Archive for the ‘ Language ’ Category

Language Revival: Native American tribe relearns their lost language

An old friend hipped me to Anne Makepeace‘s beautiful documentary which recently aired on PBS: “We Still Live Here – Âs Nutayuneân.

Celebrated every Thanksgiving as the ‘Indians’ who saved the Pilgrims from starvation and then largely forgotten, the Wampanoag communities of southeastern Massachusetts are reviving their native tongue, a language that had been silenced for more than 100 years.

Some words of the language will sound familiar to those familiar with Massachusetts and particularly Martha’s Vineyard geography. In addition to the inspiring story of how Jessie Little Doe Baird took on the task of reclaiming and teaching the language throughout the community, with her 3-year-old daughter as the first new native speaker, PBS also maintains an excellent site with supplementary material covering Native American language revival throughout the US and some striking testimonials from Noam Chomsky and others. In one clip, Jean O’Brien, a scholar of Ojibwe waxes poetic on language and identity:

“I think people are passionate about language because it’s about sovereignty and nationhood. It’s about a core expression of your own nation, your separate existence as a people that stretches into the unknowable past. … It’s about identity, it’s about place, it’s about marking yourselves as a different people in really fundamental ways. … Culture and language are inextricable.”

She then gets super heady about the worldview distinctions present in Ojibwe, including counter-intuitive distinctions between animate and inanimate entities. My kind of fare.

The full story, for those who missed the film, is also available in this article from MIT.

I can’t help but wonder how Ghil’ad Zuckermann would feel about a revived Wampanoag. In the above link, he asserts that the native Yiddish and Russian of Modern Hebrew‘s founding speakers had a profound and fundamental affect on the revived language. (Duh.) His conclusions are inevitably political, but his evidence is fascinating regarding the only large-scale successful revival of a dead tongue that I’m aware of.

What a gift– and burden– it must be for Jessie’s daughter Mae, the Wampanoag language’s Itamar Ben-Avi. But if We Still Live Here is any indication, Mae will have more that her parents with whom to speak her people’s language.

Speaking Spanish on TV

Last weekend at the Miami Music Festival with Delexilio was an absolute blast; we played some great gigs and met some incredible bands.  Beyond enjoying the sun and city’s Latin blend, I was thrilled to be able to spout out a few words of Spanish when Telemundo’s Mariana Rodriguez interviewed us live on Acceso Total:

Later the same day, I pretended to be cool on comedian Alexis Valdes’ show Esta Noche Tu Night while I could hardly understand his Cuban accent.

In the ensuing interview, though, Delexilio frontman David Sandoval took the lead as he spoke about “Cell Phones for Cuba“, a nonprofit run by Raices de Esperanza (“Roots of Hope”) that aims to help the people of Cuba get connected.

After our show Friday night at Transit Lounge, we met with Isabel Betancourt, who wrote a great article (in English) for I promise I said “persecuted”, and not “prosecuted”.

Delexilio article on

Vos nokh? With Delexilio, I’ll be playing at NUBLU in NYC on December 9. In the meantime I’m working on finishing producing some EPs for some promising artists, playing at CD release with Abby Bernstein (on whose new record I appeared on bass) and MDing a joint show between 2 of my favorite people who happen to also sing the highest: Carrie Manolakos and Morgan Karr.

Happy t-day, y’all.

Carrie Manolakos vids up; Disappearing languages

First, videos are up from Carrie Manolakos’ sold out Joe’s Pub show from August. Below is one of her rockin tunes showcasing this girl’s vocal fireworks, “Don’t Lie To Me”. We’ll be playing a joint set coming up December 14 with Morgan Karr at the Bitter End.

Completely unrelated but equally fascinating– Ross Perlin, a linguist and “New York Jew in China” posts some great footage from his work to preserve languages of rural China in danger of dying out.

2 great book finds: Kató Lomb’s “Polyglot: How I Learn Languages” and Susanna Tamaro’s “Va’ dove ti porta il cuore” #Italiano

Murray James Morrison has once again turned me on to some hip shit.  Kató Lomb was a Hungarian interpreter and polyglot who devoted her life– after starting at a late age– to learning and working with numerous languages.  Her book Polyglot: How I Learn Languages (available in full in English and Russian) is whimsically, beautifully written AND packed with fascinating strategies and reflections on language learning.  I would have liked to pick this woman’s brain in any language.

Cover of Kató Lomb's "Polyglot: How I Learn Languages"

Perusing through Strand Bookstore’s sale/used shelves, I also happened upon a digestible-looking Italian novel for only $1: Susanna Tamaro’s Va’ dove ti porta il cuore (Follow Your Heart, in its English publication).  I’ve been wonderfully surprised and sucked into the pages of this book, with some beautiful writing that is simple enough for me to understand with an elementary and somewhat neglected knowledge of Italian.

(Vocab links embedded for language students)

“L’infanzia e la vecchiaia si assomigliano.  In entrambi  casi, per motivi diversi, si è piuttosto inermi, non si è ancora – o non si è più – partecipi della vita attiva e questo permette di vivere con una sensibilità senza schemi, aperta. È durante l’adolescenza che comincia a formarsi intorno al nostro corpo un’invisibile corazza. Si forma durante l’adolescenza e continua a ispessirsi per tutta l’età adulta.  Il processo della sua crescita somiglia un po’ a quello delle perle, più grande e profonda è la ferita, più è forte la corazza che si sviluppa intorno.  Poi però con il passare del tempo, come un vestito portato troppo a lungo, nei punti di maggiore uso inizia a logorarsi, fa vedere la trama, ad un tratto per un movimento brusco si strappa.  In principio non ti accorgi di niente, sei convinta che la corazza ti avvolga ancora interamente finché un giorno, all’improvviso, davanti a una cosa stupida senza sapere perché ti ritrovi a piangere come un bambino.”

One will excuse my rough translation.  Corrections and improvements are always welcome:

“Infancy and old age resemble each other.  In both cases, for different reasons, one is quite defenseless, one is not yet – or no longer – a participant in active life and this permits us to live with a borderless sensibility, open.  It is during adolescence that inside our body begins to form an invisible armor.  It forms during adolescence and continues to thicken throughout adulthood.  The process of its growth resembles a bit that of pearls, the larger and deeper one is that which is wounded, stronger is the shell that develops inside.  Then, however, with the passing of time, like an outfit worn for too long, at the spots of greatest use it begins to wear out, the seams show, in one stroke with a sudden movement it tears.  In the beginning you don’t notice anything, you are convinced that the shell still envelopes you entirely until one day, unexpectedly, in front of something stupid and without knowing why, you discover yourself crying like a baby.”

Language learning tips

Excellent post by Murray James Morrison, a great alto sax player and student of life on tips for creating an environment of immersion when learning a language:

“We tend to learn languages like sissies learn to swim. We dip a toe in the water. Then the heel of our left foot. We walk to the other side of the pool, and do the same thing again. The water is too cold, we think. We summon up all our courage to get waist deep. We wade in the shallow end of the pool for an hour.

“It should be obvious: This is not swimming. It is athletic cowardice. Learning language this way is dumb and slow. Don’t be a language sissy. Here are three things you can do to start swimming today…”

Some other things to add from my own experience:

  • Create social situations in which you feel the need to express yourself in a target language, the way you would if you were in a foreign country.  If I always speak to the men in the corner bodega in Spanish, I can simulate an environment in which it is socially unacceptable to speak anything but Spanish and it forces my mind not to rely on my English as a crutch.
  • Translate from one target language to another. I’ve found that this works best with 2 languages at very different stages of comprehension. If you are learning new words in Arabic that look foreign to you, quiz yourself on them not per your native language, but via another language with which you are already comfortable with many of the same terms. This will reinforce both sets of vocabulary at the same time, and create associations in your head between the concepts and various terms– like networking together several computers, you’ll be able to access all of the data more smoothly.
  • I have found the above tip to especially efficacious when studying two similar languages. In Sorrento, I found a Spanish grammar manual written in Italian– a holy grail for someone studying both. Each example illustrating different points of usage and grammar was of course written in both Spanish and Italian, immediately making clear the distinctions in vocabulary and form. By quizzing myself on those exercises, I quickly gained a facility not only for putting Spanish and Italian in different “compartments” in my mind, but also for converting a lexical item from one language to the other, effectively expanding my vocabulary in both.
  • The above cross-lingual method is also good for retaining languages that are on the back burner. If you studied French in school but don’t have much time or will now to devote active study to it and another language, your mind will still have much of that vocabulary tucked in there somewhere. By studying your other target language as compared to French, you’ll be in much better shape when you decide to cram for that trip to Paris.
  • Pronounce everything clearly out loud. Language learning clearly relies on a great deal of repetition, but what if you could get a 3 for 1 deal every time you saw or heard a word?  There are 3 main ways in which we operate in a language: hearing, speaking, and reading. Every time you hear a word or phrase (and it’s expedient to do so), repeat it.  Your mind will 1) hear the term, 2) speak the term (thus getting the feel of it in your mouth) and 3) hear the term again, as spoken from your mouth. This habit will exercise your aural memory for comprehending when others speak and your muscle memory for having the words in your mouth when you need them. Of course it is also helpful to envision the meaning or subject when you say the words, strengthening the associations between concepts and language in your mind.

  • Likewise, read out loud whenever you can. This works the same as above– 1) seeing the word, 2) speaking the word, 3) hearing the word. BAM. In addition, even when reading texts that are slightly above your comprehension level, you will start to internalize the natural flow of a given language and you will learn to infer the meaning of words you don’t know by their context.

I’m in the process of preparing reviews for some of the many language-learning methods I have tried (and sometimes failed at!) so stay tuned here and to