Category Archives: languages and communication

Everyone Talk: The Language Blog That Has Everyone Talking

Just over two years ago, I started blogging. I was going to have one blog with three sections: humour, languages, and generally causing trouble (yeah, take that, corporate overlords). But I remembered the adage, “Don’t put all your obsessions in one basket.” So I set languages aside for later. Now is later.

Good Evaning, the blog that is the change I want to see in the world, is a thriving two-year-old, so I now turn to my second born (which we all know is always the best). Everyone Talk, “The Language Blog That Has Everyone Talking”, has been sitting there in cyberspace almost completely ignored for 23 months (as often happens to second children).

International Phonetic Alphabet chart of English sounds

International Phonetic Alphabet

Everyone Talk came out of hibernation in the first hour (in some time zone) of this month and has been up and running like a gazelle ever since. If you are one of those people who communicate through language, please sift through my blog posts on Everyone Talk, leave some comments, questions, suggestions, corrections, or smutty photos, and please don’t consider not subscribing to Everyone Talk.

Why am I doing this and why should you care? It is my profound belief that the vast majority of human unhappiness can be resolved through effective communication, especially listening. And even if not, it’s fun as hell to be able to talk with people from all over the world and read their ideas, news and literature in their beautiful and fascinating languages.

Most often, I will write in English — about English, about other languages, and about all things relating to second-language acquisition and communication in general — but periodically I will write in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Korean, and Japanese, and I may dip into other languages occasionally. If you can’t read things I’ve written in Korean or Japanese, it is the fault of your computer which can easily be adjusted to make those texts readable. If after that you still can’t read those scripts, what needs to be adjusted is your attitude towards language learning, a problem easily corrected by subscribing to Everyone Talk! language settings for Microsoft

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Toronto the Good and Bad

Three things I really appreciate are live jazz, modern languages, and descent people. Toronto has all three in abundance.

Jazz at Massey Hall "The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever"

Jazz at Massey Hall “The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever”

On Friday, I was thrilled by the “Molly Johnson and Friends” jazz concert at Massey Hall, which is a splendid and venerable concert hall. Molly Johnson, who was delightful as always, is one of my favourite singers. One of her many fine guests was Denzal Sinclaire, whom I well knew would be worth the price of admission on his own. Her pianist for the evening was the outstanding Robi Botos. What a show!

On Saturday I met with a local international group a couple of blocks from home and spoke in Portuguese for two hours. On Sunday I went to a cafe a couple of blocks in the other direction and signed in ASL for two hours. On Wednesday I am going across the street to a Spanish/French evening where people from a dozen countries will switch from one language to the other every 30 minutes. Fun!

Today I heard a woman at the health food shop checkout say, “Last time I was here, the cashier undercharged me by two dollars. I hope it won’t screw up your accounts if I pay that back now.” Good!

What’s not to like about Toronto? Maybe it is just this: Toronto is a place where you hear great musicians giving a dazzling performance at a terrific venue, and the audience conducts itself as if it is trying not to get noticed, as if everyone snuck in on a school night and they are afraid they’ll get caught if they make too much noise. Decades ago, my mother saw the one and only Louis Armstrong play at [Massey Hall] the O’Keefe Centre, (which later became the Hummingbird Centre) and she says that the audience was so reserved he rolled his eyes and grumbled, “What a swingin’ crowd.” Same thing when I saw Ray Charles at the venue formerly known as the Hummingbird Centre; I wanted to shout at the audience “Come on, everybody; it’s Ray freaking Charles!” and I would have been heard without needing to shout.

Toronto has all kinds of good stuff, from the world’s greatest public library system to North America’s most comprehensive municipal recycling program, and of course endless opportunities to immerse yourself in food, music and languages from every corner of the globe. But somehow, Hogtown has no personality. Toronto is less than the sum of its parts.

It is said that Toronto looks down on the rest of Canada, and that the rest of Canada hates Toronto. From both sides, this is unfortunate and uncalled for. For better or worse, Canada and Toronto are not so different from one another. Both could and should be so much greater than they are. If only more parts of Canada had some of the stupendous resources Toronto has. If only Toronto had some of the personality that other parts of Canada have.

Sorry if I sound ungrateful, but I have to be honest about how I feel. I’m glad you’re here, Toronto, and I definitely don’t hate you, but you make me feel like a Toronto audience.

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Sete de Setembro, Brazilian Independence Day, de Novo!

Por alguma razão, de todos os tópicos que eu escrevo sobre neste blog, o post que é lido com mais freqüência é esse (que eu escrevi há um ano) sobre o sete de setembro.

Feliz Dia da Independência, Brasil!

For some reason, of all the things I’ve written about on this blog, the post that gets read the most is this one I posted one year ago about the 7th of September.

Happy Independence Day, Brazil!

Antes de mais, quero agradecer ao gente incrivelmente generosa do Brasil. Em 2007 eu passei um mês visitando em Porto Alegre, São Paulo e Rio de Janeiro, com quase nenhum dinheiro, mas nenhuma falta de alimentar, segurança e boa companhia.

Eu sinto falta de vocês e tenho saudades do Brasil.

Abraços,

Evan

Brazil flag map

Brasil

Sete de Setembro

On September 7th, 1822, Brazil declared independence from Portugal. On this day, Sete de Setembro, Brazil celebrates her Dia da Independência. Here’s how that got started.

When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Portugal in 1807, Portuguese royalty transferred their office from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, which was at that time capital of Colonial Brazil. Suddenly, Brazil was more than just a colony. It was now part of “the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves”.

The royal family went back to Portugal in 1820 and the following year told Brazil she was back to being a colony. Brazil said, “não, obrigado.” Then Portugal started to get all bossy, but Princess Maria Leopoldina, acting as Princess Regent of Brazil, sent a letter telling her husband Prince Pedro to declare Brazil’s independence. He did, thereby ending more than three centuries of Portugal’s control over Brazil. (No hard feelings, right?)

Parabéns, Brasil!

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Best ESL Class Ever!

Inglês   영어   英語

I just experienced the greatest moment of my ESL teaching career. I have been teaching English as a second language on and off since 1997. Having taught high school in Japan, winter camp in Korea, junior high and university classes in Mexico, and at several ESL schools in Canada, I always found it was much more fun teaching abroad than in my own country. In my home country, teaching is “just a job”, without the adventure of being in a foreign culture enlivening my daily life. In fact, I have always felt out of place in my own culture. I’m a bit of a weirdo. I don’t drink beer, I don’t play or even watch hockey; if I weren’t so polite and “nice” all the time, no one would ever believe I was Canadian. I only feel comfortable when I am surrounded by a language that is not English. I love English, but I love it more when it is a foreign language that I carry with me in another world.

So what happened this evening that was my best ESL experience ever? The first thing is, it wasn’t a class, with a teacher making students do exercises and repeat phrases; it was the Mega Conversation Club (MCC) at English Lab Toronto. (Let me state for the record, this is not a paid advertisement for the school. I was not asked to write this. I just can’t help writing about such a satisfying event!)

I have studied a lot of languages, and I can communicate in several. What I always say to students, and to people who are reluctant to try to learn a second language, is that learning a language is not—must not be—difficult, boring, or distressing. Communicating is a joy. It is magic. It is powerful. It is addictive. The first time I actually said an original sentence in Korean, (not just repeating something from a lesson), which was understood by a Korean person, it felt like the first time I rode a bike without my dad holding me up, it felt like a homerun, a slam dunk, a shot of soju (소주)! Someone asked me in Korean what I was doing on the weekend and I happened to know all of the vocabulary and grammar to answer without hesitation, “I’m going to a restaurant with my friends.” Slam dunk! That was last year, after completing my second course in basic Korean. I can’t speak Korean yet, but now I know I will be able to learn. I just have to put in the hours. Not hours of lessons, which is helpful but not enough; hours of talking to Koreans in their language, telling each other simple pieces of information. I will do it.

As I was saying, MCC is not a class. It is an organized conversation session with one teacher for every student. Every 20 minutes, the students change teachers. For the final 20 minutes, there is a group discussion or debate. Tonight it was a round-table discussion about the problem of world hunger. There were five students and five teachers. One of the students told me that she didn’t like the topic, because she thought everyone would say the same things.

Even some fairly advanced students are shy at first, and some want to just read out some notes they made in advance. But this time even the shy students seemed relaxed. I told them the person who speaks first will have the easiest job because they can say anything; the person who speaks last will have to say something no one else thought of. One of the quiet Korean students voluntarily spoke first. A Brazilian student, who sometimes tries to avoid saying much, responded. And then he did something that almost never happens. He turned to another student and asked, “What do you think?” He started doing it as a joke and began to act like he was a CEO running a business meeting. He turned to someone else. “Do you think education is [an important part of the solution]?” He didn’t say it perfectly, but that didn’t matter. The way he did it was very funny, but it was also very real, natural, meaningful conversation.

Soon, all five students were giving their opinions, sometimes supporting or challenging what someone else had said. Every one of them spoke clearly, intelligently, without hesitation, and best of all, they all cared about what they were saying and they listened to each other. It was not “English class”; it was a natural and passionate conversation. We all got so into it that the teachers started sharing their thoughts, and they had some significant things to say. A couple of us got choked up (yes, me too) as we talked about the suffering of people, the mistreatment of animals, the heartlessness of corporations, and other flaws in the world food system. If we had been in a restaurant, no one would guess that half of us were teachers and half were students; they would think it was a bunch of Canadians having a lively conversation.

It was a beautiful, beautiful moment and I have never felt prouder of a group of students. Twenty minutes became half an hour, and no one seemed to mind that we stayed a bit late. I can’t wait to go back to work! (I told you I was a weirdo.)

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Deaf Jam: the Poetry of ASL

Deaf Jam

Deaf Jam documentary (USA 2011)

Deaf Jam, a documentary which celebrates American Sign Language poetry, is screening on the afternoon of May 10th at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. People unfamiliar with sign language may find it difficult to conceive of ASL poetry. “Like, how does it rhyme?” Poetry in any language is about more than the sounds of the words and sentences; it is about creative ways of expressing ideas and emotions. And ASL is at no disadvantage in that department.

Whereas a word in English is made of syllables and letters, a sign in ASL has the following five components:

  1. Orientation (which way the palm is facing)
  2. Location (of hand(s) in relation to head/body)
  3. Hand shape(s)
  4. Movement (of hands/head/body)
  5. Facial expression

By manipulating these elements, an ASL speaker can express simple and complex thoughts in amazing, innovative ways. Sign language is equal to spoken language in emotional and intellectual range, and, just as English does, ASL uses metaphor, connotation, wordplay, and all manner of poetic devises. ASL is handy with puns and can be flat out ironic. English poetry can make patterns of word sounds; ASL poetry can make patterns of sign shapes. Signs can be shuffled, pulled apart, and reconfigured in ways parallel to how words can be in English and other languages.

ASL does not differ from spoken languages in its boundless capacity to convey even the most nuanced and subtle concepts and feelings. The difference is that, whereas a spoken language is, for a hearing person, an auditory experience—even when read silently—, sign language is visual (except for the Deaf-blind, for whom sign language is tactile), and although it can be transcribed for academic purposes, ASL is not written and read communicatively. Therefore, ASL poetry is not written and read; ASL poetry is performed.

Remembering the observation that, Talking about music is like dancing about architecture,I will not try to describe ASL poetry, but for a hint about the sorts of things involved, consider this scene from the film.

In Deaf Jam, Aneta Brodski,* a student at Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, NYC, is participating in an extra-curricular poetry program.

When Aneta introduces herself, she fingerspells her name (lightning fast) as one normally does, but when she performs (“raps”) her name, she signs each letter (designated by shape) with movement/location that incorporates the meaning of another sign so that her name becomes a story:

A + “dress up”; N + “look at me”; E + “I’m cool”; T + “walking in high heels”; A + “stumble”.

There is a lot more to ASL poetry than that; it’s really something you have to see. And the same goes for Deaf Jam, so if you can, go see the Canadian premiere on May 10th at 3:30pm, Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor Street West, Toronto. If not, find out more at http://www.deafjam.org/ or PBS.

*Aneta, like her parents, was born deaf. Her language, and the language of her family, is ASL. Statistically, this is uncommon. The typically hearing parents of Deaf children have to—or should!—learn signing as a second language.

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What Is Theatre?

World Theatre Day  was on March 27. (See Stratford Festival message.) In fact, it was the 50th World Theatre Day (although John Malkovich’s brief message at UNESCO was trifling compared with Jessica A. Kaahwa’s 2011 message, A Case for Theatre in Service of Humanity).

Wait a minute, World Theatre Day? No one could challenge the validity of World Water Day, because water is a precious resource we all need and which is in a state of crisis and neglect. Who needs theatre. Wait, that is a question, and not a rhetorical one.

Who needs theatre?

I’ve heard it argued that the invention of photography made the art of painting obsolete. “Adios, Picasso; no use for you!” And some would say movies have made theatre obsolete. “Look at the size of that screen! So much bigger than life!” That is what theatre has that movies never will: life.

What is theatre?

Theatre is not just entertainment. Theatre is communication. A movie doesn’t respond to you, but a stage presentation does. Theatre responds to an audience and develops according to that response, over the course of an evening and over the course of the show’s run, and throughout the lifetime of the theatre company. Theatre is immediate and theatre changes. Theatre is change. A movie can get remade, but it will never be a living thing; its changes are static. Change in theatre is organic and interactive.

What I just saw.

I don’t go to see theatre often because, being an unknown playwright, I can’t afford to leave the apartment (in fact, I can’t afford the apartment). But at Word On The Street book festival last year, after agreeing to an exhibitor’s unexpected request that I read with her a scene from a script—out loud to passersby, who passed us by—I was rewarded with tickets to Tarragon Theatre, any show this season. I wanted to see their first show, Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or ‘the vibrator play’, which sounded good, and was nominated in 2010 for a Pulitzer and a Tony Award—but it was a busy month and I couldn’t make the dates.

Nicole Underhay and Rick Roberts in "The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs"  Cylla von Tiedemann

Nicole Underhay and Rick Roberts in "The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs"
photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Now a show is on which is expected to win awards (for whatever that’s worth). The English premiere of The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs, by Quebec playwright Carole Fréchette, inspired by the tale of Bluebeard, deserves any award it can get, as far as I’m concerned. Not that it was my favourite play, not that I was moved to tears, not that I would recommend it to everyone; but it “worked”, it entertained, and it made sense.

But what did it mean?

The full 200 seat audience was not stingy with applause, but there was no standing ovation or curtain call. Some gave each other puzzled looks as they put on their coats. On the way out I heard one person ask another “Not to your liking?”

It is easy to dismiss anything that is unfamiliar. And what was unfamiliar about this play was that it didn’t spell things out Hollywood-style. It was like a good poem. It said things in a way that requires a bit of cogitation. It might mean different things to different people, but it should not have been meaningless to a native English speaker. To me, the characters were not the disturbed oddballs that they seemed to be on the surface; they were entirely ordinary people and alarmingly familiar, like some specific people close to me. It helped me reflect on how I, my friends, my family members, may often seem to one another like disturbed oddballs. But that is just on the surface (in many cases).

“Who has time for that?”

Lots of people don’t have time for lots of things that are important. Most people don’t sleep enough, don’t chew their food enough, don’t communicate enough. Yawn, chew, “No time to talk,” chew, yawn. If I don’t make time to make sense of Shakespeare or my parents or siblings, that will be my loss. Theatre is communication. Like understanding family, it is not always easy, but making an effort to understand is time well spent.

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You Are Here: Geography Investigations, Inspired by Ishmael Beah

In 2009, I spent a week home in New Brunswick, leaving in Toronto a book I planned to read on my return.

Arriving in NB I saw that the book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, was the title chosen by my hometown for their first annual community read, and the author, Ishmael Beah, was coming to speak. I altered my itinerary to attend. I was as compelled by Beah’s speaking* as I soon would be by his writing. (*Beah was more intimate and candid in the crowded school gym than on George Stroumboulopoulos.)

Beah’s closing remark at that community event was that, despite horrors he had known in his native Sierra Leone, he remembers it still as his beloved homeland and as a place of more than just war stories. He challenged us to learn about far-away places without waiting to hear about them only as news stories when there is an uprising or an earthquake.

Finally, now, I will begin a monthly look at some part of the world that is not dominating ephemeral headlines. I begin with a place where I lived and worked for several months as a substitute teacher a dozen years ago. Though in the middle of Canada, it felt in some ways more foreign than Gangneung, Korea or Torreón, Mexico.

You Are Here:

Berens River First Nation, Manitoba

Located on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg and accessible only by boat, tiny planes landing on gravel, or winter road (driving across Lake Winnipeg will keep you awake), Berens River will not be hosting the next Olympics or G20 Summit. The population is something like 1,400 – slightly more than the enrolment at my old high school.

The first language on the reserve is Anishinaabe (a.k.a. Ojibwe, etc.) although I heard locals refer to themselves as Saulteaux (/soto/) which is a dialect of Ojibwe – but everyone speaks English there because, unlike most Canadians, the people of Berens River are fluently bilingual. (Ironically, I didn’t meet any Saulteaux – French for “people of the rapids” – who spoke French.)

Here are some things I remember about Berens River.

You could call it a one-horse town:

  • One hotel (which had the only restaurant and bar)
  • One store (where food was four times as expensive as in urban eastern Canada)
  • One school (K-12)
  • One hockey arena
  • One RCMP officer
  • One road

A typical phone conversation:

         Me:       Hello?

   Voice:       Who’s’is?

         Me:       Evan

   Voice:       Can you teach grade 7 in the afternoon?

         Me:       Yeah, sure.

   Voice:       [ click ]

   That was the vice principal. Friendly and pleasant in person. I thought I’d done something wrong, but I found that was the phone etiquette no matter who called. The phone is a machine. It did its job. Let’s not be so formal with that hello/goodbye stuff.

Although interactions at the school and the store (the only places I went) were always pleasant, I did not mix in the community. The teachers lived in a clump of houses beside the school. Walking the 100 meters to the school was like a commute from the suburbs to the reserve.

Most of what I “learned” when I lived there was in fact only reported to me. Here are some things I heard:

  • I heard of and read about violence and substance abuse being commonplace on some reserves (and gained some appreciation for a few of the reasons why), but never saw any sign of either.
  • I heard school staff saying their houses had been without water for two weeks. (No problems of any sort in the teachers’ ‘suburb’.)
  • I heard that a bright cheerful boy I knew in the grade seven class was quite illiterate, despite being the son of a prominent member of the school staff.
  • I heard many tales of a Black Robe (or whatever they call them now) preaching about sinners, pointing at teachers and telling the students not to believe what they say and not to follow the example they set. A teacher told me that a little girl asked in tears at recess if it was true what the minister said, that on that millennial New Year’s Eve the world would end and she would go to hell. I wish such a minister would practice what he preached.

Having lived there for several months, what do I now know about life on a reserve? Only that I have scarcely any idea what it’s like. And that realization is a hell of a lot more than I knew before.

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