Posts

French: The Language of Love

French is often called “the language of love,” and for one American couple, that’s quite literally true.  According to NewsTimes.com, French was the spark that ignited an enduring romance between Pamela Saltzman, a teacher from New Jersey, and Badreddine Ahtchi, a graduate student from Algeria.

The two met after being dragged out to a bar by their respective groups of friends. Ms. Saltzman had studied French in college and loved the language, which was Mr. Ahtchi’s native tongue. When she heard him speaking French, she couldn’t resist the opportunity to introduce herself and get some practice in. She told NewsTimes.com:

“We had a short conversation in French, and he asked me to dinner.”

One dinner turned into a series of dates. Ms. Saltzman became entranced by both Mr. Ahtchi and by his Algerian culture:

“He introduced me to a whole world I didn’t know. It’s a beautiful, rich, Old World culture.”

Read more

Translating Honeybees

By now, many scientists are willing to accept that intelligent animals like dolphins may have languages of their own. But what about honeybees? They couldn’t possibly have their own language, could they? After all, they’re just bugs!

Not so fast, say scientists from the University of Dundee in Scotland. They believe that honeybees may, in fact, have a language of their own, and have installed sound monitoring systems in 100 Scottish beehives to see if they can decode and translate it. Read more

Universal Translator

“Universal translators” have fuelled science fiction plots for decades, and building such a device

has long been the Holy Grail for tech-oriented linguists. However, the prototypes that have appeared so far have used machine translation. Over the past few years, machine translation has  improved by leaps and bounds, but it’s still not precise enough to be relied upon for complex conversations.

That may soon change. A new start-up called Babelverse  has an incredibly ambitious goal: putting real-time, human-powered translation at the fingertips of everyone with a mobile device like a computer or smart phone.  Basically, the service connects you with an interpreter working remotely, and is supposed to cost about the same as placing a phone call. Babelverse can also set up interpreters for conferences, saving the expense of arranging for on-site interpreters. The conference industry is the main focus of their business at the moment, and the founders expect to leverage it to provide for further expansion. Read more

Why Do Languages Have Gender?

Why do languages have gender? For an English speaker, grammatical gender is one of the most vexing aspects of learning a new language. As Mark Twain once wrote in reference to German:

“A person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it! A person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all…”

Doesn’t seem to make much sense, does it? And yet many, if not most, languages across the world divide nouns up by “gender,” often in quite arbitrary ways. Here’s a quick primer on this interesting language characteristic, along with some tips and tricks to make learning gendered languages easier.

Grammatical Gender Vs. Natural Gender

It’s important to distinguish between grammatical gender and natural gender. Natural gender is simply the gender of a person, animal or character. Grammatical gender is a way of categorising nouns; it doesn’t necessarily match up with the “natural gender” of the person or object being described.

In some languages, grammatical gender is more than just “male” or “female.” Some languages have a “neuter” class, while others have different genders for animate versus inanimate objects.

Languages also have different ways of assigning gender. Some languages go by the physical characteristics of the object in question. Often, mythology and cultural views on gender come in to play, too. For example, in the Alamblak language of Papua New Guinea, the masculine gender “includes things which are tall or long and slender, or narrow (e.g. fish, snakes, arrows and slender trees).” Hmmm. I wonder why? Read more

Text Messaging: A New Tool in the Struggle for Language Diversity?

Text messaging is quickly becoming one of the most common methods of communication worldwide. In fact, last year in the US, text messages surpassed voice calls in popularity.

However, the Wall Street Journal notes that texting can pose problems for some non-English speakers. Most of the time, when people send text messages, they use software called predictive text to make typing the messages easier.

Predictive text “predicts” what you are trying to type, so you don’t have to press as many buttons. Without predictive text, you have to press numbers multiple times to get to the right letter. This is frustrating enough in English, but it’s even more time-consuming if you’re trying to use a language with a longer alphabet, like Hindi.

As language advocates see it, the problem with text messaging is that influences people to communicate via text message using languages that predictive text software is written for. This is fine for native English speakers, but could be detrimental in other cultures that are struggling to preserve their languages and pass them on to the next generation.

According to the Wall Street Journal article, so far only 80 of the world’s 6,912 languages are supported by predictive text software. Linguistic experts hope that expanding the number of languages available will make it easier for people to communicate in their native languages.

For example, predictive text software is now available for Gaelic. According to Breandan Mac Craith, marketing director for Dublin-based Foras na Gaeilge, an organization that promotes the use of Irish, “They’re fabulous tools for us. It facilitates the Irish language as a communications tool for every day — not just in the classroom.”

However, as mobile phones become increasingly vital parts of doing business around the world, the availability of predictive text is vital for more that just language preservation. According to the Wall Street Journal, “text capability on mobile phones can be vital to economic development and helping people who don’t speak or read English buy and sell goods.”