“It is a little difficult”

In the “apartment” I live, I fit: a bed, fridge, closet, TV, a small folding table, kitchen area and a bathroom with a washer all in a smaller space than my room in my parent’s home. It’s small.

No bother.  I do not demand much else than what I have, though it would be nice to have room for company.  What I have in place of room, are white walls and one picture of my family.  I have facebook also, of course, which offers as many pictures and opportunities to communicate as I’d like.  But I only have one real picture, that I can feel with my fingers; and no room for chairs, that can be occupied by a companion.

While the white walls, on one hand, can drive a person crazy; they can also narrow my focus onto what it is I am striving to do here in Korea.  I have little room, literally, for distractions.  I don’t even have room for a bookcase, in the event that I decide to forget the harsh realities of Northern South Korea and lose myself in fantasy and abstractions.

The white walls though, they do not keep the loneliness out .  There is always a window through which I see both opportunities gone by or not yet realized.  Some of which are fantasy, some of which are potential.  As focused as I try to be, it is hard to not find myself looking out the window at times.

“So why do you stay?  How can you stand it?”

I am asked that a lot.  In part because I am a habitual complainer, but also because people recognize the difficulty of the situation.  And not everyone would trade places with me.  My answers are rarely satisfying to others and I imagine I don’t paint the most beautiful picture of this lived experience.

Robin Williams has shown me how I want to answer that question though.  In the movie, Dead Poets Society there is a short, seemingly unimportant scene (so much so that I am having trouble finding it on youtube) where Neil comes to Mr. Keating for help dealing with his father. While Keating makes some tea, Neil says, looking a picture of a beautiful woman playing the chello on Mr. Keatings desk:

“She’s pretty.”

“She’s also in London.  Makes it a little difficult.”

“How can you stand it?”

“Stand what?”

“You can’t go anywhere.  You can’t do anything.  How can you stand being here?”

“’Cause I love teaching.  I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

The last line is deftly delivered.  It is pointed, quick and obvious.  There is no thinking; teaching is fundamental to Mr. Keating.  Most, if not all, teachers understand that phrase, “I love teaching”.  Not many of us got into this profession for the love of something else.

But it is the second sentence, that answers Neil’s question. I don’t want to be anywhere else.  What does Keating want? Before this moment, it’s not even a question on our minds. His wants outside of teaching are obscured.  But in this scene, Keating is someone with love and a life outside of the private school he teaches at.  With a life outside the cramped office and white walls that keep him focused on his work.  “It is a little difficult” is said modestly.

— This scene starts with Mr. Keating sitting at his desk, working, but not focused.  He keeps looking at the picture of the woman on his desk.

And yet

I love teaching.  I don’t want to be anywhere else.

Linguistic change in Korean kinship terms

Not too long ago, I was made aware of an interesting linguistic phenomenon involving the Korean kinship term, “hyung” (형).  Usually, this term is used only between younger males and their older brothers/close friends as an honorific term.  But it seems that some, college-aged, women are also calling their older male friends “hyung.”

Despite the insistence of some on the internet that this does not happen, or that it is simply a fluke or a speech-error, I have witnessed half a dozen or so instances of this phenomenon.  And while many people simply have no interest in the subject or want to down-play its role in the Korean language, as an amateur linguist I am very interested in the socio-linguistic motivations for women to use ‘hyung’ instead of ‘oppa’.

Scholarly information seems to be limited on the subject and because I am not an expert in Korean linguistics or sociology, my ability to accurately describe the situation is no better than most of the ignorant masses on the internet.  Which, by the way, includes¸ many average Korean people.  So, with that, here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1) This linguistic act is mostly used by the 18-30 demographic.  It is possible that older speakers use it to an extent, and perhaps younger speakers use to some extent. (though the little data I *have* collected suggests that people younger than college-age do not use this term).

It could be that this is necessarily an 18-30 linguistic feature.  And not a linguistic change occuring in the 18-30 demographic.  Which would mean that as the women who are currently 18-30, leave their 30s, they may abandon the use of “hyung”.  This would suggest the usage is specific to a certain group or register.  As the photos show, it is considered a “university” usage.  It could also be that as the 18-30 women age, they will continue to use it, marking a broader linguistic change.

2) This linguistic change is being led by women and is above the level of conscious-awareness.  Here, we are specifically talking about the use of ‘hyung’ by women (which is really the only interesting usage).  But it is also possible that ‘onni’ could be used by men to describe older women, or in some other fashion.  As of yet, however, the only data I have seen suggests only women are making the kinship gender switch.  It will be interesting to see, in the future, whether or not all men, or some subgroups of men, make a similar kinship-term switch.

In conjunction with reason (3), this change comes “from above”, meaning it comes from a dominant social class (the middle), appears in careful speech (meaning, speakers choose overtly to say it) and is driven by extra-linguistic factors.

3) This linguistic change is happening mostly in the middle-class.  An interesting part of this phenomenon is that is it popularly acknowledged as something that happens in Korean universities. Suggesting that both before and after university, women are not expected or it is not considered appropriate for women to call older men, ‘hyung’.  This is a very tenuous hypothesis at this point, I’m basing it mostly under the assumption that those people who are attending Korean Universities are mostly middle-upper classes, and then making a guess that upper-class women don’t use ‘hyung’ for older men based on the idea that they have little need for social mobility, as they are already on top.

It would be interesting to see whether or not this linguistic change is more popular at less-prestigious universities or technical schools, where there are fewer of the upper-class attending.

This point, if true, is interesting in that it might suggest something about how women use ‘hyung’ as social capital.

To conclude, I invite any native speaker with anecdotes or other information, intuitions, to leave me a message somewhere, in the comments if you wish.  It would be very helpful to me.  If anyone knows any scholarly work that I get a hold of, I would love that.  And, of course, if you think I’m wrong about any of these hypothesizes, correct me!

The Senses as Metaphor

Over the Korean Thanksgiving holiday, I had more than a few opportunities to talk with friends and strangers in Korean.  Such opportunities are always a mixture of self-loathing and confidence-building.

I had a thought one night after coming home from a full day of mumbling my way through conversations in a department store, that my level of fluency in Korean is at least 80% determined by the willingness of the listener to try to hear me.  It is amazing what a cooperative conversational partner can do with whatever it is we should call my Korean language ability.

Conversely, it is equally distressing how little I am able to communicate with someone who either chooses not to hear me, or through their own shyness/fear or inexperience, cannot hear me.  Suddenly all those inspirational stories, phrases and advice about “listening instead of speaking” I’ve received have new meaning.  It’s not that someone who listens more is better than someone who speaks, it’s that the vast majority of communication is accomplished on the listening end of it all.  Speech is necessary for listening (though, clearly not for communication), but even the most eloquent speaker can be misunderstood by a poor or inexperienced listener.

And I say inexperienced sincerely.  Listening, while the birthright of most humans, is a skill, chiseled by effort and time into a fine work.  It is not a passive skill nor does a person who listens much more than speaks a passive person.  It is a laborious effort for most and comes easily only to very few people.  I suspect there are a few “good listeners” out there who are really just quiet, which is not exactly the same, though if one wishes to develop listening, being quiet is a place to start.

My thinking about listening led me to this idea: First, sense words (sight, sound, etc) have secondary meanings in English to convey the meaning “I understand”.  The first to come to mind was, “hear”, as in “I hear you.”  A phrase I have come to really like due in small part to the movie, Australia.  My idea being that while many of the words for senses can convey understanding, words for “speaking” could not.  Here are a few:

“I hear you.”
“I feel you.”
“I see.”
“I’m touched.”

I thought I had stumbled upon an interesting phenomoneon (by which I don’t mean to imply I am the first).  However, I soon realized that “speak” can also be used to convey understanding:

“That speaks to me.”

Though I find the structure to be interesting, in a way I’m not particularly clear on yet.  The “speaks” example is slightly different in meaning (they all are) than the others, and “see” is really the only one that strictly conveys the idea, “I understand”.  The other tend to also imply a sense of empathy or other emotion.  “speaks” for example, seems to me to say something like, “I’m struck by this” or some other sense of wonder.  “touch” suggests connection, sympathy or gratitude.

So my idea is wrong, in addition, I can think of no way that the word “taste” is commonly used as a metaphor for understanding. “Delicious” is often used to convey a sense of goodness about something other than taste-oriented senses, but understanding isn’t one of them.  If you’ve got one, let me know.

Virtues and Weakness, Cross-culturally

I often find that who I think I am, and the things I value, present a completely different image to other people than to myself.  That who I think I am, often is interpreted as something that I personally do not identify with, in the minds of other people.

Cross-cultural communication is a tough nut to crack (in small part because languages and cultures have so many idiomatic expressions!).  What one culture views as pedestrian can be scandalous to another.  What one culture values highly is ignored by another.  A recent example in my life involved describing a picture of a new friend as “gangster”, a harmless semi-joke in my cultural-dialect, but which caused a fairly confused reaction that could have been hurtful.  Thankfully, we both worked to a place of mutual understanding.  One where I won’t call her “gangster” again, and she learned to understand and forgive my not-funny joke.


But often our perceptions of others, particularly “others” of a different culture go as unchallenged assumptions by both the assumer and the assumee. Partially perhaps because one or both are consciously unaware that the assumption has been made.  In other circumstances, the Assumer assumes without seeking clarification from the assumed.  Leading the Assumer to view the actions of the other person through a very different lens than the assumptions that color the view of the assumed.

This is all abstract.  Let me get personal.

Here is a short list of qualities that I find virtuous, and want in myself:
Critical thought

Here, now, are some examples of how what I feel is a personal virtue, are seen as faults or weaknesses.

– A former roommate of mine who I hadn’t seen in a long time came up to me and started with this, “Hey! So you still bitter or what?”  (doubt, critical thought).  It took me by surprise and it also hurt a little bit.  But my non-conformity to some beliefs that he held meant in his mind that I was primarily, bitter, for not accepting those cultural mores.

– A Korean girlfriend once told me she didn’t like having to “lead” with a boyfriend.  That it was the man’s responsibility to make (most) decisions in the relationship.  In an attempt to identify with her beliefs (empathy) I taught her to tell me, “be a man!” whenever she felt I wasn’t being “boyfriendish” enough.

That quickly turned out badly, as I don’t care to “lead” a girl around anymore than she wants to.  (equality).  I believe women are my equals and have an equal say in relationship decisions.  Telling me to “be a man” was essentially the same as dragging my confidence into a dark alley, mugging it, taking all its cash and then spitting in its face for good measure.  I ended up moving in the opposite direction of “manliness” with her.

– I once asked a close Korean friend to watch a TEDtalk by Brene Brown on vulnerability, and told them, “I really like what she says and think vulnerability is a really important character trait for me”.  I wanted my friend to understand me a little better, and they wanted to learn English better, so.. win win.

They watched a part and when I asked them about it they said, “oh yeah, that video, I think it’s about weakness?” (Brene Brown says this is one of the great myths of vulernability, that it is “weakness”).

These examples often make me feel vulernable in a not-so-good kind of way.  As if the things that I spend my time trying to cultivate in myself end up only defining me in a completely different and undesirable way.  But these examples are also more clear cut.  If I were able, I could clarify with each of these friends and maybe come to a place of understanding.  This is because the Assumer (my friends) showed me what they think of my virtues, which hurts, but also offers an opportunity for understanding.

I have in the past, referenced my “fears” as a teacher and also how I understand myself as a teacher.  Those things have certainly changed overtime, but what continues to nag at me, is how what I am doing in this classroom is percieved by my students, their parents and Korean society at large.

And equally, I fear that what my students, their families and Korean society value, may be greatly misunderstood on my part and misrepresented in my mind and words.  Often it is only in hindsight that one realizes the assumptions or opinions one holds against another are fabrications in their own minds, and don’t reflect actual reality, to say nothing of the reality in the other’s mind.

Rachel Jeantel, Black English and Linguistic Authority

aave6As a linguistics undergraduate who was interested in preserving Endangered Languages, I realized quickly that the general population of the United States holds mostly contrary views concerning language compared with  linguists.  For whatever reason (take your pick, honestly) the average US citizen is either consciously against the idea of promoting or using non-standard dialects, or they are oblivious to the idea of “other” dialects.

This usually comes from a place of well-meaning.  Speakers of minority dialects (who also never learned the standard variety) often suffer from other problems, like poverty.  They usually live in either very rural or very urban areas, where access to the best education is harder to come by and they have fewer resources to deal with that.  How people speak is often the first or second thing you come to understand about another person.  And like the first look, the first words are all part of that “first impression” that can leave us with a premature judgement of another person.

So, when people are against “Ebonics”, what they think they are arguing for is helping these people who speak non-standard varieties to acquire the traits that will lift them from their poverty, from the poor first impressions people may have of them or from whatever else.  It does come from a place of wanting to help.

That doesn’t make it any less misguided.

The pop-linguistics world has been debating this (old) topic recently because of the George Zimmerman trial, and the now infamous witness, Rachel Jeantel.  Her African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) proved to be difficult for most of the United States, who cared enough to comment.  And even after linguists chimed in to help dispell myths, most people remained unconvinced.  AAVE is just bad, they say.  It keeps people poor, they say.  The first step out of poverty is learning Standard American English.

Sadly, they are missing the point.  On the r/ Linguistics forum at Reddit.com, user, u/ Choosing_is_a_sin  explains fairly simply why we need to recognize AAVE (and other minority dialects) in our education system.  Why the Ebonics debate of the 1990s was mis-interpreted (and is still, frustratingly, misinterpreted).  Presented here in its entirety:

Grr, I typed out a long response, and the thread was deleted. So I’m posting it here.

Reinforcing AAVE in young children is setting them up for failure. It teaches them to rely on a dialect that is perceived as ignorant and racially charged. Students being taught AAVE will leave school unprepared for life in the real world, unless they plan on staying in Oakland for the rest of their lives. It is simply another way to restart the cycle of poverty and keep these kids trapped in the lower classes.

It’s hard to see how telling kids that the way they and their family, friends and neighbors speak is unacceptable, deficient, or otherwise undesirable is setting them up for success. From an early age, they are taught that how they speak is wrong, rather than different. By teaching them that the way they speak is natural fully grammatical, you instill a pride in how they speak rather than reinforcing a prejudice. It also allows you to draw a distinction between home language and school language. Just as kids have different rules for behavior at home and at school (e.g. needing permission to go to the bathroom at school but not at home), there are different ways of speaking and writing for home and school. Neither is better, but they each serve their own function. Furthermore, the home language can then be used as a legitimate source of comparison with the school language. Kids not only learn explicitly what the differences are (rather than expecting them to simply figure it out), but they also get a chance to develop metalinguistic awareness, that is, knowledge about how different varieties work. This was the plan of the Oakland School district, as described in the source you linked to: teach kids Standard English using AAVE as a starting point. As the article points out, it would have been nonsensical to teach the kids AAVE, since they already came to school speaking it. It would be like spending time teaching kids the order of English adjectives: no native speaking child of English says the red big boat, and accordingly schools spend no time teaching them how to order them. Instead they focus on teaching things that are unlikely to be part of children’s language input such as who vs. whom and me and my friendsversus my friends and I— things that are part of a formal register that would cease to be used if schools didn’t impose them. AAVE-speaking students would also learn how standard English be is learned, and how street is pronounced in standard English and their home language.

Your suggested way of pedagogy is like abstinence education. Show them only one way to do things and then just hope for the best that they take it heart. Like abstinence education, that technique was failing in the Oakland schools. As you know, Oakland is not exactly a model for educational achievement in the US. The school board wasn’t trying to find new ways to hinder success. They were trying to improve achievement on tests written and evaluated through the lens of standard English. They hoped to exploit the differences between the two varieties to help their students break out of the cycle of poverty.

If a legal witness is giving their statements in something we are considering a non-English language, shouldn’t they require an interpreter? A witness speaking Spanish would be given a translator – the press wouldn’t accuse the jury of bigotry for not understanding Spanish, so why are they bigots for not understanding AAVE?

It might very well have been helpful for there to be an interpreter. The Department of Justice has in the past recognized the need for specialists in AAVE, which shows a sensitivity to the differences that exist and the need for people who know it and Standard English really well. But lawyers and judges don’t always realize that the differences that exist between AAVE and standard English are important and have the potential to mean very different things (see the discussion in the article you linked about the errors in the mock dialogue by a black non-AAVE speaker). There was also a case that I heard about just today where a speaker of Jamaican Creole (also known as Patois/Patwa) had no interpreter in a death penalty case in Florida, and as a result, some of his statements were misinterpreted. Jamaican Creole is much more obviously a separate language than AAVE is, but it’s close enough that people think they can understand it, even when the two diverge. So perhaps speakers of AAVE who are not also speakers of Standard English should indeed have access to interpreters (note that translator is usually reserved in technical contexts for written translation, while interpreter is used for spoken), just to be sure that their statements are construed as they intended.

And no one is bigoted for not understanding a language or not understanding how someone speaks. They are bigoted if they say that how a native speaker speaks their language is wrong or bad because it is different from the variety that they prefer. The use of AAVE in a courtroom is situationally dispreferred, especially since the judge and jury cannot be assumed to speak it. But the same would be true of other non-regional varieties of English. Was there somewhere in the press that said the jurors were bigoted (or even that the jurors didn’t understand)?

I believe that supporting AAVE is simply a politically correct reaction, and that educators are unwilling to call it a mistake, because that might imply a racial bias. Would those educators willingly teach South Georgian dialects as legitimate language? What about Bostonian slang, is that a legitimate language?

Usually when we call something a mistake, it indicates that it’s some anomaly, one that’s done either when someone knows the right way or when it’s just a procedural error by someone who hasn’t learned the correct way. But the use of AAVE isn’t inherently a mistake. It’s a variety that developed through segregation and one that continues in large part because of de facto segregation. It is also a rule-governed variety. It’s not just Standard English with random, unpredictable mistakes like we might expect from a Hungarian or Vietnamese immigrant. There are systematic differences between AAVE and Standard English, differences that are documented in the article you’ve linked. Why, if we can identify systematic, meaningful differences, would we turn around and just call them mistakes? It makes no sense. As far as teaching southern Georgian or Bostonian characteristics, I’d point out that Jimmy Carter knew southern Georgian and John F. Kennedy spoke like a Bostonian and they did just fine (well, it wasn’t their language that caused them problems). And the idea that the home language should be used as a medium of instruction to teach a standard language is popular around the world, and I’m sure that if students in Boston or southern Georgia were having trouble filtering out grammatical features of the area from their standard English, there would be teachers would not hesitate to point out that there are differences between the two and that only one is what’s used in school. I’d also point out that ‘slang’ is not a language. The article you link says it quite well: Comparing slang to language is like comparing a few drops of hot sauce to dinner.

So in conclusion, teaching the legitimacy of AAVE is an excellent way to teach standard English, and can ultimately help to improve the standing of African Americans in a way that does not denigrate the way they speak as somehow deficient.

Historical and moral arguments for language reclamation

A great explanation and argument for Language Revitalization.  My thoughts on the subject can be read here.

History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences

Ghil‘ad Zuckermann
University of Adelaide

Language is an archaeological vehicle, full of the remnants of dead and living pasts, lost and buried civilizations and technologies. The language we speak is a whole palimpsest of human effort and history.
Russell Hoban (children’s writer, 1925-2011 – cf. Haffenden 1985: 138)


Linguicide (language killing) and glottophagy (language eating) have made Australia an unlucky country. These twin forces have been in operation in Australia since the early colonial period, when efforts were made to prevent Aboriginal people from continuing to speak their language, in order to ‘civilize’ them. Anthony Forster, a nineteenth-century financier and politician, gave voice to a colonial linguicide ideology, which was typical of much of the attitude towards Australian languages (Report on a public meeting of the South Australian Missionary Society in aid of the German Mission to the Aborigines, Southern Australian, 8 September 1843, p. 2, cf. Scrimgeour 2007:…

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The sad, beautiful fact

Surrender is the moment when you say, “I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I’m supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn’t get to.” – Linda Holmes, NPR

sadIt is safe to say that my life has, at least, one defining and dividing moment.  That moment is the day (or as it turned out, dayS) I boarded a plan and traveled to Brazil for two years.  Until that moment, I had no dreams of travel.  I had no dreams of meeting people very different from myself.  I had no dreams of learning new languages (my high school experience taught me that I was, in fact, incapable of learning languages).

Of course, while I and many others may say we want to see, learn and experience as much of this world as we can; we also know, at least intuitively, the same insight that Linda Holmes points out about the World’s literature.  There is too much.  You can’t.  You won’t.

Like Holmes, those of us who want to (and I honestly think that “those of us” is actually “all of us” to varying degrees) experience as much of the world as possible know and accept that “sad, beautiful fact”.  We find it inspiring in itself, that humanity has created a store of culture, story and knowledge that could never fit into the life of one single human.

It is indeed a type of surrendering, to realize that there are simply too many people in the world.  I will never come to know even superficially 1% of the people in the world.

But this version of Ms. Holmes’ “sad, beautiful fact” is even more heart-wrenching.  I imagine it is a very rare statement, hearing one say, “oh, I wish I could have read the Lord of the Rings one more time before I died.”  For the vast majority of the great books, we seem to find a once-reading, quite enough.  We seem, in general, to fulfill our need by getting through Shakespeare, Twain, dickens and all the rest, at least once. But not necessarily more than that.

Rarely, in the adventure of understanding people, is it satisfying to meet and speak with people just once.  Indeed, the act of meeting an interesting, beautiful or compelling person once is like an addiction.  And separation can and does lead to a withdrawl-effect that my Brazilian friends would call Saudade.  An affected longing for the past.

As I progress in this meeting of people, I am just now realizing what I am getting myself into; which is essentially a very broken heart.  Every Thursday night, I think about my closest of friends at the University of Utah.  Our rituals now shattered in our scattering.  We rarely have contact now, even though those few people had a transformative impact on my thinking.

On warm nights, I feel the absence of sand, a volleyball court and my friends from the English Language Institute.  People from all over the world converging in one place at one time.  We are now scattered once again.  People who I didn’t realize until it was too late, that I felt a deep and abiding connection to.

Eating at a Brazilian restaurant will invariably send me introverted and contemplative.  It is difficult to express just how much I love and miss my dear friends in Brazil.  Saudade, I suppose.

These feelings are not the providence of the traveler alone.  All of us feel this, to one extent or another.  I write as if I have stumbled upon some inspiring insight into the human experience in the age of globalism.  I haven’t.

We all feel the pain of losing a loved-one.  The moving on of friendships; the separating of families.  Suck it up, we might say.

And that does seem to be the truth of the matter.  At some point that I am not entirely sure of, we must stop lamenting (at least publicly) the loss of our friends to time or distance.  At some point, the letter, or the e-mail, or the Facebook Message no longer seems to hold the same emotional “hit”.  Old friends just ‘know’.

As I am discovering, some feel a slight sense of discomfort at this kind of longing being vocalized.  Perhaps it is the chronic nature of the lament.  Every so often, we remember each other, how much we miss each other and it is quite a pain (literally) to tell each other once again.  We dig up old feelings, perhaps unveiling some feelings for the first time.  We bring them up, once again, just to feel their warmth and then bury them again, because it still hurts.

Until, it seems, we find our place.  “Our place” varies widely.  It sometimes is in the hometown you were born in, sometimes it evolves naturally from the life-plan your family sets out for you.  At times, “our place” is in an unexpected place, with unexpected people.  I suppose some people never find their place in the world, and as such, must continually struggle in a way more directly with these feelings.

Right now, I am lamenting the logical conclusion of the life that involves traveling, experiencing and meeting people.  It is the “sad, beautiful fact” that you will never keep up with all the people you will meet.  And even the people you feel a potentially deep connection with, may slip through your fingers.

This is true for everyone, not just the traveler.  Even if you never leave your childhood hometown, you will have siblings get married, grandparents will die and friends will move away.  There is, however, a comfort of knowing your place in the world.  Of either “surrendering” (in the sense Holmes describes) to it, or “culling” it; forcibly making your place.

The traveler (as I know it) has a strange and vague path towards making a place for themselves in the world.  The romantic version of the nomad is something like The Alchemist.  Where a simple boy, unable to obtain his childhood love, goes on a great journey through North Africa, through the merciless Sahara and finds his “place” and love in (naturally) an oasis-town.  It’s a beautiful story; not necessarily realistic, even as a template.

What the traveler gains in broad experience, they can lose in deep understanding.  It certainly has been wonderful to see all these places and to know (to the degree possible) the people in my life.  But the nature of our meetings, even with people I feel a profound connection, dictates only the most superficial of dives into the relationship.  Leaving us (or at least me) knowing there is a deeper connection to be discovered, but that will almost certainly never be explored.  A sad, bittersweet and yet beautiful fact.

Linguistic Consciousness-Raising

A few months ago, I saw a video of the Star-Spangled Banner being sung in Navajo.  It triggered a moment of clarity for me in that, I recognized in myself no conflict with the song being sung in another language other than English.

In fact, it felt almost super-patriotic, considering everything the United States has subjected the Native Americans to.

So, to book-end the language and authority series, we’re going to look at this idea, that says, “The national anthem and pledge of allegiance should ONLY be done in English”.  It is becoming more and more of an issue, as language classes around the country are teaching kids the pledge and other things in languages like Arabic.  And some people aren’t too happy about it.  But it seems to me that this is a case of discrimination and not one of patriotism.. or something equally bizarre, like.. the idea that the pledge only makes sense in English.

To show why.  Let’s watch two videos.  The first, is the Star-Spangled Banner being sung in Spanish.

And now, the Star-Spangled Banner sung in Navajo.

How was your reaction?  If you defend the proposition that the anthem should only be sung in English, were you equally upset by both versions?  Did you feel one was more offensive than the other?

Sadly, I can’t actually rely on anyone reading this article to respond authentically; because if you are a person who believes in the English-Only movement as one of patriotism, then you would be more than willing to lie about how you feel here.  Luckily, Youtube videos have ways of exposing the English-Only mindset.

Let’s start with the Navajo version.  First, over 77,000 views! 250 “likes” and 5 “dislikes”.  An overwhelmingly positive statistic.

But, more enlightening, are the comments.

diabolicalajyo 1 month ago

greatest anthem i have heard…

Leah Walentosky 6 months ago

This is a beautiful version of the anthem. This is the one that should be sung at the next superbowl.

MrReoification2 2 years ago

my great uncle was a dine code talker and my grandfather is chief joesph medicine crow

nicklane4 3 years ago

at our school in ganado we listen 2 this after pledge of allegence

And so on.  I tried to look on all the Navajo-sung videos, but I couldn’t find an example of a white person upset about this.  There is even a video from a Yankees game.  No one cared.  The only people who had negative comments were like this fellow:

travisnez 1 year ago

this song is a disgrace! Cannot believe it is still being sung in my language. After all it was the red, white & blue that tried to kill off my people. It’s sad that my sacred language is being used to sing this ridiculous song.

No “English only!” folks though.

Now for the Spanish version.  For some reason (hmm.. I wonder) the video does not have a ‘like/dislike’ count, but it has been viewed almost 147,000 times. (First difference, more people are aware of the Spanish version than the Navajo version).

A selection of comments (warning: the language is offensive).  The following is the very first comment on the video (as of today).

What the fuck is this shit?…this is the United States of America – speak English or get the fuck out of this great country

Reply ·

Natural8o9Reborn 1 day ago

You’re just an ignorant Troll. The USA is built on its multicultural society. Todos somos humanos, somos equales. I’m American, I speak two languages and im not even Latin. If it wasn’t for EVERY single race that is in our country, we wouldn’t be the “Great” country you speak of.

Reply · in reply to Sports70

LesterisMusic 8 months ago

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Exactly. First off, it sucks. Secondly, it just means nothing to Americans & it will never be absorbed, taken serious, or be part of America in reality. It was just a “pop” project and some artists made money making it in the studio, pfft. To hell with those who can’t handle the truth and that get “offended”, they’ll get over it. It will surely NEVER be a part of the American mainstream. Dicho. In the United States of America, there is the Star Spangled Banner, period.

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fucking spics cant learn anything other than spanish, a filthy dialect ,vulgar latin+ vulgar arabic+vulgar greek =spanish fuck spain. these latinoes dont even know what spanish is made up of even though they speak it. they got no culture, i speak also spanish but there’s nothing importan to learn in spanish unless its something important from another lnguage that was translated to spanish. i mean look at spain’s history in europe,never invented anything in science.fuck spain.


DerekIsAwesome1494 1 year ago

lol, English is the language made by the germanic barbarians who destroyed years of flourishing civilization by the Romans. The languages derived from Latin are the languages of Culture and Civilization, while English is the language of Barbarity and Murder, and Imperialism, and Genocide, and Racism. Plus, Spanish has more speakers than English.

Reply · in reply to murggik

PatrioticEagle50 10 months ago

The Roman Empire, the French Empire, the Spanish Empire, the Italian Empire, all imperialistic, and their all LATIN language. How is english more imperialistic then Latin language nations? Or any other language for that matter? The chinese had several empires, the egyption empire, the aztec empire. Imperialism is not a Germanic idea, it is a human idea. The Romans, or the civilized culture, invaded germanic land, and you don’t expect them to fight?

Reply · in reply to DerekIsAwesome1494

I was fascinated by the latinate/Germanic conversation that erupted.

There is simply an overwhelming difference when someone hears the Star-Spangled Banner in Navajo compared to Spanish.  Why?  Is it because it’s unpatriotic? Well.. you can tell yourself that, but it doesn’t seem to explain the divergent reactions, does it?

What does help, is noting the difference in size of the two minority groups.  Latinos are an ever-growing part of the American geo-political landscape.  The Navajo and other Native American tribes were subjected to rampant racism, war and genocide that drastically reduced their numbers.  After awhile, we gave them “their lands” back to live on.  There are native Americans alive today who went to special boarding schools where they were corporeally punished for speaking their native language.  We used to care about natives speaking their language.  But they simply aren’t a big enough part of the population to matter anymore.  Mainstream America doesn’t need to worry about silly natives singing the national anthem in Navajo.

Let’s not forget that the Navajo and other tribes are perceived by mainstream America as some of the most ardent supporters of the United States.  The Navajo Code-talkers of WWII are a national treasure.

How do “English-only” types view Spanish-speakers?  With suspicion.  It feels un-patriotic in a way that Navajo doesn’t.   There are many Latino-Americans who, it should be noted, don’t even speak Spanish.  3rd generation latinos follow the same “grandfather” trend that all other immigrant peoples faced.  Which is that while 1st generation immigrants may only speak their native language, their children (2nd generation) will invariably be bilingual.  And by the 3rd generation, many of have lost the native language of the 1st generation altogether.  Some dialects of English like Chicano English are mistaken as “badly spoken English by a native-spanish speaker”, when in reality, many of the youth who speak Chicano English don’t speak Spanish.  Leaving them in this sort of no-man’s land, where they may believe they don’t speak a language at all.

Of course, English-Only types can’t out-right proclaim their racism, it’s in bad taste these days.  So instead we get the arguments that were addressed in the last post.  The idea that “multi-culturalism has failed” and the re-writing of history so that “English has always been the unifier of America!!”

But, really, while many good people may be convinced that an Official English amendment is a good thing; it simply boils down to this:  It is not about language.  It is not about protecting English.  It is not about helping minority groups.


National Unification, Bilingulism and Official English

Language and Authority – part 1 and part 2

Proponents of Official English claim that they seek merely to recognize a state of affairs that has existed since the founding of the nation. After two hundred years of common-law cohabitation with English, we have simply decided to make an honest woman of her, for the sake of the children.  — Geofrey Nunberg, The Official English Movement: Reimagining America


Here, we will approach the cultural movement in the United States of making English the “official” language of the land, which is closely tied to the “English-Only” movement (though not necessarily the same).  I will not address the popular quips, like, “why do I have to press 1 for English?” or “There should be English translations on all businesses”.  These ideas are superficial to the real philosophical and logical arguments behind the movement.  That is not to say that debating the superficial is meaningless.  It means that trying to address all those arguments is overwhelmingly time-consuming.  A more focused conversation addresses the underlying foundational beliefs.  I will, therefore, restrict my comments to addressing the two key figures in the Official English movement, Senator S. I. Hayakawa and Representative Norman Shumway.  You can read their positions here.

The argument for a constitutional amendment naming English as the official language of the United States, as argued by Senator Hayakawa and Rep. Shumway, rests on basically two founding ideas.  The first is national unification by common language and the second is the failure of bilingualism. This essay will first consider these foundational ideas and then prove them false based on current scientific research.

English as National Unifier

To begin, both men start in the same fashion by assigning English the title of unifier in the United States of America.  Senator Hayakawa describes American society as a “hodgepodge of nationalities, races, and colors represented in the immigrant hordes that people our nation” (Hawakawa 94); holding this society together is the common language.

Representative Shumway says, “common language has been the ‘glue’ which has held us together, forging strength and unity from our rich cultural diversity” (Shumway 121).  This unifying characteristic of language is a powerful idea and one which people in a society like the United States can secure themselves to, especially when it can be difficult to say what it really means to be an American.  With so much diversity, or at least perceived diversity, it can appear that the common bond which holds us all together, is that we all speak English.

However, this presupposition is not as sure a foundation as Hayakawa and Shumway have proposed.  Throughout the history of the United States, the attraction and unifer of this country has not ever been English.  The first European settlers; the Puritans, the French, the Spanish, the southern and eastern europeans after the revolution, the Asians in the 1900s and the modern latin immigrant, all share the common trait that they believe in the opportunity and liberty that America represents.  Perhaps the claim underlying these ideals is that a common language allows the immigrant the ability to acquire opportunity, liberty, freedom and happiness; but there is no historical precedent for this in the United States.

It is impossible to tell from these two texts what Hayakawa and Shumway know about the linguistic past of the country, but their presuppositions about language being the glue of our society betrays ignorance.  One can hardly make the case that before our current time, all immigrants came to the United States with a passion to learn English when settlements of immigrants often preserved their native language, such as the Germans in the north, the French in the south and the Mexicans in the west.  Nor can the claim be made that because an ethnic group either came to America already speaking English, or made the commitment to learn English, that they were respected, given equal opportunity, or even protected under our constitution.  One only needs to look to the Irish Catholic and the African-American.  Indeed, far too often in our past and present are minorities persecuted, whether they speak English or not.


With the historical context in mind, Hayakawa’s closing statement “[o]ne official language and one only, so that we can unite as a nation” (100) rings awfully hallow.

David Crystal in his book Language Death adds;

There are two intractable difficulties with [monolingualism as a unification tool].  The first is the naivety of the conception that sharing a single language is a guarantor of mutual understanding and peace, a world of new alliances and global solidarity.  The examples to the contrary are so numerous that it would be impracticable to list them.  Suffice it to say that all the major monolingual countries of the world have had their civil wars, and that as one reflects on the war-zones of the world in the last decades of the twentieth century, it is striking just how many of them are in countries which are predominately monolingual (Crystal 27).

If unification is what the United States is striving for, entrenching in monolingualism is by no measure the logical direction.

The Failure of Bilingual Education

Building off of unification by language, Hayakawa and Shumway move to the next major point, the failure of multiculturalism and multilingualism.  Both men point out some very real issues facing cultural minorities in the United States.  Hayakawa quotes Earl Byrd, noting that,

“Hispanics are the least educated minority in America” (Hayakawa 98). 

Shumway states:

“existing government policies are discriminatory, by keeping language minorities forever on the fringes of our society” (Shumway 123).  

It is foolish to believe these are not actual problems facing America today.  However, both writers over-extend these facts and blame multilingualism as the cause, most specifically, citing bilingual education.

As regards bilingual education, Hayakawa states, “[d]espite the ministrations of the Department of Education [in bilingual education], or perhaps because of them, Hispanic students to a shocking degree drop out of school, educated neither in Hispanic nor American language and culture” (Hayakawa 98; bold added).  This is a strong argument and one that must be taken seriously.  It is unfortunate that the Senator does not make his position more explicit or explain the causal relationship of bilingual education and the drop-out rate of Hispanic students that his advocating.

As it is, a simple look into the history of the education of minority groups reveals that bilingual education was proposed as a solution to the already high drop-out rate of hispanics.  Sandra del Valle, in her book Language Rights and the Law in the United States, writes,

“Interest in bilingual education was not serendipitous; the educational plight of many Latino schoolchildren was increasingly visible during the early and mid 1960s.  The drop-out rate for Latinos, Chicanos and Puerto Ricans was often the highest amongst all ethnic groups.”  She continues, “both Puerto Ricans and Chicanos had seen their native languages ridiculed and suppressed either through the outright punishment of children for speaking Spanish or by legislation changing the national language of Puerto Rico to English.  The educational fall-out of these policies were not surprising: Latino students left school in droves, alienated, uneducated and isolated in their own countries” (Valle 225; italics added).

If there is a casual relationship between language policy and the academic drop-out rate of Hispanic schoolchildren, clearly it is that Official English is a detriment to successful education of linguistic minorities.


Hayakawa and Shumway’s argument may stand still, if a causal relationship can be linked to minority group drop-out rates, and the current practice of Bilingual education.  However, this is a near impossible task.  Mostly because, while we give it one name, bilingual education is really a cover title for many different approaches to the education of linguistic minorities and majorities.  Not all of which share the same goals, practices or educational theories.

The history of bilingual education is not altogether a success story.  Indeed, much of the learning process over the years has been in the implementation of theories and practices that do not work.  In 1968, Congress passed sweeping legislation for bilingual education, opening up resources to this very new way of teaching.  The theory at the time driving this new legislation was that cultural minorities were “deprived”.  This was based upon research into the developmental process of infants, which considered intellectual and visual stimulation critical.  Children not given the appropriate stimulation were considered deprived.  On this, del Valle notes:

“The idea of social or cognitive deprivation found a footing in the politics of culture … the concept of ‘cultural deprivation’ grew with its implicit condemnation of the ‘culture’ of Latinos and blacks.  For, it was the divergent and, therefore, deprived culture of these children that was leading them to educational failure” (Valle 227).

With this in mind, Shumway’s comments that, originally, the bilingual educational theory, “was a good one” (123: emphasis added) is disconcerting.  It was a start, but a crude one from which we have learned much.  To suppose it is something we should try to reclaim is to take a step backwards.

It is insufficient to describe all the various methodologies under the single title, “bilingual education”.  So many different approaches are developed, that to lump them all together is descriptively unsatisfactory.  Shumway believes that the transitional method, in which the goal is to transition the child to education in the majority language as soon as he/she exhibits  somewhat proficiency, is the ideal way (123). However current research, in the United States, has shown that late-exit immersion programs are the most successful.  J. David Ramirez who conducted the research in 1991 in behalf of the Department of Education found that,

“students who were provided with a substantial and consistent primary language development program learned mathematics, English language reading skills as fast or faster than the norming population” (del Valle 223).

This, in comparison to Shumway’s remarks that, “[i]n many cases, however, bilingual education may be counterproductive by fostering continued reliance on the student’s native language” (Shumway 123).  Giving the Representative the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he is speaking about other bilingual programs, and not the late-exit immersion programs.  But of all the programs, excluding language maintenance programs, late-exit immersion keeps the native language as the primary language of education the longest, which seems to be what Shumway is claiming to be the main detriment.  Clearly current research shows that this is not the case.

The research findings of Ramirez also have implications for the drop-out claim that Hayakawa has presented.  If, as representatives of their constituents, these politicians are looking out for the well-being of their minority groups, let them give heed to the conclusions of Ramirez; “their [late-exit immersion students] growth in these academic skills; atypical of discouraged youth … provides support for the efficiency of providing language development in facilitating the acquisition of English language skills” (qtd in del Valle 223).  If the drop-out rate of any group is to decrease, a good place to start is to eradicate the feelings of alienation and discouragement that exist; late-exit immersion programs have a primary role in that.

Many other things have been said by Hayakawa and Shumway, but their argument, in these specific essays, lives or dies on the implication that unification of the nation is brought by linguistic means and that bilingualism is a failure, using the educational domain as the primary example.  If these claims have any validity, they do not rest on the arguments Hayakawa and Shumway themselves espouse.


Crawford, James, ed. 1992.  Language loyalties: a source book on the official English controversy.  Chicago; University of Chicago.

Crystal, David.  2000.  Language Death.  United Kingdom: Cambridge.

Hayakawa, S. I.  1992.  “The Case for Official English.”  Crawford 94-100.

Nunberg, Geoffrey.  1992.  “The Official English Movement: Reimagining America”.  Crawford.

Shumway, Norman.  1992.  “Preserve the Primacy of English.” Crawford 121-4.

Valle, Sandra Del.  2003.  Language Rights and the Law in the United States.  New York:     Multilingual Matters.  Print.

정 and The Four Loves

Broadly speaking, it is always a delicate task whenever a foreigner attempts to speak with any amount of insight on the major cultural tenets of their host country. Specifically, it is perhaps even comical that an American, someone from a country and culture founded a mere 300 years ago, would even attempt to comment on a cultural phenomenon of a people that goes back before the Roman Empire.

Certainly many people with far better understanding and authority have spoken on the Korean idea of 정(jeong), and as such I have no illusions of blowing anybody away with some sort of previously-unheard-of analysis.  As a matter of fact, I will be relying on an authoritative source that is already written by a westerner, for a western audience, Daniel Tudor’s Korea: The Impossible Country.

BookBut, hopefully I can take a little different approach to all this.

I’ve commented about this before; but stereotypes, while often over-exaggerated, can help a person unfamiliar with a culture take their first steps towards understanding.  Also helpful, is finding a way to relate your personal experience to the new things you are learning.  Which, in popular belief, may be something close to impossible.  Jeong is often cited among a host of “emotions for which there is no word in English”.  (Linguistic protip: anytime anyone says, “there is no word for X in language Y”, they’re bullshitting you.)

The truth is more nuanced, of course, and often deals with the ways cultures focus attention or categorize important cultural mores.  In the case of jeong, sure, there may not be any single word that matches one-to-one in English. But, this is not the same thing as saying cultures based in the English language don’t feel similar emotions, or have words for explaining those emotions.  English-speaking cultures have simply cut up their categorical slice of pie differently than Korean, meaning they are focused more on certain aspects of these emotions; or approach them in a different way.

Let’s keep in mind that we are evolutionary beings; it would be hard to imagine a sense of emotion that one group of humans feel that another is categorically unable to feel as well, or that somehow your language decides this for you.  Such an argument, at the very least, requires a dump-truck of evidence.

WITH THAT (nearly 400 word) disclosure, let’s get into it.

First, some explanation (I know, what was all that before this?!).  My favorite book (seriously.  Not just “one of my favorites” or “I realllllllly like this book”.  This is my singular. Favorite. Book.) is C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves.  In it, he describes and looks at how we approach our relationships (from a Christian perspective, but also applicable to British/American culture in general).  I will list them here, and then we will use them to compare and maybe help explain some of what jeong is to Koreans, using American/British words and meanings.

4206989_f520My first draft of this essay droned on and on and on, trying to iron out all the details, peek behind every shadow and sweep every corner to make sure I wasn’t drawing false conclusions, or saying something else equally laughable.  It kind of ended up being a drag. The initial idea for this came from reading Tudor’s book and thinking, “Hey! This reminds me of stuff I read in Lewis!”  So, this time around, I’ve decided to simply quote the texts with simple introductions and let you, the esteemed reader find meaning in it yourself.  Or not.  I mean, whatever; I won’t be offended.

The Four Loves is broken up broadly into, duh, four categories.  They are:

Storge – Affection
Philia ­– Friendship
Eros – Romance
Agape – Unconditional love

The reason Lewis uses these four Greek terms is that, in the Bible, each of them are often loosely translated to “love” in English.  This cover-term is sufficient in a general way, but is also necessarily vague.  Lewis breaks down our “love” into the “four Greek ‘loves'”.

To begin, Tudor:

“[Jeong] is not felt purely within the heart or mind of an individual but is a connection that exists “between” two or more people, with [experts] likening it to a cord linking people to each other” (pg 92).


“”Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers” (pg 67).

“You will not find the warrior, the poet, the philosopher or the Christian by staring in his eyes as if he were your mistress: better fight beside him, read with him, argue with him, pray with him” (pg 71).

Jeong as it relates to country:

“Skeptics may contend that jeong sounds very similar to love or friendship.  To an extent, this is true, but unlike love or friendship it may exist between members of a group as large as a geographical region or an association or society: people from the same hometown, soldiers from the same regiment, and graduates from the same university or school can feel a sense of strong mutual support and obligation based on jeong” (pg 93).


“Love never spoke that way. It is like loving your children only ‘if they’re good,’ your wife only while she keeps her looks, your husband only so long as he is famous and successful. ‘No man,’ said one of the Greeks, ‘loves his city because it is great, but because it is his’” (pg 28).

“In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting–any of these chances might have kept us apart” (pg 89).

Jeong is irrational:

“Between those who share it, jeong is ‘beautiful’ and ‘makes us human,’ says a manager at POSCO, Korea’s largest steel-making firm.  It inspires people to do more for each other than they know makes rational sense. … Jeong is ‘unreasonable,’ according to one Korean company executive, and ‘makes it necessary to do things one otherwise would not do.  It is the opposite of logic’” (pg 94).


“Affection, as I have said, is the humblest love. It gives itself no airs. People can be proud of being ‘in love,’ or of friendship. Affection is modest–even furtive and shame-faced. Once when I had remarked on the affection quite often found between cat and dog, my friend replied, ‘Yes. But I bet no dog would ever confess it to the other dogs!” (pg 34)

On the so-called “hateful Jeong”:

“It is even possible to have jeong with a person one does not like.  For example, the expression “miun-jeong” (hateful jeong) describes the bitter interdependence of an old married couple, or of co-workers who cannot stand one another but would feel bereft if one of them were to leave the firm. One acquaintance of the author confided that the reason he married was that he felt this kind of jeong – in contrast to what we might term romantic love – with his partner, despite their constant rows and apparent unsuitability to each other” (pg 93).


“In my experience it is Affection that creates this taste, teaching us first to notice, then to endure, then to smile at, then to enjoy, and finally to appreciate, the people who ‘happen to be there.’ Made for us? Thank God, no. They are themselves, odder than you could have believed and worth far more than we guessed” (pg 37).

Finally, my closing thoughts, written after reading Tudor’s chapter on jeong.

“정 is at once the cover-term for any emotion between people and the most specific element of that relationship.  It is the conduit through which other emotions find motivation.  정 maintains the passion of romantic love, the sense of worry and preoccupation of gift-love, the inescapability of need-love and the durability and unexpectedness of affection.”