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  • The Diacritics 4:19 pm on January 3, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: chinese, cyrillic, dear leader, dprk, hangul, hanja, hanzi, kim il-sung, kim jong-il, kim jong-il looking at things, korean, , naming conventions, north korea, russia   

    What’s in a Kim? 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    I’ve been fascinated by North Korea’s late Dear Leader Kim Jong-il for a while now — not just because he liked to look at things or because he died, although many people agree that those were two of his more positive qualities.

    Kim Jong-il looking at a leaflet.

    The reclusive state that he, and his father before him, maintained affected the development of the Korean language in the North by setting forth new standards (via official pronouncements in 1964, 1966, and 1987), which solidified differences between the Seoul and Pyongyang dialects. And while general daily vocabulary is based on a pre-partition standard, South Korean uses a lot of foreign borrowings from languages like English, whose influence is all but absent in the North.

    I was also surprised to learn that Kim Jong-il was born in Siberia with the name Yuri Irsenovich Kim. I couldn’t find any information about that discrepancy, so I did a little sleuthing.

    Kim Jong-il looking at names

    Korean naming conventions place the family name (here, Kim) at the beginning of the name. The name 김, Kim (pronounced /kim/, often mistakenly heard as “gim” because the /k/ is unaspirated) is the most common surname in Korea, with nearly 22% of Koreans named Kim. The name is derived from the Chinese hanzi (called hanja in Korean) 金, jīn, which means gold. In fact, nearly all popular Korean names derive their meaning from Chinese, and are often written in hanzi as well.

    The second part of Kim Jong-il’s name is derived from 正, zhèng (hanja), written 정 jeong (hangul), which means “straight” or “correct.” The third part is derived from 日, (hanja), written 일 il (hangul), which means “day.”

    Kim Jong-il named his sons using a generational name, keeping the character 정 jeong in all of them — Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-chul, and finally Kim Jong-un (the current Supreme Leader), although he didn’t do the same for his eldest child, a daughter, Kim Sul-song. Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung, kept the character 일 il in his son’s name.

    That all does little, of course, to illuminate Kim Jong-il’s Russian name, Yuri Irsenovich Kim. For that we turn to the Slavs, whose naming conventions differ widely from the Koreans.

    Who is Kim Ir Sen?

    Russians place the family name (Kim) at the end. For males, the second name is a patronym, which means that it’s derived from the father’s name. If Yuri’s father’s name was Ivan, then his second name would be Ivanovich, like cosmonaut Yuri Ivanovich Malechenko. If Vladimir’s father’s name was Vladimir, then his second name would be Vladimirovich, like Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

    So this means that Kim Jong-il’s father’s name was Irsen, right? Right.

    Wait, what? Sort of.

    Kim Jong-il’s father, as we all know, was Kim Il-sung, the Eternal President of North Korea. In Russian, his name was transliterated Ким Ир Сен, Kim Ir Sen. That form is the most commonly used Cyrillic transliteration of Kim Il-sung’s name. However, under the standardized Kontsevich system of transliterating Korean hangul into Cyrillic, his name would be spelled Ким Ильсо́н, Kim Il’són. The Kontsevich system is the main system for Korean transliteration in Russia, but proper nouns such as names are still often treated differently. (Indians can relate to this discrepancy — for example, while my name would be transliterated saṃdīp, it’s most commonly written in English as Sandeep.)

    What a happy brutal autocrat!

    The border between the liquids /l/ and /ɾ/ is frail in Korean, and a word spelled using /l/ can be pronounced as /ɾ/ depending on its position between vowels or at the end of words. However, the “l” in Il-sung is not located in one of those places. Instead, the Russian transliteration of Il-sung as Ир Сен Ir Sen seems to be a sound change that occurred in Russian, not Korean. I’m not familiar with Russian phonology, so maybe somebody can explain in the comments why his name is spelled with “р” r, not “л” l.

    But… Yuri?

    The name “Yuri” is derived from the Greek word γεωργός geōrgos, which roughly means farmer. It’s unlikely that naming Kim Jong-il “Yuri” was an attempt to translate “Jong-il” into Russian, because the component parts of Jong-il translate into “straight” and “day.” Maybe Kim Il-sung just really liked the name Yuri for his son.

    Yuri is a nice name, although if Kim Jong-il had kept it, he probably would have been teased on the playground — Yuri (유리, transliterated yuli but pronounced /ju:ɾi/) is a girl’s name in Korea.

    And nobody — nobody — teases the Dear Leader.

    So there you have it — a “look” at Korean and Russian names. Kim Jong-il — sorry, I mean Yuri Irsenovich Kim — would have been proud:

    Yuri Kim looking at jam.

  • The Diacritics 12:35 pm on December 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: alcohol, chinese, crazy english, drinking, inhibition, language learning, second language,   

    Drinking in language 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    This article originally appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on October 21, 2010.

    My friends and I were on the C-1 bus a few weekends ago, leaving an off-East Campus house to get to West and catch the Robertson bus to Chapel Hill. I had just turned 21, and I was looking forward to my first night out barhopping since I had come back stateside.

    Some of our fellow passengers had been drinking, and the heady odor of beer and rushed vodka shots overpowered the bus and began to give me a healthy buzz.

    More than the stench, though, my mind was on the two red-faced freshmen next to me, who were engaged in an enthusiastic, but obviously slurred, conversation in Spanish. Their grammar was poor and their pronunciation worse, but it sure looked like they were having fun. If they were in the middle of an oral exam, they would have scored low on structure but high on confidence.

    Does drinking alcohol help people speak other languages?

    Every student knows that being embarrassed is one of the cornerstones of the difficult process of learning another language. After all, we students are visitors in a new world. For those who are used to easy academic success, stumbling over verbs or gendered nouns can be stressful or disheartening.

    So in response, we inhibit. We mumble when we’re called on in class, or we clamp up in conversation. We don’t speak the language outside of the classroom. We’re intimidated by students whose abilities seem greater than our own. Our teachers tell us to be fluid and open to mistakes—practicing is important, after all—but their pleas aren’t always convincing.

    This, my friends, is where alcohol comes in.

    We all know what drinking does, whether through observation or participation. People with “liquid courage” are more likely to do or say things that they might have been reluctant to while sober.

    The fear of embarrassment fades away with every ounce of rum. Inhibitory control slips out of our hands like a wet beer can. People loosen up, and some of us are more sociable and talkative after a few. Many of the neurological processes at work when your roommate jumps on top of the bar at Shooters are the same as when he later whispers je t’aime in the ears of his dancing partner. Our uninhibited behavior is mirrored in our speech.

    And maybe because some of us drink to become someone else—a party alter ego—speaking a foreign language fulfills some sort of urbane, globetrotting identity that we aspire to embody.

    I’m not recommending downing a dozen steins whenever you need to practice German. Yes, moderate amounts of alcohol might help with practicing a language. And associating positive memories with foreign language use can prime you to perform better. You might even form a good friendship with a foreigner over a few bilingual drinks.

    But drinking probably won’t help you learn the basics of a language, because studying demands a clear mind.

    Researchers studying second-language acquisition have identified two aspects of learning another language: one that is automatic (e.g., an understanding of simple grammar based on one’s mother tongue) and another that is memorized (e.g., vocabulary). Students usually feel comfortable with the first and stumble over the second. When people drink, though, their loss of inhibition probably facilitates memorized language, even if they are making mistakes.

    As with all things alcoholic, using language under the influence presents a mixed bag. The rewards are there, but they are lost when people binge.

    People’s inhibition disappears with every sip in a binge, and so does their awareness. Very drunk people might believe that they are smooth or charming or balanced, but they are often none of those. Similarly, when drunken foreign language speakers believe that they are using proper grammar and pronunciation, they are often sloppy and incoherent. And practice is useless if you don’t remember it the next morning.

    But maybe we don’t even have to drink to take advantage of the benefits of alcohol.

    Li Yang, a Chinese entrepreneur, certainly thinks so. His “Crazy English” program centers on his conviction that orthodox teaching is ineffective. Instead, Li’s students jump up and shout English phrases in the classroom, on buses and from rooftops. The goal is to eliminate embarrassment, curb inhibition and facilitate a positive social environment.

    Crazy English sounds a little bit like last weekend’s Crazy Party. But it ditches the spiked punch and concentrates on making language learning fun and communal. It has been astoundingly successful: over 20 million people have taken a Crazy English course in the last 15 years.

    The success of this program demonstrates that a student doesn’t necessarily need to drink before her oral exam to get a good grade. Language students can be uninhibited without alcohol. Maybe a fun, worldly identity can be crafted without it, too. Whether or not you drink, your learning experience is affected by your confidence.

    Maybe next time you’re studying for a language exam, you should try the Crazy method and shout for practice. Lose control. Make a fool of yourself. Climb onto a rooftop and let the quad echo with vocabulary from Haitian Creole or Arabic 125. Imagine you’re fully bilingual. Drink in the language experience.

    Whether or not this study session requires alcohol is none of my business, of course. Liquid or dry, the courage is the same. I just hope I overhear you on the bus next weekend.

    • stuartnz 1:38 pm on December 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I have a significant physical intolerance to alcohol, even the smell of it induces the urge to vomit, so I won’t be resorting to Dutch courage to assist me in trying out my mediocre language skills on others. With any language I’ve tried to learn, from Italian to Hinjabi, I’ve found that an absence of ego will work just as well. That’s why I like the Crazy English idea more, it is an idea I can get behind – simply accepting that I will screw up, a lot, and that I will provide amusement to those who hear me butchering their language and that the easiest thing to do is laugh right along with them. No nasty, stinking, rotted sugar beverages required.

      • The Diacritics 7:43 pm on January 7, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Yup, exactly — it doesn’t matter whether you’re using alcohol or not, it’s the lack of inhibition that’s the important part!

    • David 3:07 am on December 9, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I’m not sure that the financial success of Crazy English is necessarily backed up by any pedagogical success…

      • The Diacritics 12:53 pm on December 9, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Fair enough. There haven’t been any studies yet on its effectiveness (as far as I could find), but many people did use the course to learn basic English before the 2008 Olympics, and they seem to have gotten through that all right. I’ll keep looking for more info.

    • Khadijah Élisabeth 12:16 pm on December 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Alcohol aside, one of the biggest “breakthroughs” I made in language-learning, was realizing that it DIDN’T matter if I made mistakes in front of native speakers. When I hear people speaking broken English, I don’t feel that they are stupid or inferior, I have no desire to laugh at them, but rather I’m impressed at what they do know, and the effort they are putting into learning. Applying reverse psychology, I realized that when I speak broken Arabic with my in-laws, it shouldn’t be embarassing but rather, they are likely pleased at my attempts, no matter how basic. That simple realization in itself was enough to overcome the ‘inhibition’ – no alcohol needed 🙂

      • The Diacritics 7:44 pm on January 7, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Hmm, good point — but I wonder if English speakers are more hesitant to make language mistakes in front of others because native English speakers are often rude or impatient to non-native speakers who are struggling.

  • The Diacritics 8:51 am on November 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: aimer, chinese, , , , i love you, ich liebe dich, , je t'aime, love, lust, romance, wo ai ni   

    The language of love 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    I love my parents, my brother and my friends. I love Duke and our basketball team. I love my law school, UCLA. I love walks along the Eno River in North Carolina at dawn. And I love the opportunities that my family and my education have afforded me.

    I used the same word—“love”—in all of those sentiments, but I didn’t mean the same thing. To be sure, love is a complex, multifaceted idea in any language. But the unique English colloquial use of the word spans many different meanings, from appreciation to liking to lust to romance. To non-native speakers, the protocols around its use are often perplexing. Hell, even for native English speakers, finding the appropriate moment to say “I love x” can be difficult.

    So let’s try to sort these out. Professing unconditional love to one’s family is common in Anglophone cultures. To tell your friends that you love them is fairly common, too. Saying you love abstract or inanimate things, like a university or a leisurely walk, is a common idiom in English, even though the feeling cannot be reciprocated. “Love” is also thrown around flippantly in situations where reciprocation is either unwanted, unspoken or unexpected. We have different situational terms to describe love, such as “platonic” or “unrequited.” “Love” can also be used as a euphemism for physical relations, from the phrase “making love” to the clever substitution of “love” for a certain four-letter word in clean versions of explicit songs.

    But in English-speaking romantic relationships, the moment when someone looks at his or her partner and says “I love you” is a watershed—a fantastically significant event after which everything supposedly changes. Commitment! Soul mates! Indeed, to say “I love you” requires the courageous expectation that the statement and sentiment will be reciprocated. As any soap opera viewer knows, the seconds after that first “I love you” can be agonizing: Will she or won’t she?

    But imagine for a moment that you’re having a whirlwind romance in Paris. You’re at your favorite café waiting for your date. You’re nervous—it’s only the second time you’ve met up—but after you share the obligatory bisous in greeting, you start to feel at ease. Then your date leans over the table, smiles and says, “Je t’aime.” Hold up. Did the L-word just get pulled out?

    Sort of. “Aimer” is used for both “like” and “love,” so its use isn’t surrounded by the sort of momentous protocol that the English verb is. “It is an important phrase for a relationship,” Duke University French lecturing fellow Christelle Gonthier told me, “but a couple can use ‘Je t’aime’ when they’re just starting to go out. In France, there’s not so much restraint as far as feelings go.” This was baffling to me, especially since the epic misplacement of the “I love you” moment is a running motif in American culture.

    Now close your eyes again and imagine that you’re on the hot streets of Bombay, holding hands with your significant other. It’s been a few months since you started dating, but you haven’t yet experienced the “I love you” turning point. Keep waiting, my friend—it’s not going to come.

    In Indian cultures, love can be expressed through actions, but it is almost never explicitly spoken. If it is expressed verbally, it will likely be in English. I didn’t even know how to say “I love you” in my first language, Kannada, until I looked it up online about two years ago. Most of my Hindi, Marathi and Bengali-speaking friends don’t know how to say the phrase, either. I have never felt unloved by my family—it’s just that the explicit articulation of that familial love isn’t part of our style. Sometimes silent demonstrations are more powerful.

    Other languages guard love, too. In Chinese, “wo ai ni” is a well-known phrase, but its use is rare. Germans save “Ich liebe dich” for exclusively romantic situations, preferring “Ich habe dich lieb” (roughly, “I like you”) for platonic relationships. To many cultures, love is an intensely personal and important emotion.

    It’s different here. Despite how puritanical America can often seem, our non-romantic use of the word “love” is laxly enforced. We’re no steamy Latin culture, but it’s heartening to note how freely we distribute “love.”

    To me, the permissive use of the word “love” in English doesn’t devalue the idea. It strengthens it through reinforcement. Even if we aren’t often open with our feelings, maybe the repeated and free use of the word “love” will eventually shift something in our collective consciousness. If the casual use of hateful speech can create pernicious environments, then why couldn’t the casual use of “love” do the opposite?

    After all, who ever said that putting more love into the world was a bad thing?

    A version of this post ran in The (Duke) Chronicle on 2/10/11.

  • The Diacritics 1:42 pm on September 5, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: abjad, , alphasyllabary, chinese, dyslexia, , language disorder, language therapy, logogram, phonics, poetry   

    “My belabored relationship with words”: dyslexia in different languages 

    posted by Sandeep

    I willed myself into being him. I invented a character who could read and write. Starting that night, I’d lie in bed silently imitating the words my mother read, imagining the taste, heft and ring of each sound as if it were coming out of my mouth. I imagined being able to sound out the words by putting the letters together into units of rhythmic sound and the words into sentences that made sense. I imagined the words and their sounds being a kind of key with which I would open an invisible door to a world previously denied me.

    In a beautiful piece in the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz writes about his struggle with dyslexia and how the utter difficulty of parsing and pronouncing words instilled within him a deep appreciation of the power of language.

    Dyslexia — an umbrella term for a host of reading disabilities, but most commonly understood in English to be the struggle to pair letters to their sounds and form words — has been the subject of quite a lot of recent research. A lot of famous people have struggled with dyslexia. Many famous authors have struggled with the disorder. A lot more not-so-famous people are dyslexic, too — some have estimated that up to 15% of Americans are dyslexic.

    The complexity of dyslexia belies its popular understanding. And because it can be difficult to properly diagnose, many dyslexics go through life thinking that they are simply unintelligent, rather than the bearers of a disorder.

    Philip Schultz writes:

    We know now that dyslexia is about so much more than just mixing up letters — that many dyslexics have difficulty with rhythm and meter and word retrieval, that they struggle to recognize voices and sounds. It’s my profound hope that our schools can use findings like these to better teach children who struggle to read, to help them overcome their limitations, and to help them understand that it’s not their fault.

    There’s plenty of research on dyslexia in English (of course), but I’ve been curious — in a language that doesn’t use an alphabet — like Chinese, which uses logograms, or my native Kannada, which uses an alphasyllabary — how does dyslexia manifest itself?

    Chinese is really different from English.

    The character for Biáng-Biáng Noodles is one of the most complex Chinese characters. Coincidentally, it is also one of the most delicious Chinese characters.

    In Chinese, the sheer complexity of characters, coupled with the fact that each character represents a morpheme (a language unit that has meaning–a word or part of a word) rather than a phoneme (a singular sound, not necessarily with meaning) creates unique problems for dyslexics. And because Chinese doesn’t use letters, a dyslexic can’t scramble letters the way an English dyslexic might.

    In a study published in Nature in 2004, researchers suspected that English dyslexia and Chinese dyslexia may be fundamentally different because the main skill in English reading is putting letters into sounds (phonics, of Hooked on Phonics fame) and the main skill in Chinese is the rote memorization of characters and their meaning. They found that different areas of the brain were activated in English dyslexics versus Chinese dyslexics. Furthermore, they found that the left middle frontal gyrus (previously implicated in Chinese character recognition) in Chinese dyslexics was smaller than Chinese non-dyslexics.

    These researchers suggested that English dyslexia and Chinese dyslexia may in fact be two different disorders because reading each language demands different things of the brain.

    In a 2009 paper in Current Biology, researchers expressed a hunch that because Chinese requires the rote memorization of characters and their meanings, those who had trouble understanding particular characters might have trouble with visual-spatial processing as well as phonological processing. English dyslexics typically only show deficiencies in phonological processing.

    During an fMRI activity, Chinese dyslexics showed less activation in a brain region associated with visual-spatial processing during a test in which subjects judged the relative size of objects, confirming that phonological and visual-spatial deficiencies may be uniquely coupled in Chinese dyslexics.

    The logical next point is: If English dyslexia and Chinese dyslexia are two fundamentally different disorders, can you be dyslexic in one language and not the other? The research says, probably. Understanding the differences between the two (or more?) types of dyslexia could be critical in developing language-specific therapies for dyslexics.

    Spanish is pretty different from English, too.

    This clean dichotomy of “two dyslexias” gets muddier when you consider the differences between dyslexia in English versus a language like Spanish or Italian, which use the same alphabet for different ends.

    English and French are two languages whose pronunciation is not always intuited from the spelling of a word. As I explained in my previous post on Moammar Qaddafi, figuring out English pronunciation is pretty damn hard. French is notoriously hard, too. This is called deep orthography — pronunciation rules are highly varied. It requires more (social, contextual, memorized) knowledge to pronounce a word in deep orthographic languages.

    Spanish and Italian, on the other hand, use a standardized system of pronunciation that varies very little within a dialect. Non-speakers of these languages can usually suss out pronunciations if they are given a set of rules, even if they don’t actually know the language. These are languages with shallow orthography.

    A survey of studies (click for PDF) on the effect of shallow versus deep orthographies on developmental dyslexia has suggested that dyslexics who speak a shallow orthography language as their mother tongue have an advantage in overcoming dyslexia over deep orthography speakers.

    What about other writing systems?

    This Kannada character, /m/, has an inherent vowel, /a/, so it is pronounced /ma/.

    Unfortunately, there isn’t much research done on dyslexia in other writing systems, such as alphasyllabaries (e.g., all Indian writing systems, such as Hindi [Devanagari script] and my native Kannada). In Indian alphasyllabaries, each consonant is written with an inherent vowel, and vowels are written separately, so one letter usually corresponds to one syllable in a word (with some exceptions).

    My hunch is that dyslexics in alphasyllabary languages would have similar developmental issues to dyslexics of shallow orthography languages. In Indian languages, spelling-to-pronunciation is nearly one-to-one, similar to Spanish or Italian. In addition, although Indian writing systems are not alphabets, they are more similar to alphabets (in that they use letters to represent phonemes, not morphemes) than logogram systems. So, in the absence of research on the subject, I would guess that dyslexia therapy programs used in shallow orthography languages would translate well to Indian languages.

    — — —

    Philip Schultz writes that his [English] dyslexia inspired his love for language and poetry. I wonder if the same love can be developed by dyslexics in other languages, too.

    … the very thing that caused me so much confusion and frustration, my belabored relationship with words, had created in me a deep appreciation of language and its music …

    I hope so. Schultz’s poetry is awesome.

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