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Duolingo

What language does the Internet speak? All languages, of course, but English much more so than others. Per Wikipedia, anywhere from 65 to 85 percent of the content on the World Wide Web today is written in English. That’s great for all of us English speakers, but what about the huge chunk of the world that doesn’t speak English? Their Internet experience is necessarily limited by their language skills. 

Luis von Ahn, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, wants to change that equation by doing nothing less than translating the entire Internet.

Obviously, that’s a staggering prospect considering the sheer amount of content on the web. But according to Fox News, that’s the ambition behind Professor von Ahn’s new language-learning start-up Duolingo. Duolingo offers free language learning to everybody. Since the best way to learn is by doing, language learners on the service are simply assigned a few sentences to translate from the language they’re trying to learn into their native language. Each little snippet of text is from a real website. Duolingo then records the translation, compares it to other people’s translations of the same sentence and determines what the best translation for the sentence probably is. This is similar to the method used by Facebook to translate its website, though of course Duolingo’s project is much more ambitious in scope. Read more

Creating a More Linguistically Diverse Internet

The Internet has long been dominated by English-language content, but that may change over the next few years. The New York Times reports that many companies are responding to increased demand for content in languages other than English by translating existing online content and providing new tools that help users create content in their native languages.

English may be the most popular second language in the world, but many people who speak it as a second language still prefer to communicate in their native tongue whenever possible, including online. For example, a survey of 50 million Indian Internet users found that even though most could speak English, ¾ preferred to read in the language they grew up speaking.

However, people who want to communicate in languages other than English can face some rather frustrating obstacles. For instance, The New York Times describes how Indian engineer Ram Prakash Hanumanthappa wanted to use his native language, Kannada, to email friends and family. However, Kannada is written using a special script, and typing it on a regular keyboard involves using complex keyboard maps to create the special characters. Read more

Can Computers Help Preserve Indigenous Languages?

According to the BBC, nearly half of the world’s 6,500 languages are expected to disappear over the next 100 years. Languages die when people stop speaking them and stop teaching them to their children. This has happened all over the world, with one of many examples being the fate of Native American languages after Europeans began to settle the continent.

Native Americans were confined to reservations, and Native American children were taken from the parents and sent to boarding schools, where instructors would punish them for speaking their native languages.

However, many Native American tribes are now making efforts to revitalise their languages through language learning and immersion programs in schools. One Native American couple, Mary Hermes and Kevin Roach, founded a non-profit organisation called Grassroots Educational Multimedia to provide people with tools to learn Native American languages.

The organisation teamed up with a company called Transparent Language to create language learning software for the Ojibwe language. The software allows Ojibwe students to create flashcards and watch videos of native speakers conversing in Ojibwe.

Another benefit of this software is that it has helped to document the vocabulary and grammar of the Ojibwe language. Before this project, the language’s grammatical structure was poorly documented.

So, with this software, GEM and Transparent Language have created a portable system people can use to learn Ojibwe at home, created a record of native speakers’ conversations, and created a map of Ojibwe grammar.

Even better, this approach provides a way to circumvent the emotional issues involved in trying to revive a dying language. As the Earth Times notes,

‘The history of the near genocide of the indigenous people of North America and the repression of their cultures and languages has meant that many emotions can get stirred up when indigenous people try to learn their own languages. They may encounter feelings of shame that they don’t know their indigenous language, feelings of anger at the trauma their people have endured, and feelings of embarrassment when they attempt to speak their language with the vocabulary of a two year old. Tribal elders who are fluent in the indigenous language may feel too jaded or just be too few in number to offer enough assistance. Often the indigenous language learner hits a place of cultural loss and insecurity that they have great difficulty overcoming.’ –Earth Times

Practicing at home, at a computer, gives language learners a chance to overcome these issues privately, and means that elders who grew up speaking the language can more easily pass it on. Also, this software gives students learning the language at school a fun way to practice outside of class.

Hopefully, this approach will help linguists document endangered languages and help language activists teach them, at least in places where computers are readily available.

Dictionary of American Regional English Just Released

The Dictionary of American Regional English has just been completed and is now available to the general public. Why would you need another dictionary, you may ask?

The Dictionary of American Regional English is not a normal dictionary at all. 50 years in the making, it is a compilation of all the different regional dialects that Americans use in daily conversation.

This book would be especially useful for anyone planning a road trip across the country, but it’s also just plain interesting to see how English has mutated in different regions of the country.

The difference in speech between regions goes far beyond “y’all” (a southern word that’s basically a shortened version of “you all” and is used when directly addressing more than one person) and “youse guys” (same thing, only up north).

The ContraCosta Times has a review of the book that excerpts some of the more interesting pieces of dialect. For example, did you know that in Utah, a sow bug is called a “tabernacle?” or that in some parts of Appalachia, a “stool” is an invitation to a party?

One can only imagine the confusion that would ensue if someone from another part of the country heard a group of mountain folk talking about “passing out stools.” In Oklahoma, a dust storm is rather poetically called “Oklahoma rain.”

Earlier versions of the dictionary have also been used to track down criminals based on the dialect used in their letters and to decipher the speech of former President Bill Clinton, whose “folksy” speech sometimes required interpretation for those not born in Arkansas.

The former president once left a roomful of reporters scratching their heads in confusion after he told them that an Air Force official didn’t know him “from Adam’s off ox.” In Arkansas, according to the book review, an “off ox” is “one of two oxen in a team.”

Earliest Known Example of Cherokee Alphabet Found in Cave

According to the New York Times, carvings found in a cave in Kentucky are the earliest known examples of the Cherokee alphabet. The Cherokee alphabet is a syllabary devised by Sequoyah, a well-known Cherokee silversmith and soldier. Sequoyah observed how European settlers used writing to communicate, and was inspired to devise a similar system for his native Cherokee language.
The carvings found in the cave don’t spell anything. Instead, they are just a series of symbols, similar to the handwriting primers you may have used to practice your penmanship in school. This suggests that the carver was practicing forming the shapes of the letters in the wall of the cave. In addition to the letters, there is also a date, but it’s blurry. It could be either 1818 or 1808. If it’s 1808, the syllabary would have been in a very early stage of development, and the letters were probably carved by Sequoyah himself. If it’s 1818, the letters could have been carved by one of Sequoyah’s students, but it would still beat the earliest known example of the syllabary by at least a year.
Sequoyah’s wife destroyed some of his early work on the syllabary because she thought it was “the devil’s work,”  according to the New York Times article. However, he was able to teach the alphabet he developed to many of his fellow Cherokee, and they soon outpaced their white neighbors in literacy. The alphabet is still in use today.  One of the cool things that Kenneth B. Tankersley, the professor who discovered the carvings, hopes to learn is the degree to which some of the characters in the alphabet are related to ancient Cherokee glyphs.

According to the New York Times, carvings found in a cave in Kentucky are the earliest known examples of the Cherokee alphabet. The Cherokee alphabet is a syllabary devised by Sequoyah, a well-known Cherokee silversmith and soldier. Sequoyah observed how European settlers used writing to communicate, and was inspired to devise a similar system for his native Cherokee language.

earliest known examples of the Cherokee alphabet

The carvings found in the cave don’t spell anything. Instead, they are just a series of symbols, similar to the handwriting primers you may have used to practice your penmanship in school. This suggests that the carver was practicing forming the shapes of the letters in the wall of the cave. In addition to the letters, there is also a date, but it’s blurry. It could be either 1818 or 1808. If it’s 1808, the syllabary would have been in a very early stage of development, and the letters were probably carved by Sequoyah himself. If it’s 1818, the letters could have been carved by one of Sequoyah’s students, but it would still beat the earliest known example of the syllabary by at least a year.

Sequoyah’s wife destroyed some of his early work on the syllabary because she thought it was “the devil’s work,”  according to the New York Times article. However, he was able to teach the alphabet he developed to many of his fellow Cherokee, and they soon outpaced their white neighbors in literacy. The alphabet is still in use today.  One of the cool things that Kenneth B. Tankersley, the professor who discovered the carvings, hopes to learn is the degree to which some of the characters in the alphabet are related to ancient Cherokee glyphs.

Welsh Language History

History of the Welsh Language

Modern Welsh dates back to the sixth century. It is very closely related to Cornish and Breton. However, its history goes even further back to 600 years BC, when the early languages of Europe and Central Asia influenced the Celtic languages spoken across the European continent.

Most European languages, including Welsh, evolved from a language that we now call Indo-European, which in turn developed into nine language groups, one of which was Celtic. The Celtic language also had its own family of languages, some of which died out over the centuries. Those that survived migrated from mainland Europe to the western islands of Britain and Ireland. Welsh may not be spoken as much as English, but it is actually the oldest language in Britain.

The passing of the 1536 and 1542 Acts of Union brought a significant change to the official use of Welsh. The purpose of the Acts of Union was to integrate Wales with England. Therefore, English became the official language of business in Wales. During this time it was not possible for any Welsh speaker to hold office in Wales without becoming fluent in English. Although the language was not officially banned, it lost all status because of these restrictions. Over the next four centuries, the use of the Welsh language in Wales steadily declined. The language would not be used as an official language again until the passing of the 1942 Welsh Courts Act, which permitted limited use of the language in the courts.

One of the most famous Welsh literary works is the Mabinogi, a string of tales first transcribed at some point between 1050 and 1170. However, it is believed that the tales are much older. In fact, the Mabinogi may have inspired some of the Arthurian legends. Over a period of centuries, these stories were passed down through the generations by the Cyfarwydd, or storyteller.

Although the Welsh language is native to Wales, people speak it all over the world. It is spoken by a minority in England and the Welsh immigrant colony in Chubut Valley in Argentine Patagonia.

VoyagerGoldenRecord

A greeting in Welsh was one of the 55 languages included on the Voyager Golden Record. The Voyager Golden Record is a phonograph record which contains sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of human life and culture on Earth. It was launched into space in 1977. In 2008 the Voyager space crafts became the 3rd and 4th artefacts to go beyond our solar system.

Each greeting on the phonograph is a unique message. The Welsh greeting is “Iechyd da i chwi nawr ac yn oes oesoedd” which translates into English as “Good health to you now and forever”.

The 1993 Welsh Language Act is to-date the most significant Act passed in regard to the Welsh Language. This Act was the first to state that public sector organisations must treat the Welsh and English languages equally, and it was the result of decades of pressure from Welsh language activists.

The teaching of Welsh is now compulsory in all schools in Wales up to the age of 16. This has helped to stabilize and even reverse the decline of the language.

WelshLongestWord

In popular culture, Wales has recently witnessed some of its important expats promote the use of the Welsh language by speaking it on television. The most recent example is that of Glyn Wise and Imogen Thomas. Their conversations in Welsh on Big Brother 6 sparked a nationwide debate about the Welsh language.

welsh_challengeTelevision channel S4C broadcasts exclusively in Welsh during peak hours and the main evening television news provided by the BBC in Welsh is available for download. In addition, the BBC broadcasts a Welsh language radio station, BBC Radio Cymru on a daily basis.

The BBC also recognises how important the Welsh language is in the United Kingdom and they have set up a project called The Big Welsh Challenge, which takes five celebrities and challenges them to learn Welsh in 12 months with the help of five famous faces. The aim of The Big Welsh Challenge is to encourage others to learn and understand Welsh and its importance in our society.

Many major corporate organisations have followed the Government’s lead and realised the importance of providing their product or service information in both Welsh and English.

Microsoft to Translate Windows 7 into 10 African Languages

Microsoft has joined the cause of linguistic diversity. The software giant just announced that it will be releasing its new product, Windows 7, in 10 different African languages by 2011.

The software will be available in languages including Sesotho sa Leboa, Setswana, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Afrikaans, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, kiSwahili and Amharic.

Previously, according to an article in The Industry Standard, important technology was mostly available in English and French, to the point that Africans who could not read and write in one of these two languages are considered illiterate, even though they may be quite capable of reading and writing in their native tongues.

The lack of inclusion has also encouraged software piracy, as legal software that supports these languages is not available. Microsoft mentioned “fighting piracy” as one reason for expanding Windows 7 into different languages. However, it may be too late for that, as the Industry Standard notes that pirated software is so readily available in Africa that the native language support may simply become another selling point for pirates.

Still, nobody should be considered illiterate if they can read and write in the language that they grew up speaking. Microsoft’s introduction of local language support for African languages is a big step forward. As  Francis Hook, manager at IDC East Africa, states in the Industry Standard article:

“The localization will most certainly increase content from Africa by allowing expression in local languages, it will help with the survival and continued relevant of African languages amidst globalization.”

In addition to benefiting African computer users, this move will likely also benefit Microsoft, even if it does little to curb piracy. As Hezron Mogambi, a linguistics lecturer at the University of Nairobi, explains:

“Language has the power to draw more people into a product and internet use more than advertising can do. People want to see and feel a product that represents their community and settings.”

How Language Affects Thought

There was an interesting article by Guy Deutscher in the New York Times last week about how the language we grow up speaking affects the way we think and the way we perceive the world around us. Linguists used to believe that our thoughts were constricted by the limits of our native tongue-for example, it was believed that people who spoke languages without a future tense for verbs could not understand the concept of the future.  That’s simply not true; the human brain is amazingly capable of learning new concepts and processing new information.

But according to Deutscher, language does shape how we see the world by shaping the way we think about and interact with our environment and the things in it.  For example, English speakers for the most part don’t think about whether an inanimate object is “male” or “female.” However, people who speak languages like French and Spanish have to think about inanimate objects as having a gender, and this consequently influences how they describe these objects.

Another example: in some languages, instead of using directions like “right” and “left,” all directions are given as cardinal directions, like north, south, east or west. Native speakers of these languages develop a keen sense of direction, one that seems almost supernatural to people who are used to saying “to your right” or “to your left.” In order to accurately describe their world, they have to.

What does all of this mean? According to Deutscher, looking at how language shapes the way we think about and experience the world can help us better understand each other:

“We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.”

Eyak: Back from the Dead?

Last year, we wrote about how the Eyak language, once spoken by a native tribe in Alaska, was being given a second chance at life courtesy of a young French student with a knack for linguistics.

At the time, 22-year-old Guillaume Leduey had just made his first trip to Alaska. Leduey is something of a language prodigy, and had taught himself Eyak via instructional DVDs.

The last native speaker of Eyak, Marie Smith Jones, died in 2008. However, before she died she taught the language to University of Alaska linguistics professor Michael Krauss. Leduey brought the total number of Eyak speakers up to two, but nobody knew whether he’d be able to continue to work with the language or not. Read more

Majority Support for Gaelic in Scotland

In order for a language to survive, people need to want to speak it. Fortunately for the future of Gaelic, a new survey shows that the majority of Scottish citizens support efforts to promote the language.

The survey, “Public Attitudes Towards the Gaelic Language,” was conducted by the Scottish government. It found that 70 percent of respondents believed that more opportunities to learn Gaelic should be made available to the public. 53 percent of respondents would like to see the language make its way into everyday life more frequently. 80 percent of those surveyed were aware that Gaelic is still spoken in Scotland today. Read more