Recording Dying Languages

Being a field linguist is a hard, if rewarding, job. You have to travel to far-off places, often isolated villages with few luxuries. Then, you spend a lot of time recording the sounds and words of endangered languages that few people still speak.
In the past, most of the recording was done on tape recorders, with transcriptions being laboriously transcribed on paper. Now, according to this article in the New York Times, digital recording is making this important work both a little bit easier and a little bit more accessible. The Times article follows linguist Dr. Tucker Childs as he tries to record the Kim language in the Sierra Leone.
By using a solid-state recorder and a variety of computer applications, he is able to record and analyze words, as well as record the GPS coordinates of the last few villages were Kim is spoken, which are so remote that they do not appear on any standard maps of the country. Once he has finished his work, this data will be stored at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where other scholars can access it.
Of course, digital equipment has its pitfalls, too-traveling to remote areas is hard on even the toughest electronic devices. But, once data about an endangered or dying data is collected, it’s much easier to do something constructive with it if it’s already in digital form. For example, according to the article, the University of Sydney has developed software for cell phones that helps Aboriginal children and teenagers from the Dharug tribe learn the Dharug language. The program is basically a mobile dictionary that allows users to look up the meanings and definitions of words in Dharug, a dead language that would otherwise not be in use.

Being a field linguist is a hard, if rewarding, job. You have to travel to far-off places, often isolated villages with few luxuries. Then, you spend a lot of time recording the sounds and words of endangered languages that few people still speak.

In the past, most of the recording was done on tape recorders, with transcriptions being laboriously transcribed on paper. Now, according to this article in the New York Times, digital recording is making this important work both a little bit easier and a little bit more accessible. The Times article follows linguist Dr. Tucker Childs as he tries to record the Kim language in the Sierra Leone.

By using a solid-state recorder and a variety of computer applications, he is able to record and analyse words, as well as record the GPS coordinates of the last few villages were Kim is spoken, which are so remote that they do not appear on any standard maps of the country. Once he has finished his work, this data will be stored at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where other scholars can access it.

Of course, digital equipment has its pitfalls too-travelling to remote areas is hard on even the toughest electronic devices. But, once data about an endangered or dying data is collected, it’s much easier to do something constructive with it if it’s already in digital form.

For example the University of Sydney has developed software for cell phones that helps Aboriginal children and teenagers from the Dharug tribe learn the Dharug language. The program is basically a mobile dictionary that allows users to look up the meanings and definitions of words in Dharug, a dead language that would otherwise not be in use.

Slovakia and Hungary in Language Law Row

On the last day of June, Slovakia passed a law governing language use in their country. According to this article, posted on Euractiv.com, the law makes it illegal to use “incorrect” Slovak in Slovakia. The punishment is harsh with fines as high as 5,000 euros (£4,315).

Basically, the law makes it very difficult for speakers of minority languages to publicly communicate in their native language in Slovakia. For example, at public events, speeches and such must be given in Slovak first and the other language second-even if the only people present at the event speak the minority language.

Michael Gahler, the vice-chair for the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, has condemned the new language law as a violation of EU standards regarding minority languages. In the article referenced above, he is quoted as saying:

“Slovakia is violating commonly respected standards in the EU and is disregarding respective recommendations of the Council of Europe, which foresee the extended use of minority languages,” Gahler said, going as far as declaring that the country “risks discrediting itself as an EU member and becoming a totalitarian state again if the new provisions are consistently applied”.

The main minority language in Slovakia is Hungarian, which means that Hungary is not pleased, either.  The Hungarian government has asked the Slovakian government to stop the law from being implemented, but they have this far declined, with Slovakian leaders saying that it is not discriminatory.

However, Laszlo Öllős, a political analyst, was quoted as saying that the law is very ambiguous, increasing the potential for abuse.  According to Mr. Öllős, it could even be interpreted to apply to conversations between doctors and patients who speak the same (minority) language.

Debates over “official languages” and how much support to give minority language speakers have raged in many different countries. All too often, the debates become more about hostilities between two different groups than about protecting a specific language or culture. Fining doctors and patients for conversing in a language that they both share seems to be somewhat mean-spirited, and possibly dangerous if it keeps the patient from getting the best possible care.

Online Role-Playing Game Teaches English to Chinese Students

According to the New York Times, the video game developer behind the popular Age of Empires game has just released a new video game in China aimed at teaching children a second language.

The fantasy role-playing game is called Wiz World Online, and it incorporates many of the elements that make role-playing games so exciting for children. For example, they get to choose their own avatars and solve challenges in a fantasy world. However, instead of testing how well they can combine spells or how fast they can press buttons, these challenges test their English skills.

The important thing about Wiz World Online is that it allows kids to practice everyday words and phrases in the language they are learning. Also, it allows them to pick up new skills as needed, by sending their character to a “wizard’s library” for English lessons.

By giving kids an incentive to practice, Wiz World Online helps them overcome the shortcomings of traditional, school-based language learning programs.

Alex Wang, the chief executive and co-founder of 8D world, the company responsible for the game, says that the seeds for the idea that later became Wiz World Online were planted during his first visit to America from China. Although he had studied English, he found that he had a hard time communicating in day-to-day conversations with English speakers. His classes simply hadn’t adequately prepared him to be alone in an English-speaking country.

Honestly, no matter how much you study a language in a classroom, visiting a country full of native speakers is likely to be a trial by fire. People use languages differently in real life than they are taught in class, and the only way to truly prepare for that would be to spend a lot of time talking to native speakers from the country and region that you are visiting before you go. Still, games like Wiz World Online have a place in language learning classrooms, especially if children like them enough to play them on their own time. Knowing the fundamentals makes it easier to catch on when you do travel to a foreign country, and too many language classes don’t even leave children with a fundamental grasp of the language.

How Does Learning Another Language Affect Your Brain?

How does a learning a new language shape your brain? Are the brains of bilingual people different from those of people who only speak one language? Despite our advanced medical technology and  fancy brain-imaging machines, our understanding of how the human brain works is still in its infancy.  This is true where learning a new language is concerned, as well.

However, an interesting case study recorded in detail by Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim at the University of Haifa may shed a little bit of light on the subject.  Dr. Ibrahim observed a brain-injury patient who had been fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic before he was injured. As he recovered, it became apparent that he had a speech disability called aphasia as a result of the injury. Even after undergoing rehabilitative therapy, some disability remained.

The interesting thing is that the man in the study showed a much greater improvement in being able to speak and write Arabic after rehabilitation than he did in Hebrew. Although Arabic was his first language, he was fluent in both before the injury. So, to Dr. Ibrahim, the patient’s experience seems to indicate that language skills for a second language are stored in a different part of the brain than language skills for your first language are.

In an article posted on the Science Daily website, Dr. Ibrahim explained why this one case study was significant:

“The examination of such cases carries much significance, since it is rare that we can find people who fluently speak two languages and who have sustained brain damage that has selectively affected one of the languages. Moreover, most of the evidence in this field is derived from clinical observations of brain damage in English- and Indo-European-speaking patients, and few studies have been carried out on individuals who speak other languages, especially Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic, until the present study,” he added.

Star Trek's Universal Translator: Coming Soon to an iPhone Near You?

Remember the Universal Translator from Star Trek? The translator enabled members of the Star Trek crew to understand alien languages as they were spoken. According to Geek.com, there is currently an iPhone app in beta that is reminiscent of the science-fiction device.

The iPhone app from Sakhr Software and Dial Directions, which is being used by US diplomats and soldiers in Iraq, can translate from Arabic to English and back again.

To use it, all you have to do is press a button on the iPhone and speak the phrase that you need to have translated. The app does the rest, using voice recognition algorithms to decipher what you are saying and translate it.

When the translation is complete, the app speaks the phrase in the other language, as well as displaying the translated version on the screen. Unlike earlier pocket translation programs, you don’t have to type anything.

Unlike most computerized translation programs, this one is actually pretty accurate, and based on this video demonstration, can even translate relatively difficult and complicated sentences.

As cool as it would be to have this on your own iPhone, it’s not available to the general public yet. But just imagine how much easier it would be to travel to another country if you had one of these!

Of course, I can’t see this app completely replacing trained, fluent and human interpreters who understand the nuances of both languages and cultures. Also, even if devices like this become common, it would still be preferable to learn as much of the language of the country you are visiting as possible. After all, most people prefer it when you talk to them, not to a machine. However, I think a pocket translator like this could make learning another language easier if you tried to learn from it instead of using it as a crutch.

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