Language Barrier Blocks Asian Fishermen From Making Claims To BP

BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill is covering beaches, drowning birds and putting a serious damper on tourism all across the United States’ Gulf Coast. But it’s not just an environmental tragedy, it’s also a human tragedy. Along the coast, fishing and shrimping were a way of life, and the people who depended on the ocean for their livelihood are suddenly out of work.

BP is providing financial support to people who lost fishing industry jobs because of the spill. However, some fishing communities, such as Bayou La Batre, Alabama, are mostly populated by immigrants, and many of these immigrants don’t speak English, or don’t speak it very well. Can you imagine having to struggle to get help in a language you don’t fully understand?

Dr. Thang Nguyen, Executive Director of Boat People SOS, explained the situation to local Fox News affiliate

“Their biggest concern is livelihood, jobs. They need an income, they need to pay a mortgage on their home, boats, they have to pay utilities and rent and for their children to go to school and now its they don’t know it a total uncertain future.”

Local resident Kimchi Thai told that:

“It’s been extremely difficult. Because of the language barriers we have been unable to convey to BP our issues, and some of the BP requirement is so difficult for us to get through some of the red tapes.”

Many of Vietnamese people in Fort Batre never got a chance to learn to read and write in their native language, either, making the situation even more difficult. Fortunately, Boat People SOS is providing translation services to help people with their claims.

Disneyland Now Provides More Sign Language Interpreters and Audio Description Devices

Disneyland just announced two new services to accommodate disabled guests. First, the park will now offer sign language interpreters at many of its top shows and attractions on a regular basis. Previously, interpreters were available to assist hearing impaired guests, but you had to arrange for the service in advance. Now, the interpreters will be available Monday and Saturday at Disneyland and Sunday and Friday at Disney’s California Adventure Park.

Although you no longer have to arrange for these services in advance, Disney still recommends that you call and request schedule confirmation a week before you plan to arrive.

In a post on the StitchKingdom blog, Disney park employee Everett Rowlett, an electro-mechanical technician, explained why the new interpretation service is so important:

“I am deaf, and experiencing the sign language service on Storybook Land made the attraction much more engaging for me. This is the first time in the 28 years I have worked at the Resort that I have been able to fully understand the stories being told.”

Disneyland also announced that it will now offer a new audio description device to the visually impaired. The device, which is lightweight and easy to carry around, describes outdoor scenery and visual elements of rides and attractions. Users can use an audio menu to tell the device what kind of information they are looking for and receive an appropriate description in return. The devices are available for guests free of charge, and the company that makes them plans to make them available to assist visually impaired people outside the park as well.

In an article posted on,  Greg Hale, chief safety officer and vice president of Worldwide Safety and Accessibility for Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, said:

“Disney Parks have long been at the forefront of providing accessibility for guests with disabilities. We are pleased to build on this legacy with new technology that enables us to do something that has never been done before – provide rich audio description in moving rides and outdoor environments.”

Arabic Becomes Popular Language Choice At New York City’s Friends Seminary

When New York City’s Friends Seminary began offering high school courses on Arabic language and culture two years ago, the decision was not without controversy, especially since few of the school’s students are of Arabic descent.  In particular, some parents were concerned that by offering the language, the school was taking sides in the interminable conflict between Israel and Palestine.

However, the classes have proved quite popular, attracting a group of dedicated students who plan to continue studying the language, both in US colleges and abroad. And although more students take Spanish and French, the Arabic students seem more inclined to use the language outside of school and to seek out future careers that revolve around speaking it. For example, the New York Times interviewed the first nine graduating seniors in the Arabic class, and this is what they found:

Of the nine graduating seniors who studied Arabic, all plan to continue — most applied only to colleges that offer the language; several say Ms. Swank’s classes influenced their thoughts about their futures. For Mr. Adamopoulos, that might mean practicing medicine in an Arabic-speaking country. Mr. Smith-Stevens, who starts Middlebury College in the fall, intends to major in international relations, with a focus on the Middle East. Even Mr. Peebles, who hopes to keep performing, plans to continue his Arabic studies at Tufts University. “Inshallah,” he added — God willing.

With the relationship between the Muslim world and the United States becoming more and more tense, it’s encouraging to see young people who are willing to bridge the gap between the two cultures. Hopefully, more US schools will begin to offer Arabic as an option in high school, since students are much more likely to become fluent if they start studying a language in high school rather than college.

The Origin of the Vuvuzela

If you are a football fan, you’ve no doubt been watching the World Cup this week, and a new word, vuvuzela, has entered your vocabulary.  A vuvuzela, also called a lepatata, is basically an incredibly loud horn that South African football fans use to annoy the other team during games.

For the uninitiated, here’s how various commentators have described the “music” produced by the vuvuzela (via Wikipedia): “annoying” and “satanic”…”a stampede of noisy elephants,” “a deafening swarm of locusts,” “a goat on the way to slaughter,” and “a giant hive full of very angry bees.”

So, why do South African football fans subject themselves and everyone around them to this auditory torture? And why is it called a vuvuzela, anyway?

As for the first question, the FIFA website has a quote from Sadaam Maake, one of South African football’s “celebrity followers,” explaining the appeal:

“Without the vuvuzela, I don’t think I would be able to enjoy football. It brings a special feeling to the stadiums. It is something that makes the fans want to get behind their team.”

Another football fan,Mzion Mofokeng, explains further:

“When we started the vuvuzela, there was so much sadness in our country in those years and it brought so much joy. All of a sudden people would go to the stadiums because of this instrument that was able to get fans on their feet and start cheering. For few hours, they would forget about the reality in our society and enjoy the sound.”

Per Wikipedia, Maake actually claims to have invented the vuvuzela himself in 1965, and has the pictures to prove it, although the current manufacturers say that the design was actually imported from America and Neil van Schalkwyk is listed as the inventor on the patent. The original instrument was made of aluminum and created from an old bicycle horn. The design was later modified to make the pipe longer, and plastic vuvuzelas have been mass-produced since 2001. The instrument may or may not have been modeled after ancient African kudu horn instruments.

Nobody is 100% sure how the horn came to be called a vuvuzela. Wikipedia says that it is believed to be derived from Zulu for “making a vuvu noise,” though it could also be derived from a slang word for shower (since it looks like a shower head.)

NHS Hires Welsh Language Champions To Support Welsh Speaking Patients

The NHS just announced that it will be hiring Welsh language champions to ensure that Welsh-speaking patients have access to services in their own language, according to Wales Online.

Each health board will hire its own Welsh champion, who will work to support Welsh language officers  to make sure patients have access to the language services they need to be comfortable.  Wales Online notes that this is expected to become increasingly important over the next several years, as doctors and nurses care for more and more elderly patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia.  These patients may have spoken English fluently for decades, but they will often retain the ability to communicate in their first language for much longer than they retain their English ability.

The article quotes the Welsh in the Health Service report to explain the importance of providing patients with service in their native tongue:

“The longer any course of treatment continues and the more talking and counselling the treatment involves, the more important language choice becomes in the minds of Welsh-speaking patients. Also, the more serious the condition and more intensive the care, the more important language becomes.”

A Welsh Assembly government spokeswoman elaborated further:

“Patient safety and clinical assessment and treatment often depend upon patients being able to communicate in their own language. The quality of care and a patient’s experience of care is also greatly improved if they are able to communicate in the language they are most at ease in.”

Health care workers note that native Welsh speakers often have a slightly harder time when they receive health care services in English, no matter impeccable their English skills are. For example, a poor diagnosis is a stressful event, and the last thing people want to have to do at such a time is to switch back and forth between Welsh and English. When is English is your second language, you often need a moment to collect your thoughts and translate them, which can also be misconstrued by health care workers.

It’s no wonder, then, that the  Welsh Assembly says:

“It is extremely important that health and social care services in the NHS in Wales are available through the medium of Welsh.”

Estonia Sends Out The Language Police

Now that Estonia has broken free of Russia, the former Soviet state is trying to encourage the use of the Estonian language.  However, many Russian-speaking people emigrated to Estonia when it was still part of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet government discouraged the use of the Estonian language in the name of unity. The result is that many people in Estonian speak Russian primarily, including many of the country’s schoolteachers.  In fact, according to the New York Times, 30 percent of the country speaks Russian as their first language.

To encourage the next generation to speak Estonian more frequently, the government has required that schools teach a certain amount of their classes in Estonian instead of Russian. That means that schoolteachers who speak Russian as their first language are having to improve their Estonian skills.  This can be difficult, as Estonian is closely related to Finnish and has very little in common with Russian.

Every so often, their skills are tested by a visit from an inspector of the The National Language Inspectorate, the “language police.” The inspector talks to each teacher in turn, in Estonian, looking for mistakes.  Naturally, this is quite stressful for the teachers, who are used to giving exams (and occasional failing grades), not receiving them.

The New York Times notes that organizations like Amnesty International have criticized Estonia’s response as heavy-handed, but Ilmar Tomusk, the inspectorate’s director, says his department is just trying to do its job:

“There are some myths about our work, about how we discriminate,” he said. “For a democratic society, it is quite common that public servants should know the state language. If a public official is in Russia, he must know the Russian language. If he is in Estonia, he must know Estonian. There is no discrimination.”

Bilingual Adults Can’t Stop Thinking in Native Language

In foreign language classes, professors will often tell you that in order to be successful, you need to stop thinking in your native tongue and start thinking in the language you are trying to learn. This is harder than it sounds, and a new study suggests that even fully bilingual adults can’t stop thinking in their native languages.

The study, conducted by Bangor University, focused on 90 volunteers. 30 volunteers were native Chinese speakers, 30 were native English speakers and 30 spoke both English and Chinese. They were asked to decide whether pairs of English words had similar meanings, but some pairs consisted of unrelated words that nonetheless sound very similar to each other when translated into Chinese.

The bilingual volunteers performed just as well as on the tests as the native English speakers, but when they encountered pairs of words that were unrelated in English but that sound alike in Chinese, their brain waves changed. To the scientists performing the study, this indicates that on some level they were translating the words into Chinese, even though that wasn’t necessary to complete the test.

In Science Daily, Dr. Guillaume Thierry, one of the study’s authors, explained the conclusions the scientists were able to draw from the study:

“Bilingual individuals retrieve information from their native language even when it’s not necessary, or, even more surprising, when it is counterproductive, since native language information does not help when reading or listening to second-language words.”

The bilingual adults in this study all learned English relatively late, after age 12. Some scientists  feel that this is one of the study’s limitations, and question whether or not the same results would be obtained with children who learned another language at an early age.

For example, Michael Chee of Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School told Science Daily that:

“One limitation of the study is that many older generation English learners from China learned English by memorizing lists of words in what seems like a brute force method of learning. It would be interesting to see if the same results would be obtained if persons learning English earlier were studied.”

A New Language for Texting

LOL, BRB, ROTFL…text messaging and instant messaging has a language all its own.  But it didn’t seem good enough for Kai Staats, the inventor of  iConji, a new, hieroglyphic-like language strictly for text messaging. iConji has an “alphabet” of pictures, each representing a word or a group of related words. There are 1,185 symbols, each of which has been translated into English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, and Japanese. Users are allowed to submit new pictures, which might come to mean different things in different cultures.

So, what’s the advantage of using iConji over standard text messaging abbreviations? Staats explained to Fox News why he likes using iConji to communicate:

“It’s just fun to use. Using homonyms and plays-on-words, iConji messages are often quite humorous as well as informative. Whether you are sending a complete sentence with proper grammar to a co-worker, or a simple, one-character message inviting a friend for a drink after work, receiving an iConji message always causes me to smile.”

That does sound like fun, but will iConji become the new standard for texting?

Alan Timberlake, the chair of Columbia University’s Linguistics Department, thinks that even with 1,185 characters, the language still may not be expressive enough:

“Think of emoticons and abbreviations like ‘lol.’ They can’t express everything. It seems to be quite difficult to learn a large number of distinct symbols (learning Chinese characters takes non-natives much longer than learning words in a language with an alphabet). In short, if it works, which means if people use it and develop it, let’s congratulate them, but the project has built-in limitations.”

I could see iConji becoming popular among certain groups who crave the exclusivity of learning a “secret language,” like teens with nosy parents. But for everyday use, it seems unlikely that most people are going to want to learn 1,185 new symbols just to do something that millions of people already do everyday.

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