Oct 30 2014

The Cities’ Bridges

Three cities, each some distance from the other, were spread out along one side of a great river. The river was wide and deep, with a powerful and fast current. Lumber was in short supply, and boats were scarce. Crossing the river was dangerous and rarely accomplished. There were legends that across the river lay an undiscovered country, where could be found great wealth and knowledge. Occasionally, someone with an adventurous and seeking spirit would would search out that wealth and knowledge. They would diligently save their resources to be able to build a boat, and then carefully practice their boating skills to be able to make the crossing. When they finally made the crossing and then returned, they spoke of marvelous wonders that could only be understood by going there and experiencing them. Each city had skilled engineers and builders capable of building a bridge, and materials necessary to do so. Intrigued and excited by the stories of the undiscovered country, the people of each city decided to build a bridge from each of their cities to connect itself to the other side.

In the first city, the citizens were concerned with the trivialities of life, such as sporting contests, entertainment, and personal gossip. They could not be bothered with the details of such things as bridge-building. They left these sorts of problems to their leaders to solve, blindly giving them power over such matters. No one monitored the leaders or held them accountable for their actions. Because of this, the evil and corrupt were most attracted to leadership positions. Those few leaders who did not start out corrupt were quickly corrupted by the system—by the lack of accountability and by the influence of already-corrupt leaders who preceded them. The corrupt leaders used their power to benefit themselves and not the people. The leaders discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone tried to challenge their leadership, the leaders would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power. The leaders cared about money, not about wisdom or knowledge. When the city decided to build a bridge, the leaders craftily drew out the process so they could run up the expenses and divert as much money from the project to themselves and their cronies. Eventually, new corrupt would-be leaders were able to seize power and, seeing that much of the ongoing project expenses would still go to the old leaders’ cronies who had secured the building contracts, they canceled the old bridge project, making excuses about the bridge’s quality and safety, and started a new one they could control. This process repeated yet again. The first city never completed a bridge, having only the eyesore of three incomplete bridges jutting out partially into the river, only half finished. The townspeople found utility in the unfinished bridges—they used them for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but they never served the purpose for which they were built, and the meager uses to which they were put could not justify the expense of building them.

In the second city, the wealthy and powerful cared about little beyond their own social standing and wealth. There was less personal corruption among the city’s leaders, but they were controlled by the elite citizens, and the leaders managed the city’s affairs to further the interests of the wealthy and powerful. The wealthy and powerful did not like to think of themselves as being only concerned about their own interests, so they pretended to make shows of their concern for the interests of the poor. But really such shows were just status competitions amongst themselves to prove which of them could appear more concerned and charitable. When it came down to a conflict between charity and their own interests, they always supported the city policies that would promote their interests. They discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone outside of the elite tried to challenge the leadership of the elite, they would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power and position. None of the elite wanted to have a new road to the river and a bridge built near their homes. They were worried about all the extra traffic on the road, the unsavory characters whom it might bring close to their neighborhoods, and that it might ruin their views of the river. They wanted all of the benefits of the bridge without bearing any of its costs. They were concerned with unimportant minutiae of the bridge’s construction and spent years debating unnecessary and irrelevant details of its construction. Eventually the bridge was built, but on the poor side of town. The bridge had taken so long to build that its design had been changed several times over its construction, and it had become saddled with so many unnecessary elements that it was ugly, and not entirely safe. To make sure that the new road and bridge did not facilitate travel for those they deemed undesirable, the elite imposed a toll on anyone crossing the bridge or using the road. Worse still, the wealthy citizens set up a company owned by themselves that would control and operate the road and bridge. They planned to use the profits from the tolls to pay lavish salaries to themselves and toward the upkeep of their own neighborhoods, rather than for the benefit of all townspeople. But the country on the other side used a different kind of currency than the town, and citizens from the other country were unable to pay the tolls to cross the bridge. Being offended at the wealthy townspeople’s unjust attempts to control access to their country and at being spurned by the wealthy townspeople, the citizens of the country on the other side of the river refused to allow contact between their country and the town, and they closed the bridge at their end. As in the first city, the rich townspeople were still able to find utility in the unfinished bridge, using it as a space for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but the bridge never served its real purpose and the meager uses to which it was put never justified the expense of building it.

In the third city, the poor did not let their leaders or the wealthy take advantage of them and the wealthy and powerful did not seek to abuse their power for their own gain. The residents of each neighborhood met together often, to foster a sense of community. They banded together to assist one another, to fight injustices, and ensure that wrongdoers were held accountable. They sought for unity not just within neighborhoods, but also between them. The townspeople from all walks of life strove to create friendships one with another and to be a unified people. They kept their leaders accountable and they limited how long anyone could remain in power. Because of all this, there was much less difference between income and wealth of the richest and the poorest citizens. When the townspeople decided to build a bridge, they did not delegate its construction to someone else, but each person volunteered his skills and cooperated in his field of expertise to build it. They built the road and bridge through the middle of town, to give everyone equal access, and to unify the town around the bridge. They cared more about the long-term welfare of their community than about petty concerns. All townspeople contributed their time and money to the bridge’s construction, and it was built quickly and efficiently. When it was done, it was beautiful and became the pride of the town. Access to cross the river was given to all townspeople equally, because they had all contributed what they could to its construction. There was free intercourse between the town and the country on the other side. The wealth to be found on the other side was not money, but a great library full of books teaching knowledge and wisdom. Through the greater knowledge and wisdom that they learned, along with their trade with the other country, the town grew prosperous and its people’s lives became more full of joy and meaning.

The townspeople of the first two towns continued in their ignorance and misery, unaware of the wisdom and joy that was possible. Occasionally, a few residents from the first two towns would learn of the third town’s prosperity and try to move there. The third town welcomed with open arms all those who proved they were willing to become one with the townspeople. All those who adopted its language and customs and worked to build, support, and contribute to the community, were welcomed. These things were required of the newcomers because these things had given the community the strength and unity to build its bridge. The newcomers who proved themselves became great pillars and defenders of the community, and they experience and delighted fully in the wisdom and joy to be found there. All others who came to the town and did not adopt the town’s language and customs, and all those who did not work to build, support, and contribute to the community, were cast out, and permanently forbidden from returning to the town. They were cast out because they were seeking to gain all of the benefits of living in the town, but without paying the necessary costs and undertaking the required responsibilities of becoming a townsperson, and allowing such people to remain would destroy what had made the town great.

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.