Friday, July 16, 2010

Multilinguistic monolingualism

I've been thinking about the different forms there are of a single language, and how we need to master so many of them during a lifetime.

For example, the language I use at home with my family isn't the same as the language I would use in an academic paper (not that I ever mastered that particular form of English, it has to be said!).

My kids happily use 1337 (leet) speak online with their friends and even in their text messages to one another. Occasionally, they will use elements of 1337 when texting me. Elements of 1337 have informed lolcat (follow the link and have a bit of fun, I dare you!). Even my pedantic septuagenarian mother has adopted some of the shortcut spellings when sending text messages (her most recent message to me included the word 'fite', for example... I never thought I'd see the day!).

My last employer owned the rights to a few courses in business English in a range of delivery media.

Here are some anecdotes that illustrate misapplication of contextual terminology:
A neurosurgery theatre nurse recently told me about a wonderfully talented Vietnamese neurosurgeon who had very little English when he joined the team at the hospital where she works. Being an intelligent and determined man, he learned quickly by listening to and imitating his colleagues. But he learned the hard way that it is inappropriate to tell a patient's family, "Oh, he's toast."

When my husband arrived in South Africa as a child, at the prompting of his classmates, he went and told his teacher to "Go jump in the lake" (although you can be pretty sure what he actually said was "gaw yump in de lake"). She remembered that with fondness when he phoned her some 25 years later to wish her well on her retirement.

A pastor friend of mine went to preach at a church in Mexico, where one or two teenagers, passionately devout about their Christian faith, sported T-shirts with the most profane of slogans, utterly oblivious to the meaning of the words writ large across their chests.

If there are this many forms of the language of which I am a native speaker, goodness knows how many forms there are of the languages of which I am not a native speaker. I wonder how many times I have put my foot in it. I know of one occasion when I politely advised a Swede that my Swedish was poor, but that I could follow if only they would speak 'more badly'. I'm sure there have been countless other occasions.

As national and cultural boundaries are breached by social media, we find ourselves in daily contact with non-native speakers of our language. We might need to remember to cut them a little slack... there may be times when they say something grossly offensive without meaning to do so!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Learning Anorak... deified?!?!

I had to chortle. I have a Google alert set to look for references to Learning Anorak (well, I can't have you lot talking behind my back, now, can I?). Recently, this returned a reference to this post about Warhammer.

It seems the god of learning in this fantasy world is called Anorak, and it was he (he?) who taught the humans magic. Sadly, he was killed using the very magic that he had taught these ungrateful wretches.

But how deliciously ironic!

I only wish that there had been a picture to share with you. Failing that, you'll have to settle for my picture, as the living learning anorak ;o)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Keeping a promise

When there was about a year to go before the football/soccer (choose your name) world cup in South Africa, I visited the country and had grave misgivings that things would be pulled together in time to make the event successful. I expressed these misgivings publicly. Not in any finger-pointing, accusing way, you understand, but with a heavy heart. I thought my homeland had taken on more than it could chew.

I also said that nothing would please me more than to have to admit - after the event - that my fears and doubts were unfounded.

May I take this opportunity to state publicly (as I have done on my Facebook page) that I was unequivocally wrong.

I believe the event was a resounding success. I know there were complaints about the ball, but that was FIFA's problem, not South Africa's. I know that there were complaints about the incessant sound of the vuvuzelas, but (to borrow an Australianism for just a moment) suck it up, princess. They provided a uniquely African soundtrack to the event, just as the steel drums did to the T20 world championship in the West Indies. Oh, and friends and family back home tell me that foreign visitors were just as responsible for the noise levels as the locals... and not just in the stadium, either... vuvuzelas abounded in the streets, in the malls, on the beaches.... everywhere!

South Africans came out in support of the event and their Cinderella team in a way that made my heart swell. Even after their own team was knocked out in the group stages, South Africans chose a team for every game, and supported them with all their hearts. My mother, who has never supported or been interested in a sporting event in her life, not even when I was competing, bought a bright orange T-shirt to show her support for the land of my stepdad's birth.

One thing South Africans can always be depended upon to bring to the party, is passion. It is the single thing most lacking in my daily life since I moved to the UK eleven years ago. I miss that buzz and vibe, and time has not diminished that loss. And it was evident in all its uncynical, unbridled glory throughout the weeks of the world cup competition.

Ndiyaba, abahlobo bam. Ek het my misgis. I was wrong.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Reflections on learning: USA 2010

Apologies for the long silence, and a warning that I am thoroughly jet-lagged! I have been to the north-western USA. The first week was an abortive business trip, the second was spent visiting family.

I felt the need to share my reflections of the differences I noted between this trip and my last visit to the same area in 2004.

Of course, everyone tells me that I have a "cute little accent" and asks me where I'm from.
Last time, when I told them I was from South Africa, the response was invariably, "Oh, Africa." The word 'South' was simply ignored as being meaningless. There was no concept South Africa as a country - most people seemed to think Africa was one large country and, in fact, had little concept of how very large it is!
This time, when I said I was was from South Africa, (almost) everyone knew what that was, even if they didn't know where it was. One woman promptly told a colleague that I was from South America, but then, perhaps she saw this news report. Most noteworthy response : "Ah. That's where our soccer team is at, right?"

Last time, no-one knew much about soccer beyond a game their kids played.
This time, people were keeping ludicrous hours in order to watch the games being played halfway around the world, and many were calling it 'footie' or even 'football' (but only when talking to those of us from outside of the USA, I hasten to add). This surely contributed to the improved understanding of African geography, since there were many African teams in the early stages of the competition.

Last time, if I said I lived in England, most people called England 'London'. If I was absent-minded enough to say I was from the UK, some complimented me on how well I spoke English and asked me if it was widely spoken there.
This time, they were comfortable with terms like UK/United Kingdom as well as England. No-one asked me whether they speak English there. One or two people did use London and England interchangeably, it has to be said.

But my favourite encounter was in the gym with the chap on the static bike next to mine. We were discussing the upcoming 4th of July celebrations and I was regretting the fact that I hadn't thought about them when I had made my travel reservations, with the result that my return flight was booked for 4th July, rather than the day after. "I guess it doesn't really feature large enough on my radar," I explained. Having reassured me that it was "just another reason for folks to get drunk," the man said, "So folks don't celebrate the 4th of July in England, then?"
Me: I'm afraid not.
Him: Why's that, then?
Me: Well, let's think about that. What do you celebrate on July 4th?
Him: Um...?
Me: It's Independence Day, right?
Him: That's right!
Me: Independence from whom?
Him: I don't know.
Me: Independence from England.
Him: Really? I did not know that! Thank you for telling me.

...and no, he was not being facetious. It was a very sincere conversation. But I hasten to add, he was the exception!