Archive for the ‘Chinese’ Category

International Mother Language Day 2010

Posted on February 21st, 2010by Michelle
In Arabic, Chinese, English, Events, French, Russian, Spanish | 1 Comment »

Today is International Mother Language Day, designated as such by UNESCO in 1999 and first celebrated in 2000. Observed yearly by UNESCO member states, the day aims to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

The day has its origins in Language Movement Day, which was first commemorated in Bangladesh in 1952. Each year has a theme, with this year being the International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures. Previous themes have included International Year of Languages (2008) and Linguistic Diversity (2002).

This year, in conjunction with International Mother Language Day, the UN will launch a new initiative called UN Language Days. These seek to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity, two of the aims of Mother Language Day. It also aims to promote equal use of all six of the UN’s official working languages – Chinese, English, Spanish, French, Russian and Arabic – through six new observance days.

UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova noted in her message for the Day:

“Languages are the best vehicles of mutual understanding and tolerance. Respect for all languages is a key factor for ensuring peaceful coexistence, without exclusion, of societies and all of their members,” she said. (Source: UN)

Is your language the most difficult?

Posted on December 19th, 2009by Michelle
In Chinese, English, Language acquisition, Spanish | Leave a Comment »

Everyone seems to think their native language is more difficult than everyone else’s. But is it really?

People are fond of stating that English is a difficult language to learn, with all its many idiosyncrasies. Currently trying to wrap my head around Spanish, I’m starting to think it’s more difficult – for a start they use genders, which we don’t in English.

The idea of languages being ‘difficult’ to learn surely has more to do with perception than reality. For native English speakers, Chinese would seem difficult as it has many different tones, which are unfamiliar. The unfamiliar is often a source of bemusement and fear.

This article in The Economist explores the idea of languages being ‘difficult’ and concludes that Tuyuca, a language of the eastern Amazon, is the hardest:

It has a sound system with simple consonants and a few nasal vowels, so is not as hard to speak as Ubykh or !Xóõ. Like Turkish, it is heavily agglutinating, so that one word, hóabãsiriga means “I do not know how to write.” Like Kwaio, it has two words for “we”, inclusive and exclusive. The noun classes (genders) in Tuyuca’s language family (including close relatives) have been estimated at between 50 and 140. Some are rare, such as “bark that does not cling closely to a tree”, which can be extended to things such as baggy trousers, or wet plywood that has begun to peel apart.

Most fascinating is a feature that would make any journalist tremble. Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wi means that “the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyi means “the boy played soccer (I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.

What’s the most difficult language you’ve come across?

An internet language revolution

Posted on November 18th, 2009by Michelle
In Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, English, Historic, Technology | 1 Comment »

Chinese keyboardI take it for granted that most of the content I want to view on the web will be in my native language, English, and I merely have to type the website’s name into my browser to navigate to the site.

For speakers of languages with non-Latin based writing systems (including Arabic, Cyrillic and Chinese), this is not the case. To navigate to websites, they need to type in characters such as the ones you see here. And for those unfamiliar with Latin letters, this proves a hindrance to accessing content.

Last month, however, the internet regulator Icann (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) approved the use of different alphabets, ending the dominance of Latin alphabets such as English.

It’s been hailed as a big move which can increase accessibility to the web, especially among those unfamiliar with Latin letters:

The impact will vary by location, with more remote countries seeing the biggest expansion. Rod Beckstrom, Icann’s president, called the step “a historic move toward the internationalisation of the internet … We just made the internet much more accessible to millions of people in regions such as Asia, the Middle East and Russia.” (Source:

With the first official international web addresses expected in 2010, you could perhaps be logging on to 语言-博物院.com soon!

The debate on dying languages

Posted on October 22nd, 2009by Michelle
In Chinese, Culture, English, Spanish | Leave a Comment »

World in HandsI seem to reasonably often post about languages that are becoming extinct, so I found this programme on the BBC of some interest.

Generally, I tend to think of the death of languages as a bad thing because of the associated loss of culture and heritage. This show presents alternative views, for example explaining that some tribes want the next generation to learn the most dominant language in their area so they can progress and get a good education.

With 6% of the world’s languages spoken by 94% of the population, there are arguments that the loss of some languages is the result of natural selection.

One linguist, Professor Salikoko Mufwene, of the University of Chicago, has argued that the social and economic conditions among some groups of speakers “have changed to points of no return”.

As cultures evolve, he argues, groups often naturally shift their language use. Asking them to hold onto languages they no longer want is more for the linguists’ sake than for the communities themselves.

There will continue to be debate about this issue, and it’s interesting to see what the commenters say about the story. One poster is for a single global language:

The utility of a single global language, spoken by everyone as their mother tongue, would surely outweigh any loss of cultural heritage. The proliferation of Scots Gaelic bilingual signs in areas without Gaelic speakers (Aberdeenshire?!) is eccentric to say the least. Let languages die their natural deaths -there are plenty left.
Danny McShane, Aberdeen

While another feels:

When a language disappears, the knowledge and thought that has been stored in the language through generations of use, disappears with it. With the growth of powerful and widespread world languages, such as English, Chinese and Spanish, it will be necessary to take steps to protect linguistic diversity, in order to ensure the survival of smaller languages.
Shouvik Datta, Orpington, Kent, United Kingdom

What are your thoughts? Is a single global language a good idea? Would it help promote peace and understanding? Or is linguistic diversity essential to human culture?

Dyslexia and language

Posted on October 13th, 2009by Michelle
In Chinese, Education, Greek, Language acquisition, Research | Leave a Comment »

There’s an interesting article in Time magazine today about some research that shows dyslexia may show itself differently for speakers of different languages.

The word ‘dyslexia’ comes from Greek and means ‘difficulty with words’. Dyslexia is defined by the British Dyslexia Association as “a specific learning disability which mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills”. Around 1 in 10 children in the UK has dyslexia, to varying degrees of severity, and seems to affect boys more than girls.

It is thought that dyslexia is the result of a phonological disorder, meaning that dyslexics struggle to separate and keep track of specific, individual sounds. In English language learning, where “sounding out” words is important, this is problematic.

Yet, whereas in English readers can use letters to sound words out, pronunciation of specific characters in Chinese languages is dependent on rote memorization, the researchers point out. And knowing which character’s pronunciation to pull up is dependent on a complete understanding of the intricate combination of strokes included in each character. In the analysis of 12 Chinese children with dyslexia, researchers found that, in addition to struggling with phonological processing exercises, the children also had trouble with exercises in which they were asked to judge the dimensions of images, as compared with non-dyslexic children. What’s more, while performing visual identification tasks, brain scans revealed that dyslexics had less activity in the part of the brain associated with visuospatial processing, as compared with non-dyslexics.

Read the full article here.

Languages at the UN

Posted on September 25th, 2009by Michelle
In Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Russian, Translation | Leave a Comment »

I posted recently about the European Union and the difficulties faced with translating their work in to the languages of its member countries.

So how does this work on a bigger scale, with more countries involved? Somewhere like the United Nations for example. This issue was recently highlighted by Colonel Gaddafi of Libya addressing the UN General Assembly in a regional dialect.

With 192 member states and a budget of around US$4 billion, the UN is made up of five main bodies, four of which are based on international territory at the UN headquarters in New York City, USA. The UN has six official languages – English, French, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and Arabic. When delivering a speech at the UN, speakers are supposed to talk in one of these languages.

…U.N. interpreters then translate the lecture into the other five languages. If the speaker doesn’t use an official language—either as a political statement or because he doesn’t know one—the speaker has to bring along his own interpreter. That interpreter then translates into one of the official languages—usually English or French—and the other interpreters translate from that interpretation. (Qaddafi brought his own interpreter.) Alternatively, the speaker can provide a written translation of his speech in one of the official languages, as long as he doesn’t deviate from the text in his remarks.

The United Nations uses simultaneous interpretation, which means translating on the fly without breaks (as opposed to consecutive interpretation, in which the speaker and translator alternate). At any given moment, the U.N. Interpretation Service has a dozen interpreters working six booths—one for every official language. The pair of interpreters in the English booth translates into English, the French booth translates into French, and so on. Attendees can then listen to the interpretations on headphones, clicking across channels for different languages. The job is exhausting, so interpreters will usually switch off every 20 minutes or so. They can also take breaks when the speech is in their language, since no translation is necessary. (Source: Slate Magazine)

To read more about interpreting at the UN, read the rest of the article at Slate Magazine here.