language

What I just learned about Arabic

Posted on August 11, 2009. Filed under: arab culture, language, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , |

I recently learned that the Arabic language was created through the deliverance of the Quran.  The language was created for the purpose of religion.

I have always said that language and culture are inseparable. In fact, all  CAL Learning programs are founded on that belief. If language and culture cannot be separated, and Arabic language was created for religious purposes, I would expect Arabic culture and language to be closely tied to religion.

One example of the connection between language and religion is the basic greeting. The Arabic greeting, as-salamu alaykum, which means “peace be upon you”, is from the Quran. The language comes from the religion.

Are you an Arabic speaker? Can you give other examples of the connection between Arabic language and religion?

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Intonation, stress, and my Godiva chocolates

Posted on May 10, 2009. Filed under: American culture, celebrations, language, nonverbal communication | Tags: , , , , , |

I was woken up this morning with a lovely breakfast in bed for Mother’s Day. Actually, I had been up for about 10 minutes, and really wanted to pee and brush my teeth, but I thought it best to fake sleeping until I heard the rattle of the breakfast tray being carried down the hall by my beloved children, so as not to ruin their “surprise”.

One of my presents was a box of Godiva truffles,  which, by the way, I plan to finish before the end of the day. As I opened them, I saw Carlita looking longingly at the box.

“Would you like one?” I asked, with rising intonation, typical of a question asked in English. She smiled and took the coconut cream.

I looked at my husband. “Would YOU like one?” I asked, stressing the word you, because he doesn’t really eat sweets, and I wasn’t expecting that he would take it. ” Maybe later” he said.

Finally, I looked at Calvin, my teenage son who is capable of  inhaling the entire refrigerator at one sitting. “Would you like ONE?” I asked, stressing the word one, to let him know this was my candy, and I wasn’t giving it all away.

I had asked 3 people the same question, but each time it carried a very different meaning. Stress and intonation in English carry the bulk of the message, which is why English language learners often miss the subtle nuances in conversation. They tend to focus on the vocabulary and grammar. As native speakers, we all understood the differences in meaning  without an overt explanation. They also understood, without overt explanation, that they’d better not touch the raspberry dark chocolate one.

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Grammar, vocabulary and the thought process

Posted on January 29, 2009. Filed under: language |

When people discuss  cross cultural communication (and miscommunication) they are usually looking at pragmatics, or the way people say what they do, depending on the context. Although pragmatics carries the bulk of the cultural influence in communication, the grammar of a language can also influence  perceptions of others and events. It can create unspoken rules about the way things should be.

American linguist Benjamin Whorf  (1897-1941) was the first to postulate that what one thinks is determined by his language.  Although many linguists, most notably Stephen Pinker of Harvard University,  have argued against this, I think the main problem is that Whorf says thinking is determined by language, not influenced by language.

During an ESL class recently, I was teaching the unreal conditional (if I were in charge of education in this country, I would make the school day longer). A Thai student replied that I’m not in charge of education for the country. That’s right, I said. Thats why its an unreal conditional. The student was genuinely confused. Why would I even think of the result of something that doesn’t  exist? It made no sense. Thai language, as it turns out, does not have this grammatical form.

Certainly this student was able to understand this grammatical structure once it  had been taught to him. However, it was not part of the way he viewed or thought about the world. When you are learning another language, you are, in fact, learning about the way people think and view the world. 

Another example is the widespread use of diminutives in Spanish and Italian (calling my daughter Carla “Carlita” for example). They are used frequently to show affection and intimacy. There is no English equivalent that carries the same feeling, yet English speakers are capable of learning to use them, once they have been introduced.

Vocabulary, idioms and slang also can carry meaning that only the native speaker can understand on a gut level. I once had a Japanese student ask me, “Sensei, what is “pump up the jam” (the title of a 1989 song by Technotronic). After a short pause I said, “It means, increase the intensity.”  A weak translation for the feeling it inspires in native speakers.

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Great language learning site

Posted on January 17, 2009. Filed under: language | Tags: |

Do you know about livemocha? It’s a fantastic site for language learning. It’s a free site that offers over 30 languages. It covers all skill areas (listening, speaking, reading, writing). In addition to interactive lessons, it uses social networking for you to find language partners around the world. You can chat with them on line or skype for face to face communication. It’s innovative method has been written up in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. I love this site! Check it out if you want to pick up another language!

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Words to live by

Posted on January 11, 2009. Filed under: American culture, language |

I  recently asked my friends on Facebook to tell me their life mottos. Not surprising, their responses were very American. I don’t think they thought they were being American, I think they were just being.  
When I do relocation training for executives moving to the US,we discuss American values and their application in daily life and business. This list includes the following values:
  • individuality/personal responsibility
  • freedom/equality
  • work/achievement/progress
  • future-oriented/optimistic
  • materialism/consumerism
  • creativity/innovation
  • directness/assertiveness
  • time as a resource to spend or save
  • goodness toward humanity/volunteerism/charity

The life mottos that my friends selected fit very neatly into these catagories. No one mentioned the importance of living your life with patience or humility. No one mentioned following the wisdom of your ancestors, or the importance of fitting in to the group.

When I asked, “what are the mottos you live by” here were some of the responses, and the cultural traits they reflect:

personal responsibility:

  • We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.
  • I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can still do something…I will not refuse to do the something I can do.

optimistim/positive attitude:

  • where there is no hope, one must invent hope
  • There are 2 ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle

individuality:

  • do what you love, love what you do
  • I am like all people; I am like some people; I am like no other

directness/assertiveness

  • calling out your own bullshit and copout in your resistance for positive action. Fear not!
  • it’s better to ask forgiveness than ask permission

hard work:

  • things that are hard are worth doing
  • want to be the best? Exceed expectations
  • power through and go
  • do what you’re capable of doing and nothing less.

creativity/innovation

  • give merit to the ridiculous
  • fantasy…enables you to laugh at all of life’s realities
  • ask, “Why not?”

What are your mottos to live by? How do they reflect your culture?

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English: the amazing flexi-bendy language

Posted on January 3, 2009. Filed under: American culture, French culture, Japanese culture, language |

American English, like America itself, is always welcoming the new. It is a flexible and creative language, open to new words and new word forms.  It’s the language that brought you Frienamy (the friend who turned out to be an enemy), ginormous (giganitc and enormous) and Chindia (China and India), to mention a few. Each year, Mirriam-Webster dictionary selects a new “word of the year” to add to our ever expanding lexicon.

I was reading TIME magazine end of year List Issue (Americans love lists, but that’s another posting), which of course, always includes the top 10 buzzwords of the year. I knew most (like “staycation” and “puma”) and had to look up a few (apparently “nuke the fridge”  is the new “jump the shark”).  

Playing with language is fun for Americans. Not so for other cultures. The French, for example, take their language extremely seriously. The Académie Française, founded in 1635, is the guardian of the language. They will not let you just bring any old word into the French language. Changes in usage, vocabulary or grammar have to be discussed, debated and approved.

The Japanese are also wary of foreign or new words. The Japanese have 3 wrting systems: Kanji,  Hiragana  and Katakana. Katakana is used for  words adopted from foreign languages. The Japanese will use these words, but they are clearly marked as foreign because they are written in katakana.

English not only creates new words and word forms, but happily blends languages as well. Anyone who lives in New York City is fairly familiar with Spanglish.  Everyone is welcome to create blends that reflects their cultures and languages, like when I tell my (Jewish/Dominican) daughter “Ay! Que shaina punim tu tienes! ”   

As I have said and will say again (and again), language and culture can’t be separated. American English is like America: open, creative, often valuing the new over the traditional. The French view foreign and new words as questionable: Do they meet our cultural standards? And, with the Japanese, you can join the language but you will always be marked (through katakana) as an outsider.

Some linguistic conservatives, it’s true, don’t like all this blending, creating and mixing.  I love it.

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