The Importance of Language

I am in a very interesting linguistics class right now, The History of the Germanic Language.  We are studying how languages change, specifically how the Germanic languages have changed and developed over time.  Currently we are talking about reconstruction of languages – looking at similar languages we can reconstruct the older, shared language from which they all developed.

In talking about how languages have died or been influenced by other languages, especially in the very global world we now live in, one student asked “Why is it a bad thing that languages are becoming more similar or dying out completely?”  This led to a very heated class discussion, as most of us are nerdy linguists who see the death of languages as being tantamount to genocide! 

The responses from others in the class were very interesting, though.  I believe in the importance of langauge for preservation of thought and culture.  Language is directly derived from thought, and if you lose the langauge ability to express certain thoughts, you soon lose the ability to think certain thoughts.  But language is also derived from culture.  I have written before about the difference between English and German when it comes to certain words, like ‘friend’.  These words have different meanings in the different languages because of the cultural differences.  The words are used differently and so they mean different things.  If we lose our languages we begin to lose our culture, replacing them with other languages and cultures.

Case in point:  My last name is Greek.  I do not speak Greek.  My great-grandfather came over from Greece in 1915 with his young family.  My grandfather was born shortly afterward.  He spoke Greek.  He learned it from his father and as he attended Greek Orthodox church and other community activities.  There are a lot of Greeks that all moved into the same few neighborhoods in Illinois.  My father, though, never learned Greek.  And since he never knew Greek, I never learned Greek.  I will call myself Greek, because that is my heritage, but honestly, I am not Greek at all.  I am American.  I have no connection to the Greek community because I do not speak the language and I do not know the culture.  When I go to the local Greek Orthodox Church’s Greek Festival I am as much an outsider as anyone else. 

We also talked about language as cultural identity.  There have been many attempts to ‘erase’ languages.  Especially the English have been notorious for this.  They teach other cultures English to the exclusion of the native languages, and as a result they teach English culture and ideas.  Manx is now a dead language.  Welsh and Gaelic were close, but they survived because parents taught them to their children and used these languages as a way of maintaining cultural identity despite the English invasions.  The Scots held on as tightly as they could to anything that separated them from the English – their language.    And other peoples have used language to separate and identify themselves in the face of an oppressor.  Enslaved peoples or conquered peoples have learned their master’s language, but use it differently, mixing it with their native language. They change the language just enough so that the masters cannot understand.  We saw this especially with African slaves in America.  They learned English (and after a few generations English was all they knew as they lost their native languages), but they spoke it differently from their American masters.  It was not because they were too dumb to learn it properly, but they kept that language as a symbol of defiance and of separateness.  That is what language does.

But, to return to the question, “Why is it a bad thing that languages are becoming more similar or dying out completely?” – In my opinion any loss of culture or language is a tragedy.  But if a language is no longer useful for communication is it necessary to keep it?  Is there a point to Old High Gallifreyan when there is only one person who speaks it?  At this point the language becomes merely a linguistic curiosity.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t still study it and learn from it, or even use it to teach us about other similar languages and peoples. Language is always fun!

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The Power of Religious Theatre

Yesterday in Sacrament meeting a speaker shared an experience about when he lost his young son and how the Spirit helped him and his wife deal with the loss.  It was a powerful experience, and as I felt the spirit of his testimony I was reminded of a similar experience I have had.  No, I have not lost a child, nor have I personally known someone who has.  But I was in a play once where I felt that experience.  Now, before you start to criticize me for daring to compare a play to such a powerfully tragic experience, let me try to explain the Power of Religious Theatre.

I have been involved with theatre for quite some time now, my first school play was in the 7th grade, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And then I was in a few plays in high school as well.  For me, though, acting was simply a matter of memorization.  You memorized your lines and you memorized your movements and then you simply repeated that for each performance.  And that was all.  I heard actors and friends talking about how hard it was to play certain roles, how ’emotionally draining’ it could be.  I didn’t understand that, because I simply memorized and regurgitated what the director wanted of me.  It wasn’t until I got started with religious theatre that I began to understand the power that theatre could have.

One of the first religious plays that I was involved with as I started with New Play Project was Maror by James Goldberg, where I played the Home Teacher who was watching a young son while his parents were at the hospital with their newborn, when the son fell into the pool and almost drowned, and slipped into a coma.  As I had a monologue where I tried to explain how I was feeling, being responsible for another couple losing their son, I found out how hard it was to act a role that is ’emotionally draining.’  It was hard as I nearly cried each night, as I felt the spirit of the audience, as they became emotionally invested in the play, and as I felt how I would feel had I been in the same situation as the character that I was portraying.  And it is this collaborative nature of the theatre that gives it its power.

Theatre does not happen alone.  Without an audience, I’m just standing on stage talking to myself.  It is when I feel the energy of the audience, feed off of that energy, and give it back that together we explore human nature and discover what that means for us individually.  I love the conversation that surrounds theatre, I love talking with audiences after a show about what they felt, what they thought as they sat there.  Theatre allows us to experience things that we would not be able to experience on our own.

I have talked before about why I love Testimony Meetings, the collaborative nature of sharing testimonies and spiritual experiences with each other.  For me, theatre works the same way.  I do not have to experience everything because others have experienced and are willing to share with me.  I firmly believe that Theatre, especially religious theatre, is a form of testimony. A sharing of something personal for the collective benefit.

I love going to the theatre, watching a play and then being part of the collective conversation about the piece.  We can learn so much from other’s experiences, even if they are mostly fictional, as theatre is.  But hidden in all of that fictional theatre are truths about the human experience.  The best plays are ‘real’ because we feel like we know the characters and he situations they are in and we feel with them and learn from them.

I want to invite all of you to experience a wonderful evening of religious theatre.  No, this is not a shameless plug, it is an honest invitation to a set of religious plays that I have loved so much and I want to share with you.  Tonight at 7:30 at Provo Theatre Company, 105 E 100N in Provo, UT come see The Best of New Play Project. Five amazing plays that are sure to inspire some deeper conversation, and tonight is the last show.  Come and share your spirit and energy with us and I promise that you will enjoy the show.

For other reviews of the show:

From me.

From Utah Theatre Bloggers Association.

From the Daily Herald.

From Ben Crowder of Mormon Artist Magazine.

I love theatre and I love this set of plays and I want to share this collective theatre experience with you to help you understand the Power of Religious Theatre.  It can teach us things that we can learn in no other way by allowing us experiences that we can have in other way.   Come and See!

Why, How, Details. The order and process of teaching.

I have talked before about working for a tech support organization and about KCS (Knowledge Centered Support).  For the last two years with this company I have been a trainer in charge of developing, maintaining, and giving trainings.  It has been a lot of fun and has been one of the biggest factors in helping me discover that I love teaching and want to become a teacher.  I love knowing something and helping others to understand it as well.  While I do give all trainings that a new employee needs, I have also been assigned as an SME (Subject Matter Expert) for a few specific trainings, in charge of creating the trainings and making sure they are up-to-date and I am the primary trainer when these trainings need to be given.  KCS is my subject, Knowledge Management has been something that I have studied and learned for the last few years, and I’m pretty sure if my company wanted to pay for me to go and take the test that I could easily be KCS Certified by the Help Desk Institute.  But that’s a different story.  I want to talk today about the process of teaching that I discovered as I developed the KCS trainings for my organization.

As I developed this training, I realized that there was a lot of information that I wanted our new employees to know.  There is an entire regimen of trainings that lasts 4-6 weeks with classroom discussion trainings, hands-on trainings, and listening to other employees taking phone calls.  There is almost an overwhelming amount of information that they are expected to learn in a very short time.  I began to realize that if I taught them everything that I wanted them to know all at once, the training would easily take 3-4 hours, and no one wants to sit in a training meeting for 4 hours.  Not even me!  So I decided to split the material up into different parts, no more than an hour each, and give separate trainings that build upon each other. And as I thought about it, I had to come up with an order to teach certain concepts so that they made sense.  And what I came up with can be used as a pattern for teaching almost any subject.  I’m sure it’s not anything new, but it was a novel idea to me and I’m pretty excited about it.

Why –> How –> Details

That’s the pattern.  Teach them why it’s important, teach them how it’s important, and then teach them the details needed to understand.

Why – Why has to come first.  How often do we hear students ask “Why are we learning this? When are we ever going to need this?”  Students need to understand why they are learning what they are learning.  The have to want to learn or they won’t learn.  A good discussion about Why at the beginning can help students gain the understanding and the desire to continue learning.  They will then put the effort in and do what they need to do to learn.  They understand Why they are learning.

How – Once students understand Why they are learning a thing, they need to learn How to learn that thing. Or How to apply that learning.   In My KCS trainings we cover Why KCS exists and Why our company likes KCS principles, and then we talk about How these principles apply to our organization and How we use them.  In my ideal German class (the one that I hope to teach someday) I really want to start the first day – (after doing a quick introduction to the German language that helps students realize that they can indeed learn German – look for a future post on that idea) – I want to start with a discussion on Why do we learn German, Why is German still relevant.  After we, as a class, have explored all of the reasons for wanting to learn German, I want to steer the discussion to How do we learn German.  I want to briefly overview the language learning process with my students, help them understand How they will learn German, discussing phonetics, cognates, reading and writing and watching and listening to German, etc.  All of the useful ways that I have learned over the years for learning a foreign language, specifically German.

 Details – After students understand the Why and the How they can begin learning the Details.  They now have a good educational foundation and can begin learning the actual Details of what they are trying to learn.  This is what the rest of the semester is for: learning the language.  Once you understand Why and How you are learning you are more likely to learn well.  You are now prepared to learn all of the Details and concepts required.  I would spend the first day or two of a class on Why and How, but the rest of the year is learning the Details, with occasional references back to Why and How to help students remember Why they are there and How they can succeed.

This pattern can be repeated with any subject.  It provides an excellent model for explaining things to students so that they better understand.  I’m sure this is nothing new, but I haven’t heard anything about this in any of my Teaching classes.  But it seems to make a lot of sense to me.  Maybe it’s just the way that I think, but Teaching just makes sense if you start with the Why, go on to the How and then advance to the Details.

Mormon Mythology, or A Plea for your Stories

Mormon Elders
Mission stories are always fun, but everybody's got a story to tell.

We have all heard the stories.  A friend of a friend heard it once in a Testimony meeting. Or an Elder you knew on the mission says his father knew a guy.   These stories that seem just a little too far-fetched to be true, but make enough sense that they might be true.  Mostly these are good faith-affirming stories that prove some gospel principle, like the story that Brigham Young, when planning the Salt Lake Temple left large gaps in the plans that eventually came to be used as elevator shafts and for electrical wiring.  This story shows the prophetic vision that he had.  But really, elevators in buildings had been in use in New York since the 1850s as well as electric lights and telegraphs, etc.

Nonetheless, these stories are fascinating. A friend of mine, Ted, has been interested specifically in Missionary stories, as missions provide a very unique and interesting microcosm, where each missionary has a very short lifespan (18 months – 2 years) and stories get passed on again and again throughout the ‘generations’.  This allows stories to be quickly embellished and developed.  But I love to hear all of these types of stories, all of this Mormon Folklore. 

I would be very interested in gathering these stories and hopefully, eventually publishing some sort of Anthology of Mormon Folklore.  I believe that the stories we tell give great insight into our culture and the virtues that we value.  We learn what a society holds dear by what they value, by who succeeds in the stories that they tell.  The stories that Mormons tell are very unique to Mormons and almost incomprehensible to outsiders, but they reflect what Mormons believe, at least culturally if not officially and doctrinally.  Stories about the Three Nephites wandering around doing good, stories about unbelievable, inexplicable healings, or stories about premonitions or warnings that turned out to be lifesaving.  All of these show some hope or desire for modern miracles.  We do believe that miracles have not ceased, but we do not always see miracles of biblical proportions in our daily lives.  These stories seem to fill that need. 

Please, if you have heard hints, rumours, legends, Mormon Myths, whatever, share them with us.  We love to hear from you.  And occasionally we’ll post some of the best and most prolific stories here.  Fill out this form and send the link to all of your friends.  The more the merrier, especially with folktales!

The Parable of the Autobahn

Sign No. 330.1 – motorway
Die Autobahn

“For if you will that I give unto you a place in the celestial world, you must prepare yourselves by doing the things which I have commanded you and required of you.” Doctrine and Covenants 78:7

“Therefore, it must needs be sanctified from all unrighteousness, that it may be prepared for the celestial glory.  For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory.”  Doctrine and Covenants 88: 18, 22

The gospel is like a car.  In order to gain a place in the Celestial Kingdom of God one needs to prepare oneself to receive it.  God wants to give us a car, He wants us to be able to drive, but if we have not done what we need to do in order to drive that car, what use is it?  If we have not earned our driver’s license, how could we appreciate the gift of a car that He wants to give us?  God wants to give us the best he has, but we are not always prepared to receive the best that He has to offer.

I don’t think we give God enough credit.  We forget the fact that He is a loving God.  Of all of the attributes and qualities and accomplishments, what does he prefer to be called?  Father.  He is a perfect Father and calls us His children.  Does that sound like a vengeful God? No, that sounds like a God who wants His children to succeed at all costs. That sounds like a God who would do anything in His power to make sure that His children have everything they need.

But, He is also a just God.  He has spoken and given commandments and cannot retract those.  But I don’t think He gives commandments arbitrarily just because He likes to be obeyed.  That doesn’t fit with the image of a loving Father.  Why do our fathers give us rules , like ‘do your homework’, or ‘don’t touch the stove’?  Because they want to protect us and they want us to be successful. God is the same way.  Many of His commandments are protective, but many are also to encourage us and prepare us to receive all of the many blessings that He wants to give us.

The Celestial Kingdom is a perfect place, the dwelling place of God.  In order to live there ourselves we have to become celestial and perfect.  We keep the commandments of God because they prepare us to become celestial.  We are earning our spiritual driver’s licenses so that we can drive that awesome car that God has waiting for us.

The gospel is also like the Autobahn. The Autobahn in Germany, for much of it’s length, has no set speed limit.  That is both appealing and incomprehensible to American drivers.  From an American perspective that freedom of having no speed limit is exciting, but we also don’t understand how it can work without many accidents.  It works because it is designed to work that way.  In Germany to get a driver’s license it can cost almost 2000 €. That’s unheard for an American.  Driver’s school can also last 3-6 months, and you can’t get your license until you’re 18.    And then we need to look at the actual Autobahn itself.  The asphalt is 28 inches thick, compared to 11 inches in America.  A thicker road surface leads to less wear and fewer potholes.  When they do happen, they do not just fill in the hole, they replace an entire section.  The roads are designed with gentle, banked curves and an average of 4% grade.

All of this leads to a well prepared driver and a well prepared driving surface.  It is designed to handle speeds in excess of 200 mph.  In order to enjoy that kind of freedom you have to be prepared for it.  That is the way the Celestial Kingdom is.  We learn from scriptures that God wants to give us all that He has, that we are His children and can someday be like He is.  To be a God is to enjoy ultimate freedom, but scriptures also tell us that there are certain instance where God could cease to be God.  There are eternal laws and laws that govern the use of Priesthood that even God is subject to.  In order to survive with the freedom that God has, one needs to be prepared to handle that freedom.  In order to drive without a speed limit one needs to be prepared and understand all of the implications of that kind of freedom.

And there are regulations and rules and laws that govern the Autobahn.  ‘Rechtsfahren’ is my favorite. Drive Right.  Simply that.  You stay in the right lane unless you are passing.  And it is strictly enforced with heavy fines.  Because, can you imagine what it would be like if someone is hanging out in the left lane doing 60 mph when a car doing 200 is coming up on him?  It can’t work, so the laws are strictly enforced.  Obedience to the laws enables the freedom that is allowed on the Autobahn; obedience to the laws of God enable the freedom that is allowed in the Celestial Kingdom.

God does love us. And like any father, He wants the absolute best for His children.  But as a good father, He doesn’t just give His children everything.  He allows them to earn it, to prepare themselves to receive it.  He lets them get their driver’s licenses and then He gives them their car.  He makes sure they are fully prepared and understand the risks and benefits of freedom.  But, honestly, I don’t think we give God enough credit for all of the good that He wants to give us.  We get so caught up in all of our flaws and imperfections and all of the reasons why we don’t deserve heaven.  But I fully believe that God, on the other hand, is looking for all of the ways that we do deserve heaven and is willing to give it to us whenever he can.  That is the beauty of the gospel.  And that is why I love it.

More of my musical roots – Folk music

This week in one of my literature classes we were discussing irony, and the teacher played a song that has long been one of my favorites: Outside of a Small Circle of Friends by Phil Ochs.   It’s an older song, a pretty obscure song, so it didn’t surprise me that I was the only one who sang along.  

It’s a classic that I fell in love in high school when I went through a phase where I absolutely adored folk music, especially protest songs.  I think this interest developed out of my love of the Beatles and John Lennon.  His later works of music were very much in response to the Viet Nam war and were very politically charged.  John was very much the folk singer of the bunch, where Paul was much more of a pop songwriter.  And these protest songs of John Lennon (“All you Need is Love”, “Revolution”, “Give Peace a Chance”), led me to Bob Dylan and his protest songs, which led me to Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Arlo and Woody Guthrie.

A lot of this folk music I also picked up from my mother, who introduced me to the folk music of Peter Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio and others.  Both of these interests, combined with the fact that I was just discovering the internet and the possibilities that it opened up. I found new artists and new songs.  For some reason I have been drawn to protest songs, or as Phil Ochs described it, topical songs.  Yeah, there is a lot of fun in ‘silly love songs’, but there’s something about a song that has a real meaning behind it.  It was fascinating to me to learn history through the eyes of these protest singer/songwriters.  I did not live through the 1960’s and ’70’s, but that has been the music that I have been drawn to.  I have loved to see and learn the history of this era through the music that they produced.

And protest songs are doubly fascinating as they reflect the opinions as well as the facts of the history they portray.  They show emotion, and strong emotions, and are just that much more fascinating to listen to.  What I find interesting, though, as well, is the lack of protest songs in the last 20 years.  Granted, the Viet Nam War was a unique war in American history, but there were as many dissenters of the Iraq War, or the Gulf War.  Where were all of the musical protests against these conflicts?  In doing a little quick Google research, I found that there were actually quite a few songs mostly written by obscure, not-so-famous bands.  Maybe the protest songs of the ’60s and ’70s were just as obscure in their own time, but have become famous as the years have gone on.  Maybe we’ll find in 20 years that the lesser-known protest songs of today will be famous?  Or maybe these songs of today are lesser known because there is so much more music being made that is so much more easily accessible with modern technology.  Any Joe with a Macbook and GarageBand can record a song and post it on YouTube.

What is interesting to note about recent protest songs is the distinct shift in genre.  In the 60’s and 70’s protest singers were folk singers, but the more recent protest singers and bands seem to be in the punk or alternative genre.  It’s not just a guy with a guitar and harmonica anymore, it’s angry young men with electric guitars and heavy drums.  And I suppose that shift began happening in the late 70’s and early 80’s as the Clash started to become big. They were pretty much the forerunners of the Punk movement, but their songs were very much political.  As newer bands sought to be like the Clash, they too wrote politically charged songs and emulated the punk style.

Why you should go see New Play Project in Provo, UT

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Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday I wrote about my experience with New Play Project, a non-profit theatre organization based in Provo, UT.  We have been around for 4 years now with the main purpose of helping to promote, produce, and perform new plays in the Provo area.  I have been with New Play Project for 3 years now and I have loved every minute of it.  My story is very similar to most who are involved with this company.

In July of 2007, after moving to Provo, UT to attend BYU, a friend of mine living at the same apartment complex invited a bunch of us to go see a set of short plays that he was in.  I went and enjoyed it immensely.  A few weeks later he invited me to come audition for the next set of short plays, so I did.  I’d been looking for a theatre group to get involved with, and this was just what I was looking for.  I was cast as two characters in two different short plays.  And since I had a Blazer and could haul stuff, I volunteered and offere to help haul the set and props.  As part of that I also helped build the set.  I enjoyed being able to be helpful in putting on this set of plays.  After the show I was approached by one of the founding members of New Play Project and asked if I wanted to be Technical Director.  “What’s that”, I asked.  I was told that I’d be in charge of the technical aspects of the plays, sets, props, scene transitions, etc.  “So, basically, I’ll be doing what I’ve been doing, only now I’ll have a title?”, I asked.  “Exactly!”, came the reply.  And that’s what I’ve done ever since.  I have acted in a few plays, but mostly I have been behind the scenes, even learning a lot about lights and sound and running the show from the booth.

And I have seen that pattern repeated in so many with New Play Project.  One comes to see the show as an audience member, then one shows up at auditions for the next set and becomes an actor, and then one does what one can to help the organization be better.  I would say that most of the people who are very much involved with New Play Project started out as audience members, or as friends of people who were involved who just showed up and said “What can I do?”  And that is why New Play Project works.  It is a bunch of us who love theatre getting together to do theatre so that those who love to see theatre can see theatre.

And so, after four years we have produced quite a few plays.  Most have been very well received and enjoyed, some have even won awards.  Tonight, and continuing this weeked and next (Friday, Saturday, and Monday nights at 7:30, see details here), New Play Project is producing a “Best of New Play Project” show, with five of the most loved plays we have produced: Adam and Eve by Davey Morrison, Foxgloves by Matthew Greene, Gaia by Eric Samuelsen, Burning in the Bosom by Melissa Leilani Larson, and Prodigal Son by James Goldberg.  You know these plays are going to be good!

These are also some of my favorite plays.  I loved Adam and Eve and Gaia when they were first produced, at different times, and I think it will be very interesting to see both of these plays performed together.  Adam and Eve is a play about our first parents (obviously) dealing with their recent expulsion from Paradise and their sudden mortality.  It is also mostly about their relationship, and by extension all relationships.  I love the dialog in this play, the honest openness they have when they talk about their condition and the tender way in which they refer to each other.  I love this play.  And I love Gaia, which presents a conversation between Eve and Lucifer, but before the Fall, before Adam and Eve even came to Earth.  In this conversation we see Lucifer, who became Satan, as he begins to doubt and find flaws with the Father’s plan, and we see Eve, just as faithful as we would expect from the Mother of All Living, who tries to help him realize what he’s doing and what he’s becoming.  It is a fascinating topic to contemplate, that Lucifer must have known Adam and Eve before he became the Tempter, that he worked closely with them, and with the Father, yet somehow he missed something that allowed him to accept the Father’s plan.

That is the strength and the beauty of these plays: their ability to cause the audience to think.  Sure, you can sit back and just watch an enjoyable evening of theatre and never think about it again.  And I’m sure you would still enjoy the plays, they are still very funny and engaging.  But there is more to it than that.  Take Prodigal Son, for example.  Again, one of my favorite plays, and the winner of the 2008 Association for Mormon Letters Award for drama.  It only has three characters: Son, Father, and Girlfriend.  I love its simplicity, its focus on characterization, and the way in which it takes a familiar concept (the Prodigal Son) and turns it completely around.  The play is about a father who, having lost his wife, also lost his faith and so raises his son with no religion.  As the son finds a girl he loves, who happens to be LDS, the same religion his father abandoned, and starts to believe what he learns about the Church, he begins to feel like he is, in a way, betraying his father.  That beautiful dynamic is what makes this play so powerful.  The Prodgial Son is not prodigal because he is falling away from the Church, he is prodigal because he is turning toward a Church that his father has already rejected.  This play also has one of my favorite monologues, as the father explains to the audience how he feels about his lost faith.  He compares his lost faith to a lost limb that is gone forever and cannot ever be ‘refound’, but still produces occasional phantom pains.

All of these plays deal with spirituality, some even deal with specifically LDS characters, but there is a universality of human emotion and of relationships that allow these plays to be enjoyed even by those who are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Come see the show, bring your friends and you will come away with something to discuss, I guarantee it.  And to help with that, New Play Project has a long-standing tradition of having a talkback after each show, where we encourage audience members to stay and talk about what they experienced.  We bring the directors and playwrights on stage and let the audience talk and ask questions.  This is why I love New Play Project, because it fosters discussion. And that is why you have to come see the show this weekend, and then you can tell all your friends just how great it is so that they can come next weekend!

We hope to see you there!