Cécile Corbel & songs in foreign languages

Good music makes me so, so happy.

I’ve been listening to a lot of “experimental” electronic, indie rock, and singer/songwriter type music these days.  When I listen to music in a language I can understand (English, Korean, and some Japanese), lyrics are often the most noticeable element of song for me and vocals tend to stand out against the backdrop of instrumentals.  But in other languages, vocals become mere morphemes without meaning, indistinguishable from the other layers of sound in a song.  A friend and I were discussing how sometimes we prefer to listen to songs in languages we don’t understand – for me, at least, it’s because it lets me interpret and feel the song in my own way without being hindered by semantics.

Recently, this friend introduced me to a singer who, as she described it, has “the voice of a siren.”

Cécile Corbel is a Breton singer and harpist who, in addition to having the most enchanting voice I’ve ever heard, also composed the score for the Studio Ghibli film 借りぐらしのアリエッティ (The Borrower Arrietty).  That’s her singing a song from the film in the video above and, yes, she is singing in Japanese!  Corbel’s native language is Breton – a Celtic language that originated in the British Isles and is spoken predominantly in Bretagne, France – but she also sings in French, English, Italian, German, and Irish.  And true to her roots, many of her songs have a gorgeous Celtic feel to them.

Here’s one of my favorites by her – “La Fille Damnée” in French.

It’s been ages and ages since I heard anything in French and, as per my usual weakness with French, I understood very little about what this song was about until I looked at the lyrics in French (so I guess my four years of French in high school wasn’t all for naught?  Heh.)  But that wasn’t necessarily the point because I wasn’t really trying to understand this song.  Corbel has a voice that I just want to listen to and feel without thinking.

But then I noticed something interesting.  I remember when SNSD’s “I Got a Boy” came out and English-speakers “misheard” the chorus (“I got a boy 멋진, I got a boy 착한”) as “I got a boy munchin’, I got a boy chicken.”  It’s as though your brain takes the sounds of a language you don’t know (e.g. Korean) and forcefully tries to apply meaning to it using a language that you do know (e.g. English).  Now, I’ve listened to Korean music for years so I never “misheard” those lyrics in English.  Even when I come across Korean speech or lyrics that I don’t understand, my brain still recognizes it as Korean.

Now the weird thing with me is when I listened to one of Corbel’s songs in Spanish among others, I kept hearing what sounded weirdly like Korean or Japanese or even Hindi words.  Never once did my brain try to “Englishify” what I was listening to, despite the fact that 99% of the time I open my mouth to speak, I use English.  I wonder if this is a result of the fact that the vast majority of songs that I listen to are not in English, even though I use English in my daily communication.  But something similar happens when I watch movies in foreign languages to which I have little to no exposure – let’s say German or Thai.  I’ve found this to be really disorienting because my brain keeps trying to hear Korean or Japanese in the dialogue, not English, even though the vast majority of movies I watch are in English.  It’s almost as if my brain understands I’m hearing something in a foreign language, makes a switch from English, and tries to interpret it in my next-most-proficient foreign language.  Does this happen to anyone else?  And I’m not sure but is there a technical linguistics/cognitive science terminology for this phenomenon?

It’s crazy.  I’ve been thinking more and more about neurobiology these days and how fascinating it must be to study the brain in the context of language acquisition.  I wonder if there’s a way to visualize a phenomenon like the one I described happening using fMRI – do different parts of the brain light up?  Is the neural connectivity changing?  Does synaptic plasticity affect whether or not you experience something like this?  Gah, so many delicious questions.  I should dig into the literature sometime.

Greetings from the motherland

Hello, Blogosphere.  I’m currently in India, visiting my extended family.  And sobbing because of the bad internet.  Sadly, I don’t have a proper wifi connection at my grandparents’ house so I’m using this PnP USB Modem which lets you access “India’s Superfast Wireless Broadband” with speeds up to a shocking 10-20 Kbps.

I know.

When I was younger, I could go 2-3 months without the Internet but at this point in my life, I can’t afford to be offline for more than a  couple days.  It’s not me being spoiled; I need it for work (especially since this is kind of an obligatory vacation my parents forced on me when I still have things to do.)

So I guess I will be taking a little bit of a break from K-studying for the time being, though I do have a couple drafts which I may get up in the next few days (or nights, depending on how bad my jet lag is.)  Till then, let me leave you all with one of my favorite Bollywood songs.  They just don’t make ’em like this anymore… (or do they?  I haven’t watched a Hindi movie in ages haha.)

Maa, tujhe salaam.

My knowledge of Hindi is zilch, unless you count the few words I know from similarities to Marathi and from Bollywood films.  I’ll probably never learn Hindi to the extent that I’m learning Korean.  But I go through cycles (usually brought on by stress/anxiety) of intensely longing to connect more with my culture and heritage.  Hearing Hindi/Urdu somehow brings a bit of that back into my life.  Plus I’m homesick. ><

यहाँ वहां सारा जहाँ देख लिया, अब तक भी तेरे जैसा कोई नहीं.
yahan vahan saara jahan dekh liya, ab tak bhi tere jaisa koi nahin
I’ve been here and there and seen the whole world, yet  there is no one like you anywhere.

Fishing for compliments

No matter what language you’re trying to learn, if you’re learning by yourself, you’re bound to get discouraged at some point – especially if it’s a language that you don’t get to practice on a daily basis.  Unless you have the opportunity to communicate with a native speaker, there’s still a degree of unreality, a sense of “foreignness” associated with that language that I feel has to be overcome before you can aim for fluency.  For example, when I first learned Hangeul, typed my first Korean sentence, and submitted it as a comment on TTMIK, I still felt like I didn’t know what I was doing – until one of the teachers replied back.  It’s really hard to describe the amazing feeling of being understood by native speakers of the language you’re studying.  That, in itself, was a powerful motivation to learn more and to keep improving.

I don’t live in Korea nor do I really live in place populated with many Koreans but still, as I learned more Korean, I kept trying to find ways to communicate with native speakers.  (My best friend is Korean-American, but she’s also a second-year medical student so I’d rather not bother her!)  I’ve talked to some people on Twitter, left comments on Talk To Me In Korean, communicated with my fellow Korean-language bloggers, posted on Lang-8, and even messaged people on tumblr.  I’ve been so fortunate to get incredible feedback from so many people.  One person mistook me for an actual Korean person!  And my fellow language-learners have been more than generous with their compliments.  I even received this incredible comment from someone on Lang-8 that nearly brought tears to my eyes.

정말 훌륭합니다. 1년밖에 배우지 않은 실력에 이렇게까지 쓸 수 있다니 놀랍습니다.

Sometimes, a person might just say 한국어 잘 하시네요 simply to be polite but even that can be encouraging to a self-learner.  What I’m trying to say is that when you feel deflated and discouraged some time during your language-learning pursuit, or when you just feel stuck in a rut, FISH FOR COMPLIMENTS.  Not in the crude sense of belittling your ability in order to be complimented – rather, put yourself out there to the language-learning community, to the community of native speakers to be motivated.  Sometimes that motivation is a compliment, sometimes it’s a correction or a suggestion, or sometimes it’s just an answer to a comment or question you made in the language you’re learning.  Nothing is more motivating than being able to communicate in the language you labored to study by yourself.  The important thing is to not just bury yourself in an academic atmosphere of language-learning – among books, professors, and exams.

Of course, after reaching a more advanced level, compliments or communication without criticism, can be more frustrating than motivating; people tend to just say you’re good without giving you any points to improve on.  I’m guilty of that in English – I prefer not to point out every single English grammar and/or spelling mistake an advanced English-learner makes, even if he/she asks to be corrected.  For now, I don’t have to worry about that in Korean.  Whether it’s compliments or criticism, feedback of any kind always motivates me!


Yesterday, I finished watching Devil Beside You – which, quite possibly, might be the last Taiwanese drama I’ll ever watch.  For reasons I won’t go into here.  Heh.

Anyway, I watched DBY with little to no knowledge of Chinese, other than basic “A is B”-type sentences so I was intrigued by the way the characters addressed each other.  Why did everyone call Jiang Meng “Ahmeng”?  Why was Yuan Yi so offended when Ahmeng called him “Ahyi”?  Why did Qi Yue’s friends alternatively call her Qi Yue and Xiao Yue?  Why was Yuan Yi the only one who called Qing Zi “Xiao Zi”?  You see what I’m getting at.

Well, I kind of figured out through context that ah (阿) and xiao (小) were diminutives, basically forms of words (usually names though they can be other nouns) that are used to signify either smallness or endearment/intimacy.  In fact, in Chinese xiao (小) actually means “small.”  What is interesting is that some languages, like English, do not have a strict way of forming diminutives while other languages, like Chinese, Korean, and Japanese do.

A lot of diminutives for proper names English (i.e. nicknames) end with an “-ie” sound.  Examples:  Christine = Christie; Samantha = Sammy.  Some other nouns follow this pattern as well, like cat = kitty.  But English doesn’t really have set rules for forming diminutives of proper nouns (nicknames just are what they are, I suppose).

Indian languages (e.g. Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, etc.)
Of course, I can’t forget to address my own native language…  Most Indian names have diminutives ending in a u (or sometimes ee or ya) sound, unless they are very short.  Since Indian names are usually quite long, the nickname is most commonly the first syllable + u.  Examples:  Ramachandran = Ramu; Ashwini = Ashu; Namrata = Namu.  BUT names like Satya, Puja, Meera, don’t usually change.

I have to say, however, unlike English, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, Indian diminutives are almost always reserved for very close family members and sometimes very very close family friends.  Of course, a degree of familiarity is a prerequisite for nickname use in all cultures… but I just feel that most Indian people would not have even their closest friends call them using their diminutive nickname.  It’s almost always reserved for parents and grandparents; and once you get older, people tend to leave it off anyway.  (As an example, my mom and dad call me by my childhood nickname but my aunts and uncles do not.  Incidentally, you might be able to guess what that nickname is from what I’ve said here!)

Suffixes like kun (くん) and chan (ちゃん) are usually added to male and female names respectively to make them diminutive.  Sometimes ちゃん can be added to other nouns to make them sound “cute” (e.g. 猫ちゃん = kitty)

Like Chinese and Japanese, Korean has a pretty standard way of forming proper name diminutives – add 아 (ah) at the end of names ending in a consonant and 야 (yah) at the end of a name ending in a vowel.  In the case of Korean (though not in the other languages I’ve mentioned), this diminutive is also the vocative case – this is basically the form of the proper noun that you use to call a person.  In most languages, the diminutive and can be used either as the vocative case or not but in Korean, the 아/야 diminutive MUST also be the vocative case.  Korean also has a diminutive that is not vocative –  for names ending in consonants, you can add 이 (i).  This is how I understand it:

  1. 혜원가 김밥을 먹는다. (O)
    [Adding 이 to 혜원 makes it diminutive but it’s still nominative – meaning, it’s the subject of the sentence and therefore marked by the subject marking particle]
  2. 혜원,  김밥을 먹어라. (O)
    [Adding  아 to 혜원 makes the diminutive now vocative – meaning you are calling Hyewon to come eat kimbap.]
  3. 혜원, 김밥을 먹어라. (X…?)
    [Now that I think about it, I wonder if this is really wrong?  It sounds odd to me and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say something like this.  Hm.]
  4. 혜원 김밥을 먹는다. (X)
    [This is definitely wrong because you only use 아 when you’re calling someone, not when that person is the subject of a sentence]

Whoops, sorry for the grammar overload.  I just find stuff like this interesting.  One of my favorite things to watch in Korean dramas is when 2 characters go from addressing someone as “so-and-so 씨” or by the full name  to the diminutive.  I remember feeling all giddy at the end of Full House when 영재 addresses 지은 as “한지은.. 지은아…”

Just another thing I enjoy about the Korean language, I guess.

Voici ce que j’ai trouvé!

Yesterday, I was perusing my old copy of Le petit Nicolas by René Goscinny, which I bought a couple years ago to brush up on my French, and started feeling nostalgic.  I studied French for five years before I abandoned it in college and now I really wish I hadn’t.  I used to be kind of good at French composition (winning some contests here and there) but now… I can barely string together a sentence.  My reading abilities haven’t deteriorated to that degree yet but I really need to practice more so I don’t forget everything.  First things first:  acquire a decent grammar book because I can’t seem to locate my notes from high school.  I think I’m going to get myself a copy of Bescherelle – La grammaire pour tous which I heard is sometimes used by French students and/or students in French immersion programs.  The book is completely written in French since it’s for native speakers but I don’t think that’ll be a huge problem (I also have a fat Larousse dictionary in case it does become a problem).  Has anyone heard about how good the Bescherelle series is or have any other suggestions for grammar texts?  (This question is mostly directed to Jeanne if she’s reading this! ^^)

Oh and I found THIS when I was looking through my old French stuff.  An old essay I wrote about Louis Pasteur.  It’s not that good but it’s WAY better than what I could write now.  SIGH.  I wish I could turn back time.

Continue reading “Voici ce que j’ai trouvé!”

Reading & Writing in Hindi

Today I attended an Indian cultural concert and charity event in my home city.  Most of the songs were in Hindi, one was in Marathi, and all of it made me wish I had made more of an effort to learn about my own culture.  I go through phases of being obsessed with Bollywood and Hindi music (usually when I’m in India) but I’m weirdly self-conscious about trying to learn Hindi.  I feel more pressured because I’m Indian… but then when I watch Hindi films, I’m surprised at how much I can understand, just because Hindi is so similar to Marathi.  And then I feel like I want to start teaching myself Hindi again.  Anyway, I have made slight progress.  I do know how to read Devanagari characters and construct some very basic sentences.  Here’s an old post of mine from tumblr about reading and writing in Hindi.

Continue reading “Reading & Writing in Hindi”