Sunday 28 November 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Linguistic Reflections and Music

I once met a woman who was trilingual: she was born in Switzerland, in the French part, and lived there the first few years of her life, thus, she spoke the Gallic language fluently. Her family then moved to Spain, where she was raised, therefore she had an excellent command of the Iberian lexicon. As an adult she settled in the UK with her Canadian partner - later husband -, picking up English in the process. What was curious about this person was how she deployed her linguistic arsenal. She used French for basic conversations, the what, who, where, when, how, so to speak; Spanish for deep talks, from the state of the economy to politics. English, then, was left for chats about children and education (especially home education, as none of her three children went to school). You could say then that this woman was a 'natural' for languages; she was 'hardwired' to become fluent in any lingo.


This is a different post today, in that issues to do with language are usually addressed in my 'Living in a Bilingual World' columns. But today I will use linguistics as an excuse to discuss with you, fellow bloggers and readers, a hot topic, one that has caused many a controversy for a long time and which will continue to polarise people all over the world. Are men really from Mars and women from Venus?

The reason why I'm using this woman as an example for my post today is that the response she often got to her excellent linguistic skills was similar to the feedback women (and men) get when they are involved in activities that are outside their alleged gender remit. Many people oohed and aahed at how this woman was able to switch from French to Spanish to English. But why did she elicit such a strong response? Because her audience was seldom multilingual themselves. Same with the people who claim that females are better at communicating and males better at playing the Action Man role. What a lot of horlicks (as former home secretary Jack Straw would put it. There, another example of male articulacy). Look at a group photo of the latest G20 meeting and tell me how many men and women there are in the line-up. And what do you think they do all day in this once-a-year meetings? Play cops and robbers? Hmmm... I just realised that I might have inserted an (unintentional) pun in that question. To clarify, any similarity to real actions or events is pure coincidence

But you know what I mean. When the G20 meet, they normally talk. A lot. For a long time. Usually behind closed doors. And as this group is male-dominated, we can safely assume that not a lot of 'it' or 'tag' games are being executed (the image of Berlusconi chasing after Merkel is enough to put me off my breakfast, although apparently he hasn't got any problems giving chase to seventeen-year-old girls).

Then, how is it that we still allow our - obvious - biological differences to rule our social interaction and our contribution to modern society? Why is it still OK to ascribe certain rigid mores to each gender without double checking first that, hey! they are interchangeable and don't you know that women can drive buses and men change nappies?

The 'Martian Man vs Venusian Woman' is a far too rich industry to execute a U-turn like Pope Benedict has done in relation to the use of condoms. And even the Pontiff's statement was not very radical. Anyone expecting to see a headline reading: "Pope Benedict: Jesus did not die on the cross, he died of a severe case of micturition, hence his crossed legs", will have to wait. The Pontifex Maximus has merely accepted what everyone else has been saying all these years: that the use of condoms reduces the risk of infection from Aids. Still, can you hear the gritting of teeth? Likewise, anyone expecting the advocates of biological determinism to come out and say that, actually, the differences between men and women are more often than not caused by social conditioning than innate distinctions, should sit down and wait patiently... and wait patiently... and wait patiently...

That's why I am opening up my blog for another debate (I've already done it once. Remember the discussion about feminism? Click here, here and here so that you have an idea about how it works). On this occasion we will be talking about the issue of nature vs nurture from a gender point of view. If you want to be part of this debate, e-mail me at my address (it's in my profile). I have drafted up three questions for the first three bloggers who contact me. Once I have received the confirmation from the three contributors that they want to take part in this discussion, I will then respond to all of you at the same time. I will be using the Bcc field to avoid disclosing your e-mail addresses. All replies will be unabridged. What you write is what I will post. I would really appreciate it if you could forward a very short bio, maybe just a couple of lines. Pics are optional, as I know some bloggers prefer to remain anonymous. If you do send a photo, please, do it in jpeg, tiff, giff or bitmap format, blogger doesn't accept pdfs. Your blogs will be linked at the beginning of each biography. If you want to reproduce the content of my piece in your own blogs, please, feel free to do so.

The follow-up to this column should come out next week, as long as I get the replies in time. I do have an alternative post to publish, just in case (always have a plan B), but I would really love it if we could segue from today's column to next week's instalment smoothly.

So, get writing! I'm already looking forward to your contributions.

In other news, the Theatre Royal Stratford East was the perfect setting for an amazing concert by the Creole Choir of Cuba last Thursday 18th November. Desandann (meaning 'descendents'), as the vocal troupe is more widely known, blew the audience away with their passionate songs, passed down by their parents and grandparents. The melodies, sung in Creole and supported occasionally by drums, highlighted the influence that Haitians have had on Cuban culture for centuries. I would like to thank Joe, Rebecca and Lucinda from Serious for giving me the opportunity to attend and review this concert. The choir will be on tour next year. For full details of their upcoming performances, click here. And for you readers/fellow bloggers, here's a taste of what my beautiful Cuba has to offer.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 5th December at 10am (GMT)


  1. Man, that guy's got some pipes. You wouldn't need a rooster in the morning to get you up if that guy was your neighbor. Heck, even the hens would give more eggs.

  2. Iberian as Portuguese and Spanish?? 'cause, you know, althogh Iberia is THE Spanish air company, the actual Ibrian peninsula gathers two different countries (and languages!)

    Thanks for the music!

  3. Wonderful music.

    I think a lot about nature vs nurture and I have many amorphous thoughts which I may try to put into a post. But I have to mull it over. I'm not a fast thinker.

  4. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Charo, hmmm... why is it that that names rings many bells? :-) In this case Iberian refers only to the Spanish, although as you rightly stated the Iberian peninsula is split into two countries: Portugal and Spain. I just didn't want to repeat the word Spanish.

    Theodore, do you know how many times I've regretted not buying the album at the concert? Man, they were magnificent. I can't even begin to describe the emotions and feelings running through my body when I saw them performing. But that's Cuba for you, always full of surprises.

    I'm over the moon. One of the bloggers whose posts I read regularly asked me to be part of the debate and I have just e-mailed her the questions. I just need two more. C'mon, my people, I'm waiting for you! Thanks, Elizabeth, I can't wait to read your answers! Best wishes to you and family. :-)

    Greetings from London.

  5. How interesting that this woman used different languages to express different subjects. Was that more due to vocabulary (ie she raised her kids in England) or the nature of the language itself?

    I love how you challenge gender stereotypes. I’m looking forward to the discussion. I was amazed by the Pope’s (partial) reversal on condoms.

    I enjoyed the uplifting music/dancing too.

  6. Oh Cuban, what a fascinating opening to a discussion, and my apologies, I would have loved to be considered as a contributor but having just looked at the diary,a thinking hour or two is not available in the next seven days!
    With the two big offspring, the F was the chatterbox in the house but virtually mute in company, whereas the M was very much under his sister's thumb in the house, but absolutely comfortable, almost urbane(!) when out in the wider world. And with the younger two being twins, the nature/nurture debate is very present in my mind, as sibling genes and identical environment have produced chalk and cheese.

    And yes, lovely, lovely music!

  7. Oh what interesting topics- both the linguistics abilities of being trilingual and the whole question of communication styles between genders. I have a Masters in Linguistics, so I love to think about the social, psycholinguistic aspects of it. Although I don't buy David Gray's (the author's) arguments completely, there is at least some evidence for gender differences in how we communicate (though not derived from nature)

  8. Oh Cuban, you're such an enjoyable read, and I'm tempted to join your discussion but other deadlines must be met this week. Very tempting, though.

    As a woman who tends to be comfortable with so-called masculine interests and activities, I should come down hard on the side of 'nurture', but I'm not so sure that's the reason for my cross-over skills. Gad, this takes some reflection and I'm intrigued now.

    The music was terrific - the opening notes gave me goosebumps. Must be thrilling for you to see your countrymen spreading the Cuban gospel in such excellent fashion.

    As for your mutillingual friend, i envy her exposure and facility with three languages. I suspect her tendency to use each language specifically has its basis in situational influences at the time she learned each one. In any case, what a gift.

  9. This sounds like it's going to be a fascinating debate. I'll look forward to reading...


  10. The Creole Choir was such a treat! Thank you. xx

  11. I just found your blog on a random search for Silvio Rodriguez album cover picture of "Rabo de Nube." Your blog is excellent. I will add it to my blog roll immediately.

    Buena Suerte, amigo.

  12. I'm sure I'm too late, which is a pity as I have quite a lot to say on this subject (though, unsurprisingly, not as much as I have to say on the linguistic debate!)

  13. Many thanks for your kind comments. Many thanks, too, to the three contributors who e-mailed me. I'm already looking forward to Sunday. Even the music will be fabulous.

    Greetings from London.

  14. FAbolous music, interesting conversation. Never dull.

  15. I love this topic and I agree with you totally. Most gender roles and expectations are highly influenced by socialization. I happen to be having the same discussion in my freshman philosophy class on Monday and I can't wait to hear the conclusions that the class comes to.

  16. Very interesting concept of partitioning the use of language by subject matter. I'm guessing the language used is where she developed the vocabulary for these topics. I know I'm much more comfortable counting in Dutch than in English, even though I only spoke Dutch for six years and English for over forty years. Today, I couldn't carry on a credible Dutch conversation in the professional world of technology because I don't don't have the Dutch vocabulary for the technical terms.

    I look forward to reading the gender discussion.

    As for the Pope's statement: "It's about time! Let's take it much, much further. Please!"

  17. The spanish language intrigues me. I don't understand it but I think one can get away with anything in spanish!

    Hola Cuban.

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