We Didn't Start the Fire promo CD cover with lyrics
While politicians bicker about how to re-organize and finance schools, parents worry about their children’s academic performance and low-performing students struggle to follow lessons, we are forgetting about a free, fun and extremely powerful tool to help us learn and remember: music. Read more »
Have you ever felt like traveling into your past while being marveled by the present?
My trip to Budapest for the Polyglot Conference was both a trip to my past and a wonderful journey to be with others who are passionate about foreign languages.
Before my trip to Budapest, I was in Mexico doing presentations on learning English for the US Consul General in Tijuana and I had no time to practice my Hungarian. Sorry Hungarians, but who wants to practice magyar when you can admire the stunning sunsets and sand animals at the tip of the Baja California peninsula instead?
Sand Animals in La Paz, Mexico
My Hungarian had once been at an A2-B1 level. But that was in the last millennium when Hong Kong had just been “returned” to China. Not exactly yesteryear and not anywhere in the forefront of my memory. The only person with whom I sometimes exchange pleasantries in Hungarian in California actually speaks less Hungarian than I do even though he spent twice as many months in the country as I had.
When I reached home in Alta California (the US side) from Baja, I had four days to unpack, wash my clothes, pack, celebrate Mother’s Day, handle two media interview requests, see friends, sort through the mound of mail and bills which had accumulated while in the “other” California, pay my car registration, lest I return to an illegally parked vehicle and do a host of other tasks. Rekindling the Hungarian that I had learned, was not on my list of priorities. I photocopied some pages of a Hungarian phrase book to read on the plane. Matt Damon was well, a more attractive entertainment option in flight than my Hungarian phrase book. Mr. Damon was not sitting by my side. One of his movies was being shown. By the time I got around to reading my photocopied greetings, I fell asleep very quickly. So much for cramming my magyar .
Budapest, Castle District
I arrived in Budapest, Hungary, a few days before the Polyglot Conference started. As soon as I stepped into the car taking me to my rented apartment, I read and understood the advertisement on the car for a “Learn Languages Fast Language School”. As David, the driver, drove me from the airport to the Oktagon area of the city, I had known Hungarian words flying to me from shop signs and billboards. It was like being in a space ship with stars flying past me. But in this case, the stars weren’t just flashes of light, they were actual words which I understood. Forget the photocopied phrase book, I was in Hungarian recollection mode and I was loving it! Not surprisingly, the words I first recognized were for beer, wine and ice cream!
I went into my favorite falafel restaurant in Budapest and I was able to order in Hungarian! Mind you, I didn’t understand the clerk’s question about whether I was going to eat in or take the food home.
Falafel Faloda in Budapest
I walked around the city enamored with re-discovering this language which had been lodged inside my memory. Much to my surprise, I was able to navigate the city with little reference to the map. Even in places where I had not recalled having spent much time, I seemed to instinctively know where I was going. It was as though I had always been in Budapest.
Budapest was glistening. Some parts I didn’t even recognize because the city government had torn down buildings to make room for spacious squares or something else. The shimmer of the city also was reflected in the prices which were about two to five times the post-Socialist prices of the late 1990s that I so fondly recalled.
While I was walking on a popular street parallel to where I used to live, I didn’t recognize the shops or restaurants but something in my intuition made me slow down. Something felt familiar. I saw a street sign and it looked oddly familiar, but it had the word “Posta” in in it and since I was looking for a post office, I thought the street would take me to the post office. As soon as I turned right on this street, I knew exactly where I was! One block away, was my former apartment building overlooking on the Danube.
Maybe my words here don’t express the profound joy I felt at finding my old apartment building while walking in a city which I sometimes physically didn’t recognize but in which I felt I had an internal compass guiding me.
It comes as no surprise that I felt so “at home” at the Polyglot Conference amongst people whose videos or Internet posts I had previously seen. Somehow, in between work and family life, Luca Lampariello and Richard Simcott, organized the first ever Polyglot Conference. I don’t know how these two managed to do this. In addition to being speedy and prolific language learners, they can also pull off a language conference, on the side.
Meeting other language enthusiasts was fantastic. When I gave my presentation on the documentary I’m co-producing, Saved by Language, about how a young Bosnian boy saved his life in the Holocaust by speaking in Ladino/Judeo-Spanish, I didn’t have to convince the audience that languages are important. They were already with me!
Richard and Luca at the table, Susanna presenting
At our first dinner, I sat next to Robert Bigler , whose videos on interpreting and translation I was familiar with.
From Left: Susanna, Bartek and Alberto
To my right, was sitting a Polish polyglot attending a Spanish language high school in Krakow. Little did I know that Bartek, this very mature Pole, was only 16 years old and was asking me detailed questions about language learning! In front of me was a super enthusiastic Italian polyglot with his own Italian language learning program, Italiano Automatico where he teaches Italian via a self-development program. Alberto is only 18 years old. Robert came with his Austrian polyglot friend who is also 16 years old. I was so amazed that the conference attracted teenagers. If we can get more kids and teenagers to learn more languages, they can then influence their friends and we can spread the virtues of multilingualism far and wide.
I won’t go into details about each person’s presentation because other conference participants and attendees have already done that in their blog posts and you can read their summaries. True to the spirit of the Polyglot Conference, not all of these blog posts are in English!
Language education is competing against other industries for $100,000
The Loogla language and literacy project may be awarded $100,000 in a grant competition. Watch the video and spread
No logins, age or national restictions to vote. Please support language education through voting and sharing this video.
Not everyone has a gift for language, and many get a late start. Even the most well-intentioned and earnest late-bloomers often quit from frustration shortly after they plateau.
The Loogla project, a portmanteau of Looking Glass Language in honor of Lewis Carroll’s contributions to the playful exploration of language, promises a way to try again and finally achieve their goals.
Loogla turns any material on the web into activities and guidance contributed by an community of instructors. The intent is to empower learners to be active in their own acquisition process, without putting other aspects of their lives on hold. One of our simpler, but beloved, tools is Smart Syntax. For example, ELL students reading Create Your World Book could instantly encode this page with shapes and colors to make the grammar (gender, number, tense, mood) more intuitive. The page also becomes interactive and let users create flashcards using the words and images from the page and from the web. Loogla’s most unique tool feature are the rich activities ranging from simple topics, such as which preposition to choose to use in a sentence, to more immersive activities including videos where instructors quiz the learners about elements of the text they are reading. The activities incorporate the language of the page itself, creating a connection between skill building and personal interests. That crucial engagement in the materials is the best predictor of whether they’ll will keep at it.
This represents a big leap in passion-based learning for language enthusiasts. Current options for enhanced reading of the web consist primarily of translations drills or a limited selection of stock articles. One couldn’t, for example, follow breaking news.
Loogla recognizes thousands of atomic learning topics in a given web page and identifies which of them a student is learning in the moment. Once found, the application inserts the most highly rated instructor contributed activities into the language of the page without ever leaving the page. Each activity represents a mini-portfolio for the instructor, and students can connect with the instructors for more help right from their activities.
As students progress, more advanced groups of topics are unlocked so return visits to the same page are always a new experience, and the host of tools assist with concepts beyond the learner’s current reach.
Loogla is being beta-tested for Spanish language acquisition (sign up at Loogla.com), but new languages are in the works. The future of Loogla also includes ways to interact with media such as music and video. We’ll also adapt the concept to adolescent literacy where it promises to make flip teaching principles more effective by allowing learners to pursue their own interests, both inside and out of the classroom, while acquiring language skills.
We’re the only educational company in the running, so vote Loogla if you think that education matters!
Support Loogla’s bid for the $100,000 grant competition in the State of Nevada! voteliteracy.com
DISCLAIMER: Susanna Zaraysky, the owner of this blog, has not tried out Loogla. Nor does she endorse the website. This is a guest blog post by the founders of Loogla.
It’s been 5 years since I started looking for some of the best possible—preferably noncommercial—Korean bands out there, and today is your lucky day because I’ll share some of my findings with you! It’s not an exhaustive list by any standard, especially due to space constraints, and of course it’s subjective, but hopefully this will pique your curiosity and serve as a good introduction to Korean music.
By “Indie,” I mean bands or artists that write their own music and that are less mainstream than, say, KPOP and manufactured music ready-made for mass consumption. This “Indie” label is common in Korean music, and such music is often referred to as “K-Indie”. Technically, this could include genres as wide as rock, pop, grunge, acoustic, folk, ballad, and more.
For the top 10 bands, I’ve included an introduction to the band/artist, including the kind of music they play, the amount of years they’ve been on the scene, and the number of CDs they’ve released. I’ve also embedded a video for you to listen to, for what I consider to be one of each band’s “best” songs (one of their most popular, basically), and included links to additional songs that I particularly recommend.
Since most bands and songs’ titles are originally in Korean, I’ve included a loose translation for your convenience. However, this does not necessarily reflect the actual translation that the band has used, if there was ever one. I’ve tried my best to find the right translations whenever possible.
If you are studying or planning to study Korean, learning the language partly through music would be a great option available to you (which I’m sure you are already aware of, since you’re reading this on Susanna’s blog and she has written a book entitled “Language is Music”). If you want to find the lyrics for a particular song, you can most of the time simply Google the name of the band and song, and add “가사”, which means “lyrics” in Korean. If you cannot read Hangul yet, it only takes a couple of days of study to get the hang of it, so don’t be put off by these strange characters!
Otherwise, simply enjoy discovering a new culture. Believe me, Korean music is truly diverse, creative, and addictive. If you have any additional bands you think are worthy of mention, please let us know in the comments section! Remember, this list is highly subjective and only given as a means to introduce you to Korean Indie music. There are simply too many good bands to include them all in one post, so don’t hesitate to make your own suggestions and I will most likely write an additional post in the future on my blog, lingholic, if people are interested!
The Black Skirts is a Korean indie rock one man band founded in 2008 in Seoul.
Vocalist “Holiday” Cho (조휴일) is the lead singer and songwriter. He was born in Seoul, but grew up in New York City. He later came back to Seoul, Korea, and released the band’s first album, 201, in 2008. The album earned the 7th Korean Pop Music Award for Best Modern Rock Album.
Besides the album 201, The Black Skirts has released one unofficial album, My feet don’t touch the ground (and I am so winded I can’t sing for you today), in 2009, and a second full-length album, Don’t You Worry Baby (I’m Only Swimming), on July 13, 2011.
Most of the Black Skirts songs contain a mixture of languages – mostly English and Korean, and also Spanish (see song “Dientes”).
Zitten is an amazingly addictive one-member Modern Rock band, with Seong Yong-Uk as the vocalist and composer. Zitten’s first full-length album was released in 2008 (Zitten), and the band has released three EPs, in 2005, 2010, and 2011 respectively.
Deli Spice is an excellent rock band currently composed of 3 members, with Kim Min-Gyoo (김민규) as the main vocalist, guitarist, and band leader. The band has released a total of eight albums, with their first one, Deli Spice, released in 1997.
Don’t be fooled by the band’s rather curious name! Broccoli, you too is an amazing 4-member band originally formed in 2005. Deokweon (덕원) and Ryuji (류지) are the band’s main vocalists, with Jandi (잔디) on the keyboard and Hyanggi (향기) on the guitar.
Their debut album (EP) was released in 2007, under the name of No Encore (앵콜요청금지). They released 3 full-length albums (in 2008, 2010, and 2012), as well as a second EP in 2012.
The band won “Best Modern Rock Song Award” at the 2010 and 2011 Korean Music Awards, for their songs “Universal Song (보편적인 노래)” and “Graduation (졸업).”
Lucid Fall (루시드폴) is a Korean singer-songwriter. His birth name is Jo Yun Suk (조윤석). He has released five studio albums: Lucid Fall (2001), Oh, Love (오, 사랑) (2005), A Night at Border ( 국경의 밤) (2007), Les Misérables (2009), and the latest album Beautiful Days (아름다운 날들) released in Korea on December 20, 2011.
Lucid Fall’s musical style incorporates folk, pop, and bossa nova. He uses a nylon guitar as his primary instrument and is famous for poetic lyrics. The tone of Lucid Fall’s music is melancholic and at times gloomy, but it’s also soothing and relaxing.
Lucid Fall was awarded the Bronze prize at the 5th Ryu Jae Ha Music contest in 1993, as well as the best pop single prize at the 3rd Korean Music Awards in 2006.
Toy is a one-man project band of Korean pop singer-songwriter and pianist Yoo Hee-yeol. Toy is an “old school” band that was at the height of their popularity back in the 1990s. The band has released 6 studio albums since 1994, in addition to one live and one compilation album.
Toy started as a duo of Yoo Hee-yeol and Yoon Jeong-oh, but after releasing Toy’s first album, Yoon Jeong-oh left the band to study overseas. Yoo Hee-yeol has been the sole member of Toy since 1996, and he released Toy’s second album Fairy Tales for Adults in the same year. The title song Remember I Was Next to You sung by Kim Yeon-woo became a big hit and the album was a success.
10 cm (십센치) is a very popular Indie band in Korea. The band has two members, Kwon Jung Yeol (vocal, djembe) and Yoon Cheol Jong (guitar). The band won “This Year’s Discovery Award” at the 2010 Mnet Asian Music Awards, and “Best Pop Song Award” at the 2011 Korean Music Awards.
Since the debut release, they released one single in 2010, called “Americano,” and two full-length albums (2011 and 2012). “Americano” was an instant hit, and the melody is recognizable by most Koreans since the song aired on radio and in TV series quite extensively.
Roller Coaster is a 3-member rock band, with Cho Won-Seon (조원선) as the band leader (vocals, keyboard). Cho Won-Seon is an extremely talented woman that has also released a solo album in 2009 (Swallow). Roller Coaster has released a total of 5 full-length albums, in addition to one live album and a digital single.
The band made their debut in 1999, and has been active since then.
Monni is a 4-member rock band with the amazing Kim Shin-Eui (김신의) as the band’s vocalist. They have a gift for making high quality, highly-addictive songs. Their live shows are energetic and plain amazing.
The band made their debut in 2005, and has since then released 3 full-length albums, one recent EP (2012), as well as several singles.
Last but not least in this introduction to Korean Indie Music is Standing Egg, another addictive band formed in 2010. The band is composed of three members (Egg #1, #2, and #3), and released their first album in 2010. They released a second full-length album in April 2012. They also released two “mini-album” and 7 singles. Their lyrics are often a mix of Korean and English, and Standing Egg’s music style could be considered as acoustic and pop.
Alright everybody, that’s it for today’s post. I really hope you’ll have enjoyed discovering new music, and I hope you’ll find Korean music as amazing as I do! Should you ever have any questions, whether about Korean music or the Korean language, I’d be more than happy to answer them. Feel free to visit my blog, www.lingholic.com, and visit the “Contact” page to send me a message! I’d also love it if you’d drop by my Facebook page and say hi! Many thanks~
One of the hardest things to be is an American citizen who speaks other languages, but being an African- American who speaks several languages has its own unique set of issues. For one, 99.99% of the time you feel as if you are the only person within a 3,000 mile radius who speaks another language, you find yourself searching through outlets such as Youtube for people who look like you that speak several languages, and when you do find them, you clamor like a lonely, desperate adolescent. You find yourself reaching out to them on every social network there is – begging and hoping that they will add you to their inner circle of coolness. By the way, thank you Moses McCormick, Idahosa Ness, and David Mansaray.
10 Reasons Why African Americans NEED To Learn A Second Language
Meanwhile in real life, everyone in the community is so impressed that you speak 3 or 4 languages, but they want no parts of learning one for themselves…or maybe they just don’t know where to start. Either way, this is what inspired me to write my first bookThe Book on Language Learning: 10 Reasons Why African Americans NEED To Learn a Second Language. My aim was to not only appeal to the “feel good” reasons why African-Americans need to learn a second language (i.e. enjoying diverse foods, reveling in good music, and pursuing love in other cultures), but also to the more practical reasons, such as understanding history, economics and geopolitics. I also wanted to provide further insight on how being monolingual over the generations has been detrimental to our present and how being bilingual will be critical for our future survival as global citizens.
I am a multilingual Emcee, so I enjoy producing rap music in all the languages I speak. Naturally, when I first came across Susanna Zaraysky’s great work a few years back, I was excited and impressed that she is an advocate of using music to learn languages. Still, I noticed something else that was a bit disturbing: I was bothered by the fact that I have not seen or met many female polyglots. In fact, when I looked around the African American community, I was even more disturbed because I noticed that there is a severe lack of female representation in the language community; so, consequently there are no women being celebrated. That’s not to say that there aren’t African American men and women in high places who aren’t multilingual. For example , we have Ambassador Pamela Spratlen -nominated to the position by President Barack Obama on January 5, 2011, and who speaks Russian, French, and Spanish. There’s also Mr. Andrew Ballen -CEO/Founder of AVD Digital Media, who has made his bones over in China with a high command of Mandarin.
But, in my own personal life – within my wide circle of friends from all walks of life, different places, and different social economic standings – I am hard-pressed to encounter a Black woman or man who speak more than one language. I literally know of ONE: Ms. Whitney “Phylliz Sophikal” Boyd, a native of Miami, Florida currently working in Atlanta. Ms Boyd is worth noting because not only is she bilingual, but she is also a brilliant educator, artist, and scholar holding a Masters in Pan-African Studies.
So when I asked Ms. Boyd about the importance of African-American people – and particularly African-American women – learning languages, she remarked:
“As a high school Spanish teacher, it is immeasurably disparaging to hear students complain about the uselessness of learning a second language. What many people of color fail to realize is that knowing a second language is as important for one’s personal development as it is for job security. As a people, we are overdue for a paradigm shift toward global thinking and global citizenship, and because women are statistically more present in the lives of our children, it is up to us to expose them to language skills and the beauty of cultural diversity.”
Now as you read this you may be asking yourself “Why is everything so Black and White?” or “Why does everything have to be about race?” or even “Why does it always come down to the ‘gender war’?” Well, the simple answer is…because this is the good ol’ US of A and at the end of the day it is about race, color, and creed; it is ALL economic, and African-Americans are getting left behind, yet again.
While writing this article, I read a recent post, What Facebook executive’s new book tells about women, success & foreign languages on Susanna’s site. This post highlighted the accomplishments of Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook who also made the cover of TIME magazine. In this very informative article, Susanna had mentioned how she was upset with the article in TIME magazine because, as she puts it, “The article reinforced what I was already suspecting was the explanation for why we don’t see more female polyglots being public about their foreign language successes.” She goes on to explain that “women’s success is not appreciated by [her] peers. Men’s success is appreciated.”
Now I have noted all throughout my book that the lack of bilingualism is a national issue, but I do keep it real with the reader because – like everything else in this country – when it gets broken down into simple terms, White men sit at the top, White women are second, “everyone else” third, Black women fourth, and Black are men last. In other words, if America as a whole is doing poorly at something, African-Americans suffer the worst, and when America is doing well at something, African-Americans usually get little to no share of the spoils.
As I read Susanna’s article (from an African-American perspective), I could not fathom any issues arising from being the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook because we rarely see that type of success in our community in the first place, whether it be male or female. Nonetheless, her point was well-expressed and well-received.
In addition, I made sure to write the book with the youth in mind because America needs to start raising a generation of bilingual citizens. As a kid growing up in monocultural America, I was always interested in other cultures. I can remember one of my early crushes – she was a beautiful Filipino girl who I played chess against, and who was always by my side when we played the “Oregon Trail.” Now, being in middle school, “by my side” meant that the teacher just sat her next to me in the circle along with 14 other students, but you get the point. And it was in the early 1990’s that my obsession with Hip-Hop, African history, World history and Rick Steves:European Travels that would encourage me to eventually learn other languages. The educational system here in America has done an extreme disservice to its youth by not implementing a serious foreign language learning matrix into its curricula. It took me a long time to get back to my dream of learning a second language –yes, I said dream. That is how bad it is.
As it was then, so it is now that learning a second language in school is an exception, not the rule. And because it was not the rule, we have created generations of Americans who are averse to learning foreign languages and usually point back to school as the reason why they stopped learning them in the first place. Thus, the cycle of monolingualism has, in my not-so-humble opinion, perversely affected the society to the extreme that, even with the World Wide Web, America’s youth are light years behind children in other countries who already speak English as a second or even third language. Not to mention the parents of these monolingual children who may, themselves, need to pick up Spanish to earn better pay at their jobs.
Still, everything is not gloom and doom because America, with all its cultural diversity, can turn this around. African Americans in particular are capable of achieving this well. I am the proof of this fact. See, I did not start learning a second language until my early thirties, and since then I have learned five languages and written a book about it with the hopes of being a positive contribution to both the African-American and language communities as a whole.
Many in the African –American community may ask “How can I learn a second language when I can’t afford Rosetta Stone?!”
I have never used Rosetta Stone. But, I do know that it’s expensive so let me give the readers a few suggestions on how to learn a language on a budget:
YouTube– FREE! Look up your language and you will find so many awesome people around the world who have given their time, and knowledge to help the viewer learn a foreign language.
Library- FREE! I believe it was Andrew Carnegie who once said that “libraries are the poor man’s university”.
Meetup.com-FREE! These are excellent places to not only learn a foreign language, but also to practice with other people who are doing the same thing.
Motivation-FREE! Find your reason (I give 10 in the book) on why you want or need to learn a second language and the rest will fall in line.
Since I have learned foreign languages, my world has literally burst open. Now, I have more friends from around the planet than I have in the States. I have been able to meet wonderful people like Susanna who inspire me to keep at it daily. As a Hip Hop artist I find it stimulating to find my voice in my languages. Also, having a foreign language gives me the ability to switch cadences in the rhyme flow and pattern, and I can flex my lyrical dexterity as I go in out of languages while rhyming. Outside the booth I have found a new professional passion as an interpreter (community, court and conference) and an ESL teacher as well. In the near future I would like to use my experience and skill to mentor and train low income and at-risk youth and adults in these two beautiful professions.
So, in the end, even when I feel like the lonely African-American, when it comes to language learning, I know that I’m dropping a jewel for future generations of young Black boys and girls who need to know that through foreign language learning, they can be more than just dancers, singers, rappers, or athletes. Through enlightened cultural influence, the 3,000 mile radius of looking for youths like them who speak other languages will shrink to every corner of the planet, and they will become true global citizens.
The TIME Magazine “Confidence Woman” cover story on Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, and her new book, Lean In, about women, success and careers made me very angry. The article reinforced what I was already suspecting was the explanation for why we don’t see more female polyglots being public about their foreign language successes.
Women’s success is not appreciated by her peers. Men’s success is appreciated.
Translate this into foreign language skills and this is the picture you see. While many foreign language classes have more females than males, we see more men than women on the Internet showing their language abilities. Women play down their abilities while men are taught that it is good to show off or at least be public about their accomplishments.
Read this excerpt from Sandberg’s new book Lean Inabout the double standard that pervades the way a powerful woman is viewed in society vs how a man with the same traits is lauded by his peers.
In 2003, Columbia Business School professor Frank Flynn and New York University professor Cameron Anderson ran an experiment. They started with a Harvard Business School case study about a real-life entrepreneur named Heidi Roizen. It described how Roizen became a successful venture capitalist by using her “outgoing personality … and vast personal and professional network … [which] included many of the most powerful business leaders in the technology sector.” Half the students in the experiment were assigned to read Heidi’s story. The other half got the same story with just one difference—the name was changed from Heidi to Howard.
When students were polled, they rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent. But Howard came across as a more appealing colleague. Heidi was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” This experiment supports what research has already clearly shown: success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.
I believe this bias is at the very core of why women are held back. It is also at the very core of why women hold themselves back. When a woman excels at her job, both men and women will comment that she is accomplishing a lot but is “not as well liked by her peers.” She is probably also “too aggressive,” “not a team player,” “a bit political”; she “can’t be trusted” or is “difficult.” Those are all things that have been said about me and almost every senior woman I know.
(Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In)
The impact for foreign language learners is that while women might learn languages, they may not be motivated to use them to excel professionally because of how poorly they will be viewed by her peers. Although it has been a while, I have been told by both men and women to shut up about my language skills or else I intimidate men. It turns out that I might have not just been intimidating men, but annoying other women.
We might think that subtle signals mean nothing. However, over the course of a girl’s lifetime, she may encounter many situations when people tell her to be quiet, be modest and not outshine her peers, male or female, for fear of not being accepted. As she matures into an adult, she may hold back, water down her achievements and not show her success.
Both men and women have to examine how they treat successful females at any age. Do you encourage them to keep going and learn more? Or do you tell them to be quiet and avoid being “unliked” for being smart, intellectual, outspoken or multilingual?
Learning a language with various regional varieties or dialects means choosing which accent(s) to learn. In this video with Richard Simcott and Luca Lampariello, we talk about how we chose which accent to learn in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
Rare is the book which envelops my attention, delights me in its prose, makes me re-read passages both for the joy of the flow of the sentences and for the content and strikes a chord with me personally. Le testament français (UK edition)/Dreams of my Russian Summers (US edition) not only had all of the aforementioned effects but it also made me get out my pen and underline key sentences and make notes. I hadn’t done that since my college years.
The story is fictional. It’s about a teenage boy in Siberia in post-World War II Russia who learns about pre-Revolutionary Russia and Paris before World War I from Charlotte, his French grandmother. He learns about the opulence of the Tsar’s visit to France in French. Via the French language, he feels as though he enters into another world, one whose words he doesn’t even know in Russian.
The author, Andrei Makine, is a Siberian novelist who writes in French and has been living in France since he defected from the former Soviet Union in 1987.
Andrei Makine, author of Dreams of my Russian Summers
While devouring the book, I often recalled my own discovery of the riches of pre-Soviet St. Petersburg via a French novel, La gouvernante française, written by a Russian-French author, Henri Troyat. Before my first return to Russia, I went to the French section of my local library and chanced upon, La gouvernante française, a novel about a French governess working for a rich Russian family right before the Russian Revolution. The backdrop of the Revolution and political upheaval set the story of the governess’ awakening in St. Petersburg. I was learning about my own country in French, not in Russian, similar to how the protagonist of Dreams of my Russian Summers learned about Tsarist Russia.
Via the French language, France became the protagonist’s Atlantis, a mythical land.
Charlotte’s Atlantis had enabled me to glimpse the mysterious consonance of eternal moments. Without my knowing it, they had traced the pattern of another life, invisible, inadmissible, alongside my own.
Even a Russian word changed meanings when said in French:
“Perhaps this double vision could be explained by my two languages; thus, when I pronounced the word ‘царь’ a cruel tyrant rose before me; while the word ‘tsar’ in French was redolent of lights, of sounds, of winds, of glittering chandeliers, of the radiance of women’s bare shoulders, of mingled perfumes, of the inimitable air of our Atlantis.”
Language as an escape
Stories in French evoked a past that was more real to him than his present day Siberia. (Granted, Soviet Siberia probably gave people many reasons to seek a mental escape, whether via literature, music, the arts or controlled substances like alcohol.)
Once again I sensed in myself the mysterious gestation of that language [French] so different from words blunted by use …
Why does an autumn morning in Cherbourg a hundred years ago, yes, a moment I have never lived through, in a town I have never visited, why do its light and breeze seem to me more alive than the days of my real life?
It was Charlotte who had taught me to pick out Parisian silhouettes in the midst of a great industrial city on the Volga; it was she who had imprisoned me in this fantasy of the past, from whence I cast absent-minded glances at real life.
From what my parents have told me about growing up in the former Soviet Union, literature was indeed a vehicle out of the drab and repressive reality of the Communist regime. Soviets read books voraciously and studied maps of foreign cities to the point that they knew the street plans of Paris better than native Parisians. They did this in an effort to mentally leave the everydayness of their existence. But I had never heard of language being a mental airplane out of the Iron Curtain. Makine’s novel brought me to a deeper understanding of the power of language to let us dream and escape when we need to.
Life is different in French
When learning about the French President Félix Faure dying in the arms of his mistress, the protagonist realizes that this taboo of having a lover would never be discussed openly in Russian, but was completely natural for his grandmother to discuss with him in French:
“No Russian babushka would venture into such a discussion with her grandson. In this freedom of expression, I sensed an unaccustomed perception of the body, of love, of relationships between a man and a woman – a mysterious French ‘outlook’.
To my great surprise, rerun in Russian, the scene no longer made a good story. It was actually impossible to tell! Censored by an inexplicable modesty of words…
‘No’, I said to myself stretched out in the rippling grass under the warm wind, ‘it is only in French that he could die in the arms of Marguerite Steinhell…’
Aliveness via language
He spends some time in his teenage rebellion rejecting the French world of his grandmother and when he meets with her again after some time of separation, he feels like he is speaking in French as a foreign language. His change in character had altered his ability to speak in French. His next conclusion about being in between Russian and French is one that I believe reverberated in me more than all the others:
Strangely, or rather, quite logically, it as at moments like this, when I find myself between two languages, that I believe I can see and feel more intensely than ever.
He asks himself later in the book, “Suppose one could express this language in writing?” Oh how many times have I asked myself the same question, only to be met by the reality that if I write how I think, few people will be able to follow my jumps from one tongue to another!
I think that for those who are conscious of how differently we express ourselves in our languages and how each language resounds with us, we have felt this aliveness, if not confusion, that comes with living between languages. I did a video series in Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and English about the resonance of languages and I explained how each language makes me feel. But it is precisely when I can speak with people who know more than one of the languages I know, that I can fully express myself because my thoughts change languages mid-sentence, depending on which language best captures what I mean to say. The mental switching of languages brings an awareness and intensity of perception unbeknownst to monolinguals.
Don’t get me wrong or misquote me, please. It’s not that monolinguals don’t have profound thoughts or feelings. There are monolinguals who have more powerful sentient experiences than bilinguals or polyglots. However, it is for those multilingual people who are conscious of how their mind is dancing, switching or jumping from one dictionary to another that the world can be felt at many levels, piercing through the limitations of one language and rejoicing in the more appropriate words of another.
Language preserved in amber, in isolation
As the protagonist only saw his grandmother during the summers, he spent the rest of the year only conversing in Russian and dreaming in French in his mind. When he returned to see his grandmother, her French-ness was preserved intact in her isolation in Siberia, even with her pre- World War I “Belle Époque” flavor. By speaking to his grandmother, he was hearing her speak in a French that her contemporaries in France would no longer use because the language had evolved in the decades since her departure from France after World War I.
This reminds me of a funny episode when I first encountered the differences between my modern Russian lexicon and that of Tsarist Russia. My parents took me to a Russian festival at Fort Ross, a former Russian installation, in Northern California, there were Russians there who were descendants of the White Russians who had left Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and had settled in the United States. A boy was telling his grandmother in old pre-revolutionary Russian that he couldn’t find his underwear. Instead of using the modern Russian word, трусы, he said, подштанники. I laughed because I understood what meant, it literally meant “underpants” but I had never heard the word before. My parents had to explain to me that before the revolution подштанники was a commonly used word. My sister reminds me that I kept repeating the word in the car ride home!
Russia via a French novel in British English
One may ask why I was reading this book in English and not in French. The author and I share a mother tongue. He wrote his novel in French, my third language. Yet I was reading his book in a British English translation — one small step removed from my American English. I was on vacation abroad and found his book in a used bookstore. There was no French version. Despite the linguistic distance between the original version and the one I was reading, I loved the flow of his writing and the vivid details of Siberian life and pre-World War I life in Paris and Russia. I look forward to reading his other books in French to see if they flow as well for me.
Jean Paul Belmondo, French film star
This was actually the second time I had read one of Makine’s books in British English and not in French. The first was Once upon the River Love, about Siberian boys reveling at the romanticism and adventure of the movies of Jean-Paul Belmondo. I remember clearly his descriptions of how the boys walked in the snow to get to the movie theater to re-watch a Jean-Paul Belmondo movie.
(On a side note, I find that when I read a book translated into British English, I perceive some awkwardness or something odd about the English. But when I read a book or article written by a native English speaker of another anglophone country, including England, I don’t feel anything strange. The language just flows.)
Do you have similar feelings of being in between languages in your mind?
Does the world feel different depending on which language you are using?
Does the same word mean different things for you in different languages?
Do you have a language that transports you to a mythical or long-lost world?
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