Friday, December 30, 2011

You and Your Country

People are sometimes identified by their country of origin. The question is what you call them.  In many languages, the native noun has a predicable form based on the name of the country.  However, due to the wide variety of endings on country names, it is sometimes difficult to predict how to name the person.
In English, if a country ends in a or o, the person generally ends in an.  People from Liberia and Morocco are called Liberians and Moroccans.  In some cases, the suffix ian is used, as for Argentineans and Canadians.  Ese is occasionally used as in having dinner with a Chinese and a Portuguese.
Some nationality nouns use the country as a base form and take off some letters, as in Turks, Germans, and Greeks.  There are suffixes that are used in rare cases.  Ard is only found in Spaniards, while “i’  is used for Israelis, Iraqis, and Bengalis. People from Latvia and Finland are Letts and Finns, respectively.  Some natives don’t even have a special form, using the country name as an adjective.  People from France, Ireland, and Britain are known as Frenchmen (or women), Irishmen, and Englishmen, although the latter may be called Brits.  Then, there are the Dutch, who come from the Netherlands. 
Aside from the official name of the nationality, there are nicknames, some of them derogatory and some not.  Canadians are sometimes called Canucks (I don’t know whether they like it or not) whereas an older term for Brits is Limeys, since they were the first to have the sailors eat lime juice to avoid scurvy.  To the best of my knowledge, Australians have no problems being Aussies, although New Zealanders hate being called such since they are definitely not that.
 If you don’t know what you are, check the dictionary.  Personally, I am an Israeli, American, and Frenchman with a little bit Iraqi from my previous marriage and can be found under the term ethnic salad.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Holidays in the Holy Land

Reality is often quite ironic.  In the Western World, the only place where almost everybody is working on Jesus’ birthday is in the place he was born.  Throughout Europe and the United States, people will be taking this Sunday off, with only a few luckless individuals having to work.  (I have worked holidays;  Even the extra pay does not make it feel better.) Just in Israel, the birthplace of Jesus, is Sunday a regular working day, albeit with the kids off for Hanukah.  Not only that, there is no sign of snow or reindeers here, not mention, aside from a few Christian villages, any sound of Christmas carols.
In fact, the winter solstice holiday in Israel remains pleasantly banal.  People go to work, unless they work in high tech or some other industry so tied to Europe and the United States that it makes no sense for a business to remain open.  Every night until Wednesday, a candle will be lit and a few short prayers and songs sung in honor of Hanukah.  The Moslems and Druze have no holiday at this time.  So, they conduct business as usual.  The Christians will spend their holiday with their families, but it is not a very public celebration in most places. 
In fact, the most significant signs that there is any holiday at all are the omnipresent sufganiot [doughnuts], the smell of levivot [potato pancakes], and malls packed with kids and teenagers trying to spend their money as fast as they can.  They of course are quite happy to be excused from school for a week, the exact same feeling their teachers have. 
On the bright side, people in Israel are not assaulted by fat men wearing red clothing, a constant background of cheerful songs, the pangs of guilt and foot pain involved in buying gifts, and a week of too much alcohol and food, not to mention fascinating small talk.  This is almost a normal week. For us freelancers, we have two weeks of being in great demand as our colleagues in the West are generally busy socializing. 
Still, I would not protest if someone offered me an eggnog, nice and strong of course, and sang once, but only once, and in key Little Drummerboy.  Aside from that, I prefer the Israeli version of the holiday atmosphere.  It is quite possible that Jesus would feel at home with it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Baseball and the English Language

Every language is shaped by the experience of its speakers.  The sea and (European) football have shaped England.  Ranching and its wilderness experience have shaped Australia.  One of the strongest influences on modern American language is sport.  While American football and basketball attract more fans per game, American baseball attracts more people per season and strongly impacts the language.
If life throws you a curveball, you have an unpleasant surprise.  A person who is called a minor leaguer does not get much respect.  If you strike you, you had no success.  Speaking of scoring, teenagers used to refer to a date’s progress by how far the boy got, i.e. a kiss was first base while the mythical homerun was generally a lie at that age.   A ballpark figure is an approximate number while a bleacher bum is an uneducated, boorish individual who is always criticizing.  If your batting average is poor, you are not successful most of the time.  A person who tries hard until the bitter (or maybe happy) end knows that It isn’t over until the fat lady sings.  A screwball is a completely strange person.   The world series is where the best play each other
So, whether you like watching baseball or not, baseball is a part of America’s language.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Rhythm of the Days

While it is true that the whole world works on a week of seven days and an official calendar of 365.25 days, it does not mean that the pace of the time is identical in all countries.  In each country, there is a time for business and time for other things.  Whether you like it or not, you have to take these patterns into account when doing business.
For example, in the good old days of Brezhnev at the time of the Soviet Union, wary consumers, if they had a choice of course, never bought anything made on a Monday, Friday, or the last week of the month.  The workers had hangovers on the first day and were hurrying to meet quota at the other times.  In Paris, it is best to take care of official business, including banking and post office, in the morning as the clerks become down-right unpleasant as the end of the work day approaches.  In Germany, the unions prevent stores from staying open late, meaning shopping is hectic between 4-6 in the afternoon and then almost shuts down completely afterwards.  In the Mediterranean basin, due to the heat, except for shops in modern, air-conditioned malls, most establishments close between two and four in the afternoon.  On the bright side, they stay open late.
Most countries in the West have a real two day weekend, except for those working in retail.  In the United States, Saturday has become a big errand day, with even banks giving into competition and opening half days on Saturday.  The term bankers’ hours no longer means short working days.  By contrast, Sunday is spent reading the especially long Sunday paper and watching football games on TV during the season for those who are football fans.  Israel has a completely different rhythm to life.  Friday is an intense half day of work.  The local joke is that Friday is a SEX day, referring to the Hebrew initials for mopping, shopping, and cooking.  However, on Friday afternoon, many people take a long nap in the afternoon.  Saturday for most people is doing things they don’t have to do, however they define it.  Some people take hikes while others go shopping (In the stores, by law at least, only non-Jews can be forced to work on Saturday, the Sabbath).  The Sabbath for most non-religious people is a busy but fun day.  On the other hand, while the rest of world is resting on Sunday, Israelis are back to work.  Monday has a different meaning in Israel than elsewhere.  Each place to its pace.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Rose is not always a rose in another language

Children throughout the world like stories and, at least in the Western world, read and see many of the same stories and cartoons.  It does not necessarily follow that that they will recognize the names of these characters, however.  Traditionally, names have experienced what translators call “localization,” meaning adjustment to the local language.  In other words, the stories are the same, but the names have been changed (to protect the innocent?).
In the world of fairy tales, many heroes are unrecognizable to other culture.  The German Hanzel and Gretel has become Ami and Tami in Hebrew.  The English Cinderella is  לכלוכית [lichluchit] in Israel, the dirty one, and золушка [zolushka]  in Russian.  Snow White is freely localized: Blanche-Neige in French,  שלגיה [Shelgia] (the snow one) in Hebrew, and белоснежный  [belosnojni] in Russian.
Popular culture also is translated.  The American comedians Laurel and Hardy were called on Israeli television השמן והרזה [hashemen veharazeh], meaning the fat one and thin one.  In the wonderful duo of Pinky and the Brain (my favorite “modern” cartoon), the French Pinky is called “Zero”, presumably due to his intelligence or lack thereof.  I question how many Americans would recognize les Pierrafeu, otherwise known as Fred and Barney.
To quote the latter, have a yabba yabba good time day.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Time for Names

Parents have the right in most countries to name their children as they wish.   Some names are chosen for their popularity while others for their meaning.  Calling a girl Yaffa or Tova, Hebrew names, may place a burden on her because they mean pretty and good, respectively.  Of course, there is little worse than Cher calling her daughter Chastity.
A curious serious of selective names involve the seasons.  Some Israeli parents name their children Stav and Aviv, meaning autumn and spring.  By contrast, kayitz and horef, summer and winter, are unheard of.  By contrast, in English, Summer and Autumn as first names exist, but are rare where as spring and winter are basically ignored.
In terms of months, the spring months are generally preferred as sources of first names, specifically April, May, and June.  Although July and August are named after Julius Caesar and Augustus, they don’t seem to have caught on with the general public unless all those Julies and Julias are actually named after a month, which may be technically true.  The fall and winter are dead as far as names go.
The only names of days that pop in the mind are Wednesday  as a first name in the Adams Family series and Friday as a last name in the Dragnet series. 
It can be safely said in English and Hebrew that there is basically no good time for a name.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Good, the Bad, but not the Ugly

The English language borrows roots from many languages.   Therefore, the same meaning can be expressed in different ways, even in prefixes.  For example, pre and ante both mean before.
If something is good, two possible roots are the Greek eu and the Latin bene.  A eulogy is saying good things about someone who died, even the words are lies while a euphemism is a nice word for an ugly concept – collateral damage for civilian casualties and height-challenged for short.  (By the way, my favorite euphemism is expanded face for describing baldness.).  Similarly, a benefit is a money or privilege that makes life better while a benediction is a blessing, i.e. good words.
By contrast, malady, maladroit and malfunctioning are very bad, as is part of their root, mal.  I don’t know the Greek root for bad or whether it is used in English, but I would be happy to find out from someone.  So, have a euphoric and benevolent week and avoid mal-de-mer, otherwise known as seasickness.

Friday, November 11, 2011

North Americans and Aliya

I am an exception – a former resident of North America (American or Canadian) who came and stayed.  The fact is many come, but few stay.  The interesting issue is the reasons for this tendency.
To clarify, standard of living is generally not an issue.  Most immigrants from North America and Canada come with either capital or financial support.  Being a native speaker and having a degree allows most immigrants to attain respectable jobs.  Very few Anglo-Saxons have ever cleaned streets in Israel.  The level of housing and food is comparable to most of the United States and Canada.  I could not afford my house in the United States.  Instead of living on credit card debt, Israelis live on overdraft.  The name is different, but the interest rate is the same.  Health and educational facilities are superior and less expensive here as compared to many places “back home.”  In short, most Yankees and Canucks do not suffer economically in Israel.
In my opinion, the major factor is cultural.  Israel is a “frontier” country.   The people are hot-tempered and direct; the pace of life is fast; confrontation is common.  For people used to a more “genteel” way of life, coping with Israel requires a change in expectations and thinking.  This is less problematical for singles, who only have to worry about they want.  By contrast, emigrating families struggle to get everybody adjusted to the new life.  Since there is a “home” to return to, some members of the family want to go back where life is psychologically easier.  If the family is split 50/50, it generally returns.
Of course, other reasons may apply.  Age and language difficulty affect integration into society.  Unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment.  Distance from family can be difficult to handle.
I would be interested in hearing from other immigrants / former immigrants to other countries and their impression.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Don’t tense up on tenses

Foreign students of English often feel that that the most frightening aspect of it is the sheer number of tenses.  Especially for people whose native language is structurally simple, i.e. three forms – past, present, future,  dealing with such a complex grammar structure is rather daunting.  In fact, despite English’s basic structure of 9 tenses (+ a few odds and ends), the construction of tenses tends to be rather simple and straightforward.
First, the raison d’etre of having many tenses is that writers and speakers can say exactly what they mean without adding words to clarify.  For example, I was winning the game does not mean the same as I won the game or I have won the game. So, while adding formal complexity, the learning process enriches the language and is a finite process. Compare that with Russian whose formal structure is simple, but the process of understanding the difference between perfective and imperfect active in any given situation never ends for a foreign learner.
As for building the verb, it is vital to remember that all languages add markers to the verb, generally the root, to signal its time and, often, person.  For example, the present tense is parle, parles, parle, parlons, parlez, parlent; говорю, говоришь, говорит, говорим, говорите, говорят; and אומר, אורמת, אומרים, אומרות in French, Russian, and Hebrew respectively.
English works in a similarly manner, using helping verbs instead of endings for the most part.  The progressive tenses mark time and person using the verb to be and the ing form of the word.  Therefore, present progressive uses am, are, and is; past progressive uses was or were; and future progressive uses will be.  Similarly, the perfect tenses uses the verb to have with the past participle, ie. have and has in the present, had in the past, and will have in the future.  As they say in Hebrew, dafka [dafka]or to be contrary, the simple is the least simple: in the negative and interrogative forms of the present and past, the helping verb is do, i.e. do and does in the present and did in the past, before the root.  The future marker is will.  In the positive form in the present tense, there are neither helping verbs or endings except for after s/he it, in which case an s is added while in the past, aside from the many and common exceptions, an ed added to the work marks the past.
The point is that students can concentrate on the actual meaning of the verb if they relax and learn how to recognize the form, which is not a stressful activity.

Friday, October 28, 2011

France, the French, and Love/Hate

Almost nobody feels neutral about France or the French.  Many people adore France but hate the French.  There are probably a few who feel the opposite.  Some people love or hate both.  Whatever the case, it is rare to anybody say, I went to Paris.  Nothing special.
I am among those who love both France and the French, but not enough to want to live there.  France is a country where living is an art, whether it concerns food, clothing, or conversation.  By contrast, making a living is a necessity and a bit proletariat in the negative sense of the word.    Parisians constantly talk about restaurants, vacations, and movies or books.    So, while French emphasis on living may seem rather decadent to more protestant-thinking people, it is rather attractive and even addictive.
By contrast, to be diplomatic, the French themselves are not always appreciated, even by themselves.  Many people are quite offended by their arrogance and rudeness behind the formal level of politeness.  Being half American and half French, I have no problem understanding their attitude and even enjoying it.  There is a sociological concept called a zero sum world, typical of peasant societies, in which a finite, fixed limit exists for everything, material and immaterial.  There is only so much money and love in the world.  Therefore, to ostensibly show one’s money means that the people watching have less, an unpleasant feeling.  Similarly, in friendship, people have a limited space for love, i.e. childhood friends and close family.  This is creates an us and them world.   Friendship is total for the us group and basically non-existent for the them group.  Fortunately, Paris has a high percentage of non-French.  I belonged to the both to the us and the them.  As any obnoxious attitude was not personal against me, I found it amusing at time, like live theatre (of the absurd).  It is like watching a bunch of children trying to act like adults, ultimately very entertaining.
Of course, living in Paris is another story.  Paris is a small, dense, tense, and intense city with too much air pollution, strikes, and bureaucracy.  Also, for people used to seeing the sun most of the year, the weather is depressing.  Maybe Paris is like New York: a place for young people with lots of energy.
Still, I visit Paris at any opportunity and feel sadness each time I  part from it.   My fantasy wish would be the ability to transport myself instantly to Paris and enjoy a baguette, a good piece of cheese, an old dusty chaotic book store, and petit pain au chocolate or chocolat liegoise.  Ah, sometimes, la vie est dure sans confiture.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

How to Write an Email in English

As English is the Lingua Franca of the world for the moment, non-native English speakers, i.e. most of the world, are often faced with the daunting task of writing emails in English.  (I would say that even the French have to do so from time to time, but as they would say, J’ignore.) 
In fact, business emails are easy to write.  Unlike personal letters, they are intended to be short, to the point, and simple.  So, the writer does not have to and should not write Shakespeare (or Orwell, whom I prefer).
Begin with the simple phrase “Dear …).  Add Sir or Madam if you don’t have the actual name of the person, i.e. the customer relations department.  A man is referred to as Mr. while a woman is addressed as Ms.  For business purposes, her marital status is irrelevant.
At this stage, to avoid forgetting to attach the required documents, I always add my attachments before going on.
If you are have written often to the person, are continuing a previous matter, or just want to create a friendly feeling, make the first line a salutation such as Good morning, Good evening, or even Happy Holiday if that applies.
The first real paragraph states directly why are writing:  I am writing in response to your notice on the forum or As requested, I am attaching the proposal.  Make it short and sweet.  You don’t have to use fancy words.  People receive hundreds of emails a day. They want you to get the point quickly.
The next paragraph or paragraphs go into detail concerning what you have to say.  Once again, write short, direct sentences.  If you are applying for a job, begin with one sentence why the company should consider you, such as I have expertise in C++, as you require.
The last sentence should say what you want them to do: Please confirm receipt or I await further instructions.  As for the salutation at the end, see my previous posting on that issue.
The final step before sending the mail is to reread the text and check for any grammar or spelling errors.  Those make bad impressions, as any girl who received a note saying “I luvs yu” would know.
By writing short and simple sentences, non-native speakers can simplify vocabulary and grammar while ensuring that their meaning is transmitted as intended.  Also, it reduces “language stress” when thinking about writing the email.  Here’s for reducing stress!

Friday, October 14, 2011

What I like about America

I recently realized that I am an “expatriate.”  That means that I have lived abroad, in Israel, for almost as many years as I lived in the United States.  That is nothing compared to my mother, who has lived in the U.S. twice as many years as she lived in France.  Still, as an expatriate who occasionally visits the motherland or the fatherland, as a Russian or German would say, I have the right and ability to appreciate many good things about the United States of America.
1.       The United States is one of the few countries in the world in which going to the post office and bank takes only 30 minutes.
2.      The level of service received is not a coefficient of the salary level of the worker.
3.      People do not feel entitled to punish the salesperson or secretary for the fact that they had a fight with their spouse, child, or cat.
4.      America is a place where everyday driving, except on Sunday, is not a battleground.
5.      Most people expect to work and make adjustments for life’s unpleasant surprises.  They don’t expect the government to do it for them.
6.      Two day weekends are fantastic! 
7.      It doesn’t make a difference how old you are or how new you are to a city.   You can still make new friends.
8.      Almost everybody has an accent (at least in California).  Variety is the spice of life.
9.      American food is world food: granted in enormous quantities, but there is everything.
10.   Americans try to be nice to each other at least in public.  That makes life so more pleasant!

I know that that the flip side also exists.  There are many problems in the United States.  However, as an expatriate, I can take the good and ignore the bad. 

I would be interested in hearing any comments or additions to this list.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Articles of (Grammar) Faith

The surest way to identify a non-native speaker is by looking at their articles – a, an,  and the.  Russian does not have any articles, which mean Russian speakers often add them almost randomly.  Hebrew speakers only have the definitive one – the.   French use is similar, but with differences, including the requirement to place one before every noun in a list.  Compare the English I will take the fish, rice, and salad as compared to the French Je prendrai le poisson, le riz et la salade.
For a change, there are actually clear rules in English.
a.      All singular nouns must have an article, either the indefinite a (or an) or the definite the.
b.      Plural nouns if definite must be preceded by the; otherwise there is no article.
Examples: A friend of mine has the only copy of the book.  The books are important resources.
Exception:  Abstract nouns (uncountable to some of you) do not take articles:  You need patience and skill [in general] to succeed.  Since as abstract nouns, they can’t be plural, there is nothing to worry there.
Clarification: a and an
Contrary to what many have you been taught in school, the word an does NOT go before a vowel.  It goes before a VOWEL SOUND!
Appearances can be deceiving.  Some vowels (AEIOU) can SOUND like a consonant while some consonants can sound like a vowel.
An egg but A European egg:  The word European sound like [yu], meaning a consonant sound.
An ugly building at a university:  [u]gly as compared to [yu]niversity.
You’ll be a happy person in an hour:  The word happy has a voiced h, while hour doesn’t.
Police look for an MO:  You say [em] and therefore write an.
If you are unsure whether to write a or an, say the word.
If you are unsure whether to use an article, remember that unless the noun is plural and indefinite, there must be an article.
As they say in Hebrew, הבנת את זה. ברוך?  or, more seriously, if you explain it to me slowly, I’ll understand it quickly.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Splitting Hairs – What’s the difference?

What is better, one size fits all or exact sizes?  The same issue applies to languages.  There are terms that in one language one word fits all usages while in another, each specific context requires a completely different word.
In English for example, business offer special or volume discounts, i.e. they lower the price for a special product or if you buy more than a certain amount.  By contrast, in French, there is a rabais, an exceptional discount because of the condition of a good, a remise, a regular discount applied all the time, and a ristourne, a discount awarded periodically for various reasons.  These distinctions save words, but can definitely confuse a non-native.
Speaking of clothes, Hebrew is quite particular on how you put them on.  You lovesh ( לובש) a garment, noel (נועל) a shoe, gorev (גורב) a sock, hoger (חוגר) a belt, onev (עונב) a tie, oteh (עוטה) gloves, hovesh (חובש) a hat, markiv (מרכיב) glasses, and oned (עונד) jewelry.  The only help in remembering all that is the verb generally sounds like the article of clothing.
Getting married is supposedly about saying I do.  Well, in Russian, it appears  that they are very particular about not having same sex marriages.  A Russian man женится (jenitcya), meaning he marries a woman, while a Russian women is замужна (zamujna), meaning marries a man.  There is no ambiguity there.
I would be interested in hearing about other examples of such branching off of vocabulary in any language.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Run on sentences - How I hate thee!

Whether it is because of poor teaching or a natural love of stream of consciousness writing, many people, even the most intelligent and organized, write horrible run on sentences.  They sound like a hysterical five year old telling his mother about his day:  I walked in the class and Johnny threw a brick at me and I cried and the teacher came and asked me what was wrong and I hit Johnny and I was punished.
To set the record straight, a sentence is ONE idea structurally consisting of one SUBJECT, which may have more than one part, and one VERB, which may have more than one action as long as they all relate to the same subject.
In simple terms, the subject can be simple, as in Boys, or compound, as in Boys and girls.  The verb can simple, as in laugh, or compound, as in laugh and cry.  You cannot have two separate sets of subjects and verbs.  Therefore, Boys and girls laugh and cry is grammatically correct while Boys laugh and girls cry is incorrect.  Instead of the word and, you can use the conjunction while: Boys laugh while girls cry; Alternatively, you can use the word with and put the verb in the ing form: Boys laugh, with girls crying.    Finally, you can write two sentences: Boys laugh. Girls cry.  That is the stereotype of children’s reaction to violence.
So, the next time you write a sentence in an email or composition, make sure there are one subject and one verb.  If not, please make the changes and make your teacher/editor much happier!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Rooted Differences or Meaning What You Say

One of the personal pleasures of traveling is hearing familiar sounds that have entirely different meanings.  A sound set, a word or series of words, may come from unrelated roots in a language or language family.  In other words, regardless of the spelling, what you thought you heard is not what they meant.  For example, the sound riba in Hebrew (accent on second syllable to be exact) refers to jam while in Russian it refers, accent on the first syllable, it refers to fish.  If a host asks you if you want riba on your sandwich, you might be rather surprised if you aren’t paying attention to the language.
Of course, these plays on roots provide wonderful opportunity for puns.  It is known that un oeuf is enough for some people, although I prefer three eggs.  If you munch some cacahouètes with your beer, you are eating peanuts, not something wet and stinky from the cat box.  A relative of mine, just off the boat from France, was watching a nature movie and remarked “Look at the phoque.”  She was referring to a seal, not to the mating activity.
This phenomenon of multiple meaning to similar sounding roots is an ideal way of learning vocabulary.  I took an intense Russian course which required me to learn some 50 words a day, an extremely difficult feat considering that all of the roots were new to me.  We had the word гордится [gorditcya], which means to be proud.  Faced with the fact the English root was so distant from the Russian root, I connected the Russian word to the name of a California town, Gardenia, where I would not be so proud to live in, for no particular reason.  The result is that I still remember that name.
I would love to hear other examples from people who have run into confusing root pairs and have lived to laugh at them.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Future Is Obvious

Native language speakers, especially ESL teachers, quickly learn to identify non-native speakers.   Accent is less important than what is termed translation errors, meaning structures translated literally from the speaker’s native tongue.
A classic Hebrew speaker mistake is the use of the future tense in temporal clauses, i.e. after the words when, after, as soon as, etc.  Hebrew is a quite straight forward language regarding tenses.  When the meaning is in the future, you put the verb in the future.  By contrast, English avoids use of the future tense as much as possible, almost entirely limiting to the use in the independent clause, the main verb in the sentence.  Dependent parts are assumed to be in the same tense as the main verb and are thus written in the present simple.  Native speakers take this fact for granted, but English as a second language speakers often struggle with this tendency.
For example, in Hebrew, one would write .כאשר אבין את המאמר הזה, אסביר לך, with the two underlined verbs in the future, as compared to the English version:  When I understand this article, I will explain it to you.  The independent part of the sentence is the future, making it obvious that the whole sentence is in the future.
Isn’t that clear?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Reflections on a Trip to L.A.

It would seem to imply that to live in a country over a long period of time would encompass all aspects of that country, including speaking the language.  That would seem especially true for an immigrant country like the United States, where the only factor in common among people could be speaking English.
In fact, what struck me on my trip was the lack of “English immersion” in the United States.  I knew that many people lived in Spanish or other language ghettos, but to see it in practice was a bit shocking.  Large numbers of people who have lived in the United States for 20+ years are unable to understand a simple conversation in English.  In many cases, these English non-functional people came in the 20’s or 30’s or even were born there!  As an immigrant to Israel, I made it my highest priority to function in Hebrew.  It seems to me to be a basic part of participating in society.
By contrast, I saw some Turks at the airport in Istanbul who spoke German like a German because they were German in the sense of fully living in Germany.  I have seen Africans speak much better French than most French people themselves.  In Israel, there are older immigrants, such as Ethiopians and Russians, who because of their surroundings and age, find it difficult to speak Hebrew.  However, most younger immigrants quickly and willingly learn to function in Hebrew. 
I would be curious to hear other people’s reaction and exposure to this phenomenon.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Outdated Language and Relationships - Vocabulary

Once upon a time, all boys and girls automatically met (or were matched) somewhere between the ages of 16-20, got married, and lived happily (or not) ever after.  Needless to say, those days are over, replaced by divorced once or multiple times, latch key kids, being single to 30, 40, or more, and even two father or mother households. Life is not so simple anymore.
Many languages, alas, are behind the time.  For example, English has a nice pair of words: girlfriend and boyfriend.  These are very adequate words until somewhere around 30 when the “boy” has a pot belly, expanding face, and a salary higher than the father while the “girl” may be a high-level executive who has already given birth.  They are clearly not “16 going on 17” as the song says.
So, faced with this challenge, English has come with plethora of alternative words.  There is the more adult versions lady friend and male friend.  There is gender and relation ambiguous partner (the one I am currently using) or, slightly more specific, life partner.  For invitations that want to ignore legal status issues, significant others includes everybody.  I feel obliged to mention She-who-must-be-obeyed, although I would never actually use it. 
The problem with all these terms, many of them quite appropriate, is that the speaker has to think which is the most politically correct to use.  They all have some gender/legal status/age context.
Contrast this with approach taken by Hebrew.  There, we have חבר [haver] and  חברה [havera], which mean simply friend, masculine and female.  The voice inflexion and context let you know how friendly they are, but that really isn’t your business, is it?  Older couples can use the terms בן זוג   and בת זוג  [ben zug / bat zug], which means male and female of the pair, a bit like spouse without the requirement of marriage.  The beauty of these words is that there no connotation of age or status, just stating the essential: friendship and togetherness.  Those are never outdated.
I would be interested in knowing how other languages deal with the older friendships.

My next post will be at the end of the month.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Why Read in a Foreign Language – Not because it’s there

The hardest task in a foreign language, even harder than talking on the phone, is reading books in that language.  Even many long-term residents of a country never read books in the language of their adopted country, no matter how well they speak the language.  In this sense, a person can live 50 years in a country and not become completely bilingual.
There are many good reasons for this attitude to foreign language books.  Many people read at night in bed.  This activity is supposed to be pleasurable and relaxing.  Straining your brain and using a dictionary are definitely not fun and restful.  Also, the learning curve for reading is very long and steep.  In other words, it takes a lot of practice before you can read a book in a foreign language as easily as in your mother tongue.   Finally, depending on your native tongue, there may be plenty of reading material available as is.  For example, if English speakers have no problem finding reading material wherever they are.  There are always English books in libraries and second-hand stores, not mention English books in retail book stores.  Therefore, it is clearly very easy not to avoid reading foreign language.
However, if you ever really want to master a language, whether you live in a country that speaks that language or not, you have to read it all the time.   Passively but effectively, reading a book in the language adds vocabulary, understanding, and nuance.  You see many words than you will never hear.  Moreover, over time, the reader intuitively understands what they mean without looking at a dictionary.  Differences between similar words suddenly become much clearer and easier to remember after you have seen them used hundreds of times. You learn like a native.  Also, the connotations of words sink in without any formal explanation. 
To reach this stage is like climbing a tall mountain.  The first part of the journey is hard and tiring, not to mention frustrating at times.  However, when a language learner reaches the peak, effortless reading of a foreign language, it all seems worthwhile.  You can understand Goethe, Zola, and Orwell in the original, or anybody else who wrote in that language.  That is a natural high, like climbing a mountain.  However, unlike Sir Hillary, you never have to go down.  You can enjoy the view all of your life.  That's a good reason to learn how to read in a foreign language.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Past Progressive – Use it wisely

Students of English often fall in love with specific tenses.  English teachers are somewhat guilty in that they overemphasize certain forms of the verb because they are either easy to teach or demonstrate.  The classic example is the present progressive, am/are/is ___ing, but the past progressive is also generally over and misused by Israelis.

To clarify the matter, the past progressive, was/were ____ing, has three specific meanings:

a.      The most common – an unfinished action that must be completed by a verb in the past tense:  I was walking home when I saw an elephant.  I was on my way home, but did not reach it.  You cannot have just the past progressive.  It is like throwing one shoe and leaving the listener/reader waiting for the other shoe.

b.      Two or more simultaneous actions, all in the past progressive:  you were sleeping while I was cleaning the house.

c.       Rare: asking about a specific action at a specific time in the past, as the police or your parents would do:  What were you doing at four o’clock in the morning in the park? (Parents really don’t want to know!)

In terms of other languages, the French imparfait is not really the equivalent.  It emphasizes repeated actions, such as Je dormais toute la journée quand j’avais 15 ans (I used to sleep all day when I was 15 years old).  The closest in terms of the first meaning is j’étais en train de rentrer chez moi quand je suis tombé.  Russian has the imperfect aspect in the past tense (несовершенный вид).  One of the uses is for unfinished actions as in я открывал окно [ya otkrival okno],  I was opening the window, which implies that the window has not been opened.

As a rule, do NOT use the past progressive unless you want to say that the action was not completed.  The other two uses are in fact very rare.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

All Men Are Created Equal (or at least in Language)

Language use changes.  When those words were written in 1776, the term “men” included women for some purposes at least. 

In modern English, it is politically correct to adjust words and grammar to avoid any hint of sexism.  There is nothing wrong in doing so as long as it is done properly.

One way is to exchange the man in a word with person or a more general word.  For example, a meeting is run by a chairperson while the firefighters and police officers deal with the riot outside.  In none of these cases is the structure of the sentence changed or rendered clumsy. 

For pronoun reference to general groups of people, using the plural noun avoids the gender issue.  For example, students that fail their test will have a second opportunity.  That is far more natural than a student that fails his/her test.  Sometimes, the context does not allow that option.  In that case, my personal preference is to write s/he.  In legal language, there is an additional trick: define the individual as a party of some kind.  Then, the writer can use the term it and dispense with the various forms of he and she.

Other languages handle the issue differently.  Russian has the pronoun свой which refers to the subject, whether that is first, second, or third person.  So, at least in the sentence, after using a noun or pronoun as the subject, the writer can avoid the his/her construction.  Another advantage of this pronoun is that avoid a classic problem in English with two male or female persons in a sentence and one possessive pronoun: My father and uncle argued about who had taken his wallet.  Whose wallet are we talking about, the former’s or the latter’s?  French places grammatical gender as the main criterion: Madame Le Juge.  Note that Madame is clearly feminine but le is masculine because the noun juge is masculine.  Hebrew, coming from the Middle East, simplifies the matter:  if there is one male in the group, a male pronoun is used, period.  After all, all men are created equal!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Is it hard to learn a new language?

Is mathematics easy or hard?  Is physics challenging or impossible?  Ease is in the mind of the beholder, of course.  For those whom a certain subject comes naturally, what can be simpler?  By contrast, for those who have struggled unsuccessfully all their lives to learn something, understanding always seems out of reach.

Practically speaking, when learning languages, the learner must overcome the following challenges:

a.      New alphabet (sometimes)

b.      New sounds or variations of known sounds

c.       New roots

d.      New endings on words according to grammar

e.      Different grammar rules

f.        Different intonation

While the first one seems quite daunting, learning a new alphabet is mainly a matter of will and drill rather than intelligence and skill.  Even the rather complex Arabic alphabet in which each letter has three forms depending on its location in the word can be learned within a week for the purposes of reading a very simple learning text.  As for sounds, it requires a good teacher, an attentive ear, and a willingness to make “funny” sounds.  For example, there are major differences between the completely flat Russian “r”, the middle of the road English “r”, and the rolled French “r”.  (One of my favorite words to practice in French is serrurière.) Vowel sounds also vary.  For instance, French vowels are in general much more than tense than in English.  Compare the English tutu with the French tu.

The next three are simply a matter of practice.  People who use a language, whether they speak, read, or write it, will improve gradually in all those aspects as long as they are open to constructive criticism.  The most significant issue seems to be adult pride.  We forgot how everybody laughed at our early mistakes in our native language.  Small children are experts in laughing with us, learning from their mistakes, and then pointing out  mistakes, especially to immigrant parents.

In my opinion, the most difficult aspect of a language is the intonation.  Every language has its own rhythm and cadence, rising and falling in a unique manner.  That is how we recognize foreign languages and accents.  We may not be able to tell the difference between the Italian and Spanish words, often quite similar, but the Italian intonation is clearly different than the Spanish one.  It takes great effort to get your mouth to do something that seems unnatural, like die at the end of sentence in Russian or go on a rollercoaster ride as in French.  This can be learned, but most learners are either unaware or unwilling to retrain their voice.  They retain their native language intonation even when speaking the second language quite correctly otherwise.

 Like most matters, learning a new language requires some need, effort, and willingness to make mistakes.  Is that hard?

If you have any remarks, please comment.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Present Perfect I

English with all of its tenses poses many learning problems for students, none of which are worse than that strange creature, the present perfect.  For those who were sleeping during that lesson, that is the tense that has the verb to have in the present tense followed by the V3 (or past participle), i.e. the sun has risen. 

The problem with this tense is that it only basically exists in English.  The French passé compose is really a past of completed action, as in J’ai vu le film.  In other words, the English past simple is its equivalent.  Russian, Hebrew, and Arabic, to name just a few, don’t even anything like it. 

This means that it is hard for English language learners to intuitively understand what it means while native English speakers never formally study it, absorbing it from the air.  I would suggest a comparative approach.  Examine the following three sentences:

a.      I ate hot chilies.

b.      I eat hot chilies.

c.       I have eaten hot chilies.

To confirm what you think, the first in the past simple;  the second in the present simple; and the third is in the present perfect.  The issue in hand is to define the difference between them.

a.      The first describes in a neutral fashion what you did in the past.  For example, someone wanted to know in which food contest you participated.   You indicate that you joined the chili eating contest (what hot fun!).

b.      This describes a habitual action.  For instance, if someone is preparing Kung Pao chicken, you explain that you have no problem with that.

c.       This describes something that is relevant NOW, no matter when you did it in the past.  For example, if your friend accuses you of being a wimp because you don’t like hot food, you feel attacked and defend yourself. 

As you can see, the present perfect in this meaning is an emotional statement about now: I have finished and I want to go home; I have seen the movie and can recommend it; I have eaten and am not hungry.  In this sense, the reader or listener will read a meaning into verb.

There is another use for the present perfect, but that is the subject of another blog.