Archive for May 14th, 2007

Doubting bilingualism

May 14, 2007

Some people believe there is such a thing as bilingualism. I have my serious doubts. One can speak, even write in different languages, but one of them must dominate. And in my case, by now, it’s Spanish. I am a Spanish-language author and, more important, a Chilean. In the United States now, I have an accent. I stumble on spelling and, though I may talk all day in English, at the end of the day, I will need to revisit things in Spanish.

From here; via. Though not along the same lines, consider this passage from Sheila Dhar on the effect of English on her Hindustani music (thanks to my wife for locating the passage):

…But now that we were on the subject of teaching, I decided to ask Khan Sahib why he had not accepted me at first. This had been gnawing at me even though it was no longer a problem. I was very curious to know.

‘There were two difficulties. First, you have been taught by so many teachers in so many conflicting ways that it would have been a problem to clean the slate and start all over again. I could have done it but it might have extinguished your inner fires. And if I had succeeded in making a singer out of you, God knows which of your dozen teachers would have claimed the credit! I didn’t want to go into it at all. Circumstances forced me to know you, and I love a challenge. So here we are. The second problem was that you are too much of an English-speaking person. I am told that you studied English in England and America and that in your job you think and write in English. This can have serious repercussions on what you consider to be the sound of normal speech. I am sure your beak or ‘chonch’ must already be bent out of shape for the purposes of Hindustani music. My objection was not a bigot’s prejudice, but the recognition of a practical disadvantage in this enormous endeavour. My ancestors and I have worked our whole lives to be able to round off and mute the jagged and jerky sounds which are the mark of correct English speech. In our style of music, every melodic line is an unbroken arc and you can’t build arcs like that with English sounds. I think that music is just refined speech. It has to draw on sounds from the indigenous language of the region. To say that music is a universal language is sentimental, wishful nonsense. Someone whose mother tongue is Urdu or Hindi has better prospects as a khayal singer than say, someone from Japan, however ardently interested. You will understand better what I am saying as we go along. I am sure you can never be a Japanese singer either!’

I wanted to be accepted wholeheartedly, without reservation, so I made a decision to renounce English. I gave up my job in the Publications Division and made a conscious effort to speak only in Hindustani or Urdu. In our life style, it was natural for me to be bilingual but when I turned off the English switch entirely, the sounds in my head really changed. I felt myself change as a person too. I became less impatient, more tolerant, more lackadaisical. My Urdu became much better. Earlier, I used to be self-conscious about reciting ghazals that I had heard from my father in my childhood. I slowly became more comfortable with them though it still felt a little like being in fancy dress. I thought that the sa I practised in the morning sounded more and more relaxed as the sounds of English leached out of my system…

In this regard I should also mention Jon Higgins, that great singer from America who mastered Carnatic as good as any South Indian. But then, Hindustani musicians always complain that in Carnatic, the jumps from swara to swara are so jagged and artless!

Vaccine research

May 14, 2007

Why is that we have not yet come up with successful vaccines against tuberculosis, malaria or HIV? In an “Ask a scienceblogger” post, Tara  C Smith of Aetiology explains why; the three main reasons, according to her, are the lack of knowledge, testing, and lack of resources (time and money). Take a look!

Open source, Free software and patents

May 14, 2007

Linux implementations impinge on 235+ Windows patents!? Of course, as this article points out, it also indicates the stupidity of granting patents to software in the first place. Here is the original piece from the Fortune magzine. It is time that, in true Brad deLong-ian style, we called for  “Abolish software patents! Abolish them now!”. By the way, he recently wrote how it does not make sense economically, to make information goods “excludable”.

Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris

May 14, 2007

I finished reading the delightful little volume of Anne Fadiman called Ex Libris; it is a book about bibliophilia, by a bibliophile, for fellow bibliophiles. Among other things, it talks about the pleasures of shopping for second-hand books, stacking books, sorting them, reading aloud, and the effect of merging libraries on marital harmony. There are also discussions about compulsive proof-reading and plagiarism.

Not surprisingly, Anne Fadiman recommends Virginia Woolf‘s Common reader, which I value greatly; in fact, she subtitles her book Confessions of a common reader. There are also hints that only a bibilophile would know, and would like to know–for example, an inscription should be on the flyleaf, while the title page is reserved for the author.

Finally, it indeed is quite rare to come by a book which quotes Lamb and Hazlitt so often; in fact, I have not seen them quoted since I was a kid; my grandfather, who was also a fan of these essayists, took great pleasure in quoting them to us.

I found the essays a pleasure to read, even when I disagreed with some of their contents. For example, Fadiman thinks that while splaying books to mark the page that you are reading is the equivalent of carnal love, marking the page with a bookmark is a sign of platonic love. I tend to disagree. Those who mark the page with a bookmark are usually just gentle lovers.

Before I end this post, here are some of the essays that made an indelible impression on Fadiman, which are available online:

And, in case I forgot to mention, Fadiman is a must-read; here is Pradeep Sebastian’s recommendation (which made me go look for the volume in the first place).

Happy reading!