Aug 03 2011

Do It Yourself Genetics

Category: Brazil,Evolution,genetics,multiculturalismJames @ 5:05 pm

A new industry of direct-to-consumer genetic tests is springing up which let you get information about your ancestry and genetic traits. For Christmas, I ordered a test from 23andme. I’ve discovered interesting information about my health (such as that I am unlikely to get Parkinson’s disease when I get old) and my ancestry.

The ancestry part of it has been particularly fascinating, given my mixed ethnic background (my mom is Brazilian, and Brazil is a real melting pot of races and cultures). The first interesting thing that I discovered is that my mitochondrial DNA is from the L3 haplogroup, which means that four or five hundred years ago, my direct maternal ancestor was probably living in what is now Mozambique, and she was almost certainly brought to Brazil as a slave — it has been interesting to get little bits of information about my ancestors that I never could have known before. The 23andme data also showed that I had some indigenous ancestry as well (listed as “Asian” in 23andme’s results, but Native American DNA shows up as Asian, since Native Americans are descendants of Asians who came across the Bering Strait ).

The Dodecad Project is an online project which collects and analyzes samples of people who have done tests from places like 23andme. They have just released a tool which you can use to analyze your 23andme data to get an idea about the percentages of admixture from 12 different ancestral groups in your own genotype. It is an interesting way to get an idea about where your ancestors came from.

Here are my results from the tool:

East_European                 11.17%
West_European                42.00%
Mediterranean                  28.65%
Neo_African                    1.02%
West_Asian                     7.05%
South_Asian                    0.88%
Northeast_Asian               2.16%
Southeast_Asian               1.71%
East_African                    0.39%
Southwest_Asian              1.92%
Northwest_African           2.78%
Palaeo_African                 0.27%

As you can see, I’m mostly European / Mediterranean, with added admixture of a little bit of everything else. I wonder if the Northwest African / West Asian / Southwest Asian indicate some Moorish ancestry from my Portuguese ancestors who moved to Brazil.

I can’t wait until it is cheap enough for anyone who wants to sequence their entire genome. Until then, all of these tools are very interesting indeed.

Jul 13 2011

Why Don’t Brazilians Emigrate?

What is the most commonly-spoken language in South America? If you said Spanish, you’re wrong. It’s Portuguese. Portuguese is the unexpected winner (unexpected, at least, in most Americans’ minds) because Brazil is such a big country (bigger than the continental United States). Brazil is the fifth most populous country in the world, with a population of nearly 200 million (only China, India, the United States, and Indonesia have bigger populations).1 In 2007 the U.S. Census Bureau estimated, however, that only about 250,000 Brazilians were living in the United States.2

This means that about .13% of Brazilians have emigrated to the United States. Compared to other similar countries, this is a small number. For example, there are about 135,000 Argentines living in the United States,3 out of a total Argentine population of about 40 million4 and there are about 70,000 Chileans living in the United States,5 out of a total Chilean population of 17 million.6 This means that about .34% of Argentines and about .41% of Chileans live in the United States. The proportion of Argentines in the United States is thus over two and a half times greater than the proportion of Brazilians and the proportion of Chileans in the United States is more than three times greater. So why don’t Brazilians emigrate as much as other Latin Americans? This post gives my completely anecdotal explanations.

My observations are based on my family background and personal experience. My mother is Brazilian and immigrated to the United States when she was in her 20s. Out of the eight children in her family, she and only one sister have come to the U.S., while the other six siblings have stayed in Brazil. In my own personal experience, I have lived in Brazil as an adult, speak Portuguese, and minored in Latin American studies as an undergraduate. Here are my explanations for the relative rarity of Brazilian migration to the United States:

1. Internal migration. Brazil is a large continental country with a growing economy and increasing opportunities. The big cities of in the relatively wealthy state of São Paulo (it it were its own country, the state of São Paulo would be the 16th-largest economy in the world7) are inundated with immigrants from the Northeast of Brazil seeking jobs and better opportunities. It is far easier to migrate within your own country (and thus avoid the necessity of learning another language and adapting to a new culture).

2. Opportunities are available for the ambitious. My mother’s family was relatively poor when she was a child (they even lived in a dirt-floor house for a while). Even though Brazil’s growth has been inconsistent over the last 40 years, the general trend has been upward over that time. For those who are ambitious and smart, there are good opportunities for a prosperous life in Brazil. It is not as easy for the poor in Brazil to escape their poverty, but it is possible. In spite of their humble background, all of my mom’s siblings are solidly middle class and enjoy good lives in Brazil. I don’t think any of my Brazilian aunts and uncles or cousins would ever consider leaving — they have everything they need in their own country.

3. Sentimentality. Brazilians are much more openly affectionate and devoted to their relationships with friends and family than most Americans and they would see the separation as a huge drawback.

4. Patriotism and national pride. Brazilians are proud of their country, its potential for greatness, and its achievements (just ask a Brazilian who invented the airplane — they will vehemently deny that it was the Wright brothers, but instead insist that it was a Brazilian named Santos Dumont). They don’t want to leave and give up something to which they feel so much attachment and pride.

5. The lack of a large Brazilian diaspora. It is easier to emigrate when you are going to a place that already has living there a large group of your fellow countryman who speak your language and can help you adapt to your new country. The lack of many large Brazilian migrant communities in the United States makes it more difficult to immigrate. In the places where there is an established Brazilian community — Massachusetts (which has its roots in early-20th century Portuguese cod fisherman who immigrated there first), New Jersey, and Miami — there are plenty of new Brazilian immigrants.

(As an interesting aside: there was a 2005 Brazilian novela (daily nighttime serialized TV show) which was set in Florida and dramatized the plight of immigrants in Brazil. The novela was called “América.” Even though the novela portrayed a generally negative view of illegal immigration and of life in the United States, illegal immigration from Brazil to the United States temporarily skyrocketed as a result of the novela. Perhaps another explanation is that the lack of immigration is because of a lack of general knowledge about potential options to immigrate. The United States is close to Mexico and Central America, so knowledge about options for migration is easier for citizens of those countries, and the cultural and linguistic ties they have with Spanish speaking countries in South America perhaps makes that knowledge more widespread in places like Argentina and Chile than in Brazil.)

This post was based on a comment I left here.




Jun 02 2011

Learning to Speak a Language Correctly and Respectfully

Category: linguistics,multiculturalismJames @ 5:45 pm

I heard a story on NPR last week about Brazil.1 Whenever I hear a news story about Brazil, I get interested for obvious reasons: I am half Brazilian, I lived in Brazil for two years as a young adult, I speak fluent Portuguese, and I minored in Latin American studies in college. But this post isn’t about the subject matter of the NPR story, but rather about some common linguistic mistakes made by the reporter. Whenever the reported said any word in Portuguese, he made a point to not use standard American English pronunciations of the word. But he didn’t use the correct Portuguese pronunciation either. Instead, he pronounced every Portuguese word he said as if it were Spanish. Even though he spoke unaccented English, it was clear to me from hearing his pronunciation of Portugese that he as a native Spanish speaker, and obviously had a poor command (if any) of Portuguese. This was confirmed to me when, at the the end of the report, he signed off with a clearly Hispanic name, Juan Forero. A quick check of his bio revealed that he is originally from Columbia.2

Aside from grating on my ears and stoking my pet peeve with people who assume that Portuguese and Spanish are identical and interchangeable (they’re not, for example, Brazilian Portuguese has a whole slew of vowel sounds not found in Spanish), the reporter’s habit of trying to inject foreign pronunciations into his English was a bad habit that far too many people intentionally adopt as if it were a virtue. I can think of several reasons people develop this practice: 1) national/linguistic pride – some bilingual people think that it is an insult to their native language or culture to adopt foreign pronunciations of words from their native language, even when they are using those words while speaking another language; 2) cultural sensitivity: some people think that, in order to show respect for other languages and cultures, they must pronounce words from a foreign culture or language using a pronunciation correct for a speaker of that foreign language, even when they are using those words while speaking a separate language.

There are several reasons why it is a bad idea to incorporate foreign pronunciations into your speech:

Language Learning

This is the biggest reason, in my mind, to avoid mixing foreign pronunciations (or foreign words) into your native language conversation is that it interferes with language learning. My personal experience with many American English speakers in Brazil who were learning Portuguese was that the people who never learned to speak Portuguese very well would usually quickly develop two bad habits: 1) they would mix up words from the two languages (for example, getting in the habit of using Portuguese nouns when speaking English, even though there was a perfectly good English equivalent available – saying arroz e feijão to refer to Brazilian-style rice and beans, for example), and 2) when they were speaking English, they would try to pronounce Portuguese words with a Portuguese accent, and when they were speaking Portuguese, they would pronounce English words with their native American accents.

The pattern of poor language learners not separating the two languages became clearest to me when I met one particular American who could speak Portuguese with a near-native level of fluency (most Brazilians couldn’t tell that he was American); whenever this guy would speak English, though, he would pronounce any occasional Portuguese word in the conversation (such as proper nouns or words that didn’t have an English equivalent) with the worst American accent you could imagine. I finally realized that part of his ability to speak Portuguese so well came from strictly separating the two languages in his mind.

The people who were constantly mixing pronunciations almost never gained a very high level of Portuguese language fluency. They spoke Portuguese with thick American accents, generally had a poor vocabulary, and were frequently unable to fully express themselves in Portuguese. My theory is that their mixing of languages interfered with their brain’s ability to learn and fully integrate the new pronunciations, vocabulary, and grammar.

This first reason for not mixing languages, however, doesn’t apply to people who learned to speak multiple languages as a child – children’s brains have an amazing capacity to learn languages that is lost with the start of adolescence.

Efficient Communication

The purpose of language is to communicate. A speaker who uses foreign pronunciations from a language that is not understood by the speaker’s listeners is defeating the whole purpose of using language. When someone uses foreign pronunciations, they just cause decreased understanding and comprehension; it just increases the risk that a listener won’t understand the speaker’s words. It can also make the listener afraid to talk to you. My mom (who has lived in the United States since before I was born) used to pronounce her first name with the correct Brazilian pronunciation (and would sometimes correct people when they messed up). It just made people afraid to talk to my mom or to say her name, because they were afraid of “getting it wrong.” Years ago, she switched to using an anglicized pronunciation of her name, and it has made life easier for her and everyone else too.

Respect for Listeners

If you’re speaking one language to a group of people, switching into another language not understood by your listeners shows a lack of respect and cultural sensitivity for your listeners. It is a form of cultural and linguistic imperialism, demonstrating disdain for the language you are speaking, and trying to impose new cultural and linguistic norms on your listeners without their consent.

It Leads to Errors

Often, people who try to adopt foreign pronunciations get it terribly wrong. Juan Forero’s errors in rhat NPR story are a perfect example. Alex Trebek from from the TV game show Jeopardy is another – he tries to pronounce Portuguese words correctly, but ends up with some weird pseudo-French pronunciation that is completely wrong. Juan Forero’s and Alex Trebek’s mistakes are worse than just using an anglicized pronunciation. By giving listeners the wrong idea about how those words are pronounced, their mispronunciations actually perpetuate mistakes and cultural misunderstanding.