Fun With Language

September 28, 2006

From a menu in a Chinese restaurant in Sulawesi, Indonesia. It is an excellent example of how difficult the English language can be and also how much language is connected to the social context of a society. The restaurant propietors, not familiar with American culture, were oblivious to the dramatic affect of their mispelling of the word “crab”.

Language is a fascinating part of culture. There exist some 6000 languages in the world. Language serves as both a primary unifying and divisive factor in human relations (I remember in high school we thought we French students were way cooler than those taking Spanish). It serves as a primary defining characteristic of a culture. In France, it is illegal to publicly display the use of a foreign word if a suitable French word exists to express the same meaning. A sign for your NYC styled restaurant reading “Cafe Central Park” would have the language police all over your derriere. Think how many words and phrases we use that make very little sense outside of the cultural context. A very simple example of this is the phrase “have a ball”. Outside the confines of the culture in which it is understood to mean “enjoy”, the phrase is silly, unless that is you are politely offering someone a ball – then it makes perfect sense. An excellent examples of this was recounted in a documentary about refugees from Sudan getting use to living in the States. When one of the young men boarded a Seattle bus the driver told him “it’s cool” (I forget to what she was referring). He responded very politely that it actually was not cool but quite warm which he found pleasant.

For whatever reason shirts with words or phrases written in a language other than the language of the land are quite popular. It is quite trendy for people in the States to wear shirts with words written using Japanese/Chinese kanji, Japanese hiragana and/or katakana. When asked if they know what their shirt says most say no. The response to the follow up question – then why wear the shirt – is typically “Because it looks cool” (accompanied by a look that says get out of my face and let me get on with my groovy self in my funky foreign language t – shirt). And typically it does look cool but more often than not says something absolutely meaningless. This situation gets quite a bit more interesting when the meaning of a word or phrase is vulgar, offensive, off color, etc.. But keep in mind that often the words of a language are culturally defined. Outside the cultural context they mean nothing. One could write a very offensive word in the language of the Khoisan, and it would mean nothing to the majority of the people in the world. You could repeat the word to your mom, kids at school, boss etc and nothing – blank stares all around. But if a person popped up in the area of Botswana where Khoisan is used and greeted the first person with such a word they would most likely get a bit more than a blank stare.

The following are excellent examples of how much language is connected to the social context of a culture and outside of that context means very little.

“The other day I was at the bowling alley overseeing the afternoon activity period and noticed a fellow with the word “walrus” printed boldly on his shirt. That was it – a green shirt with “walrus” emblazed across his chest. No image, no quirky description just “walrus”.

“At the mall the other day Alicia noticed a young girl, probably in 5th grade or so sporting a shirt with (and I am going to use censors here for those of the social context where this word is culturally quite offensive and certainly not emblazoned across 10 year old girls shirts!) “F……. U” as in “Harvard U” or “Stanford U”

– both described by an American living in Jakarta, Indonesia

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McAsia: The Columbian Exchange Revisited – Western Food Culture Hits Asia Hard

September 18, 2006

The neon lights say it all: Makudonarudo – Hanbaga. A Japanese McDonalds tempting passerbyes with the delights of Western fast food culture.

The Columbian Exchange saw the transfer of all sorts of things between the Old and New Worlds including a vast array of food stuffs. Europe was transformed by the potato as the nutritious and hardy tubor grew the populations of Europe to the point where leaders felt the need to expand their living space resulting in world wars. The Americas were introduced to all sorts of new foods in the form of domesticated animals. This snorting Old World biomass quickly and completely trampled and/or ate up most of the America’s indigenous flora allowing Old Word plants to take root and eventually dominate the American landscape.

The transfer of food items has not slowed down one bit and the impact is just as great today. Recently the world has experienced an explosion of food cultures moving around the world due primarily to globalization and the tremendous ability of certain multinationals to push their products. Ten years ago “pad tai” to most living in the US was an exotic culinary adventure. Now adays it is boxed and frozen and sitting in very close proximity to the Swanson Hungry Man meatloaf dinner in the frozen food aisle of many local supermarkets. But it is the transfer of Western fast food culture around the world that is perhaps enjoying the most recent success, and not without some alarming results.

The other day we conducted a survey in class of how often the kids eat fast food in Jakarta and the establishemnets where they do their eating. The list was primarily of Western fast food places, most from the US. Indonesia, like many Asian countries have a relatively healthy traditional diet consisting primarily of rice, vegetables and a bit of meat and fish now and then. But with the influx of cheap and very available Western fast food the dietary trends of many Asians is changing and the repurcussions are quite dramatic. Many experts predict that health problems related to eating processed Western style fast foods and snacks will reach epidemic proportions as the present generation matures. The health care systems of most Asian countries are not prepared to deal with a massive influx of patients suffering health issues caused by eating processed foods with a high sugar and fat content. The media has already begun waving a red flag as statistics reveal increasing cases of diabetes and heart disease plaguing countries that traditionally had neglible numbers of their populations suffering from such ailments; most fingers point to a change in diet as the primary culprit. One such article from the NY Times concerning the rise of diabetes among the middle and upper class in India can be read here. Only time will tell how this latest exchange of food plays out in our global society.


6 + 1 Traits of Writing Sample Grading Rubric

September 10, 2006

Click here to see an example of a rubric based on the 6 +1 traits used to grade student writing assignments.


WWI: Manchester United vs Bayern Munich???

September 8, 2006

Wars are difficult topics to study. They reveal a lot of bad stuff about humanity and the details are typically not all that pleasant. World War I was a particularly brutal war. It was the first truly modern war. The Industrial Revolution had equipped the manufacturing centers of Europe with infrastructures capable of belching out huge amounts of horrible new weapons. Many of the rules of war had not been altered to account for the new technologies available so things like poison gas were used indiscriminately by both sides of the conflict with gruesome results. The war also introduced a new type of battle strategy which insured this would not be the quick and glorious war as advertised. Instead, trench warfare resulted in a virtual stalemate at the fronts and guaranteed a long and tedious war. But studying the war does shed light on human nature and some truly unique and special moments can be gleaned from what is generally an unpleasant part of our history.

Before delving into details of the conflict and some of the “diamonds in the rough” that came out of the war, it is important to understand the conflict in its time and space. An analogy of a football game works quite well for parts of the war, sometimes. WWI was actually the first half of a monster global conflict that covered the first half of the 20th century. The second half was WWII and the 20’s and 30’s can be considered an extended halftime. WWI ended with no clear winners – everyone was pretty beat up. It was like the Rocky movie (switch to Hollywood boxing analogy mode) where he and Apollo, after pounding each other relentlessly, both go down in the 15th round. Rocky grabs the ropes and begins to get up but falls as the ref counts 5, Apollo climbs the ropes and is almost to his feet but collapses as the count reaches 7, 8, then Rocky with one final super human effort manages to stand unassisted just as the ref finishes the 10 count. Both fighters were a mess but the rules defined Rocky as the winner.

WWI was supposed to be a neat and tidy German jaunt through Europe establishing the relatively new state as a major player in European and global affairs. Instead both sides dug in, literally, and traded punches for four years. Late in the first half (back to the football analogy) after both sides were battered and bloodied, the Allies called on a fresh young rookie with a lot of potential. Nervous to enter the fray but also excited to help out its illustrious team and experience some of the glory of competition it had missed out on in all the epic games of eras gone by, the US stepped on the pitch in 1917, all spit and vinegar (there’s and idiom for you). They proceeded to score a crucial goal for the Allies bringing the first half of the conflict to a close. Score: Allies 1 and Central Powers 0.

Leaders of both teams played the blame game during the halftime demanding that the other side take responsibility for unfair play and such. But for the most part the two sides rested and tried to nurse their broken and bruised minds and bodies back into some semblance of working order. Eventually they recovered enough to consider the reality that there was still a second half to be played out in this competition. The German team found inspiration in a fired up assistant coach, who, it was obvious, had replaced the worn out staff from the first part of the competition. So the Germans stormed the field, all spit and vinegar, even before the Allies were out of the locker room. The Allies asked for just a bit more time as the Germans took the opportunity to warm up and run a few drills by taking bits and pieces of Czechoslovakia and Austria. Finally, when it was obvious the Germans would not wait any longer before calling a forfeit and claiming victory and the spoils (a good chunk of Europe), the Allies took to the pitch. The fired up Germans scored early and often but eventually the Allies fought back – and with the help of a timely substitute, managed to claim a rather crushing victory. But that’s all another story.


World War I – “the War to End All Wars” or the first half of the greatest war in human history?

September 7, 2006

To view a powerpoint presentation about WWI click here. The presentation focuses on the wars totality, in that it included strategic attacks on civilian populations, and its world wide scope. Several lesser known topics that are not typically linked to the war are also addressed in the presentation.

To view a powerpoint presentation about WWII click here. The presentation focuses on war propaganda, Japanese internment, and the codes used to communicate during the war.


Six +1 Traits for Writing

September 6, 2006

To see how to write according to the “six traits” strategy click here.


Note Taking – “Trash and Treasure”

September 6, 2006

To open a blank graphic organizer to use when taking notes click here.