Posts Tagged ‘language’

Native Tongue

22 January 2011

Dear J-

There was a brief moment of shining clarity this afternoon — the kids & I were in Irvine with their cousin and aunt at a playground and of the three groups that passed through while we were there only one spoke English. The other languages were Korean and Mandarin. My sister-in-law asks me what language I think in — for me it’s English but I understand Mandarin pretty well — and I think it’s amazing that in my lifetime we’ve reached the point where it’s not always English everywhere all the time.

The paranoid among us will worry about what other people are saying, but let’s face it: they’d worry whether or not they understood the words that are spoken. Based on my unscientific understanding of two-thirds of those encounters I’d say we really have nothing to worry about, it’s just whatever tool comes first as the most expressive wrench in the box. I don’t know whether to be elated or dismayed that English comes up for me, but I am excited to know that one size doesn’t fit all.


P.S. Er, take that, Rush!


Shankar’s Story

1 April 2009

Dear J-

In the novel Q&A (Vikas Swarup), the penultimate 100,000,000 rupees chapter details Ram’s life in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.  It’s one of the chapters that made the leap from page to screen (Slumdog Millionaire) without too much change, in that he still works as an illegal guide at the Taj and manages to pick up the history through word of mouth.  However, the chapter in the novel concentrates more on the life he has outside his guide work — living, loving, and the words of a fellow orphan, Shankar.

I discovered that his language was not just meaningless gibberish.  Although the words sounded nonsensical to us, for him they held a peculiar internal coherence.

That was enough to prompt me to sit down and translate the Shankar passages — it turns out to be a simple substitution cipher, with the first clues given by the chapter’s title — X Gkrz Opknu translates to A Love Story:

d f g h j k l m n u o p q -> English
a b c d e f g h i j k l m -> Shankar

r s t i v w x y z b a c e -> English
n o p q r s t u v w x y z -> Shankar

a b c d e f g h i j k l m -> English
x w y a z b c d q e f g h -> Shankar

n o p q r s t u v w x y z -> English
i k l m n o p j r s t u v -> Shankar

There are otherwise some pretty significant spoilers that come from knowing Shankar’s language, so those will follow after the break.  After having watched the movie (liked it) and read the novel (also liked it) — these things are not capital-A Art, but they are entertaining and engaging.  The charm of the novel lies partly in seeing what was changed to streamline the story for the film, but mostly in the likeable Ram Mohammad Thomas, whose unlikely story makes for great, compulsive page-turning fun.  Even if you’ve seen the film, the book is worth picking up — it doesn’t take long to get through.



China’s Throwing

17 August 2008

Dear J-

David Brooks recently published a column — let’s face it, he’s an opinion writer, paid to hang his views out on public display, so there’s no doubt all kinds of folks who jump on his words on a regular basis, ready to string him up for some incendiary remarks or unpopular view — the column was, as many opinion writers are finding fertile ground on lately, regarding China.  The basic premise of the piece is that here we’re looking at a completely foreign way of thinking, right down to the very foundations of thought — collectivist (China) versus individualist (the West).

It reminds me a little of the worst reading assignment I ever had — that one, in first-year Chinese History, went twenty pages of excruciating detail on how the Chinese language’s lack of a definite article (“the”) doomed Chinese society to backwardness, futility, and irrelevance in the modern world.  There’s plenty of folks who have pored over the reasons why, over the last hundred and fifty years, China’s been a punching bag of the East.  There’s a constant need to justify the way we live versus the way they are, and we preen over our smug intellectualism until it comes crashing down around us.

Witness the events of the Russo-Japanese War at the turn of the 20th Century.  Japan, less than fifty years removed from the humiliation of being forced open to trade by Commodore Perry, takes on a major Western power — and wins.  The Battle of Tsushima was decisively lopsided in favor of the Japanese, and historians have scrambled to provide answers and reasons since then.  Yes, the Russians had to steam virtually across the world — but this, because their Pacific fleet was already in shambles from the Japanese.  Yes, the Japanese were trained by the British, possibly the finest naval tacticians of all time (this, of the gun era, prior to submerged vehicles and aircraft).  And yes, the Japanese still won.

There’s a soft appeasement in the tone of the phrase Brooks turns out:  “According to [the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and capitalism], societies get more individualistic as they develop.”  You hear the implicit wheedling pejorative pat on the head:  Good job, China, way to become like us.  Keep it up.  Do you remember that after Paul McCartney advised Michael Jackson to purchase the rights to music in order to ensure steady wealth, MJ went ahead and outbid Paul on the Beatles catalog?  Guess who holds most of our bonds and debts?  Yes, it’s fashionable to sneer at the imitation of Chinese pirates and chuckle over the innumerable contributions of Western intellect to raising the world’s standard.  But remember that Edison himself stated his genius was due less to insight, but more on persistence, and who’s turning out more students than ever?  Who’s funding the research?  Who’s choosing careers in science?

The world keeps changing.  At least the man sitting in the dunk tank knows when the balls hit the target:  maybe not yet, but soon.


Foreign ABC

9 July 2008

Dear J-

All along, we were told that we learn a foreign language in high school as a sort of life skill, but from what I can tell, it was more a reason to make funny noises and embarrass yourself in restaurants years later.  Besides, they say that you’re more apt to learn foreign languages when you’re young, as your language centers are a bit more flexible — didn’t work for me, at least, when I didn’t particularly care to learn either Russian or Mandarin.  Cast your gaze in a different direction, then:  the other tack they give you is that it helps you learn your native language better.

Deciphering the rules of a foreign language (how do you conjugate that verb again?) gives you a better understanding of the rules you’re unconsciously familiar with.  Everyone has a different way of learning; not everyone sits down to read the manual, just as not everyone just leaps in, damn the torpedos and all.  Frustration sets in quickly as we realize our limitations though.  Good, but what does this have to do with foreign languages?

Hang me from a tree for saying it, but I’m starting to appreciate the way our new system is forcing me to re-learn our processes.  I didn’t fully learn the why of what we did when I first learned it.  Just in time, though, this new system with its new work process came out and forced me to understand why we do things in certain ways.  Killing me, though.  Lest I even try to get something done, it feels like I’m the only one who knows anything, and I end up fielding questions all day long, spinning my wheels and losing traction.