Archive for February, 2010

The writing on the (cave) wall

Posted on February 28th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Hieroglyphics, Historic, Research | Leave a Comment »

Chauvet cave artIncredible article in New Scientist this week, about prehistoric symbols discovered in caves in southern France.

Whilst artwork on the cave walls has been studied intensively, new research has shown that previously-ignored ‘doodles’ could be evidence of a primitive precursor to writing. A postgraduate student at the University of Victoria, Canada, built a database of signs from caves all over France and the results were striking – signs drawn in the same style, appeared at numerous different sites, which could indicate the beginnings of a simple language system. The earliest recorded pictograph writing systems are thought to date to 5,000 years ago, but this discovery may change current thought.

..One of the most intriguing facts to emerge from von Petzinger’s work is that more than three-quarters of the symbols were present in the very earliest sites, from over 30,000 years ago.

“I was really surprised to discover this,” says von Petzinger. If the creative explosion occurred 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, she would have expected to see evidence of symbols being invented and discarded at this early stage, with a long period of time passing before a recognisable system emerged. Instead, it appears that by 30,000 years ago a set of symbols was already well established.

That suggests we might need to rethink our ideas about prehistoric people, von Petzinger says. “This incredible diversity and continuity of use suggests that the symbolic revolution may have occurred before the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe.” If she is right, it would push back the date of the creative explosion by tens of thousands of years.

Read the rest of the article here.

Bilingual babies

Posted on February 25th, 2010by Michelle
In Education, Language acquisition, Words | Leave a Comment »

Last week I posted about how bilingualism can apparently be promoted even before babies are born. Introducing a second language at a young age seems to be a very popular idea – a mother in Scotland has won an international prize for teaching French to babies.

Fiona Moffat and her company, Lingobaby, aim to introduce a second language at a young age, and run sessions for children from birth to five years old.

“There are no expectations that they come out with French words, but often you can hear babies of about 15-16 months say bits of words like ‘bonjour’, ‘merci’ and ‘au revoir’,” she said.

Ms Moffatt said there were “huge” benefits to babies and toddlers learning foreign languages.

“If children are exposed to the sounds of a language before the age of nine months, they’re much more likely to pick the sounds out at a later age,” she said.

“We’ve also had a lot of comments from parents who are coming to classes that it just makes language learning normal.” (Source: BBC News)

I wonder exactly how much of the language these children actually pick up, or whether it’s more about laying down some foundations for learning in later years?

Subtitles: not always accurate

Posted on February 23rd, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, English, Translation | Leave a Comment »

Subtitles. They’re there to help you out when you’re watching a foreign movie or TV show. They can be a useful tool when you’re learning a new language. But what happens when the subtitle writers get it horribly wrong? This is often the case when an English film is dubbed into another language and then subtitled back into English. Well, it seems that some hilarity ensues… Take a look at this slideshow.

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)

Bilingual from before birth?

Posted on February 18th, 2010by Michelle
In Language acquisition, Research, Spanish | 1 Comment »

It’s often said that children pick up languages faster than adults, and the younger new languages are introduced, the quicker they learn. A new study now suggests that babies who hear two languages in the womb are already on the path to bilingualism.

The team of psychological scientists at the University of British Columbia in Canada found that language acquisition takes place even before birth, with babies picking up on languages in the womb. They found a correlation between a “sucking reflex” (which apparently shows stimulus or interest) and being spoken to in different languages.

On average, monolingual English babies gave more strong sucks per minute when hearing English, while bilingual babies gave the same number of sucks upon hearing both languages.

Realizing the bilingual babies could have shown equal interest in both languages simply because they didn’t know the difference, the researchers devised a second experiment to determine if the babies were able to tell the languages apart.

The infants heard sentences being spoken in one language until they lost interest. Then they either heard sentences spoken in the other language or sentences spoken in the same language, but by a different person.

The result found babies sucked more when they heard the language change, but not with a different person speaking the same language, suggesting they are able to tell the difference between two languages from early stages in life.

Werker said many bilingual parents are concerned that if they speak two languages, their children are going to be language-delayed or confused — but this research refutes that notion. (Source: Vancouver Sun)

I’ve always wanted to be bilingual and am now struggling as an adult to pick up Spanish. I guess with this news I can blame my lack of language skills on my parents for not speaking to me in anything other than English!

Olympic-size language issues

Posted on February 16th, 2010by Michelle
In English, Events, French, Translation | Leave a Comment »

Winter OlympicsI’ve been having a lot of fun staying up late and watching the Winter Olympics coverage, especially as I used to live in beautiful Vancouver.

Away from curious events such as skeleton, however, controversy is brewing over the bilingual nature of the Games. Canada is officially bilingual, with one in four of the population identifying French as their mother tongue. In British Columbia though, where the Games are being held, there is a much lower rate of French spoken and scepticism about the country’s policy of two official languages.

Olympic organisers have made a huge effort to ensure the bilingualism of the Games, with bilingual signs in the Olympic zone, translation of official events including news conferences, and recruitment of French-speaking volunteers.

Yet all those efforts failed to avert controversy, as many residents of French-speaking Quebec – and the federal Cabinet minister with the language portfolio – complained that the opening ceremony had too little French content for a country where it’s the mother tongue of about 23 percent of the population.

“I was disappointed there wasn’t as much French as we were expecting, as we were told that there was going to be,” Heritage Minister James Moore told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. on Sunday.

Harsher criticism came from the president of the Montreal-based Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society, which advocates for Francophone rights.

“It was really pitiful,” Mario Beaulieu said. “It shows that official bilingualism in Canada is a farce. It’s only stated in theory to calm linguistic tides in Quebec, but the reality is it doesn’t work.” (Source: Washington Post)

The Olympics is a huge event, attracting people from all over the globe. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) retains French as one of its operating languages (the movement was founded by a Frenchman) despite the language becoming less globally dominant. It’s a shame that the focus is on a negative aspect of the Games, rather than what’s really important – the crazy sports!

It’s amour

Posted on February 14th, 2010by Michelle
In English, Events, French, Italian, Japanese, Research, Spanish, Words | Leave a Comment »

love heartsIt’s that time of year again, when you can’t go near a shop, magazine, or website without seeing some combination of pink, red, and the word ‘Valentine’.

This year we have a little something extra: a survey of language experts has revealed that amour is the most romantic word in the world.

The French word for love beat amore, the Italian word for love, in a poll by London-based Today Translations. The survey also found that Italian was the most romantic language, followed by French, with Spanish and English tied in third place.

And the least romantic way to profess your love? In Japanese: watakushi-wa anata-wo ai shimasu. I suppose it does look a bit wordy!

What are your favourite romantic words?


Posted on February 11th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Language acquisition, Technology | Leave a Comment »

In my last post, I talked about language exchanges, and mentioned using the internet to ‘exchange’ languages with native speakers.

Serendipitously, I’ve just heard of a relatively new way of connecting with people all over the world. ChatRoulette is a website that is a mix of game and social interaction site. Users log on, and their website and microphone are activated. You are then presented with random strangers from around the globe, and you can either choose to chat to them, or skip to the next person. On the flip side, they can also choose whether to chat to you or not!

With around 10,000 worldwide users so far, ChatRoulette can’t yet rival Skype for connections. The randomness also means you may see some things you are not quite prepared for (see Wired’s piece for more info!). So, no guarantees on improving your language abilities, but most users say that the thing they most enjoy is talking to someone they otherwise never would.

Have you used ChatRoulette? What have your experiences been?

Language exchanges – for kids

Posted on February 9th, 2010by Michelle
In Education, Language acquisition | 1 Comment »

Language exchangesLanguage exchanges can be a good way of improving your abilities, especially your confidence in speaking and listening. With new technology and the power of the internet, you can talk to people from other countries online, thus ‘exchanging’ languages, hopefully to the improvement of both parties.

Living in the country of the language you are learning is a step further than this. Traditionally, language exchanges were only a few weeks long on either side. Now however, it seems the trend is for “extreme” language exchanges, with children spending up to six months with their host family.

According to The Independent, children aged 9 to 14 are taking part in these exchanges, living in their host country with a local family and attending the local school for up to six months. With almost no language ability before travelling, the children become fluent by the end of their stay.

It’s often been noted that children pick up new languages faster than adults, so for those of us who are slightly older than 14, I’d probably recommend taking a couple of classes in your home country to see if you like the language before you commit to something this intense!

The language exchange discussed in the article was arranged by En Famille International, who are always looking for English-speaking families. This may also be a way to get involved in language exchange, if you’re interested and have children!

A parliamentary grammar debate

Posted on February 7th, 2010by Michelle
In English, Hints and Tips, Latin, Words | 1 Comment »

It’s good to see that important issues are being debated in the British Parliament. The war in Afghanistan, MPs’ expenses … and grammar?

A recent debate, an extract of which was published in Hansard’s 19th January issue, shows two MP’s having a tiff over the correct plural of ‘referendum’.

Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): [. . . ] There is no country keener on referendums than Switzerland.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Referenda.

Mr MacShane: Referendums. It is a gerund.

Mr Fabricant: It is a gerundive.

Mr MacShane: It is a gerund. Keep your hair on. [. . . ]

Michael Fabricant: [later in the debate, after checking in the dictionary] The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr.MacShane) may have inadvertently misled the House earlier, and I am sure that he would wish to retract that. As the word “referendum” means “things to be referred”, according to the “Oxford English Dictionary”, it is indeed a gerundive and therefore the plural should be “referenda”. “Referendums” is acceptable in modern usage, though wrong.

Hon. Members: Withdraw!

A tad confused? The Independent explains:

But, should you need to ask, Mr Mount confirms that a gerund has no plural form in Latin, therefore if “referendum” were a gerund, you could not say “referenda”, but since it is in fact a gerundive, “referenda” is correct. Correct, if a little pretentious. But I expect you already knew that.

That’s all sorted then.