SPEAK AMERICAN – Fun lesson in language

Speak American – The title was just to get your attention.

I do not plan to get into politics at all with this post, (well maybe a little, I can’t help myself) but rather the VERY INTERESTING revelations I’ve had during my language studies.  These are the enlightenments which really made language learning fun and keeps the passion burning.  I am certain these will be as entertaining for you as they was for me.  The only difference is that it took me 10 years to learn these lessons and I’m going to show you in one blog post.

Further, these are FUN!  I wish my teachers would have pointed these things out from the beginning.  Academics often have a very serious talent for quickly making subjects boring.  🙁

As for speaking Amerikan, how much attention do people pay to their own language?  For most, it is just a bunch of sounds arranged in a certain order to express a thought.  But how were these sounds formed, where do they come from?  Can one language be “better” than another?

I don’t know the answer, I just hope this post will open a few closed minds to the joys of language.

I.  Kanji (The Chinese/Japanese symbols)

I’ll start with Kanji (漢字) as many might find this interesting.  Kanji is a picture symbol which represents an actual idea or physical thing.  Most of us would know what hieroglyphics are and Kanji is like that.  They can be put together to form a language but also have an actual meaning by themselves.

Learning Kanji can seem very difficult.  In fact, basic Kanji is very easy because they are just pictures.  The fact that there are tens of thousands of Kanji and they become very complex is what makes them difficult.  But exploring the basics, let me relate a few examples that are very easy.

a.) 人  –  This means “person.”  It is just a stick figure of a person.

b.) 大 -  This one means “big.”  It is the stick figure with his arms stretched out.

c.) 木 –  This looks similar to the top two but it means “tree.”  The bottom lines are the roots and the top are two branches and a top

d.) 本 – This means “origin.”  We can see the tree but there is a horizontal line at the bottom.  This line asks you to pay attention to a certain area which is the root.  It is drawn across one root and this root came from a seed.  Since a seed is the origin of the tree, this kanji means “origin.”

Now, let’s do my favorite

a.) 大 – You know this one already.

b.) 羊 – This means “sheep.”  How the heck did they get “sheep” out of this?  Well, just draw the outline of a sheeps face around the bottom half and the two pointy things on top are the horns.

c.) 美 – This one means “beautiful.”  The sheep is on top and the kanji for “big” is on the bottom.  Therefore, one would think it means “big sheep,” but no, somewhere along the line someone thought a “big sheep” might be beautiful and so that is what it came to mean.  Perhaps a larger sheep could be sold for more money which is beautiful?  I don’t know, I’m really reaching here.

-On a political side note, Kanji was imported into Japan from China.  Chinese/Japanese relations have been less than friendly for as long as one can remember but from reading “The Tale of Genji” (源氏物語) we see that 1000 years ago the Japanese aristocracy considered Chinese writing was superior to Japanese.  Just don’t point this out to any Japanese today (@.@)  It’s a great read and perhaps the most famous novels in Japan.  Genji was a playboy and got all the girls!

Back to Kanji, now you will never forget any of the above Kanji.  See!!!  Wasn’t that easy?  Now just learn 10,000 more and you’ll be fluent.  🙂

The interesting fact about this is that in Japanese class they would just have us memorize the Kanji as a whole and tell us a certain kanji means a certain thing.  Yet, one day, a Chinese classmate pointed out the origins of the individual pieces which made it really easy!!!  I was amazed to learn that the Japanese cannot do this but the Chinese can.  So, at the bar that night I informed a Japanese friend of mine about this and was making fun of him.

Yet, he promptly turned the tables on me which brings me to my next point

II. Deconstructing English

What my Japanese friend was so kind to point out was that we English speakers cannot do this the English language!  Many English words (especially the difficult ones) are constructed by combining various “parts.”  This really becomes apparent if we understand the Latin root of the word and if one has studied say French or Spanish (or Latin) then even very difficult English words become easy.  Let’s do an example.

1. Con – In Spanish, this means “with,” or “together.”   A variant is “com.”  Now that we know this, anyone can understand the meaning of the following words:

a.) Combine
b.) Construct
c.) Computer
d.) Conglomerate
e.) Congeal
f.) Conflagrate-  This one some people might not know.  Yet, if we understand what “con” means then we can come very close to guessing the meaning
Con – with, together
Fla     —- Flare, Flash, Flame
Ate – A past action (as a suffix)

2. Mal – In Spanish this means “bad.”  So in English we can figure out the following

a.) Malediction
b.) Malfeasance
c.) Malicious

– They all mean something a little different but the basic meaning is something “bad.”

Going off track a bit, what are the origins of “good” and “bad?”  My favorite explanation comes from Nietzsche in his “Genealogy of Morals” He argues that the high ranking people consider “good” simply succeeding or perhaps doing something worthy of God (A connection between Good and God here?) Whereas “Bad” is not achieving, doing something unworthy of “God.”  Here is a quick excerpt:

“On the contrary, it was the “good people” themselves, that is, the noble, powerful, higher-ranking, and higher-thinking people who felt and set themselves and their actions up as good, that is to say, of the first rank, in opposition to everything low, low-minded, common, and vulgar.”

But I do not intend to go down the rabbit hole of philosophy.  So going back to deconstructing words my last example is the following:

3. Mort – In French it means “death.”  This time, instead of trying to understand what each word means, let’s just concentrate on how these words make us feel.

a.) Morticia
b.) Mortgage
c.) Mortuary

Therefore, if you have to take the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) then instead of just trying to memorize everything, just learn Spanish or French and it is easy as pie.  (metaphors are a whole other ball of wax – pardon the pun)

Finally, once we really get into the origins of the English language we can see the various influences each invading tribe (of England) had on the language.  Saxons, Romans, Germanic tribes all contributed to the English language and therefore made it a complete mess in terms of linguistic purity.

III. Country Names

One of the most fascinating facts I learned is that the origin of country names simply come from the name of the tribe of people who lived there.  Or, in some cases, a symbolical meaning.

1. England –  Eng Land.  The land of the English
2. Germany – In German it is Deutschland.  Deutsch Land – Land of the Deutsch.
3. Pakistan – “Stan” means “land.”  – Land of the Paks
4. Afghanistan – Land of the Afghans
5. Turkmenistan – Land of the Turkmen (and so on with all the other “stans”)

It changes a bit when we get into East Asia.

1. 日本 – Nihon (Nippon
) This is Japan in Japanese.  The English people couldn’t say “Nihon” but they tried and came close.  Over time this it eventually just became “Japan.”

If we look at the Kanji we can see the true meaning:

– (日)  This is just a a drawing of a sun.  It used to be round but was squared off over time then a line was drawn through it
– (本) – Remember this meant “origin?”  Therefore, Japan means “The origin of the Sun” or translated more properly “Land of the Rising Sun.”

It seems to me some translator along the way took some liberties with including “rising” in there but it does sound better

2. 中国 – This means “China” in Chinese.  The meaning is “Middle Kingdom” because since China was so powerful, they considered themselves in the center of the world.  (and still do!)

– 中 – This Kanji means center.  It is a square with a line going right through the center.

– 国 – The square is the land and (玉) means jewel or Jade.  I could be a little off so please correct me if I’m wrong.  I’m guessing if we deconstruct the Kanji for “country” then it would be a jewel in a “land,” if that makes any sense.

3. Vietnam (越南)

This one takes some explanation.  First of all, in ancient times, Vietnam was called “Au Lac.”  It was also known as Lac Viet.”

I have trouble finding out where “Viet” comes from.  My guess is that it was the name of their tribe.  When we look at the Kanji above the first one (越) means “Viet” and the second one (南) is pronounced “nam” and is the character for “South.”

Therefore, my theory is that the Chinese called the country the “Viets in the South.”

IV. Mentality Change

The question is, does language form our thoughts or is it the other way around?  I would argue that our language is what gives structure to our thoughts.  Therefore, when we think in English we also “reason” in English.  In the English language there are biases and limitations to what we are able to conceive.  If we desired to be “rational” it would most likely be beneficial to dispense with any spoken language and just “speak” in mathematics.

When we learn another language, we are also learning a completely new “mentality.”  The way one thinks about things changes along with the language.  It is true that we can “translate” with great accuracy but there are subtle changes to the meaning.

Perhaps a decent example would be something I just saw on Youtube.  This guy downloaded and uploaded a video file 1000 times.  Eventually, you cannot make out anything in the video as it is so distorted.  The same would happen if one tried to translate an idea into another language and then continued on from the second language to others and repeated a number of times.  Eventually, the original meaning would become completely lost.

I’m not sure if I can think of a super great example to demonstrate but I’ll give it a go.  I won’t use English/French/Spanish because they are too close on the linguistic tree.  Instead, let’s do English/Japanese.

–  English – I want to eat spaghetti
The stress of this sentence is on “I.”

– Japanese – Spaghetti tabetai – Spagetti wants to be eaten
The stress is on the Spaghetti

-Of course it is translated “I want to eat spaghetti” but really the focus is taken off the person who wants to eat the spaghetti and put on the spaghetti itself.  And the real kicker is it could mean “Do you want to eat Spaghetti!!”  All you have to do is change the inflection at the end as in a question.

“Spaghetti tabetai?”  – Do YOU want to eat spaghetti!!!!!

In fact, we basically have to guess who it is that wants to eat spaghetti since the pronoun (I, You, He, She, It, We, they) is completely missing.  When I first started learning my mind would beg me “WHO WANTS TO EAT THE SPAGHETTI??? I NEED TO KNOW!!!”  But over time, we learn to infer from the context who it is that wants to eat the Spaghetti.

It just goes to show that the people who invented “English” which just happen to be the English are very self-centered bast…. er, people!!!

The Japanese on the other hand are very sensitive to the feelings of the group.  Therefore, the language revolves around building consensus and it is very rude to say things in a straightforward manner.  (although it can be done).

Why are the Japanese like this you ask?  Well, one theory is that they have very little arable land and therefore cooperation was necessary to ensure the survival of the village.  So, in order to minimize conflict they structured the language to be very polite and get along with each others.  Guess it all makes sense why the English fought so much against themselves and each others.  Maybe if they spoke Japanese they would have fought less? !!!  HA!!

But, I’ve gotten off track.  The point of this, um, er, point, is to simply show that mentality changes in other languages.  Therefore, just because we have reasoned a problem out in “Amerikan” doesn’t mean the rest of the world sees the issue in the same way.

Damn, there I go with politics again.

V.  Language Changes

I have never really gotten along with Grammar Nazis.  In school, they teach us that grammar is static and cannot be changed.  Therefore, if I said, “Spaghetti I want to eat” and argued with the teacher that it is perfectly correct, I would have gotten detention.

Language changes over time and an easy way to understand this is trying to read “The Canterbury Tales,” by Geoffrey Chaucer.  (eow rædan þes?).  I picked it up for a read and it seemed as though it was in a different language.  Here is just one sentence.

“Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne.”

The grammar is not in the order we think it should be and just forget about understanding most of the words.

So, fast forward to today, the language will continue to change and one thing I would like to see is to drop “a” and “the” completely from the English language.  If we think about it are these necessary?  Asian students have a terrible time with them and I do not believe they really add any value to the sentence.  It doesn’t matter to me if you are “going to the store, “or “going to a store.”  In either case, “store will be visited!”

VI. The Sanitizing of English (Well, American English anyway)

I have noticed a trend in the past two decades of using certain phrases to “sanitize” or make less harsh the true meaning of an action or idea simply to make it more acceptable to the masses.  This was started by the politicians and instead of trying to justify the action as it actually is, they just changed the words to make the action more acceptable to the masses.

1. Boots on the Ground –  Increase in soldiers
2. Battle for hearts and minds – No longer war and death but instead something that would seem positive
3. Protecting my freedoms – Now, any military action is supposedly justified by this statement.
4. Loss of Life – Usually murder but just sounds so much better this way
5. Collateral Damage – Again, killing
6. Shock and Awe – Drop a big bomb on someone that kills many

and finally one that is not sanitized but is really active in our lexicon lately.

7. The FIGHT against (input here) – It seems that just about everything needs to be “fought” against nowdays.  From a linguistic perspective, it would appear that we are a very aggressive culture.  I don’t suppose “the collective solution” or “the path towards a peaceful resolution” hold as much power as “FIGHT.” If I were to try and list everything we are su
pposedly fighting against, I wonder if just about everyone and everything would be an enemy?

Well, it is late and I can think of no other things I would like to share.  Therefore, I’ll leave off with a final political point which I simply cannot resist doing.  For those of us who insist on everyone speaking only English, I’m afraid we would have to erase the following words and come up with “English” equivalents.  To show I’m a good sport, I’ll even offer some suggestions

1. Spaghetti – Thin strings in sauce
2. Taco – Meat in a shell
3. California – Land of the weirdos  (ROFLROFL)
4. Sushi – Raw fish on Rice
5. Hamburger – Meat paddy

Ok ok,,, I won’t leave off on a political point but rather a fun one.  And I’ll even stick with the food theme.  Let’s translate from English to Japanese to the Kanji literal meaning

1. Breakfast – Asagohan  – 朝ご飯 – Literally — “Morning Rice”
2. Lunch – Hirugohan – 昼ご飯 – Literally – “Afternoon Rice”
3. Dinner – Yuuhan – 夕飯 – Literally – “Evening Rice”

– AND if we make things even more complicated, Lunch, Dinner and Supper can mean different things in England.  Or is it Britain.  or is it The United Kingdom?  LOLOLOLOLOL

That’s all for now.  Ya es todo, Sayonara

My View – Guest-Teaching Chinese, and Learning America

Just read an article in the New York times entitled “Guest-Teaching Chinese, and Learning America.”

The article piqued my interest in that I’m all for building bridges between cultures and this program is a wonderful way to help American students learn the language of a country that will be (and is already) very important on the world stage.  The article on the overall was very good but there was one statement that I take great issue with.

This is what separates those who have lived abroad (or really try hard to understand other cultures) vs. those with a closed mentality and believe everyone and everything should be more like America.  Here is the statement:


“Barry Beauchamp, the Lawton superintendent, said he was thrilled to have Ms. Zheng and two other Chinese instructors working in the district. But he said he believed that the guest teachers were learning the most from the cultural exchange.

“Part of them coming here is us indoctrinating them about our great country and our freedoms,” he said. “We’ve seen them go to church and to family reunions, country music concerts, rodeos. So it’s been interesting to see them soak up our culture.””


On one hand, we could take that statement as though it is simply a good thing that the Chinese teachers are over here and taking a bit of the culture.  They can go to rodeos, perhaps eat a cheeseburger and heck even drive a Humvee if it behooved them to do so.  This is a good thing and a positive experience for everyone.

Yet, I detect the sense that what Mr. Beauchamp means is that America is better and we are doing the teacher a service by “indoctrinating” her on why America is better.  Taken further, I believe the implications are that it is beneficial to American students to learn the language while leaving all other aspects of Chinese culture at the door.

As any serious language learner knows one must really internalize every aspect of the foreign culture if they really want to succeed.  Language is not just a compilation of nouns verbs and grammar structures so that we can communicate but is something so much richer and fuller which is a direct reflection of how the foreign person thinks.  This thought process is formulated through their culture and therefore only taking the language would be akin to purchasing a motor with no car.  The motor is important but without the car which encases it one cannot get anywhere.

If we look at the word “indoctrination” we get a sense that it is teaching someone a set of principals and ideas and getting them to abide by them on their own.  One definition is; ” indoctrinate – to teach with a biased or one-sided ideology.”

When Mr. Beauchamp says “indoctrinating them about our great country and our freedoms” it is very easy to see that the thinks very little of China as a whole and that it is his duty to “correct” the teacher from her own culture!  Further, he mentions “going to church” and as we all know China is principally a Buddhist country and thus the teacher is most likely Buddhist as well.  Therefore, he is not only would like to indoctrinate her politically (freedoms) but religiously as well and perhaps even convert her to Christianity!

This is a disservice to the students in that learning a language is only a small piece of the culture at large.  If we are truly to understand each other and create a better world then learning a language just for its functional usage is a waste of time if one cannot understand the mindset of the culture as a whole.  People talk about having an open mind but it would appear that they only want to put a toe in the water. For them, having an “open mind” is O.K. so long as what the students have been taught politically and religiously from their American upbringing do not change.

It seems to me that Mr. Beauchamp believes the best possible scenario would be to have the students learn Chinese, go over to China and for them to teach everyone to become as American as possible!!!  It is quite obvious Mr. Beauchamp has not lived for any amount of time abroad cause he just doesn’t get it.

Language Study

Just yesterday I discovered the website “Meetup.com”. It is a site where people can find others who share the same interests and then actually meet in groups to discuss that topic. I joined the Spanish, French and Japanese language groups and went to my first Spanish language one last night.

At first I was slightly apprehensive about going since I didn’t know anyone and it was my first time to participate. However, it was in a very trendy SF bar, thus beer was involved and I really wanted to see what it was all about.

The group was about 25, some from Latin America but most had learned the language through study. It was the first time in a while I got a true language workout which got me thinking in general about language fluency and the real meaning of “being fluent.”

In America, people will always ask if “you are fluent.” This is a tough question for the language learner because there are various stages of fluency which differs depending on which country you are in. In America, fluency has the widest range because some claim to be fluent with only limited amount of study and really are not in my opinion. Fluency to me is to be able to converse in any situation without too much hesitation. However, in more difficult subjects such as the economy or international affairs my “fluency” would greatly deteriorate.

In England they have a much better description when assessing “fluency.” They differentiate between “fluency” which means my description above and “bi-lingual” which is being able to speak both languages (mother tongue and learned) equally well. In this way, I am not bi,, tri nor quadralingual (sp?) but still consider myself reasonably “fluent.”

I am most “fluent” in Spanish and am perceived to be so in ordinary conversation. The trick is that I can form the sentence in my head first and thus say it very rapidly. In this case even Spanish speakers will ask which country I am from. However, last night the conversation got a bit more complicated as we described our careers and I found myself to be less “fluent.” I could still get-by but there were pauses of about 5 seconds as I had to search for the right word.

We often do not realize that we do this in English as well although it is no longer “fluency” we are concerned with as everyone reading this can speak English. Instead, if we speak well, one is considered “smart.” This is most apparent when describing. For example one could say “John is really smart because he speaks English well.” Or one could say “John’s use of nuance is remarkable in that he conveys meaning with superb use of subtle undertones which displays an outstanding intellect.”

Depending on how one describes an experience or idea through the medium of language opens a window into what is actually going on in that persons mind. Therefore, each of us has a level of fluency even in our native language. To illustrate the point, the English language is now passing one million words yet most people will not use even a quarter of the words.

For my own English “fluency,” the study of Spanish/French has had a profound effect. Instead of learning each word as an individual entity, I am now able to make an educated guess on difficult English words which from my studies I know the meaning to be correct. Take for example the words “maelstrom, malevolent, malice.” These words all contain the word “Mal” which is a common Spanish word and means “bad.” Thus, I able able to determine that the above words mean something bad and in the context of the sentence can determine a more precise meaning. Further, the French word “mort” means “death.” Therefore, “mortified”, “mortgage”, or the name Morticia from the Adams family take on a more profound meaning which mortgage being a humorous one in that we have to pay so much money.

Deriving meaning by breaking up English words did not occur to me until I had a conversation with a Japanese friend of mine. I was bashing the Japanese for not understanding the individual meanings of Chinese/Japanese characters “Kanji.” In Japanese class they would draw the symbol and we were just to memorize the meaning outright. However, the Chinese students are able to break the symbol apart into individual meanings. For example, the Kanji for “beautiful” combines both the Kanji for sheep and for beautiful. The Kanji for train station can be broken to show a man on a horse. Yet the Japanese simply memorize the Kanji as a complete symbol whereas the Chinese see individual meanings.

As I informed my friend of this, he said we do the same thing in English and was correct. “Com”, or “Con” mean to combine, (com-bine). Thus, “Computer”, “Conference”, “Construct”, “Competition”, all mean the combining of two or more things. I found this com-pletely fascinating.

Finally, there is always debate as to what is “correct” English. There are those who abhor bad grammar usage and take a very technical view of the language. For them the sentence “John didn’t do no good things for nobody,” would be like a punch in the gut. However, the English language is inherently a very impure mutt of a language since it has so many influences from a variety of sources. England, the home of English originally spoke Celtic until it was invaded time and time again to take on Latin, Germanic, Nordic and even Arabic words among many others. The language has evolved so much that we would not really be able to understand someone from the 15th century and English seem almost like a completely different language. Thus, the “Grammar-Nazis” are simply trying to freeze the language into the form they find acceptable in the current year. The French do this and have found it very hard to incorporate completely new words such as “internet, computer, mouse” etc. For me, the language will flow as an unbound river and thus accurately reflect the societies mass-consciousness. Just think of the new phrases “cliches” that have come into usage under the Bush administration:

1. Boots on the ground
2. Battle for hearts and minds
3. Cut and run

In fact, the phrases can be taken to mean more than they actually do!
2. Battle for hearts and minds = Support the American agenda
3. Cut and run = Not support the Bush administration.

This is not a post on politics however and returning to language, there is one caveat to my idea that language should be allowed to flow and change. As I mentioned above, language is a window into the speakers mind and if simplified “dumbed-down” too much it actually produces a less intelligent mind. Therefore, I’m ok with the language changing and breaking grammar rules but not to the point that it actually decreases mental capacity.

"Moving Forward"

Approximately one month and a half ago I switched careers and ventured into a position with an entirely new industry. A large American corporation with a great reputation for honest dealings with the customer and a fun beginning it has been. There is a bit of pressure, but the freedom to go out and make sales suits me well.

However, it has also been quite a culture shock switching from a Japanese corporation to a pure American one. Not only must I get used to a more aggressive nature, but also a language I am completely unaccustomed to. This language is known as “corporate speak,” and is characterized mostly by phrases which emphasize action, positive results etc. One phrase in particular I would like to address is “Moving Forward.”

I’m not exactly sure which grammar category it would fall into but it is used to convey a meaning of “getting better,” “positive results,” “the future,” etc. The problem is that it is extremely addictive and thus akin to the teenage use of the word “like.” Thus, it can be used innumerous times but when used in excess really loses any and all meaning.
For example, one could say, “and moving forward, I really should come to a point with this post.” Or one could use it at the end of a sentence “I should really come to a point with this post, moving forward.” Or even, “I should really come to a point, moving forward, with this post. “Moving Forward,” is very versatile in nature but must always convey a meaning of a positive result in the future.
Another problem is that it has no opposite. One could never say, “Moving backward” or even “Moving Diagonally.” This would make no sense at all to any business person. It almost reminds me of a chess match in that the Pawns are the only ones that can move forward. Perhaps only a CEO of a company could say “Moving Sideways.” Therefore, “Moving Forward” is definitely not very agile of a statement. You “move forward” and that is the only direction you can go. If one did mention “moving backward” or even “standing still” they might get fired.

What I cannot understand however, is how this (verb?) became such a staple of business English. It is perhaps the most used in B.S. business card bingo which is a game where you check off the cliche business speak on your card, and should you get them all during a meeting you actually stand up and yell bingo!!!

Therefore, moving forward, I would like to propose a few other phrases in the hopes that they will dilute the plague of this too often used phrase.

1. Looking ahead
2. as we progress
3. as we proceed
4. moving along (well maybe not this one as it might convey something someone might say to a vagrant.)
5. with the future in mind
6. concerning the future
7. addressing the future

It has been a wonderful couple of weeks, but I’m afraid it is too soon to address this issue with my peers. I wonder if they would realize what I am doing should I start a meeting with, “moving forward, the company direction, moving forward, is one of great hope, moving forward, and we should all, moving forward, be cognizant of the fact that, moving forward, our paradigm has shifted so that, moving forward, we are all toeing the company line and moving forward.

Would they all nod in agreement I wonder? Would I perhaps get a standing ovation?
For further reading on this phenomenon, please see the following: