that longer words are always better.

*Hilarious Classroom Story

During my first semester at MSU, I was teaching Level 1 in the intensive ESL program. We were working on descriptive language, so I had the students do short Show and Tell presentations about an item of their choice. One student brought in a keychain. His presentation was this:

"This is a keychain. I borrow it from my roommate. It is very funny. When you squeeze the ass, the shit comes out."

He was entirely correct. When you squeezed the ass of the plastic pig, it pushed out a little plastic balloon of "shit". However, it also lead to a mini-lesson on word choice for in-class presentations vs. talking to one's roommate.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Two Days in the Life of an Autism Bookstore Booth Babe
I spent the end of last week helping supervise the bookstore booth at a conference for homeschooling children with special needs. While I was there, I had a number of... interesting conversations, which were, if nothing else, at least somewhat revelatory about the assumptions and beliefs some people hold on music, language, and social customs. Behold.

The conference was being held in a giant Baptist mega-church. The building is so large that all the other times I've driven past it, I thought it was a retirement home. It is surrounded by a veritable sea of parking lots, and nowhere on the outside does it say that it is a church. (Which is actually rather tasteful, for a mega-church.)

However, because we are set up as vendors in this mega-church, and because so many homeschoolers are frightening conservative Christians, it appears some people have made assumptions. Hence, the following, which is the weirdest conversation I have participated in in quite some time:

Boss: Oh, I see you're from Virginia. That's kind of far.
Me: *smiles politely*
Patron: Yeah, I didn't really appreciate the drive, but I picked up a great Christian radio station, and I really wished we had it at home!
Me: *smiles and nods*
Patron: I guess you probably listen to all that modern Christian rock music, but personally I can't stand it.
Me and Boss: ...

Later (same person):

Patron: I have a stupid question. This book says that people with Asperger's want other people to speak to them slower. Are there autistic people in Spanish-speaking countries? Cuz what do they do?
Me: Well, statistically speaking, there's probably just as many people with autism in Spanish-speaking countries as in English-speaking ones.
Patron: Well, what do they do? Spanish speakers talk much faster than us.
Me: Foreign languages really just sound faster to us because we don't know where to parse the words correctly. We sound really fast to people from other countries, too.
Patron: No, Spanish is much faster. Believe me, I've studied all these languages. Russian and German aren't as fast, but Spanish is much faster.
Me: ... *decides this person is clearly not actually listening* Well, I'm sure people with autism in Spanish-speaking countries would also appreciate it if people spoke to them more slowly.

Later, again:

Patron: *pointing at the Social Skills Picture Book picture on "Don't be a space invader"* Hah! This is just a cultural difference! This shouldn't be in here. *looks at me triumphantly*
Me: *nods and smiles* It doesn't tell you what the correct social distance is, it just says you need to be aware of whether you are making other people uncomfortable. Sheesh.

And from another vendor:

Vendor: My colleague, Dr. so-and-so, does a lot of work with ADHD kids, and you should be interested, because that's on the autism spectrum, you know.
Me and Boss: *smile, nod, look at each other incredulously*

(Note: While I have also noted an apparent similarity between the problems exhibited by people with ADHD and those with autism spectrum disorders, I have also actually checked with people in the know and have ascertained that what few scientific studies that have been done on comparing the disorders have found no links. In fact, one of the articles I read seemed to have found that entirely different parts of the brain were affected.)

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What the World Needs Now Is...
To heck with love sweet love, we need more trained interpreters.

Despite the glibness of the title, I'm entirely serious. Bill Poser's Language Log entry, "Not Me" talks about the distressing inadequacies of courtroom interpreting in the US. He writes:
In the United States, there are standards for interpreters in Federal court, but not in State courts, where the majority of criminal cases are heard. Interpreters may be highly qualified, or they may be the bailiff's sister who took a little Spanish in high school. No one really knows how often this leads to miscarriages of justice, in part because it is very difficult to appeal on these grounds because appellate courts normally consider only the written record of the trial, and the written record contains only the English translation of the testimony, not what was actually said.
When I was an undergraduate and people would hear that I was a Spanish major, their inevitable question was, "Oh, do you want to teach?" Given that I had been through high school Spanish classes with my peers, my immediate response was always, "Absolutely not." However, like many college language majors, this left me with the question of just what it was I wanted to do with these hard-earned language skills upon graduation. We're all the time hearing people talk about how valuable it is to know a foreign language in order to get some mythical future job, but as it turns out, finding a job that really utilizes such skills is hard to find, and by the time it materializes, our language skills may be a bit rusty.

Why is there not more emphasis on people becoming interpreters in the US? Is it because the jobs are scarce? They don't pay? There's not enough steady work to keep one fully employed? No one thinks about needing one until it's too late? Everyone in the US continues under the misapprehension that all immigrants and tourists should stay out of the country until they learn English? What?

Certainly the government is slowly coming to realize that maybe there should be more people around who can speak the languages of other countries, like, say, ones we're invading, occupying, or otherwise engaged with for long periods of time. But why has it taken this long to realize that maybe people in Iraq should be spoken to in other than loud, slow English, or maybe shot when no one on either side understands what's being said? We've been through two wars there now.

Which reminds me, last night I watched Jarhead with my family. (All hail my father's Netflix account.) At the end, my brother noted that it was basically a movie about nothing, which seems to be the theme with movies about Desert Storm, (witness the previous movie Three Kings). However, there was an interesting incident in about the middle of the movie, where the main characters finally see some actual residents of the country they've been walking around in for months. As the rest of the patrol all bring their weapons up, the star of the movie actually remembers some of the extremely limited Arabic he had either been taught or just picked up on his own. He yells it out, goes out to meet the people, and comes back with the news that they're upset because someone shot their camels, but aren't going to try to start a fight over it. Presumably they spoke some English, as that one sentence of Arabic to bridge the gulf was enough to tax our hero. But still! He made the effort! Spoke their language, and like magic, no one got killed.

Maybe this post is a bit disjointed and rambly, but my overriding point is this. I'm tired of language majors, and polyglots in general, getting no respect except as curiosities in this country. We've got valuable skills. Why won't people put them to actual use, outside of managing construction sites and poultry plants?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

What the Cool Kids Are Saying
Yesterday I was catching up on my blog reading, and I came across a link in a Language Log post to a Daily Mainichi article on Japanese youth slang: Getting 'yuusu' lingo 'peki-peki' a real chore for adults. The main gist of the article is that the police in Tokyo have taken to compiling a dictionary of youth slang so they can understand their interrogations with rebellious youth. It then offers up some examples of the slang.

A majority of the examples turned out to be verbs:
New words are formed by shortening existing words, reversing their syllables or adding "ru" to nouns, thereby creating the infinitive forms of new verbs, such as in "biniru." Which sounds like the word for "vinyl," but actually means to go to a "konbini" (convenience store).

Using the same construction, "famiru" means to go to a family restaurant. "Yoshiru" means to eat at a Yoshino-ya chain restaurant. "Apiru" is to appeal to someone, "okeru" means to go to sing karaoke, and "operu" is to undergo cosmetic surgery (from "operation"). Then you have "rabiru" which means to be trapped and unable to take any action. ("Rabi" is short for "labyrinth," a maze.) Strangest of all, perhaps, is "giboru" --- to undergo a paranormal experience. It is taken from the name Aiko Gibo, a psychic who used to appear regularly on television.
Interestingly, this is similar to the Spanish phenomenon of forming new verbs by adding "-(e)ar" to the ends of nouns or loan words. While I was in Chile, the computer lab at the university had a sign admonishing people not to use the computers to "chatear," having Spanish-verbed the English loan word "to chat" (IM). I'm not sure how often this verb formation is used for slang, though, since I didn't pick up a lot of Chilean slang while I was there. "Chatear" seemed fairly mainstream.

As for the other slang examples in the article, I think my favorite was:
Oniden -- Literally, "demon-electricity." To telephone a person persistently.

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