Belgium’s Language Divide Affects Everything From Government to Soccer Clubs

The divide between French speakers and Dutch speakers in Belgium has grown increasingly intractable, and currently affects everything from how well the country’s government does (or does not) function to coaching schoolchildren at a soccer club.

According to the Associated Press, the KFC Strombeek soccer club of Grimbergen, Belgium has been officially banned from coaching children’s soccer in French. Apparently, when Dutch-speaking citizens of the town heard coaches were speaking French to some of the children (presumably, children who already spoke French), they organized a petition to ensure that future coaching sessions were conducted entirely in Dutch.

That might seem mean-spirited, but it’s symptomatic of a divide that extends throughout Belgian society. In fact, over 2 months after the last elections, Belgium’s government is at a standstill as French and Dutch factions of 7 political parties try to negotiate the next steps.  The party that won the elections, the New Flemish Alliance, wants to split the country in two.

The bulk of Belgium’s economic activity and prosperity is concentrated in the Dutch half of the country, leading many Dutch speakers to resent their French-speaking countrymen. But why take these tensions out on a soccer club?

That’s what Christian Donneux, the president of the soccer club, would like to know. He told the AP:

“We are a sports club, not a political party. Many of my patients here in Grimbergen are Francophones. Am I supposed to send them away?”

Meanwhile, Robert Timmermans, the man who organized the petition against the soccer club, watched a group of French-speaking children at practice and declared:

“They must be coached in Dutch. This is our soccer field. (Dutch-speakers) paid for it. It is our tax money. Grimbergen is a Dutch-speaking town.”‘

New York City Parents Seek Out Bilingual Babysitters

Most parents want what’s best for their children. In New York City, that desire is increasingly translating into a desire for babysitters and nannies who can do double-duty as both caretakers and language teachers. Parents are looking for babysitters who will speak to their children exclusively in another language. The idea is that the children will grow up learning to speak English from their parents and learning to speak the second language from their childcare provider.

As the New York Times points out, this is a big shift from previous conventional wisdom, which was that babies should be spoken to in English at all times to ensure that their English proficiency developed normally. But does having a bilingual babysitter really help kids become smarter?

Not necessarily, says Ellen Bialystok,  a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto. Ms. Bialystock told the New York Times:

“It doesn’t make kids smarter. There are documented cognitive developments,but whatever smarter means, it isn’t true.”

In fact, raising a truly bilingual child can even delay the rate at which they talk and begin to acquire language skills, although they tend to catch up to their peers are they get older. Bilingual children also tend to be better at solving certain types of problems requiring flexible thinking, and of course they also tend to pick up additional languages easily.  Plus, in today’s multicultural world, being able to speak more than one language has advantages of its own.

However, Ms. Bialystock questioned the benefit of hiring a nanny or babysitter to help a child grow up speaking more than one language. She told the New York Times:

“It’s an interesting solution; it gives young children a consistent exposure. But how long will the nanny be around, and who else will the child use that language with?”

Lack of Translated Documents a Problem for International Travelers

Generally speaking, it’s never a good idea to sign something you can’t read. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for international travelers to be asked to do just that, and it’s something that can definitely come back and haunt you later.

For example, the Houston Chronicle interviewed Haroldy Woods, a Texas flight attendant whose travel agent advised her to purchase a Deutsche BahnCard to save money on a train ticket. Woods bought the card because she trusted the travel agent, but she couldn’t read the application, which was all in German. So, she didn’t realize that the membership would automatically renew unless she canceled it. Three years later, a collection agency came calling for her unpaid membership dues.

Woods called the situation “such an injustice,” telling the Chronicle:

“The agent never mentioned any recurring charges or annual renewal fees, and I couldn’t read the application in German.”

What can you do to avoid having this happen to you? The obvious answer is to simply not sign anything without a translation, but that’s not always an option. For example, the Chronicle interviewed another woman who watched as TAM Airlines made her friend sign a “declaration of responsibilities” contract in Portuguese, which her friend could not read. The only alternative to not signing it would have been to miss the flight.

In some cases, modern technology may be able to help. For example, if you have a digital copy of the document and an Internet connection, tools like Google Translate can give you the “gist” of a document.  Remember, though, that machine translation is in its infancy still, so don’t expect it to be entirely accurate. If you have a smart phone, there are also a few apps that can provide similarly shaky translations.

Of course, if you are in the position of providing information to non native speakers, you can ensure you have translated documents on hand to protect your customers against these sort of issues.

English-speaking Australian Required to Take English Test To Work as a Nurse

On the surface, new Australian regulations requiring all foreign nurses to pass an English proficiency test before they begin working sound like a great idea. After all, communication breakdowns between nurses and doctors or nurses and patients can have devastating consequences. However, for Gerard Kellett, the testing requirement has proved to be an unnecessary burden.

According to this article, Kellett is a native English speaker who was born in Singapore to English-speaking parents. He is an Australian citizen and has lived in the country for 17 years. However, when Mr. Kellett tried to become a registered nurse after graduating, he received a letter from Australia’s Health Practitioner Regulation Agency which read in part:

“As you have not completed both your secondary education and nursing/midwifery education program in Australia, you are required to demonstrate English language competence. If you are unable to meet AHPRA’s English language requirements within three months . . . your application will be withdrawn.”

Mr. Kellett went to high school in Northern Ireland, which would explain the letter and the testing requirement except for the fact that English is also spoken in Northern Ireland.  Of course, there are differences in the way the language is spoken in each country, but given that Mr. Kellett has been living in Australia for the better part of two decades, surely he’s picked up on those.

Ultimately, Mr. Kellett had to fork over $535 to take the test. Results are not expected in for another 2 months, and until then he can’t work.

Still, his situation is better than that of many newly graduated nurses because he does have Australian citizenship.  According to this article on The Courier website,  foreign nurses who just graduated were not informed of the new requirements in time to allow them to take the test before they graduated. Now, they are stuck in Australia on tourist visas, unable to work at all.

Guernsey Language Expert Marie de Garis Dies At Age 100

The BBC has announced that Marie de Garis, an expert on the Guernsey language and culture, passed away on Tuesday, a little over a month after she reached her 100th birthday.  According to the BBC’s obituary:

“Mrs de Garis was highly respected as one of the leading authorities on the Guernsey French language, her knowledge of the island and its language has been described as encyclopedic and she took the greatest of pleasure in passing on her knowledge, especially to the young.”

She was the author of 5 books on local Guernsey history and folklore, including the most recent Guernsey/English dictionary, the Dictiounnaire Angllais-Guernésiais. Guernsey French, also known as Guernésiais, is a Norman language, closely related to French but also heavily influenced by Norse and English. UNESCO lists the language as “severely endangered.” According to Wikipedia, only 1,327 people, or about 2% of the people living on Guernsey, can still speak it. 70% of Guernsey-speakers are over the age of 64, and only 1 in 1,000 young people can understand it. Most people on the island speak English now, with standard French the most popular choice for a second language.

The slow decline of the Guernsey language is what inspired Mrs. de Garis to write the Dictiounnaire Angllais-Guernésiais. In a BBC article written earlier this year to mark her 100th birthday, she explained:

“My grandmother and her friends were always bemoaning the fact that Guernsey French was on the decrease and I thought when I’m grown up I’m going to write a list of all the Guernsey French words I know so they won’t be lost. It’s not finished yet, I still find words and add them to my own copy of the dictionary… my son and Bill Galliene are writing a new edition.”

Native Americans Gather for Plains Indian Sign Language Conference

From August 12th to August 15th, Native Americans from several different Plains Indian tribes will gather at the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana to create a record of a language that is rapidly going extinct: Plains Indian Sign Language, also known as “hand talk.”  Although today it is used by only a few deaf Native Americans, before Europeans arrived in America it was widely used by both the deaf and hearing alike, and was the primary form of communication between tribes that did not share a language. It was also used for story-telling and rituals.

Over time, use of the language declined, replaced by spoken English for hearing tribe members and American Sign Language for deaf children.  According to Wikipedia, in 1885 over 110,000 Native Americans used the language regularly. Now, nobody is even sure how many people understand it, just that the number is tiny. According to the Billings Gazette, conference organizers hope that about 30 sign-talkers will attend the conference.

Ron Garritson, a sign talker who helped do fieldwork for the conference, told the Billings Gazette:

“Being able to carry on a fluent conversation, you’re running pretty short on who can do it. Most were either deaf or had grandparents who were deaf, and they learned the sign talk that way.”

The conference will bring together fluent Plains Indian signers for  the first time in 80 years. The last gathering of Plains Indian sign-talkers was in 1930. Tribal elders were filmed telling stories in hand talk, while a narrator translated the signs into spoken English. The focus of this conference will be on using the language to communicate, but of course linguists and anthropologists will be on hand to record participants signing and create a more complete record of this vanishing language.

Mounties and Google Translate

British Colombian Mounties Remove Google Translate From Website

The debate over machine-produced versus human translation took the British Colombian division of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police by surprise, according to an article in the Vancouver Sun. The BC Mounties were providing French translations of their press releases via Google Translate. However, after a recent, highly critical report from Radio-Canada sparked controversy, they will no longer offer Google Translate to translate press releases from French to English.

Here’s the unfortunate thing-since the British Colombian division of the RCMP does not have enough translators on staff, disabling the Google Translate option isn’t going to improve service to their French-speaking users. In fact, it will have quite the opposite effect, at least until a new translator is hired. The Google-provided translations were no doubt imperfect and clunky. They almost always are. However, they were generated instantly. Readers also had the option to request a human-translated version to be emailed to them, although that could take up to a month.

Technically, that doesn’t meet the requirements of the  Official Languages Act, which requires Canadian government agencies to communicate with citizens in both French and English. RCMP spokesman Insp. Tim Shields acknowledged as much in the Vancouver Sun. However, the practice at least allowed French speakers to get the gist of a press release without delays.

Now, as the RCMP tries to find another translator, the website will only offer French-speaking visitors the option to request a translation via email. Visitors who speak other languages will still be able to use Google Translate, as will French-speaking visitors with enough web savvy to cut and paste the release into Google Translate themselves.

At this time, human translation is more accurate than machine translation, and Francophone Canadians have a right to translations that are  both correct and provided in a timely manner. Until the RCMP gets another French translator, though, it seems a little silly to remove the Google Translate option.

Crowd-Sourced Translation Goes Awry For Facebook

Facebook’s crowd-sourced translation app has helped the company translate Facebook into over 100 different languages quickly and cheaply. However, the company (and many of its users) just discovered one of the downsides of crowd-sourcing- vulnerability to online pranksters.

The problem was discovered on July 28th, when Spanish and Turkish-speaking Facebook users logged on to find their pages filled with profanity in both English and Spanish. For example, according to this article on The Register, the Turkish version of Facebook’s IM error message, which is supposed to read “Your message could not be sent because the recipient is offline,” was changed to say “ “Your message could not be sent because of your tiny penis.” That’s pretty much the only example that’s even printable.

Why did Facebook suddenly start cursing at its users?  Facebook’s translation app depends on users to vote for the most accurate translations for each piece of text. That works great, as long as the people are voting are honestly trying to be helpful. Unfortunately for Facebook, members of a Turkish online forum called Inci Sözlük worked together to create the profane “translations” and vote them up. This vulnerability is inherent in any sort of crowd-sourcing unless precautions are taken. For example, when young Canadian pop star Justin Bieber tried to “crowd-source” a stop on his world tour, his contest was hijacked by the internet pranksters at 4chan, who promptly voted to send him to North Korea.

Rik Ferguson, a security consultant at Trend Micro, told the Register that this prank should serve  as “teachable moment,” both for Facebook and for other companies that use crowd-sourcing:

“Perhaps it is fortunate that the hole has been exposed through a prank in the first instance and not something more nefarious. Any online service, whether it’s translation or reputation services, which solicits user generated content would be well advised to quality check that content before going live with it.”

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