The Arrow

There are no answers; only choices.

Archive for the ‘English’ Category

Steven Pinker

Posted by thearrow on October 9, 2008

He actually DID write something about Palin and I had read it but forgot. Yes, this happens quite often to me; don’t laugh.  His column, “Everything You Heard Is Wrong,” was published in The New York Times on Oct. 3. He says that “it would be unfair … to use [her accent] as a measure of her intellect or sophistication” and I have to disagree with this because that’s always been a tool in judging others. Another thing I disagree with is that “’nucular’ is not a sign of ignorance.” Now, I know linguistics is descriptive (read “nonjudgmental”), but until a change in language becomes sanctioned at least by the majority of more educated speakers — since dictionaries wait to see what’s happening before including it — that change actually is considered a sign of ignorance. This is just a layperson’s observation of everyday use of language. Pinker explains that the “reversal of vowel-like consonants (nuk-l’-yer —> nuk-y’-ler) is common in the world’s languages, and is no more illiterate than pronouncing ‘iron’ the way most Americans do, as ‘eye-yern’ instead of ‘eye-ren,'” but in my ears it’s ignorance, I’m sorry. I do agree with this, though: “voters judging Ms. Palin’s performance should focus on the facile governing philosophy that is symbolized by her speech style.” But, since it’s usually ignorant people that have such simplistic views, that proves I was right 🙂

But enough of Palin and back to Pinker, about whom I’ve meant to write for some time now. For all English majors out there trying to make sense of Chomsky’s theories, Pinker is what you want to read. I’ve never thought linguistics could be so entertaining and fascinating at the same time. Pinker writes with unmatched gusto about complicated theories, in an irresistible blend of linguistics and psychology. His main interest is to explore how we acquire language, what is innate and what is not, how the mind works (also the title of one of his books). You can read more about him on Wikipedia, or, even better, his page at Harvard.

I’ve started The Language Instinct and couldn’t believe that not only I finally understood all those things that didn’t make much sense when I was in college, but I was thoroughly entertained. I’ve got sidetracked and haven’t finished it, but I’ve recently picked up Words and Rules and I read it with a pen in hand, ready to underline the interesting parts; the first half is almost black. I swear, you’ve never imagined how captivating English irregular verbs could be. He traces them back to their Old English roots (which used to be a mess), digs them up, and holds their twisted shapes before your bedazzled eyes, while your mind gets high on his infectious enthusiasm, brilliant writing, and sheer fun.

Speaking of fun, you can watch Pinker on The Colbert Report here:


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Romanian vs. English

Posted by thearrow on July 12, 2008

“What is it with romanian that makes it so easy to give up (partially of course), or what is it with english that makes it so easy to take up?” asks K. about three of us, Romanian natives, chatting in English.

I think I have a wild speculation about it: Romanian may be easy to give up when you want to tune into a different mental frequency. I honestly believe that using one language vs. another, in time, triggers a set of behaviors or at least of attitudes. Language is so much more than just the language; it’s a surface beyond which lie deep structures of cultural practices and mentalities.

I drafted this last night only to discover a poignant comment K. left in the chat room later on: “Don’t you think that you are two different people based solely on your choice of language?” Yes indeed! Great minds … 🙂

Those of you who are Romanians must have noticed how easy it is to be offensive, aggressive, patronizing, searingly ironic, or have double entendre in Romanian. One has to pay extra attention not to manifest that kind of behavior (particularly in the jungle called Bucharest). I think this proclivity to offensiveness is actually a reflection of the culture in the first place and that the language has been molded to become an enabler of the behavior. So that’s one reason why I prefer to communicate in English: I just want to cut the umbilical cord to that culture and with English I don’t need to worry about it :). I do believe that it is perfectly possible to express yourself elegantly in Romanian but somehow to me it feels like I have to make an effort.

As a non-native speaker, I feel English has a disciplining quality, if you will. It forces you to be more restrained and it uses far fewer words than Romanian. This could very well be a comparison that holds with other romance languages, too; I don’t know. Sadly, this restrictive trait makes me feel like I can’t be completely myself when using it because I miss the Romanian humor, which uses a ton of cultural references and nuances that cannot be translated.

English and Romanian, in my case, have another unexpected effect: It’s a lot easier for me to be sincere in English. I’m not particularly concerned with concealing what I think anyway, or I wouldn’t be writing this, but in Romanian I say far less than I would in English, and yet I manage to project a more accurate image of who I am. Not surprising, since it’s my native language/culture and I inhabited it, so to speak, for 29 years. But somehow using English opens the tap of my sincerity and I find myself saying things I would never say in Romanian :). Nothing offensive, just going into more detail than I know I should. I suspect it’s a reaction to living in this culture, where you don’t quite express what you feel other than in two understated words, which for the most part I like but every once in a while drives me nuts.

So here I am, with a split personality, thoroughly enjoying both sides. And I think that this was my ultimate — even if unconscious at the time — goal in coming to America: acquiring a new outlook and new behaviors. I knew there was something beyond going to grad school and changing careers; I couldn’t put it in words, I just felt it was there.

Posted in cultural differences, English | Tagged: , | 6 Comments »

Growing Pains

Posted by thearrow on May 2, 2008

I know it’s hard for me to relax anyway but because it’s downright impossible to do that at work, I wonder how much it’s me and how much it’s typical of living in another country. I bet 80% is me :).

But here’s why. I put so much effort into my job because I have these insane standards that tell me that my foreignness has to be invisible, so I am constantly paying attention to what I do, say, etc. Sure, some of it now comes naturally, but still not all. If I had a job where being a foreigner didn’t matter, I wouldn’t have fretted so much. But I work in communications, where I think it’s absolutely vital that one’s performance be as seamlessly integrated with the others as possible. I cannot let the fact that I’m a non-native speaker be an impediment to doing my job. And don’t get me wrong: I still have an accent and people ask me where I’m from, and that’s totally fine. I have no intention of passing for what I’m not. As long as I use the right words at the right time and I’m on top of things :). But it took me a long time to get there and even now, when I know the ropes and I’m very comfortable in the job, I still can’t relax.

You cannot imagine my panic when I saw what I had gotten myself into. Seven years ago, when I decided to pursue this, I had no idea whatsoever about how high standards are and how much I didn’t know. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. I never thought that what I knew was barely a (shaky) foundation. And when I started to realize I was scared senseless. I felt that I was starting from zero and my name was Sisyphus. You know that funny feeling when your question speaks volumes about what you don’t know? Been there more times than I can remember. I was crushed because it made me feel utterly incompetent and that had never happened to me back home. Ever. It wouldn’t have mattered too much except my livelihood depended on it :).

I have to say I was very lucky. Or, rather, that the Universe conspired :). There was only one way, and that was forward. My circumstances made it impossible for me to give up but I also never really considered that an option anyway because it would’ve meant giving up on my dream. I was just constantly worried that I wasn’t going to catch up fast enough, I didn’t know where to start, and, honestly, I was afraid to ask questions. Precisely because they showed immediately how much I didn’t know. Of course, looking back, I so wish I had the courage to be dumb and ask questions. But I couldn’t shake the terror of the possible consequences of not knowing.

And then, somehow, the stars aligned and I found extremely knowledgeable people from whom I’ve learned a lot and I am grateful every day for it. I am finally happy with my skills and understanding; still lots to learn but at least I know where I’m going. That’s where the Universe conspired. For all my trying, I felt I was just treading water, the mountain seemed just as high every day, and I was getting nowhere. Or, rather, I was getting desperate. I was wondering jokingly the other day how my blog would’ve looked like if I had started it when I got here. It would have been an abyss of despair.

It’s not the first time the Universe stretched its gracious hand when I needed it most and I think it would be ungrateful of me to stop believing it will continue to do so. But I fret as much as always that maybe that’s it and now I’ll have to find a solution on my own. So far I haven’t and all doors look closed. I hope one of them will open before I hit the waterfall.

Posted in English, immigration | Tagged: , , , | 18 Comments »

Disappearing Grammar

Posted by thearrow on May 2, 2008

Paradoxically, this is what’s been happening since I came to the States. As my fluency and my thinking in English have improved and become more natural, my knowledge of English grammar has started to vanish at some point. It was like watching one go while the other was coming. I now have to make a bit of an effort to remember various things and it really makes me sad. While I speak it for 9-10 hours/day at work, watch TV, read newspapers, etc., I don’t teach it any longer. And I really miss that. All those things I used to be able to explain so well are now a mushy mass relegated to some far side of my brain :). I do hope I’ll get to teach it again some day but I can feel my neurons’ confusion at remembering how to do it.

However, to my great delight, Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct helped me understand Chomsky’s concepts of generative grammar, which I was supposed to have mastered at the University. Heh-heh. I would recommend this fascinating book to anyone who wants a good read and chapter 4, “How Language Works,” to any English major student in Romania struggling to make sense of all those complicated grammar schemes. How funny that the book was published in 1994, just as I was losing hope of figuring that stuff out :).

Another interesting observation is that when I’m tired and when I feel comfortable (almost as if I’m in my natural environment) my brain switches to Romanian. When tired, it’s hard for me to find the right words in English, which makes sense. But the funniest part is when all of a sudden I start uttering something in Romanian as part of a conversation and I have to correct myself and switch to English. It only happens with people I’m comfortable with, though.

I think this is a sign of a deeper issue, but, for the sake of keeping within this post’s topic, I’ll expand on that separately.

Posted in English, immigration, work | Tagged: , , | 14 Comments »