Johnson: Different tongues, common homes

175_Different tongues, common homes

IT’S not easy being a multilingual country. But that is no excuse for making it harder on yourself. Shortly after taking power following the ousting of Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s new government made the unforced error of revoking a 2012 law which granted the Russian language an official status (alongside Ukrianian) in regions where Russian-speakers predominate.

That was rash and unnecessary. There were already unsavoury right-wing goons alongside more decent Ukrainian nationalists calling for an end to Russian domination. The abrupt change in the language law—one of the interim government’s first acts—gave Vladimir Putin a convenient propaganda point: fascists are bent on eliminating all traces of Russian people, language and culture from Ukraine! This outrageous exaggeration was more effective for having a grain of truth to it. The next thing Ukraine knew, Russia was invading under the cover of protecting fellow Russians. Russian-speaking Crimea is now in Russian hands, and all eyes are on eastern Ukraine, where Russian also predominates. Russia assembled troops near the border before pulling them back recently.

Multilingual countries have it tough. GDP per person is roughly correlated with the proportion of a country’s citizens that speak the predominant language. With a few outliers, you’re more likely to be rich if your country lacks what is sometimes known as a “stateness” problem: the Icelands and Japans of the world have a very clear identity and a dominant language. If your country’s citizens feel comfortable in its borders, your country is stable. If it is stable, it is more likely to be a functioning democracy, and if it is a decent democracy, it is more likely to be rich.

This is all correlation. It is not clear which way the causation runs. It is possible that as a country industrialises and gets richer, the benefits flow to the biggest national/ethnic/language group, to the eventual cost (and perhaps even to the death) of other languages through assimilation. Or it could be that it is simply easier for a country to become a wealthy, stable democracy with just one language. At any rate, there are outliers on either side: mutilingual countries run from rich to poor (say Switzerland to India), as do monolingual countries (say Iceland to Haiti).

Regardless of which way the causation arrow runs, and as much as everyone might like to live in a country with only their linguistic fellows, it won’t do these days to let the majority simply trample the minority. The list of countries that have done so and created enduringly resentful minorities is sadly long: Franco’s Spain and Kemalist Turkey, just to name two examples in modern European history. Back to the post-Soviet region, Latvia’s language law has privileged Latvian, but has been criticised for alienating the country’s large Russian-speaking minority.

It is legitimate for a newly independent country with a good claim on nation-statehood to promote its language. Many such countries come out of multiethnic states where their language was repressed. To build the language up, making it official, requiring its teaching in schools, subsidising radio and television and so forth—these are all a part of healthy nation-building.

The problems happen when this looks zero-sum, and a large minority speaking another language is told, in effect, to get with the programme or get out. Many people cannot or will not move to a friendlier country. And easy partition is rare: there’s a reason most people can name only one “velvet divorce” (Czechosolovakia) in which a multiethnic country peacefully becomes two monoethnic ones. National splits are usually much uglier.

There are three ways to handle multilingualism besides squashing minority languages or splitting the country. The first is generous national multilingualism. Canadian politicians routinely switch between English and French, and in Brussels absolutely everything is in both Dutch and French. This can be expensive and unwieldy: the visitor to Brussels must know that Rue de la Science is also Wetensscaapsstraat. But without this policy, Wallonia and Flanders would have long since gone separate ways. (They may yet.)

The second method is linguistic federalism, also seen in Belgium, as well as Switzerland, India, Canada and today’s Spain. Local territories should be allowed latitude to make locally dominant languages official, for teaching, broadcasting, dealing with the local authorities and so forth. There is no sure-fire solution to language conflict: sometimes local authorities (Quebec and Catalonia come to mind) promote the regional language so aggressively that those that speak the national-majority but regional-miniority language (English and Spanish, in these examples) have their own cause for grievance. But done decently, linguistic federalism gives minorities in big and diverse countries a stake in the status quo.

There is only one truly non-zero-sum way to ease the conflict between languages: to encourage, celebrate and teach multilingualism. Johnson has beaten this drum before, and also acknowledged its cost. It reduces the zero-sum nature of conflict between languages, but is zero-sum with other educational priorities. So be it. The solutions here can all be cumbersome and costly. But compare them with the cost of instability or partition, and they start to look a bargain.

Article taken from The Economist on 4 April 2014.

Travel talk

No Comments » Written on February 3rd, 2014 by
Categories: Bulgaria, France, India, Latvia, UK
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The surprising resilience of a minority language

EVERY two weeks a language disappears. By 2100 nearly half of the 6,000 spoken today may be gone. Migration, either between countries or from the countryside to cities, is one reason: though new arrivals generally stick with their mother tongue, at least at home, their children rarely do. The dominance of English is another. But one tongue bucking the trend is Romani, spoken by 4m of the roughly 11m Roma (gypsy) people worldwide. Its health attests to the importance of language in shaping identity.

Unlike most languages, Romani has no country to call home. Its roots lie in India, but since the 10th century its speakers have scattered and kept moving. One result is that they are everywhere a linguistic minority. Another is that 150 different dialects are in use. “Anglo-Romani”, spoken in Britain, differs widely from dialects in France, Bulgaria and Latvia. One Roma man in New Zealand speaks a dialect previously only heard in Wales.

The 290,000 native Swedish speakers in Finland show no signs of dropping their language—but it is their country’s second official one, compulsory in all schools and spoken by 9.5m Swedes next door. Irish hangs on partly because of government spending on translating road signs and documents, broadcasting, teaching and extra marks for brave students who use the tongue in their final school exams.

But without a government to champion it, Romani is used mostly in the home. Academics and linguists have written it down and tried to standardise it, but many of those who speak it do not read it. America printed a Romani guide to its 2000 census form, but that is a rarity; it almost never features in official documents.

The lack of texts complicates attempts to teach it formally. Roma Kulturklass, a Swedish Romani-language school, is one of a handful in the world. Its 35 pupils study everything except Swedish and English in both Romani and Swedish. But with few textbooks, says Angelina DimiterTaikon, the head teacher, staff must make do with their own translations.

All this should mean Romani is on its deathbed. But its apparent weaknesses—its minority status and scattered speakers—are now what sustains it. One reason is its usefulness as a method of private communication for an oppressed people. It comes into its own when the police come to evict Roma from settlements, says Damian Le Bas, a British Roma and writer. Around 20,000 Roma migrants were evicted from camps in France last year, according to the Human Rights League, a charity.

Despite all those dialects, Romani also allows Roma of different nationalities to communicate. Where repression was particularly fierce, immigration is even dragging it back from the edge of extinction. Fewer than 1% of the 750,000 Roma in Spain speak Romani, partly because the language was banned in the 18th century. But Romani speakers from eastern Europe are leading a revival.

Like many pursuits with sizeable but thinly spread support, Romani-speaking is boosted by the internet. Young people are improvising, finding ways to write text messages and site comments in Romani, says Yaron Matras of Manchester University. The growth of evangelical Christianity among the Roma provides another venue for the tongue. Shaun and Shelley, an English Roma and Irish traveller in Blackpool, started to learn it when eastern European migrants came to their church in 2001. Romani “came back with the Gospels,” says Shelley. Such fervour will help it thrive.

Article taken from The Economist on 3 February 2014.


The Little Book of Transcreation – excerpt #21

No Comments » Written on January 30th, 2014 by
Categories: India, Japan, South Korea, UK
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When choosing a tone, tint or hue to represent your brand, you need to think beyond how nice it will look on your marketing materials. It can mean completely different things in different cultures.

In the Western world, for example, white is associated with peace and weddings, while in Asia, white is for funerals.

155_LBOT #21 wedding pic

155_LBOT #21 Korean funeral

In a similar vein, yellow stands for cowardice in the West, but in Japan, it means courage. And red symbolizes passion in the Western world, while in India, it means purity.

So as you can see, it’s essential to do your homework before picking a shade for your international branding materials.

The Little Book of Transcreation – excerpt #18

Sometimes transcreation involves more than words.

The all-American Spider-Man comic books have been reinvented for the Indian market. The sarong-clad superhero is the alter ego of Pavitr Prabhakar (a phonetic distortion of Peter Parker), swinging from Mumbai landmarks like the Gateway of India as he fights crime in the city’s teeming streets.

The character’s strong family values appeal to Indian readers, and his demon-like adversaries tap into mythologies such as the Ramayana, making this a great example of how ideas can resonate across cultures.

151_LBOT #18

The rise of ‘Hinglish’: modern necessity or dire threat to India’s culture and languages?

No Comments » Written on October 12th, 2012 by
Categories: India, UK
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British diplomats serving in India will need to learn how to speak in “Hinglish” – the hybrid of Hindi and English that has become the prevalent language in Indian business and political circles.

According to a report in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, U.K. officials believe that the use of Hinglish will foster better understanding between Western and Indian businessmen who do not speak flawless English.

“The Foreign Office under [Foreign Secretary] William Hague is placing increasing importance on the ability to transact business in foreign languages. In India we’re looking to build a stronger, deeper relationship, and having diplomats able to speak Hindi and other local languages has become increasingly important,” said a spokesman for the British High Commission.

“English news channels [in India] often have a portion where people choose to express themselves in Hindi because it captures what they’re trying to say better than the English equivalent, so it’s increasingly important for British diplomats to be able to appreciate the nuances.”

With 350 million speakers, India is actually the largest English-speaking nation on earth.

Hinglish has crept its way into advertisements, TV shows and Bollywood movies, as well as the corridors of corporate and political power in India.

A popular new film is titled “Jab We Met” (“When We Met”), while a shampoo commercial on TV features actress Priyanka Chopra calling out, “Come on girls, waqt hai shine karne ka!” (“It’s time to shine”).

Even “English-language” newspapers in India pepper their text with words borrowed from Hindi.

Hindi and English have long enjoyed an incestuous relationship ever since the British first landed in India. English words such as pajama, shampoo, bungalow, dungaree, pundit, juggernaut, among many others, trace their origins to India.

Abha Sinha, a professor of informational technology at the University of Toledo in Ohio, wrote in her blog: “Hindi language magazines and periodicals are harder to come by in the U.S. and the Hindi film industry now uses ‘Hinglish’; an amalgamation of Hindi and English. Communications with friends and relatives too has become Hinglish-ized!”

Hinglish is also becoming a staple in Britain itself, which has large South Asian community.

Six years ago, a female Indian teacher in Derby, England, named Baljinder Mahal published a dictionary called “The Queen’s Hinglish.”

“Much of it comes from banter – the exchanges between the British white population and the Asians,” she told BBC.

“It’s also sometimes a secret language, which is being used by lots of British Asians, but it’s never been picked up on.”

But not everyone is happy with the emergence of Hinglish in India’s daily life, viewing it as a threat to Indian culture.

In a letter to the editor of The Hindu newspaper, a man named Jagriti Thakur from Shimla complained: “It is the domination of English that is more troubling than the domination of Hindi. Among youngsters, speaking in English – weird slang or broken English – is a style statement. Hinglish is in vogue even though it threatens our regional languages.”

Thakur added: “The diverse local languages are disappearing as the next [generation] next does not value them. Nor do schools offer them as a medium of instruction. A balanced education system that understands the importance of multilingual learning can bring about a steady change.”

Posted in the International Business Times, by Palash R. Ghosh | October 11 2012. For original article, click here