Sunday, November 04, 2007

My friends know cool stuff: Dan Tuttle

Today we turn to an interview with my friend Dan Tuttle, who went to U Arizona with me. Dan has an amazing travel and language portfolio. He has spent two stints in Tanzania, a year in China, and is now spending a year in the Soloman Islands. In Tanzania and in the SI, he was working for Support for International Change, which develops HIV education classes. He's working on becoming an expert in Chinese-African relations and investment. His blog, which I love because it has lots of personal stories, is here.

You've rapidly progressed through a series of languages. What are the keys to fast and effective learning?

Know what learning style you have, then adapt the information you get to that style. I'm visual, which isn't ideal for languages. If I write a word down in a funky font after I hear it, though, I'll remember it in the future. Having a desire to communicate is obviously key, too. I hate being unable to joke and quip when abroad, so my language drive is just a desire to show people the not-stodgy part of my personality I had a rough time with Chinese humor, which is based on complex wordplay and a wide vocabulary. Many people ignore opportunities for passive exposure as well, such as listening to local radio. Language is all about imitation, so the more constant the input you dredge up, the more naturally your brain will adjust.

What are the relative difficulties of the ones you've learned?

Hardest to easiest: Mandarin Chinese, Swahili, Spanish, Melanesian Pijin. I'd never recommend Mandarin to anyone. Swahili agreement is hard to get right on the fly. Spanish is goofy (beautified) English, Pijin is goofy (simplified) English. I've learned only the most basic conversational French, which I'd put between Swahili and Chinese because of its contractions and articles and conjugations.

What do you think you will learn in the next 5 years?

In the next five months I'm hoping to get Roviana, the local tribal language here around Munda. It's probably in the same difficulty slot as French. I'd really like to make my Chinese fluent, but that would require finding a cool job in China starting next October or so (any leads?). I'm split between reviving Spanish, plunging into Portuguese, and figuring out French. It's all contingent on where there's good work to be done. I do want to spend time on more global languages--no more Pijin or Roviana--after this year is over.

Can you comment on PetroChina's involvement in Africa? Is Warren Buffett right that he shouldn't feel he is supporting the war in Sudan by holding PetroChina shares? (Note: I asked this question before we learned that Warren Buffett had sold his entire PetroChina stake, which he said was 100% for valuation reasons).

I have never been convinced that economic withdrawal from troubled states is a good move. Yes, China's oil interests in Sudan and doctrine of non-interference in other countries' affairs stalled efforts to stop the war. Being on the Security Council gives you that power. Many people don't realize that this war has been going on in various forms for twenty years, it's rooted in conflict over fertile land, cattle, water, and the scarce resources of the country in the first place. To my knowledge, the oil issue is relatively new fuel for the fire. I think of it this way: if oil production in Sudan collapses, will the elites perpetuating the war be dethroned? Unlikely. Will the people at the bottom suffer greatly? Assuming that some use kerosene, that gasoline still powers the presumably little public transportation in the area, yes. Will it bring an end to the war? Not as far as I can tell. Conflict in Sudan is deeper than a dispute over oil revenue rights.


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