To Speak Like a Native, Learn Like One

Want to speak a new language like a native? Your best bet may be to forgo classroom lessons in favor of immersion (if possible). That, at least, is the conclusion that a group of researchers from Georgetown University Medical Center came to after reviewing results from a recent study that used brain scans to peek into the heads of language learners.

If you’ve studied a foreign language, you might remember being told to try to think in the new language rather than to think in English and then translate. This is still good advice, and the study shows that is definitely possible for students to begin “thinking” in the new language. Georgetown University Medical Center neuroscience professor Michael Ullman explains:

“In the last few years, research has begun to suggest that adults learning a foreign language can come to rely on the same brain mechanisms as native speakers of a language, and that this might be true even for those parts of a foreign language that are particularly difficult to learn, such as its grammar. We confirmed this in our studies.”

When it comes to foreign languages, do we learn best by explanation or by example? You might think that an explanation of the language’s underlying grammatical structure would be helpful, but this study implied it’s not so. To test, the researchers created a very simple language and taught it to the students both ways. Then, they scanned the subjects’ brains while they used their new language skills. According to Ullman,

“Only the immersion training led to full native-like brain processing of grammar. So if you learn a language you can come to use native language brain processes, but you may need immersion rather than classroom exposure.”

The researchers also found that the people taught in a classroom setting got better at “thinking like a native speaker” after a few months, even though they hadn’t been using the language. Still, those who learned the language via immersion still had an edge.

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A Moment in the Sun for the Pirahã Language

The Pirahã language is spoken by only about seven hundred people, members of a tribe living deep in the Amazonian jungle. However, the language has long been the focus of an ongoing academic controversy. This year, the release of a new book by Dr. Daniel Everett, one of the few outsiders who can speak Pirahã, as well as a documentary about his work are set to bring the debate to a head and give this unusual, unknown language a moment in the sun.

What makes Pirahã so unique and controversial? If Dr. Everett is correct, the language lacks many standard features, like words for numbers. Most importantly, according to Everett the language lacks what’s known as “recursion,” the ability to embed clauses into other clauses. An example of recursion would be a sentence like “Mama said that grandma used to say that life was like a box of chocolates.”

As the Chronicle of Higher Education notes, in 2002 Noam Chomsky (whom you might call the reigning king of linguistics) co-wrote a paper that called recursion the “only uniquely human component of the faculty of language.”

The key question here is simple: how much does culture influence language? Everett believes that the Piraha lack this linguistic feature because they live so much in the present that they quite simply have no need of it. Their culture doesn’t require it. Chomsky, on the other hand, believes that all human languages have a Universal Grammar, a set of innate characteristics that are hard-wired into the human brain independently of culture. And if recursion is one of the innate key features of human language, and the Piraha don’t have recursion…well, either the recursion is there and Everett is missing it, or Chomsky’s 2002 assertion about recursion is incorrect.

And that means it’s time to get out the popcorn, because while linguistics is generally perceived to be a dry, academic field, there’s actually all sorts of drama going on behind the scenes. The Chronicle of Higher Education calls linguists “uncommonly hostile. The word “brutal” comes up again and again, as do “spiteful,” “ridiculous,” and “childish.””

As of right now, one study of the Piraha language from a research team at M.I.T has found “suggestive evidence that Pirahã may have sentences with recursive structures.” So, Everett may indeed be wrong. But if nothing else, this controversy (and the attempt to bring it to the masses via the documentary) should prompt a moment of appreciation for how unique and varied human languages are, as well as highlighting the importance of preserving the ones that are threatened.

Microsoft Releases Online Hmong Translator

In February, Microsoft announced that they had added Hmong to the list of languages translated by their search engine, Bing.  Last week, Microsoft announced the release of a new, free online Hmong/English translator for smart phones, chats and websites. What’s with the focus on Hmong? It’s actually part of an initiative to help preserve the language within the Hmong community in the US.

The Hmong currently living in the US are mainly refugees from the Indochina Wars, as many Hmong sided with America in both Vietnam and in the “Secret War” in Laos. In the US, they are safe from the persecution they faced in their homeland, but their culture is at risk as their children often neglect Hmong in favor of speaking only English.

As Microsoft program manager Will Lewis explained to Business Week,

“All these years, the language has been preserved, despite efforts to eradicate it. Now, the irony is that in the United States, a country where they’re free to speak it, the thing that never happened in Hmong history is happening; some children are not learning Hmong.”

So, Hmong community leaders decided to partner with Microsoft to bring the language to the place kids spend most of their time these days: the Internet. Though the online translator will also help older Hmong refugees who can’t speak English, the big hope is that it will also help keep the language relevant for the younger generation. As Fresno State University outreach counselor Phong Yang told a local news affiliate, “Without language, a culture will disappear.”

Also, the technology used to create the translator holds the promise of being able to do the same thing for the thousands of other threatened minority languages scattered across the globe. Using dictionary entries and documents in both the original language and English, the program is able to “learn” what words are likely to mean by using context clues.

Learning the language of their grandparents along with English allows kids to take pride in their heritage. Need proof? The Business Week article quotes US-born Joshua Lor. As a young boy, Lor told his mother that he didn’t want to be Hmong any more. Lor said that learning the language was key to changing that perspective:

“My grandpa told me stories about the Hmong, about how he served in the war, and how they moved from Laos to Thailand to America. The language opened my eyes to the history of Hmong culture. It’s exciting that the translator can help kids do that.”

Hmong is actually a macrolanguage with numerous closely-related dialects. Currently, the translator only works with Hmong White, though the team is working on one for Hmong Green, the other major dialect spoken by Hmong in the United States.

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Kraft’s Translation Fail

Over the summer, packaged food brand Kraft announced plans to split itself up into two different companies: an American company and a global snack food division.

This week, they issued a press release announcing the new name they’d chosen for the global snack food division: Mondelez International, Inc.

Monde-WHAT? The press release explains:

“Mondelez” (pronounced mohn-dah-LEEZ’) is a newly coined word that evokes the idea of “delicious world.” “Monde” derives from the Latin word for “world,” and “delez” is a fanciful expression of “delicious.” In addition, “International” captures the global nature of the business.”

Higher-ups at Kraft were quite pleased with the name, which was inspired by employee suggestions. The press release is chock full of gushing praise from executive-level management, as per below:

“It’s quite a job for a single word to capture everything about what we want the new global snacks company to stand for,” said Mary Beth West, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer. “I’m thrilled with the name Mondelez International. It’s interesting, unique and captures a big idea – just the way the snacks we make can take small moments in our lives and turn them into something bigger, brighter and more joyful.”

Unfortunately for Kraft, if you’re Russian, the new business name is more likely to suggest “oral sex” than it is to suggest a “delicious world.”

Crain’s Chicago Business, after being tipped off to the possible double-entendre by a reader, talked to Irwin Weil, professor of Russian language, literature and music at Northwestern University. Professor Weil confirmed:

“There is a rather vulgar word, ‘manda.’ (Mondelez) includes the sound of that word,” he said, adding that Kraft “had no idea when pronounced it means a Russian vulgar word.” The second half of the name roughly translates into the sex act, say Russian speakers.

“Manda” is a quite vulgar way to refer to a woman’s genitalia. This translation fail probably embarrassed the corporate suits who signed off on the name, but it’s thrilled bloggers and business reporters alike. Two of the most clever headlines:

Kraft No Cunning Linguists In Russia When It Comes To New Snack Brand Name (
Kraft’s Name Brings New Meaning to Snacking in Russia (Ad Age)

The truth is, it’s difficult to come up with one brand name that translates well everywhere. There’s always the chance that what works in one language could have a less-than-flattering translation in another. Kraft told Ad Age that they “did extensive due diligence in testing the name” and found that possible misinterpretations were “low risk.”

In Kraft’s defense, while Business Insider noted that Russian speakers in its office didn’t immediately think of the profanity when they saw the word, “once someone points it out and you think about it, it could be interpreted that way.”

Unfortunately for Kraft, “low risk” is not “no risk.” As large of a brand as Kraft is, they should have known someone would pick up on one of those “low risk” misinterpretations and that it would end up all over the Internet in just a few short days.

And once the similarity has been pointed out, it could be difficult to dissociate the brand from it. If shareholders approve the new name at their meeting in May, millions of Russians may never be able to look at Cadbury chocolates, Cheez Wiz, etc. the same way again.


Microsoft Translation System Lets You Speak 26 Languages

Attempts at creating a “universal translator” are getting ever-closer to the science fiction that inspired them, as Microsoft’s latest translation demonstration makes clear. Earlier this month, the tech giant took the opportunity provided by TechFest 2012 to show off its newest invention: translation software that lets you “speak” any one of 26 different languages, all in your own voice.

Although it goes by the unassuming name of Monolingual TTS, there’s nothing unassuming about its capabilities. After about an hour of “training,” the software learns your voice. Once that’s done, it can translate anything you say into one of the 26 languages it knows, using a digitally animated version of your own head and a digitally simulated version of your voice. The result is about two parts awesome, one part creepy, as you can see in the video demonstration below:


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Still, it’s undeniably useful. For example, if you’re travelling and you need to communicate with someone in another country, all you have to do is speak what you want to say, and the software will repeat it for you in the correct language.

In an article on, Microsoft researcher Frank Soong said that other applications could include translating GPS directions and helping language learners work on their pronunciation.

Why read back the translations in your own voice? University of Southern California professor Shrikant Narayanan told Technology Review that words are just one part of how we communicate through speech:

“The word is just one part of what a person is saying. Preserving voice, preserving intonation, those things matter, and this project clearly knows that. Our systems need to capture the expression a person is trying to convey, who they are, and how they’re saying it.”

Of course, this system doesn’t do that entirely. It can capture someone’s pitch and intonation fairly well, with just a slight digital edge. But it doesn’t seem like it would be able to capture the emotions behind the words, yet. The truth is, there’s usually more to translating than meets the ear, so to speak. Machine translation can be helpful if there’s no other way to communicate, but the best way to preserve the meaning that you’re trying to get across is still to use a human translator who is familiar with both cultures.

An Irish Translation of "The Hobbit"

Irish-speaking Tolkien fans, rejoice! A special edition of The Hobbit is due out this month — translated entirely into Irish!

The Irish version of Tolkien’s classic tale is being published by Evertype Publishers, a small publishing company owned by Michael Everson which specializes in minority language translations, specialty fonts and typesetting. Here are some details of the release, courtesy of The Independent:

  • The book will cost €39.95 for the hardcover edition, which is all that will be available at first. The publisher does plan to release a cheaper paperback version later on.
  • When it’s first released, it will be available only on the publisher’s website, Eventually, you’ll also be able to order a copy from Amazon.
  • Only 18 copies will be printed initially, with additional copies printed “on demand” as orders are placed.
  • The book is due to be released on the 25th of March.

Translating The Hobbit into Irish proved to be a quest in and of itself. In The Independent, Everson said he argued with the translator, Nicholas Williams, for “for about five years on what to call the elves.”  Another challenge was finding appropriate translations for Tolkien’s lyrical, evocative place names.  According to Everson, here’s what they finally decided on:

“Gleann na Scoilte’ was chosen for Rivendell, ‘An Mhodarchoill’ for Mirkwood and ‘An Dobhar’ for The Water, while Hobbiton will be known as ‘Baile na Hobad’.”

Despite Tolkien’s passion for languages, he didn’t have much l0ve for Irish. In a letter excerpted in the Irish Times, he wrote :

“I go frequently to Ireland (Éire: southern Ireland) being fond of it and of (most of) its people; but the Irish language I find wholly unattractive.”

Hence, one of the only scraps of Irish you’ll find in any of Tolkien’s invented languages is the word “Nazg,” or “ring” in the Black Speech of Mordor, which may be derived from the Irish word “nasc”.  In another letter quoted in the Irish Times, Tolkien denied intentionally including using nasc as the source, but admitted that it had most likely become “lodged in some comer of [his] linguistic memory.”

To whet your appetite, here’s the first paragraph of the Irish translation:

I bpoll sa talamh a bhí cónaí ar hobad. Níor pholl gránna, salach, fliuch é, lán le giotaí de phéisteanna agus le boladh láibe. Níor pholl tirim, lom, gainmheach a bhí ann ach an oiread, gan aon rud ann le n-ithe ná le suí síos air; poll hobaid ab ea é agus is ionann sin agus compord.

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US Teen Speaks Over a Dozen Languages

An American teenager has managed to accomplish what those of us who struggled through Spanish or French can only dream of. According to the New York Times, at only 16 years old, Timothy Doner is able to communicate in at least 12 languages, including Hebrew, Russian, Italian, Persian, Swahili, Indonesian, Hindi, Ojibwe, Pashto, Turkish, Hausa, Kurdish, Yiddish, Dutch, Croatian, German, French, Latin and Mandarin.

Whew! Of course, he’s more proficient at some languages than others, but that’s still quite an achievement (especially considering the fact that he taught himself most them.) It’s also not a stopping point for young Mr. Doner, who plans to learn at least the basics of as many languages as he can while he’s still young.

So, how does he do it? Was he just born that way? As with most questions pertaining to the intersection of the body and the mind, the answer is far from clear. notes that structural differences have been found in the brains of people who excel at learning multiple languages, but nothing conclusive. Also, since becoming bilingual actually changes the way your brain works, it might be difficult to distinguish cause from effect.

Regardless of what his brain looks like on the inside, Doner’s “secret sauce” actually seems to be something far more prosaic: a combination of passion, hard work and dedication. Per the New York Times, during school holidays he sometimes spends 15 hours a day studying!

As neurolinguist Michael Paradis told MSN, “Kids do well in what they like. Kids who love math do well in math. He loves languages and is doing well in languages.”

In the New York Times, Doner calls learning languages ” a way of coping with stress” and says “I’m not a very serious school nerd. I’m not motivated in math. I found my niche. I’m not obsessive.”

It’s great to see someone find their niche so early in life. His passion for languages is almost certain to serve him well in the years to come!

Irish Language on the Rise in America

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, the one day each year that people across the world “embrace Irish culture” by wearing green and consuming copious amounts of beer laced with green food coloring. More encouragingly, however, the Washington Post notes that increasing numbers of Americans are learning to appreciate their Irish heritage on a much deeper level: by learning the language.

Per the Washington Post, enrollment in Irish-language courses at universities has almost doubled over the past decade, to 409 students in 2009 from 278 in 1998. That may not sound like much, but you have to consider that only 152 students at the university level were learning Greek, and even fewer were learning languages like Danish. Also, that doesn’t the count the number of people who learn the language on their own or from somewhere other than a university.

The BBC notes that the interest in Irish abroad has corresponded with increased interest in the language back home in Ireland, though the linguistic experts it spoke to were only guardedly optimistic. For example, David Crystal of Bangor University said

“There is a huge amount of fresh interest in speaking the language. That’s great, but it’s really late. There is a question mark as to whether it’s too little, too late.”‘

Most of the students learning Irish in America are Irish-American, looking to reconnect with their Irish heritage. According to Crystal, their interest may help preserve the language, especially now that the internet provides so many opportunities for Irish speakers to congregate online:

“The biggest thing that an endangered community can do to ensure that its language survives is to have a very strong presence on the Internet. All over the world these virtual speech communities are becoming a reality.”

However, Irish language activists, like Mait O Bradaigh, who runs an Irish-language immersion school, say that while more Irish learners are definitely merrier, steps still need to be taken to address the Irish-speaking communities in Ireland:

“There’s a worldwide network of Irish speakers, but the native speaker areas are under severe distress. In some ways, we spend too much time on learning, and not enough time addressing the Irish speakers we already have.”

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone!

Aer Lingus Halts "Language Tests"

Beware of Greeks bearing passports. Until just last week, that’s the attitude that Air Lingus often displayed towards its Greek customers, especially Greek nationals flying into Ireland through Spain and Portugal. To try to catch people traveling on falsified Greek passports, Greek passengers were asked to complete a language test to prove they were fluent in the Greek language.

However, in January they made the mistake of forcing Chryssa Dislis, a Greek telecommunications executive who lives in Ireland with her family, to complete the tests in order to board the plane that was to take them all back home to Cork after a holiday in Barcelona.

In a statement to the Irish Times, Dr. Dislis explained her objections to the tests:

““In the age of biometric passports, such illogical and discriminatory ‘tests’ are entirely unacceptable. I was only targeted because of my nationality and no serious attempt was made to check that I was indeed flying back home, where I came from only six days previously.”

Dr. Dislis and her husband took pictures of the completed tests, which enraged the airline attendants to the point that they threatened to have the police take away her camera and destroy all of the pictures. However, when a police officer arrived, she sided with Dr. Dislis and her family. As Dr. Dislis put it in an interview with the Associated Press:

“Fortunately the policewoman who arrived was extremely sensible, defused the situation, and told the check-in desk to stop messing us about and put us on the plane.”

Though she eventually got an apology, she decided she had to go public to keep anyone else from having the same experience.

What’s the problem with language tests, anyway? First of all, questions about the validity of a passport are best answered by carefully examining the passport and other personal documents. Biometric passports are made to be extremely difficult to forge.

Secondly, a language test doesn’t prove whether or not someone has a valid Greek passport. You don’t have to speak Greek fluently to claim a Greek passport — you might have Greek citizenship but have lived most of your life elsewhere, for example.

Third, the airline employees can’t speak a work of Greek anyway. Which means, as Dr. Dislis put it, “The whole exercise was completely absurd. I could have written ‘Three Little Pigs’ on the form and they wouldn’t have known any better.”

Wanting to keep people from coming in on fake passports is understandable, but these tests are just silly and it’s good they’ve been stopped.

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BSL Translation in Your Hand

Machine translation has proven a difficult nut to crack, even for written and spoken languages. That’s even more true for sign languages, though we’ve written about some previous innovations in the field like the Fingual translation glove.

However, that may be about to change. Researchers at Aberdeen University are working on providing sign language users with translation capabilities on their smartphones and laptops, and they’re almost there. In the Scotsman, Dr Ernesto Compatangelo, the director of the project, explained the ultimate goal of the project, called the Portable Sign Language Translator (PSLT):

“The user signs into a standard camera integrated into a laptop, netbook, Smartphone or other portable device such as a tablet. Their signs are immediately translated into text which can be read by the person they are conversing with. The intent is to develop an application – an “app” in Smartphone terms – that is easily accessible and could be used on different devices.”

The technology is being developed with British Sign Language (BSL), but can easily be made to work with other sign languages as well.  Additionally, users can program the software to recognize gestures of their own, allowing them to get around limitations in sign language vocabulary.

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Dr Compatangelo gave the example of a student who wishes to learn a trade such as joinery, and needs an easy way to express words like “dovetail joint,” which are so specialized that BSL does not have gestures for them.

Meanwhile, on MIT’s Technology Review blog, David Zax gave another example:

“Plenty of new jargon and terminology is constantly emerging in computer science, but American Sign Language is unlikely to keep up with all that jargon. You could use the app to invent signs to express these bits of jargon, saving you the trouble of having to spell out every word letter by letter.”

Another potential use for an app like this would be to provide people who are learning sign language an easy way to practice. In the Scotsman, Dr Compatangelo explained:

“As a learning tool, the PSLT can be easily and effectively used by those who are learning to sign. So far, these learners needed a sign language expert in front of them to check that they were able to sign correctly. This is a problem, due to the scarce availability of sign language experts and to the consequent cost of such training.”

Another possible use? The ability to control your household appliances with gestures, which would be especially useful to people with mobility issues.

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