Saturday, January 25, 2014

Off the Grid

We spent most of this English conversation class talking about their plans for the future.  Their connectivity to the larger world has helped them set ambitious goals and drive them to excel in English.

Today's blog post is a special shout-out to Ms. Mach's 3rd grade class at Jefferson Elementary.  My Uncle Tim is teaching a Junior Achievement lesson to the students about modes of communication which gives me a chance to post this "hello" from some of the kids and students I work with, and also to talk about what it means to live off of the communications grid I'm accustomed to in the U.S.

Despite what some folks think about post-communist Hungary, plenty of people have smart phones with internet and many homes have internet.  My host family, however, does not have internet which has been an interesting part of this year.

Let me step back for a minute and say just how connected the average American is, which is to mention in a small way the immense privilege and wealth that most Americans enjoy relative to the rest of the world.  The other day I read the income amount that is considered the threshold for "poverty" in America which would be more than enough for a Hungarian family to live comfortably. Yes of course these things are relative, but we still enjoy a level of wealth and freedom with our wealth that many others don't.  At this point, my debating last year between a 2 gigabyte per month data plan and a 3 gigabyte plan sounds a little absurd.

When you're connected to the internet, your options for information and information archives is truly limitless - newspapers, blogs, podcasts, film/video, social media, Skype/facetime, even telephone calls via the web.  I can call anyone in the US for free using a GoogleVoice number that shows up on caller ID as a South Dakota number.  That's kind of weird.

Coming from a high-school that pioneered a 1-to-1 student-to laptop program and a College that was pretty well connected, I'm used to having all of this information at my fingertips.  

So here's a few thoughts generally about what the heck we're supposed to do (or not do) with this surplus of communications possibilities, and a few more specific thoughts on how this experience living just a little less connected has sharpened my use of the communications spectrum.

1. It was generally suggested in the early days of the internet (unclear if Al Gore was in on these talks, too) that with instantaneous interactions around the world we could surely strengthen peace among nations and states.  As Jared Cohen reminds us, the internet is simply another sphere in which good and evil, fact and fiction, frenzy and sanity can exist.  Facts still matter, and critical minds and eyes are crucial. 

2. The ubiquity of mobile phone technology across the globe has brought a new level of connection and awareness of the larger world to people everywhere.  This also means that the cultural impression of America is delivered in a certain way, but that's a topic for a different day.

3. There are a lot of things to read, and it's easy to try and keep up with everything.  Instead of tracking 12 different blogs, pick up a book.  To that end, it can also be easy to try and stay connected to your 1400 closest friends on Facebook.  Take time to write a long email.  It's great to get a long reply in response and really know what's going on with people.  

4. Being a little less connected is also a very relative phrase when compared even to other American volunteers around the world now and in the past.  The fact that I can get online and check email once or twice a week is pretty good.  I can mail a postcard from Hungary and it will show up in the US in about ten days.  Volunteers and reporters around the world have to endure more than a half hour bike or bus ride to hop online, so I'm grateful that staying connected isn't such a big deal, or such a hardship here.

5. Like all things, scarcity sharpens your priorities of use.  

6. Google Translate is a great tool, but not having it has made me dig in my heels to learn simply by immersion, passing my English/Hungarian dictionary back and forth at the dinner table, and spend some time with a study book.

7. Perspective matters.  I'm talking about the perspective you bring with you, and the perspective of the communication.  Away from the constant drone of American cable news, I think I'm getting a lot better information from international news like BBC on my host family's TV.  When the BBC channel switched to AlJazeera in mid-November, the perspective changed with a heavier Middle East focus.  I now feel like I have a better idea of what's happening in the communities where the Jerusalem/West Bank YAGM's live.

7b and 8. A few weeks ago I was catching up on a blog written by one of my former professors.  His is a fascinating collection of sometimes useful, sometimes quirky, and always insightful articles and reflections.  He mentioned Thoreau's essay Walking, which I downloaded and read.  Had I read that last year when I was comfortably sitting in Sioux Falls and racing off to the next thing I would have read it with a significantly different perspective than I do sitting in rural Hungary without other blogs at my fingertips and without a lot of distractions.  

"We spend most of our lives in common, but little in community."  I'm not sure where I read that quote recently, but I think it applies to the realm of modern communications and the opportunities to communicate.  If we can use these things to bridge divides, share a story, reveal a bit of ourselves, and still take time to look up and disconnect, then I think we've realized the power and potential to live not just in common (virtually and literally), but also in community.  

Basic communication: breaking bread, laughing, playing.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

My First Tweet-chat

Brevity is not typically my strong suit, but my ability to respond to questions in 140 characters or less was put to the test Sunday night.  

Our YAGM Central Europe group (which is really just Hungary) participated in a twitter-chat session with members of the Northeast Iowa ELCA Synod.  People back in Iowa tweeted questions using the hashtag #HungaryYAGM and we responded with our brief answers.  People viewing this chat back in Iowa could watch all of our responses in real time.

This was my first tweet-chat.  While I'd usually prefer a live stream of audio or video, a tweet-chat has the advantage of having a permanent archive accessible to anyone anywhere. 

Here's a link created by one of our Iowa friends of the hour long conversation.  None of my tweets show up on this aggregated feed because I didn't apply the right settings beforehand.  Now I know.

Thanks to our Iowa friends for getting us on board with this!

Newsletter Season

It's that time again when I get to read newsletters from YAGMs around the world.  And it's also that time when I send my bi-monthly newsletter. 

If you didn't receive it and would like to, drop me an email at  If you have questions after reading the newsletter, please send those along, too.  Finally, if you catch grammatical and spelling errors, I'll buy you a beverage when I'm home. 

What Does the Fox Say?

Ylvis, a band out of Bergen, Norway, got some attention this fall with their song "What Does the Fox Say".  My host brother was pretty sure the title was something else which used a different F word. But that's beside the point.

Just to be clear, the whole song is absurd, and no one likes it for the lyrics, but rather for the strange noises and the rhythm.  So I feel stupid even explaining the point of the lyrics, but there will be a point.  They talk about the sounds animals make--cow: moo--cat: meow--dog: woof--etc.--and they ask what word do we use for the sound foxes make.  So there it is.

Anyway, one of the kids at the children's house was making animal noises but they sounded weird to me.  Come to find out that in Hungarian animal sounds are turned into different words.  Whereas our horses say "nay," Hungarian horses say "nee-haw-haw."  Whereas our pigs say "oink" theirs say "ruff ruff."  There are more I can't remember.  Go figure.

This sounds more absurd as I keep typing.  The point is that even sounds or words that we think would be universal across languages are actually quite different to people in different places. Even the "words" we use for animal sounds are different.

What will you do with this information? I don't know, maybe you'll feel more unsettled next time you sing Old McDonald Had A Farm or maybe you'll bring it up at parties to impress your friends.  Anyway, enjoy this porthole into living in another language!

In a class of its own

This chart shows the "lexical distance" among European languages.  As you can see, Hungarian is in a class of its own in far right field.  While it falls within the Finno-Urgic family, Hungarian and Finnish, for example, are not mutually intelligible.  If you look in the bottom right at the Slavic family I'm told that many of those languages are mutually intelligible, at least to some extent.  

Each language I've studied has its virtues and vices.  At least with Hungarian you can always count on consistent pronunciation of letters.  On the other hand, the use of suffixes for parts of speech make it difficult to remember as each word and sentence roll off your tongue.

This was posted on a linguistic site in 2008 and there doesn't seem to be anyone disagreeing with it in the comments.  Do you see problems?  Here's the link to the full site.

Cheers to renewing my study of Hungarian in this new year!