Friday, 3 April 2015

The Amazing Race 26, Episode 5

Bangkok (Thailand) - Munich (Germany) - Schliersee (Germany)

Some travellers might not interpret being sent to a Bavarian beer garden as a “challenge”, even if I’m in the dissenting faction that would argue for Belgium as the best destination for beer tourism.

There were other challenges for the cast of The Amazing Race 26 in this episode, however, that were both more difficult than carrying beer steins and more relevant to the reality of travel around the world.

Continuing this season’s theme of a trip around the world as an extended romantic “date”, one member of each two-person team of racers had to serenade their partner with a love song while on a ladder extending up to the balcony of a Bavarian cabin. They had to repeat this exercise until they were judged to have adequately covered the song. And to make things more interesting, each time they tried and failed, an extra (attired, like the racers for this challenge, in a “traditional” Bavarian costume) poured a bucket of water on their head from the balcony.

Contestants on The Amazing Race — like real world travellers who want to join locals in everything from karaoke to clubbing to religious festivals — have often been required to learn local songs and dances. The difficulty in this particular challenge seemed to lie mainly in the lyrics rather than the melody or rhythm, and in the fact that the song was in German, a language in which none of the racers assigned this task appeared to be conversant.

Enough with the jokes (video, transcript) about the difficulty of recognizing or pronouncing names and other words with unfamiliar phonemes or alphabets or writing systems. This is actually an important real-world travel skill which we have seen tested repeatedly on The Amazing Race over the years in a variety of contexts: Season 9, Season 16, Season 19, Season 24.

It’s sometimes necessary, and often useful, to be able to repeat a name or other word or phrase that we have heard spoken in a language we don’t understand, and/or to recognize it when we hear it said by someone else.

Technology can sometimes provide workarounds. If you can’t get someone to write down the name of the person, place, or thing you are looking for, or if you are in a place with low literacy, you might be able to get by with a cell phone recording of an audio clip. But you can’t count on that always being an option, even if you are carrying a cell phone and are willing to risk its theft by using it in public. (Mobile phones now far surpass wallets or jewelry as targets of pickpockets and snatch thieves, surpassed only by tablet computers that are even more conspicuous, harder to hold securely, and more valuable.)

Singing in a foreign language, as the racers had to do in this episode, is an interesting example because it is actually a common assignment even for people who don’t travel to places where foreign languages are spoken. It’s not just opera singers who routinely are called upon to sing in languages they may not understand. It’s a common assignment for members of local church choirs and many other amateur singing groups.

Having a partial but insufficient sense of the meaning of the words you are trying to sing (or speak) may help, but may also mislead you into using the intonation and placing stress on words and syllables in the same way that you would for the same parts of speech in English. That, of course, may be completely wrong.

Short of some level of functional ability in the language, what’s probably more useful, aside from a good musical ear for pitch and rhythm (which can be as important to comprehensibility in speech as in song) is having a sense of the vocabulary of phonemes used and not used in the language. What are the sounds in this language that have no counterpart in English? And what are the sounds in English that have no counterpart in this language?

If you are trying to make notes for yourself, or to annotate something written in a foreign language so that you will remember how to pronounce it, what code can you develop for yourself? It doesn’t have to be either the writing system that is used in the foreign language, or a standard phonetic scheme, but it does have to work for yourself as an aid to acoustic memory, reproduction, and recognition. Published phrasebooks often try to use their own ad hoc and informal phonetic codes, but in my experience these don;t work very well.

Do you sing in foreign languages? How do you learn and remember words you don’t understand, especially if they include sounds that don’t occur in English or your native language? Please share your tips and techniques in the comments.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 3 April 2015, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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