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Chimpanzee Language: Apes in Translation

We’ve known for decades that chimpanzees and their smaller cousins the bonobos have the ability to learn some human sign language.  They also use their own signs and gestures  in the wild, but until recently most research had focused on teaching them to communicate on our terms.

However, in two new studies published earlier this month, researchers were able to decode some of the apes’ own gestures.

The first study looked at a group of chimpanzees in the wild. Over a period of 18 months, primatologists carefully noted every gesture the chimpanzees seemed to be using for communication, as well as how each gesture was responded to by other chimps. Then, the researchers used computer analysis to break down the data and find out which gestures seemed to have consistent meanings. They were able to uncover 36 commonly used and understood gestures, with 15 different meanings.

Study co-author Richard Byrne, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews, told Wired,

“What we’ve shown is a very rich system of many different meanings. We have the closest thing to human language that you can see in nature.”

The other study, from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, decoded a complex hand sign used by bonobos. Bonobos are the free-love hippies of the primate world; they are known for having sex and lots of it. So, it’s only appropriate that researchers translated the gesture to mean something like “Hey baby, let’s you and me go someplace where we can be alone together.”

Dr. Catherine Hobaiter, the other co-author of the chimpanzee study told the BBC that the way the chimps used gestures indicated that they are closer to us linguistically than we might like to believe:

“The big message [from this study] is that there is another species out there that is meaningful in its communication, so that’s not unique to humans. I don’t think we’re quite as set apart as we would perhaps like to think we are.”

However, not everyone agrees. Evolutionary biologist Dr. Susanne Shultz, of the University of Manchester, told the BBC that the study’s results were  “a little disappointing”. She went on to say,

“The vagueness of the gesture meanings suggest either that the chimps have little to communicate, or we are still missing a lot of the information contained in their gestures and actions.”

It’s quite possibly the latter. Dr. Hobaiter told Wired that she believed their ability to analyze and understand chimpanzee gestures was limited at best:

“I have the impression that there were some meanings we couldn’t capture,” Hobaiter said. Sometimes, she recalled, a chimpanzee would gesture to another, then appear satisfied, though nothing else seemed to happen. Said Hobaiter, “I’d love to know what was going on!”

Photo credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by nzgabriel

muuzii

Muuzii: Accurate Translation for Travelers

If you’re looking for a translation app to travel with you, there’s no shortage of contenders.  Translation apps are easier to use than a clunky phrasebook, and many of them can do cool things like translate text from pictures and translate text to speech. However, the vast majority (if not all) of these apps have two main drawbacks:

  • They require that you own a smartphone.
  • Their translations are automatic and not 100% accurate.

For example, check out this amusing (but confusing) translation from celebrated translation app Word Lens, purchased by Google back in May:

 

What are they doing to that poor mozzarella?

Translation errors like that are good for a laugh, but in more serious situations you might want something a little bit more accurate.  Also, not everyone owns a smartphone, oddly enough. Muuzii is a new translation tool for all mobile phones (not just smartphones) that promises more accurate results because it does not exclusively rely on machine translation.

With Muuzii, users send the next they need translated over SMS. Muuzii automatically translates it, then has a professional translator review the translation to ensure that it is accurate. According to Venturebeat, they’ll not only make sure the translation is accurate, but also fix any awkwardness or ambiguity:

“Each team member makes sure that the response is not only accurate, but also the best way to get your message across. If the human translators think there might be a better way to phrase it, they’ll train the database to choose their preferred option next time it encounters a similar request.

So, when you find yourself in a sticky linguistic situation, you won’t deal with the awkwardness that the limitations of app technology create.”

Then, the service texts your translation right back to you.

The main drawback is that the service is only available in English and Chinese, as a subscription for American AT & T customers.

Would you use something like Muuzii? Let us know in the comments!

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Learn a Language In Your Sleep?

“Learn a language in your sleep!” It sounds like a scam, doesn’t it? However, according to researchers from the Swiss National Science Foundation, it just might work. Sort of.

The researchers played a series of Dutch vocabulary words to a group of 60 German-speaking volunteers. Half of the volunteers were then allowed to go to sleep, and while they slept, the researchers played the newly acquired Dutch words for them again. The other half were asked to stay awake, and they also got to hear the new Dutch words played again.  Then, the researchers woke the first group up and tested everyone to see how well they had retained the vocabulary.

You might expect the group that stayed awake to do better on the test, since they’d had the opportunity to hear the words repeated while they were actually conscious. In fact, the group that went to sleep remembered the vocabulary more accurately.

As Wired noted in its write up of the study, “[i]t is, of course, entirely reasonable to assume that sleep deprivation versus rest played a part in the results.” The vocabulary test took place at 2 AM, after all. 

However, the researchers also had the sleeping subjects hooked up to EEG machines to measure their brainwaves.  When the sleeping volunteers heard the Dutch words being played, they showed increased activity in parts of the brain that are associated with creating memories.

So, can you learn a new language in your sleep?

Not completely. Listening to a foreign language while you snooze falls under the category of “passive listening.” As Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months puts it:

“When you already understand the language, it’s different – but to learn the language? The problem with embracing a passive means of learning a language is that a language is active. It requires your attention to understand and your ability to produce to actually converse.”

Note that even in this study, the volunteers initially learned the new foreign vocabulary words actively, while they were awake. Hearing them in their sleep later may have helped reinforce what they had already learned while they were conscious, but without that conscious effort, your language learning dreams are doomed to remain just that…dreams!

Have you tried to learn a language (or anything else) in your sleep? Did it work? Tell us about it in the comments!

chineseteacher

Does the UK Need More Foreign Language Speakers?

Is the UK facing a shortage of foreign language speakers in the near future?  That seems to be the case, a new study from the CBI confirms.

Last year, the British Council released a report describing the potential economic harm caused by not having enough UK workers with the right foreign language skills.

The 2014 CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey supports those conclusions. According to the CBI survey, two thirds of UK employers prefer to hire employees with foreign language skills.

Which languages are companies looking for? The most requested language was French, with 50% of businesses looking to hire French speakers. 49% were looking for German speakers, and 44% were looking for Spanish speakers. However, the number of businesses looking for Mandarin and Arabic speakers is growing. For example, 31% of the firms surveyed considered Mandarin a  useful language for their business. In 2012, only 25 percent did. Likewise, demand for Arabic language skills is up 4 percent since 2012.

In a statement,  CBI deputy director general Katja Hall expressed concern about the number of UK students learning these languages:

“With the EU still our largest export market, it’s no surprise to see German, French and Spanish language skills so highly prized by companies. But with China and Latin America seeing solid growth, ambitious firms want the language skills that can smooth the path into new markets. It has been a worry to see foreign language study in our schools under pressure with one in five schools having a persistently low take-up of languages. The jury remains out as to whether recent government initiatives can help spur a resurgence in language learning. Young people considering their future subject choices should be made more aware of the benefits to their careers that can come from studying a foreign language.”

To address this problem, the  government is making foreign  languages mandatory in UK schools starting at age seven.

Is there anything else we should be doing to encourage British children to learn foreign languages? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by mklapper

Document Translation Top Tips

Document Translation: Top 5 Tips

Document translation services have become a huge industry as the drive for closer global integration and communication increases, to keep up the translation industry has turned to a plethora of digital tools to help manage the surge in demand. As one of the UKs leading specialists in document translation, we receive all manner of file types & formats on a daily basis, with more than 90% of clients providing digital files.

To that end we’ve got 5 key considerations that you can take into account to help protect your document translation project against higher costs and delays to your delivery schedule.

Read more

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How a Second Language Keeps You Young

Looking for the fountain of youth? Look no further than a foreign language class, at least as far as your brain is concerned. According to a new study from the University of Edinburgh, learning to speak a second language actually keeps your brain younger and protects against age-related cognitive decline.

The study looked at 835 men and women, all born in Scotland to English-speaking families. They were tested for mental abilities once at age eleven  and then again in their seventies.

The subjects who spoke more than one language did much better than would normally be expected on the second round of tests, especially in the areas of general intelligence and reading. Research has clearly established that children are “wired” to learn a second language more easily than adults, and there are cognitive advantages to being raised bilingually.

However,  in this study the beneficial effects were seen even in people who learned their second language after the age of 18.  So, it’s never too late to reap the benefits of learning another language.

Study author Dr. Thomas Bak, of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, wrote:

“These findings are of considerable practical relevance. Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the aging brain.”

Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, professor of medicine at Harvard, confirmed the importance of the study to the BBC:

“The epidemiological study provides an important first step in understanding the impact of learning a second language and the ageing brain. This research paves the way for future causal studies of bilingualism and cognitive decline prevention.”

Image credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by brain_blogger

phrasebook

Language Learning Lessons From the Mormons

NPR has an interesting story up on language learning at the Mormon’s Missionary Training Center in Utah.  The Missionary Training Center equips young Mormons with the language skills to preach their version of the gospel to people overseas.

It does so incredibly quickly, with most students going from zero to at least conversational in just nine short weeks.

MTC student Kirsten Weiss told NPR:

“The five weeks that I’ve been at the MTC, I’ve seen people go from having zero experience with Mandarin — or even learning any language — to going where I was maybe about my third year of studying at a university. It’s very impressive.”

How do they do it? Here are four of the MTC’s language learning secrets:

1. “Speak Your Language. “

“Speak your language” is the “unofficial motto” at the Missionary Training Center.  Rather than simply doing vocabulary and grammar drills, students focus on using their chosen language in a variety of real world situations.

2.  Practice makes perfect.

MTC students spend 10 hours every day studying.   That’s a lot of practice!

According to commenter James Picht, who went through the program:

10 hours/week (including out of class study, for a serious student) at a university versus 10 hours/day at the MTC or another intensive program – it’s exposure to the language that really determines progress, and the MTC provides about the same exposure in 9 weeks that a serious student would get in 3 semesters at a university. Then add in the advantage that at the MTC, you haven’t had a chance to forget any of what you learned between semesters and that you’re going straight from there to the country where you’ll speak the language, and it’s unsurprising that motivated missionaries will be doing very well in relatively short order.

3.  Don’t expect immediate perfection.

According to some of the commenters on the article, students usually don’t leave MTC fully fluent in another language. In fact, sometimes they are barely conversational.  However, they have a foundation they can build on, and most become  fluent after six months in a foreign country.

4. Stay motivated.

Staying motivated is key. For the farm boy in those old Rosetta Stone ads, it was his love for an Italian supermodel. For students at the MTC, the motivation is spiritual, with one telling NPR

“”Everything we do is trying to learn by and with the Spirit, so that’s really the only way you can … stand it here.”

Decide what your motivation is to learn the language, and remind yourself of it whenever you get discouraged.

Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language quickly? Share your experience in the comments!

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by katherinejarmstrong

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Twitter Expands Use of Bing Translation

To celebrate the beginning of the World Cup in Brazil, Twitter has begun using Bing Translation to make it easier to read tweets in other languages.

The translation feature was already available on the Twitter webpage and Windows phones, and Twitter began testing it on its Android app a couple of weeks ago. Now, it’s been made available on the iOS app for Apple devices. That should cover most smartphone users, with the exception of the last few stubborn BlackBerry users.

Currently, to translate a tweet from the one of the mobile apps, you have to exit the timeline by clicking on the individual tweet. However,  Twitter also just made it easier to translate tweets on its webpage directly in the timeline. Now, all you have to do is click on the grey globe icon in the top right corner of the tweet, and you’ll get an option to view the translation. The translation appears below the original tweet.

According to CNET:

“The changes could increase Twitter’s already considerable utility and influence as a global communications medium. People use Twitter not just to find about about sporting events in Brazil, but also political protests in Turkey, elections in Europe, and civil war in Syria.”

While machine translation is the only realistic option for a service like Twitter, it’s important to keep in mind that machine translation is far from perfect at this point.  Combine that with how quickly information and misinformation alike spread on Twitter, and it will be interesting to see what happens. I predict that in the months to come, we’ll have plenty of examples of both the potential and the pitfalls of this technology.

What do you think of Twitter’s new translation options?

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Did Disney Drop the Ball With Frozen’s Arabic Translation?

Just when you thought Disney might be running low on “princess stories” to adapt, along came “Frozen.”  Inspired by the old fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” “Frozen” quickly became one of the most successful Disney movies ever. In fact, it is number five on the list of the highest-grossing films of all time.

No matter what part of the world you live in or how old you are, “Frozen” is unavoidable. It’s been translated into 41 different languages. However, if you are one of the world’s 290 million native Arabic speakers, Disney’s translation might leave you a little cold.

Arabic is what’s called a diglossic language, which means there is a formal standardized version that almost everyone in the Arabic world learns in school (Modern Standard Arabic), and there are the localized dialects used in everyday life.

Previous Disney Arabic translations used the Egyptian Arabic dialect, which has the most speakers and is widely understood in other countries thanks to Egypt’s movie industry. For “Frozen,” they decided to go with Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). While this might seem like a good way to maximize their Arabic audience, using MSA changes the casual, modern language of the English original into something much more biblical, as Elias Muhanna writes in the New Yorker:

The Arabic lyrics to “Let It Go” are as forbidding as Elsa’s ice palace. The Egyptian singer Nesma Mahgoub, in the song’s chorus, sings, “Discharge thy secret! I shall not bear the torment!” and “I dread not all that shall be said! Discharge the storm clouds! The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me…” From one song to the next, there isn’t a declensional ending dropped or an antique expression avoided, whether it is sung by a dancing snowman or a choir of forest trolls. The Arabic of “Frozen” is frozen in time, as “localized” to contemporary Middle Eastern youth culture as Latin quatrains in French rap.

“The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me?” Awkward! There’s a more accessible translation from a fan on YouTube here, but even so the lyrics come across as awkward and stilted. Reaction in the Arabic world has understandably mixed- some people love it and some people hate it. So why not make multiple Arabic translations for a few of the more widely spoken dialects?  Disney obviously has the resources, and they’re willing to put forth the effort for European languages like Spanish and Portuguese.

Muhanna proposes one possible reason for the shift in an interview with NPR:

I think that it has something to do with the fact that last year, Al Jazeera inked a big deal with Disney to basically buy all of its distribution rights for its children’s programming. And if you go on to the website of Al Jazeera’s Children’s Channel, you will find a policy document there that states very clearly that all of its content will be in what they call Classical Arabic.

Do you think Disney dropped the ball with its Arabic Arabic translation of “Frozen?” Let us know in the comments!