Archive for October, 2009

Who’s your interpreter?

Posted on October 29th, 2009by Michelle
In English, Language acquisition, Spanish, Translation | Leave a Comment »

Interpreter symbolWith no previous knowledge of Spanish before I moved to the Canary Islands recently, I have found myself relying on other people for translations and information.

As someone who is very independent and capable, I’ve found it quite difficult to depend on others. A recent article brought my situation in to perspective, however. Whilst I am only in Spain for a few months, there are people who move to a new country permanently without speaking the language – and sometimes have to rely on children to translate their everyday needs.

The first woman in this article, Dolores Pedro, has learned two additional languages in order to fit in to her community – first Spanish and now English. Her son says translating for his parents is not hard, as he “speak[s] three languages”.

There is some debate about the effect this responsibility has on children, however, especially when it comes to medical issues.

Whippo said the hospital tries to discourage using children as translators because the child may not have the vocabulary in both languages to fully explain the situation in English and another language. Also, she said, medical information can be a heavy burden on a child. (Source: Garden City Telegram)

A doctor in Tennessee, USA, also wrote an opinion piece earlier this year putting himself in a child translators shoes. He concluded that “children often lack the vocabulary and the psychological and emotional maturity required to communicate health information.” (Source: Education Week)

Luckily, I have no need to rely on children to communicate for me. Much like the woman in the article, I’ve made the conscious decision to learn the local language and improve quickly, so I can depend less on others.

Lip reading computers

Posted on October 27th, 2009by Michelle
In Education, Language acquisition, Research, Technology | Leave a Comment »

Reading lipsRecently I posted about the pros and cons of machine translation versus human translation.

It seems computers are also helping people to communicate in other ways – a new study shows they may be more effective at lip reading than humans.

Researchers compared the accuracy of an automated lip-reading machine to that of 19 people who had lip-reading training. The study found that the automated system recognized 80 percent of words, compared to 32 percent for human lip readers.

The machines were also able to read lips on simplistic representations of facial shape, whereas human lip-readers required a video of actual people speaking.

“This pilot study is the first time an automated lip-reading system has been benchmarked against human lip-readers, and the results are perhaps surprising,” said study author Sarah Hilder. (Source: US News)

This could be of major benefit to lip reading learners, and lead to new and improved methods of learning. A difficult to learn skill, lip reading will become more essential as people live longer. Any skill that helps people communicate is valuable – can you lip read?

Forgotten languages

Posted on October 24th, 2009by Michelle
In English, French, Language acquisition, Research, Spanish | Leave a Comment »

ForgetfulMany of us have learned a language at one time or another. For most, uninteresting compulsory classes at school meant the language was easily forgotten once exams were over.

It may be that the language has not completely disappeared though. A new study has found that participants who had learned a language as a child could remember phonemes – the smallest sounds in a language, and could quickly relearn vocabulary.

The findings, published in Psychological Science, suggest being exposed as young children to foreign languages, even if they do not continue to speak them, can have a lasting impact on speech perception.

“Even if the language is forgotten — or feels this way — after many years of disuse, leftover traces of the early exposure can manifest themselves as an improved ability to relearn the language,” the study authors said in a statement. (Source: Times of the Internet)

Anecdotally, I can say that having studied French for four years at school, I can still recall some vocabulary and full sentences, despite not having really used it for over a decade (this is a hindrance in my current attempt to learn Spanish!).

It’s bad news for lazy learners though – there’s no excuse now for not taking up that language you ‘forgot’!

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?

Computers vs. humans

Posted on October 20th, 2009by Michelle
In Afrikaans, Hints and Tips, Language acquisition, Technology, Translation, Yiddish | 1 Comment »

Computer brain vs human brainOK, that sounds a little ominous, but it’s not the end of the world as we know it (yet).

Whilst learning a language, there are many resources we can use. A good resource should be accurate and reliable. That’s why you need to be careful when using translation websites.

Google Translate for example, currently has around 50 languages, from Afrikaans to Yiddish. Google uses something called statistical machine translation, which is useful for getting the general idea of documents, but may not be completely accurate.

Pros and cons: Google’s computerized approach means it can translate tons of content — and fast. But computers aren’t quite up to speed with ever-evolving modern speech, so reports of translation errors are fairly common.

On the plus side, the service has been vastly improved in the last five years, Och said. Also, Google lets people spot translation errors, suggest new wordings and translate its interface into languages Google’s computers don’t speak just yet. (Source:

Sites such as Babelfish and offer a similar service to Google Translate, and again are machine powered. also offers human translation, but at a cost. So when translating a specific phrase, it’s a good idea to double check the translation – perhaps try cross-translating it into the original language.

The popular social networking site Facebook, however, has a different method. Through crowdsourcing, they are translating their site into different languages using human knowledge.

Pros and cons: People are good at knowing idioms and slang, so Facebook tends to get these right, but there are limited numbers of multi-lingual volunteers who want to spend time helping Facebook translate things.

Also, Facebook’s site is available in many languages, but its human translators don’t touch wall posts, photo comments and other user-submitted items, which is a big con if you want to have friends who don’t share a common language with you. People who use Facebook Connect to translate their sites can choose which text they want users to help translate, according to Facebook spokeswoman Malorie Lucich.

What are your experiences of using Google Translate, Facebook and other machine translators? Do you find them more or less helpful than human translation?

Speak up!

Posted on October 18th, 2009by Michelle
In Hints and Tips, Language acquisition, Spanish | Leave a Comment »

Recently I moved temporarily to Spain and, with no previous knowledge of the language, have been attempting to learn Spanish.

Whilst I’ve had some success picking up individual words, and can already read some simple Spanish, speaking is my real ‘problem’ area.
My biggest fear is getting words wrong – I dislike being incorrect. This fear is very unhelpful in language acquisition, as you learn from your mistakes!

And as a recent study shows, conversing is essential to language development. A UCLA study found that activities that got children talking were more conducive to language acquisition than other methods.

Each day, children hear an average of some 13,000 words spoken to them by adults and participate in about 400 conversational turns with adults. More conversations mean more opportunities for mistakes and therefore more opportunities for valuable corrections. Furthermore, they also provide an opportunity for children to practice new vocabulary. (Source:

Whilst the study focused on language acquisition in children, I think the findings can be applied to all language learning. Make the most of any opportunity you have to converse in your chosen language – and don’t be scared to make mistakes!

The French and their language

Posted on October 16th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, English, French, Translation | 2 Comments »

Why French?The French are well known for being protective of their language.

At school one teacher used to tell us that the French hated English and would deliberately make new words as dissimilar to the English as possible, just to make things difficult. I’m not sure how true this is, but they definitely have a lengthy process for introducing new words to the language.

Keeping the French language relevant isn’t easy in the Internet age. For years, French bureaucrats have worked hard to keep French up to date by diligently coming up with equivalents for English terms. Though most French people say “le week-end” and “un surfer,” the correct translations of the terms are “fin de semaine” (“end of the week”) and “aquaplanchiste” (“water boarder”). A “start-up” company is referred to as “jeune pousse,” or “young shoot” (the term pousse is used for vegetable sprouts), while the World Wide Web is translated as “toile d’araignée mondiale” (literally, global spider web).

But technological advancements mean new Anglicisms are spreading over the Internet at warp speed, leaving the French scratching their heads.

Before a word such as “cloud computing” or “podcasting” (“diffusion pour baladeur”) receives a certified French equivalent, it needs to be approved by three organizations and get a government minister’s seal of approval, according to rules laid out by the state’s General Delegation for the French Language and the Languages of France. The process can be a linguistic odyssey taking years.

“Rigor cannot be compromised,” said Xavier North, the 57-year-old civil servant who heads the General Delegation. (Source: Wall Street Journal)

Yep, that’s right. For a new word to get the official seal of approval, it has to go through three organisations and be passed by a government minister, a process that can take years.

The right to French words is enshrined in the Constitution, which states that “the language of the Republic shall be French”. This is further upheld by laws passed in 1994, which stated that work contracts, adverts and all government documentation had to be in French. Government institutions such as la délégation générale à la langue française et aux langues de France (DGLFLF) and the Académie française aim to enrich and promote the language.

I can’t think of any other country or language that does anything similar to the French. With English I think it’s generally accepted that the language is ever evolving and new words are being added constantly, so there’s not enough time to keep track of them all. Even the famous Oxford English Dictionary is often behind the times – their list of new words added each year sometimes reads like a list of words that have been and gone from popular culture.

So, whilst I salute the French for attempting to preserve their language (and there are many near-extinct languages that would benefit from the same treatment), perhaps the length of time the bureaucracy takes to approve a new word may become a hindrance.

Pure Dead Brilliant, by the way

Posted on October 15th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, Scots, Slang, Translation | Leave a Comment »

Glasweigan adYesterday I posted about dialect poetry and mentioned that dialects are dying out in Europe.

At least one dialect is in no danger of becoming extinct though – a translation company in England have placed an advert calling for Glaswegian translators to help their clients understand the locals when they visit the Scottish city.

Glaswegians, known affectionately as Weegies, speak varying levels of a continually-evolving form of dialect widely known as ‘the patter’.

The speech comprises a range of Scots expressions, vocabulary and humour, as well examples of rhyming slang, local cultural references, nicknames and street language.

“Glaswegian” has given rise to a plethora of phrasebooks, joke books, online glossaries and merchandise, not to mention TV and radio shows. There is even a Glasgow Bible, which relates some biblical tales in the vernacular. (Source: BBC News)

Wondering what Glaswegian sounds like and why it’s so difficult for outsiders to understand? Head through to the BBC article where they have some audio clips of Glaswegians speaking (along with an English translation!). And if you’re wondering about the meaning of the title, read about it here.

Dialect poetry

Posted on October 14th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, German, Scots, Translation | 1 Comment »

European dialects are apparently much more similar than we think.

Dialects are becoming increasingly rare in Europe, as borders are open and there’s more free movement between states. But dialects help preserve the local language and culture, so some Scottish and German poets have taken up the challenge of translating verse in these regional varieties.

Fitzgerald Kusz, a Franconian poet from Nuremberg, said that in translating Scots poems he was surprised to discover traces of that dialect’s Germanic roots. Kusz has spoken Franconian since childhood and regards his dialect as an intimate and comfortable form of communication.

“On one hand, globalization continues strengthen its hold,” he said, “High German, the unified language, can be heard on television in every village. But there is, in fact, a movement among the people to keep their languages alive.”

And that is one primary goal of dialect literature, he added.

Read the full article on dialect poetry here.

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.