Plaque received from the BBC

As some of you will remember we took part in the world record attempt organised by the BBC to try and simultaneously plant as many trees as possible in one hour last year. We managed to do 204 (with another 200 later on that month) – in light of this the BBC this morning sent us a plaque to acknowledge our achievement. See picture below

We planted a mixture of native species to the UK, namely, Hawthorne, Blackthorne, Alder, Dog Rose and Birch – and soon they’ll become homes for birds and other wild life in the local area.

More trees are planned soon, we have made arrangements to plant around 5,000 on our site in the north east this year. More details will follow.

Thanks for your support

Twitter May Soon Offer Auto-Translate Feature

One of the nice things about Twitter is how easy it is to connect with people all over the world. For example, think of how Twitter has been used to help people communicate during disasters, providing real-time information about the Haiti earthquake to people across the globe. Unfortunately, at the moment, it’s only possible to communicate with people who are tweeting in the same language as you. However, Twitter’s language barrier may be about to come down: is reporting that the Twitter team may soon unveil an Auto-Translate feature for tweets.

Details are a little sketchy at the moment, as Twitter hasn’t yet released any details. However, writer Mark Hachman noticed that, for brief period of time on Wednesday of last week, the results page for trending topics featured 2 new options: the option to limit the tweets shown to a specific language and the option to automatically translate non-English tweets:

The results page (from one of Wednesday’s trending topics, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”) allows a user to filter a tweet by language, from Arabic to Icelandic to Thai. But just above that appeared a clickable option to translate the tweets on the page to my preferred language, English.

It’s not uncommon for Twitter to test out new features without announcing them before they are ready to roll out. The new feature appears to use Google Translate to provide the translations, so they probably won’t be perfect but they should get the point across.

There hasn’t been any official announcement about when the service will be available consistently for everyone, but look for it sometime in the near future. Once they get it rolled out, Twitter will become an even more powerful channel for global communication.

In America, Remakes Are In, Subtitles a No-No

In the US, foreign language films don’t get subtitles, they get completely remade. At least, most of the time.  US distributors tend to avoid films with subtitles like the box-office plague, although there have been a few notable exceptions over the years, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (also available dubbed into English) and Pan’s Labyrinth.

That’s not to say that Hollywood doesn’t recognize great foreign language films, but rather than distribute the originals, the tendency is for studios to snap up the rights for English-language remakes. For example, according to the LA Times, American studios are currently trying to remake “Let the Right One In,” “Tell No One” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” In Hollywood, it seems, imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.

This is more understandable when you consider the fact that when foreign films are released in America, their performance tends to be disappointing.  Approximately 1000 foreign films have been released in the US since 1980. Only 22 have grossed more than $10 million during the course of their American box office releases. Most earn less than $1 million.

But is Americans’ apparent allergy to subtitles causing them to miss out on great movies? Remakes, after all, tend to differ significantly from the original films. Even faithful adaptations almost always use different actors and directors.  Movies are about more than just plot, even though a good plot is essential. I’m not sure “Pan’s Labyrinth” would have been quite as amazing with a different director and a different actress in the lead role.

The makers of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have decided to take their chances with the American market. William Schopf of Music Box, the company that is releasing the movie, told the LA Times that he is willing to take the risk because he has so much confidence in the Swedish version of the film. Hopefully, his instincts are proven correct.

Machine Translation Versus Human Translation: A Professional Weighs In

Which is better, machine-powered translation or human-powered translation? In this weekend’s New York Times, David Bellos, the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, weighs in.

Bellos points out that  both machines and humans make mistakes in translation. While we like to joke about the fallacy of relying on a machine to translate all the different nuances of language, translators who are poorly trained or are working too hard make errors, too.

Machine Translation

Bellos notes that machine translation is well-suited to situations where there are not enough translators or interpreters available and translations don’t have to be perfect to be usable. For example, machine translation was extremely helpful for emergency personnel on the ground in Haiti.

However, machine translation relies on either a dictionary of words or their meanings combined with the rules of grammar that can be used to combine them or on comparing the text being translated to other, similar texts that have already been translated. Neither method is 100% accurate, especially when it comes to translating literature, creative writing and figures of speech.  Even Google Translate, which has access to all of the literature contained in Google’s considerable library of books, often comes up with gibberish when faced with literary translations.

Sure, computers don’t get tired, and they don’t base their performance on whether or not they are being paid a decent salary. But, as Bellos notes:

“Machine translation is not conceived or programmed to take into account the purpose, real-world context or style of any utterance. “

In situations in which an accurate translation is a must, a qualified human translator who is familiar with the nuances of both languages and cultures will beat a machine every time-even if the machine has all the power of Google behind it.

Google New Translation App Brings Speech-to-Text Translation to Your Cell Phone

Google’s new translation app aims to turn mobile phones that run on the Android operating system into universal translators. The app is capable of translating text written in one language into speech in another, and vice versa. So, for example, if you were in a foreign country and needed to find a bathroom, you could fire up the app and say “Where is the bathroom?” Your phone would then translate the phrase for you, display the text in the foreign language, and could also read the text out loud in a computerized voice if you desired.

New App

Currently, the app can only translate speech in English, Mandarin and Japanese, but Google expects to release more languages shortly. Text-only translations are available in 50-plus languages including Icelandic, Slovenian and Swahili. The LA Times notes that the translations “are often less than perfect,” and until someone actually builds a protocol droid like C3PO from Star Wars, real live human interpreters will always have a place. However, Google’s translations will no doubt improve with time, as Google feeds its translation system with ever-increasing amounts of information.

According to the New York Times, Google also plans to introduce image analysis to Google’s mobile translation app. So, not only will you be able to type or speak the phrases that you need to have translated, you can also use your phone’s camera to take a picture of say, a foreign-language street sign and have the words on the sign translated for you.
How has Google managed to outpace other automated translation services in such a short time? In the New York Times, Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media explained why Google is so well-suited to the job:

“Machine translation is one of the best examples that show Google’s strategic vision. It is not something that anyone else is taking very seriously. But Google understands something about data that nobody else understands, and it is willing to make the investments necessary to tackle these kinds of complex problems ahead of the market.”

Catalonia May Require Cinemas To Show Films In Catalan

Catalonia, a region of Spain with its own distinct language and culture, is expected to require cinemas to begin showing more movies in Catalan. The bill is being passed at a time when Catalan is trying to emphasize and protect its unique cultural identity as immigrants flock to the region.

However, Catalan’s cinemas are opposed to the bill, which would require that at least half the copies of every film made outside Europe to be dubbed in Catalan. Camilo Tarrazón Rodón, president of the Association of Film Businesses in Catalonia, explained his organisation’s opposition to the bill in the New York Times:

“They say it’s necessary for the government to make a rule, because the private sector doesn’t do it…Banks are not lending, companies have business problems and kids look at films on cellphones,” Mr. Tarrazón said. “How can we pay for it?”

US film producers, which release most of the films that would be affected under the new law, don’t seem to want to pay for it, either. They are also concerned that if Catalan requires dubbing, other European regions trying to preserve their own languages might start to require similar accommodations.

Only about 3% of the movies shown in Catalonia are in Catalan. Cinema owners argue that they don’t show movies in Catalan because people don’t want to see them. They point to a test in which only 12 out of 131 moviegoers preferred to watch foreign films in Catalan. The rest chose Spanish. However, supporters of the law say that this is only because there are so few movies offered in Catalan to begin with.

It’s difficult to see why people who speak Catalan would object to seeing a movie in their own language, as long as the film is dubbed properly. The New York Times notes that most plays and theatre productions are already in Catalan.
For right now, as filmmaker Enric Juste told the New York Times:

“there are so few films in Catalan, you’re talking about a situation that, at the moment, is fiction; you cannot talk about a situation that doesn’t exist.”

Medical Interpreting Services Help Bridge Language Gaps In Some US Hospitals

Hospitals naturally encounter patients who speak a cornucopia of different languages-far too many for them to have an interpreter on staff for each one. However, language barriers make it extremely difficult to treat patients, preventing doctors from accurately understanding the patient’s symptoms and preventing the patient from fully understanding their condition and treatments.

So, some US hospitals have turned to medical interpreter hotlines to help medical personnel communicate with patients who don’t speak English. Medical interpreter lines and video interpreting services not only make the staff’s job easier,  patient outcomes improve as a result.

For example, the Houston Chronicle describes the story of one elderly Korean man with an aggressive form of cancer who had a reputation for being a “bad,” uncooperative patient. When the team at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, New Jersey used a medical interpreting service to talk to him, they soon figured out that he wasn’t cooperative because he had no idea what was wrong with him. Once his condition was explained, the staff easily persuaded him to agree to treatment.

Unfortunately, cost constraints keep many hospitals from offering similar services. The Chronicle notes that Parkland Memorial Hospital in Houston spends $160,000 per month on medical interpreting services. While hospitals receiving federal funding must provide access to interpreters for patients who don’t speak English, only 13 states offer funding to reimburse the cost of translation services for patients.

Unfortunately, medical mistakes caused by language barriers can be expensive, too-costing the hospital money due to litigation, costing patients and insurance companies for additional treatment and even more important, costing patient lives.

For example, the Houston Chronicle notes that in 1980, a Spanish-speaking ER patient  became paralyzed for life  when one of his relatives stated he had been “intoxicado” before he collapsed. Since “intoxicado” is a cognate for the English “intoxicated”, the ER team assumed that mean he had overdosed on drugs, but in Spanish it can simply mean “nauseous.” He actually had a brain injury. The resulting lawsuit cost the hospital $70 million.

New Welsh Language Law Proposed

A new measure has been proposed in Wales to help encourage the use of the Welsh language there. According to the BBC, the new proposal, which was just published by the assembly government, has several key features. First, it would require some private sector companies to provide services in Welsh when requested by Welsh speakers. Telecoms, electricity and gas providers, bus and railway companies and companies providing sewage services would all be affected and could be fined for not providing adequate Welsh-language services. Public sector companies would also be required to comply.


According to the Daily Post, the fines could be as high as ₤5000, and any company that receives more than ₤400,000 worth of money per year from taxpayers would be affected by the new requirements. Second, the proposed law would scrap the Welsh Language Board in support of appointing a Welsh language commissioner with increased power to enforce language laws.

First Minister Carwyn Jones told the BBC that “The proposed measure provides us with some of the tools we need to ensure that the Welsh language can continue to prosper into the 21st Century alongside the English language.”
However, some Welsh language advocates don’t feel that the proposed legislation goes far enough. For example, the BBC quotes Menna Machreth, chair of the Welsh Language Society (Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg), who welcomed the proposal but cautioned:

“This measure doesn’t affect much of the private sector. The assembly doesn’t have the powers for shops to be included in this measure, which we’ve been calling for because they are a massive part of day to day lives, and if we want to see the Welsh language as a living language around us, I think the Welsh language should be mainstreamed and pulled into the private sector as well.”

Syllabary Keypad Developed for Cherokee Language

To help people communicate in Cherokee, the Cherokee Nation has developed a new Cherokee-specific computer keypad. The keypad was developed by two members of the Cherokee Nation’s Cultural Resources Department, Roy Boney, Jr. and Joseph Erb. The device makes it much easier for people to use computers to communicate in Cherokee. Previously, typing in the Cherokee syllabary was a royal pain, requiring users to memorize a variety of different keystrokes to get the computer to produce Cherokee letters instead of the Latin alphabet.

With the keypad, which fits over a normal computer keyboard, for the first time students and others will be able to type directly in the Cherokee syllabary, which uses its own unique set of 85 characters. The new keypads will make life easier for the students at the Cherokee Nation Immersion School, where children do their lessons completely in Cherokee. It will also make it easier for people to use Cherokee outside of school, in their daily lives, and will make it easier for Cherokee living outside of Cherokee Nation territory to use their ancestral language to communicate.

The Native American Times quotes Dr. Neil Morton, Group Leader for Education Services for the Cherokee Nation, who described the potential impact the invention could have on the Cherokee language:

“The creation of this keypad has helped us leap forward in the teaching of Cherokee. Before we were only able to utilise the print media, but now our students have computers for homework, messages and more where they can actually type and text in the Cherokee language…The role of the keypad allows us to actually move the language initiative program away from the tribal complex and out into every community of the Nation and throughout the world. It also plays an important role in getting people to actually use the language in their everyday lives.”


How Do Babies Learn Language?

Can you teach your baby new words, maybe even make him smarter, by putting him in front of the television? That was the promise of the popular “Baby Einstein” videos-parents get a break, and they don’t have to feel guilty because their toddler is actually learning while he watches TV.

Unfortunately, “Baby Einstein” and other instructional videos don’t actually appear to help infants and toddlers learn language.  A new study performed by researchers at the University of California in Riverside followed a group of 1 to 2-year-olds around for 6 weeks, assigning one group to watch “Baby Wordsworth” instructional DVDs. At the end of the study, there was no difference in language acquisition between the kids that watched the DVDs and the kids that did not.

In an article describing the study, the Time Magazine reports that there are two theories as to why instructional DVDs don’t work for toddlers. The first theory is that the DVD’s somehow “overstimulate” the child’s brain, so they aren’t able to pick up new words. The second theory is simply that the DVDs replace child-parent interaction, which is the main way that babies learn to recognise the sounds of their native language and pick up new words.

Time quoted Rebekah Richert, the psychologist who led the study, who explained that:

“What we are finding in our study is that the DVD itself is not a substitute for that kind of live social interaction. For children under the age of 2, social interaction is key to their ability to learning something like words.”

Of course, if you need a little bit of time to yourself, there’s nothing wrong with using the TV to distract your toddler temporarily while you regain your sanity. Just don’t pop in the “Baby Wordsworth” DVD and expect your toddler to start writing poetry.

Also, if you’re feeling a bit ripped off, the LA Times notes that Walt Disney Co is offering refunds on Baby Einstein DVDs through Thursday.

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