Eddie Izzard is a Force Majeure

Eddie Izzard is unbelievable. 8 years of French and 2 years of German in school. And after witnessing people of many nations splashing about peacefully together in Santorini and believing that languages will unite us, he’s decided to do his show in various countries and languages. Standup comedy in  foreign tongues, not just in French, which he speaks, but also in German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Arabic, which he doesn’t.

The title of the show, “Force Majeure”, he says, is about his wanting to be a force of nature for peace. He doesn’t believe in waiting for some hand of God to come down and do the business.

His brother has translated the show into German, and he began learning it by heart, came to Berlin on 4 January, and on 14 January was on stage, doing the show. The show gets a bit longer every night as he adds new bits he’s learned, and the older parts get a bit shorter as he gets through them more quickly.

He handles forgotten lines by interacting with the audience. Finally, a suitable context for that word! It slows his pace down, but also provides the opportunity for some fresh improvisation, playing with words and the audience. Then he surfs on the positive energy of the audience. The basement at the Imperial Club seats no more than 150, and maybe 100 people were there on Sunday, so it’s all rather intimate. I was close enough to get a good look at his lovely manicured fingernails, with the Union Jack and the flag of the EU painted on them.  The show is set to continue through to the end of February. Tickets and dates here.

In language learning terms, he’s proving a point. As he said in the Q&A he gave instead of an encore, he finds the key to learning to speak a foreign language is

  • total immersion
  • not worrying about the grammar
  • learning by heart
  • simply having the courage to speak
  • being under extreme pressure to actually perform before an audience with high expectations

He says sometimes he can access language at will, it all flows out of him, and sometimes he’s completely stumped.

In the interview below he somewhat surprisingly says he doesn’t think there are any cultural differences in humor. His jokes work in any language, he says. I’d  agree, but isn’t that simply a measure of Britain’s lead in the world of comedy? With Britain’s history, after all, how can it not be multi- and cross-cultural?

I’ve found an illegal recording of the show from about a week ago. Judging from what I heard as compared to what the video shows, he’s already made some headway.


Sound wave: Owa Tana Siam

This brilliant sketch by the late Ronnie Barker is an eye-opener – or an ear-opener! – to how we preempt meaning when we listen. I found it on Abiloon’s lovely blog – full transcript there.

I would use this video to raise student awareness for the way we anticipate what the speaker will say next.

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker summarizes speech research showing that we can recognize and recollect nonsensical word streams better if they follow known syntax, and adds:

“If one thinks of the sound wave as sitting at the bottom of a hierarchy from sounds to phonemes to words and phrases to the meanings of sentences to general knowledge, these demonstrations seem to imply that human speech perception works from the top down rather than just the bottom up. Maybe we are constantly guessing what a speaker will say next, using every scrap of conscious and unconscious knowledge at our disposal, from how coarticulation distorts sounds, to the rules of English phonology, to stereotypes about who tends to do what to whom in the world, to hunches about what our conversational partner has in mind at that very moment. If the expectations are accurate enough, the accoustic analysis can be fairly crude; what the sound wave lacks, the context can fill in.” (p. 181)

The more accurate our expectations are regarding what we will hear, the more generous we can be in analyzing/ adding what is missing in the sound wave. Conversely, the less accurate the listener’s knowledge of English syntax and discourse, the less generous he or she can be with mispronounced words. Filling in the gaps in what we hear based on prediction requires fast thinking. Small wonder that speakers of ELF, as they tune into each other, tend to be happy to drop connected speech.

Science, at least within the field and among peers, is high context, little needs to be explained. College students who share a field anticipate specialized vocabulary and are ready and able to correctly interpret quite a variety of pronunciations of such terms. “What the sound wave lacks, the context can fill in.” This contributes to the surprizing range in mutually intelligible pronunciation that I have been encountering.

If I were to use this video, we could also use the song at the end for a Mondegreen-style misheard or rather misspelled lyrics activity, for connected speech awareness. It’s  introduced from 3:20: “And now, in confusion, I would like you to join me in singing the Siamese notional anthem to the tune of God Save the Queer: O’wa ta’na Si’am.” One would need to explain “twit” and “nit”. Hmm… I’m not sure how valuable this would be, especially since the other part is so thought-provoking. Will just have to try it out.