Temporal Bilingualism

Waka Waka

Shakira recorded a song for the most recent world cup that I don’t understand in terms of what it has to do with soccer, or sports, or the international unity that the world cup supposedly incites. The music video that goes with the song has a few clips of kids playing soccer, but as you might expect, it is mostly about the brevity of Shakira’s skirt. (And by that I mean the truth-telling obligation of her hips.)

Nevertheless, it is slightly catchy. And, Shakira recorded two versions of the song, one in Spanish, one in English. And even better, she was too lazy to record the different versions with different ensembles. So the instrumentation between the two is identical, and only the vocals differ. Which means that they are in-time parallel translations of each other.

This actually makes for some fun. You can listen to them side by side. Literally, one of the left, one on the right:

Edit: I removed the link. You can ask me for the file if you’re curious. I’ve still got it here somewhere.

I recommend headphones or good stereo separation of your speakers for maximal effect.

The interesting thing about this is that most people cannot normally produce two languages contemporaneously, so we don’t usually have to worry about filtering one out. But here you have to, and it’s hard, because the streams of language are produced by the same person, thus, in the same timbre, volume, pitch, etc.

American Sign Language

Also in kind, one of my roommates is a nearly native speaker of ASL. She started around the age of seven, and went to graduate school for her masters at a predominantly deaf school—they let some hearers in, like her, but everything’s taught in ASL. So she’s fluent, to say the least.

And when we’re at linguistics happy hour or some party, and some of the deaf linguists are there, she’ll often contemporaneously produce English and sign. Or vice-versa.

The thing is, it is vice-versa. Not both together. I can’t tell because I don’t know ASL, but she informs me that the two streams are not equivalent. One grammar suffers at the cost of producing the other. When she’s producing both, she says, the signs she makes are direct translations of disparate portions of the English. So it’s almost like a really bad computer translator that translates, very literally, one word or just a couple words at at time. So the deaf listeners, well, watchers, have to fill in the gaps.

Which is all to say that I’m skeptical that Thomas Jefferson really wrote parallel English and Greek with each hand. I believe that one of them must have suffered. I want to see the manuscripts. And also to know Greek. I don’t doubt that Jefferson was supremely intelligent, but producing two languages at once is something that is hardly ever useful, especially not in humanity’s history (we only have one set of vocal cords, and ASL is a relatively recent invention), and it is extremely taxing on brain power. We weren’t made for it, so I don’t think we can actually, really-truly, do it.

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One Response
  1. Chris Wolfe says:

    I like the chipmunks version of “Waka Waka”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXqGlMcKqbY
    On the other hand, Shakira is pretty damn good looking! I’m not sure which video I like more!

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