Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sandhill cranes and plastic pink flamingos

Full disclosure: I like birds. I mean, I really like birds.

As in, I travel with a pair of binoculars and a bird book, am easily distracted by bird songs and calls and often walk with my eyes scouring the treetops for signs of avian life.

As in, I spent the summers of my undergrad chasing songbirds through the woods across Canada and the USA.

As in, the first book I purchase before traveling to a new country is a bird guide. (The Philippines was rather challenging because the country has so many endemic birds and the only complete book is very expensive and is also the size of a 1990s telephone books ... not exactly conducive to slipping into a backpack for a weekend trip.)

Thus ends the preamble to this story.

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Wednesday morning at the crack of dawn. Six am. The sun has been up for a while now, beating down on the campus track where a dozen or so runners are lacing up their shoes. Some are stretching out tight hamstrings and quads, others are gulping down Gatorade. No coffee for this crew pre-workout. Yet others are still trying to wake up.

The hour-long workout passes quickly, albeit not without the addictive pain and breathlessness that characterises track workouts. Running intervals with a group makes the time and the laps fly by. The pre-determined workout eliminates the need for conscious thought. Runners need only breathe and put one foot in front of the other. Fast. Sometimes very very fast.

During the endorphin-filled cool-down someone spots a pair of leggy creatures moving purposefully along the edge of the soccer pitch just opposite the track. When they raise up their heads, they stand chest-high. The scarlet plumes above their bills catch the sun's rays, giving the creatures a regal aura. They make no sound. Another runner identifies the birds as Sandhill cranes. I think they're spectacular.

I make a mental note to bring my camera to next track practice.

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For six weeks, I tried unsuccessfully to photograph the "track cranes". The camera was nearly always in my bag. But, if I had my camera, they were nowhere to be found. On the days that I'd left the camera at home, the pair would be strolling along the soccer pitch or eating the peanuts someone had left for them outside the nearby Cereal Crops Research Unit.

One Sunday afternoon, to my surprise and delight, the birds, the camera and I found ourselves together at the Cereal Crops Research Unit. The lighting was not great, but I was not about to miss out on this opportunity. Here are some of the photographs.


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Post-script: Other birds you are likely to see in Madison and the surrounding areas include: Northern cardinal, house sparrow, mourning dove, cedar waxwing, Baltimore oriole, herring gull, bald eagle, turkey vulture, osprey, American goldfinch, American crow, raven, European starling, purple finch, tree swallow, nuthatches, blue jay, American robin ... and plastic pink flamingos.

The official bird of the city of Madison is the plastic pink flamingo. Back in 2009, city councilors voted in favour of adopting this unusual avian symbol to represent the city. This article has a short video explaining how this quirk came to pass.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Language learning through song

Music is a great tool for learning a new language - whether you can or cannot carry a tune. You get a feel for the rhythm of the language and word pronunciation. It can be easier to sing a song than to read aloud. When the song becomes an earworm and you can't get it out of your head, you begin subconsciously (and likely involuntarily) acquiring new vocabulary.

In my beginner Tagalog classes, we've been nurturing our musical talents. We listen to simple (slow-ish) songs, fill in the blanks of an incomplete set of lyrics, translate them into English (both word-for-word and by phrase), and practice many times. Here is a sample of the ones we have learned in class.

Biyahe Tayo! was made in the early 1990s as a shout-out to Filipino emigrants to come back and visit the Philippines. Twenty-one artists for Philippines Tourism contributed to the song. During my exploratory field season last year I experienced / visited roughly half of the places and activities they mention / show.

Apo Hiking Society's Pumapatak na naman ang ulan should sound familiar. The song is similar to Raindrops are falling on head. The members of Apo Hiking Society began their musical partnership at Ateneo de Manila High School, and continued making music together during their years at Ateneo de Manila University. The group became popular in the 1970s and are known for their humour and political outspokenness as well their their music.

Bahay kubo is a song about all the vegetables and legumes that you would grow in your garden. A bahay kubo is a traditional nipa hut (nipa is a kind of palm).

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While yours truly has been tactfully told to avoid singing outside the shower, I am convinced that exceptions can and should be made when learning a new language. And so, if your ears happen across a not-so-melodic version of these or other Filipino songs, please make a small allowance. I am merely practising my limited repertoire of Filipino songs so that my spoken Tagalog will improve.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Montreal to Mayumi to Madison

My studies have taken me away from Montreal yet again, this time to the Madison, Wisconsin. I'm here to learn Tagalog (or Filipino), one of the main languages spoken in the Philippines. Tagalog was originally spoken by people living on the island of Luzon. The word "Tagalog" come from "taga ilog", which means "people of the river".

So why come to Madison when I live in one of Montreal's Filipino neighbourhoods? Why not just study with a language tutor or focus on language learning during my next field season? In a nutshell, it's because:

  • learning languages is a big challenge for me and the discipline of a formal course is extremely helpful;
  • the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers a special Southeast Asian Languages Summer Institute (SEASSI) that attracts scholars from other American universities, as well as scholars from foreign institutions;
  • UW-M has an excellent collection of Southeast Asian library resources, which are not easily accessed in Canada (or even in Southeast Asian countries);
  • SEASSI is a great opportunity to network with other students and professors studying Southeast Asia. 

I am under no illusions. An intensive two-month course will not make me proficient enough to conduct my research without a translator. Understanding the nuanced meanings of a spoken or written language  (often) takes years of dedicated (informal or formal) study. Learning vocabulary or grammar doesn't confer the knowledge required to decipher culturally-embedded expressions or (in)appropriate ways of asking questions and expressing ideas. The beginner language course will, however, make life a lot easier and more enjoyable during the next field season. And it will open doors. More importantly, it will show respect and facilitate more intimate connections with people.

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Having no background in linguistics or the history of language, I am limited in what I can say about languages in the Philippines. The nation's two official languages are Filipino and English, although there are dozens of other native languages spoken throughout the archipelago. I am unclear of the selection process (and politics) that led to Tagalog and not other languages being named the national language of the Philippines. In an effort to assuage any bitter feelings harboured by non-Tagalogs, government officials decided to call the national language "Filipino", even though it is essentially Tagalog.

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While my life here in Madison revolves around language classes, there is some time for other activities. I hope to share some of them here.