Monthly Archives: March 2012

Even at SXSW, caped polyglots can swoop in at a moment’s notice…

It appears that the city of Austin has survived yet another edition of the South by Southwest film and music festival.  For the residents of our fair city (apologies to Click and Clack), SXSW is usually tackled with either of two strategies:  one) you embrace one or both weeks of the schedule and avail yourself of the “We never stop serving” audio and visual buffet, gorging on as much as your ears and eyes can manage; or two) you resign yourself to a mini-hibernation, avoiding the clustering crowds, time-devouring traffic and cacophonous chaos, fleeing like Arthur and his noble, questing knights from the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, with your own rousing chorus of “Run away! Run away!”

An added bonus of Southby is the sheer amount of entertainment available to the polyglots of central Texas, to the residents and visitors from afar that call Austin home or pit stop.  Films from the world over, music from every corner of the globe (a strange expression to be sure, given the inherent roundness of said globe), and in enough languages to make Austin even more international than it already is.

Our adventure begins with two intrepid heroes–a Francophone whose obsession with music is probably only exceeded by his taste for wine and love of literature (played here by your humble servant, etc. etc), and a friend and Freestyle Spanish instructor, Jennifer, with her own penchant for the magical realism of literature (fancy a cup of Garcia Marquez?) and passion for the language of Cervantes that has taken her to Spain and Costa Rica.

Their experiences during this magical, yet real, festival couldn’t have been more different.

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Jennifer fell into the second camp, the Monty Python-esque denizen of Austin who longed to avoid the “nasty, big, pointy teeth” of SXSW.  One night during the festivities, curled up with what I am led to understand was a mighty smooth bottle of Cacique and a some sort of crochet project in hand, she was, as she put it, “coerced out of hibernation.”  The means of coercion are no secret, and I remember her specifically saying “luckily coerced.”  Her roommate Jacob had met the performer in a bike marathon about a year ago, and had never seen her perform.  It only took a little bit of convincing (though I’m not sure if the carrot was financial, fun or a government mandate), and he convinced Jennifer to hop on a bike and pedal to the venue, in typical Austin fashion.  Apparently, participation in bike marathons gives you mad dope bike skills, so Jennifer’s pedaling was wind-like, a hustle to keep up. Jacob, next time give the girl a break!

Off she went to see a show.

As for myself, I usually pitch my tent in the KOA of festival embracing.  If I had the money, and could afford the time off, I would, every year, brave the riot-proportion crowds and obnoxious, steroid-enhanced Austin traffic to see as many films and concerts as my little brain and body could handle. (Yes, there would be bathroom and food breaks, but I’m given to understand one can live off food from a drive-through window or street cart for weeks before any real health risks kick in.  Most movie theatres and concert venues have restrooms, so that would be settled, and Axe commercials have convinced me of the efficacy of their products.  Women, commence flocking!) I had decided on one show in particular to see, weeks in advance.

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Jennifer went, (coerced, wink wink nudge nudge) to see an artist new to her, Gina Chavez, a singer-songwriter based here in Austin, whose music shifts between English, Spanish and bilingual iterations.  As if that wasn’t enough internationalness (hooray for neologisms!), Ms. Chavez is also Austin’s music ambassador to its sister city in Japan, Oita.  To hear Jennifer describe her, “Her voice has that deep ethereal swagger that makes one want to sing along and is backed by Latin beats that make it impossible not to move.”  The venue was packed, with no room for the dancing often inspired by Gina’s jams, like “Embrujo,” so the crowd was relegated to clapping and grooving to the music on stage.  Lest you think the audience simply stayed a passive observer, Gina had everyone singing along to “El Sombrero Azul,” a cover song by Ali Primera, written for Salvadorans as a song of lucha [struggle] during the civil war.

As for my show, I went to see Baloji, an emcee originally from the Congo, now living in Belgium.  I’ve been listening to his music for several years now, and the concert did not disappoint.  The crowd was electric.  But the French take-away from the night sprouted from a much more benign incident.  My friend Jaclyn, during one of the sets, met a guy from Africa who had a band of his own.  Then, she told me about him and his group.  He sounded cool, so a quarter of an hour later, crossing him in a doorway, I introduced myself, invoking my friend as our one degree of separation.  After I asked him from where he comes in Africa (“The Ivory coast!”) he told me briefly about his group, Aciable. (From their site, aciable:  pronunciation: ah see ah blay  (language: Bahoulee, an ethnic group of Ivory Coast in  Africa.)  meaning 1. Joy and dance.  2. African-inspired dance band based in Austin, Texas.). I was intrigued, but the brief conversation stopped there.

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Just a few (ten? fifteen?) minutes later, I found myself in the men’s room, dutifully staring down the wall from my strategic positioning in front of the urinal.  In the corner of my eye, the door opened, and in steps the Ivoirian–strange that I asked the name of his band, but not his.  As luck would have it, he sidled up to the urinal next to mine.  To heck with time-honored protocol in the men’s room, I will speak again to this man! In French! “La Côte d’Ivoire, hein?” [the Ivory Coast, huh?] The slightly higher pitch of surprise in his voice, “Vous parlez le français alors?” [So you speak French?] My response, as ever in these situations, is, “Bien sûr!” [Of course!]  The conversation continues as we exit les toilettes, and I learn that Aciable is, in fact, an Austin-based band, much like Gina Chavez.  I verify the name of the band (whose site I later find on the googlenets), hand him my card, and tell him I look forward to seeing him again.  In French, of course.  Jean-Claude, if you’re reading this, on se verra bientôt!

Jennifer, on the other hand, was fortunate enough, after the set, to eventually talk to Gina, the Spanish flying off her tongue like Mexican fruit bats taking flight. Their conversation lasted longer than mine, substantive, packed full of vowels and minerals, sprinkled with idioms.  Gina remembered Jacob from the bike marathon (ah the benefits of exercise!), yet Jacob seemed surprised that Gina remembered him and, as if starting a surprise loop,  she seemed surprised that he was surprised by that. And that’s not surprising.  She talked to Jennifer and Jacob about being the music ambassador and how it’s going to be a continual post, with the current ambassador taking the new one to Japan for introductions, passing the mic, so to speak, from one to the next. She was incredibly sweet and wanted a picture of Jacob and Jennifer with her. In a subsequent email after the encounter, Jennifer learned that Gina recently performed a benefit concert for her El Salvador college fund and plans a summer Boat Fiesta to continue to raise money for the cause. It seems that whatever the  Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch was that convinced Jennifer to come a’questing during SXSW led her to the Musical Grail that is Gina Chavez. She told me, “I feel fortunate to have met Gina, and it’s wonderful to know a talented artist with such a kind heart.”  She’s definitely a fan now, and she’s hoping to convert you, too.  Here, just see for yourself.  A tune by Gina Chavez via Jennifer’s introduction:

“If you’re just starting out learning Spanish or don’t speak a bit of it, try listening to “Miles de Millas,” a bilingual tune that will amaze you no matter what language you speak!”

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Though Jennifer may have had the more glamorous night, I am no less excited about my toilet talk.  Whichever way it happened, it’s just further proof that anywhere, anytime, the super powers of multilingualism can swoop in to carry the day.

For more information on Gina Chavez, visit http://www.ginachavez.com/

For more information on Aciable, visit http://www.aciable.com/Home_Page.html

A Great deal of thanks and credit goes to Jennifer, without whose story I would not have been able to write this post! Merci mille fois! Muchas gracias!

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Excuse me, I noticed you from across the room, and I wondered if we could talk…

What makes for successfully learning a language? I often hear stories from  people who studied such-and-such at some distant (or not too distant) juncture in their life. They remember some basics, the s’il vous plaît, the gracias, the привет, the arrivederci.  The story usually contains details about how the learning wasn’t fun, or the language just didn’t speak to them or that they never used it then POOF! it was gone, much like the raccoons from your trash can as you open the door to see what all the ruckus is about.  The epilogue of their little tale often contains some lament about having lost the language, or never having learned another, or never really using it to begin with.

What I notice in these accounts is their lack. The narrators are a bit removed from their stories, as if they’ve no vested personal interest in it, but are merely reporting this little episode that they could have very easily seen on any edition of “The Bachelor,” where that overly handsome airline pilot tries to connect with date #13 as he bides his time to woo #14 and think about #12.  I worry that this disconnect is exactly why they let that language get away–they never felt it theirs, or theirs for the taking and having.

So how do you make that connection?  Well, you look that language right in the eye, that window to the soul, and you see whether she (or he, for that matter, your language perhaps being a burly and rugged German or English, rather than a spicy Spanish or a titillating Italian) connects with you.

It’s a first date.  And as on every first date, you ask yourself some very basic questions.

1.  What is your interest in him? Or better, is she interesting? Your friend who’s dating a lawyer may find all lawyers captivating, but if you don’t, taking one to dinner isn’t conducive to you getting swept off your feet.  You must have an attraction to your language. You must find her appealing.  That interest can, of course, be utilitarian–say, learning German because your firm has offices in Berlin and Munich. For some, utility is a great and sufficient motivator.  But it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the only one. What sparks your interest? What keeps you magnetized? On this very blog, a commenter  recently expressed a desire to learn some Mongolian because of  a pending voyage there. Travel is another good motivation–how better to experience a new place than being able to chat with the locals and read their menus rather than some awkward translation?  Perhaps you have a close friend fluent in Chinese. No better reason to learn Chinese than to speak  it with your friend. My own choices in learning have been driven by literature, that great seducer.  Voltaire’s Candide wooed me so much that I wanted to read it in the original, and thus was I compelled to learn French.  The come-hither vibes of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics had me coo-coo for Italian. Are you a fan of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? Perhaps the carrot of  Män som hatar kvinnor is just the right treat to get you galloping to learn Swedish.

Reading "La cage aux folles" out loud

2.  How do I make a personal connection with my date?  This is always the tough question and the daunting task of starting a new relationship.  Like a new boyfriend with whom you want to spend every free minute, a new language  needs to be an integral part of your life.  Yes, there are sometimes textbooks involved, but once you close them you can’t leave the language there.  Take it with you, make it a part of your day-to-day life.  It’s not a dog, it’s your dog, tu perro. You’re not at the supermarket to buy groceries, you’re there to get du lait, des framboises, du riz, du boeuf.  And it’s not simply incorporating language into part of your life, it’s sharing interests and passions.  It’s your love of movies adding Lola rennt and Der Krieger und die Kaiserin to your Netflix queue or your music obsession keeping L’Ecole du micro d’argent in your CD player for days on end (or on repeat on your EyePod or EarCapsule or whatever digital music device you use).  Make the personal connection, because that’s what keeps LTRs (long-term relationships for those not into acronyms) headed on the right track. Making the personal connection makes the language yours, and you’ll always want to speak your language(s).

Mon chien et mon chat; mi perro y mi gatto

3.  Am I having fun with my date? Am I having fun learning about my date? This is the age-old query of any relationship–are we having fun yet? Or still? Or at all? Though it sometimes takes place in a classroom, learning a language doesn’t have to be soulless or boring. When you’re waiting in line with your lady-love at Starbucks, ready to share yet another romantic iced Venti White Chocolate Mocha with an extra shot–wait who am I kidding?  You’re both coffee purists, that’s why you connected, so no ice in that fancy drink for either of you!–you talk, you joke, you make the wait entertaining. And that’s the attitude you must adopt when learning a language.  Sometimes you have to wait in line, or consult a grammar book or do some exercises in a text, but those moments can be made all the better by having a little fun in the process.  Don’t limit yourself to learning from those texts–the world is your playground, and it’s filled with literary slides and swings, cinematic merry-go-rounds and musical monkey bars.  Sing a vibrant version of “La vie en rose” in the shower or give yourself a dramatic, loud-as-you-can reading of Elogio de la sombra as you sip iced tea on your back porch.  The more fun you make it, the less it seems like work, and the less it seems like work, the more fun it is to do, so you do it more, thus learn more and then the whole wicked and delicious cycle starts all over again!

Learning a language is a lot like starting a new relationship.  You have to be interested in the person to begin with, you have to make a personal connection and incorporate that person into your life, and you have to have fun–otherwise the break-up is inevitable, and you’ll wonder why you went out in the first place.  Take the time to pick a good date, make a choice that means something to you and go for it.

And don’t forget, every relationship starts with a simple, “Hello.”

Just take a listen:

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Language Learning is the Swiss Army Knife of Knowledge…

For when you don’t have a Galactic Hitchhiker from whom you may borrow a Babel Fish…

Han Solo understood Chewbacca’s Wookiee language and the speech of Greedo, a Rodian (Thank goodness or Han would’ve only had a bit part in A New Hope!).  Jabba the Hutt understood English (but still didn’t heed Luke’s warning!). And C-3PO, that loveable goldenrod, was fluent in over six million forms of communication!

Image Copyright Stanley Chow

John Malkovich and Johnny Depp know more than English.  Emma Thompson does, too.  Penelope Cruz has made a career in both Spanish- and English-language films.  Gérard Depardieu makes films in France and Hollywood.  Samuel Beckett, an Irishman, Eugene Ionesco, a Romanian, and Milan Kundera, Czech, all wrote in French, their second language.  And Haruki Murakami wrote the first lines of his debut novel in English, then translated them back into his native Japanese, finding his voice along the way.

It’s what separates the Fleming Bond from the Hollywood Bond.  It’s what makes Jason Bourne way cooler than both.  What’s “it,” you say? Why, speaking more than one language. Being a polyglot.

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You know the old joke: What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. Three? Trilingual. One? American.

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Mandarin is spoken by over 1 billion people.

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According to CBS news, Barack Obama, at a town hall meeting in 2008, said, despite having spent part of his childhood overseas, “I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing!”  Days prior he was reported saying, “It’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup, right?”   When Mr. Obama championed the idea of Americans learning another language, his opponents jumped to criticize, deride and worse.  His response?  “You know, this is an example of some of the problems we get into when somebody attacks you for saying the truth, which is we should want children with more knowledge.”

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Skittles.

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G. Tucker Childs, in his 2003 An Introduction to African Languages, declares that there are more than 2100 languages spoken on the continent.

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Whenever I’ve told someone that I speak French, I’ve never been met with, “Holy Cow! Are you kidding!?  Why on earth would you want to speak another language?”  Very often there is the refrain of “Oh man, that is so cool!  I wish I spoke another language.”  Sometimes a rousing chorus of “Wow, I studied [insert language here] in high school but I don’t remember anything except [insert “hello” or “please” or random curse word from previous language].”  There is the occasional stunned silence, usually for people who aren’t sure how to respond, but they often follow up with a question about how I learned it, or where or why.  And then there are those who, despite having no background in learning another language, still try to relate:  “Wow, that’s great.  I have an uncle who had a step-daughter from his second, no third, marriage, who took French in junior high.  She really liked it.”

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Did you know that Spanish is the de jure or de facto language in some 23 countries around the world, on four continents? 

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There are a million reasons (I know because I’ve counted—#1, to communicate) to learn another language.  Gaining cultural competence and awareness, and improving one’s ability to think and reason notwithstanding, learning another language allows us to better know our mother tongue (Oh, how many students I’ve had who didn’t understand English grammar until we studied French grammar.).  It leaves us with the ability to travel far-off with the magical power to experience a more authentic Spain or France, a more personal Senegal or Columbia.  It bestows upon us even more ways to express ourselves and, better yet, know and understand ourselves.  For music fans, it is your gateway to an exponential number of new favorite bands that you won’t ever hear on the radio, so no  more listening to the same misses over and over and over.  For movie buffs, your DVD collection will grow, your bank account shrink, and Friday Film Nights will never, ever be the same.

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French is the official language (or one of several) of 30+ countries around the world, used unofficially in even more, spoken on five continents, and figures among the official languages of dozens of international organizations.

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Living in Austin, I find myself in the car quite often.  By which I really mean, all the time.  When I’m not listening to KUT, the local NPR affiliate, I have CDs constantly playing music.  You may not think this terribly unusual, save one detail.  Almost without fail, those discs are playing French music.  Or African Music.  Mostly likely hip hop.  In my mind, the soundtrack of Austin isn’t Sara Hickman, Alejandro Escovedo or Brownout (though I listen to them!), but IAM, Saïan Supa Crew, Magic System and Sexion d’Assaut.  And, full disclosure, listening to what surely seems out of place to everyone but me, I always do two things.  One: At stoplights, when the weather’s nice, I open the sunroof and the windows and turn up the music.  When people stare, I know I’m cool, and I secretly wait for them to ask me what I’m playing. Two: Every time I hear a Sonic ID on KUT, I automatically imagine it’s me on the radio, talking about how my soundtrack to Austin goes back and forth between Morning Edition, All Things Considered and French Hip Hop.  Other drivers will listen to this same Sonic ID and think, “That guy must be so cool.”  The ID ends with me singing along to something fun, like Magic System.

My therapists say my delusions completely lack grandeur.

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Learning languages is a Swiss Army Knife for knowledge.  It makes you smarter; it makes you cooler.  It opens the world to you in ways you haven’t even imagined.  It bridges cultures and continents; it links one human to another.  And sometimes, if you’re really lucky, that link turns romantic, then you woo someone in their language, and they you, in yours.  That’s probably worth the price of admission right there.

An Attempt at Internet Dating

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I’ve got Japanese and Arabic on my list. What language do you want to start learning today?

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