Is Cajun French in Danger?

If you’ve ever visited the state of Louisiana, a deep French cultural influence was probably one of the first things you noticed. French is everywhere…in the names of the towns, parishes and places, in the lyrics of Cajun music, and in the names of typical Cajun dishes like boudin and andouille sausages.

However, over the past 50 years, it’s become much less common to find the language in the one place that matters most for its survival: the lips of people, particularly young people.

Early in the 20th century, the Louisiana government began trying to suppress the use of French in favor of English. According to the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, children were actually punished for speaking French in school starting in 1915. The Seattle Times reports that in 1968, there were still about a million French speakers in Louisiana, but today that estimate is down to at most 200,000 when you add up all the different French dialects spoken in the state.

Meanwhile, the government’s efforts have shifted gears, from trying to eliminate French in schools to encouraging it via immersion programs in historically French-speaking parishes.

Sue Vasseur, manager of popular Cajun bar Fred’s Lounge, told reporters that the immersion programs give her hope:

“I’m hoping it’s going to continue. They are teaching French in our schools here now in Mamou and Evangeline Parish. So I think possibly some of it will rub off on our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren.”

Immersion programs help, but they aren’t a panacea. As Gwen Duplechin of Butte La Rose observed in the article, “you have to keep it up or it doesn’t work.” Her own granddaughter went to a French immersion school, but lost touch with the language afterwards.

In this respect, the future of French in Louisiana seems most secure in the city of Lafayette, where it is spoken with some frequency in everyday life, by people of all ages.

Unfortunately, this year Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal put the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana’s budget under the knife, which will make finding teachers for the immersion program more difficult and severely affect other efforts to preserve the language.

Given the lifelong advantages that growing up bilingual gives children in terms of cognition, investing in immersion programs for kids seems like a no-brainer. The region’s unique cultural heritage is preserved, kids reap the additional benefits of growing up bilingual…how is this not a win-win situation?

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Cajun Byrd

Twitter Translation Center Adds More Languages

Twitter has been using a crowdsourced translation model to publish the site in languages from around the world. As of this week, the total has risen to 30 with the addition of Ukrainian and Catalan. Ukrainian is spoken by 37.5 million Ukrainians and an additional 3.5 to 7.5 people outside of the country.

Catalan is spoken by about 6.7 million people in and around Catalonia, Spain. It is a Romance language related to Spanish and Italian.

In a blog post, Twitter noted that its users have been clamoring to translate the popular website into their own languages:

“The demand has been so high that we built a console – Twitter’s Translation Center, where users can help suggest translations for the site. With each official Twitter language launch, we saw more and more demand from users to help us translate Twitter into their language.”

The success of Twitter’s crowdsourced translation efforts holds a lesson for businesses of all types: people relate better to products that are presented to them in the language they prefer to speak. But crowdsourcing translations is certainly not for everyone. Translations can take time to perfect using this method, so you need a dedicated community that will be willing to help with quality control and be patient with translation errors.

Here’s how the process works with Twitter:

If you see a translation that doesn’t feel right, the best way to fix it is to log into the Translation Center and vote for the best choice. The phrase score will adjust over time, and the right translation will find its way into Twitter.com. If you see inconsistencies in the content, you can get involved in the discussions with your community at the language forums. We’re continually improving on the system, so please send us your feedback and report any issues you come across.

This process works well for Twitter and Facebook because they have so many passionate users. For most businesses, a knowledgeable translation company is still going to be your best bet when it comes to moving in to new markets.

Apple's Tone Deaf Translation

Whenever a company expands into a new country, it’s essential to try to avoid making linguistic and/or cultural blunders. Even the largest corporations can make mistakes, as Apple recently found when it opened a version of the iTunes store for the Hong Kong market.

To make the iTunes store accessible to people in Hong Kong, music from local artists was featured prominently and all of the text was translated.

Unfortunately, Apple decided to translate the text into Mandarin pinyin, a system invented in the 1950’s that translates Chinese characters into Latin script. Hong Kong is part of China, so that makes sense, right? Not so fast. People in Hong Kong actually speak Cantonese (not Mandarin), and they are fiercely protective of their language, which sounds quite different from Mandarin and is generally written using traditional Chinese characters. The Wall Street Journal explained:

“A former British colony, Hong Kong returned to mainland Chinese rule in 1997, but has stayed proudly loyal to its own native dialect and customs. Many locals resent the intrusion of Mandarin—which China’s government has promoted for decades as the official language across the border—and fear that Cantonese, spoken by 96% of the population, is gradually being shunted aside.”

With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why some Hong Kong residents became irate and started venting on Twitter.

As one user quoted in the Wall Street Journal tweeted:

“Those are CANTO pop [songs]. Use cantonese [sic] phonetics.”

Even Hong Kong residents who were impressed by iTunes’ local music selection were frustrated by the tone-deaf translation:

“I thought iTunes wouldn’t have many good Cantonese songs, but they even have [Cantopop singer] Paula Tsui,” wrote one Hong Kong user on Twitter. “Still, they’re all in Mandarin pinyin. Unless you actually listened to them, you wouldn’t know what songs they were.”

In retrospect, given the controversies surrounding language use in Hong Kong, Apple made an obvious and avoidable error. It’s understandable why they would want to use pinyin, as there’s not a similarly standardized way to transliterate Cantonese into the Roman alphabet and translating the entire iTunes catalog into traditional Chinese characters is a daunting task.

Still, you can’t expect people to be happy with your product if they feel they’re having another language pushed on them, especially when they already feel like their language is threatened. Anyone with an in-depth knowledge of Hong Kong’s culture and history should have been able to point out the potential for problems. This shouldn’t be more than a bump in the road for Apple, but that’s because they’re Apple. A brand that doesn’t inspire the same level of cult-like devotion might find its Hong Kong expansion plans in trouble!

Photo Credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by marcopako 

Bonobos, Technology and Language

When historians look back on this time period, one of the themes that will undoubtedly define the past two decades is the way technology allowed us to break through barriers like language and distance and allow people from around the world to communicate with each other.

Some of the same technologies are also making it easier for humans to communicate with animals, often with surprising results. For example, an article by Ken Schweller on the IEEE Spectrum website describes how great apes called bonobos have learned to use touchscreen tablets to communicate with their human caretakers at the Great Ape Trust.

There are several advantages of using tablets over using sign language to communicate with the apes. First, the tablets reduce the chances of the apes “taking cues” from their handlers. The tablets also make it easier to document the apes’ linguistic capabilities, and new symbols (called lexigrams) can be created as needed and immediately incorporated into the animal’s vocabularies.

Bonobos can recognize and use hundreds of different symbols, and they can understand thousands of spoken words. They are also capable of learning to use the tablets to communicate through observation, much as a human child would, without having to be taught.

For example, Kanzi, the Trust’s celebrity bonobo, picked up on the meanings of the different lexigrams by watching his mother use them to communicate with researchers. As Schweller described it, when she was taken away for breeding, the researchers got a huge surprise:

After searching in vain for his mother, he spontaneously began using her keyboard to communicate with his caretakers. What is more, he understood the spoken words that the lexigrams represented, and he could locate their representations on the keyboard.

What’s more, Kanzi’s son Tesco began using touchscreens to communicate at only 4 months of age. Linguists will quibble over whether or not the “sentences” the bonobos construct out of lexigrams are complex enough to be “language” or not, but there’s no denying their capacity for communication.

In fact, reflecting on the bonobos’ language skills, Schweller writes,

“What we now believe is that language, rather than being a uniquely human trait, is something other species can develop to varying degrees under the right circumstances—not to our level of sophistication but certainly to the point where we can communicate intelligently with them.”

Unfortunately, bonobos are quite endangered. Schweller’s piece ends on a chilling note:

“While the bonobo species still survives, we believe it’s our obligation to learn as much as we can about these extraordinary animals.”

Wouldn’t it be awful if we drove one of the few animals capable of talking back to us to extinction?

Photo Credit:  AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Jeroen Kransen

The New York Times Now Speaks Chinese

Last week, the New York Times learned a new language: Chinese. The US-based media company launched a Chinese-language website last Thursday at cn.nytimes.com.

According to the New York Times’ Media Decoder blog, a majority of the content will consist of existing articles that have been translated into Chinese. However, approximately 1/3 of it is expected to be original, created by freelance contributors and the newspapers’ Chinese reporters and staff.

What prompted the new site? As always, business considerations were part of the motivation. As the Media Decoder blog pointed out, China’s rapidly growing, conspicuously consuming upper class has become a prize demographic for advertisers. Denise F. Warren, the paper’s chief advertising officer, said that advertisers acquired so far have been “generally luxury manufacturers. But I believe there will also be an opportunity for corporate and financial advisers. We believe we will be reaching a global, well-educated, international audience.”

The other motivation, according to a New York Times statement to its readers, is to “provide China’s growing number of educated, affluent, global citizens with high-quality coverage of world affairs, business and culture.”

Successfully reporting on certain topics is likely to be a little bit more difficult than selling ads, but the company pledged to do its best. The website will be hosted on servers in Hong Kong, and there are no plans to become an official Chinese media company. As foreign editor Joseph Kahn put it,

“We’re not tailoring it to the demands of the Chinese government, so we’re not operating like a Chinese media company. China operates a very vigorous firewall. We have no control over that. We hope and expect that Chinese officials will welcome what we’re doing.”

Thus far, it seems the road may have been a bit rockier than the New York Times would have liked. The Guardian is reporting that two of the sites’ social media accounts were suspended for several hours following the launch, though the Times was happy with the traffic it has received since the site went online.

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