Open Culture

Voting has to be one of the least consequential things we do—at least from the standpoint of affecting an election. My vote has never changed an election, at least directly. And the closest I’ve ever come to influencing even indirectly an election was to canvas a neighborhood trying to drum up support for a bond issue to build a new high school where I live in Whitewater, Wisconsin. I knocked on some doors, encouraged other citizens that seemed positively disposed to the cause, and saw the bond pass later on that month by 27 votes.

Yet the concept of voting resonates in America. With every change of administration in Washington D.C. and in our statehouses, we brag about the peaceful transfer of power, almost as if the actual policies and conduct of the new power wielders is incidental. However, we are now being told in the aftermath of the 2010 Republican sweep that “elections have consequences,” the nature of which we can examine by looking at the function of voting in Facebook.

One of the most significant of Facebook’s product innovations, according to David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, has been open culture platform translation driven by voting informed choices (Kindle ed. 4792). Translations are collected and then arranged in a list to be voted on by a translation team consisting of Facebook users who are supposed to be native speakers of the target language. Translation thus speeds along. Kirkpatrick points out that the French version was completed by 4,000 users in less than two days (Kindle ed. 4802).

Voting is an ongoing process and will continue indefinitely as long as the dynamic environment of Facebook continues to change. According to Michal Burger, an engineer at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto and the acting administrator for the translation project for Slovak, when someone adds new text to the Facebook site, expressions appear in the translation application for normal users to translate, usually along with some context, but often without:

Even with provided context, strings posted for translation can be quite challenging (‘Babby is formed” Is it a test phrase inadvertantly sent to the translation community or an urban dialect riff on the notion that the user has committed and error?). Some rudimentary grammatical structures are available to mediate between languages, so that, for example, distinctions of grammatical gender in inflectionally rich Slovak and the three way case sensitivity to quantification of the target language can be reflected in the Slovak translations:

In this manner, translations are collected and then presented to users of the translation application for a vote.

Users may vote for or against each alternative listed. According to Burger, “translations are automatically chosen after they get ‘enough’ positive votes, there’s actually a very complicated formula that determines this. It takes into account both positive and negative votes, votes of other translations, and the ‘trustworthiness’ of people who voted on them (personal communication, 3/9/2011).

Though the translation is described as “automatic,” some of the decision making clearly comes from the side of the site administrators, both in the design and implementation of the delivery system for translation and even on a manual, case-by-case basis. Burger again: “Translation admins (such as me) can override this decision [=voting outcome ML] and unlock a given phrase for translation again, or choose a different translation” (personal communication, 3/9/2011).

Kirkpatrick writes, “Rather than ask its own employees or contractors to spend precious years translating the site’s three hundred thousand words and phrases into numerous other languages, Facebook turned the task over to the crowd and found an enormous amount of wisdom there”(Kindle ed. 4794). However, internal control and the ability to override voting outcomes show that the translations are not quite as grass roots as Kirkpatrick leads us to believe. The 20 or so most widely used languages have professional translators employed by Facebook to administer and assert quality control over the translations (Burger 2/26/2011). Other languages supported on Facebook, like Slovak, have Facebook employees administering translation as an informal add-on to their normal, unrelated workload. Because Facebook wants to get such things as the Help Center, Statements of Policy, and the Developer Sites right at a higher level of accuracy, Burger indicates that languages without support of professional translators may remain forever untranslated in this regard (see my blog entitled “Limits of Translation”).

If voting on translations of Facebook shows at least some user control of site content, it is and open question whether voting on other aspects of Facebook is similarly consequential. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other interesting, perhaps more important consequences, at least from the perspective of site administrators. Kirkpatrick describes how Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, has used voting as a strategy for redirecting user blowback on a range of site innovations. In February 2009, Zuckerberg was hit with an angry insurrection over change in Facebook’s Terms of Service, which expanded Facebook’s rights to its users’ content into perpetuity (TFE 5334). Threatened with lawsuits from various consumer protection organizations and buffeted by criticism from the blogosphere and mainstream press, as well as a 100,000 member user group “People Against the New Terms of Service,” Zuckerberg responded by conceding some infelicities in the style of presentation, invited users to offer suggestions, and announced revised documents in the subsequent week, along with an invitation to vote against them prior to their becoming official.

Zuckerberg proposed that a negative voting outcome in an election in which at least 30% of Facebook users participate would be binding and force further revision. As Facebook had, at the time, more that 200 million users, this meant that it would take a vote involving 60 million users in order to defeat any measure . . . a quantity vastly beyond the numbers of people that had on various occasions weighed in on any controversial development (and 600 times the number of complaints directed at the original change in Terms of Service).

The subsequent vote (in favor of the new changes but involving only 660,000 votes) defused the controversy and mollified detractors, who were brought into the process of dialogue about changes. Zuckerberg resolved to handle criticism with similar such votes in the future, launching a “Facebook Site Governance Group” as a resource to disseminate votes and to invite user collaboration (TFE 5362).

Kirkpatrick quotes Zuckerberg: “History tells us that systems are most fairly governed when there is an open and transparent dialogue between the people who make decisions and the people effected by them” (Zuckerberg, TFE 5353).

Voting as a form of dialogue in order to justify the agenda of decision makers and to allay users’ attempts to undercut those decisions—this is revealed as an additional, perhaps even more consequential function of “voting.” It’s more important for the election to happen, regardless of outcome. In this way, decision makers can declare buy-in, while asserting their will with a more accommodating “electorate” to deal with the outcome, regardless of their self-interest in the consequences.

The Limits of Translation

The last of Facebook’s 10 Guiding Principles is that the “service should transcend geographic and national boundaries and be available to everyone in the world.”

Since anywhere between 93% and 96% of the world’s people do not know English, FB’s wish to be the world’s social network has sparked its interest in translation. FB’s translation tool, described by David Kirkpatrick in The Facebook Effect (2010) as “among the company’s greatest product innovations (Kindle ed. 4794)” launched in 2008, and, according to Kirkpatrick, operated in 75 languages as of 2010.

The particular innovation that Kirkpatrick describes is that FB’s translation is grass roots: “Rather than ask its own employees or contractors to spend precious years translating the site’s three hundred thousand words and phrases into numerous other languages, Facebook turned the task over to the crowd and found an enormous amount of wisdom there”(Kindle ed. 4794).

So when I open up my Slovak language FB, I can load a translation app which is designed to permit me or any other Slovak language users to translate the English that we encounter. Translations are collected and then arranged in a list to be voted on by a translation team consisting of FB users who are native speakers of Slovak (how are these claims to native language proficiency verified?). Translation thus speeds along. Kirkpatrick points out that the French version was completed by 4,000 users in less than two days (Kindle ed. 4802).

Kirkpatrick observes that in this way “adding new languages . . . costs Facebook virtually nothing”(Kindle ed. 4802). He goes on to give the impression that the crowd of translators can thus assert their own particular ingenuity to creatively echo FB’s new modes of communication, such as poking.

Kirkpatrick quotes Zuckerberg commenting on his hands off approach: “I’m proud that I wasn’t even involved. . . . This is what you hope for when you’re building an organization . . . . That there will be people who will just build things that fit so well with the values of the company without you even having to say anything.”(Kindle ed. 4809)

Ah yes, the values of the company: one world, what does this mean in terms of the multi-form world of human languages?

Clicking on the languages icon in the low left corner of the screen, I count 77 languages available, which includes such options as Canadian French, two versions of Portuguese, Simplified and Traditional Chinese, and English written upside down or in “Pirate” form (“What be troublin’ ye?”). However, when I scroll through these languages, I see that 32 are still in “beta” form—a trial run anticipating full-release at a later date.

Anyhow, that still leaves 45 languages to choose from. I begin to explore FB, heading for the “help” function. But clicking on icons in “help”, I’m greeted with instructions in English, along with a list of alternative languages to address this lack of coverage of Slovak: 24 alternatives other than Slovak for help with “registration,” 14 others for “networks,” 4 for “payment terms” . . . .

Checking FB’s platform policies, promotion guidelines, copyright, intellectual properties, page terms, and rights and privileges pages, there are no alternative languages listed for the English presentation that is provided. Kirkpatrick writes that in 2010 that FB had 300,000 words of content. The translation application lists that now 126, 478 of those words and phrases have been translated into Slovak. It is interesting that, by some magic of arithmetic, my translation application proclaims that this ratio of 126,478 to 300,000 translates to “96% complete.”

Odder still, is the headline that greets the user upon opening the translation app:

“The translation of Slovak is now complete.”

One World Language

Facebook’s “One World”

Let me explain how my FB friends divide out linguistically:

I have three groups of friends: one that is Slovak-only (this group consists primarily of my extended family, distant “cousins” and their circle of friends—middle aged and older), and one the is English-only (consisting primarily of former UWW students, family and extended family in the US, and American friends), and one that is native Slovak with high competency in English (these are my younger Slovak relatives, students from the university where I taught in Slovakia, and some colleagues from that school.)

I would like to be able to communicate with my Slovak-only speakers in Slovak, and my English-only speakers in English. I would like to communicate with my multi-lingual Slovak friends primarily in Slovak, while making English interactions available to them as well.

I would estimate that about 60% of my FB friends have higher competency in Slovak than in English, but, since many of my Slovak friends are competent in English but few of my American friends are similarly bilingual, the closest thing to a lingua franca among my friends is English. As more than 75% of my friends can communicate in English, I use that as my base information language for filing out my profile. For my Slovak speakers, I create a group, enroll all of my friends competent in Slovak, and then limit the Slovak only speakers exclusively to this group. The Slovak multi-linguals will have access to two strands of interactions, my base (English) wall and my group wall. Slovak only speakers will have access to my Slovak wall, on which I will write exclusively in Slovak, while English only speakers will have access only to my English wall.

Accessing my FB page, English only group will naturally be using an English platform, Slovak bilinguals either Slovak or English, interacting with postings in both languages, and Slovak only people using a Slovak interface.

While English-only friends will have an all-English flow of information, Slovak-only friends will nevertheless confront English for all of my basic field information. FB’s “One World”—a world where English makes further encroachments as the global medium of exchange.

Carving up FB’s one world into different language communities, as the circles indicate below, turns out to be impossible, as information cannot be entirely demarcated according to language.

One World

Facebook Rule 1: If you are ever surprised at your level of exposure it is because you are overexposed.

Let’s say you wish use FB with close friends and with more distant relationships,  perhaps with some individuals you’ve never met. You fill out all the fields in FB profile (for the most social experience with your close friends), and you then create a group called “Friends I’ve never met” and you customize your privacy settings, excluding this group from every single one of the sharing categories.

What information do you share with this sealed off group, apart from your specific interactions with them in their group? . . . .

Let’s consider the geography of FB “friends”

In the  pre-packaged (default) world of FB, there are three degrees of overlap: there’s “everybody,” (they have access to your posts, photos, status, biography, favorite quotations, family and relationships),  “friends of friends,” (in addition to what everyone has access to, this group also sees your religious and political declarations, and photos that you are tagged in.  Finally, the closest relationship is that of “friend” (in addition to the preceding privileges, they have access to your contact info and can post on your wall.  They can also check you into places).

See the diagrams below, where the ring of access increasingly thickens as the friends become increasingly central.

Facebook gives you the option to move all of the information from the intermediate and outer layer into the center, restricting the sharing of any information with no others but friends.

Envision compressing the three layers of information in the concentric circle above into a the smallest circle demarcating “friends only:”

And within this core group you can build lists to selectively exclude friends from any of the information listed above, which I represent below by bleaching out (selectively removing) information for some of my friends:

If you do not wish to have your inner circle privy to all your communication with outer layers of friends, you must construct “groups.” But you can close these groups off to the rest of your information only so far.  Let’s say you wish to have contact with a group without sharing your “core” information.  You can create a group, and then go back and set all of your privacy settings so that this group is excluded from any sharing. . . .

What you will discover is that the sharing settings on the FB privacy page do not address all of the categories of information that are shared.  Certain categories of information that you provide are rigidly globalized and shared with all of your friends, regardless of  your customized exclusions.

Specifically, any of your friends that you place in such a sequestered group will still be able to view any of the following information you share with your closest friends: work and education history, inspirational people, sports, books, movie, and television interests, hometown, and current residence (!)

So you see that FB’s “one world” of connectivity is just that.  It is possible to have circles within circles of contacts, but it is not possible to have two groups of friends that do not overlap, and the interconnectivity is quite robust.

Open Borders

As Americans living in Slovakia, my pregnant wife and I had to get used to a different set of personal boundaries: during our first month in town, the local police paid us a visit to inspect our apartment; at the clinic, our doctors would conduct obstetric examinations in an open space where other expectant mothers and health personnel would be moving about; driving on the roads, we would occasionally be flagged over by police checkpoints, just for a routine check-up to see that our documents were all in order; after my visa period expired, my employer was contacted by the police to have them explain why we were still in town . . . It puts a particular slant on what it means to be connected.

As we have seen in our survey of the exit protocol for getting out of Facebook, the site design wishes to keep us forever connected.  Removing an account is a multi-step process, organized as an extended guilt trip, implemented only after extended time delay.

In some respects this FB desire for us to remain connected is reminiscent of  the “open” relationship between people in Slovakia and the service and law enforcement sectors.

FB’s commitment to openness can be viewed in the evolution of sharing policies, which have grown more and more permissive, as FB becomes increasingly ubiquitous. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of FB whose FB profile indicates his commitment to “breaking things,” “revolution,” and “openness,” has said that he is “building a web where the default is social” (F8 Conference, 4/21/2010).  The website openbook provides a visualizationshowing how “social” translates into who you share your information about yourself with under FB’s default setting, and how the circle of sharing has grown since the inception of FB.

A countervailing force is a desire for personal sanctuary, which gets played out in the FB world in the demand for privacy.  FB users appreciate the functionality that FB affords, yet they wish to retain their private space as well.  This dialectic between sharing and discretion has resulted in the proliferation of privacy settings (Facebook Privacy: A Bewildering Tangle of Options), increasing user control over his privacy, while making it ever more challenging to exactly calibrate an enhanced level of discretion. Where users don’t think of everything, site design guarantees that they will be overexposed.  “Thinking of everything” becomes increasingly complex; therefore, the ranks of the overexposed grow proportionately. This predicament suggests itself as the existential, person-by-person reality of FB’s  “revolution” in process, breaking down barriers and ushering in ever advancing personal exposure as a social norm.

Two principles of Discourse are illustrated: it is never neutral (there is always an agenda); it is never stable (relationships are always changed with each encounter).

Zbohom, Facebook (Breaking Up Is Hard, II)

When we say “good-bye” in English, it is usually just  temporary.  In Slovak, there is a special form of  farewell that means “good-bye forever” (also used as a respectful way of addressing seniors): “Zbohom” (literally ‘beyond God’). So let’s say that you have tried to remove your Facebook account by “deactivating” it (see my ”Breaking up, part I”), only to discover that all of your information remains behind, just where you left it, to pop up the next time you log in.

In fact, there is no self-directed way (that I know of) to remove your Facebook file without first doing the online equivalent of crying “help”!

So you visit the FB Help Center, and perhaps notice that the most commonly asked question is “How do I permanently delete my account?”  Clicking there, FB attempts to dissuade you from what it describes as “effectively disappear[ing] from the Facebook service.” Perhaps a more reasonable course to take would to “deactivate,” FB argues, but if you decide to disappear from the service, you should note that your account will be (and this FB underscores by writing in bold print) “permanently deleted with no option for recovery”.  You are informed that must again click to “submit a request . . .”

Which, if you make bold to do , . .

Results in a string of warnings: “You will not be able to reactivate your account or retrieve any of the content or information you have provided.”  Undeterred, you again click “submit,” and FB ominously responds with the first of a series of  “Are you sure?” proceeding to ask you to verify your password and to supply two security code words.  If you are (still perversely) OK with that,  you click on “okay”. . . .

Only to find out that again your have merely “deactivated” your account, and that a permanent removal requires a 14 day waiting period!  You are reminded that you may cancel this process (so much for not being able to reactivate your account).  Still want to delete?  Fatalistically now, you tap “okay” yet again, at which point you are given a timeline for when your account will be deleted.  The timer has been engaged; you are scheduled for deletion.  FB repeats, “Are you sure?” giving you the option to cancel or confirm your deletion.  Swallowing gravely, you tap “confirm.”

At this point, if you can’t help but wonder what FB limbo looks like, you see what happens when you try to log back in to your account.  You are greeted with the reassurance that your account is (only) deactivated (e.g. momentarily covered), but scheduled for deletion.  More repercussions are described. If you do not stop this process, do you know you will lose your photos in addition to your account? (So much for not being able to retrieve any of your content or information you have provided)

FB’s final plead: “please log into Facebook before [XX/XX/XXXX]”; you will then remain connected.

Zbohom. . . Apparently, not translatable into FB.

See ya, FB.

(Thanks to my student Jody Reaves for bringing this process to my attention)

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do (especially with Facebook)

So you wish to remove your Facebook account.  The process consists of visiting your “account” tab (upper right hand corner of your FB screen), clicking on “account settings,” and then clicking on “deactivate” at the bottom of the screen showing under the “settings” tab.  .  .

Now reflect on what is strange in the following discourse routine:

Before following your instruction, FB makes an argument inviting you to second guess yourself, asking “Are you sure you want to deactivate your account?” and warning that deactivating your account will disable your profile and remove your name and picture from everything you have shared on FB.

What follows is an array of images of friends from your friend’s list, attached to each is a comment that implies disapproval of your intention, and an injunction to provide an explanation:

Dawn will miss you.  Send Dawn a message

Anthony will miss you. Send Anthony a message

Wendy will miss you. Send Wendy a message.




In fact, you cannot leave FB without giving it a reason for your action by clicking on one of a list of buttons that explains your behavior in FB’s terms or that asks you to provide further explanation.  Clicking on one of these buttons, you are met with a dialogue box that explains how you can address your problem without leaving FB.

Soldiering on undeterred, you click to “confirm” that you wish to deactivate your FB account.   FB then asks you to retype your password, and then, after confirming your password, to enter two coded words it provides for you in a second “security check.”  Submitting the matching security check words will finally succeed in “deactivating” your account, which FB confirms with the following message:

“Your account has been deactivated.  To reactivate you account, log in using your old login email and password. You will be able to use the site like you used to [!]”

So after running the gauntlet of hurdles to get disconnected, you find that “deactivating” your account is akin to simply logging off a session. And when you log on to FB the next time you will see that all of your pictures, profile, and history of activity remain as if never disturbed.  You discover that when FB threatens to “remove your name and picture from everything you have shared on FB,” what it means by “remove” is just to cover (some) things until you log back in.

That is, when FB threatens you with removing your name and picture, it means pretty much just that: even after you are “deactivated,” all of your messages on FB remain on your correspondents’ message boards, though instead of being accompanied by your profile picture, there is only the ghostly shadow of the picture that once inhabited the spot.  Other people’s photos of you remain, even those in which you are tagged.  Depending on your or your friends’ privacy settings, even such things as your status updates and comments in the News Feed stay put.  In fact, FB tells you that your friends can invite you to events, tag you in photos, and ask you to join groups, despite your being deactivated (you can click a special button to disable this function as well).

In the final analysis, “deactivating” doesn’t even make as much of a ripple as adding a new friend or clicking a “like” button: there is not even of word of it on your “Recent Activity.”  Your removal and reinstatement has been processed without even a whisper to your friends.

 What assumptions and inferences can we make about FB in order to make this scenario seem more understandable?

Pledge of Allegiance

Written in 1892 by Baptist minister and Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy and first published  in the popular children’s magazine The Youth’s Companion to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus Day, and then adopted in public schools as part of the year’s Columbus Day observance, the original pledge, recited while standing at salute with arm extended toward the flag, was thus . . .

“I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Words ( for example, “. . . of America” . . . . “under God” . . .) have subsequently been added, and the so-called “Bellamy salute” was dropped in 1942 after we entered to war against the Germans, as the symbolism was too close for comfort . . .

When students from Edgerton High School’s Spanish class recited the Pledge of Allegiance over the school’s intercom, at least one parent, recently retired from the National Guard,  was angry enough to complain to school officials, arguing “I believe the troops based this country off the old American values and not the Spanish values” (, Thursday, March 13, 2008).  The editors at the Janesville Gazette have dedicated this week’s opinion poll to discovering community opinion on the issue: “Is it disrespectful to say the Pledge of Allegiance in a language other than English?”  As I am writing this essay, 67% of the readers responding agree that the pledge should only be done in English.

This topic strikes a chord for a variety of reasons, ranging from the debate over illegal immigrants, to job and salary protection, to the maintenance of a strong national identity. One cleavage issue concerns whether or not we believe that our country’s diversity is a positive or negative thing.  For those people wary of diversity, a popular argument is that as an American we should do things the way the majority does.  What we have in common is what unites us, and where we differ, we can look to the majority for the broadest sense of common ground.  At the level of policy, it follows that since the majority of this country speaks English, we should express our oaths of allegiance in this language.

As a linguist, I can understand this argument: language is a lot more than an instrument of communication; it is primarily the means through which we express our identity. So there is an interesting tension that results from Latino identity (expressed by using Spanish) laying claim to national allegiance.  At the same time I am very uncomfortable with a line of argument that seems universally objectionable as we consider its further applications, for if “we should do things the way the majority does,” does that mean that, since a majority of Americans identify themselves as Protestant Christians, it is un-American to be Islamic, Buddhist, Jewish, or Catholic? Does it mean that it is un-American to be Republican, given that there are more registered Democrats? Or does it mean that we should be suspicious of men, since women are in the (slight) numerical majority because of their relative longevity in relation to men? Does it mean that as we move away from the average IQ of 100, whether in a negative or positive direction, we are moving into enemy territory?  Traitors if we are too stupid or too smart?

I think that you will agree that the argument for majority rule can look pretty silly.  Many people think that America is relatively stable because of its relative linguistic homogeneity.  On the other hand, you have to look some before you find countries which have more ethnic, racial, religious, class, and economic diversity than the United States.  It is quite a big coincidence if our various successes have occurred entirely in spite of this diversity.

Photo at top: barracks at Auschwitz, where the “different people” were gathered before the ovens.

Does being an American mean only knowing one language?

“Prišla som, videla som, nechápem, odchádzam.” (I came, I saw, I don’t understand, I’m leaving . . .)

Recently, I found out that the university is considering adding a foreign language requirement for all UW-W students seeking a Bachelor of Arts degree: regardless of high school experience, at least two years of foreign language courses at the university. Though there are many institutional-internal reasons behind this movement, on a broader  dimension of what it takes to be a good global citizen,  there is the perception that American university students lack for foreign language skills.

As the world’s only superpower, the United States has its hands in every economy and culture around the globe.  In Europe, though only the United Kingdom and Ireland are English speaking countries, close to 50% of all business deals are brokered in English (Bryson 182).

When my brother, who lives in Dallas and works for the All-American  corporation  JCPenny, nevertheless must go to China, or India or Germany, to work on marketing products, his interpreters are native Chinese, Indian, and German.  The lynchpin of international communication, the person who makes the connection between nations, is more than likely to not be a native speaker of English, not an American.  And if language begets understanding, what does it say when so many foreigners know our language while we remain ignorant of theirs?

Rivaling America’s superpower status is the low regard so many other countries have for our nation.  A November 2006 opinion poll conducted by the British newspaper The Guardian found that President Bush was regarded as nearly the most dangerous person in the world, more dangerous than everyone except Bin-Laden, this coming from our closest ally in the world (Glover).

So that leaves me wondering if you, the professional class in training,  think there is a fundamental responsibility for US professionals trained in the humanities and arts-the communicators, the cultural vanguard–to have some foreign language skills.  Here we are in the middle of a presidential campaign where candidates from both parties are expounding on American values and goals, yet I haven’t heard anyone talking about the importance of being a good neighbor in the community of nations.  Is not the essential, core ingredient in moving down that road to be able to talk to at least one of our “neighbors” in their own language?  I just finished spending a year in Slovakia, in central Europe. Of all the people I met that had native-like fluency in both English and Slovak, none were native born Americans . . . . including all the embassy personnel I met . . . . . including the US Ambassador. Can any of these people fully appreciate the limitations (and appearance of arrogance) of  having to conduct all international business in (on?) our terms?

As it stands, the BS at UW-W requires additional math and lab sciences, the BA has a foreign language requirement that can be entirely discharged by retro credits from high school work on the college prep track.  There is also an acknowledged (extreme) deficiency in international experience among our students (last time I checked, UW-Eau Claire had something like 17% of its students having some international education; whereas our percentage was less than 1%).  More foreign language classes would in all probably increase interest in study abroad programs.

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way. New York:  Avon. 1990.

Glover, Julian. “British Believe Bush is more dangerous than Kim Jong-il.” The Guardian Limited. 3 Nov 2006. <,,1938434,00.html,,1938434,00.html>

Zen and the Act of being an American

One of the features of my job as a university professor is that I am always in an environment of young people: my classes are populated mostly by teenagers and twenty-somethings, and throughout the campus community, whether in the dining halls, library, department workroom, bookstore, or computer labs, UW-W students are at the counters.  One of my favorite places to go on campus is the Williams-Katchel fitness complex.  I have a year’s membership and work out in the spacious, well-appointed weight room nearly every day.   Every time I arrive, hand over my faculty ID to a student at the counter, who then files it away.  My customary encounter when I finish my work out and need to retrieve my ID card is to approach the desk . . .

Me: “Hi!”

Student: (Looks at me in anticipation, though without any verbal response)

Me: “Lencho” . . . . with an “L” . . . .  L-E-N-C-H-O . . .

Student: (Finds my ID card in the card file and hands it to me)

Me: “Thanks, you have a nice day.”

Student (optionally): “You too.”

There is something mildly disconcerting to me about this exchange, as it seems that it is hard for the student to actually play a verbal role in the conversation.   Although some of my colleagues think that students on our campus and across the nation are increasingly disrespectful and rude, I am reluctant to agree, and am more inclined to think that there is a linguistic explanation for this behavior:  in English, we have no simple grammatical program to allow different social classes to interact.   Like many European languages, Slovak has “T” forms and “V” forms, corresponding to when speakers are talking within their social network (= “T” form) or across the social divide (= “V” form).  Customarily, these distinctions are said to reflect the hierarchical relationship between speaker and audience, but my experience with American students makes me wonder if the honorific distinction in other languages not only instructs the nature of hierarchical conversation, but also in some crucial manner actually encourages it to take place.

My Slovak students could pop their heads into my office with the engaging yet deferential . . .

Slovak: “Dobrý deň, pan profesor, môžem vas vyrušovať?”

English: “Excuse me, sir, but may I disturb you for a second?”

Deference in English is not obligatorily displayed throughout the inflectional system of the language, as it is in Slovak (in the passage above, “vas” would be expressed “ta” in a conversation of “in-group” participants).  Instead, English requires  the use of titles and various rhetorical devices, leaving  an obsequious, groveling aftertaste that young people in the land where “all men are created equal” just naturally avoid.  In Slovak, class distinction is simply registered as it must simply to establish the full speaking context; there is nothing intentional or designing about it, hence no self-diminishing overtones.

Risking a certain amount of overstatement, Americans seem to live without role models or a sense of history.  This here-and-know, nobody-is-any-better-than-me, “zen” aspect of the American sensibility may have something to do with American can-do spirit, a sense of limitless possibilities, of personal innocence leading to a sense of entitlement.  However, knowing your place, and having a language which can readily express it in every act of communication is no small thing. There is an element of . . . . if not friendliness, maybe something akin to connectedness . . . that allows Slovaks across the age divide to talk to one another naturally, in fact, spurring them on to do so, and in the process, nurturing a kind of social involvement that I can only envy as a “Slovak living abroad.”