Monday, 24 November 2014 00:00

Beautiful Accent: How do We Measure (up)?

I recently chanced upon a comment about a Chicago celebrity: "She was a very sophisticated person and has a beautiful French accent." It then occurred to me that remarks about "beautiful accent" are both banal and intriguing: we hear them so often that we seldom wonder about the underlying assumptions beneath them, and they seem innocuous enough for people not to censor themselves, but that is precisely why they can shed some candid light on the world where we live.

In the case of the accent native speakers have when speaking their own language, it may be politically correct to say that all accents are equally beautiful, but the reality is some accents are more equal than others. Statistically, "beautiful" is more frequently associated with certain accents. This phenomenon might be conveniently explained away by the number of their native speakers, thus if we more often hear about "beautiful American accent" than "beautiful Australian accent", we may think that it is because there are more Americans than Australians, but this wishful thinking does not explain why we are almost as likely to encounter "beautiful American accent" as "beautiful British accent", and there are so much more occurrences of "beautiful British accent" than "beautiful Chinese accent". Perhaps China is too far away from predominantly English speaking countries for such comments to show up in English, but we also seldom hear about "beautiful Mexican accent", or "beautiful Canadian accent". Needless to say, such statements usually overlook variations of accents among people from the same country.

Even trickier is the "beautiful accent" that originates from cross-linguistic influence of multilingual people's previous language(s), or foreign accent, such as Penelope Cruz's "beautiful Spanish accent", or the Chicago celebrity's "beautiful French accent", when they speak English. Those with some other accents do not customarily receive such a compliment. After all, one of the goals of learning another language is to sound as close to native as possible, not the least in order to be more easily understood. You really have to like a particular accent a lot in order to find it beautiful when it appears in another language.

While learning Spanish by auditing classes taught by various colleagues, vocabulary, grammar and reading come easily to me because of my prior mastery of French, but I have a harder time with pronunciation, especially how to roll the [r] in Spanish, or which syllable gets stressed. One colleague patiently corrected me, but another told me not to worry.

"You don't need to change it. Your accent is beautiful. It is French," she insisted. "We like it."

It is well-known to linguists that our second or third language (L2 or L3) can have a stronger influence on subsequent languages we learn than our first, especially when they are much more similar, such as in the case of Spanish and French. Nevertheless, her comment made it obvious that there is a hierarchy in accents, some more beautiful than others.

The prestige of French accent may be connected to that of the French language, which we can trace all the way back to the Century of Louis XIV when French was spoken in all the royal courts in Europe and Dominique Bouhourr S. J. (1628-1702), one of the earliest and most effective advocate of French, declared it the most beautiful language in the world in the Entretiens d'Ariste et d'Eugène (1671). Few people remember Father Bouhours, but thanks to him the ineffable charm of "je ne sais quoi" can be used as aesthetic criteria beyond rational analysis and has been associated, sometimes half-jokingly, with all things French in the US. Generations of Chinese learned that French is the most beautiful language in the world from their middle school textbook, which included a short story by Alphonse Daudet, "La dernière classe" (The Last Lesson), translated into Chinese during the early twentieth century. The Chinese reception of the story happened to be connected to a long history of Japanese invasions of China. Many of us may not know much about the situation in Alsace, but identified with a people who lost their land to invaders, and felt a special affinity with their language.

Accents can convey layers of meanings beyond sound. I grew up in a small city in Sichuan and spoke the regional dialect for many years until I went to college in Beijing at 17. After several decades of speaking only the official Mandarin, French and English, I almost lost the ability to speak the dialect fluently, until I reconnected with my high school friends and made an effort to bring it back. It was highly rewarding: the fact that I can speak our dialect "in its original flavor" has been well appreciated by my hometown friends, which reminds me of a Quebecois colleague. He once gave me a ride from Montreal to a small Quebec town and back for an invited talk. We chatted for many hours and I only noticed a slight Quebecois accent from him. But when we met again at a conference and went out for dinner with several other Quebecois, his accent was so pronounced that I did not understand everything he was saying.

People from relatively marginalized groups know that their accent may not be generally perceived as beautiful, but keeping it constitutes a badge of authenticity and loyalty; on the other hand, finding an accent beautiful can reveal appreciation, admiration and even adulation for the culture in which the said language/dialect is spoken. It is not unrelated to our sometimes unchecked preconception about cultural appeal, prestige and power. How beautiful is your accent? How do we measure that? The answers are surely complicated and not always comfortable.

Illustration by Bendu

Thursday, 24 May 2012 17:00

From Animal to Man

Porous frontiers

The death, on October 30, 2007 at the age of 42, of Washoe, a female chimpanzee who became famous for having learned to use several hundreds signs from the American sign language and who had taught part of it, without human help, to her adopted son Loulis, made the headlines worldwide. This story reminds us how much contemporary research disturbs our ancestral certainties about the difference between man and animals. Could it be the harbinger of its imminent dissolution?

Darwin already pointed out in The Descent of Man (1871) that monkeys were able to crack nuts with a stone. Since the work of Jane Goodall in Gombe (Tanzania) in the sixties, we know that chimpanzees can make tools to catch termites in their nest. And from the end of the seventies, we noticed in chimpanzees and bonobos the behavior of self-medication by plants in case of intestinal diseases. More recently, in 2005-2006, some researchers observed several times the making of weapons (spears) by chimpanzees in order to kill prosimians in Senegal. Man is no longer be the only weapon manufacturer. All cognitive and technical boundaries which separate him from the rest of the animal kingdom do seem to have lost their firmness and sharpness.

Of course, no one will deny that there is a “plus” in the human language, in the human self-consciousness, as well as in the human technology and pharmacology. However, human exclusivity of these features seems to have become completely obsolete.

WashoeAnimal Cultures?

Regarding social abilities, the situation does not seem more favorable to the human being. Cooperation is widespread in the animal kingdom, through various cases of mutual help between fellow creatures, when handicapped for example. Thus, Mozu, a macaque female in Japan, was born without hands and feet and she managed not only to survive but also to raise five babies with the help of her fellow monkeys.

Cases of appeasement after a conflict, named “reconciliations” by Frans de Waal, are well proven although there are still debates about the exact motivation of this behaviour: is it the desire to reestablish a relationship or is it the desire to alleviate one’s stress? The difficulty for the human species to understand the unconscious or final reasons of reconciliation behaviour also casts a doubt on our interpreting other primates’ motivations.

Furthermore, the monitoring of chimpanzees communities during more than 40 years in various African countries showed local variations in the use of tools such as the catching of termites with bits of barks, or in certain gestures such as the handgrip above the head during the mutual grooming using the other hand, or yet in some behaviours such as dancing under the rain during a storm.

In 1999, one article mentioned the “animal cultures”1 while referring to 151 years of cumulated observations in primatology. Other primatologists would rather say “ animal traditions” to indicate that they are still far from the richness of human culture. Yet, even there, the human exclusiveness tends to fade: the transmitting of customs inherent to a group within a same species is no longer the prerogative of the Homo Sapiens.


Supporters of the insurmountable gaps between man and animal show concern towards these studies which are often accused of anthropomorphism. They point out to what extent the descriptions of animal customs use expressions and words created first for human behaviours such as reconciliation, empathic help or political alliances.

Yet these behaviours are not invented by researchers and they can be quantified: one would talk of a reconciliation when an appeasement contact occurs 15 minutes after an attack. One could invent completely new and ‘non-human’ words to describe these acts in other species, but would it not be anthropomorphism again? This would need the creation of a dictionary in order to translate the new language of primatologists into our natural languages. Furthermore, one would have to denounce as well all the whiffs of anthropomorphism when man talks about God, with the risk of muting the dogmatic theology. Thomas Aquinas was more optimistic regarding the value of analogies.

Another way to discredit these studies is to say that animals are only driven by their instinct while men are free beings. No need to start a complicated debate on human freedom and determinism to notice that the word ‘instinct‘ is a catch-all expression. Are we talking about parental instincts, self-preservation instinct, migration, etc.?

Again, field observations lead to us clarifying the extensions of the word ‘instinct’. For example, great apes are able to adapt to peculiar situations. They wouldn’t punish a Down syndrome baby monkey if the latter jumps on the head of the alpha male whereas any other baby would be severely scolded. Some chimpanzees seem to make very fine distinctions between human intentions: for example between someone who would be kept from feeding them by a physical obstacle and someone who would pretend to give them food when not really willing to do it. Also, one would need to question the uses of the word ‘instinct’ in the human species when one talks about maternal or survival instinct.

What about language?

Then it must be more relevant to differentiate the “poor in world” animal and the “world-forming” man (Martin Heidegger). The animal can live in the world when man can live face to the world. The articulate language would be the archetypal vehicle for this distancing of the world in which humans live.

Along the same lines, one might stress human temporality, including the conceptof boredom in Heidegger’s while the animal is subjected to time. This difference regarding articulate language seems to be based on a variation of the Foxp2 gene possessed by man - and probably also by the Neanderthal after some results from 20072 - whereas great apes do not have it and thus their larynx handicaps them,preventing them from emitting varied sounds. This would also explain the strong “ratchet effect”3 which appears in human cultures thanks to oral and written transmission.

However, the difference conveniently made between animal communication related to emotions and human communication related to a semantic content, is no longer able to exist either. Animal vocalizations are not only emotionally induced, such as for example fear in front of a predator, but they are also likely to carry a semantic content.4 Thus vervet monkeys not only have differentiated vocalisations depending on the predator being a leopard or an eagle, but also take into account the temporal context of the vocalization emission. Two identical cries referred to the presence of one same predator and emitted five minutes apart, lead to distinct behaviours. In the first case, the alert is transmitted and a self-protective behaviour occurs while in the second case, the vervet monkey does nothing.


Even though the range of vocalisations does not seem quite flexible for the non-human primates, one can observe flexibility in the use or the non-use of these vocalisations according to the context. Then, one is led to explore the notion of animal thought without a syntactic language.

This contemporary researche may seem to destabilise human identity and man’s characteristics as defined in terms of unique faculties or a human nature absolutely separate from the animal kingdom. Yet, they show that human specificity may lie in the more, in the excess of language or in human sociability.

“Ultrasociability” of man

More than all other animal species, man is capable of a great variety of sounds. And more than other vertebrates, he can live in very big groups. As a member of an “ultra-social” species, like the ant and bee colonies but with the difference that his relations are not controlled by pheromones (fragrant secretions), man finds in the development of language the assurance of others’ reliability, the possibility of cooperating with others to achieve common goals, of organising group life and sharing tasks.

The improvement of human language and its ratchet effect on the evolution of human culture are part of what is peculiar to the human species, if we mean what is proper to man. Human language can verily become reason, in the critical distance to the world where we live.

However, this does not mean that we should deny any dimension of reason to animals: the ability to read intentions, to consider other living beings as centres of action and to hold different positions in a coordinated hunt, already indicate a march towards reason in others species than ours. Contemporary studies on animal domestication also show how rare it is among species. Still, ants can domesticate aphids but through using chemicals. Whereas man is able of living daily in contact with animals who are also able of it in return. That means a remarkable capacity to read human intentions, as farmers often emphasize in their stories.

One of the peculiar characteristics of man has been to be able to broaden his ability to feel for his fellows beyond the human circle so as to include some animals in his habitat. As Darwin wrote:” Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is humanity to the lower animals, seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions. It is apparently unfelt by savages, except towards their pets. How little the old Romans knew of it is shown by their abhorrent gladiatorial exhibitions.” 5

The point is not to enter too quickly into a concordism between christian faith and science, but one can note that these studies in zoology and primatology illustrate well two aspects that are often underestimated regarding the imago Dei: the coevolution between man and animals as well as the divine ultra-sociality.


One can find that coevolution of the man-animal relation resonates deeply with the prophecies that mention the Kingdom of God in terms of a peaceful coexistence between animals and man. It is a shame that factory farming widely destroys this dimension of coevolution by objectifying domestic animals. In fact, humans do not treat their fellows any better in many political regimes and contemporary genocides. Far from excluding each other, benevolence to animals and mutual respect between humans go together.

In the same way, human ultra-sociality, as emphasized by the zoologists’ works, calls for us to put back the divine ultra-sociality in the first position instead of the representations of God as reason only. The imago Dei is first to be searched in a Trinity-God, himself a relation who directs the living towards ultra-sociality. More generally, the porosity of frontiers in the definition of the human characteristic, emphasizes man’s evolutional roots into the living world. Then, should we question certain traditional views that assert the difference in nature between man and animals so as to resolutely choose a straight difference of degree as Darwin did in his time?

The possible freedom

Bergson in The Creative Evolution (1907) observed the strong propinquity between man and animals, especially in their ability - even limited - of invention, but he also maintained the rupture, the difference of nature between both: from animal to man, we go from the limited to the unlimited, from the closed to the opened, from conscience enclosed in its automatisms to freedom. However, one can remark that man also goes through a long way to freedom in his development to adulthood, as freedom is not innate to birth. It needs an important work of education. Thus this possible freedom always remains fragile in the practice of human existence. Man goes back easily to his routines, his automatisms, his closed morals.

As to animals, they are limited in their march towards freedom by their elementary and not cumulative enough culture. But is it definitive? Nobody knows because the evolution and the transforming of the living is far from finished.


First published in Choisir, June 2008

Translated from the French by Cerise Phiv with further editing by Daniel Pagan Murphy, illustrations by Marie Baron.


1 Andrew Whiten et aI., " Cultures in chimpanzees ", in Revue Nature, n' 399, 17.0

6.1999, pp. 682-685.

2 Krause et al.. « The derived Foxp2 variant of modern humans was shared with Neanderthals ", in Current Biology, vol. 17, 6.11.2007, pp. 1-5.

3 Cf. Michael Tomasello, Aux origines de la cognition humaine, Retz, Paris 2004, p. 19.

4 Dorothy Cheney et Robert Seyfarth, Baboon metaphysics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2007, pp. 233-247.



Thursday, 10 November 2011 00:00

An all-new flavour? Australia’s Asian Century

Their knowledge of China is thin. They relate to the world outside through a limited range of material symbols rather than through deep cultural engagement.[1]

To those of us following media commentary immediately after Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard pronounced “we are truly already a decade into an Asian century”[2], the above statement would be familiar.

Routine sentiment appeared on the airwaves: Australian students show no interest in studying Asian languages; government funding is misdirected; there is an entrenched failure of Australians to grasp even the most basic cultural aspects of our northern neighbours. Not just China, but India, Indonesia, South Korea and the rest. Even Japan, our old mate, remains as misunderstood as ever.

Sure, Australians love a good curry and are happy to chill out on an island in southern Thailand. Aussies might even feign worldliness so far as to tattoo exotic scripts down their sunburnt and rippling biceps, but they just don’t really comprehend the place. "Asia? I’ll get back to ya on that one, mate".

But the quotation leading this article was not about Australia, it was about Hong Kong, about the professional elite in Hong Kong. A place that is as close to China as you can get—physically and politically—and a demographic whose wealth is arguably much closer tied to the palpitations of the Chinese economy than that of the average Australian is. It would appear that Australia is not alone in puzzling over a "deep cultural engagement" with the emerging Asian powers.

Now it is true that Australia, as a nation, struggles to articulate how it fits into Asia. This is nothing new. The White Australia Policy restricted immigration to Europeans and was in place for over 70 years. Politicians, both maverick (independent representative Pauline Hanson) and mainstream (former Prime Minister John Howard)[3] have expressed concern about Australia’s place in Asia. During my first year as an economic history student in 1997, I was required to read an article in The Economist that reminded us “The idea that Australia’s future belongs in Asia has been around a long time”[4]

As a former British colony, Australia’s links to England have remained, albeit less strong than in the past. While the Queen managed to generate decent crowds and cloying press coverage during her recent tour, Oprah Winfrey might well have been even more popular when she came ‘down under[5]’ last year.

Historically, or so it goes, as the British Empire waned, Australia’s alliance with the USA grew. Gillard recently gushed to a joint sitting of the US Congress, “you have a true friend down under”[6]. Hokey, yes, but an accurate reflection of Australia’s diplomatic, military and political connections. And for many of us, cultural connections too. America still exerts a strong push and pull through electronic and other media.

In this context, many eyebrows were raised in late September 2011 when Gillard announced the impending publication of a discussion paper called Australia in the Asian Century. This weighty tome is designed to uncover the risks and opportunities in a world where Europe and North America do not dominate as they have in the past. Australian government policy needs to be guided in this reoriented world and this paper will help set the bearings.

Of course, Gillard’s enthusiasm for the 'Asian Century' must be put into context. Domestically her popularity has been dire and the political conversation here is constantly bogged down by the opportunistic and oppugnant opposition leader. Insular matters such as regulating poker machines and dealing with boat people have dominated headlines. When it comes to Asia, Gillard has been hidden by the shadows of Australia’s Mandarin-speaking former PM and current foreign minister, Kevin Rudd (aka Kevin07 aka 陸克文). The ‘Asian Century’ discussion paper is a chance for her to shape Australia’s future engagement with the region and kick some domestic political goals at the same time. Tellingly, the leader of the task force, his three colleagues in the committee of cabinet, and the further three members of the external advisory panel are all economists[7]. Eminent and successful economists, of course, but economist nonetheless, and therefore likely to emphasize the broadening financial dimensions of the Australia/Asia relationship(s).

As the impact of Gillard’s announcement has settled, a range of considered opinions beyond the economic aspects have emerged. Some optimistic for the future, some mournful for missed opportunities. Australia’s national broadsheet newspaper, The Australian, has praised Sydney University’s attempt to create academic linkages with China[8]. The leading security strategist, Hugh White, has floated the sensible idea that in order to truly boost the Asian language capacity of young Australians, the government should fund 1-2 year exchanges in the region[9]. In an online (and utterly unscientific) poll, 56% of respondents supported his idea. Bloggers at the Lowy Institute (an international policy think tank) have canvassed various issues inherent in Australia’s Asian connections. From reading these exchanges, it emerges that, among other things, there is resistance among Australian students to learning Asian languages. Many high school students studying foreign languages have an ethnic connection to the particular language, either through their parents or having grown up overseas. Students without this ‘advantage’ do not wish to take these classes for fear of bleeding grades to the better-equipped students. Reflecting a sense of intimidation masquerading as ambivalence, Australians tend to think “Why bother trying in a cosmopolitan world where English is the lingua franca? Learning a language is just too bloody hard, and besides, just because you know the language doesn’t mean you know the place… right? ”.

Not necessarily. Drawing on the long-standing debate about Australia’s ‘China literacy’, Geremie Barmé affirmed at the 2011 Australian Centre on China in the World Inaugural Lecture that

Those who rely for their literacy of China on the translated, whose interests are confined to that which is relevant or useful but in the short term, whether it be in the sphere of business or diplomacy, need to appreciate the fact that whatever their Chinese contacts might say to their face about their ability to 'understand China', perhaps even calling them a 中国通, in the end they'll be considered at best a simple-minded, even malleable, friend. So long as things go well, everyone muddles through. But when they don't, there's no substitute for the ability to think about, engage within and contend with a China that is itself a world of complexity[10].

Pro-China and pro-Tibet supporters mingle with locals at the Beijing Olympic Torch relay - Canberra, April 2008 (P. Farrelly)

I doubt that any Australian (or anyone not versed in the vernacular, for that matter) could claim that they truly understood a country if the didn’t understand the ‘local lingo’. No matter how many topical books and subtitled shows the monoglot devours, he or she will always be scrambling for the full story. Fluency, or even just proficiency, in the native tongue opens a whole different dimension of experience. Walking down the street becomes a new realm of opportunity, with advertisements to interpret and chatter to overhear, goods to buy and transport systems to navigate. With language skills, business meetings, conferences and banquets become even greater opportunities to forge connections. Many businessmen/women would no doubt attest that deals are generally not made on a country-to-country or even company-to-company level, but between individuals.

In conceptualising the ‘Asian century’, a considerable dose of nuance must be applied. The linguistic, cultural and developmental differences within places such as India and China can be almost as glaring as those that separate them. How does one simultaneously understand authoritarian pariah states such as Burma and North Korea and robust democracies such as Japan and Taiwan? Lapsing into monolithic generalisations about Asia presents a genuine risk. Subtlety will be required in ‘Australia’s Asian Century’.

Australia is not alone in trying to adjust to the recalibrated world order, and this in itself is something to consider. The countries mentioned above, along with every other nation under the sun, are trying to make sense of the new global landscape. Politically, economically, militarily, linguistically and culturally, nations around the world are seeking to determine the trade-offs required to best hitch their prosperity on to the Asian high-speed train of development.

The extent to which Australia is connected with Asia is something Australians can no longer stick their heads in the sand about. Our football team, the Socceroos, are preparing to battle Thailand in a waterlogged Bangkok to inch closer to the 2014 World Cup Finals. This weekend the Korea pop juggernaut blasts into town for an arena show in Sydney[11]. These events might well have been inconceivable even just a decade ago, having been shaped by recent (but long-gestating) diplomatic and cultural evolutions. Along with curry and discount flights to tropical islands, they are but two examples of what Helen F. Siu might refer as the “limited range of material symbols” that Australians use to understand Asia. Limited, perhaps, but still signs of some sort of ongoing integration and awareness.

Prime Minister Gillard’s speech from the launch of the ‘Asian Century’ is riddled with use of the ‘new’. New powers. New investment. New strengths. New Asian middle class. New relationships. New century.

And yes, much of ‘Australia’s Asian Century’ is new, some of it strikingly so. But what if you were to ask an old Australian Digger[12] about the ‘Asian century’? Someone who fought the Japanese in Malaya in WWII, who spent time rotting away in the Changi prisoner of war camp in Singapore. Someone who then went on to do business with the Japanese, helping hitch his homeland’s economy to that of the booming one of his former, bitter enemy. The old Digger might have a different perspective. His century, the 20th, was very much an Asian one. Not just for him, but for Australia too.

How Australia deals with the ‘Asian century’ will be interesting. How Asia deals with the ‘Asian century’ will be interesting too! The team writing the government report will no doubt adroitly address the important economic issues. However, complex cultural and linguistic elements should not be deemphasised. A ‘deep cultural engagement’ with our Asian neighbours will surely benefit all.


[1] Helen F. Siu, “A Provincialized Middle Class in Hong Kong” in Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong. Blackwell 2011. Page 136.



[4] ‘A national identity crisis’, The Economist, 14 December 1996.

[5] ‘Down under’ refers to Australia. See this old tourism advertisement featuring Paul ‘Crocodile Dundee’ - The Wonders Down Under







[12] A ‘digger’ is slang for an Australian soldier

Friday, 21 October 2011 16:06

Would Like to Meet Online

By Yoshi (34 / Male / Vagrant), edited by Raining Be, translated from the original Chinese by Conor Stuart, artwork by Arvid Torres

I have had two experiences of love online. The first was in 2001, just before I graduated from university, I met a girl online. I saw a message she had left on a BBS forum, and thought she seemed interesting, so I made an effort to befriend her. We exchanged messages online, and talked on the phone for about 3 months, and we agreed that we were officially dating. At that time she was studying in Texas, I even went there to visit her. The second time also began on a BBS forum, the girl was a friend of a friend. We kept in touch using Skype, although she refused to show me what she looked like (maybe she thought she wasn't pretty enough), I didn't really care about it at the time, as I think someone's character is the most important thing. This state of affairs continued for quite a while, in the meantime I had gone to study in Britain, until I returned to Taiwan and finally got to meet her.

Although both these online love affairs eventually fizzled out, the experience was not so different from other dating experiences, the feelings were all for real, in the end we still met in person, and there was proper interaction in both cases. These experiences made me realize that the online world and the real world are not parallel to each other, the internet is still just a part of the real world, it is not another dimension. The reason online love is not actually as unreal as one might think is that there are forms of intimate interaction with the internet, like phone sex for example. Phone sex is pretty interesting; it is really just two people getting off by themselves. I think that there is a link between the experience of phone sex and that of real sex, the difference is quantitative not qualitative. What I mean by quantitative is that phone sex relies only on stimulating someone with only their sense of hearing, it is not like real sex where all 5 senses are stimulated, but you are still interacting with the person, so there's no difference in the quality of the experience. It is like the difference between holding hands, kissing, and sex, they are contiguous, there's no defined boundary. In reality, phone sex is more intimate than holding hands, in my experience.

According to research into social psychology, it is easy for people to lose their inhibitions when using the internet, which means that when you are separated from other people by a computer screen, without the physicality of distance, people often feel more confident and secure. An example of this would be people who normally feel or react in an inhibited way, being able to talk to strangers about their private lives. So it is very common for people's speech and behaviour to be very different online compared to the real world.

This difference in mentality is very interesting when it comes to love, if ordinary dating is physical proximity, online these stages can be skipped, hence unique phenomena like phone sex can occur. It's like hitting a proverbial home run, without any actual physical contact. Perhaps, because I'm not so much about materiality when it comes to these things, it was easier for me to adapt. It's not enough, of course, but it allows people to reach a level of intimacy that other people only attain after several months or even several years -- it is something extremely personal, it requires trust, and an intensity of passion. Maybe this is what they refer to when they say it "lowers your inhibitions", the situation is extremely real.

However, you have to invest a lot more energy into love online than you would normally when you are dating someone in real life, with the exclusion of students and successful entrepreneurs, I doubt there are many people with the time to keep something like that going. The fact that it relies on voice and language means that if you are not a good talker, or you are clumsy with language, this kind of love affair is probably not for you, you have to be very sensitive to words and tone. The two girls I dated online had nice voices, and that was the main attraction really.

Friday, 26 February 2010 00:00

Religions as languages

The remarkable diversity of religious expressions typical of South-East Asia has led to a focus on the interaction between the various faiths operating in the region. Such attention has been also fostered by the various ethno-religious conflicts that have developed, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia. If religious communities had to be agents of peace, the narratives on which they rely would play a role: creative interpretation of canonical narratives can stress peace and reconciliation; in the pluralistic situation of the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao, some narratives play a mediating role by incorporating elements from different religious traditions; the sharing of stories (especially role-model stories) at the local grassroots level is by itself a factor of reconciliation.

At the theological level, some thinkers nowadays see hermeneutics not as a tool for redefining religious identities in the region but rather as a resource for challenging them. R.S Sugirtharajah says that “the task is seen not as adapting the Christian Gospel in Asian idioms, but as re-conceptualizing the basic tenets of the Christian faith in the light of Asian realities. … There is a willingness to integrate, synthesize and interconnect.” The need to connect with other believers in order to implement justice, peace and environmental concerns also plays a role in the “communication and interconnection” paradigm, which is strongly influenced by theologians such as Michael Amaladoss, Raimundo Panikkar, Paul Knitter and Aloysius Pieris. Of special relevance might be the concept of intra-religious dialogue as championed by Panikkar: one’s religion is very akin to a native tongue, and any religion is as complete as a language is. The discovery of the Other draws us out of our language and leads us to understand what its “words” mean to our religious partner. To enter another's world is a religious experience that engages a dialogue not only with the Other but also within our self.

In this approach, and other similar, the hermeneutics of inter-religious dialogue is not seen as a theological task among others but as the one that determines the future of Christianity in Asia and even the shaping of religious forms, identities and experiences in the world. South-East Asia is a place in which the intermingling and communicability of religious faiths is especially visible, which gives it a prominent role in the continuation of this global endeavour.

Photo courtesy of James Russell




Thursday, 29 October 2009 00:00

On the 'Amis Language Transcription

This paper is in French, the subject is ‘Amis language transcription’. It is about Taiwan aborigine languages, especially language evolution of the ’Ami people.

From an oral transmission to the creation of a writing system, the ’Amis language went through many changes along with the history of this minority people in Taiwan. The paper attempts to perform a (socio)linguistic analysis: from past to present, we describe how different writing systems were applied. We classify four main periods: the mythical, prehistoric period, when the ‘Amis language was only oral; the chinese period, with the use of chinese characters; the japanese period, trying to apply the katakana system; and the modern period, when romanization starts to spread. Our conclusion is that the writing process has now settled on the Romanised format.

Friday, 20 February 2009 20:48

Language, a tool for freedom

Renlai and Taipei county government have started a cooperation so as to reflect together on the local implementation of global challenges: water management; sustainable farming; ecotourism; integration of migrants within the community; lowering carbon emissions... In the Chinese issue of Renlai (and on the companion Chinese pages of this website) the topic treated in March is "language education", be it education to mother tongue or foreign language education. County governments in Taiwan are in charge of primary education. In Taipei county, new textbooks have been recently edited, aimed at developing children’s reading and thinking abilities. An opportunity for pondering anew the rationale behind language education.

Studying one’s mother tongue and learning other languages are interdependent experiences: it is only if you know your own language well that you can enter into the intricacies of a foreign language. And, reciprocally, studying a foreign language gives you a distance vis-à-vis your mother tongue that helps you to appreciate and understand it into a new light.

Actually, learning languages is what makes you able to learn all other disciplines. What is even more important, it is by learning languages that you are able to understand yourself, to understand the others, to develop your freedom and creativity, and to work fruitfully with others. Let us take these four dimensions one after another:

-Understanding yourself: learning a language will provide you with words through which you are able to express your identity, your true feelings, to channel your self and thus to understand it. It is by saying whom you are that you truly understand who is this “I’ who is speaking. Furthermore, by connecting you with your cultural past, by understanding how your mother tongue is connected with a cultural history, with a world vision, you understand yourself as being in solidarity with a history and a community - even if you use this language for challenging the values that are the ones of this community. Also, mastering a language amounts to know the words that describes all the facets of feelings, miseries and desires in the human soul, and thus to know better one’s own “light” and “darkness”, thus being able maybe to accept whom we are, with our contradictions.

-Understanding the others: listening what the others say in your own tongue, being able to discern in the words they use the subtleties of their feelings and thoughts is already a way of understanding Otherness. Of course, this becomes even truer when you learn foreign languages: you learn not to take for granted values and categories that seem to be “basic’ in your own language, you learn to see the world through another prism so to speak.

-Developing your creativity: words and syntax are the tools we use for conceiving and expressing new ideas. Mastering languages helps you to find newness by creatively assembling these tools. Furthermore, educating a child to adequately express what he thinks throughout the study of language amounts to educate him to freedom of thought and creative thinking. Once can say that teaching a language to someone (when you do not nourish him only with proverbs and stock sentences) is to educate him to freedom: he is able afterwards to think and say whatever he wants in this language!

-And finally, if you understand quite well who you are, if you are able to understand the others, and if you are able to think freely and creatively, then you are also truly able to work and invent within a group. Language remains the basic tool that helps a human community to stand together, to communicate, to debate, and, ultimately, by creating and progressing, to perpetually re-invent itself.
So, when teaching a child his or her mother tongue and foreign languages you are doing much, much more than preparing him to succeed in exams. You are providing him with the tools that are necessary for being truly human. He will do whatever he wants with the formidable tools you are equipping him with – for language is a weapon that can be used for the best and the worst. But, by showing him that language is meant for freedom and creativity, you can bet that he will more and more understand and gratefully appreciate the wonderful gift that is thus given to him.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009 00:00

My Linguistic Paradox

I was born in a multilingual environment as both my parents speak several languages. My father was born in Cambodia and mostly grew up in Vietnam from a wealthy Chinese family. Back then, when he was a child, he spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese. Furthermore, with his parents, he would speak two Chinese dialects: Hakka with his father and, with his mother, Teochew (Chaozhou dialect) which is the most common Chinese dialect among Han merchants in South-East Asia. As my father was educated in French, he too mastered this language, and now that he has returned to Phnom Pehn, he can also speak everyday Khmer. My mother was born in Taipei, also from a Hakkanese family. Then, in her childhood, she was already trilingual: she would speak Hakka with her parents, with her brothers and friends she would use Holo (or Taiwanese) dialect and Mandarin at school. As she studied in Tokyo, she speaks perfectly Japanese and now that she has been living in France for twenty years, she’s also fluent in French.

Thus, my first twenty years were crippled by the drama of not being able to speak another language than French: from my recollection, my parents never spoke to me in Chinese. In fact, my mother must have spoken to me in mandarin when I was an infant as she couldn’t speak French yet at that time. I was living in a small town of Morocco and, according to my parents, once I came back from kindergarten to decree that from then on I would only speak French. My parents are definitively too liberal and I am still offended by the fact that they had accepted my whim with such easiness! In fact it was quite convenient for my parents that my brother and I couldn’t speak a word of Chinese: they would argue and discuss private matters without having to worry about preserving our innocence. I must say that children have a more developed intuition than what parents think as we were able to recognize and memorize at an early stage most of the vulgarities often used. Also, I missed a second opportunity of becoming a bilingual when I was four years old. I had started to take some classes of Arabic, after a few days, my father asked me what I had learnt and I just said loudly “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”). My father probably thought that I was too young for that kind of education and he immediately removed me from the class. Soon after, we moved to Paris where I carried on my education in French.

At the age of 20, by a twist of fate, I enrolled in a Chinese Language and Culture Degree in a university of Paris and started to learn the language as a beginner. I have to admit that I studied Chinese in a rather dilettante fashion. However I managed to graduate and decided to take off for a year to study Chinese in a language center in Taipei. Chinese language centers are miniatures of the Tower of Babel: I had the chance to be in a small structure where people of the different countries were too few to form segregated gangs. There I dramatically improved my English and also discovered with pleasant amazement that I was even able to speak Spanish! (Actually I had learnt the language at school during seven years without having ever used it.) Suddenly I was no longer a miserable monolingual and soon I discovered the joys of speaking, thinking and even dreaming in other languages. This superimposition of languages in my family and, now, in my everyday environment triggers sometimes the most curious and interesting situations. Last summer, my mother came to visit, accompanied for the first time by her French companion and my brother. We decided to ride the Taipei cable car and I offered my Colombian friend to accompany us. We entered the car with a Taiwanese couple who gaped at us while we were chatting: my Colombian friend would speak in Chinese to my mother and I would translate in French to my brother and my mom’s companion, speaking in English or in Spanish to my friend. The couple must have found it strange that a foreigner could speak Chinese fluently while my brother who looked evidently Taiwanese was not able to mutter a word in mandarin!

My temporary conclusion is that Asia might just be one of the most suitable places to become multilingual.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009 04:09

Finding Words for Christianity in the Far East


The encounter between Christianity and East Asian languages, cultures and nations took place, for the main part, in the larger context of the confrontation between Western expansionism and societies meeting with a number of crises. The original conditions of the encounter still partly determine the relationship between Christianity and East Asian languages. However, this relationship was shaped not by historical factors only but also by the intrinsic difficulties encountered in translating the Christian worldview as elaborated in Europe throughout centuries with words, concepts and linguistic structures proper to East Asia.

Christianity as shaped by European tradition encountered the civilizations of Japan, China and Korea from 1550 on. Till the beginning of the nineteenth century, East Asian nations witnessed the arrival of mostly Catholic missionaries, whose lingua franca was Latin, though Portuguese (due to the patronage consented by the Pope to the King of Portugal) and other European languages were also used as communication and translation tools. Protestant missionaries arrived in the region around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Their linguistic policies had much to do with efforts developed for translating the Bible into vernacular languages and will therefore be sketched in Part II.

Jesuit missionaries in particular dealt directly with a variety of linguistic problems. Matteo Ricci (in China from 1583 till his death in 1610) took pains to write his apologetic works in elegant literary Chinese. In 1615, the Jesuits received from the Pope the permission to use vernacular language in the liturgy and to translate the Bible in classical Chinese. However, the development of the Rites Controversy prevented them from making use of this permission. Attempts made in Japan during the same period were also aborted. More generally, if apologetic and catechetical treaties in East Asian languages were numerous, the authoritative sources of Catholicism were still controlled by the use of Latin till the middle of the twentieth century. In the Catholic world, it is only with the foundation of the Fu Jen Faculty of Theology, in Taipei, that teaching and research were conducted in Chinese, starting in 1968. From that time on, the shift has been swift and complete.

In Korea, Christian use of the Hangul script enabled the spreading of the faith. As early as the end of the eigtheenth century, portions of the Gospels, doctrinal books and a hymnary appeared in this script. This was a challenge to the perceived cultural superiority of Chinese and a factor in the rise of literacy. In Taiwan, the influence of the Presbyterian Church is strongly linked to its early advocacy of the Taiwanese (minnan) language and romanization.

Protestant missionaries in the Far East saw the encounter between Christianity and Eastern languages mainly through the prism of Bible translation. An exploratory stage took place from 1820 to 1890, a time where full translations in Japanese and Chinese of both Testaments were completed. In 1919, the publication of the Mandarin Union Version, coinciding with the May Fourth Movement, was a lasting cultural and literary event. In Japan, authoritative Catholic and Protestant versions of the New Testament were published around 1910-1917. After 1960, new publications appeared, based on renewed scholarship. The first complete Chinese Catholic Bible was published in 1967 in Taiwan. In Korea, the Bible was newly translated for common use by both the Catholic and Protestant churches--the New Testament in 1971 and the Old Testament in 1977. Questions as to the reliability of these two translations have been raised; a Catholic Bible was been completed only in 2002.

Over the last thirty years of the twentieth century, Korean minjung theology has provided East Asia with an example of the importance of language issues in the crafting of a new Christian way of being. Though minjung roughly means “people”, the word is usually not translated in order to preserve the specificity of the historical experience it represents. Korean minjung theology pioneered extra-textual hermeneutics, insisting on popular rituals and expressions of feeling as a source of inspiration. Of special importance has been the stress put on kut, a shaman-like rite that makes the community as a whole gathering, resurrecting and offering sacrifice. Similarly, much writing has been devoted to han, the dominant popular feeling arising from “the suppressed, amassed and condensed experience of oppression.”(Suh Nan-dong) Such journey allowed for instance the Korean feminist Chung Hyun Kyung to write: ”I discovered my bowels are shamanistic bowels, my heart is a Buddhist heart and my head is a Christian head.” Though not as vibrant as was the case in the 1980s, minjung theology still provides a set of questions for East Asian Christianity as a whole:

From the middle of the sixteenth century on, the encounter between Christianity and East Asian languages and cultures was partly shaped by European expansionism, partly by the interaction between cultural-linguistic matrices proper to worldviews that had developed apart from each other. Biblical translation was a battleground on which religious inculturation slowly occurred. The determination of theological terminology also allowed for creative linguistic and cultural accommodation. Today, biblical, literary and extra-textual hermeneutics contribute to the reshaping of East Asian Christianity. The appropriation of Christianity by East Asian languages and cultures is ultimately an ongoing narrative told in many tongues.


Photo : Taipei Ricci Institute Archives

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