Why Putin could (will?) eat Trump’s lunch

Who has greater global insight? Who speaks more languages?
Who has greater global insight? Who speaks more languages?

Russian Federation President Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin possesses some amazing language skills for the leader of a world power. In this video of a town-hall style discussion, he jumps in on the interpreter and does it himself.

We all know he spent a good portion of his career in Germany, which explains his very strong German skills.

But let’s think of it this way. When Mark Zuckerberg addressed a Chinese university audience in Mandarin in 2014, the audience literally responded with Oos and Ahs.

(I was disappointed that President Obama spoke so little Bahasa Indonesia after living there as a boy. He got Zuckerberg-style applause.)

Mr. Putin also gives speeches in English, but I don’t hear anyone Oo or Ah.

Why this contrast? Because Americans don’t learn foreign languages to a professional level. A Russian leader is trilingual, and gets modest applause. An internationally-renowned American CEO speaks modest Mandarin and receives great accolades.

Now we have a president who has shown no interest in foreign languages, for himself or for anyone else.

Mr. Putin possesses a clear advantage over President-Elect Trump. When one knows foreign languages, one has insight into other peoples, countries, and cultures.

Who needs this sort of insight more than a powerful world leader?
Languages at the top of power

Lose your accent! Russian soft consonants

Focus on your mouth and you can sound native!
Focus on your mouth and you can sound native!

You can sound like a native in any language. Even though speaking with a foreign accent seems like a normal state, you can learn how to make the sounds that sound easy in the mouths of natives. This video series increases your awareness of all the parts of your mouth you use for speaking. A language never felt so good!

Here I focus on Russian “soft consonants” or “мягкие согласные.” In linguistics we call them “palatalized consonants,” because you pronounce them with the middle of your tongue on the roof of your mouth or “palate.” English speakers tend to pronounce these sounds with a separate “y” sound, which is not correct. Pay close attention to the video!

Dr. Thomas Coates blew my mind. He taught me how my tongue, lips, jaw, and teeth create language. Like a Chinese calligrapher learns how each finger holds a brush, like a yogi breathes with specific depth and stretch of her diaphragm, I took the first steps towards mastering language: losing my accent.


Photo credit: Giacomo Carena via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Tarzan Shakespeare or the pain caused by my Greek deficit

How do I connect when I'm bad at Greek?
How do I connect when I’m bad at Greek?

“Me want now go yon church?”

“What name belongeth yon market?”

This is how I imagine what my Modern Greek sounds like: a combination of Shakespeare and Tarzan. You see, I’m bad at Greek. (It’s not all Greek to me, but a good portion of it is.) I can read some Biblical Greek (a simpler version of Ancient Greek a la Homer), but I know only a little Modern Greek—and it’s words with very little grammar. A foreigner from the 10th century.

Last weekend I got back from a trip to Greece. Read how it went

Who do we want to be like? Writing can unite

How we portray ourselves says something important about who we want to be
How we portray ourselves says something important about who we want to be

People tend to match their language and mannerisms with the group they want to fit in with. Small children like to imitate their parents, for example. We can change alignment, too. Once small kids become teenagers, they try to do everything in a way different from their parents. Their language goes from imitating their parents to matching their peers. Grown people also change behavior in different social settings. Wives roll their eyes when they see their husbands horsing around with their high school friends. “At least they (mostly) don’t act like this at home!” they think to themselves. (Fortunately, we know what’s acceptable there.) Through speech and mannerisms, humans fit themselves in with the most significant group at a given time and place.

Societies shift their alignment, too. While they may see themselves akin to one group at one time, a change in worldview can bring them into sync with another group. Russian society, aligned with the West in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the extent that some aristocrats spoke French but not Russian. They rejected the West in the October Revolution in the early 20th century. In the late 20th century, it aspired to similar ideals as the West, expressed by the new advertising slogan, “Новое поколение выбирает Пепси!” “A new generation chooses Pepsi!” In the early 21st century, it moved away from the West again in struggles over the status of independent journalism and the imprisonment of Pussy Riot. Each move reveals a shift towards or against an ideology associated with the West.

Language reveals such shifts, as well, and look different depending on how the society imagines itself. The penetration of technology into people’s lives changes how they speak. Whatever native language an Indian speaks, the words “IT,” “End User,” or “Tech Support,” all come out in English. At the same time, L’Académie française, the French Academy, replaces foreign neologisms in order to preserve the French language and culture. For example, “bookmark” would be “le marque-page”. The Academy seeks to make the French language the most basic reference in communication, as opposed to another standard, such as English.

Last post, I discussed how alphabets can be used to divide.  In this post, I will show how writing systems unite.  A seemingly superficial change in a language, the script or alphabet, reveals how a society wants to align itself. I’ve collected a few examples that show changes in writing systems, which move in a new cultural direction, unify multiple cultures, and assimilate to an occupying force. While a language may or may not change, a society can use the form of writing to express affinity with another culture or to unite disparate groups with a single culture.

Moving towards the West

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

For most of its history Turkish was written with the Arabic alphabet. In the early 20th century, however, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk initiated a vast reform to modernize and, many ways, westernize. Educational reform comprised a large part of the reform, which included moving communication from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet. The reasons were complex. The facts here come from the article, “Atatürk’s Reforms.”

One reason was that the Arabic script was not well-equiped to depict the complex vowels of Turkish as well as the Latin script. In addition, Atatürk wanted to purify the Turkish language of foreign words, especially from Arabic and Persian. The Arabic script was better equipped to depict Arabic words. Since Atatürk wanted to make the language more Turkish and less Arabic, the change of script suited both desires.

Technology also influenced Atatürk’s decision. The 19th century technologies of the telegraph and moveable-type printing press demonstrated the weakness of using the Arabic alphabet. They were designed to work with the Latin alphabet; you could not communicate a message in the Arabic script with a telegraph, for example. For Turkish ideas to be expressed broadly and quickly, the alphabet had to match that of current communication technologies.

This part of the educational reform displayed a symbolic unification with the West among the other reforms. By sharing this aspect of literacy, Turkey identified and aligned with the West over the mother of Turkish literacy, the Arab East.

Writing unites peoples

Chinese benefits from an international alphabet. The writing system is used across the country as the standard, even among the scores of languages and dialects spoken in its territory. The written language maps most closely, however, to the standard Mandarin dialect, though it does not match it precisely.

Other languages in China use other writing systems, but only for their own language. Cantonese, for example, uses a form of writing that more resembles the spoken form.  Uyghur currently uses four scripts, none of which resembles Chinese writing.  Dungan, which is a dialect resembling Mandarin, uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Other languages aren’t writing at all.

The written Chinese language, nevertheless, achieved unity among a diversity of peoples and languages in its vast territory. International communication, that is, among the many peoples of China, can take place because everyone is taught the same written language. Remnants of earlier Chinese imperial power can be seen in Japanese and Korean writing, which began with Chinese writing. They moved away from Chinese writing to different extents, as they formed their own national identity, but the common Chinese roots of writing show the early international influence of this writing system. Chinese writing offers a way of communicating easily among speakers of many languages, centered on the Mandarin-based power structure.

Assimilating and flourishing

The Coptic Alphabet

Most people are familiar with the ancient Egyptian language as written in hieroglyphics on, for example, the great pyramids. The language and its writing went through more than one stage of evolution. As the Rosetta Stone illustrates, formal hieroglyphic writing was superceded by a handwritten, cursive style. After many centuries of development, the later form of the language is called “Coptic.” (Three different dialects exist, but that is not relevant for this post.) The language started being written with Greek letters, starting in the 1st century BCE after the Greeks took control of the country in the 4th-3rd centuries BCE. Information comes from the article, “Coptic Language.”

Beyond the writing system, Egypt was becoming heavily influenced by Greek culture. Greek Alexandrian literature was some of the most important writing in pre-Christian times, and held on to this influence after the early adoption of Christianity in that city. The Coptic language was also an important literary language for many centuries, and it was promoted by students of Greek rhetoric. As Christianity blossomed in Greek-dominated lands, Coptic flourished. Many hagiographa were written in Coptic, as were many of the famous gnostic writings of the Nag Hammadi library.

As Greek culture came to dominate Coptic culture, Greek writing became more important. The Coptic language itself remained strong, but the strong influence of Greece is apparent in the alphabet, the vehicle of Egyptian literature.

Determining alignment

Turkey plugged into the benefits of the progressive West and turned away from the East by shifting to the Latin alphabet. Chinese united different nations under one written form of language. Coptic entered into a new cultural millieu by adopting the alphabet of their Greek conquerers. An alphabet symbolizes unity, even if the languages remain mutually incomprehensible.

Who do you want to read your writing? How do you make sure they read what you have to say? How do you make sure your people can read what they have to say? After answering these questions, cultures tend to align themselves with a particular form of writing, even if the language stays the same. Even though an alphabet expresses no linguistic meaning on its own, it manifests cultural solidarity, like food or clothing does.

Not just what we express, but how we express it says something about who we are and who we aspire to be. As intelligent human beings, we must be aware of our speech and behavior and who it aligns us with. By choosing carefully our form of expression, we can make ourselves closer to who we want to be.

Photo credit: SodanieChea / Foter.com / CC BY

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Companies need language ambassadors

A good ambassador is worth the expense
A good ambassador is worth the expense.

A company can display their genuine interest in international clients by showcasing the language abilities and cultural interests among their employees.  Clients enjoy connecting personally with people in your organization, so companies should present their most personal face by recruiting those with exceptional language skills and cultural intelligence.

I recently had the opportunity to help out with a delegation from Russia.  The company my friend works for had some potential clients come from Russia to take a tour of the local facility in Minnesota.  Although the company hired a professional interpreter, I was asked to accompany the delegation to a couple of dinners because I speak Russian.

After long days of tours and presentations, these conversations were relaxing for them.  We didn’t talk “shop”; we talked about life in Russia vs. Minnesota, such as traffic and prices and we learned a lot about one another.  They could talk in their native language about their culture and learn more about US and Minnesota culture.  Meals were not typical work-trip meals but time spent in pleasant company, relaxing and learning.

Towards the end of the visit, one of the Russians smiled and said, “How surprising that we come to the US and we keep finding people who speak Russian!”  My presence told these Russian potential customers that the company with whom they were thinking of partnering cared enough to connect with them in a substantial way and to surround them with an atmosphere that would be comfortable for them.

Significantly, these conversations took place with a “pure” American, so they could peer more directly into the cultural divide.  We have many immigrants from Russia in Minnesota; our interpreter was one.  I, however, was a complete outsider: fifth generation American, no Russian background.  I had no reason to learn Russian culture except out of personal interest.  They were intrigued.  Why did you learn Russian?  What do you think of Russian culture?  Tell us how Americans think!  My interest in people and their background, substantiated by work in learning languages, made a profound impression.

Ultimately, the Russian guests had a nice time and left with a great impression of the US and my friend’s company.  My affiliation with my friend’s company and my personal interest in Russian culture demonstrated that the company and our country are interested in these guests by going the extra mile to make a connection with these potential customers.

Companies in the US will attract more interest from foreign clients if they cultivate linguistic knowledge and cultural intelligence, whether by recruiting employees with these skills, finding existing employees who possess them, or training current employees in them.  My friend’s company made a wonderful impression on these potential customers by bringing me in, not because of me per se but because they made the effort to connect with the clients’ language and culture.  As the marketplace becomes more global, offering up culture and language ambassadors will provide an important edge to winning over clients.

What do you think are cost-effective ways that companies can prepare themselves to make great impressions on foreign clients?

Photo credit: Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0

What makes a language useful?

What motivates your language study?
What motivates your language study?

Recently a friend of mine asked what the most useful language to learn is.  I think he was assuming useful for business, so I addressed this assumption.  I responded that the language you learn depends what you’re learning it for.  If you’re planning on working in China, Mandarin is very useful; Mandarin would not be useful at all if you work extensively in India, though.  But Hindi is not useful outside of India.  If you’re planning on working in Minnesota, Spanish and Somali would be very useful.  You can only judge “useful” with respect to some concrete goal.

The goal of language-learning determines what language one studies and how one studies it.  One friend studied Russian to do business there.  Another wants to learn Tamil in order to enjoy his extended stay in Southwest India.  A third wants to learn Arabic because of family ties and love of the culture.  One blogger I read is learning Pitjantjatjara in order to see the world through a different set of eyes.  For all of these language students, their language is the most useful.

The reasons for learning a language determine not just the language, but also what you focus on in learning.  For business in Russia, much of the business will probably be in English, so small talk will be the most important.  Moreover, much of your studying will be done at home, in between trips to Russia.  For Tamil, you would learn what you could now at home–basic pleasantries–before taking it up in earnest in India.  Once you got there, you would be surrounded by media in Tamil and native speakers, and you would try to speak to the people around you.  For Arabic, listening to music and watching films would help, and then making attempts to find Arabs to speak to would bring the passive knowledge into an active register.  For Pitjantjatjara, probably the only source of the language would be native speakers, so study would be intense conversations, and then studying on your own the words and phrases from those conversations.

For one person, Russian is most useful, and probably Rosetta Stone or an on-line resource like Livemocha.com would be most helpful.  For another, Pitjantjatjara is most useful, and conversing with people may be the only language resource.

Often, when I’m asked about the most “useful” language, the asker assumes that this is an economic question; in other words: What language will make me the most money?  But we see above that the question of what language to learn and how emerges from various motives, many of which are emotional and not economic.  Unfortunately, I think many institutions assume that economics is the most important question.  For this reason, some universities closed their Classics departments.  In addition, the economic question does not always lead to a single language.  As I said, above, economics may lead you to learn Chinese, Hindi, or Russian.  Recently I read that some Chinese people are learning Shona in order to do business in Zimbabwe.  This choice came because of increased economic ties between Sub-Saharan Africa and China.

So experience shows that the assumption that economics often does not motivate someone to learn a language.  Even if economics does motivate someone, economics does not always lead to the same language.

Why are you studying or want to study your language?  What means are you using to study them?  How did you choose those means?  Please add your answers to the comments section.

Photo credit: opensourceway / Foter.com / CC BY-SA