Wednesday, September 30, 2009

TV Can Be Good for You


When I was in Chile earlier this year I had a conversation in English with a local teenager at my hostel while she folded laundry. Her grandfather Jaime owns the place, and though he seems to understand a lot of English, his speaking is terrible. Many Chileans don’t speak any at all, though, so I asked her how she became so fluent.

“I just watched all the English TV shows and movies here when I was a little girl. I remember when I was about eight years old, my mom finally said to me, ‘¿Por qué estás viendo eso? No puede entenderlo.’ But I could understand. Once I had started learning how to read, picking up English became even easier, but I had probably understood a good bit even before then, just like any kid does from just watching.”

Of course, I thought. If we had all had constant access to foreign language shows growing up, we could already have a solid understanding of a second language by the time we graduated elementary school. If only I had grown up in a country that imported much of its best media from a country with a different language . . . well, obviously this is a lot less likely to happen in the U.S. But wouldn’t it be great if there were one channel on standard issue free television, like an alternative (non-profit channel) that has only shows in Spanish, with English subtitles? Or, though to a less effective extent, at least one that offers Spanish subtitles on every kid’s show and a few of the adult shows, too? It would still be a matter of encouraging a child to prefer that station over others, but something that is well within the grasp of our powerful corporate station owners. Not only would this take advantage of the wired-in ability of young children to pick up language more easily than learning to tie their own shoes, it would also help them recognize the validity of another culture. This is pretty much the opposite of what the U.S. does right now.

The last time I watched a TEDtalk I noticed that I could choose to have this particular one subtitled in 14 different languages. Though it was already in English I chose Danish since I’m in Denmark, and the majority of words I’ve learned have been through watching English movies or shows translated into Danish text. I'm aware this isn't even close to a new idea, but it's well worth emphasizing--why not watch TV and learn a language at the same time?

As an adult with a brain every day looking more like pumice than sponge, I can of course opt to watch every DVD I see with its available subtitles or buy cable (doubtful, seeing as how I haven't had a working TV in several years) and watch foreign language channels. I can also now go to the TEDtalks website and find the ones that both interest me and offer subtitles in the language I want to pick up. Since I want to work on my Spanish I have more options than those who are attempting to pick up Cantonese, but the options are growing quickly. TED is enlisting volunteer translators as part of their enlightenment army, and anyone can join and turn in translations (which will of course be reviewed by another fluent speaker before they attach it). Sounds like something teachers could encourage students to do for extra credit—translate your favorite not-yet-subtitled TEDtalk or any favorite speech into your studied language, and not only do you make Teacher happy you can literally help educate others when the translation is uploaded to the web. Fantastic.

From TED’s website:
“Along with subtitles, every talk on now features a time-coded, interactive transcript, which allows users to select any phrase and have the video play from that point. The transcripts are fully indexable by search engines, exposing previously inaccessible content within the talks themselves. For example, searching on Google for "green roof" will ultimately help you find the moment in architect William McDonough's talk when he discusses Ford's River Rouge plant, and also the moment in Majora Carter's talk when she speaks of her green roof project in the South Bronx. Transcripts will index in all available languages.

The interplay between the video, subtitles and transcript create what we call a Rosetta Stone effect. You can watch, for example, an English talk, with Korean subtitles and an Urdu transcript. Click on an Urdu phrase in the transcript, and the speaker will say it to you in English, with Korean subtitles running right-to-left below. It’s captivating.”

With statistics like these below, a lot of kids could probably be performing the translations themselves by high school:

  • Approximate number of studies examining TV's effects on children: 4,000
  • Number of minutes per week that the average child watches television: 1,680
  • Percentage of day care centers that use TV during a typical day: 70
  • Hours per year the average American youth spends in school: 900 hours
  • Hours per year the average American youth watches television: 1500
                              -- California State University

I’m a huge fan of Academic Earth as well, the website that offers actual university classes for online public viewing, where I can see brilliant professors from schools like MIT, Stanford, and Yale that some families are refinancing homes to let their kids listen to while I watch for FREE. Academic Earth has yet to offer translations, though, so I save those talks for when I am working on something a little mindless like assembling an Ikea TV stand or cleaning house, and can simply listen while only occasionally watching. No, you can’t ask questions or ask for feedback from these professors, but if you need to you can play their words over again until you get the gist of their subject, or you can simply switch them off should you not enjoy it. Who hasn’t wanted to do that in class before?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

One More Week in Copenhagen...

Yep. I'm pretty ambivalent about leaving. I mean, this place is frickin' amazing, between the biking everywhere, the overwhelming amount of nature all over the city, the canals you can swim in at 4am when you've had way too much wine and nothing seems more natural than downtown skinny-dipping, the fact that there is ALWAYS something happening--festivals, jazz fests, free outdoor movies, parades, demonstrations, gang-related drive-by shootings (actually, that's relatively recent and not so common). Of course I'll miss my Great Dane, and not only his incredible cooking (I swear).

I've been hatching so many plans for my time back in the States, though, that I can't help but be excited to return. It's not just that I'll see my friends and Ollie Cat for the first time in over three months, it's that the weather will be perfect in South Carolina, and once again I'll have my porch to sit on, along with the lovely neighborhood surrounding it. I'll be able to relax outside in the mornings and evenings for hours if I want to and just listen to the cicadas and the owls. Annabelle, the lonely Jack Russel next door, will join me on walks again. I'll be able to ride my motorcycle again (yes yes yes!)! Ooh, and my longboard! My car! All my wheels!

And finally, I'll be going rock climbing again. I could have done so here if I'd wanted to, in a gym, anyway (for about $12 a visit--yuck), or I could have spent a few weekends in Sweden like last year, but this year was different. I tried to spend not very much money as well as spend as much time with the important people here as humanly possible. I figured taking yet another long break from climbing would let me heal my nagging shoulder injuries and clean the bad climbing habits out of my head. But now it's back to the New River Gorge for me, back to scaling the sandstone walls of West Virginia (at least until encroaching mountaintop removal finally makes all the rivers run black), it's back to great dinners with friends, campfires, and great parties.

By January I'll have to have figured out how to swing the nutrition school in New York thing, which will likely be a combination of some weekends in class and the off-weeks living and climbing more cheaply near the Gunks, but who knows? I always wanted to live in New York City for a little while, at least while I'm still young and unencumbered by the crap everyone else seems to be chained to. What makes this even better is that one of my most wonderful friends ever, Erin, is taking the same course, so we can team up and tackle the living situation, studying, traveling/commuting, socializing, or even each other should we need to. I'll be able to more easily convince overseas friends to come visit since NYC is cheap to fly into, and for that matter, if I should decide I need to travel somewhere NOW, fares will be cheap and flights everywhere will be available, no hour and a half drive to the Charlotte airport required. Plus, the shows! Great music everywhere! Nonstop people-watching!

Oh, the possibilities. I feel my muscles twitch every time I think about it (which is pretty much constantly).

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sustainable Architecture at Its Most Magnificent

If you're a fan of incredible architecture and sustainable design, check out this TED talk by the brilliant and funny Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. It could blow your mind.

A couple of weeks ago I rode my bike by this apartment building Ingles not only designed but lives next door to. I spend a lot of hours each week riding around Copenhagen taking bad pictures of design I think is beautiful. Many of the houses in the neighborhoods in the Copenhagen suburbs are exercises in brilliance, often petite but loaded with charm in the form of second story porches, walls of sliding glass doors, large sun-filled kitchens connected to warm and inviting living rooms, and private and cozy gardens filled with fruit trees and flowering vines enclosed by fences made of stripped branches. That there is a park within a ten minute walk of anywhere in Copenhagen doesn't hurt their appeal, either. Lakes are literally everywhere here, there are dedicated bike lanes and traffic lights on all main roads, and all patches of vegetation more than a few meters long have some kind of edible fruit within them.

Indulge yourself here for 18 minutes--you'll no doubt finish this video more optimistic about how sustainable architecture could be a big part of saving our future.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I'm terrible.

Terrible at posting a blog, that is. I do a lot of writing lately as I have loads of time on my hands here in Copenhagen, but it's mostly letters. I spend at least a couple of hours a day just writing people e-mails, and though I usually start out each letter with the intention of only writing a few sentences or passing on a worthy link, I more often wind up writing the equivalent of several pages. My letters become my diary of sorts.

I've probably received about twenty journals as gifts in my life, and have never made it more than ten percent of the way through any one of them. My e-mails, though--they are a chronicle of my friendships, boyfriends, breakups, family issues, temporary obsessions--and they have been spewed out with far greater abandon than they would have had I sat down with pen and paper. That said, I still always have a tiny journal with me most of the time. I think using a pen versus a keyboard accesses a different part of my brain, as if writing more slowly allows for less free-association and encourages a little more focus. My typed letters tend to be a series of tangents. My handwritten stuff can be tangential, too, but it's far more controlled and I usually wind up inspiring actual well thought-out ideas.

(In the distance you can see a few hundred deer waiting for dusk to fall in Dyrehavn. Then the barking, the mating, and the head-butting begin.)

Today I copied a link to to send to my brother, titled "The World Needs You to Do What You Love." The blog was exactly what I needed to read right now, and I knew he could use it, too. But then I had to preface it with a little introduction. First, I let him know I officially signed up for nutrition school, and I knew that it would help me to write out exactly why this was going to be amazing for me, that I knew I had some self-defeating habits I need to crush, and then, of course, I had to tell him why I thought I had them in the first place. I figured he might get something out of it, considering we had the same crazy parents, we have similar insecurities, we have similar questions about how to fix ourselves ... you get the picture. I moved it to Word so I could see it all laid out in front of me better, and I wound up typing 2,500 words. Whoops.

When I talk I don't tend to be long-winded, and when I write I deeply value brevity. After spending over an hour just typing the stream of thoughts through my head, though, I did not want to go back and make it shorter. What's great is that I know it doesn't matter to him. I know he'll enjoy it, that he'll read every word, and that mistakes don't matter all that much to him. What matters most is that he has a glimpse inside my head, and we grow a little closer as a result.

I think this is the biggest reason why I would rather write an e-mail any day than scribble in my journal. I like knowing that not only do I have a record of my thoughts, I have shared it with one other person, and for me it's a lot safer than writing my secrets down on a journal that could be found by anyone. I've gone back to old e-mails over and over, and sometimes I'm extremely surprised by the bizarre headspace I was in at the time. If it had been taken out of context and shown to me, I often wouldn't recognize it as my own writing.

What makes it monumentally more rewarding than writing in a journal, however, is the response. I don't expect novellas in kind, but any acknowledgment at all lets me know I've connected.