Do Animals Have Language?

People have always yearned to be able to “talk” to animals, but scientists have traditionally seen language as a uniquely human attribute. However, the more scientists study animal communication, the more they come away convinced that our language capabilities aren’t that special after all.

In the most recent of these studies, scientists at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis in Knoxville, Tennessee analyzed recordings of vocalizations from several different species, ranging from birds like finches and chickadees to whales and orangutans.

They expected the calls to follow what is called the Markov process, which limits their complexity, in contrast to the flexibility of human language. As head scientist Dr Arik Kershenbaum explained to the Washington Post:

“A Markov process is where you have a sequence of numbers or letters or notes, and the probability of any particular note depends only on the few notes that have come before. What makes human language special is that there’s no finite limit as to what comes next.”

Surprisingly, none of the animal calls analyzed in the study fit the Markovian hypothesis.  In fact, five of the seven species used vocalizations that matched more complex statistical models that are closer to human speech.

Does that mean that animals do have language in the same sense that we do? Not necessarily. But according to Kershenbaum, it does mean we may be able to learn more about the origin of human speech by studying animal vocalizations. As he explained to the Evening Telegraph,

“Language is the biggest difference that separates humans from animals evolutionarily, but multiple studies are finding more and more stepping stones that seem to bridge this gap. Uncovering the process underlying vocal sequence generation in animals may be critical to our understanding of the origin of language.”

If you could choose one animal to talk to, what would it be? And what would you talk about? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit:  AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Liam Quinn

More UK Students Studying Spanish 

Spanish is set to overtake French as the most dominant foreign language studied in UK schools, according to the head of the AQA exam board.

Andrew Hall, AQA’s chief executive, made the prediction based on this year’s GCSE statistics, in which a record number of students sat for Spanish GCSEs, even as foreign language entries declined overall. Approximately 93,000 students took the Spanish exam this year, 2,000 more than last year. Meanwhile, the number of French entries declined from from 177,288 to 168,042 and the number of German entries declined from 62,932 to 59,891.

Why is Spanish making gains even as other languages fall? Some educators are calling it the “Messi effect,” crediting the popularity of Argentinian football player Lionel Messi, but that’s far from the whole story. 

As Andrew Hall told The Telegraph, learning Spanish is increasingly being seen as a smart career move for students:

“It is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. I went to factories in California where people had to have Spanish as a fluent second language. I think more and people are speaking Spanish. I think students recognise that it is a very important language to have.”

In The Independent, Pearson vice-president Lesley Davis referenced the “Messi effect,” but also underlined the importance of Spanish to UK businesses:

“We know it’s becoming an increasingly important language for business with our recent Pearson/CBI Skills Survey showing that half of employers want Spanish speakers. Young people are also more exposed now to Spanish culture from music to food to high-profile Spanish speaking personalities.”

Meanwhile, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told TESConnect that more students were choosing to “work smarter, not harder” by choosing Spanish, which is considered one of the easier foreign languages to learn:

“It’s very similar to our language in many ways,” he said. “It’s quite a straightforward structure. They find French more difficult, particularly because of the accent and so on. A lot of schools have found it’s a very popular subject.”

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by mikecogh

British Readers Devour Translated Novels

In a refreshing change from the status quo, British readers are gobbling up translated novels and books from foreign authors. Previously, the conventional wisdom in the publishing industry was that consumers in the UK, as well as in other large English-speaking countries like America,  were simply not interested in reading translated literature.

As Liz Foley,  publishing director at Harvill Secker, told the Guardian:

“There used to be a feeling translations were ‘good for you’ and not enjoyable … like vegetables … But actually they’re wonderful books.”

That appears to be changing. For example, the Guardian cites research from Literature Across Frontiers that shows the market for translated books has grown by 18% over the past 20 years.  Translations that have made the bestseller list include work from Scandinavian authors, most notably The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series by Stieg Larsson and crime novels by Jo Nesbø.

It’s not just translations from our European neighbors that are making waves. Bookstores across Britain were mobbed by customers looking for the latest translation novel from Japanese author Murakami.

This is great news for smaller publishing houses that focus on foreign books, according to Adam Freudenheim of Pushkin Press:

“There has been an increase. Pushkin Press’s sales doubled last year and are on track to double or even triple this year.”

However, we still have a ways to go.  BJ Epstein, of the  British Centre for Literary Translation, told The Guardian:

“Mainstream publishers are still very much about the bottom line. They really do underestimate the public, [assuming] that British people don’t want to read about people in China or Iceland.”

It’s wonderful that translated literature is becoming so much more readily available and accepted.  What translated books have you read recently? Do you have any recommendations? Let us know in the comments!

The Google Code

Last week, the Internet lit up with the news that a “secret code” had been discovered in Google Translate. But was it really a secret message, or just another bad translation?

Much of the time, Google Translate will provide an imperfect but serviceable translation. However, sometimes it comes up with automatically generated translations that are so bad, they seem uncanny.

The story of the “secret code” was originally published on the Krebs On Security blog.  A few months back, researchers from a couple of different security firms approached computer security reporter Bryan Krebs with an intriguing discovery: putting the traditional “Lorem Ipsum” placeholder text into Google Translate yielded some very strange, politically tinged results. For example, Google translated “lorem ipsum” without capital letters as “China.” “Lorem Ipsum”, capitalized, produced “NATO.”  Check out his blog post for the entire list of seemingly-not-quite-random translations.

The researchers wondered if, perhaps, they had stumbled upon a secret code. Was it used by spies? Activists? Hackers? Perhaps it was meant to be a tunnel through China’s “Great Firewall.”  The truth is out there…but it will be a lot more difficult to uncover it now that Google has fixed the translations, which it did almost immediately after being notified of the issue.

Unfortunately, the most likely explanation is also the most mundane…it’s simply a bad machine translation caused by inadequate, poor quality data.

As ZDNet explained, because lorem ipsum is used as a placeholder,

“[T]here are millions of examples but very few actual translations of them; instead, the placeholder text will get matched up with documents that just look similar to the algorithm but aren’t actually connected. That would explain why you got different translations if you capitalised the words differently or duplicated them, resulting in translations like China, the Internet, NATO, the Company, China’s Internet, Business on the Internet, Home Business, Russia might be suffering, he is a smart consumer, the main focus of China, department and exam. Those are all common phrases – and you might recognise some of them from spammy web sites promising thousands of dollars for working from home or offering you answers to exam questions.”

Additionally, the standard lorem ipsum text is only one step above gibberish, anyway.

For her part, Kraeh3n, the researcher who discovered the “code,” told Krebs that she doesn’t believe it’s random:

“Translate [is] designed to be able to evolve and to learn from crowd-sourced input to reflect adaptations in language use over time,” Kraeh3n said. “Someone out there learned to game that ability and use an obscure piece of text no one in their right mind would ever type in to create totally random alternate meanings that could, potentially, be used to transmit messages covertly.

Meanwhile, TechCrunch is reporting that the odd translations were part of 1o57’s Defcon Badge puzzle.

What do you think?

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by pkwahme

Noto: One Font to Rule Them All?

The amount of non-English-language web content has been growing dramatically over the past few years.  However, there are still some significant challenges when it comes to making content available in other languages. One of the biggest issues is how to represent languages that don’t use the Latin script.

Soon, that may not be a problem. Google, in collaboration with partners including companies like Adobe, is working on a rather ambitious project: Noto Fonts, a font family that “aims to support all the world’s languages” and “achieve visual harmonization across languages.” 

At the moment, Noto Fonts features 100 scripts and 100,000 characters, and is capable of representing 600 written languages. That’s a great start, but there’s still a ways to go. According to Ethnologue, of the currently listed 7,105 living languages, 3,570 have a developed writing system.”  Plus, there are around 3,000 languages that may or not have writing systems of their own- we simply don’t know. 

 As Tanvi Misrah notes on NPR’s Codeswitch blog, with Noto, Google is building on the previous work of the Unicode project.

Unicode currently features 100 scripts and more than 110,000 characters. However, the project has faced allegations of cultural insensitivity in the past, particularly when the time came to code Asian fonts. Between Chinese, Japanese and Korean, they ran out of code. Their solution was something called “Han unification.” As Finn Brunton, a professor at New York University explained to NPR: 

“So they were like, ‘Hey, you know, Chinese, Japanese, Korean — they’re pretty close. Can we just mash big chunks of them together?'” explains Brunton.

Obviously, people who actually use these scripts were less than pleased with the compromise.  To Brunton, the dust-up over Han unification indicates a larger problem with these sorts of projects:

“There’s all these different, sort of, approaches, which are fundamentally, obviously reflecting cultural models — cultural biases. But when they get substantiated into software, they turn into exclusionary systems.”

To its credit, Noto has preserved the variations in script between the different languages. As its partner Adobe notes on its blog, “While the variations may be subtle, especially to the Western eye, they are very important to the users of each language.”

However, other languages have fared less well, according to NPR.  Urdu and Persian, for example, must be written in the Arabic naskh script, another case of subtle-yet-important distinctions being erased in the name of simplicity:

“The naskh script of the Arabic alphabet is more angular, linear — and incidentally, easier to code — than the nastaliq script. So that’s what is currently present in Noto for the Urdu language, even though Persian and Urdu language communities say nastaliq is a more accurate representation.”

That said, according to Google this only a temporary situation as they work to develop a  nastaliq script.

The NPR article has inspired a lively debate amongst commenters, with some accusing Noto’s critics of making the perfect the enemy of the good.

For example, Brad Zimmmerman says

I am the last person that will defend Google, but – in my opinion – it is unreasonable to criticise a project that already has good support for a huge number of languages and is *still in development*. It’s even a bit more unreasonable considering that Google’s efforts – the fonts themselves – are free *and* released under the Apache License, a very generous and easy-to-get-along-with license.”

What do you think of Noto? Is Google doing enough to address the concerns of minority language communities?

What Does the Penguin Say?

Penguins are better for known for their cuteness than for their songs. But their squeaks and squawks convey more information than you might think.

Italian scientists recently decoded the language of the African or “jackass” penguin, so named because of its donkey-like brays. By recording 104 days worth of video of a captive colony of the birds in a zoo in Turin, Italy, the researchers were able to identify six different calls used by the penguins to communicate with each other.

As the researchers wrote in the study abstract,

“The African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is a highly social and vocal seabird. However, currently available descriptions of the vocal repertoire of African Penguin are mostly limited to basic descriptions of calls. Here we provide, for the first time, a detailed description of the vocal behaviour of this species by collecting audio and video recordings from a large captive colony.”

The penguins use what is called a “contact call” that basically means “I’m lonely.” It indicates separation, and a desire to be reunited with mates or other group members. The “agonistic” call, on the other hand, indicates the penguin is looking for a fight. African penguins are monogamous, and single birds use an “ecstatic display song”  to let others know they are looking for a mate.

Once they’ve found “the one,” the birds then sing a duet called a “mutual display song.”  Adorable!

The last two calls identified by the research team are made only by chicks.  Young chicks still in the nest use “begging peeps” to indicate that they are hungry. Bigger chicks who have left the nest but still rely on adults for food use a longer, more drawn out “begging moan,” apparently the equivalent of a toddler whine, to indicate hunger.

As head researcher Dr Livio Favaro told the Guardian,

“Vocal communication allows us to understand the many different aspects of the biology of this species. Penguins have less sophisticated vocal mechanisms compared to song birds, but they have very sophisticated mechanisms to encode information in songs.”

Photo credit: “AfricanPenguinNEAq”. Via Wikipedia

A Language Learning Pill?

Does learning a language while you sleep sound like too much work? One scientist is predicting that some time within the next 30 years, all you’ll have to do is take a pill to become instantly fluent.

Nicholas Negroponte, an architect and futurist who founded MIT’s Media Lab, made the prediction in a TED Talk released in July. Negroponte is the founder of the One Laptop Per Child program, which provides children in developing countries access to inexpensive laptop computers. He is famous for having predicted a host of technologies that we now take for granted, like WiFi and the touchscreen.

As quoted in the Daily Mail, here’s how Negroponte sees the future of language learning (and literature classes):

‘You’re going to swallow a pill and know English. You’re going to swallow a pill and know Shakespeare.’

‘And the way to do it is through the bloodstream. So once it’s [the information in the pill] in your bloodstream, it basically goes through and gets into the brain…and the different pieces get deposited in the right places.’

That seems like it would be a difficult feat to accomplish. Learning a language is about more than just memorizing vocabulary lists and verb conjugations, after all.  Speaking a second language alters your brain in a number of different ways, such as helping to protect against Alzheimer’s disease and helping toddlers to better focus their attention. Would learning a language from a pill have the same effects?

So far, the closest thing we have to a language learning pill is a drug called valproic acid. It’s a mood-stabilizing drug that has shown promise in making it possible for adults to learn to have perfect pitch, a skill that is usually impossible to learn after a certain age. So, in theory it could make it easier for adults to pick up another language if they do the work to learn it, just as infants and toddlers have an easier time learning multiple languages.  

Also, as a former English Lit major, I have to say that I find the idea of taking a pill and “knowing Shakespeare” almost offensive. It’s like reading the Cliffs Notes-you might understand the plot but you haven’t experienced the art.

Do you think language learning in pill form will be possible one day? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credits: Attribution Some rights reserved by Rod Senna

Blogger Fired for Writing About Homophones

Tim Torkildson, a writer hired to manage a blog for a Utah language learning school, got his 15 minutes of fame last week after the language school fired him for writing a post about homophones.

“Homophones” are simply words that sound the same, like “read” and “reed” or “see” and “sea.” As you can imagine, they can be confusing for English language learners and students need to be taught how to distinguish them.  The post that got Torkildson fired was a short bit about homophones beginning with the letter”A” that should have offended absolutely nobody.

Unfortunately, Torkildson’s boss was offended.  Apparently his brain stopped working once he read the prefix “homo-.” Here’s how Torkildson describes what happened the next day:

“I’m letting you go because I can’t trust you” said Clarke Woodger, my boss and the owner of Nomen Global Language Center.  “This blog about homophones was the last straw.  Now our school is going to be associated with homosexuality.”

I said nothing, stunned into silence.

“I had to look up the word” he continued, “because I didn’t know what the hell you were talking about.  We don’t teach this kind of advanced stuff to our students, and it’s extremely inappropriate.  Can you have your desk cleaned out by eleven this morning?  I’ll have your check ready.”

Oh, those dirty, dirty homophones! Of course, the Internet loves a good idiot, so Torkildson’s story quickly went viral. In his zeal to avoid having his school associated with the prefix “homo,”  Mr. Woodger has all but ensured that it will be associated with homophobia on the search engines for some time to come and possibly forever.

I didn’t try to make any clever homophobia/homophone puns because it’s all been done at this point, but if you need a good laugh check out “The Homophone Menace” on the Washington Post. It’s a thing of beauty.

Packaging localisation for Glorious Foods

Glorious Day for Soup!

We’ve been working on a great deal of food packaging translation projects in the last few years. Helping some of the UK’s largest supermarkets and food providers gear their products for sale abroad is no small task. Large scale EU regulatory changes called the FIR are coming into force and are certainly keeping our translation teams uber busy.

One of our most recent clients Glorious Foods, really brightened the office today when 3 massive refrigeration boxes arrived filled with all manner of luxury soups and sauces. Glorious pride themselves on producing food containing bold and unexpected flavours, just looking at their product descriptions immediately shows off their passion. Translating this passion is a creative challenge for our linguists, but without doubt a very rewarding one too.

Localising product descriptions

 

Needless to say our team were eager to sample the produce, you know to ensure our translations properly reflect the quality of the product… so in the name of education, each pot was rapidly assigned a name tag and stowed till lunch (for the most part, some of the team skipped breakfast apparently). Our office fridge now looks like it would feel right at home in a shared student flat 🙂

Translating food packaging for Glorious Foodsfood packaging for Glorious Foods

Big thanks again to the team at Glorious, you might just be our new favourites 😉

Take a look at their wonderful range of products over on their site www.gloriousfoods.co.uk

 

…now where’s that spoon?

Welsh Theatre Gets Its Own Translation App

Want to watch a play in Welsh but can’t speak the language? There’s now an app for that.  Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru has announced that they will be releasing a smartphone app called Sibrwd, which means Whisper in Welsh.

Traditionally, the theatre industry has relied on subtitles for translation. However, subtitles can be distracting for audience members, forcing them to split their attention between reading and watching the play.

 Sibwrd aims to improve on that experience by feeding audience members just the information they need to know to follow the action.

Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru executive producer Carys Ifan explained to the Telegraph:

“It’s not a full translation. There are quite short sentences every now and again at key moments. The idea is that people will take their own smartphone, download the app and then they’ll hear things that we think they need to know to guide them through the play.”

In developing the app, the theatre company had two goals. First, of course, they wanted to make it easier for people who don’t speak Welsh to enjoy their plays.  As Ms. Ifan put it:

“We want as many people as possible to access our work. People will go and see an opera in French or Italian but wouldn’t think about going to see a Welsh language piece. So it’s trying to entice people to make that leap.”

If the app goes over well, the concept can be used to help make plays in other minority languages more accessible. Hasan Bakhshi, the director of creative economy at Nesta, which helped fund Sibwrd’s development, told the BBC that his organization provided funding in part to “capture and disseminate the insights from that project in such a way that other theatre companies can use[.]”

According to Bakshi,

“One of the things that was attractive about this project was the potential international applicability. It’s not necessarily tied to the Welsh language.”

Of course, it seems like enticing theatergoers to bring out their smartphones runs the risk of causing even more distractions. Will people really be able to resist reading the latest text message to come in or seeing what’s up on Facebook?

What do you think? Are smartphone translation apps for plays a good idea or not?

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Jaako

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