culture4

The Last Three Feet

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The world of international affairs is often seen as a shadowy one, full of intrigue, cloak-and-dagger, and posturing. Perhaps this is not far from the truth. One thing is certain: the larger the country, the more personnel is needed to staff the countless embassies, consulates, and other outposts who represent their country. A student of my wife's and mine recently gave an excellent report on American diplomacy and enlightened us on many aspects of this complex realm. The United States, at any given time, has approximately 15,000 personnel employed by the Department of State around the world, including at its 250 embassies.

Of the 15,000 to 25,000 who go through the battery of tests and applications for foreign service positions, only about 3%-5% make it all the way through to a salaried post.

In a high tech world of instant communication, is it really necessary to have all those people scattered across the globe? Perhaps there are some superfluous positions, and there is no doubt wasteful spending here and there. But as the late Edward R. Murrow, the great broadcast journalist who later became head of the US Information Agency said,

"...the real crucial link in the international exchange is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact -- one person talking to another."

And so it has always been, and so it will always be.

Some Fun Facts on St. Patrick's Day

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- The color originally associated with Patrick was "St. Patrick's blue," not green.- The first St. Patrick's Day parade was not in Ireland, but in the American colonies, when the Irish who were fighting in the British army marched through the streets of New York City in 1762. - The Irish haven't always been so popular -- in the years following that first parade, St. Patrick's Day in the US was mostly about unity and strength among persecuted Irish-American immigrants. The party didn't go global until 1995, when the Irish government started touting St. Patrick's Day as a way of advertising the beauty of the Emerald Isle to the rest of the world. - Only recently has the general public started once again paying more attention to the actual Patrick, the man, the missionary, the hero.

Happy St. Patrick's, wherever you are!

Facing That Foreign Language

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Sometimes there are myths that take root and become really difficult to dispel. One of them is the notion that Americans -- and English speakers in general -- are simply not capable of learning a foreign language well. Oh, we all know someone who has done it with some degree of success, but most of us have bought into the idea that "that will never be me." Perhaps I'm not the best person to dispel the myth, as I happen to be one of those foreign language freaks who thrive on tackling a new language. Maybe my wife would make a better spokesperson for the cause. She doesn't consider herself particularly gifted in languages, but when she married me, she signed up for a lifetime of exposure to any number of languages. Over the years we lived in Europe, she became conversant in both French and Dutch, and to this day we use both of these in our house on a regular basis. (Especially when grandkids are not intended to understand.)

I'm in the process of finishing up a brand new online mini-course to help people who are wanting to, about to, or have to study a foreign language. And I have new fodder: I've just undertaken Arabic, using video tutorials and weekly Skype sessions with a Syrian friend in Germany whom Becky and I met last summer when we were there.

The truth is, learning a foreign language is not a super power.

Hard work, yes. But all my years of speaking and teaching languages have given me many insights into how people learn languages -- but also some fundamental elements that are missing in a lot of language methods.

Hence this mini-course. If you're considering starting a foreign language, or have already started but find yourself a wee bit discouraged, this is for you. Just leave your email address in the form below and you'll be on your way to a more successful adventure in learning to speak another language. And believe me, there is nothing more gratifying than another person understanding you when you get up the nerve to practice your new words!

A Lesson Learned on Bias

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Many years ago in Switzerland I had a voice student named Catherine. Catherine taught me something I've never forgotten, although it will take me a lifetime to fully put it into practice. A little background: as you may know, Switzerland is composed of three main regions. By far the largest is the German-speaking area in the north, center, and east. There is a small Italian-speaking region bordering Italy in the south, and the French-speaking region, where I lived for a total of six years, in the southwest.

The French speakers, whom I of course am the most acquainted with, have a bit of an attitude toward the German speakers. They detest the Swiss German language (there are dozens of different dialects, all of which sound different from the High German spoken in Germany), and for the most part would rather speak English with a German-speaking Swiss. There are of course exceptions, as many French speakers have Swiss German ancestry or relatives. (Personally, I love the sing-song lilt of Swiss German, but I'm not Swiss.)

Catherine is a French speaker, born and raised in the Lausanne area. So what is the lesson she taught me? At some point she realized she harbored some of the bias against German speakers common among her fellow French speakers. She then did something crazy -- she looked for and found a job in Zurich, the largest city in Switzerland, and moved there for a full year just to get to know some German-speaking Swiss personally as well as learn their language.

She turned around and looked her prejudice in the face.

And of course Catherine came home having made some dear friends and with a genuine appreciation for these people who, after all, are her compatriots.

All because she did the difficult work of facing herself. And once she had identified the problem, she took tangible steps to do something about it.

This continues to challenge me. You may think I'm bias-free because of what I preach. The truth is that we all have biases, and there is never a lack of work to be done in overcoming them. So with an occasional "ouch," I often think of Catherine.

I'm not sure she learned all that much from me in the area of singing, but I certainly learned a life-long lesson from her.

Any of this ring true for you?

The (Lost) Land of Civility

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I was going through the archives of my first blog (back in the Blogspot days) and came across this post. I'm taking the liberty to repost it because, as is often the case, things that were written years ago can sometimes have just as much if not more relevance in the moment. I'll let you decide: A recent article in The Economist struck a chord that was already resounding more and more loudly. I read The Economist for a number of reasons: being a British publication, it gives the badly needed perspective of an outside observer on US issues. Its global scope also covers international issues many American periodicals ignore.

The writer (anonymous, an Economist trademark), put his or her finger on yet another paradox of life in these United States. Lexington, as said writer is called, has lived in a number of world capitals, including London, Beijing, Brussels, and Washington, DC. Only in Washington, however was the newly arrived Lexington met with such friendly neighbors as to offer home-cooked food and invitations to backyard softball. Such civility is actually documented by the OECD (Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development), which states that "Americans are far likelier than its average citizen to have helped a stranger in the previous month...and twice as generous when volunteering their time."

The paradox is that such a civil country is engaging in more and more UNcivil politics. Lexington observes that, although both presidential candidates talk a lot about the future, their campaigns are actually nostalgic attempts to recover the mythical power of the American dream. What the two campaigns have in common -- and the camps they represent -- is that each side blames the other for the economic woes of our time. "Seeking to blame each other for economic shifts that are bigger than either party," Democrats and Republicans openly accuse each other of sabotaging the American ethos. It has suddenly become more about being on the right side than being an American. Period.

This polarization can have devastating consequences over the long term. As partisans become increasingly inflamed by the righteousness of their relatively short-term cause, each election leaves the nation licking its progressively deeper, self-inflicted wounds. The result: a weak and introverted society incapable of confronting the challenges of being a world leader with any sort of united front. As Lexington remarks, American "trust and generosity cannot forever survive a widespread sense that they are being abused."

- Oct. 2012