Improv Comedy: A Uniquely American Art-form

A recent radio discussion with Sam Wasson on his book highlights the ways that Improv has shaped American comedy over the decades. The author explains how Improv emerged as an artform within the context of American multiculturalism: people from different backgrounds and languages laboring in American cities found a universally-appealing mode of entertainment. During its inception, it was important that Improv itself could be performed without the use of language, but entirely through physical gestures, thereby appealing to a vast possible audience. Moreover, the art form is accessible and inclusive of the common man since a high intelligence quotient is not a prerequisite for excellent performers. Also unique about Improv is the central role that women played in its development: American Improv is widely believed to have a founding mother, not a founding father. As made evident by the personalities that dominate American entertainment in the present day, the impact of Improv on the culture largely cannot be overlooked.

Word of the Year 2017: “Tribalism”

In a year fraught with political and social tension, linguist Geoff Nunberg selected as “tribalism” as word of the year. The selection is perfect for a number of reasons.

“Tribal” connotes an innate hostility or violence between groups, a pre-modern social grouping. 2017 witnessed a steep increase in ethno-nationalist/ independence around the globe. As such, the word seems to reflect the current global trends.

Within a given society, the use of the word/ concept itself has become a tactic in political rhetoric to describe one’s opponent as incapable of impartial, rational thought due to their unquestioning loyalty to their group. In other words, committing “tribalism” or being “tribal” has become just another insult to discredit the view of one’s opponent, discrediting their perspective not by discrediting its merits, but rather by discrediting the group from which those perspectives emanate. The latter assumes that all group members’ views are identical.

Therefore, to decide who is acting tribal is highly contested, and can be seen as a double-edged sword that explicitly defines one’s opponent but also implicitly defines one’s own sense of self in relation to prevailing groupings and preferred mode of engagement with difference.
Lastly, as Nunberg explains, the very use of the concept is contested by many indigenous groups around the US and the world whose structures of present or ancestral society are based on tribal configurations. Applying the word to societies outside their own, to many of such groups, seems an affront.

Who then is right when using “tribal”? Who has the legitimacy of deciding? “Tribalism” then, perfectly demonstrates the always-evolving nature of words, the inherently political dimensions of language, the ways that speech is an action, and the complexity of communication in already-complex societies.

Cameroon: Yet Another Ethno-Linguistic Independence Movement Taking Shape

Historians will be able to determine with certainty whether 2017 was a year in which independence movements based on ethno-linguistic identity reached a record high in the post-Cold War Era. Notwithstanding, it is impossible to ignore the proliferation of independence movements from regions within countries in which linguistic differences exist: Catalonia in Spain, Kurdish regions of Iraq, and now English-speaking regions of Cameroon, among others.

The Sub-Saharan African country is home to many diverse languages while the country is divided into those regions in which the colonial language is French or English. The latter has accused the former of decades of discrimination based largely on language policies and administrative differences between French and British-based systems. Sentiments seem to have reached a new height in October 2017, with English-speaking regions calling for independence. Pro-independence protests were dispersed, leading to the multiple civilian deaths.

While this story seems to have gotten overlooked in the global news landscape, it merits attention for its significance to Cameroon and to Sub-Saharan Africa, but more importantly to all nations that maintain bilingual/ multilingual administrative policies.

Kazakhstan or Qazaqstan? The Nexus of Alphabets, Technology, and Language Policy

The President of Kazakhstan has just announced that the country will switch its official alphabet from Cyrillic (used in Russian) to Latin (used in English, Spanish). This marks the third time in one hundred years that the country has shifted alphabets, the initial switch being from the Arabic alphabet. This announcement leaves many outside Kazakhstan wondering why a country would choose to undertake such a massive realignment of text. Moreover, what sorts of issues result from such shifts in language policy?

One pressing issue will be how to spell the name of the country. Letters that exist in one alphabet do not always have an equivalent or perfect equivalent in another; such is the case with the Cyrillic “K” in comparison with the Latin “K”. The switch in alphabets serves as a reminder of the powerful influence of historical/cultural ideologies and of recent technology on the language of daily life.

10-24-2017: 100 Years since the October Revolution

One hundred years ago today witnessed “Ten Days that Shook the World”: tsarist rule in Russia would come to an end. Communist forces gradually took control of the country, one of the superpowers of the era, shocking the nations of the world. In the ensuing years and decades, the Russian people experienced mass atrocities, bloodshed and famine, chaos and terror, resulting in the deaths of millions of people.

There is no doubt that the Russian Revolution remains one of the most significant events in modern world history– it must be remembered and studied by the current and future generations to ensure that the conditions under which such a revolution were possible are never replicated.

Kids TV: Increasing Diversity (& Profits?)

The long-running, globally- adored children’s television show “Thomas the Tank Engine” will look and sound a little different in the upcoming season. Parent company Mattel has chosen to broaden the scope of characters on the show to include more girl trains, up from just one to three out of seven overall trains, and to include international characters, such as Nia, a Kenyan-inspired character.

The change comes after the company witnessed both slumping merchandise/ advertising revenue and calls for greater inclusion of ethnic and sex/gender diversity to render the show more reflective of its viewership and the societies in which consumers live. Although the changes’ impact on the viewership will remain unknown for the immediate present, the effects of such inclusion efforts could potentially increase children’s exposure to varieties of English that differ from their own, and to foreground positive interactions between genders/ sexes. Moreover, it can be presumed that a wider representation of characters will translate to a wider/ more loyal viewership, which would stand to benefit the corporate giant Mattel.

Watching “Friends” to Learn American Culture & Language

Today Major League Baseball brings the best players from all over the world to the US and Toronto to play their sport at the highest level. It often goes unnoticed that many players (the majority?) whose first language isn’t English undergo a process of language acquisition. One popular method, as recorded by the New York Times, is through watching the 90’s classic sit-com “Friends”. The show’s silly plots that rely on characters with reliably consistent personality quirks and commentaries provides learners with engaging input that can be easily transferred into the learner’s lived experiences.

In short, television and film can provide cognitively powerful tools for second language acquisition by baseball players, hockey players, middle school learners, or anyone seeking to expand their linguistic repertoire.

The Imperiled Health of the Great Lakes

The Mayor of Toledo, Ohio, has asked the federal government for help. The great lake on which her city sits is again threatened by algae blooms in the great lakes, which in 2014 resulted in the shut-off of drinking water for 3 million residents in the region. The algae is proliferating in the lake due to high levels of phosphates, which makes their way into the lake from agricultural fertilizers. Natural resources as precious as water must be protected and managed to ensure their presence for generations (including the current generation). It seems hard to dispute that enough has been done towards this goal.

Celebrating the Inaugural “International Translators’ Day”

With thousands of different languages and dialects in the world, how is it possible that speakers of different languages are ever able to accomplish anything? How, in a hyper-globalized world, can people on different continents with remarkably different languages come together to collaborate successfully on manufacturing a product, on developing an environmental strategy, or on coordinating the movement of satellites around the earth? The answer, in part, is thanks to the meticulous work of interpreters and translators.

While theirs is likely among the world’s oldest professions, interpreters and translators are finally being honored on a global scale through the U.N.’s declaration of September 30th as the International Translation Day. Until the day that artificial intelligence can accurately perform the task of the translator (and simultaneously obsoleting many other human professions), we should be grateful to all translation professionals for the crucial lubricant they provide the globalized economy.

Joining Forces to Revitalize Appalachia

The American natural gas boom and increased automation have dramatically changes the American economy in local economies. One especially hard-hit region is America’s coal country, resulting in steep increases in unemployment and hard times for many families. To re-invent and reinvigorate such economies, smart collaborations are needed between local, state, and national actors. The following clip highlights the impact of community colleges and non-profits on communities in coal-producing regions of West Virginia. Progress, however gradual, is being made towards the goal of economic diversification in order to render communities more resilient to future change.