Tag Archives: language

Lost in simultaneous translation


Feb. 25, 2011

If you’ve been watching or listening to the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, you’ve likely heard an Arabic interpreter. They’re everywhere. And they can have different takes on the same message.

Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi’s recent “angry and rambling” speech did sound rather angry on Libyan state TV, but downright tepid via the CNN interpreter.

Then there was Egyptian Vice-President Omar Suleiman’s now famous announcement that President Hosni Mubarak would be stepping down.

The Egyptian state television interpreter said Mubarak had decided to waive the office of the president, rather than relinquish, as others translated it.

Meanwhile, the CNN interpreter said the country would be run by the higher council of the armed forces rather than the Supreme Council, its proper name.

What’s more, the CNN interpreter repeated the president’s name three times, so caught up in his own excitement that he forgot the rule about trying to mirror the speaker’s emotions.

A word is like a bullet

Nit picking? Maybe. But don’t get me wrong. Simultaneous interpreters have an astonishing ability to process the words streaming into their ears in one language and instantly spew them out in another — but this highlights an interesting problem.

As the Arab world’s prominence in global affairs rises, so too does the need for Arabic interpreters.

And while interpreters hired by the news media may be very fine, they’re often not professionals, and experts say there may well be a need for quality control to ensure accuracy in message and tone.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon listens to the translation of a speech on his headphones at a UN conference in May 2009. (Reuters)

So I turned to the pros to find out how it’s done.

At the UN, interpreters learn to do two things no matter how intense the pressure: to faithfully render the message and, also, the emotion of the speaker.

The UN’s Arabic section chief Rasha Ajalyaqeen says interpreters adhere to the idea that a word is like a bullet: once it’s out, it cannot be retrieved or replaced.

Ajalyaqeen has worked for 27 years as an interpreter and says her heart still pounds going into the General Assembly or the Security Council. Her job is not only to be quick and accurate but to be on top of the issues.

From the moment she clicks on the news in the morning, her brain starts storing information she might need during the day.

Avoid duplicity

The last thing an interpreter wants is to be caught speechless. But sometimes a delegate can quote from an unknown or unseen document.

Ajalyaqeen says in the event of a disaster or high-profile death, someone is almost certain to quote from the Koran. To be prepared, she scribbles down verses to have on standby such as: “To God We belong, and to Him is our return.”

Interpreters also like to have on hand the Isaiah quotation: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

A good interpreter can move seamlessly between the syntax of Arabic and English, which is tricky because they’re so different.

Ajalyaqeen says preposition placement is important and so is verb, noun and adjective collocation — the first thing to go, she says, when you’re under stress.

Sentences in Arabic are also extremely long, so they need to be broken into more manageable components; Ajalyaqeen stresses that while you need to follow the rhythm of a speaker, you also need to remember the audience.

And, of course, you need the right words. Ajalyaqeen was in the Security Council during the first Gulf war when instead of saying “avoid duplication“, she said “avoid duplicity.”


Stress levels

To faithfully render a speaker’s message, simultaneous interpreters need to be on their toes.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi during his first ever address to the UN General Assembly in September 2009. He was supposed to speak for 15 minutes but went on for 96. (Reuters)

That means an hour of rest after 30 consecutive minutes of work. Less than that and quality suffers.

That rule was demonstrated in the fall of 2009 when Libya’s Gadhafi insisted on bringing his own interpreter to the General Assembly.

About 75 minutes into a meandering speech, observers noticed the interpreter was getting more and more stressed, and the interpretation was suffering.

Then he reportedly blurted into the live microphone: “I just can’t take it anymore!”

Ajalyaqeen heard it and sprinted the two blocks to the General Assembly to interpret the final 20 minutes of the speech. Talk about being on your toes.

Content and tone

The other element to good interpretation is accurately rendering the emotion of the speaker.

That means that if someone is outraged, you need to be outraged. If that person is disappointed, same goes for you.

If the speaker is passionately warning of dangerous civil unrest and you sound like a monotonic Tibetan monk, well, your credibility drops.

“No matter what your personal beliefs are, you’re supposed to be invisible,” says Ajalyaqeen. “You need to melt into the voice of the speaker. When they hear you as an interpreter, that’s when you fail.”

So if you’re translating for Gadhafi, you might need to bite your tongue. The potency of the message should override any subjectivity in the interpretation.

Speaking in more tongues

Today, interpretation may be more important than ever. The number of items at the UN requiring interpretation has skyrocketed, and more delegates are speaking Arabic.

Ajalyaqeen says that in the diplomatic world, it’s long been a matter of pride for delegates to speak other languages. But now, using one’s own language has that cachet.

More often than not, Arab delegates know a second or third language, but choose to speak Arabic, confident that their message will not be compromised.

Obviously, much of what interpreters at the UN deal with doesn’t affect those interpreters who work only in broadcasting. But the principles of staying true to content and tone remain the same.

As the number of issues affecting the Arab world increases, as activists try to use Egypt’s success to pull the rug out from long-sitting autocrats in the Middle East, and as satellite media expands, we’ll be hearing more and more interpretation.

Already, the voices of the interpreters on Al Jazeera are quite recognizable.

Mind you, it remains to be seen whether media interpreters, like those at the UN, can manage to stay invisible.

A better way to say hello


Nov. 9, 2010

It’s high time to do away with the mechanical greeting we North Americans employ. You know, the garden variety Hihowareyou/Good exchange that doesn’t really expect a serious answer.

In fact, when it comes to saluting our fellows, we could probably all learn something from the Dogon people in the West African country of Mali, where I recently spent a couple of months.

The tenacious Dogon live in villages on sandy plateaus clinging to rocky cliffs, an area of such unique cultural, geological and historic significance that it has been made a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Dogon language family consists of more than 20 languages and, where I stayed, the villagers spoke Tommo So.

Unlike us, they have elaborate greetings. One might go something like this:

First man: Let’s go into the morning.

Second man: Indeed. Did you pass the night?

First man: I did.

Second man: Did your menfolk pass the night?

First man: They did. Are you in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: Are your menfolk in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: Is your wife in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: Are you not ill?

Second man: There is no evil.

First man: Is the white woman staying with you in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: I see.

Then it starts all over again with the other person asking the questions.

Chorus of hellos

And that is just one exchange. Imagine greeting people each day as if you hadn’t seen them for months or years.

The Dogon repeat this ritual with every adult they encounter who is even remotely within earshot. They shout across waving fields of millet, from one motorbike to another, mid-way down a rocky path, with engines revved, while carrying awkward loads of craggy sticks to fuel the fire.


If a group is addressed, they even respond in chorus, which can make a visitor’s heart just sing with joy.

Like us, the salutations are modified according to the time of day — morning, after work or night.

What’s more, the greetings are such an important ritual that if you master them, they say that you are Dogon, because you can speak the language.

There are opportunities, of course, to talk about deeper issues, but only after the greetings are exchanged.

To greet, indeed, is to be human.


The greetings reflect West African society, where relationships are paramount, says Dogon expert Dr. Walter van Beek at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

They are an acknowledgement of a relationship — you’re a neighbour, a kinsman, a peer — a recognition that you’re part of a larger group and that you depend on each other.

This could explain why Malians always asked me (in French): Ça va bien? La famille, ça va? Et le Canada, ça va?

I wasn’t used to being asked how my country was doing. Ça va bien, ça va bien, I’d reply, secretly wondering if something horrible had happened back home while I was away.

Here in North America, our greetings essentially play the same role: to acknowledge one another and exchange information.

They are just more individualized. I am asking how you are doing, not your family and friends and hometown.

In our society, for the most part, the individual is paramount.

But if you factor in small talk, our salutations aren’t so different from these long African rituals, suggests Jerry Barkow, a social anthropologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Years ago, he worked among Hausa speakers in northern Nigeria and southern Niger and he sees similarities with our greetings here.

“In Nova Scotia, where I live, we talk about the weather,” he says.

“You can wonder why we bother because little or no new information is exchanged. But in fact, we are doing precisely what Hausa do with an extended greeting. We are maintaining and at times re-establishing or repairing a relationship.”

For sure, we do go on and on about the weather.

You know those exchanges: This weekend is supposed to be cold. Really? I thought it was supposed to be warm. Oh no, I saw snowflakes this morning. Well even so, they’ll melt by noon. Oh, I don’t know, they say this winter is going to be cold.

And then you both start to shiver, nod politely and move on.

A nod

I have to say, though, that I really liked the Dogon style of greeting. Within the first few weeks of my stay, I had memorized their elaborate ritual and could perform it flawlessly after a while.

Of course, as soon as they threw in an unfamiliar question, I became flustered and they laughed, good-naturedly of course. It felt so nice to spend time exchanging these words with the people who crossed my path. Never mind that it took twice as long to get anywhere.

The Dogon way seemed so much better than the quick Hihowareyou I was used to in Toronto. It was as if they cared more about each other’s well-being.

Since my return, I’ve been mindful of how I greet people. Sometimes there really is only time for a Hihowareyou/Good exchange.

But there are many occasions, I’ve discovered, when I can ask a thoughtful question that requires more than just a one-word answer. Questions like: What do you think of our new mayor? or How do you look so perky when you get up at 3 a.m.? or That’s the biggest backpack I’ve ever seen, what do you carry in it? (granted, this could get awkward).

It is gratifying to see the conversation, laughter and insight that a sincere query can elicit.

But I’ve also learned that even a quick nod or rushed greeting has value. It means we’re at least acknowledging each other’s presence.

In an age where hand-held devices have practically become a physical extension of our bodies, the mere fact that some of us are still looking up to SEE the people around us is a very healthy sign.

To greet, after all, is to be human.

A very slippery story


June 25, 2010

The usual key to staying on top in the murky world of politics is to control the narrative. And, by all linguistic accounts, Barack Obama’s control of the oil spill narrative has slipped away.

Lonely warrior. Barack Obama counting tar balls on a Louisiana beach in May 2010. (Larry Downing/Reuters) 

In his best Churchill impression, he spoke about “the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens,” going on to vow that “we will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes.”

The president then talked about creating a battle plan as well as the need to develop energy independence and to “fight for the America we want for our children.”

In fact, Obama’s rhetoric around America’s biggest environmental disaster has intensified in recent weeks.

Accused of not being angry enough at the company that has still not managed to fully plug a gushing oil well, “No Drama” Obama, as he was once known, is using tougher language and framing the oil spill as an environmental 9/11.

He also uttered the now oft-quoted explanation of why he’s spending so much time talking to experts: so he can “know whose ass to kick.”

Oil-spill enabler

But in this unfolding drama, with a wavering protagonist, a motley crew of characters and a slick, unrelenting enemy, one is compelled to shout in frustration: “words, words, words!”

Therein lies the problem, says language analyst Paul Payack. Words alone mean nothing if they are not backed up by action and, as a result, Obama has lost control of what he wants to say.

“He who wins control of the narrative controls the story in terms of political capital,” says Payack. And at the moment, Obama isn’t doing so well, which could hurt his party in the November mid-term elections.

According to Payack, the most important storyline currently defining the president is “Obama as oil spill enabler.”

To arrive at that, Payack’s Global Language Monitor tracked the frequency of words and phrases on the internet — in the news media, blogosphere and social media outlets — to figure out the predominant, unfiltered story.

It tracked word combinations such as “Obama/slow response/delayed response,” “BP/slow response/delayed response,” “Obama in command/not in command,” and “BP in command/not in command.”

According to Payack’s measurement, the popular opinion is that Obama was slow to respond and is not in command, therefore “enabling” the perpetrators, BP.

What’s more, this view appears to have completely overshadowed “Obama as health-care reformer.”

Remember health-care reform? That is supposed to have been the president’s great achievement.

The passive voice

So how did Obama lose control of the story?

The prime-time speech solidified the “enabler” narrative, in part, Payack says, because the president spoke at an unexpectedly high 10th-grade reading level, with the highest level of what are called passive constructions measured in any major presidential address in this century.

The passive voice in politics, says Payack, tends to either deflect responsibility or obscure who is taking action.

But while the government has lost control of the oil spill narrative, it’s not like BP has gained it.

The company is so desperate to have some control, any control, of the storyline that it’s actually buying up language.

Well, not in so many words. But for a while there it was buying up sponsored links at the top of Google and Yahoo. So if you typed in oil spill, BP oil spill, or oil spill response into their search engines, up popped BP’s official page to tell you about “BP’s progress on the Gulf of Mexico’s response effort.”

The company said it wanted to show what it was doing to contain the oil spill. That’s clearly not working too well for them.

So if neither the government nor the company is controlling the narrative, who is?

“If you neglect to write your own narrative, somebody else will write it for you”, says Payack. And those others appear to be pundits, bloggers and journalists.

Obama’s prime-time address was billed as an “inflection point” (another oddly esoteric term for a very real disaster).

It was supposed to create a shift from the anxiety-provoking narrative of a slow response, to an uplifting narrative of hope and change and energy independence.

The American public, however, doesn’t seem to be buying it. A recent poll shows only 53 per cent of Americans believe Obama is a solid and effective leader, a seven-point drop since January.

Still, the president might yet wrestle back control in the next few months, in time for the mid-term elections. Because, sadly, this story is far from over.


The latest from the font


April 16, 2010

I have Georgia on my mind. Literally.

I recently changed the typeface of my document program at work to Georgia to synchronize it with my e-mail and word processing program at home, so I am now immersed in the same familiar characters all day long.

I find the text in this typeface appears friendly and charming, beckoning me into the white space around it. It’s to the point where if someone returns one of my documents in another typeface, I’ll convert it back into Georgia.

Indeed, I’ve become very attached — which to me seems a bit crazy. I mean, it’s a font.

There are so many types in the world today. (Associated Press) 

Today, as different typefaces become more widely available, it’s easier to find one that suits your style and personality.

There are tens of thousands of typefaces, with more being invented all the time. And thanks to a new software program called Typeface, anyone can have the ultimate personalized font.

With Typeface, you sit in front of the computer webcam and its software designs a font based on the shape of your face and expression — bulbous nose, arched eyebrows and all.

So it would appear that there is some larger desire to personalize the script we use to punch words onto screens every day.

Perhaps we’re seeking more connection to the words we type. Or perhaps typeface is becoming the new handwriting. Let’s look at the facts.

Like your own signature

Handwriting, we can all agree, is in a downward spiral. I can count the number of times I pick up a pen on an average day on one hand. The emotional connection I have with my writing has been relegated to late night scribbling.

Experts have long argued that handwriting is important to help us feel connected to the words we shape and to help develop our individuality.

But if we’re writing less by hand, it seems the emotion will have to come more through the machines we use. Hello…Georgia!

Colleen's favourite typeface. (CBC)

“More people are gravitating towards a favourite typeface,” says Keith Rushton, chair of graphic design at the Ontario College of Art and Design.

“It could be they want to personalize it, or just gravitate away from the default typefaces.”

Rushton himself has 10 favourite typefaces and he points out that many authors want their books set in a particular typeface, one they feel represents them.

Some writers, such as Mordecai Richler, Chaucer, Lord Byron and Jonathan Swift, even have scripts named after them.

“It’s like developing your own signature,” says Rushton. “Why not have your own typeface?”

Nice curves

The language that’s used to describe typefaces helps explain why some of us get emotionally attached.

Georgia, for instance, is said to be “sturdy.” It “exudes a sense of friendliness; a feeling of intimacy” and is from a family with “character and charm” whose typeface ancestors are Scotch Roman. Given this description, Georgia is practically ready to strut across the screen and down a few pints.

Rushton says it’s not unusual for typographers to say things about a favourite font like “that’s an incredibly sensual typeface,” or that the typeface has nice thick and thins, beautiful curves or nice rhythm, crescendo or composition.

In this sense, typeface imbues us with the warmth and familiarity of a favourite song, or our own script.

Evolution of style

Perhaps the evolution from personal handwriting to typeface is just part of the natural progression of language.

For his part, Rushton says typefaces are a language unto themselves and have developed along with the written word.

Letter forms have progressed as our language has moved from walls to tablets, then to leather and paper, and now to screens.

The 18th century printer John Baskerville graduated from stone to paper, parlaying his talent engraving gravestones into the popular Baskerville typeface.

In the acclaimed documentary Helvetica, design writer Rick Poynor makes the point that “people are starting to see graphic communication as an expression of their own identity. You can change the background, you can put pictures in, you can change the typeface to anything you want. And those choices, those decisions you make become expressions of who you are.”

Now, of course, just because I’m writing an e-mail or document in my font of choice doesn’t mean the recipient’s computer recognizes that font. (And the personalized font based on my face currently resides on my laptop alone.)

But an ever-growing number of fonts are available to download to help us personalize our e-interactions, and so gradually make typeface a more viable replacement for handwriting.

More than anything, I find it’s important to simply write for myself in a font I feel emotionally connected to.

Maybe you’re just fine with using Helvetica or Times Roman for your computer-based writing. But I, for one, will continue to have Georgia on my mind.

I luv phonetics


March 5, 2010

Learning to pronounce English words isn’t easy. Vow doesn’t sound anything like show, despite how they look, and trough is different from though, as is book from boot. And don’t get me started on split-personality words such as (to) close and (too) close.

When I was teaching, my students asked me why there was no consistency in how English words are sounded out and I said that’s just the way it is, silently cursing the minions who came up with these arcane rules for pronunciation (or pronounciation as some people incorrectly say).

When D'oh is not a deer. (Reuters)When D’oh is not a deer.

And that silent curse was just a native English speaker’s perspective. It made me want to know how one of the fastest-growing populations of non-native English speakers, the Chinese, feel about this tricky pronunciation.

In Toronto’s Chinatown where sidewalks are crammed with vendors and shoppers loading up on the week’s fruits and vegetables, shop worker Rin Song says she often stumbles on unfamiliar English words.

“Sometimes I think this word may be pronounced like this, but actually what I hear is different. I have to listen many times. If you give me the paper, I know the meaning. But when I hear it, I don’t know.”

When I ask Song to pronounce the word latex on the package of gloves she’s hanging on the wall, she uses the short a, as in latter, instead of the long a. She’s never heard the word before, so she’s taking a flying leap into its pronunciation.

Say what you see

I’ve long wondered why we don’t have a more effective way of teaching this language of ours — so that what you see is actually what you say.

It turns out that a local teacher named Judy Thompson has come up with one, laid out in her aptly titled book, English is Stupid.

Thompson is an ESL and English teacher at Sheridan College, just outside Toronto. She says we have to start with the premise that writing and speaking are different languages with different rules.

“When you teach a set of rules for one skill, and you expect a result in another, well, you don’t get it,” Thompson says. Indeed, the road from reading words to speaking them like a native is filled with potholes.

According to Thompson, the biggest problem in teaching English pronunciation is that the traditional way of using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) simply doesn’t work.

You remember those nonsensical hieroglyphics beside a word in the dictionary. Think hard: Have they ever helped you?

The IPA was actually developed in France so that any language could represent its sounds by drawing from a standard set of symbols. Good idea, but très compliqué.

“I had a terrible time learning the International Phonetic Alphabet,” says Thompson. “And I thought if I can’t learn it, how can you learn it if English isn’t your first language?”

Those darn vowels

Thompson found the hardest sounds for foreigners to lift off the page are vowels. So she created her own system — a vowel colour chart.

“It was just kind of a freak coincidence that the colours in English, besides being the first thing people tend to learn in a language, have a vowel sound embedded in each of the names of the colours.

“So the long a sound is in the colour gray. And the short vowel a is in the colour black. And the long e is in the colour green. And on and on and on.”

So the words cat, mask, apple, laugh and plaid are all black. Thompson says it takes students less than an hour to learn the 16 sounds in the chart.

“So when they come up to a word and they don’t know, for example, busy and they want to say bussy, then you say ‘it’s pink’ and they say busy. And then you just keep going. It’s really expedient.”

Thompson says she’s getting great feedback from her students as well as other teachers.

Keep listening

Alas, new words can always trip you up. When the first Harry Potter book came out, oh so many years ago, the whole time I was reading it, I thought the name Hermione was pronounced hermee-own, like anglophone.

But it’s actually her-MY-o-nee, like anemone. D’oh! It was only by chance that I overheard someone more in the know and learned the error of my ways.

So it seems a big part of learning how to pronounce words is to keep listening.

But here’s a thought. Maybe written English will gradually come to resemble spoken English as foreigners slowly take the language over from native speakers.

There are now more than a billion non-native English speakers in the world and most conversations in English happen between two people speaking it as a second language.

A standardized “global English” is spawning new vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, spread by the media, internet and all forms of technology.

Texting alone is gradually killing off vowels. Why say “I love you” when you can say “I luv u”? They say it means the same thing. And it actually looks like it sounds.

For actors and accents, blame Meryl Streep


Dec. 11, 2009

Invictus is a great premise for a movie: the rugby game that helped unify post-apartheid South Africa. But I have to say that I was a little thrown by the accents.

Matt Damon, who plays the rugby team captain, has nailed the South African sound. But Morgan Freeman sounds like, well, Morgan Freeman.

That’s not good because he’s supposed to be Nelson Mandela. In every other way he appears to be. But without the accent, it’s just not complete.

In Invictus, Morgan Freeman portrays Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon plays rugby champ Francois Pienaar in post-apartheid South Africa. Accent-wise, Damon nails it. (Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros./Associated Press)   Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in Invictus.

Maybe I’m being overly critical, but it seems I’m not alone in demanding our best actors make their characters more authentic by mastering these regional dialects.

Voice coaches say actors are increasingly expected to know not only standardized accents, such as American and British, but regional ones as well.

Think Leonardo DiCaprio’s Boston diction in The Departed; or the 1930s New York tones in the recent biopic Amelia or Cinderella Man.

A multicultural diet

All this accentuation of accents means more pressure on dialect coaches.

“I have more responsibility than my predecessors,” says Eric Armstrong, voice coach and associate professor of theatre at York University.

“When I started, I wasn’t trained to coach people to do Asian or African accents. I was focused on the former British Commonwealth and Europe. Now I’m expected to do anything from anywhere in the world.”

Armstrong has taught about 50 accents over the 15 years he’s coached actors, including the cast of CBC TV’s The Border, English actor Tom Wilkinson of Michael Clayton fame, and Dora-nominated stage actors.

He says it’s not just a standard American accent that actors are expected to know but New York, Pittsburgh and Southern Illinois. Nor is it just African, but Ghanaian and Somali; not only Asian but Japanese, Chinese and Korean.

Why is this happening? Well, because “people are becoming much more aware of accent and dialect because we’re living in a much more global market,” says Armstrong. “So our ears have become attuned to a higher standard of precision and accuracy.”

Our attention to regionalisms is partly because we’re hearing more original accents in films.

But more significantly, it flows from the steady diet of accents we take in through daily media consumption, travel, and living in increasingly multicultural societies.

Blame Meryl

Diane Pitblado, the voice coach to the stars, says the growing pressure on actors to adopt accents may go back to a single source: Meryl Streep.

Meryl Streep, receiving a lifetime achievement award in Rome, in October 2009. She made accents part of the craft. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)Meryl Streep, lifetime achievement award in Rome, Oct. 2009. 

From Sophie’s Choice to Out of Africa, Evil Angels and the recent Julie and Julia, Streep proved it could be done and encouraged actors to be brave and do it as well.

Pitblado says audiences should demand their actors sound spot on. She was brought in to coach Hilary Swank, Richard Gere and the rest of the gang in Amelia.

But she says the movie makers originally questioned whether to adopt accents, whether audiences wanted to wade through such a different sound.

Her take was: you’ve got the hats, the clothes, the sets, how can you not speak as if you’re from that place and time?

There are, of course, multiple challenges in getting actors to sound like they’re from a different place and time.

For one, actors have to get used to distinguishing different sounds, something called phonemic awareness.

Lips forward

As Eric Armstrong points out, sometimes a vowel sound in one accent is split into two sounds in another accent. Take the word hot dog.

In a New York accent, the o in hot is different than the o in dog. So it becomes haht dooawg.

“New York is one of those accents where it helps to start with a visual reference point,” says Armstrong. “Imagine Donald Trump who often speaks with lips forward, like a kiss.”

Try it. Lips forward. Say hot dog. Now keep that up through an entire script. Not so easy, is it?

Armstrong says that picking up the technique is like learning how “to hear with your mouth. You learn to make new sounds, so then you begin to recognize those sounds.”

Another challenge in teaching regional accents is when the actor is dealing with a completely foreign tongue.

Say a Chinese actor wants to do a number of Asian accents, which is becoming more common.

But say that actor is second generation Canadian and doesn’t speak fluent Mandarin.

In this case, Armstrong says, the difficulty is teaching people to make sounds they’ve never had to utter in their life: “Part of it is oral gymnastics, making their tongues, lips, jaws go into new places.”

And then there are the accents that are just not that common, such as, say, New Orleans Creole. Or an accent that’s a blend of different regions like Amelia Earhart’s.

Earhart was from Kansas but lived in New York high society, so she was kind of like a blend of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and Katharine Hepburn.

When dialect coaches need help, they can phone librarians in small towns or resort to the online International Dialects of English Archive at the University of Kansas, which offers audio samples of voices from Cameroon to Kuwait to Colombia.

But what if, after all that research and coaching, an actor just doesn’t get it?

Obviously it’s disappointing to the dialect coach. But it’s the audience that really suffers.

Sure, not every actor is a Meryl Streep. But if you make a living impersonating other people, it’s your duty to be as authentic as possible — right down to the last vowel.

Just imagine if we were better storytellers


Sept. 1, 2009

When I was young, my family went downhill skiing almost every weekend. It was fun and great exercise, but truth be told, some days were long. And cold. So to entertain myself, I made up a soap opera called On the Slopes.

I created several plot lines with different characters, even different accents, and told the stories aloud to my imaginary audience as I barrelled down the ski run. I recall many dramatic scenes in the emergency room involving doctors with gratuitous British accents.

The soap opera format was perfect, because I could just pick up the plot when next on the slopes.

Perhaps this imaginative storytelling propelled me toward a career in broadcasting, in which oral stories are so central. As a journalist, I’ve listened to many people speak — at all levels of government, at conferences, in churches, at rallies, at funerals. I’ve laughed. I’ve cried. But often, I’ve sighed. I wish more people knew how to tell good stories.

It turns out that good storytellers may be made in childhood. The key? Imaginary friends. Research shows that anywhere from a quarter to half of young children have played with them.

Now, a study has found that imaginary friends — whether they’re named Emily or Giant Strongman, whether young or old, male or female — help children become better storytellers. And that in turn, helps boost their reading comprehension and overall language skills.

Storytelling starts young

In the July/August issue of the journal Child Development, researchers investigated the language skills of 48 boys and girls aged 5½, about half of whom had imaginary friends.

Associate professor Elaine Reese of the University of Otago in New Zealand and her former student Gabriel Trionfi first assessed the children’s language skills by measuring their vocabulary.

Then they asked the children to tell two types of stories: fictional and realistic. In the fictional storytelling activity, the children were read a story rich with dialogue and then asked to retell the story to a puppet. In the realistic storytelling activity, they were asked to tell a story about a real-life event such as a trip to the beach.

While the children didn’t differ in their vocabulary skills, the children with imaginary friends used more dialogue and characters in retelling the fictional story, and gave more information about time and place in the realistic story.

One child described going to an A&P show — an agricultural exhibition — with heaps of horses jumping and winning ribbons, and cows going around in a big circle in a paddock. Not bad for a five-year-old.

The researchers say the children with imaginary friends told higher-quality stories than the others; they simply get more practice telling stories both to their friend and to other interested folks.

Trionfi says it’s a gift: “Understanding how to tell a story to someone who wasn’t there, or doesn’t know what you know, all takes abstract thinking skills.”

We don’t develop our storytelling skills

So if that many children are telling stories — and telling them well — why are so many of us so bad at it later in life? As I see it, we don’t carry storytelling with us into our professional lives, unless we actually work in a story-reliant industry such as journalism.

Ottawa-based communications expert Barry McLoughlin says many of us don’t exercise the storytelling muscle enough, so it atrophies. And somewhere along the line, it becomes more difficult to talk about emotions in public. To be a good storyteller, you need to put yourself on the line.

“With the oral storytelling tradition, you’re telling an anecdote, you’re revealing something of yourself,” says McLoughlin. “Revealing yourself is highly uncomfortable. It’s off script. It means taking a risk.”

The other reason for diminished story telling, according to McLoughlin, is technology: “Oral storytelling is a lost art that has been superseded by the screen. Now it’s the visual tradition. Now it’s show me.”

More important than ever

But show me doesn’t guarantee we’re getting information that helps us actually understand the world.

“We need someone to tell us a story to make sense of it all. There’s so many competing claims out there. The recession for example; the economy is up, it’s down,” says McLoughlin. “We have information overload. What we want is knowledge.”

The finest stories combine information with colourful images. That’s the best way to ensure that people remember our message.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton: A natural storyteller. (Mike Wintroath/Associated Press)

It’s rare to see in person a former U.S. president known for his compelling speaking style. Several years ago, I had the fortune of seeing Bill Clinton when he was in Winnipeg.

One of his points was that giving poorer countries more economic help encourages peace and prosperity. He wove a tale about a Ghanaian woman who ran after him on the airport tarmac to give him a shirt made possible through the Africa trade bill. It was one of many stories filled with both vivid images and relevant statistics.

About 1,600 people sat in the theatre that night, but you could have heard a pin drop. And last week in Toronto, he wooed audiences once again.

A good, focused story can relay information so much more effectively and memorably than dry statistics and gobbledygook.

We need to drop the paradigms and consultative processes, the passive constructions, the subjunctive clauses.

When we tell a story, we’re more conversational. Our message is clearer. More interesting. More emotional. More powerful.

I say tell stories and tell them often, even if it means getting yourself an imaginary friend. In the meantime, I’m going to work on a summer version of On the Slopes.

Superlatives at their absolute best


May 15, 2009

Let’s get one thing straight. Susan Boyle may be an inspiration for the underdog, but she’s no hero. And yet, I’ve heard people describing her with the h-word and seen the screaming headlines: “Scotland’s New Hero,” “From Zero to Hero”, “An Unlikely Hero.”

Susan Boyle, whose performance on the television show \\\\\

Boyle is the latest in a string of untraditional heroes that includes athletes, performers and politicians. You can strum yourself into a Guitar Hero after watching the TV show Heroes.

The excessive use of the word hero is just one example of our penchant for superlatives (as in ” />

Boyle is the latest in a string of untraditional heroes that includes athletes, performers and politicians. You can strum yourself into a Guitar Hero after watching the TV show Heroes.

The excessive use of the word hero is just one example of our penchant for superlatives (as in ” />

Boyle is the latest in a string of untraditional heroes that includes athletes, performers and politicians. You can strum yourself into a Guitar Hero after watching the TV show Heroes.

The excessive use of the word hero is just one example of our penchant for superlatives (as in “something that embodies excellence”). They reflect our growing need to stand out in a world crowded with people and products jostling for attention. Superlatives help something quite ordinary and average sound better than it may actually be. Essentially, we’re searching for worth, and we’re having to reach further and further to get it.

“In the days of the Greeks, heroic referred to a superhuman feat that few other mortals could achieve,” says Eric Bronson, a professor of humanities at York University. Nowadays, we adhere more to Jonathan Swift’s prescient observation: “Whoe’er excels in what we prize/Appears a hero in our eyes.”

Amazingly intense competition

“It’s understandable that we go to greater and greater lengths to get public recognition,” says Bronson. He claims it’s the result of a breakdown of extended and nuclear families, combined with growing bureaucracies that dehumanize us in the work place.

Jeremy Sherman, an evolutionary epistemologist, sees superlative inflation as compensation in a meritocracy: “There’s less room at the top and more people competing for it, and therefore much more stress.”

We no longer say we’re good or experienced at something. Instead, we have the highest certification, the best companies as employers, and the most outstanding references. We use adverbs to pump up adjectives to pump up nouns: the most amazingly brilliant student or an absolutely first-rate, world-class designer. We just keep climbing up the linguistic ladder.

And we don’t use superlatives just to puff up ourselves. We need to puff up our lifestyles and the products we consume to maintain those lifestyles. Our cereals are the healthiest, our cars are the most fuel-efficient, and our water is the purest.

Heights of purity, morality

Strolling down any supermarket or pharmacy aisle, we’re accosted by so many ultra, superior, ultimate and mega superlatives, it’s a wonder they don’t shove each other off the shelves. Marketing experts say it’s especially noticeable in products related to the environment, aging, and organic (or any ultra good-for-you) food. It seems to me that superlatives are reaching towards loftier heights of purity and morality.

Environmental products are closest to nature, in purest form, while bottled water brands claim to be the purest of the pure (but surely the one that comes from ‘organic fields’ has to be the purest). Anti-aging products assure us we’ll look our youngest and most sublime with names like Age Perfect, Ultra Lift and Age Genesis. And in the edible realm, food claims to be truly and faithfully organic.

Some brands use their name to reach superlative status: Ezekiel 4:6 cereal (possibly the most spiritual breakfast you’ll ever eat) is described as the highest…source of protein, unique and amazing.

Philadelphia cream cheese has gone so far up the superlative food chain as to equate itself with heaven. You’re just that much closer to God if you’re digesting ‘dream’ cheese.

But if our society becomes even more obsessed with superlatives, where do we go from here? Is the sky the limit?

Need for an ideal

Let’s go back to our hero. “If too many people become heroic, then it means nothing,” says Eric Bronson. “You still want an ideal.”

A hero, says Bronson, is a demi-God. That means the next thing up the ladder is, well, God. So maybe we’ll boost people and things ever higher using terms such as God-inspired, Godlike (Most Godlike? No, that’s getting ridiculous). And I see us redoubling our efforts with the double superlatives.

In the meantime, I shall attempt to look sublime while sipping on the purest water known to mankind. I’ll make my most heroic effort anyway.

Bringing the bling to daily speech


Jan. 13, 2009

Beyonce brought the word bootylicious into everyday speech. Not that there's anything wrong with that. (Richard Drew/Associated Press) 

As Britney Spears rises again, strutting onto stages to tour her comeback album Circus, I’ve started to wonder what will happen to the popular phrase to pull a Britney.

It’s hitherto meant doing something outlandish: with or without shaving your head, marrying your childhood sweetheart and annulling within three days, or having two kids within a year.

Now, because the phrase is so ingrained in popular lingo, perhaps it will come to mean achieving new heights of popularity by acting crazy. The term is as ensconced in popular lore as the superstar herself.

Celebrity-based words and TV speak are increasingly wending their way into daily speech, reflecting a fame-obsessed society.

Before you get the hateration on for this column because you can’t handle the truthiness of what I have to say, I urge you: check it out! (That’s American Idol‘s Randy Jackson speaking, not me.) Words from the celebrity world are slowly creeping into our lexicon.

Meh, you say, shrugging your shoulders (by the way, that word popularized by The Simpsons is on its way into the Collins English Dictionary next year).

The Simpsons as linguistic innovators? Meh. (Associated Press)The Simpsons as linguistic innovators? 

I mused when this first started to happen. O.J. Simpson in the news again brought back memories of the white bronco, a term now parked in the Urban Dictionary to mean getaway car.

Maybe what that O.J. needs is some more bling. That word, now in the Oxford English Dictionary, was thought up in the late 1990s by rappers Cash Money Millionaires.

Then there was of course jump the couch, made famous by Tom Cruise, which means going off the deep end, as he so famously did on Oprah.

Rachael Ray’s EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil) is now in the Oxford American College Dictionary and Beyonce’s immensely popular bootylicious has sashayed its way into the OED.

The Urban Dictionary includes political satirist Stephen Colbert’s word truthiness, Jon Stewart’s creation catastrof**k, Mary J. Blige’s hateration, and the unabashedly simple That’s hot! from that celebrity we love to hate, Paris Hilton.

In addition to the celebrity lingo, language spawned by television has been working its way into popular speech. Think of our Seinfeld-isms: yada yada yada, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” high/low/close talkers, double-dipping, and the list goes on.

Then there’s the lingo from the sitcom Friends: the oft-quoted “How YOU doin’?” and the uber popular so-not combo as in: “I’m so not going out with that guy.” Seriously? That’s so Grey’s Anatomy.

Repeating what the stars say

While English has long incorporated lingo from the entertainment world, the cool cats pace of acquisition of our parents’ generation is much faster now, says Tim Blackmore, who teaches popular culture at the University of Western Ontario.

We have the rap world, we have mega stars who shamelessly market themselves, and we have a proliferation of talk shows and reality shows that contribute to our daily lingo.

You know, the whole sista ebonics of Tyra Banks and the bumbling deadpan of Ellen Degeneres (who, incidentally, has her very own dictionary). Of course, there’s also the quick repartee of political satirists Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

Satirist Stephen Colbert: Truthiness has its social consequences. (Jason DeCrow/Associated Press)

Blackmore notices lingo popularized by rappers and talk shows is creeping into daily conversation. He reels off a list: don’t go there, that’s so whatever, I’m all about the (fill in the blank), let the healing begin, that’s what I’m talkin’ about, and my favourite: talk to the hand!

“Some of my students, as well as teens and tweens, have a very quick patter,” says Blackmore. “It sounds smart, but then I listen more closely. It’s a loop. They’ve picked up some quick responses from a TV show; they have a certain number of responses and then they run out.”

Blackmore says the issue is there isn’t any conception that what people like Colbert and Stewart say on TV isn’t actually ‘normal’ conversation; it’s been heavily scripted by many people.

But with Canadians spending an average 21 hours per week watching TV, we may just fall into repeating what the stars say.

“This language shows that we’re on top of things, that we’re hip to it,” says Blackmore. In our fast-paced world, we want to have a smart answer, a slick reaction — and these celebrities do what we feel we can’t do for ourselves.

It seems that in talking like celebrities, we’re simply mimicking people we deem successful. We use that ancient tool of language: gossip.

Social psychologist Frank McAndrew from Knox College in Illinois just wrote a comprehensive article on gossip for Scientific American Mind. McAndrew says we chat about celebrities because we’re so intimate with the details of their lives that we feel we know them. Anthropologically, we consider them part of our inner circle.

“We may look to celebrities to learn strategies for being successful, just as we looked to the most influential members of our tribe (e.g. the best hunters and warriors) in days of yore,” says McAndrew.

Expressing the deep thoughts

So what’s the fallout of all this celebriteez lingo?

As Tim Blackmore deftly puts it: “Knowledge produces eloquence and vocabulary. Going from TV show to TV show produces pickup lines.” He notices that his students are slower to come up with a considered response, consumed by their desire to be quick and funny.

He says when they’re asked to form an honest answer to a question without quips, they often pause, saying they don’t know. But after some hemming and hawing and formulating and reformulating of sentences, they do get down to substance.

So the deep thoughts are there; it’s just a matter of finding our own words to express them.

In the end, maybe this celebritized language is an exercise in democracy. We’re all equal in our quest for a crib, a boo, and occasionally a little bling, and in so pursuing, we’re all speaking the same language.

I believe there is some truthiness to that.

A split in linguistic personalities


Aug. 20, 2008

I’m a thoughtful sort of person. I like to mull things over before coming to a conclusion. I don’t rant and rave. I’m not belligerent.

But German made me see a different side of myself.

I had been living in Germany for a year and felt comfortable in the language and culture. But that summer, a Canadian friend came to visit and was shocked at how aggressive I had become, speaking brusquely to slow waiters and queue jumpers.

The existence of my aggressive side fully hit me one night in Prague. I was with my sister, returning from a late night at the clubs. When the taxi driver quoted us the fare, I was incredulous: it sounded far too high.

From the back seat, I spouted in German (more widely understood than English at the time) that no way were we paying that price. I halved the fare and paid the driver, insisting that was more than enough. My sister later said that I was very loud, very forceful and, well, very scary. The next day, I learned the taxi driver had asked us the going rate.

Where language meets personality

I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of language and personality. With the experience of my own split linguistic personalities, I was especially intrigued by a recent study that shows people who live in two cultures may unconsciously change their personality, or identity, when they switch languages.

According to researcher David Luna at Baruch College at the City University of New York, identity has traditionally been thought of as stable. But research in the past decade shows that identity is fluid, changing with the context.

People do shift between different interpretations of same events, but the study shows that bicultural people do it more readily. Language, it seems, is the trigger.

This makes sense to me. When I moved to France, I felt like I’d been split into two different people. Two containers, wine bottles if you will, represented my two personas.


The bottle for Canadian Colleen was full; wielding words and subjunctive clauses with aplomb, self-expression was my forte. The container for French Colleen, on the other hand, was empty, save for the sediment of a mediocre Merlot.

As I gradually gained vocabulary and an ear for la belle langue, the bottle filled up. It was when I achieved a sense of humour in French that I felt the bottle was finally full.

Yes, French Colleen had arrived and she was drunk on the finer things in life. I felt different when I spoke French: more joie de vivre, an ability to savour the daily pleasures of life.

Our authentic self

“Language is one of the most powerful cues to activate a culturally specific way of doing things, thereby activating a different identity,” says researcher Luna, who is originally from Spain.

His study showed Hispanic women interpreted the same advertisement differently, depending on whether it was in Spanish or in English. They viewed the woman in the Spanish ad as more independent and assertive than the same woman in the English ad.

So why do people tap into different identities when they switch language and culture?

It seems one language and culture can speak more to our authentic self than another. Take the Hispanic women in the study.

The researchers note that, in Hispanic culture, women are becoming more independent and assertive, fighting for equal rights. It stands to reason the Hispanic women saw the actress in the Spanish ad as self-sufficient and extroverted.

Conversely, the Hispanic women saw the actress in English as less independent and lonely, reflecting an Anglo culture the researchers cite as becoming more traditional. So language reflects culture, which then activates identity.

A song to sing

Just as these Hispanic women interpret images based on different cultures, I find I can also interpret behaviours based on the culture I’m living in.

For example, I think it completely acceptable, even commendable, to break into song in the middle of dinner in French, but not so much in English; somehow, it’s not proper, not part of the conservative British tradition I grew up with.

Pedro Sanchez notices his personality morphs not only between English and Spanish but among different dialects of Spanish.

He was born in Peru, grew up in the Dominican Republic and Colombia, and now lives in Toronto. Sanchez says his personality is different in English, a more unemotional and efficient language than Spanish, which whirls and dives, allowing him to access his more passionate side.

For Valerie LaMontagne, the language is different but the sentiment is the same. She’s a francophone from Quebec but speaks English much of the time. She’s split between her English academic side and her more playful French side, rooted in family. Despite the benefits of being bicultural, LaMontagne, like other multilinguists, says it can be a struggle to reconcile her different selves.

“I don’t recognize my voice when I speak English. I sound like a girl from Ontario. I sound like an Anglophone, which I think deep down, I’m not.”

But to me, the benefits of being bicultural or tricultural far outweigh any minuses. The value added only makes a life fuller.

I think about the millions of people who speak and live in just one language and culture and I wonder if they are somehow missing out. Maybe they’re not really expressing all parts of themselves. But, then again, what you don’t know, you can’t miss.

As Voltaire said, “Sans variété, point de beauté.”