How Morality Changes in a Foreign Language

Language and culture are so very closely related and intertwined. Many say we can’t truly understand a culture without speaking the language. Others say we can’t effectively use a language without knowing the culture; without cultural context we are “fluent fools.”

Multilinguals know that our behaviors and ways of thinking change when we speak various languages, but do our morals also vary? A few fascinating studies have been conducted recently that shed light on how our moral compasses shift when we operate in different languages. English-French-Czech speaker Julie Sedivy summarizes the results of such research very ably in an article in Scientific American.

She reports that one study, about hypothetical responses to a trolley accident (should we sacrifice one person to save five?), shows that our moral decision-making shifts when we are speaking a language that is not a native one. A second research project, this one involving participants’ responses to morally reprehensible behavior (sex with a sibling, eating one’s pet after it has died), had similar findings: actions are judged less wrong when read in a non-native language.

Why is this? One hypothesis is that when we speak a non-native language, we are more deliberate; we circumvent our quick “gut” reaction and consider the greatest good for the greatest number. Another possibility is that our childhood language(s) are filled with more emotional connections than are academically acquired languages; thus, our responses are different, depending on the language in which we are operating.

Bilinguals, for example, are more likely to recall a memory if they are prompted in the language in which the event took place, according to one study. Yet another research project went deeper, showing that the emotional response to taboo words—and especially to reprimands (so common in childhood)—were statistically stronger in one’s native language. Study participants often reported that they “heard” the reprimands in the “voice” of a close relative.

A study published in the journal Cognition showed that people placed greater weight on outcomes and less on intentions when making moral judgments in a non-native language. Examples in this study included good intentions/bad outcomes, such as giving a homeless person a new jacket, and then the recipient gets beaten up when someone steals it from him; and good outcomes spurred by dubious motives, such as a family adopting a disabled child in order to receive money from the government. These results would seem to support the idea that people have more muted emotional responses/less empathy or sympathy in a non-native language.

None of the studies, of course, show us what a multilingual person’s “true” moral self is. Julie’s conclusion summarizes this paradox:

“Is it my moral memories, the reverberations of emotionally charged interactions that taught me what it means to be ‘good’? Or is it the reasoning I’m able to apply when free of such unconscious constraints? Or perhaps, this line of research simply illuminates what is true for all of us, regardless of how many languages we speak: that our moral compass is a combination of the earliest forces that have shaped us and the ways in which we escape them.”

Cultural Detective will not teach you a foreign language, but using it will help you to get into the mindset of those you work with, live in community with, or love. Using Cultural Detective Self Discovery will deepen your understanding of your personal values and moral guidelines, while Cultural Detective Blended Culture can help you understand how our values and moral compass shift when we define ourselves as a mix of ethnicities, races, religions, or nationalities. Exploring Cultural Detective Global Business Ethics allows us to sharpen our understanding of ethics and morals across cultures, while Cultural Detective Global Teamwork enables us to navigate and bridge the differences. All of these packages are among the 67 packages included in any subscription to Cultural Detective Online. At just $35US/user, it is an incredible value on the investment, offering personalized coaching and group collaboration. Learn more about a subscription today!

Think One Person Can’t Do Much?

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Stroke order for capital letters in Adlam, photo from The Atlantic

How about two? This is the story of a childhood dream and lifelong passion and perseverance.

We start our story when two Guinean brothers—Abdoulaye and Ibrahima Barry—are 10 and 14 years old. They loved school, and were frustrated that their native language, Fulani, didn’t have its own writing system.

Fulani is a traditionally oral language spoken by about 40 million Fula people across western and central Africa. Like so many oral languages worldwide, people end up transcribing them using an existing script—they superimpose a foreign alphabet onto an existing oral language. This type of practice is rather imperialistic and it usually doesn’t work very well. Such was the case with Japanese, an oral language written in Chinese characters until Prince Shohtoku invented two indigenous syllabaries for the language—hiragana and katakana—in the tenth century. Today Japanese remains a complicated written system of four different scripts, if we include the Chinese kanji, the two kana syllabaries, and the Latin romaji to which it’s often transliterated.

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Distribution map of major populations of the Fula people, Wikipedia

In the case of Fulani, it was usually written using Arabic script. But, just like romaji, or Latin characters in Japanese, there were no consistent rules, so reading was difficult. It meant that every Fulani reader had to learn Arabic in order to read and, to make matters worse, the Arabic letters didn’t capture the Fulani sounds. The Latin alphabet is even worse with Fulani pronunciation. According to Kaveh Waddell, author of the wonderfully written Adlam: The Alphabet that will Save a People from Disappearing, “Neither the Arabic nor the Latin alphabets could accurately spell Fulani words that require producing a ‘b’ or a ‘d’ sound while gulping in air, for example, so Fulani speakers had modified both alphabets with new symbols—often in inconsistent ways.”

The Barry brothers loved to draw, so they took it upon themselves to create a script for Fulani—and it only took the school boys six months! Their new alphabet spread quickly and came to be called “Adlam”—its first four letters. The script’s name is also an acronym for a phrase meaning, “the alphabet that will save a people from disappearing.”

Adlam is written right to left, and Fulani’s five vowels each have their own letters. “One of the things that’s really hindering progress in Africa and Guinea in particular,” Ibrahima told Waddell, “is we spend so many resources learning new languages even though we already have languages that we can use to develop our countries.”

The boys taught Adlam to friends and family, and had the inspired idea to ask each student to teach three others. They transcribed school books using the new script, and in junior high started teaching larger groups of people in markets and neighborhoods. Their father’s relative, an official in the local government, came to the house for a demonstration. He was impressed when he found that the boys could consistently, independently, and accurately transcribe one another’s speech from separate rooms.

In 1993, as a high school student, Abdoulaye, traveled to Conakry, Guinea’s capital city, and wrangled his way onto a popular radio show to promote the new script. “That’s how the whole country learned about Adlam,” Adboulaye said.

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A group of students learn Adlam in Sierra Leone. Photo from The Atlantic

Many Fula people are nomadic, so the script spread quickly among traders and farmers—from Guinea to Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast. More and more books were converted to Adlam, but they were written by hand and copied by machine, a very cumbersome process. The process of propagating a new script wasn’t always easy; Ibrahima was imprisoned for a time after police officers raided his Adlam study group at university. Upon graduating, Ibrahima started a Fulani-language newspaper, also written by hand and photocopied.

New writing systems aren’t created all that often. The most widely used scripts in the world today—Latin, Chinese, Arabic, Devanagari, and Cyrillic—are all thousands of years old. In 1959, Hmong spiritual leader Shong Lue Yang created the 81-symbol Pahawh script, though RPA romanized characters are still very popular. The Cherokee syllabary is a success story: Sequoya created the script in 1821 and seven years later a Cherokee-language printing press published the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper. Cherokee was added to the Unicode standard in 1999; in 2003 Apple created a Cherokee keyboard; and Google has recently helped implement Android support for the alphabet.

To take Adlam to the next level, the Barry brothers figured they could skip the printing press and go directly to computers. They both ended up emigrating from the west coast of Africa to the west coast of the USA—to Portland, Oregon—pursuing their educations and working. They paid for the development of an Adlam keyboard and font. In 2008, they were thrilled to finally be able to type Adlam for the first time. However, because Adlam wasn’t yet supported by Unicode, readers had to have the font installed on their system.

Several years later, after Ibrahima presented at a type design conference in Colorado Springs, the brothers were introduced to Deborah Anderson, a linguistics researcher, who leads a program called the Script Encoding Initiative, at UC Berkeley. Along with Michael Everson, one of the co-authors of the Unicode Standard, the SEI has added more than 70 scripts to the Unicode standard since 2002! Kudos to these incredible Cultural Detectives!

SEI’s site tells us that over 100 scripts remain to be encoded, and asks for donations to support the effort. UNESCO, the USA National Endowment for the Humanities, and Google all support the Initiative. The effort includes historic scripts, such as expanding the set of supported Egyptian hieroglyphs, as well as focusing on scripts used by religious and linguistic minorities—to promote literacy and education in native languages.

Waddell tells us, “I asked Everson if any of the alphabet’s quirks presented challenges—the fact that it’s written right to left, for example, or the fact that the letters are connected to one another—but he said it was nothing new. What was new was that the script wasn’t yet set in stone. Mr. Barry had learnt calligraphy and was working really hard on optimizing stroke order. I was saying, ‘You have to stop tinkering with this.’ If he wanted this to be stable he needed to stop altering it.”

In 2014, at a meeting of the Unicode Technical Committee in Sunnyvale, California, yet another milestone was achieved—Adlam was approved. It was included in Unicode 9.0 which was published this past summer. However, you won’t yet find it on your cell phone; technology companies haven’t leapt on the Adlam bandwagon.

One hope is “Noto,” an enormous font family that aims to support 100% of the scripts in Unicode 9.0. Finding Adlam on your operating system won’t happen overnight, but hopefully it won’t be much longer. A second hope is that Fulani speakers have started creating their own apps: one to text in Adlam and the other to learn it.

Twenty years on, the Barry brothers are now 36 and 40 years old, and Adlam is taught in over ten countries. Ibrahima recently finished writing a book on Fulani grammar, and he plans to create a dictionary as well. Both brothers want to open more schools in Guinea and nearby countries that teach children in their native languages.

Martin Luther King, Jr., had passion, a dream, and perseverance. Gandhi had those three qualities as well. Fortunately for speakers of Fulani, so do Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry.

The original article in The Atlantic is much longer than my summary here; be sure to read it if this has piqued your interest. And be sure to log into your subscription to Cultural Detective Online now, to help define and preserve your culture!

Ah Ha! I knew it! Bilingualism does pay!

benefits of being bilingual

“Not only are bilingual young adults more likely to graduate high school and go to college, they are also more likely to get the job when they interview. Even when being bilingual is not a requirement, an interview study of California employers shows that employers prefer to both hire and retain bilinguals.”
—Rebecca Callahan, Associate Professor of Bilingual/Bicultural Education, University of Texas at Austin

Those of us who have worked in and around international education think that learning more than one language is good for people. We think it helps open up the mind to other possibilities, other cultural points of view. We also believe that the “code switching” involved in speaking multiple languages helps develop skills that are useful in social situations and beneficial in keeping the mind sharp.

However, for years no data existed that supported the benefits of being bilingual. And for a long time in many US educational settings, children who did not speak English as their first language were not encouraged to keep their bilingualism. Why would you need a second language when you learned English? The benefits of being able to speak more than one language were not generally recognized in the US.

I was excited to read about some new research by Rebecca Callahan, Associate Professor of Bilingual/Bicultural Education, University of Texas at Austin. In a recent article in Quartz, she writes: “Speaking more than one language may confer significant benefits on the developing brain. Research has now shown that bilingual young adults not only fare better in the job market, but are also more likely to demonstrate empathy and problem-solving skills.”

What does this mean? For study-abroad students, it might encourage them to know that the effort spent in learning and using another language has long-term economic benefits—you are more marketable! This is, of course, in addition to the eye-opening, mind-expanding, life-altering experience of living in a culture different from your own.

For children of immigrants and refugees, it means that making an effort to retain their parents’ native language is beneficial. In reality, many immigrant and refugee children in the US serve as interpreters and cultural bridges from an early age. They are forced to be bilingual—learning English to be successful in the school system, while speaking another language at home. I remember one Cambodian mother telling me, through her son, that if she learned to speak English, her son would forget how to speak Cambodian now that he was here in the US.

“Currently, researchers have begun to use data-sets that include more sensitive measures of language proficiency to find that among children of immigrant parents, bilingual-biliterate young adults land in higher status jobs and earn more than their peers who have lost their home language.

Not only have these now-monolingual young adults lost the cognitive resources bilingualism provides, but they are less likely to be employed full-time, and earn less than their peers.”
—Rebecca Callahan

For many in the US educational system, acquiring a second or third language is not as highly valued as it is in many other parts of the world. I am always impressed (and a bit jealous) when I am around people who can switch among languages—often because they were required or encouraged to learn multiple languages when they were in school. And for a nation of immigrants, it seems strange that only one-in-four US American adults are conversationally proficient in another language, according to a recent Gallup poll. It reminds me of the old joke, so true that it is embarrassing:

Question: What do you call a person who speaks four languages?
Answer: Quadrilingual.

Question: What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
Answer: Trilingual.

Question: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
Answer: Bilingual.

Question: What do you call a person who speaks one language?
Answer: An American!

Of course, this challenge isn’t just limited to US Americans. In an article last year in The Guardian, Vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, Leszek Borysiewicz, pointed out that one in six children in English primary school do not have English as their first language. He noted that their first languages:

“…are real languages: living languages that give people a huge insight into culture and give the children who can speak them additional opportunities.

Isn’t that what education is about – enabling every child to achieve the maximum potential? What I’d love to see is an emphasis that this is an added value that that child has, a talent, and we should aspire to allow other children who may be monolingual to strive to become as bilingual as they possibly can be.”

An article about a study conducted by researchers at University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, indicates that merely knowing a second language can result in higher earnings. The researchers say that the results of their study, published in the journal Canadian Public Policy/Analyse de Politiques, has implications for bilingual policy in Canada:

“Efforts to promote French in the ROC [rest of Canada] should be continued, not so much because of the earnings advantage that bilingualism confers, but because it results in many social/cultural/political benefits, strengthening the fabric of Canadian society and serving as an example to countries torn by ethnic, religious and linguistic divisions.”

The cultural flexibility inherent in knowing two languages is a valuable ability and a resource to be cherished. If we are to move toward intercultural competence, we need the ability to think outside of our cultural box and explore other ways of seeing the world.

That is what we try to do with our Cultural Detective packages—provide insight into another view of the world, a small glimpse into a different cultural reality, a chance to perhaps understand, just a little, how others see us, and how to work together more effectively.

No one could see the colour blue until modern times | Business Insider

This is an excellent article on how our language and culture affect what we see and notice, and what we don’t. Powerful stuff! Check it out. No one could see the colour blue until modern times | Business Insider.

Are Emoji the Newest World Language?

World_Languages_by_Number_of_SpeakersHow many languages are there in the world? Do you know just how many have died off? Or will go extinct soon? How about this: do you know how to rescue those that are endangered? And what about new languages emerging in our world today? Are there any? If so, what are they? Do you know the world’s newest language? We put together this short quiz to get you thinking and test your knowledge.

When a language disappears, it often takes with it a great deal of the history of a community. It limits what scientists can learn about human cognition: fewer languages mean fewer data sets. Loss of a language too often means a loss of social and cultural identity, at least partially.

Much of the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life of a people is experienced through language. This ranges from prayers, myths, ceremonies, poetry, oratory, and technical vocabulary to everyday greetings, leave- takings, conversational styles, humor, ways of speaking to children, and terms for habits, behaviors, and emotions. When a language is lost, all of this must be refashioned in the new language-with different words, sounds, and grammar- if it is to be kept at all. Frequently traditions are abruptly lost in the process and replaced by the cultural habits of the more powerful group. —The Linguistic Society

We’ve published here on this blog several instances of native peoples in the Americas breathing new life into their languages, cultures, ceremonies and traditions, and we’d very much like to encourage such efforts. If we all do our part, we can preserve, and help thrive, many of the endangered languages in our world. And what about new languages that are emerging? Some of them aren’t really “new,” they are just redefined. Here again from the Linguistic Society:

Consider the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian, spoken over much of the territory of the former Yugoslavia and generally considered a single language with different local dialects and writing systems. Within this territory, Serbs (who are largely Orthodox) use a Cyrillic alphabet, while Croats (largely Roman Catholic) use the Latin alphabet. Within a period of only a few years after the breakup of Yugoslavia as a political entity, at least three new languages (Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian) had emerged, although the actual linguistic facts had not changed a bit.

Others, however, really are new. My guess is that the newest language in the world just might be emoji (絵文字), or the language of emoticons. “That’s not really a language!” you might be thinking. And, right now, I would agree. But there is a definite trend.

From iConji.com

From iConji.com

  1. Emoji is one of the 260 languages into which Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has been translated.
  2. The iConji project aims to build a successful successor to Esperanto, a language that unites speakers of any language.
  3. The emoji narration of Beyoncé’s Drunk in Love (view video below) has had millions of viewers.
  4. The Unicode Consortium has standardized hundreds of emoticons, and
  5. Members of the Noun Project are working on a visual dictionary—an icon for every object—and they currently have 60,000. You can be part of history and upload your own icon!

History of Emoji Very cool to me is how emoticons came to exist. It’s all due to the low-context, difficult-to-decipher reality of digital communication. Virtual workers in the early 80s found it wise to start labeling jokes with smiles 🙂 so that others wouldn’t misunderstand them. Soon after the smiley face came the sad face 😦 and the wink ;-). Then, in 1999, NTT Docomo’s Kurita Shigetaka figured visual cues would improve the mobile phone experience. His initial efforts were inspired by manga, Japanese comics. These Japanese roots are why this language is called emoji: picture, 絵 (e), plus character, letter, or writing, 文字 (moji). We see Paleolithic cave drawings, Sumerian cuneiforms, and Egyptian hieroglyphics as languages, so hey, maybe emoji are, too. Do you speak emoji? I think this is also a generational culture difference; young people seem to speak it much more fluently than I. Guess I have some learning to do!

Endangered Languages Project

Experts estimate that only 50% of the languages that are alive today will be spoken by the year 2100. The disappearance of a language means the loss of valuable scientific and cultural information, comparable to the loss of a species. Tools for collaboration between world communities, scholars, organizations and concerned individuals can make a difference. Such is the raison d’être of the Endangered Languages Project, an online collaborative effort to protect global linguistic diversity.

The first thing I noticed on this site is the incredibly high quantity of red dots on the world map, each indicating a severely endangered language. The site enabled me quickly and easily to look up endangered languages in Mexico, where I live (the closest red dot to my home is the Seri language, one I’d never even heard of!). I also looked up the language that first interested me as a pre-teen in the southwestern USA: Navajo (it is labelled “at risk” and is currently a featured language on the site). Even in my adopted homeland of Japan, as I expected, the Ainu language is ranked “critically endangered.”

The languages included in the project and the information displayed about them are provided by the Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat), produced by the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and The Institute for Language Information and Technology (The Linguist List) at Eastern Michigan University. The list of collaborators in the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity is indeed impressive. The project site is definitely worth using!

Bicycling in the Yogurt: the French Food Fixation

Communicating in the Language of Food, by Joe Lurie

Dear readers, I am very pleased to share with you another guest blog post by the talented Joe Lurie (though Joe, I’d prefer to “swim in the chocolate” rather than “bicycle in the yogurt”). You’ll remember that Joe previously shared with us the very popular article, “Language Under the Gun.”

Noting that  French President Francois Hollande has been referred to by his political opponents as a fragile strawberry, a wobbly flan , a marshmallow, and “gauche caviar,” with the charisma  of a smelly sausage, I was reminded of how a culture’s preoccupations shape the way language is used.

I was first introduced to the pleasures of French cuisine and its influence on the French language as a university student hitchhiking through Normandy, sampling butter, cream and apple brandy-suffused dishes.

Struggling to express myself in village bistros, I realized the truth behind Mark Twain’s observation that Intermediate French is not spoken in France. A friendly waiter, noting my frustration, reassured me saying, I know, it’s not pie, “Je sais, c’est pas de la tarte,” which means it’s difficult. He went on to add, but it’s not the end of the string beans, “mais c’est pas la fin des haricots” – a strikingly French way of saying, it’s not the end of the world.

A decade later, my French was much improved. While directing a US American study abroad program in Toulouse, my understanding of food’s influence on the language deepened. Before taking a French cooking class with my 20 students, we stopped at an open-air market. Because the line to buy cheese was not moving, our impatient guide complained: “on ne veut pas faire le poireau,” we don’t want to be like a leek. Later, we learned the translation: to wait like a motionless leek in the ground. Now late for cooking class, our guide urged the van driver to press on the mushroom!appuyez sur le champignon!” – meaning step on the gas! Keeping a chef waiting simply would not do.

The students and I were struck by how carefully the chef conducted the lesson – artfully presenting and discussing the ingredients. The meal is serious business, not to be treated like a joke or, as the French say, like custardc’était pas du flan ce cours de cuisine! As  we prepared a fruit salad, the chef mumbled “oh purée!” mashed potatoes! – or damn it! and disdainfully discarded a blemished peach to preserve an aesthetically pleasing fruit plate.

During almost four years living in Strasbourg, Toulouse and the island of Corsica, I saw how the French passion for eating and discussing food flavored the language in tasty and unusual ways, though some expressions are unique to different regions or generations.

It began to make sense that endearing French metaphors are often rooted in the pleasures of taste. “What a nice person” is served up in French as “c’est une crème!” – what cream, while “la crème de la crème,” the cream of creams is the best of all. And “you are so energetic” takes on a carb boost in French: you have the French fry (tu as la frite). To be in high spirits also can come from the fruit family, as in you have the peach (tu as la pêche), while having a banana (avoir  la banane) is to have a big smile. And, of course, there’s the affectionate “mon petit chou,my little cabbage.

Allusions to food also season the language of love. A broken-hearted UC Berkeley student of mine from Marseille described her flirtatious boyfriend as a Don Juan with the heart of an artichoke, quelqu’un qui a un cœur d’artichaut,” offering each of his lovers a leaf from his heart. He was skilled at making romantic advances or as my student put it: serving up a dish, “faire du plat à quelqu’un,” a prelude to going off to the strawberries, aller aux fraises,” to enjoy an erotic interlude.

Even insults and put-downs easily spring from the tongue as if from a farmers’ market. An idiot or jerk, for example, can be described in French as what a pickle! (quel cornichon!); an utter squash (une vraie courge); such a noodle! (quelle nouille!); or as having a green pea in the brain! (avoir un petit pois à la place du cerveau!). When struggling to drive in France, I’ve heard irate, gesturing French men speed past, yelling “espèce d’andouille!” piece of sausage! or, you imbecile!

I remember a heated debate in a Paris café about a Gerard Depardieu film. A friend dismissed it as a turnip, “un navet,” a startling vegetable metaphor for a trashy film. When he called the actor a horrible drunk, an indignant Depardieu fan interrupted with: shut your smelly Camembert mouth!ferme ta  boîte à Camembert!”

Just as food evokes passion in France, its metaphorical expressions enliven debate. Butting in on a conversation is to bring your strawberry, ramener ta  fraise. Being overly inquisitive about someone’s private life could provoke an acerbic “occupe-toi de tes oignons!” mind your own onions! the French version of mind your own business. But perhaps the classic French way of ending an argument is go cook yourself an egg, “va te faire cuire un œuf,” or go to hell.

Traveling through the Pyrénées with a French couple, my wife and I enjoyed great food and spirited conversations, especially about politics. When the husband praised Sarkozy, his wife sneered that the former President is overly dramatic – making a big cheese out of nothing, “il fait tout un fromage de rien du tout.”  She added, you can’t tell if he’s talking about pork fat or pork meat, “on ne sait pas si c’est du lard ou du cochon,” you can’t tell if he’s lying or telling the truth. And she believed Sarkozy had casseroles hanging on his butt – “des casseroles au cul” – a scandalous past.

While serving as Dean of Students at an international college in Strasbourg, I was struck by how much my French colleagues valued using words precisely, reflected in the pervasive use of the verb “préciser.” I chuckled when I heard some professors describe student papers that lacked clarity. They complained that these students were lost, bicycling in the sauerkraut, pédalant dans la choucroute. In other regions, one might say bicycling in the yogurt or couscous. And then there’s swimming in chocolate, nageant dans le chocolat, or skating in the mayonnaise, patinant  dans la mayonnaise – getting nowhere. Outside the college, I heard other vivid ways of describing confusion such as being in the soup, the pate or the cabbages (être dans le potage, le pâté or les choux).

Recently, I saw an exasperated French TV commentator despair over the French economy by throwing up his hands exclaiming what a salad!quelle salade!” what a mess! And then he finished with the carrots are cooked! “les  carottes sont cuites!” meaning it’s all over.

If one is unemployed and grouchy or as the French say, “pas dans son assiette,” not on your plate, landing a job would help to put butter on the spinachmettre du beurre dans les épinards,” to make things better. And then it’s time to put your hand in the dough, “mettre la main a la pate” – get down to business. After all, you’ve got to defend your steak, “défendre ton bifteck,” as in look out for your interests.

Speaking of steak, making a living is gagner son bifteck, to earn one’s steak; while making a profit is to prepare one’s butter, faire son beurre. And to have a pancake avoir de la galette, is to be rich. Assuming pancakes are your goal, you’ll have to go all out, put on the sauce, mettre la sauce, and be prepared to make a strong sales pitch, vendre ta salade, by selling your salad.

A UC Berkeley graduate student in computer science from Tours told me he was building a start-up company – “une jeune pousse,” a young sprout and didn’t know what to expect or what sauce he would eat, “ne pas savoir à quelle sauce on va être mangé.”  He knew he had bread on the board, avoir du pain sur la planche, a lot of work to do, but realized that while dealing with potential investors he had to avoid being rolled in the flour, être roulé dans la farine – duped. Otherwise, he risked eating the frog, manger la grenouille – going bankrupt. He didn’t want to end up without a radish, ne plus avoir un radis, or as we would say, without a cent. All his dreams for nothing – “pour des prunes.” Still, if he becomes successful like a Bill Gates, he’s apt to be called a large vegetable, une grosse légume, and be among the grated cheese, le gratin – the elite.

The versatility of the cheese metaphor in a country with hundreds of cheeses is not surprising. “A dessert without a cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye,” observed Jean Brillat-Savarin in his Physiology of Taste. His famous 19th century book, exploring the nuances of cuisine – still is sold in France. And no wonder, with a line like: “He who invents a new dish will have rendered humanity a greater service than the scientist who discovers a planet.”

Today, as French supermarkets and fast food restaurants continue to proliferate, gourmands refuse to compromise or cut the pear in two, couper la poire en deux, in defending their culinary heritage. For more than twenty years, during “La semaine du goût,” Taste Week, thousands of chefs visit schools across the country. They teach children to appreciate fine food; make a baguette, a mousse au chocolat; appreciate a bouillabaisse; and learn the anatomy of the tongue. Restaurants with Michelin stars develop special meals for young children. And chefs are invited to daycare centers to prepare gourmet menus.

Will this unique early training insure the survival of the refined French palate and the nourishment of its language? A master chef is likely to respond, of course, “mais oui, c’est du tout cuit” – it’s completely cooked – it’s in the bag.

Joe Lurie is Executive Director Emeritus at University of California Berkeley’s International House, a cross-cultural communications trainer, consultant, university lecturer, and certified Cultural Detective facilitator. Another terrific article he wrote for Cultural Detective, also full of metaphor, was called “Language Under the Gun.”