Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

The meaning of “Sabio”

November 14, 2012 6 comments

The Meaning of “Sabio”

By James H. Choi
Source Link

What exactly does the word “Sabio” mean?

Sabio is a Portuguese and Spanish word that serves as an adjective (“wise”) or a noun (“a wise person”).  It shares its Latin root with the word “sapien” an in “homo sapiens” and with the Portuguese and Spanish verb saber(“to know”).   In Portuguese spelling, there is an accent on sábio while in Spanish, there isn’t one.

I learned this word while studying in Brazil and liked its particular meaning because I believe that “wisdom” is more important than “knowledge.”  In addition, I liked the sound of it as well.

It does not end there.

This word can be a Chinese-character-based Korean word: 思批悟 (사비오) where

– 思(Sa) means “to think.”

– 批(Bi) means “to criticize” or “to be critical.”

– 悟(O) means “to understand.”

So put together, Sabio in Korean means to “think critically then understand,” which is what we are trying to teach.

Personally, I like this word so much that my car’s license plate says Sabio.  Any Spanish or Portuguese speaking person might think I’m conceded, declaring to the world that I’m wise.   But oh well.  There’s not enough space in the license plate to explain that Sabio stands for what I want to teach–what I want my students to learn in my academy, not what I am.

Categories: Language

Say “Haro!” to All Strangers

May 22, 2012 1 comment

One word from an innocent child can deliver a punch far stronger than a speech by a linguistics professor.

Say “Haro!” to All Strangers

By James H. Choi
Source Link

During my stay in Japan, I took a week off my exchange researcher’s duty to travel the country.   I traveled as far south as Hiroshima and as far north as Sendai.  Basically, I traveled all the way to the two end points of the bullet train Shinkansen network.

In my travel to the Kansai area — which includes Osaka and Kyoto — I’ve seen a lot of tourist attractions and ancient temples.  But the one instance that stays in my mind most clearly is the one that I don’t even have a picture to remember by.  In fact, I don’t even remember in which city it happened.  All I remember is just one word from a child.

I happened to walk through a residential area, and I had to ask for directions.  I approached a group of young mothers taking their children somewhere and asked in Japanese for directions.  They eagerly listened, understood what I asked, and replied kindly.  We exchanged a few more words of gratitude and denial, following the rather strict Japanese communication protocol.  As I was carrying this conversation, I was feeling smug about my Japanese ability.  I could carry a conversation with unsuspecting natives, convey my meaning, and get my responses without any confusion.  Hey, perhaps, they didn’t even notice that I am a foreigner!  Am I that good?! a little preschool-aged boy — who was listening to the whole conversation quietly— looked up at me.  As our eyes met, he waved his small cute free hand — the other hand was holding mother’s — and I smiled back at him.  He had singularly harmless eyes and a peaceful face, I remember.  Then he articulated his mouth said:

“Haro!” in English.

So much for me going native.  Until then I knew I blew my cover when the Japanese people complemented for my linguistic ability.  Usually, in the middle of conversations, they would suddenly inject “You speak Japanese so well” which meant “I was wondering why you sound so strange, but now that I know who you are, your Japanese is not that bad considering you are only a foreigner.”

But this peaceful looking kid shot me down to my proper place with just one word, and he didn’t package it as a complement.  He is so cruel!  What happened to the famous Japanese politeness??  And he had to do it precisely at the moment I felt I was feeling good about myself, which is rare.

I got the directions all right.  (I told you I was communicating particularly well that moment.)  But the whole surrounding looked different afterwards: It looked more distant and foreign as if I am suddenly in a far, far away land, such as Japan.

Misery does not love company, it requires one.  I don’t want to go down alone this way.

I have advice for all innocent-looking preschooler in Japan, and all other non-English-speaking countries for that matter.  You never know when you will run into a foreigner with groundlessly inflated ego parading around your city.  Your one word packs a far bigger punch than an hour-long speech by a linguistics professor.   Go ahead and deliver!

Categories: Japan, Language

Frying My Brain

Once I “fried” my brain by doing a “simultaneous interpretation” work without any break.  After doing it for a week, I was bed-ridden for the subsequent week to recover from the abuse.

Frying My Brain

By James H. Choi
Source Link

When you use your body beyond its capabilities, you injure its parts.  This could be your tendon, a muscle, or bones.  But can you injure your brain?  Can you actually fry your brain?  I have.  And I’d like to tell you how I did it.

Once, I heard news through the grapevine that a company was looking for a Korean interpreter to translate from English to Korean.  Out of curiosity, I took the job, which was a temporary, one-week assignment.  So I took a week of vacation out of my regular job to work at this other company.

The job took place at a global management meeting of the company, where an executive from Korea was attending.  Not confident in his English, he wanted to hire an interpreter to assist him.  We sat at a big seminar classroom where lecturers from a corporate office were teaching global management of the company’s ways and how to conduct business, how to do accounting, and so on.

I sat next to the Korean gentleman and said, “Greetings, I am your interpreter.  Which part of the meetings and speeches would you like me to translate?”
I was expecting him to say he would indicate to me which parts he would like translated, such as when difficult words were mentioned.  Instead, he said,

“Why don’t you translate the whole thing?”

I was taken aback.  But I’d come too far to back out.  So I said, “Yes,” and started translating the whole thing.

It’s not as if I had some translation booth assigned to me.  We sat in the last row together, and I whispered everything into his ears.  It was not so quiet because, of course, he had to hear.  I probably annoyed the daylight out of all those around us by constantly mumbling in Korean, but that was not my fault.  This was my job.  So I did it.

As the lecturers began explaining certain things, ranging from cultural sensitivities to accounting and so on, I was translating the content into Korean.  These lectures didn’t wait for me a bit.  I didn’t exist (to the lecturers), so they carried on.  I had to squeeze in the translations between the lecturers’ breathing time, which was not much.

Some speakers spoke slowly, so I was OK.  Some speakers spoke really fast.  I recall the accounting lecture was a quite fast speaker, but there I found out the fast speakers tend to repeat.  I didn’t translate the repetitions, but even so I was dropping lines, despite trying my hardest to translate everything.

I’m fairly well-versed in Korean and English, so I hardly ever have to look up words in dictionaries.  Thus the vocabulary wasn’t difficult for me; however, the sentence structure was.  In English, you can say, “The house that was on the mountain.”  But in Korean, the latter part has to come first.  When someone says “house,” I cannot begin the same way in Korean.  I must wait to see what kind of house this was, all the while remembering that this was a house, not a dog.

Here’s a convoluted example of what I would translate: “The house that was on the mountain, which was owned by a gentleman from Poland, which was invaded by Germany during the second World War, which was the longest war …”  If a sentence like this came along, the translation was doomed.

But nobody was this vicious; most people didn’t talk so convolutedly.  But I still had to hold a lot of information in my head and recall it later on.  Those familiar with RPN logic on HP calculators are familiar with this type of information-memory recall because you have dealt with entering information and then running an operation later.  (In fact, I suspect RPM logic was based on Asian languages or another type of verb-at-the-end languages.)  But this kind of waiting problem is not an issue when I translate from Korean to Japanese — because the word order is the same.  In fact, translating between Korean and Japanese or Spanish and English, you don’t have to know even what the whole sentence is; you can simply translate word-for-word without holding any information.  It is equivalent to driving around using GPS, without ever knowing where those places are on the map.  However, between Korean and English, this just wasn’t the case.  I had to hold the whole string of words, juggling them in my head, and bring them back out later.

Probably on my second or third day out of six, I found some strange thing happening.  I was always under pressure to speak, delivering information in the shortest amount of time yet in a coherent way.  But I began to notice I was speaking while the lecturer was still speaking; I was no longer waiting for breathing breaks but instead speaking as soon as I had enough information to deliver.  This is called simultaneous translation.  You can see people doing this in the back booths of the United Nation.  I always admired these people, thinking they were born with special genes enabling them to talk and speak at the same time.  I have trouble repeating a sentence while listening to it, never mind interpreting it.  At least, that’s how I was.  Yet in this setting, I found myself slipping into simultaneous translation.  (I had enough brain cells left to notice that.)  I got fascinated by this.  I was now one of the simultaneous translators, the people I’d considered super heroes.  I might be super.

I got better and better.  The next day, I intentionally pushed.  I intentionally spoke while the presenter was still talking, and I was succeeding.  This was super.  I felt good about myself and this completely new ability and happily did my work enthusiastically.

As soon as the translating week was over, I went back to my routine life.  Or so I thought.

The day after I got home, I fell mysteriously sick.  I got so sick I was bed ridden for one week.  I used up one week of vacation to make extra money and the other lying in bed.  That’s how I blew two weeks of vacation.

But this illness was peculiar.  I didn’t cough.  I didn’t have a fever.  I just fell dead on a bed and couldn’t stand up.  I didn’t know the cause.   Later, I accidentally found out what happened to my body.  These simultaneous interpreters work 30 minutes at most, and then they need a break.  There’s a team of two translators who rotate to relieve each other because this type of interpretation is so taxing on the brain that even the professionals cannot do it more than 30 minutes without frying their brains.  I’d been doing it for eight hours a day for three days.  I unwittingly had been frying my own brain, and I had to pay for this.

I hope that didn’t do permanent damage (although my friends who know me might say this story explains a lot).  The story doesn’t end there, though.  I got invited back for the same executive from Korea at the same event the next year.

Did I take the job?

Yes, I did.  Perhaps you have to have lived as a poor immigrant to understand how difficult it is to give up an opportunity to make a few thousand bucks.   But it was not just the money.  I was curious whether I’d be able to handle the mental taxation this time: if I could handle what it costs our brains, what the burden is.  So this time I was determined to survive and planned accordingly.  I was able to do the simultaneous translation from day one; the training had stuck from a year before although I never attempted it since.  But this time, I was aware I was frying my brain.  So this time, when there was no lectures, I didn’t talk.  I rested my brain and thought as little as possible.  During meal times, when I’d previously been translating all table conversations, this time I spoke as least often as possible.  Also, after work, I would jog around the hotel garden area, and I then slept nine hours each day.  So I did my best to protect my brain and health; I ate healthily too, mostly salads.

And after a week?

Remember, even the professionals spend only 30 minutes on this, but I was spending far more than that.  I was spending hours on end, and for six days in a row this time.  But my sheer arrogance made me believe that I should be able to handle the burden and survive it.

Did I survive?

Yes, I did.   After the conference finished, I returned home, resuming my normal life without falling sick this time.  So it is possible to work as a simultaneous interpreter without frying your brain (or maybe my brain strengthened; I don’t know what happened, but I was OK).

Would I do this job again, if someone lured me with another couple thousand bucks of income?

I don’t think so.  Just thinking about those days stresses me.  Even more than solving math-competition problems, the simultaneous translation was the most challenging task I did with my brain.  I think the difference between this translation and math-problem solving is the time pressure I have.  The speakers in front of me were not even aware of my presence while talking at their own paces,  and it was my responsibility to put the adjectives and relative clauses in the right spots, holding the noun while waiting for the relative clauses to finish, translating that and bringing back the noun — all that in real time was simply too stressful.

Although I’ve shown I have what it takes to do that job, I have no desire to make that my career.  It’s just too hard, and the responsibilities are too big.  (I worry: What if I drop a single word “not” in a sentence “We are not going to attack you” while interpreting under time pressure between the United States and North Korea?  I could trigger a war!)  For all those reasons, I’d rather not do that job.

And because of all the stress I experienced first-hand, I don’t want to recommend this job to you.  That said, when the responsibilities are not so high, and the pocket money is pretty good (a few thousand bucks in a few days is not so bad!), then I recommend you try it.  Learn what it feels like to fry your brain.  Just make sure to allocate a few sick days right after your work days.

Categories: Language

Redundant expressions peeve me

Redundant expressions peeve me

By James H. Choi
Source Link

“I love you for sentimental reasons” is the title of a beautiful song from a bygone era, the 1920s.

But, whenever I hear it, I wonder what other reasons are there to love someone: Financial?  Social?  Psychological?  I don’t know.  But I find it disturbing that the lyricist specified the reasons.

In general, tautological redundancies bother me a great deal.  Apparently I am not the only one.  Once while visiting Brazil, my friend and I drove down a highway from São Paulo to Santos, which was displaying a sign:

This highway is monitored by electronic radar.

“What other type of radar exist?” I immediately asked my friend as soon as I saw the sign.

Before my friend could answer, his wife jumped in.

“You know, James,” she excited exclaimed pointing at my friend, “he asked the same question the first time he passed the sign!  And he got pretty upset about it, too.  Like you!”

It must have amused her to see two men getting upset in the identical manner at the same high way sign, just because of its redundant expression.

I guess it runs among friends.  But seriously, are there biological radars?  Chemical radars?  Why specify electric ones?  Redundant expressions peeve me. you don’t understand why I am so worked up about “sentimental reasons” and “electronic radar.”  See if the following example does not bother you.

“His female mother verbally told him that there would be a musical orchestra playing Asian Chinese music that night after dark.”

It bothered you, right?

Catching this type of redundancies and contractions (“Believing superstitions brings bad luck”) is a sign that you are actually understanding the sentence.  Those who are oblivious to these details are also the ones who score low in the reading comprehension tests.  See if you can find what’s wrong with this one: “Virtue is my strongest virtue.”

Overall, being alert to redundancies, oxymoron, tautologies is a sign that you are actually understanding the meaning of the sentences you hear.  It is also a great way to increase your body’s stress hormone level, raise blood pressure, and trigger other biological reactions that shorten life.  Just great.

My students, can you think of any other redundant, and/or tautological sentences you saw that would drive me up the wall?  Feel free to post below actual (the ones you saw) or creative (the ones you made up) examples.  Let’s see who manages to peeve me the most.

Categories: Language

Mental Arithmetic Works Only in One Language

May 11, 2012 1 comment

Summary: Even if a person is multilingual, he/she is likely to be monolingual when it comes to mental arithmetic.

Mental Arithmetic Works Only in One Language

By James H. Choi
Source Link

20100715041953_brain.jpegMy mother, who was educated during the Japanese colonization of Korea, computes in Japanese. That is, she solves a numerical problem by murmuring Japanese multiplication tables yet producing the answer in Korean. Funnily, she uses no Japanese on any other occasion. After becoming multilingual, I’ve learned the same thing happens to me: I still compute in Korean. Despite being able to think and communicate in other languages, invariably whenever I manipulate numbers, I have to compute them in Korean before translating the answer into the language I am using.

Maybe this is something done only in my family.  Yet a friend’s daughter, after taking an immersive Spanish course, found she needed to compute numbers in Spanish before translating back to English.  So I guess this runs in more than one family.

Actually, I can actually compute in more than one language.  But that’s because of the tens of thousands of hours I have spent tutoring students in mathematics in English, I necessarily began being able to compute in English.  But the time I’ve spent pondering English multiplication tables is more than most people spend learning multiplication tables in their first languages.  Yet when I’m not constrained to thinking in English, my computation always reverts back to Korean. Gladwell speculates in The Outliers that Asians compute more easily because their language expresses one number in one phoneme only.  “Seven,” for instance, is two syllables.  Whereas in Chinese, a digit of a number can only ever be one syllable.  Languages that adopted Chinese counting, such as Korean, share the same trait.  Whereas Romantic languages, such as English and Portuguese, allow for multiple syllables as in se-ven (7) or no-ve (9).  Incidentally, the Japanese language’s adoption of Chinese counting does not always result in monosyllabic words for each number.  For example 7 becomes shi-chi and 8 becomes ha-chi.  And also, native Korean language’s counting system is not monosyllabic either.  One is ha-na, five is da-seot, 7 is il-gob, etc.  Japanese native counting system also is multisyllabic.  1, 2, 3 becomes hi-to-tsu, fu-ta-tsu, mi-tsu, for example.  Thus, it is only the Chinese counting system that is monosyllabic.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, a student learning Chinese multiplication tables has an advantage because he/she gets to learn them with just one-syllable numbers, whereas a Portuguese student must learn multiplication tables with much lengthier numbers.  This theoretically makes the non-Asian student’s learning harder.  I am not sure how true that is, although the hypothesis is really fascinating.

Because of the phenomenon I mentioned above, one gets to learn multiplication tables only once.  Thus this is not something that can be reversed at a later date.  Is our arithmetic ability, not mathematical ability, really marked by the language with which we first learn it?  It is a fascinating question indeed.  At the same time, even if it were true, there is not much one can do to take advantage of it.

Please share your experiences/thoughts in multi-lingual arithmetic and in the comment box below.

Categories: Language
%d bloggers like this: