Nov 112014

A case could be made that they would have been better off melting into the landscape as no doubt many now forgotten did, adopting native tongues, stories, places to love, ceasing to be exiles by ceasing to remember the country they were exiled from so that they could wholly embrace the country they were in. Only by losing that past would they lose the condition of exile, for the place they were exiled from no longer existed, and they were no longer the people who had left it. —Rebecca […] Continue reading >

Oct 052014
Through Other Lenses: Readings for October 2014

From Around the Web The American Dream “The American Dream Is an Illusion: Immigration and Inequality” by Gregory Clark, Foreign Affairs, August 26, 2014 – “Immigration to the United States rarely changes one’s social status.” “‘American dream; is now a myth: How bad policies and worse ideology ruined us” by Heather Digby Parton, Salon, September 26, 2014 Children “The Shortening Leash” by Jessica Grose and Hanna Rosin, Slate, August 6, 2014 – “Kids today have a lot less freedom than their parents did.” Immigration Economics “The domestic economic impacts […] Continue reading >

Sep 232014

Yet migration like birth is heroic: the soul is signing away her safety for a blank cheque. A social animal like man cannot change his habitat without changing his friends, nor his friends without changing his manners and his ideas. An immediate token of all this, when he goes into a foreign country, is the foreign language which he hears there, and which he probably will never be able to speak with ease or with true propriety. The exile, to be happy, bust be born again: he must change […] Continue reading >

Aug 192014
Through Other Lenses: American Robotnik Readings for August 2014

From Around the Web Religion “The numbers are in: America still distrusts Atheists and Muslims” by Dan Arel, Salon, July 21, 2014 – “Intolerance towards those with different beliefs: A deeply American tradition.” Language “Learning to Speak American” by Tim Parks, New York Review of Books Blog, December 14, 2012 – Take it down a notch, American English. “Saturday Stat: The Invention of the ‘illegal immigrant’” by Lisa Wade, Sociological Images, August 17, 2014 – The phrase “illegal immigrant” wasn’t part of the English language before the 1930’s. Demographics […] Continue reading >

Apr 052013

Foreigners frequently master the grammar of a language better than its native speakers, the better, perhaps to hide their difference, their diffidence, which also explains why they are so tactful, almost ceremonial, when it comes to the language they adopt, bowing before its splendor, its arcane syntax, to say nothing of its slang, which they use sparingly, and somewhat stiffly, with the studied nonchalance of people who aren’t confident enough to dress down when the need arises. —Andre Aciman in “Shadow Cities”, in: Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, […] Continue reading >

Mar 032013

An accent is a tell-tale scar left by the unfinished struggle to acquire a new language. But it is much more. It is an author’s way of compromising with a world that is not his world and for which he was not and, in a strange sense, will never be prepared, torn as he’ll always remain between a new, thoroughly functional here-and-now and an old, competing altogether-out-there that continues to exert a vestigial but enduring pull. An accent marks the lag between two cultures, two languages, the space where […] Continue reading >

Jul 312012
The River Before Me

[T]he problem is that the signifier has become severed from the signified. The words I learn now don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. “River” in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers, of my being immersed in rivers. “River” in English is cold—a word without an aura. It has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation. It does not evoke. The process, alas, works […] Continue reading >

Jun 292012

Not to speak your own mother tongue. To live with sounds, logics, that are separated from the nocturnal memory of the body, from the sweet-sour sleep of childhood. To carry within y ourself like a secret crypt or like a handicapped child—loved and useless—that language of once-upon-a-time that fades and won’t make up its mind to leave you ever. You learn to use another instruments, like expressing yourself in algebra or on the violin. You can become a virtuoso in this new artifice that provides you with a new […] Continue reading >

Jun 092012

When men are scattered in a strange country, the ‘consciousness of kind’ with fellow countrymen has a very special significance….To many an immigrant the idea of nationality first becomes real after he has left his native country; at home the contrast was between village and village, and between peasants as a class and landlords as a class. In America he finds a vast world of people, all speaking unintelligible tongues, and for the first time he has a vivid sense of oneness with those who speak his own language, […] Continue reading >

Apr 272012
How Thinking in Another Language Improves Your Decision-Making

The title of the recent study, published in the journal Psychological Science summarizes why mastering foreign languages is good for you and the world: "The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases." Only the abstract is accessible as of now, but even that reveals plenty (emphasis mine): Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases. Four experiments show that the framing effect disappears when choices are presented in a foreign tongue. Whereas people were risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses when choices were presented in their native tongue, they were not […] Continue reading >

Mar 192012
American Euphemisms and Evasive Thinking, Part 2

In his 1965 essay "On Evasive Thinking", Václav Havel bemoans a degradation of language from being "a means of signifying reality, and of enabling us to come to an understanding of it" to being "an end in itself". Havel saw the "verbal mysticism" or "ritualization of language" cause the word as such to cease to be a sign for a category and instead gain "a kind of occult power to transform one reality into another". Havel discussed this shift in the context of 1960’s Czechoslovakia, but the similarity with American […] Continue reading >

Feb 152012
American Euphemisms and Evasive Thinking, Part 1

Last year’s final issue of The Economist featured an article exploring euphemisms—expressions that substitute neutral, ambiguous wording for a potentially uncomfortable one. The article “Making murder respectable” alludes to the experience every immigrant knows all too well as a cultural and language outsider. American euphemisms are in a class of their own, principally because they seem to involve words that few would find offensive to start with, replaced by phrases that are meaninglessly ambiguous: bathroom tissue for [toilet] paper, dental appliances for false teeth, previously owned rather than used, wellness […] Continue reading >