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The diversity and splendor of language and culture

Language is the ideal connector of people and knowledge, and culture is the mold in which language is cast. Consider: what are the conventions and how do we interact with each other? On December 6, the Language and Culture Afternoon demonstrated how thorny and “bad” language can be and how perplexing, glorious, and diverse culture is.

By: Melinde Bussemaker

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The classrooms in the Academia building accommodate a mixed company of language enthusiasts. International and Dutch students, educational support staff, academics, and other interested visitors find a place to sit, bringing with them bags of freshly popped popcorn. Organized by the Language Center, the Language and Culture Afternoon is one of the many events celebrating Tilburg University’s 90th anniversary. Language & culture is a key theme at the university, home to over 100 nationalities. “The Language Center supports the university’s international character”, Head of the Language Center Tjits Roselaar explains: “At the Language Center, we offer courses in ten languages at different proficiency levels. Today’s event is a little out of the ordinary: most of the workshops are somewhat different from the courses we teach. We don’t offer Swahili or sign language, for example, but that’s not what this event is about: today our aim is to get people to enjoy sampling language and culture together.”

Not just bicycles

Thinking of Holland, what do you see? Tulips, bicycles, possibly cannabis. “But there is so much more to Dutch culture than these things”, Maaike Wachters insists during her Experience Your Own Culture workshop: “Cycling is the tip of the iceberg: you don’t see what’s below the surface, but like in the case of the Titanic, going down or feeling at home in a culture is a vitally important distinction.” Wachters gives three examples of Dutch culture that aren’t immediately obvious to the casual observer. “Dutch people are very direct and quite possibly the most forthright people in the world. The Dutch also set great store by equality and they even have a saying for it: doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg, which roughly translates as “excel if you must, but don’t blow your own trumpet”. This has the advantage of no one being superior to others, but the downside is that ambition or really going for something can be frowned upon. The third Dutch quirk is being a stickler for timekeeping: we like punctuality, we plan our weeks well in advance in our online calendars using colorful blocks, and it irks us when people show up late without letting us know.” Why is it important to recognize cultural aspects of this kind? “Intercultural awareness lends perspective both to your own culture and to other cultures. If a Spaniard arrives thirty minutes late, you shouldn’t take that as a slight or insult, because none is intended. It’s good to keep that in mind.”

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‘Mad as a hatter’

Meanwhile, the participants in Silvi Mercier’s workshop The Idiom Is the Medium engage in role playing. Idioms are expressions that are typical of a particular language and often : uitspraken die kenmerkend zijn voor een bepaalde taal en vaak iets zeggen over de bijbehorende cultuur. “These often cannot be translated,” Mercier explains, “because that requires understanding the context.” The participants are given examples of idiomatic expressions and invent their originators. Who coined the expression “larger than life”? Who said “blow one’s own trumpet”, or “mad as a hatter”? Next, they take it in turns to be Saint Peter at the gate to heaven and the invented originator of an idiomatic expression. Saint Peter then has to find out who the other person is. Challenging, but above all great fun.

Speaking without words

How to communicate when you’re deaf or hard of hearing? Or both deaf and blind? René Spruit is deaf, works with deaf-blind people, and teaches his workshop with the aid of an interpreter. There is so much demand for what René has to share that he teaches his workshop twice. He starts by explaining that there are eight different types of deaf people. For example, the age at which you go deaf impacts your ability to communicate. When you’re born deaf or go deaf before you’re three years old, your ability to make correct sounds is limited. When you go deaf later in life, on the other hand, sign language is much harder to master. And when you’re deaf-blind, communicating with others is especially hard, and that could result in loneliness. René moves on to explain how you can succeed in communicating with others regardless, for example by using Braille, by making tactile gestures – physically sensing gestures – or by spelling letters on another person’s hand. He also shows how hard it is to communicate using lip-reading. Dutch has 40 sounds, but only ten of these can be more or less easily speech-read. How to deal with, for example, baard (beard), maart (March), and paard (horse)? Should I get gaas (gauze, netting, mesh) or kaas (cheese)? In these and other cases context is crucial. The participants hang on his every word and are of course set to work. And hard work it proves to be.

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In a word: "I love you"

In a colorfully decorated classroom, Willem van Ballegooyen is talking about the origins and development of Swahili: “Swahili is spoken in Tanzania and its neighboring countries. In rural areas it often is the population’s second language, in the cities it’s the other way round. It shows influences of Arabic, Portuguese, and German, and it has more sounds than Dutch, such as the “ng” pronounced at the beginning of a word. In Swahili a string of words is often contracted into one word. Take for instance ninakupenda (with the emphasis on pen), which means “I love you”. Van Ballegooyen has the participants’ full attention. Some of them are from Tanzania and Kenya and use their personal experience to enrich Van Ballegooyen’s workshop.

Bad poetry

Language can be beautiful or intricate, but can it also be bad? Blending enthusiasm with humor, Andrew Cartwright pleads the case for bad poetry in his The Joy of Bad Rhymes workshop. He discusses several poems. What do the workshop participants make of them? Comments like “sappy”, “worth a tile”, and “rubbish” fill the air. But is it at all possible to distinguish between good and bad poetry? “Everyone is subjective,” says Cartwright, “but knowledge and experience will enable you to tell good poetry from bad poetry. There are seven pointers: cliché, bathos (a sudden lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial), emoting (exaggerated sentimentality), forced rhyme, derived or partly copied poetry, pretentious poetry, and using personal experiences in a way that foregrounds the poet.” That’s the theory sorted, now to practice. The participants are asked to write a really bad poem – which they do with great relish. Some of them even recite their doggerel verses with vigor, thus bringing to a merry end an afternoon of sessions that also featured workshops in Portuguese, on the Paraguayan polka, and on ‘The Sound of Russia’.

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Practicing languages

The mixed crowd descend the stairs in the Academia building to join the Language Café, an event that takes place every six weeks where visitors can practice languages in a relaxed and informal setting. They wear flag stickers on their clothes to indicate which language they speak or want to practice. Next to snacks, the tables offer questions to get a conversation going. The Language Café resembles a latter-day Babel, the difference being that in the Language Café people really do try very hard to understand each other. Why they come? It’s fun to speak other languages and to meet people. A Russian student learning Dutch explains: “The moment people hear I’m struggling with Dutch, they switch to English. That’s a shame, because that keeps me from practicing Dutch. Spaniards and Italians, for example, don’t do that, and that’s why I’ve learned their languages more quickly. They help you master their own language.” And this also goes to show how crucial culture can be in learning another language.