Tag Archives: languages

Life as Art: In Front of the Class

by Linda Levanti, Asheville, NC, senior in Humanities

linda-levantiI have a great vantage point from my position in the back of the classroom. Seated near the large picture window, with a glorious view of the massive walnut trees planted during the golden days of the Biltmore Era, I’m quite content. The wall to my back encloses this pleasant space, where like a cat curled on a sunny window ledge, I’m more or less out of sight. I don’t often speak, satisfied to watch the activity from my sanctuary in the corner. Who’d have thought that one day I’d decide to become a teacher? Certainly not I.

It was the unconditional patience and encouragement of my kindly neighbors in a tiny, old-world village in central Mexico that set me on my path to teaching. It’s a constant challenge to communicate even simple thoughts when faced with a language barrier, something we rarely experience in the United States. Accepting me into their beehive of daily activities, these aproned Madonnas were as happy to teach me some Spanish as I was to share a few words of English. I’m humbled and grateful for the many good humored teachers who helped me along the way. Nonetheless, there were still many times I felt terribly isolated by language, and a stranger in a strange land, in spite of the warmth of my Mexican family.


Shortly after my return to the United States I started volunteering at the local community college in an adult education class to satisfy certification requirements to teach English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). My experience had fostered a desire to help those living in the United States whose struggles with a foreign language are likely a great deal harder than mine had been in Mexico. I want to make a difference in the lives of those who are committed to learning their new country’s language. After completing my training program, I stayed on at the college; I like helping in the classroom. And, the opportunity to quietly observe the instructor, while reinforcing my novice teaching skills, fit in with my predilection for staying out of the spotlight. That is, up until last week.

The class began quite as usual. As students filtered in, I handed out worksheets, and Monica, the level 4 instructor, began to teach. The lesson for discussion was subject-verb agreement. And so, Monica taught English and I helped Monica, that is until her phone rang mid-lecture, and the baby-sitter informed her that her infant daughter was ill…could she come home right away? Monica’s eyes sought mine, pleadingly, as if to say, you do have your certification. Other than the one evening I had student taught an adult class many months before, an experience replete with sweaty palms and horrible stage-fright, I had not taught a class on my own. I wasn’t feeling inclined to do so any time soon. But under the circumstance what could I say? Monica left for home, and I was on! And on my own.


It was performance time, and I flashed back on the frightened five year old I’d been at my first dance recital. The delicate pink ballet slippers I’d laced onto my feet, when told it was time to go on stage, no longer felt as enchanting as I’d imagined them. I was scared silly. All the wisdom and life experience I’d gained in nearly fifty years was reduced to the size of a quivering child. Thrust in front of the classroom, with the students’ inquiring eyes focused on me, I felt a vulnerability that caused every fiber in my body to scream “run”, which is what I had done at that first ballet recital. Not a pretty picture when you want to be a teacher. But I was no longer five years old, and fleeing was not an option. My saving grace is that age and hard won experience has provided me with an unwavering resolve, and so I stayed put and opened my mouth.

At a total loss for words, the immediate need to say or do something was bewildering. Quite unexpectedly, I felt as if a stranger had taken control of my senses and I began to dance. Not literally, but in a way that expressed my individuality. Performing as both marionette and marionettist, I was acutely aware of the tension in the strings that propelled my initial movements as an imperfectly executed pirouette spun me from the front of the room toward the large table that was the students’ shared desk. As I drew a chair closer to my audience, inviting them to join me, I remembered how much I had loved my ballet slippers; how good it felt to lace the ribbons and twirl across the polished wooden floor. Without a script, I listened to myself conduct the class. The words flowed and the teacher in me sounded so confident. She was enjoying herself! In getting on stage, I was introduced to a part of me I had never met, someone who seemed to like dancing for an audience. I’d caught an astonishing glimpse of my potential self in those moments in front of the class.


Art critic, Michael Kimmelman, wrote in The Accidental Masterpiece that “Life itself might be an art.” If my experience was any indication, I agree. Good art, when real and not contrived, fuels a deep and lasting impression upon viewer and artist alike. It can do that when we let go, and get out of our own way. I believe that this sentiment is essentially what Gunter Berghaus wrote about in the “Happenings and Fluxus” chapter of his book Avant-garde Performance. Based on the idea of unconventional and spontaneous artistic expression that compels the interaction of performer and audience, art is created that shatters life as we know it, effectively changing who we are into something new. The certainly unplanned accident of my performance in the classroom that day exemplified what both “Happenings” and “Fluxus” stand for. Reflective of Jean-Jacques Lebel’s portrayal of the “characteristics” of Happenings, it became a moment of “breaking down the barriers between art and life…[to] transform human beings, and make them change their old ways of seeing, feeling, and being.” It was terrifying and exhilarating.

Initially, my performance fell flat on its face. I wasn’t like Monica. My audience was confused by this unsure presentation of a teacher. I’ve since learned that many students see their teachers, myself included, as if we’re all cut out of the same academic “fabric”, and whether it’s Monica or myself at the head of the class, we are “all knowing” and greater in stature than the students there to learn English. In part, this is a cultural issue and likely a misinterpretation of Americans in general, but nonetheless, it makes for a very tough audience. I was faced with a chasm I had no idea how to bridge. Human nature being what it is, I’m sure they recognized my fear. Those sorts of things speak clearly in any language. Did they realize the degree to which my teaching had become the performance of my life? Probably not, but I do think they recognized themselves through the cracks in the perfect image they had constructed of me as an “American” teacher.

Unexpectedly presented with an instructor they were not accustomed to, the students initially responded to me by withdrawing. My discomfort increased and I felt myself teetering on the edge of the stage, an abyss between myself and the students huddled in the audience. They were reticent to speak; our previous interactions had been minimal. I experienced something that my instructors at NCSU had said about teaching foreign language classes, something that applied to me as well. Students are often afraid to speak for fear of looking foolish or making mistakes. Student or teacher, we all want to do well and look our best. There were moments during that two hour class when I stumbled. I recovered, the world didn’t come to an end, and I kept going. When I performed for that class, it wasn’t perfect. I was nervous at times, and lost my way. And then art happened in one spontaneous moment of laughter.


I’d laughed out loud at how much fun I was having in spite of it all. I couldn’t be frightened any longer. It was just too silly. The students thought it was tremendously funny, and so did I. At that moment the feeling in the room transformed each of us. The “American” teacher, who fell off the stage, wasn’t really any different than they were, and they gladly joined me in my dance. I had their attention. The chasm disappeared, and my students got that it was OK to try, and it was acceptable to make mistakes. We laughed, exchanged ideas, and as we became partners on that stage, no longer separated by perceptions of culture or class, we were performers and audience alike. I reflect that it was much more than just the subject-verb agreement of English grammar that we learned about that day. The art of authentic communication became a Happening. The Happening became the universal language of human interaction. I’ll never know who learned more that day, me or them. I do know that together we created an accidental masterpiece that will remain a vivid image in my mind for years to come.

My son, who is a wonderful artist believes that art should exist only for the moment and then be gone, to allow for other inspirations to take its’ place. My performance in the classroom reflects that sensibility. I’ve learned that art is not the result of paint and brush, nor is teaching, simply the rules of English grammar. They are only the tools we use to express the essence of who we are. When I teach, the art itself is ethereal, but its’ effect lingers on. Like any artist who performs for an audience, I’m sure there’ll be wonderful experiences as I teach and those that may not inspire great art. Either way, it will remind me that life, if lived as art, is its own accidental masterpiece.


* This essay was originally written for an assignment in Ann Millett-Gallant‘s class The Art of Life, in which the students are asked to create and partake in an act of performative art, then write about their inspirations, their interactions with their audience, the performance itself, and the results. The fortunate timing of Linda’s unplanned teaching stint as this assignment was approaching led to this “accidental masterpiece.”

Regarding my choice of the kitchen photo from among many possibilities, Linda writes, “of all the photos, you pick the staged photo my husband took of me with a large beer bottle “caguama” and mug! My husband thinks that it’ll make me look like a borracha! (drunkard) which is really funny as I rarely drink.”

Whatchoo Talkin’ ‘Bout, Ivar Aasen?!

by Carrie Levesque

parlez-vous-quebecois-500I’ve always loved to study languages. I grew up in a bilingual area close to the Quebec border where a French dialect nearly unrecognizable to the French (and sometimes to the Quebecois from whom it derived) is widely spoken. In college I continued to study French, majored in Russian and took a few semesters of Spanish because I had a crush on the professor. As a graduate student in Slavic literatures, I studied Croatian for a summer in ultra-Catholic Zagreb, where the prize for the best language student was a large coin with a fetus on it (it was OK with me that I didn’t win). While I’ve met with many linguistic frustrations over the years (the Russian case system, French verb tenses) little in these experiences prepared me for the hot mess that is learning Norwegian as a foreigner in Norway.

A Norwegian to Norwegian translating dictionary.

A Norwegian-to-Norwegian translating dictionary. … No, really.

Because, you see, in Norway there is no standard spoken language. Norwegian literally has dialects without number, and there is no favored dialect. Your dialect is as good as mine. Mixing dialects: Also kosher. The Norwegian you learn in your Norwegian as a Second Language class is not the same Norwegian spoken on the street, and the Norwegian spoken on your street is different from the Norwegian spoken 50 miles down the road. In any Norwegian family one marries into, your spouse may speak a different dialect from his mother, who may speak a different dialect from her spouse. This is, of course, just a little inconvenient for non-native Norwegian speakers.

Back in the day, Danish was the standard written language of Norway. While the urban elite also spoke the same Danish they wrote, or a Norwegianized form of it, the isolated rural populations spoke dialects that evolved only gradually from Old Norse (Vikingspeak) to something more closely resembling the Dano-Norwegian spoken in the cities.

Ivar Aasen, who died 118 years ago, is sometimes the bane of my existence.

Ivar Aasen, who died 118 years ago, is sometimes the bane of my existence.

Norway was liberated from Danish rule in 1814, and as this was the era of Romantic Nationalism, establishing one’s own national language and culture was a primary concern. Norwegian linguist Knud Knudsen began to standardize a more fully Norwegianized form of written Danish into what is today called bokmål (literally, ‘book language’). Meanwhile, a self-taught country boy named Ivar Aasen (who, in my opinion, could not just leave well enough alone) traveled throughout Norway’s far-flung rural settlements, compiling many different spoken dialects into Norway’s other official written language, nynorsk, or “new Norwegian” (sometimes called ‘spynorsk’ (or ‘Pukewegian’) by bokmål devotees).

nei-til-nynorskAlthough only about 15% of Norwegian schoolchildren opt for nynorsk as their language of primary instruction today, all schoolchildren learn both languages in school since nynorsk is the official written language of many counties, especially in Western Norway. So while Bergen is a bokmål city and all of its official written business is done in bokmål, it is located in a nynorsk county, and so all institutions administered by the county (the hospitals, universities and high schools) issue communications in nynorsk. And this doesn’t cover what is spoken in Bergen, which is its own crazy something else. The shock and despair I felt when I learned all of this has since diminished, but it may be years before it ever fully leaves.

I heart NynorskFrom the start, people in Norway have been deeply, personally invested in whichever regional dialect of Norwegian they speak or write, so much so that to affect an easier-to-understand dialect—for the sake of, say, helping a foreign student of Norwegian understand them—feels so wrong that in such circumstances they prefer to speak English. While in Norway, unlike in the US, there is by and large no stigma attached to speaking a dialect, there is a stigma attached to speaking a dialect that is not your own.

Early on it was decided that since it was its dialects that kept Norwegian distinct from Danish, the equal status of all dialects must be preserved. This is not to say that people don’t make fun of each other’s dialects; there is lots of good-natured discussion around whose dialect is the ugliest. But, to give an example, teachers in school cannot correct their students for speaking a different dialect.

So linguistically egalitarian are the Norwegians that Norway’s major public television networks also produce programming in the language of the Sami, the indigenous population living mostly in the north of Norway. Though there are only 40-50,000 Sami in a total population of 5 million, every day they broadcast children’s shows and the evening news in Samisk (with Norwegian subtitles). That would be like American public television networks providing daily programming in Navajo or Cherokee. Hard to imagine that happening.

Sami in traditional dress for a cultural event.

Sami in traditional dress for a cultural event.

It is interesting to imagine what things would be like in the US if we regarded all dialects equally, as the Norwegians do. While I don’t know a lot about the history of our most prominent dialects’ development, I think a lot of the stigma directed in some regions of the country toward certain dialects comes from the complicated and often ugly history framing, for example, Northerners’ prejudice toward Southern dialects, or whites’ prejudice toward Ebonics. How might it challenge us to do some serious thinking about these parts of our history if we learned to view as equally valid the different language patterns that grew out of this history?

“Dialects are not necessarily positively or negatively valued; their social values are derived strictly from the social position of their community of speakers[,]” as W. Wolfram and N. Schilling-Estes explain in American English: Dialects and Variation. What does the way a nation treats its speakers of certain dialects say about the values of that society? Because even if Ivar Aasen made my life more difficult by preserving and legitimizing the dialects spoken by many of Norway’s most disenfranchised citizens, I see the great value of his larger project and its enduring message. Everyone matters. And the tool we use to express our worth—our language—matters, too.

Who Am I? (On Genealogy and Genetic Ancestry)

by Matt McKinnon

Who am I?

I have long been pestered by this question, seeking the answer not in a litany of likes and dislikes or the self-obsessed perspective that modern Western consumerist culture offers me.  But neither in the personal history of myself—where I’m from, where I’ve been, and so on.  Or even less in my career, my “profession,” what I do to make enough money to live comfortably and raise a family.


No, my interest in identity has been more in my genealogy, my distant past, and what we now call “deep genealogy”—the history of my DNA, that mysterious code I have no control over but that dictates much of who I am.

2The more I have sought answers in these two areas, the more I have come to realize that they are decidedly different—that my genealogy (the relatively recent history of my family and ancestors) and my “deep genealogy” (the origins and history of my DNA) offer two quite different portraits—even though the latter, after tens of thousands of years, ultimately leads to the former.

But that’s the key: after tens of thousands of years.

I remember my first dabbling in genealogy when I was in high school: I had always known that my name, McKinnon—or rather MacKinnon—was Scottish in origin.  I had been told by my family that we were mostly “Scots-Irish,” a term which, I came to find out later, is basically an American invention used rarely if ever in either Scotland or Ireland.  It can denote the Ulster Scots whom the English used to colonize Northern Ireland in the 17th century (and are thus not “genetically” Irish at all), or Lowland Scots and those of the Borderlands between Scotland and England.

3But a little research soon proved that the MacKinnon name is Highland, not Lowland or Border, and certainly not “Scots-Irish.”  The Highlands and Islands of Scotland are mostly Gaelic, and hence Celtic in origin, while the Scots of the Lowlands are a mix of Celtic, Roman, German, English, Scandinavian, Irish, and Scottish in varying amounts.  And since our most recent Scottish ancestor was a MacKinnon who left the Isle of Skye sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century, my Highland ancestry was confirmed.

So I spent the rest of my high school days donning plaid scarves, Shetland wool sweaters, and Harris Tweed caps and playing records of bagpipe music at home that frightened the cat and annoyed my parents and siblings to no end.

But deep down, I knew that this was not answer enough.  Indeed, ethnic identity continued to elude me and offer more questions than answers.

And it still does, even after countless hours spent researching family history and genealogy, and hundreds of dollars spent on research and DNA analysis.  Perhaps my developing awareness of the fragmentary and somewhat arbitrary nature of what we call “history” has made my search one of exponential questions instead of hard and fast answers.

For what we call “Celtic” is in fact a linguistic designation, like (and related to) “Germanic” or “Balto-Slavic.”  These are first and foremost language identifiers and not “genetic” ones.

So MacKinnon, being a Highland name, at least designates my ethnic identity as Celtic, right?

Perhaps.  At least to some extent.  But what does that really mean?

After all, these groups—Celtic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, Italic—are only Indo-European linguistic identifiers with origins in a shared Proto-Indo-European population of tribes who inhabited Europe most probably during the late Neolithic Age (circa 4000 BCE).  Only then did these peoples begin their various migrations north and west as they differentiated into the more well-known (if often mistakenly applied) names like the Celts, Germans, Slavs, Romans, etc…

4The point being that, any location of one’s ancestry as “Scottish,” or “Highland,” or “Gaelic,” or “Celtic,” or, for that matter “Germanic” or “Balto-Slavic” is rather arbitrary in that it assigns prominence to one moment in a wave of modern human migration that began in Africa some 70,000 years ago and arrived on the Pontic-Caspian steppe in what is today Eastern Europe about 30,000 years later.  From there, these various groups migrated into all directions, as wave after wave of tribes populated Europe, developing different cultures and languages, though all sharing the same not-too-distant Indo-European past.

(It is interesting to note as well that these folks only started to look “European,” i.e., “white” around 11,000 BCE.)

5So that Highland MacKinnon ancestry I was so sure about?  Well, it turns out that a deep DNA analysis confirms my paternal lineage (the Y-chromosome of my father’s father’s father’s father’s father…all the way back to its beginning) to be that of Haplogroup (I won’t even get into it) I2, subgroup a2.

Haplogroup I began 30,000-40,000 years ago in Eastern Europe, with I1 and I2 diverging about 6,000 years later.  I2a arose about 11,000 years ago in the Balkans and is still today concentrated in Eastern Europe and Russia.  I2a2, that of my Highland Scots paternal DNA, only emerged some 7800 years ago, also in the Balkans, before starting its migration north into Central and Eastern Europe as well as Russia.

And, at some point, as the DNA of a male member of a Celtic or perhaps Germanic tribe who ultimately made his way to Scotland.  And then passed it along to me.

So my Highland Scots DNA is actually Baltic in origin, and is shared by more Serbs and Croats and possibly even Russians than it is by my “fellow” Highlanders.

But if that’s not confusing enough, this only represents one line of grandfathers on my father’s side, going back roughly 8,000 years.  If we consider that there are approximately 400 generations between me and my Neolithic “European” ancestors, then the number of my direct relatives from present day all the way back to the New Stone Age is considerably large [nerdy editor’s note: large enough to need scientific notation: 2.58 x 10120].

But we need not go back that far to make my point: much of an individual’s “ethnic identity” is relatively arbitrary and tells precious little about their deep genetic makeup.

In calculating the rather complex mathematics of our ancestry, scientists have concluded that all modern humans are related to each other in the not too distant past—within a few hundred years in fact.  Steve Olson, writing in The Atlantic in 2002, reported that

  1. Everyone in the world is descended from Nefertiti and Confucius, and
  2. Everyone of European ancestry is descended from Muhammad and Charlemagne.

Grandma?That would be everyone.

Which means that all modern humans alive today are related to each other—and related to each other rather recently, considering that modern humans have been in existence for about 100,000 years.


Indeed, everyone reading this post is probably at most my 20th cousin.

But you’re not invited over for Thanksgiving.

And I’m guessing you’re not all Highland Scots.