Tolerance has limits

I’m not a huge follower of Masterchef, but did come across an episode where Raheel the vegetarian couldn’t face up to butchering a duck. I’m usually one to stand up for minority groups, especially those who face discrimination.  Around the world, there are many people groups who do not eat meat for religious or philosophical reasons. This is to be respected. By my estimates, at least 1/3 of the world’s population comprise of people who do not eat at least one type of meat. Sometimes a huge meat-eating nation like New Zealand may have difficulty grasping this.

Coming back to Masterchef, some may argue that it’s not fair to ask a vegetarian to cook a whole duck.

But what do you expect? Anyone with any clue what

the show is about will realise that competitors are required to cook all sorts of dishes including non-halal, non-kosher, preparing; using every conceivable ingredient including meat, alcohol and whatever else the judges demand. That’s what you sign up for.

Simon Gault’s writeup on why he ejected Raheel is illuminating.

There are good reasons why individuals shouldn’t be forced to cook or eat anything which goes against their beliefs.  But you waive this right when you put yourself on a TV cooking show.

Chinese vs Kiwi approach to using the library

Interesting incident at the Parnell library (behind our Euroasia Parnell campus) today. Chinese lady walked up to counter with granddaughter, wanting to return a book. She said this in Chinese but obviously the Kiwi librarian had no clue what she was on about. Chinese lady asked granddaughter to translate. But the 3 year-old looked clueless. In the midst of the confusion I walked up to assist.

I explained to the Chinese lady that returns simply go into the box.

Chinese lady was shocked. She

asked how would the library know if the book was returned. What if the book goes missing?

I asked her not to worry but she wasn’t convinced. I explained to her this is how it works and assured her the books are safe.

It’s difficult for Kiwis to understand what the fuss is all about. Why can’t these Chinese folk just drop their books in the returns box like everyone else?

It’s also difficult for Chinese to understand why books aren’t returned over the counter. Who’s responsible if the books are stolen?

It’s inevitable. Our history and upbringing influence the

way we think and act.

The language you use affects your ability to save money

Why do some people save more than others? Germans save 10 percentage points more than the British do (as a fraction of GDP), while Estonians and Chinese save a whopping 20 percentage points more than Greeks and Indians. Economists think a lot about what drives people to save, but many of these international differences remain unexplained. In this TED Talk,  discover why countries differ not only in how much their residents save for the future, but also how their native speakers talk about the future.  The presenter is behavioral economist Keith Chen.

The best bit:

So for example,

if I’m speaking in English, I have to speak grammatically differently if I’m talking about past rain, “It rained yesterday,” current rain, “It is raining now,” or future rain, “It will rain tomorrow.” Notice that English requires a lot more information with respect to the timing of events. Why? Because I have to consider that and I have to modify what I’m saying to say, “It will rain,” or “It’s going to rain.” It’s simply not permissible in English to say, “It rain tomorrow.”

In contrast to that, that’s almost exactly what you would say in Chinese. A Chinese speaker can basically say something that sounds very strange to an English speaker’s ears. They can say, “Yesterday it rain,” “Now it rain,” “Tomorrow it rain.” In some deep sense, Chinese doesn’t divide up the time spectrum in the same way that English forces us to constantly do in order to speak correctly.

Is this difference in languages only between very, very distantly related languages, like English and Chinese? Actually, no. So many of you know, in this room, that English is a Germanic language. What you may not have realized is that English is actually an outlier. It is the only Germanic language that requires this. For example, most other Germanic language speakers feel completely comfortable talking about rain tomorrow by saying, “Morgen regnet es,” quite literally to an English ear, “It rain tomorrow.”

This led me, as a behavioral economist, to an intriguing hypothesis. Could how you speak about time, could how your language forces you to think about time, affect your propensity to behave across time? You speak English, a futured language. And what that means is that every time you discuss the future, or any kind of a future event, grammatically you’re forced to cleave that from the present and treat it as if it’s something viscerally different. Now suppose that that visceral difference makes you subtly dissociate the future from the present every time you speak. If that’s true and it makes the future feel like something more distant and more different from the present, that’s going to make it harder to save. If, on the other hand, you speak

a futureless language, the present and the future, you speak about them identically. If that subtly nudges you to feel about them identically, that’s going to make it easier to save.

 Figure below measures the percent of time weather forecasts use future vs. present tenses

Graph of Future Tense Use

How babies learn language

Fascinating research on how words are “born”. Deb Roy studies how his own son acquires language and use new words. In an effort to understand how children learn words, he wired his home with bird’s-eye view cameras and microphones for three years to collect data on his son. The home videos begin with his son’s arrival home from the hospital and end at the age of 3 years, offering Roy and his team unprecedented access to real-life moments in the language learning process.

As my students and I immersed ourselves in over 200,000 hours of home audio and video recordings, we began thinking of language acquisition as a series of “word births.” With a near-complete record of life at home over the first two years of my son’s life, we were able to pinpoint each time he learned to say a new word. We could then trace back in time to find each occasion where he heard that word from caregivers — the “gestation” period leading to the word’s birth.

It’s amazing to see 2 year olds use new words,  somehow managing to make sense of it all.

To visualize the gestation period of words, another of my students, Philip DeCamp developed “wordscapes,” a collage of human movement traces extracted from all the video moments when my son heard a particular word. I showed examples of wordscapes in my TED talk, but we had yet to analyze their relationship to word births. Recently, my student Matt Miller found that wordscapes are surprisingly predictive of the timing of word births. Words with unique wordscapes tend to be learned earlier and more easily, at least for my son. This finding suggests ways that we can help children learn language more effectively by manipulating the non-linguistic contexts in which they experience language.

The results of this research could transform the way language is taught to adults. Teaching a foreign language effectively in as short a period as possible is the holy grail for language educators.  Euroasia will certainly be keeping an eye on developments in this


New Zealand best place to be a working woman

It’s not surprising that if you’re a working woman, New Zealand is the place to be.

The Economist compiled a “glass-ceiling index” to show where women have the best chance of equal treatment at work. It compares five indicators across 26 countries: the number of men and women respectively with tertiary education; female labour-force participation; the male-female wage gap; the proportion of women in senior jobs; and net child-care costs relative to the average wage. The first four are given equal weighting, the fifth a lower one, since not all working women have children.

New Zealand

scores high on all the indicators. Finland does best

on education; Sweden has the highest female labour-force participation rate, at 78%; and Spain has the smallest wage gap, at 6%. The places not to be are South Korea and Japan.

Chinese vs English family tree – language reflects culture

Language reflects the underlying culture. In a Western context, the family typically refers to the nuclear family – father, mother, sister, brother.  Your father’s brother is your uncle. So is your mother’s brother.

Did you know in the Chinese language there’s a lot more fine-tuning:

Uncle (Father’s older brother)

English: Uncle –

Father’s older brother
Pinyin: bó fù
Chinese: 伯父
Audio Pronunciation

Uncle (Father’s younger brother)

English: Uncle – Father’s younger brother
Pinyin: shū fù
Chinese: 叔父
Audio Pronunciation

Uncle (Mother’s brother)

English: Uncle – Mother’s brother
Pinyin: jiù jiu
Chinese: 舅舅
Audio Pronunciation

In Chinese culture, the

“family” goes beyond the nuclear family, and includes members of the extended family, so various terms have been developed to allow a greater appreciation of where everyone fits in.

Check out this youtube clip which demonstrates the Chinese family tree. It’s brilliant!

Long overdue hate mail from random stranger

So I return to the office to find some random stranger’s message on my voicemail telling me why I should leave New Zealand. I do get some hate mail every now and then, usually after I stand up for wealthy Chinese investors, poor migrant workers or ripped off international students. Even seemingly innocent comments

like why Kiwis must learn a foreign language can attract criticism. But the all-time record for hate mail received would’ve been in mid-2009 when I stood up in defence of some poor Tongan who barbecued and consumed dog meat.

Not unexpectedly, this Pacific Islander was publicly crucified at the time and never heard from again.  My controversial blog article explaining why I don’t think we can ban people from eating dog meat made some people very upset. I can understand why. In summary, the main reason we can’t eat dogs is because dogs are cute and why eat a “man’s best friend”? There’s plenty of other meat we can eat. I’m fine with that, as I would never eat dog meat myself.

But it doesn’t mean we change the law to prevent others from doing so.

You can read the story on The furore quickly died down and I completely forgot about this. So Scotty-come-lately calls me up from Christchurch probably after reading a 3 year old newspaper under his bed to abuse me over my long-forgotten comments to a journalist regarding

this case.

You can hear the voicemail for yourself here: 

So here we have another guy intent on getting people like me (ie. Asians) out of New Zealand. Never mind the comments were inaccurately attributed to me. Don’t let facts get in the way. And when you’re arguing with a Chinaman and all else fails, the standard line is “go home to China”. Or South Korea. Or, when in doubt, “Asia”. What the heck all Asians are the same anyway.

Obviously I didn’t bother to return his call, but of course he is most welcome to contribute to the debate by commenting below.  I should probably exercise some restraint. After all, it wouldn’t be a good look if the Chinaman had superior English language skills.

What are Kiwi values? Who is Kiwi?

Sometimes I’m asked what are Kiwis like. What makes someone Kiwi? This is a tough question. The other day I posted a guest blog by Dr Phillipa Smith on what it means to be Kiwi, which she studied for her PhD topic.

I’ve been thinking about this some more. I don’t have a PhD on this topic. But I have lived and worked in New Zealand for a very long time. And I regularly provide cross-cultural consulting services to large corporate clients.

Not everyone will agree with me and at the risk of stereotyping here, I think there are a couple of defining features. As I grew up in Malaysia and still very much Chinese, my views are also coloured by my values, upbringing and inevitable comparison with my home culture.

1) Kiwis are hard working.

I regularly come across people (mostly Asians) who tell me that Kiwis are lazy. They like to sit on their bums and not do any work. Of course there will always be lazy buggers who do nothing but wait for the dole. But the overwhelming majority are not like that, and in fact the average Kiwi works harder and longer than the rest of the developed world. Because Kiwis are usually pretty relaxed about most things (refer point 3), foreigners and new migrants naturally assume they are lazy.  Having said that, the average Chinese person would certainly work longer hours so it comes back to the point of comparison.

2) Kiwis are creative.

Partly this is due to scarcity and distance. Almost everything (including houses of course) in New Zealand is more expensive than in the United States. And incomes here are pretty low for a developed country. Hence people have to be creative.

I’m still constantly amazed at how people here find simple (and cheap) solutions to problems. Maybe because where I grew up, you simply paid someone else (a pittance) to get the job done. Hence I’ve never had to do any DIY growing up. I’m still woefully inept with DIY tools, but I’ve learnt so much simply from getting work around the house done by myself.

For such a small country (of 4m) to produce Oscar-winning movie directors (Peter Jackson) and creative gurus (Kevin Roberts) is indeed quite an achievement.

3) Kiwis are relaxed and laid back.

For the past decade I have had the privilege of working with pretty diverse colleagues from all over the world. The dozen or so people who work at Euroasia Auckland represent a dozen or so countries. I’m hard pressed to think of any race more calm and composed than Kiwis. It’s generally not very acceptable to show your temper.  People use humour or sarcasm to convey difficult messages, and direct confrontations are generally rare. Having said that, people are also honest so they do tell you what they think.

The implications are that people don’t care too much about what school you went to, what car you drive or what clothes you wear. If you’ve just come from Hong Kong and put on a fat gold chain and a gold Rolex too big for your wrist, holding on to an LV man bag, people will look at you, but not in the same way they would in HK/China. Kiwis will be secretly laughing at how stupid you look.

2 days ago I drove down Queen Street and spotted a Chinese guy, who looked like he was 20, parking his brand new Maserati in a loading zone (no parking) in front of Starbucks. He got out of the car with his girlfriend, dangling his car keys in one hand and an iPhone 5 in the other; looked around to see who’s looking at him as his girlfriend popped into one of the shops.

Most Kiwis who witnessed this scene will feel very differently to the Asians.

Obviously those of you who regularly travel to Asia understand things work differently there. A few months ago, I was in China with my friend who drove his new Mercedes into a carpark. The moment the attendant saw his car (who drives the car is immaterial), he dropped what he was doing, stopped the traffic and guided my friend to the best available spot by the entrance, removed the cones whilst saying loudly in Chinese “this is where I put the luxury cars; don’t worry I’ll keep an eye on your car”.

It’s really not that fun living in New Zealand if you expect special treatment by virtue of your wealth. If on the other hand, you’re an amazing rugby player that would be a different matter.

4) All Kiwis are created equal

You may have heard that New Zealand is probably one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. It is in fact the case. It’s fairly easy to walk up to the Prime Minister at a function and talk to him about whatever issue there is on your mind.  He may not agree with you, but he will listen and you won’t be dragged away by overzealous bodyguards. It’s fairly common to spot MPs and Ministers around town. Without

20 bodyguards and 30 assistants in the entourage. Even Cabinet Ministers do not have servants around the house, let alone ordinary folk. CEOs talk to cleaners in the lift and stand in line at the supermarket. Just like everyone else.

However the flip side of this is that Kiwis can also be pretty irreverent. Some Kiwis see leaders as equals and hence not worth listening to. Sometimes I feel people protest too much and there’s little respect for authority. I cannot imagine why we let people who whack cops get away with it. The punishment meted needs to better match the crime committed.

It’s pretty difficult to execute long term plans because politicians have to keep worrying about what people think. A highway that takes 2 years to build in Malaysia could take 20 years here simply because of the desire to please everyone.

Work-life balance is very important for Kiwis. Being able to go out surfing after work or just laze on the beach.all weekend (while many Singaporeans are still hard at work) is a key part of being Kiwi.

4) Kiwis value fairplay and cheer the underdog.

One of the most respected Kiwis of all time died a few years ago. His body was lying in state at the church around the corner from where I lived. I was driving home one evening and saw a queue probably a few kilometre long, Kiwis young and old waiting in the cold to get in. I didn’t think it was possible, but Kiwis were sadder than when the All Blacks lost to France at the World Cup.

It would be impossible to find a better known Kiwi than Sir Edmund Hillary. There were other better equipped and talented professional mountain climbers all vying for the coveted prize of being the first man on Everest. And we have a Kiwi beekeeper who made it there first. The underdog. He didn’t care too much for publicity or accolades. He just got on with it and devoted most of his life to helping the Sherpa people, building schools and hospitals in Nepal.

Kiwis like to downplay their achievements. Kiwis hate show-offs.

Compared with most people, Kiwis are pretty open and not very guarded, as they generally expect everyone to play fair. So getting ahead by ripping off others may make you some money, but will earn you no respect. New Zealand is like a big village. If you want to keep doing business in this country for a long time, you have to play fair and follow the rules.

If you have the ability to laugh at yourself, you will make friends.

5) Kiwis “just do it”

The quickest way to be hated by everyone is to start complaining and whinging about everything. Kiwis don’t like complainers. They like people who come up with solutions and get the job done. Because New Zealand is small country, there isn’t the same degree of specialisation as you would find in bigger countries. Hence people seem to have the ability to do just about anything and everything.

The flip side is that there is a general inability amongst many to seek advice. Kiwi businesspeople are not very ambitious and comfortable with keeping their companies small. I don’t think this is because they lack the ability to grow their businesses. It’s simply because life is good in Godzone. Why rock the boat if you have more than you need? This is partly the reason why you are hard pressed to find a global Kiwi brand when New Zealand produces a disproportionate number of creative people who do pretty well offshore.

Well, this is not an exhaustive list. I’m sure there are things I missed – you’re welcome to add to the comments.  Just a couple of things that come to mind on a Friday morning. Now time for the beach…

Who's afraid of grammar?

Very often people are quite relaxed about the idea of learning vocabulary: the Italian for ‘table’ is ‘tavola’, the Japanese for ‘car’ is ‘kuruma’. OK, no big deal. You learn the words and you’re half way there.

The problem sometimes comes with the second half to get you the whole way there. That second half is perhaps what we generally call ‘grammar’. Conscious that this little word terrifies people, writers of course books sometimes avoid it altogether: instead, they have sections called ‘structures’ or ‘language patterns’. Although we at Euroasia don’t avoid the g-word in its entirety, we do re-assure people that we try to avoid the difficult stuff as much as possible.

In actual fact, far from being the language learner’s enemy, grammar is the learner’s friend. Instead
of complicating things, grammar simplifies them.

Just think a little about English grammar. Sometimes native speakers of English state, with undue modesty, that they don’t know much about English grammar, because they never learnt it at school. In fact, native speakers of every language have an excellent

knowledge of the grammar underpinning their particular language. You learnt most elements of English grammar well before you started school; you acquired it alongside the words that you learnt as an infant.

Grammar is essentially the principles which determine how we put words together to form coherent
utterances. It’s grammar that obliges us to say, “Yesterday John spoke these words” and not, “Yesterday John speak this word”. It’s grammar that determines that we can put together a whole series of words and create a combination as amazing as, “Had I seen her, I might have been able to convince her.” If we were to describe the grammatical principles which underlie the various elements of that sentence and the way they’re combined, we’d need at least a full page in which to do so.

If it weren’t for grammar, language would just be a set of disconnected words, and much of the subtle meanings which we’re able to convey would be lost.

In identifying grammatical points, grammarians look for patterns. In English, for example, we say, “I sing’ but ‘he sings’ and ‘she sings’. Once it’s been seen that other verbs like ‘sing’ also add an ‘s’ after ‘he’ and ‘she’ in this particular tense, a grammar point is

identified. Now we as native speakers of English know this instinctively: we didn’t learn it consciously. However, having identified the point, we can then proceed to use it when we explain the English language to people who are not native speakers of the language.

You might argue that, if native speakers of a language learn the grammar subconsciously (just by being exposed to it, in fact), we as adult learners of a language ought to be able to do the same. The trouble is that our brains are very different from infant brains – we’ve already been conditioned to relate to our own mother tongue, and other languages are in a sense quite alien. While we would probably pick up the grammar if we were exposed to it over a long period of time, it’s much easier for teachers just to draw our attention to it so that we can make an effort to understand, remember and assimilate it.

Grammar is a shortcut: it makes language learning easier, not harder. When teachers present grammar, or  when you read up on it in your handbook after the class, you’re benefiting from having various patterns pointed out to you. What we have done is to grade the patterns according to difficulty and introduce you bit by bit to the elements which you most need to know. (Actually, the best teachers initially encourage you to work out the patterns yourself from the examples which they have carefully selected and presented to you.) Instead of listening to hundreds of examples, all jumbled up, and somehow working out a whole range of underlying patterns, you have the patterns neatly ordered and spread out for your delectation!

And that is grammar – a series of beautiful patterns. Of course, you need to practise your grammar so that what may first of all come across as unusual eventually becomes second nature. The more you can go over the patterns to yourself, the quicker you will assimilate them. Try taking one basic pattern and then substituting one word for another. You know how to say, ‘I’d like some cheese’? OK, so now can you replace ‘cheese’ with another word and still get the grammar to work? One objection people raise to the idea of learning grammar is that there always seem to be exceptions. You carefully learn a pattern, see it working in a variety of contexts, but then, lo and behold, along comes an exception. It’s an irregular verb, or we need a different ending in this particular case. B****r! You didn’t tell me about that, did you? Well, no, we didn’t, because if we told you about every possible exception right from the beginning, the explanation would be too complicated, and you’d probably give up and miss out on all the useful patterns which work in 90% or so of all the situations you’ll encounter.

Take English, overflowing as it is with exceptions of every kind. Well, the plural of ‘sheep’ is ‘sheep’, of ‘woman’ it’s ‘women’, and of ‘ox’ (should you wish to use this word for some strange reason) it’s ‘oxen’. But isn’t it still worthwhile learning the basic pattern, which of course is that we form plurals by adding an ‘s’? After all, that’s the way most words work…

Don’t be scared of grammar. Go for it! Honestly, it’s there to help you.