Bahasa Indonesia Giving Way To English

Bahasa Indonesia is the national language of Indonesia, and has long been considered the linguistic glue that binds together the many different groups of people that make up the Indonesian nation.  However, as  educating children in English grows in popularity, an increasing number of Indonesian children are growing up with Indonesian skills that are poor or nonexistent, according to the New York Times.

Although Indonesian public schools teach classes in Bahasa Indonesia, speaking English fluently is considered a sign of high social status. Of course, every parent wants what’s best for their child, so Indonesian families with the means to do so began sending their little ones to English private schools instead of the public schools. At these schools, all lessons are given in English. The schools also encourage parents to expose their children to as much English (and as little Indonesian) as possible.

The result is native Indonesian kids who struggle with the Indonesian language, creating a language divide that cuts family members off from each other and may eventually threaten Indonesia’s sense of unity.

For example, Uchu Riza, the owner of an Indonesian private school that educates its students in both languages, told the New York Times:

“In some families, the grandchildren cannot speak with the grandmother because they don’t speak Bahasa Indonesia. That’s sad.”

To fix the problem, the Indonesian government intends to require the private schools to start offering instruction in both English and Indonesian. Mr. Suyanto, an official at the Education Ministry, told the Times that regulation was needed because:

“If we don’t regulate them, in the long run this could be dangerous for the continuity of our language. If this big country doesn’t have a strong language to unite it, it could be dangerous.”

Fortunately, some Indonesian families are also beginning to realize that sacrificing Indonesian language skills for fluency in English comes at a price. For example, the Times interviewed mother named Della Raymena Jovanka, who said that while she wanted her son to become fluent English, she was considering putting him back in public school, saying:

“He’s Indonesian. He lives in Indonesia. If he can’t communicate with people, it’ll be a big problem.”

Accents Make Speakers Seem Less Trustworthy

Sad, but true…according to researchers at the University of Chicago, when you speak with a foreign accent, people are less likely to believe what you say. The researchers designed a study in which people  were asked to rate the truthfulness of various statements spoken by people both with and without noticeable foreign accents.

In an attempt to control for prejudice against people from other cultures, the scientists conducting the study told the volunteers that all of the participants were reading these statements from scripts prepared in advance and were not making them up themselves. Even so, people were more likely to rate a specific statement as “true” if it was spoken by someone without a foreign accent. In fact, the thicker the speaker’s accent, the less truthful listeners rated the statement.

When volunteers were made aware of the purpose of the study, their ratings changed slightly, and they no longer penalized speakers with mild accents. However, speakers with heavy accents were still rated as significantly less truthful.

Boaz Keysar, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago who co-authored the study, told Science Daily that the problem is that people have to work harder to understand speakers with foreign accents:

“The accent makes it harder for people to understand what the non-native speaker is saying,” Keysar said. “They misattribute the difficulty of understanding the speech to the truthfulness of the statements.”

Shiri Lev-Ari, the lead author of the study, notes that this “credibility gap” can have a significant impact on people both personally and professionally:

“Accent might reduce the credibility of non-native job seekers, eyewitnesses, reporters or people taking calls in foreign call centers.”

Of course, having an accent does not make a person any more or less honest. So, the next time you’re talking to someone with an accent, make a conscious effort to keep an open mind. Unconscious biases like the ones revealed by this study are difficult to fight, but awareness is the first step. And if you’re learning a foreign language, it’s a good idea to work on improving your accent as much as possible.

Computer Program Could Be the Key to Unlocking Lost Languages

Translating written fragments of long-forgotten languages is an extremely difficult, often frustrating task. It requires vast amounts of linguistic knowledge, skill at pattern recognition, and good intuition to make the pieces fall into place. Even with the help of the Rosetta Stone, it still took over 25 years to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Now, a team of researchers at MIT has developed a computer program that promises to translate forgotten languages automatically. According to National Geographic, the program correctly translated Ugaritic, an ancient language from Syria that nobody has used since 1200 BC.  Even more amazing is the fact that,  according to the MIT blog, the translation process only took a few hours.

Does this mean that computers will replace skilled human translators when it comes to decoding ancient texts? Probably not. The program works by comparing the unknown language to known, closely related languages. As Richard Sproat, an Oregon Health and Science University computational linguist, explained to National Geographic:

“In the case [of Ugaritic], you’re dealing with a small and simple writing system, and there are closely related languages. It’s not always going to be the case that there are closely related languages that one can use.”

Even Regina Barzilay, an associate professor at MIT who helped create the program, sees it as more of a tool to assist human translators, not a replacement for them. In the MIT blog, she called it “powerful tool that can aid the human decipherment process,” and explained that it could have shaved a lot of time off of the years it took for translators working without the aid of computers to translate Ugaritic.  She also believes it will be able to help computer translation programs like Google Translate expand  their translations.

China Encourages Beijing Residents to Learn English

The Chinese government just announced a new drive to encourage residents of Beijing to learn English, according to this article in the Australian. The program comes as part of an effort to turn Beijing into a “world city” that welcomes foreign visitors, especially English-speaking visitors.

The Chinese government’s plan to improve English fluency in the city consists of 5 parts:

– Toddlers will begin learning the language in kindergarten, to better prepare them for more advanced classes in later grades.
– Every public servant under the age of 40 with a college degree must learn 1000 English sentences.
– By 2015, all government employees must learn at least 100 English sentences, whether they have a college degree or not.
– 60% of service employees, like waiters and hairdressers, must pass English tests covering vocabulary related to their jobs.
– By 2015, a certain number of guides in each museum in the city must be proficient in English as well.

The Australian notes that these new policies represent a sea change from the way foreign language education was viewed in China just decades ago:

The drive demonstrates the dramatic changes that China has undergone in the past few decades and how its focus in world affairs has shifted.

In the 1950s, schoolchildren had to learn Russian to get ahead, while in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, it was safer to speak no foreign language at all rather than risk retribution under Chairman Mao’s rule.

According to China Daily, Beijing isn’t the only city in which the government is pushing its citizens to learn English.  The city of Shanghai just started an 8-year-long program to help its officials become proficient in English. X’ian is also planning to encourage residents to learn English. Local resident Wang Ninguang told China Daily:

“English is becoming the second language in China. It’s good to have more people who speak English in the metropolis for their ability to communicate internationally, but it is impractical for the government to expect everyone to learn it.”

Milkman Learns Gujarati At Work

Some people spend months in language classes without becoming fluent, but the Daily Mail recently published an article about John ‘Jimmy’ Mather, a Lancaster milkman who became fluent in Gujarati just from listening to his customers talk.

Mather has been delivering milk since 1960. When he began his route, he actually used a horse and carriage to make his rounds. The first wave of immigrants from India had begun to settle in the region, and Mather made an effort to learn their language so that he could communicate with them. He told the Daily Mail:

“All I did was listen carefully to what they said and then make a mental note in my head. Next time I just repeated the words. I don’t know how long it took me to learn. I’ve known the language for about 30 years and once you pick up words you remember them. I’ve got a very good memory, once I’ve been somewhere I never forget it, it’s the same with language.”

That’s quite a feat, even more so considering how different Gujarati is from English in terms of both syntax and the sounds used.

In addition to learning Gujarati, Mather also made an effort to provide his customers with the specialty products they needed to prepare traditional foods. His customers obviously appreciate his efforts. He gets invited to weddings and festivals, and has made many friends in the community. He has no plans to quit, telling the Daily Mail:

‘They want me to quit now but I want to carry on because I love my job and the people I serve. I think my Gujarati is alright. It gets me by. I’ve made friends with it and that’s the most important thing. I’ll keep going as long as I can and my Bengali’s not so bad so I’m having a go at that.’

Language Demonstrates Link Between North America and Asia

Archaeologists have long believed that humans migrated to North America from Asia, walking across a land bridge over what is now the Bering Strait. Evidence from ancient sites supports this theory, as does genetic evidence. Now, Western Washington University linguistics professor Edward Vajda has demonstrated a linguistic connection as well.

Professor Vajda has been studying with the few remaining speakers of the Ket language since the late 1980’s. The Ket people live in a remote, isolated part of Siberia. Even so, only about 100 of the tribe’s 1,200 members still speak Ket. Professor Vajda is helping to preserve the language by compiling grammar and vocabulary, and in the course of his work he was able to demonstrate how Ket was connected to the Na-Dene language family of the New World,which includes Tlingit, Gwichin, Denaina, Koyukon, Navajo, Carrier, Hupa, Apache and others.

Professor Vajda’s research was recently published in The Dene-Yeniseian Connection, a new book from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Anthropology and Alaska Native Language Center.

In an article published in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner, Professor Vajda explains why demonstrating a linguistic connection between the two continents is important:

“It’s a new way to understand human prehistory before there were historians to write it down. Isolated languages like Ket have developed features that are very unusual and interesting, and they help us to understand the human mind and human language ability. We linguists should not be the focus of attention here. What is important are the languages and especially the Native communities themselves.”

Ben Potter, another anthropologist featured in the book, explained the importance of Vajda’s work in a little bit more detail, telling the newspaper that the vast majority of Native peoples in western subarctic Canada and Alaska are Na-Dene and before Vajda’s work, there was no definitive link with any other group in the Old World.

Papiamentu Language Beats The Odds

In an age in which we lose an average of 10 languages forever each year, it’s heartening to see that at least one language is beating the odds. Although Papiamentu, a Creole language spoken in Curacao, Bonaire and Aruba, only boasts around 250,000 speakers, according to the New York Times it is actually gaining ground in terms of official acceptance and cultural prominence.

The Times notes that Dutch continues to be the language that Curacao’s laws are written in, as well as the language its children are taught in, at least in the upper grades. However, if you set foot on the island of Curacao, you can expect to hear Papiamentu just about everywhere. It’s on the radio, in the songs of local artists. It’s the language you hear on the TV, and the language spoken by politicians. In short, it’s a part of daily life there, not a second-class language at all.

Papiamentu is interesting because even though Curacao was a Dutch colony, the language bears little if any Dutch influence. Instead, it’s a blend of Portuguese and Spanish, with a dash of English thrown in for good measure. Linguists think that the Portuguese came from the West African slave trade, while the Spanish influences came from both the Spanish-speaking Jews who helped settle the island and, more recently, nearby Spanish-speaking Venezuela.

In the New York Times article, linguist Bart Jacobs explains why Papiamentu has a better chance of survival than most Creoles:

While English and French Creoles get more attention, the extension of Papiamentu into different domains like writing, education and policy is incredibly high. This bodes very well for the language’s chances to survive, and possibly even thrive well into the future.

What makes Papiamentu different from other, less healthy Creole languages? According to the New York Times, part of the difference lies in the fact that Dutch has fewer speakers than other colonial languages like English and Spanish. So, while people on the islands tend to learn Dutch to seek jobs in the Netherlands, there’s no incentive to allow Dutch to overshadow the language they grew up speaking. Theres also the fact that the islands that speak Papiamentu are both peaceful and wealthy.Finally, there is Papiamentu’s history as a way for islanders to resist Dutch colonial rule.

In the New York Times, Helmin Wiels, party leader for Pueblo Soberano, which favors breaking off Curacao’s official relationship with the Netherlands completely, explains:

The preservation of Papiamentu would allow us to absorb the influences of our South American brothers, he said, while keeping alive that which makes us unique.

Sign Language In Space

American Sign Language (ASL) is the fourth most commonly used language in the US.  It is so completely different from British Sign Language that the two languages are mutually unintelligible.  Developed at the American School for the Deaf shortly after it opened in 1817, ASL is used in the United States, Canada and several other countries.

However, until last week, it had never been used  on the International Space Station. That changed when US astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson gave a video address aimed at schoolchildren in ASL last week.

In the video address, Caldwell Dyson discusses how she learned sign language in college from a deaf teammate on her track team. She continued studying the language and later, as a teacher, taught  advanced science and chemistry to deaf student. Caldwell Dyson told that these experiences opened her eyes to the many challenges deaf people face, as well as how capable they are of overcoming them:

“Ultimately, this isn’t really about me learning or knowing ASL. This story should be an avenue for deaf students from children in kindergarten to college undergraduates to doctoral candidates to see themselves belonging to this amazing thing called NASA and participating in scientific research and space exploration.”

In the video, Caldwell Dyson encourages deaf students to pursue careers in space if they want, telling them:

“One thing I have learned is that deaf people can do anything. The only thing they can’t do is hear. Maybe someday you can fly into space and live on the ISS.”

The 6-minute-long clip was sent to schools across the US and posted on NASA’s website,

Lack of Tamil-Speaking Police Handicaps Sri Lankan Civil War Recovery

Talking to police officers can make even the most law-abiding citizen feel just a wee bit nervous. Can you imagine if the officer didn’t speak your language? In Sri Lanka, a devastating civil war that lasted for decades is finally over.  However, a lack of Tamil speakers on the country’s  police force  is slowing the healing process in Tamil-speaking regions.

Tamil is the primary language spoken in Sri Lanka’s Northern province. However, most of the rest of the country speaks Sinhalese, as does the majority of the country’s police force. In fact, according to, less than 15 percent of the police officers working in the Northern province are able to speak Tamil.

The civil war was waged by the Tamil Tigers against the Sinhalese-speaking government. Now that the war is over, the two sides need to learn to trust each other again, but the language barrier between ordinary citizens and the police makes that more difficult.

For example, the article quotes Suranga Weerasekara, an aid worker from the Northern Province’s Jaffna District:

“The lack of Tamil-speaking police officers in the northeast will be a long-term obstacle to the development of the Northern Province. People are reluctant to go meet with law-enforcement officials due to a lack of Tamil-speaking police officers in the north.”

Why are there so few Tamil-speaking officers? According to IRIN, the Tamil Tigers saw local Tamil-speaking citizens joining the police force as a betrayal, and often used violence to punish them and to scare other Tamils out of joining.

Fortunately, the Sri Lankan government recognizes the importance of having police officers who can speak the local language, and they are offering incentives for Tamil-speaking officers to sign up and for Sinhalese-speaking officers to learn Tamil. Hopefully, their efforts pay off and they are able to develop a police department capable of communicating effectively with the community it is supposed to police and protect.

Eyak Language

In 2008, an 89-year-old Alaskan Native woman named Marie Smith Jones died. The Eyak language died with her, as she was the last living speaker. Now, a young French student with a passion for languages is considering helping to resurrect the language.

According to the Anchorage Daily News, Guillaume Leduey has always had a passion for language. When other kids were playing video games, Leduey daydreamed about being able to speak Lithuanian. In 2005, he got in touch with Laura Bliss Spaan, the director of a documentary about Eyak, and requested some instructional DVDs so that he could try to teach himself the language.

Now, Leduey is visiting Alaska to study with linguist Michael Krauss, who has spent a large potion of his life trying to preserve a record of the Eyak language.

Whether or not Leduey will continue to study Eyak until he becomes fluent is an open question. He’s also an artist, plus his parents have told him that he needs to find a paying job ASAP.  Nobody is sure if or how learning Eyak will pay off for him in anything other than karma.

Considering how many other languages Leduey knows and his obvious talent for learning them, might we suggest applying for a job as a translator?

Although Marie Smith Jones had children, none of them learned the language. Native children were discouraged from speaking Eyak in school, so the children were brought up speaking English. Why is important to try to preserve a record of a language that no one currently speaks?  The Anchorage Daily News describes this rather heart-wrenching encounter between Mona Curry, one of Jones’ children, and Leduey:

“It was really emotional to hear you say you know the word for ‘thank you,’ ” Curry told him. “What is that word?”
“Awa’ahdah,” Leduey replied.
“Say that again,” Curry said, concentrating on the pronunciation.

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