Google Translate: Now in Esperanto

Google Translate now comes in 64 flavors. The latest addition to the family is Esperanto. Google announced the news in a blog post last week.

Of course, the obvious question inspired by the announcement is, “Why Esperanto?” After all, it’s not the official language of any country, very few children grow up speaking it, and nobody speaks it exclusively.

If you’re unfamiliar with the language, here’s some background. Esperanto is a constructed language developed in the late 19th century by L.L Zamenhoff. It was designed to be easy to learn, combining and incorporating different aspects of various Indo-European languages.

According to Zamenhoff’s personal letters, the creation of Esperanto was a dream that he had nurtured since he was a child:

“The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles. In Bialystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies. In such a town a sensitive nature feels more acutely than elsewhere the misery caused by language division and sees at every step that the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies.”

The desire to unite people around the world across language barriers was what inspired him to create Esperanto, and is also what inspired Google to add Esperanto to its machine translation repertoire.

Interestingly, the same characteristics that make Esperanto easy for humans to learn also made it easy for Google Translate to pick up. The Google Translate team explained on their blog:

“As we know from many experiments, more training data (which in our case means more existing translations) tends to yield better translations. For Esperanto, the number of existing translations is comparatively small. German or Spanish, for example, have more than 100 times the data; other languages on which we focus our research efforts have similar amounts of data as Esperanto but don’t achieve comparable quality yet.”

Practically speaking, though, nobody is sure exactly how many people actually speak Esperanto. Per Wikipedia, estimates range from 10,000 to 2,000,000. The underlying idea behind Esperanto is commendable, but it’s still a relatively small linguistic niche.

If you’re trying to reach customers on a global basis, other languages would be probably be a better choice to focus on at first. And remember- a skilled human translator will get you much better results than Google Translate’s admittedly less-than-high quality translations!

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Can You Count Without Numbers?

Even if you’re not a “math person,” counting seems like a such a basic skill that it’s almost instinctive. But is it, really? Could you count without having words for numbers?

This has been a subject of much debate within the linguistic community, as a few indigenous groups speak languages without words for numbers.  Do people who grow up in these cultures have the ability to count without numbers? A recent study of an Amazonian tribe called the Pirahã suggests that the ability to count (and to perform tasks based on counting) is indeed dependent on language.

The Pirahã speak an unusual language, the last survivor of the Mura language family. It is at once one of the world’s simplest languages, with the fewest phonemes and the fewest consonants, and one of the most complex.  In a feature article for the New Yorker, writer John Colapinto explains that “it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations.”

One distinctive feature of the language is that there are no words for numbers, only for “a small amount,”  a “larger amount” and “a lot.” As linguist Caleb Everett, who has worked with the Piraha for years, explained to Science Daily,

“The Pirahã is a really fascinating group because they are really only one or two groups in the world that are totally anumeric. This is maybe one of the most extreme cases of language actually restricting how people think.”

But does their language actually restrict how they think? Can they perform tasks that require you to count without having a word for each specific number, or even for the concept of counting?  Earlier research was inconclusive, with some studies showing that the Pirahã performed normally at these tasks, and others showing the opposite.

In an attempt to clear the matter up, Everett repeated the earlier tests. He found that the Pirahã were unable to consistently perform tasks involving counting.  In earlier studies where they were able to perform the tests, the test subjects had actually worked with an American missionary, Keren Madora, who had used the Pirahã language to introduce words for numbers. So, it seems that in order to perceive specific quantities accurately, you first have to have the vocabulary to do so.

Interestingly, an earlier study on Aboriginal children in Australia found that children born into cultures without numerical systems could perform counting-dependent tasks as well as English-speaking children. However, unlike Piraha, these languages all had words for “one,” “two,” “few” and “many.” Perhaps it’s enough for the language to contain some acknowledgement of the concept of counting?

One important thing to understand about this research: it’s not that the Piraha can’t count-it’s that they have no concept of counting unless it is introduced by a foreigner, as in the case of the villagers taught by Keren Madora.  As Everett noted in Science Daily, “When they’ve been introduced to those words, their performance improved, so it’s clearly a linguistic effect, rather than a generally cultural factor.”

Isn’t it interesting how much the language we speak can influence how we see the world?

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Does Texting Limit Your Vocabulary?

The popularity of texting may have expanded the English language with abbreviations like “LOL” and “ROFL,” but is it actually limiting our vocabulary? Research conducted by Joan Lee, a linguistics student at the University of Calgary in Canada suggest that it might be.

The abbreviations used in text messages irritate language curmudgeons to no end, so Ms. Lee assumed that people who texted frequently were linguistic iconoclasts, willing to make up new words on the fly. As she told the Calgary Herald:

“I had a hypothesis that because there are a lot of acronyms and novelties in texting language, that people who texted more would be more flexible or casual about what they considered acceptable.”

To test this hypothesis, she rounded up some college students and gave them a questionnaire to gauge how much texting they did. Then, she presented them with a mix of real and made-up words to test how accepting they were of words they had not encountered before. As she explained, the results defied her expectations:

“People who texted accepted fewer words while people who read traditional media accepted more words. People who read more traditional print media were generally more accepting of real words and fictitious words.”

Why is that? According to Lee, people who text more may tend to read less. Reading exposes you to many different types of language and expands your vocabulary, which makes it easier to accept new words. As she put it,

“Exposure to print media gives people exposure to more variety of words, or difficult words, which may be helping people who read more frequently to interpret words they’ve never seen before. People who are texting more may not be getting that exposure to all that variety.”

Texting may seem like a secret language to people who aren’t familiar with it, but it’s not. The purpose of that jumble of acronyms and abbreviations is not to create new words, but rather to more efficiently communicate words that already exist. Or, as Lee explained to Psych Central , “Textisms represent real words which are commonly known among people who text.”

Should we be concerned about this? Possibly. Remember, it’s normal and healthy for a language to change over time. If it were not, we’d all still be talking like this:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

That’s the first bit of the prologue of Beowulf, in Old English.

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International Mother Language Day Celebrated Around the World

Tuesday was International Mother Language Day, a worldwide holiday that celebrates and promotes linguistic diversity. The holiday was established and promoted by UNESCO starting in 2000, with the goal of supporting and protecting threatened languages. It is estimated that more than half of the languages currently spoken around the world will be around for a few more generations, at most. International Mother Language Day is a holiday for those of us who want to turn the tide back.

In honor of the holiday, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova released an official statement affirming the importance of promoting linguistic diversity around the world:

“The language of our thoughts and our emotions is our most valuable asset. Multilingualism is our ally in ensuring quality education for all, in promoting inclusion and in combating discrimination. Building genuine dialogue is premised on respect for languages. Each representation of a better life, each development goal is expressed in a language, with specific words to bring it to life and communicate it. Languages are who we are; by protecting them, we protect ourselves.”

This year, UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day observances focused on linguistic diversity in education, and on allowing children to educated in their native language first:

“Excluded population groups, such as indigenous peoples, are often those whose mother tongues are ignored by education systems. Allowing them to learn from a very early age in their mother tongue, and then in national, official or other languages, promotes equality and social inclusion.”

Celebrations were also held by local communities all across the world. For example, in Pakistan , language activists held a seminar to call for reforms in government and education that would promote linguistic diversity by “making every tongue a mother tongue.” In Bangladesh, an event was held to give 3-year-olds their first taste of the Bangla alphabet. In Armenia , top Armenian language and literature teachers were given medals by the government for their efforts to promote the Armenian language.

Closer to home, children in London celebrated International Mother Language Day and by performing plays, dances and songs from other cultures. Finally, in the tech world, Microsoft celebrated the holiday by adding the Hmong Daw language to Bing’s translation repertoire.


Translation Reveals Depth of Egyptian Medical Knowledge

Hippocrates may be revered as the “father of medicine,” but the ancient Egyptians deserve much of the credit.

After assisting in the translation of a 16th-17th Dynasty Egyptian papyrus, Dr. Gonzalo M. Sanchez was “blown away” by how modern much of the content seemed. As he told the Pierre Capital Journal, when it came to trauma, the almost 4,000-year-old papyrus ” was telling me exactly the same thing to look for that I was going down to the Bellevue Hospital Emergency Room and seeing.”

The document in question, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, is an ancient medical textbook that dates back to around 1500 BCE. Unlike most of the other surviving Egyptian medical texts, it focuses mainly on practical healthcare matters as opposed to magic. Though there is no author, some of the original material may have been written centuries earlier by Imhotep, who was a great Egyptian doctor and the architect behind the first pyramid.

Dr. Sanchez provided medical commentary for the latest translation of this document, called the “The Edwin Smith Papyrus: Updated Translation of the Trauma Treatise and Modern Medical Commentaries.” The new translation also benefits from a more up-to-date understanding of ancient Egypt and of the Egyptian hieratic script, courtesy of Egyptologist Edmund S. Meltzer.

In the Pierre Capital Journal, Dr. Sanchez explained how working on the medical translation increased his appreciation for the medical expertise of the ancient Egyptians:

“What we attribute to Hippocrates, of establishing a method to study patients, is here. And it’s here way before him. The major merit is not that they could do brain surgery and build computers,” he said. “They couldn’t do that. The major benefit of Egyptian medicine is that they established a system to study the patient and to document things for further advancement and teaching. That is the contribution.”

That shouldn’t be surprising, really. Even in ancient Greece, Egyptian doctors commanded the utmost respect. In the Odyssey, Homer states that “In Egypt, the men are more skilled in medicine than any of human kind. ” Hippocrates himself trained in the Egyptian temple of Amenhotep.

Alice Learns a New Language

Her French skills may have been notoriously poor, but Alice, of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” fame, just learned a new language: Jèrriais.

Jèrriais is also known as Jersey French and is spoken only on the island of Jersey. The story of a little girl falling through a rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy world has long been a favorite of children all over the world. It’s already been translated into at least 97 languages, and as of this month, children in Jersey now have a version to call their own.

According to the BBC, Jèrriais author Geraint Jennings initially began translating the original book into the Jèrriais language as a side project, just for fun. Everytype, a publishing company that specializes in minority languages, found out about the project and requested a complete translation.

The island of Jersey has a long-standing literary tradition that goes back to the twelfth-century poet Wace. However, little early literature has survived the ages, and the language itself has been largely replaced by English. UNESCO classifies is as “severely endangered.”

These days, Jersey children grow up speaking English, though they may study Jèrriais in school as part of a program to revitalize it. This new translation gives them a little bit of an extra incentive to learn the language of their ancestors. Not only has the story been translated, it has been adapted so that Alice is from Jersey instead of England. Many other aspects of the story have been localised as well. For example, when Alice encounters a mouse after falling down the rabbit hole, she assumes it is a French mouse that arrived in England with William the Conqueror. For the Jèrriais translation, Jennings changed the scene somewhat to use local history instead.

He told the BBC,

“[Alice] is familiar with the Battle of Jersey in this version as it would make no sense when she meets the mouse in her lake of tears for her to imagine he speaks French and for him to have come over with William the Conqueror. As we know, William the Conqueror didn’t speak French, he was a Norman, so I make it that she knows the mouse as a French mouse who came over for the Battle of Jersey.”

The title also had to be tweaked to accommodate the local dialect. Jèrriais is closely related to French, and the French translation of the title is “Alice in the Land of Wonders.” In Jersey, however, “wonder” essentially means “donut.” Alice in Donutland, anyone?

Here’s how he handled the translation:

“I wanted to make it sound more like a country, so used Emervil’lie, which is a verbal noun that could translate as a state of wonderment. You could translate it as Alice in a state of wonderment or Alice in a wondering or Alice in a country which happens to be wonderland.”

All in all, this translation should make for interesting reading for anyone who speaks Jèrriais.

Cost of NHS Translation

The National Health Service is currently catching some flak for the costs of its interpreting and NHS translation services. As the BBC reports, a group called 2020Health made a Freedom of Information request to determine the cost of these services to the NHS, and found that last year’s bill came to over £23m.

Julia ManningSpeaking to the BBC, 2020Health CEO Julia Manning condemned the costs as excessive, saying:

“The costs involved are truly staggering in an age of austerity. Urgent action must be taken by trusts to stem the flow of translation costs. The most glaring problem is that NHS trusts translate their own material rather than have access to a central pool of translated documents.”

Most bureaucratic systems can be improved, and the NHS is no exception. The 2020Health report offers some good suggestions for cutting costs. For example, the think tank suggests that the NHS create a centralised database of translated documents, so that different trusts have access to each other’s materials and don’t need to order new translations from scratch to convey information that was already translated into the same language at another location. The group also suggests that NHS trusts use standardized procedures to break down and track where the money being spent on translation is going.

In its report, though, even 2020Health admits that translation services are necessary, saying

In order to avoid cuts to services, the NHS is currently looking to make a 20% savings through service redesign. Whilst it might be tempting to cut costs by simply reducing spend on translation services, this is not necessarily the most effective or economical solution.

Healthcare is one of those situations in which accurate translations are much more than just a nicety. Being able to communicate effectively with patients is absolutely crucial to their health and well-being. That’s why some of the recommendations in the report, while undoubtedly well-intentioned, have the potential to do more harm than good.

For example, the report recommends switching as much as possible from human translators to machine translation services like Google Translate. These tools are great for getting the gist of a document, but they often produce translations that are at best awkward and at worst misleading or incoherent. We’ve reported many times on this blog about the dangers of using Google Translate (other online translation tools are available) so we’d say its dangerous when you’re communicating about something as important as someone’s health.

The report also criticises NHS translations for “perpetuat[ing] a system in which [non-English speaking patients] are ostracised from the majority of the English-speaking public.”

Of course, newcomers should be encouraged to learn English. However, when providing medical care, the primary consideration should be getting the patient the information and the help they need, not “encouraging” them to improve their English skills by conveying information to them in a language they don’t adequately understand.


Translation by Siri

Siri may have difficulty understanding English when it is spoken in a Scottish accent, but Apple’s virtual personal assistant now has another trick up her sleeve: translation.

A team of developers recently introduced an app called Lingual, which turns Siri into your own personal translator, allowing your iPhone to translate spoken words and phrases into 30 different languages. All you have to do is ask Siri “How do you say “_____” in “_____?” and a translation will appear on your screen in the language of your choice.

Before you venture off to another country with your iPhone in hand, though, there are a few drawbacks to consider. The first, as reported by The Verge, is the simple fact that Lingual’s translation capabilities are far from perfect.

“We installed the tweak and can report that it works flawlessly, quickly pulling in results using Microsoft’s Bing Translate API as a backend. Its only limitation is that backend, which isn’t as strong as Google’s offering, and regularly fails to correctly translate phrases.”

Poor translation is a pretty big limitation, isn’t it? Google Translate has issues enough, so you may want to think twice before relying on this app as your sole means of communication.

Another potential issue: in order to use Lingual, you must jailbreak your iPhone if you haven’t done so already. Not that big of a deal, but it does make installation a bit more complicated than simply firing up the app store and downloading it.

Finally, if you are travelling, you may be charged extra for using data while roaming. That means that you may end up paying an arm and a leg for Lingual’s translation services when you get back home – not a good way to end a vacation! It’s not as flashy, but you might be better served by downloading a translation application that is stored on your phone and doesn’t require access to your carrier’s data network.

5 Secrets to Learning a New Language

Learning a new language is a fairly common goal, but it can be difficult to accomplish. To help you gain proficiency in the language of your choice, we’ve rounded up the following language learning tips and secrets from real people across the web:

Just Do It (Talking, that Is)

Benny Lewis, who speaks 8 languages fluently and runs the “Fluent in 3 Months” blog, offers this simple tip for beginning language learners as the core of his “Speak from Day One” language learning course: “You just need to speak it. Speak it regularly, speak it confidently, and speak it immediately. The more you speak, the quicker you will improve.”

This is easier said than done, of course. You have to be willing to sound like an idiot. That’s why immersing yourself by traveling to a country where that language is primary is so effective: speaking from personal experience, the only thing worse than having a cashier at an Italian market give you the stink-eye while you try to ask to use the telephone is being stranded at said market because you can’t call your ride. Being in another country forces you to get over your awkwardness and social anxiety.

Even if you can’t travel, though, it’s easy to put this tip into practice. Just find a native speaker, and check your dignity at the door.

Actively Watch Movies

When Lifehacker writer John Smith was learning Spanish, he enhanced his skills by actively watching movies in Spanish-at first with English subtitles, then with Spanish subtitles, and finally with no subtitles at all. He explains his process here. The advantage is that it gives you a “chance to hear a more diverse set of voices saying the same things, and all the while it is reinforcing the basics of the language, the bread and butter phrases that are used the most.”

Know Thyself

Michael Erard, the author of a book on “hyperpolyglots” (people who speak many languages), recently told Time Magazine that one thing the hyperpolygots he interviewed had in common was that “they know how they learn, so they don’t waste time with methods that don’t work for them. An example would be knowing that social interaction is a problem and saying, ‘I’m going to spend time with texts.”

Persistence Pays Off

Another common characteristic of hyperpolyglots? Per Michael Erard, “they don’t give up.” Trying to pick up a new language can make your brain ache, especially if it’s not closely related to the language you already use. Keep trying until it “clicks.”

Learn Passively

This tip also comes from Lifehacker: Modify the environment around you so that it helps you learn your new language passively. That means labeling as many of the objects in your house and office as possible, and also changing the settings on your computer and your phone to make them speak the language you’re learning.

Do you have any other tips that make it easier to learn a new language? Share them in the comments!

Image source: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by j3net

Translating the Language of Flowers

Today is Valentine’s Day, and that means that florists around the globe are rejoicing in their increased sales. These days, giving flowers to a woman simply shows that you care about her, but the roots of this tradition are far more complex. Centuries ago, exchanging flowers was a way for men and women to speak in code, expressing emotions that would have been socially unacceptable to voice any other way. Each flower had its own meaning, and different flowers could be combined to make more complex “sentences.”

As you shop for flowers this year, consider what your bouquet would say in this old-fashioned “language.” Here are the hidden meanings behind some common blossoms:

Red rose: True love, passion

White rose: Eternal love, innocence, secrecy, “I’m worthy of you.”

Yellow Rose: This is a mixed bag, with potential meanings that run the gamut from “true love” and “friendship” to “jealousy” or “I cheated. I’m sorry.”

Tulips: Red tulips are a declaration of love. Despite their sunny appearance, yellow tulips indicate “hopeless love.”

Sunflower: Appreciation, pride or “pure and lofty thoughts.”

Daisies: Innocence, loyalty, or a promise of silence.

Carnations: A striped carnation was traditionally used to turn down a suitor, while a solid colour was used to say “Yes” to an offer of romance.

White Lily: Purity (are you sensing a pattern here?)

Orange Lily: Careful with this one: Wikipedia (and most other sources) says “desire,” while this guide from Texas A & M says “hatred.”

Orchid: You are a refined beauty.

Hydrangea: You are frigid and/or heartless.

Gardenia: “You are lovely,” or to declare a secret love.

Lest you think this is a lost art, The Daily Mirror reported that Kate Middleton used the “language of flowers” to create her bridal bouquet: “lilac to indicate first love, solomon’s seal for confirmation of love, blossoms for spiritual beauty and beech for prosperity.”

Image source: Attribution Some rights reserved by jimw

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