Think More Clearly In Translation

Mr. Spock was right…humans are illogical creatures. If you’ve ever wished you could think more like a Vulcan, learning (and using) another language can help. A new study written up in Psychological Science shows that when you are facing a problem, you are more likely to make a rational decision about the solution if you consider in it your second language as opposed to your first.

In an abstract, study author Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago described the results:

“Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue? It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using, or that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic. We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases.”

So, how does this work? As Mr. Spock so frequently and astutely observed in Star Trek, we humans have some common instinctual biases that often override our capacity for logic. The experiments in the study examined the effect of thinking in a foreign language on two of these biases: the framing effect and myopic risk aversion.

The framing effect is the effect that the way a question is asked can have on the decisions we make. For example, if you knew for a fact that you could save five out of ten people from a disaster, or you could try to save them all with a lower chance of succeeding, what would you do? Take the “safe option,” and save the five you knew you could save? Or take a risk and try to save everybody? The answer generally depends on whether the question is framed in terms of “lives saved” or “lives lost,” with people more likely to take the “safe option” if the question is phrased in terms of lives saved.

However, as reported in Wired, when students who spoke Japanese as a second language were asked to consider the situation in Japanese, the discrepancy in their answers disappeared.

Likewise, students who spoke Spanish as a second language were more likely to take profitable bets that  involved a small upfront loss when the offer was presented to them in Spanish rather than English. They were less “myopically risk averse,” able to overlook a small loss now in favor of long-term profit.

In the abstract, the study’s authors wrote,  “We propose that these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native tongue does.”

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by JD Hancock

Indian Children's Story Translation Project Unites Communities

India is an immense country, and its borders encompass many different cultures. According to Ethnologue, 452 individual languages are spoken there, which means that many communities are divided by language barriers. Now, a new translation project is using children’s stories to build bridges between the different language communities in the Northeast portion of the country.

According to the Indian Express, the project involves translating traditional children’s stories from six different languages:

  • Assamese, the official language of Assam.
  • Bodo, the language of Assam’s Bodo people.
  • Khasi , the language of the Khasi people, who live in the state of  Meghlaya, Assam and in Bangladesh.
  • Garo, spoken by the Garo tribe in Meghalaya.
  • Manipuri, the primary language spoken in the state of Manipur.
  • Mizo, the  language of the Mizo people of the state of Mizoram.

The project involves taking six stories from each of these languages,  translating them into English and then translating them into each of the other languages.  Then, published editions of the stories will be made available in each language so that children from the different regions can read each other’s stories. It’s a fun way to connect neighboring communities with different cultures.

Professor A C Bhagabati, the regional head of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, which underwrote the project, told the Indian Express that the project “is a massive initiative to promote inter-cultural and literary exchanges among the six languages. An effort of such a magnitude has never taken place in the country.”

Arup Kumar Dutta, a popular Indian children’s author who assisted with the project, called the project “a rediscovery of the colourful multi-ethnic heritage of the Northeastern region….And once these books are brought out in English (which is not included in the current project), the rest of the world will also get an interesting insight into the world of children literature in the region.”

We can’t wait to see the results!

Photo Credit:Attribution Some rights reserved by mckaysavage

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

Today is Shakespeare’s birthday, as well as the anniversary of his death. Although he lived 400 years ago, the Bard still influences the English we speak today.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives him credit for coining more than 2,000 words, though of there’s some dispute over whether or not he actually invented all of them.

How did one man come to have so much influence on the English language? In Shakespeare’s case, it was a combination of luck, talent and craft that allowed him to leave such an enduring legacy behind.  To say that Shakespeare “had a way with words” is a serious understatement, of course, but he also had the good fortune to live in a time when the English language was changing rapidly. Wars were being fought, new lands were being explored, and England’s contact with and knowledge of the rest of the world increased tremendously. The English language needed new words to describe all of these changes, and Shakespeare was perfectly positioned to help supply them.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, here are some of the many words Shakespeare (may have) created:

Aerial: First used in Othello to describe the sky on the horizon, where Othello’s ship is expected to emerge.

Arch-villain: You may think of old James Bond movies when you hear this word, but the first “arch-villain” in the English language was actually the corrupt judge Angelo in “Measure for Measure.”

Fashionable: First used by the character Ulysses in “Troilus and Cressida.”

Tranquil: Though the word “tranquility” dates back to Chaucer, Shakespeare is the first person known to have used the adjective “tranquil.”

Downstairs: First used by Prince Hal in King Henry IV.

Pander: In the medieval tragedy “Troilus and Cressida,” Pandare, Pandaro or Pandarus was a character who arranged to have his niece Cressida sleep first with the Trojan warrior Troilus and then with the Greek lord Diomedes. Shakespeare first used “pander” to mean “pimp” in Henry IV, Part II.”

Majestic: “Majesty” has been in use since the 14th century, but as far as we know, Shakespeare was the first person to use the adjective “majestic.”

Obscene: Yes, Shakespeare coined this word, too, by Anglicizing the old Latin word obscenus.

Sanctimonious: First used by Lucio, in “Measure for Measure:”

“Thou concludest like the sanctimonious pirate, that
went to sea with the Ten Commandments, but scraped
one out of the table.”

Image Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by david__jones


New Study Underscores Importance of Emergency Room Interpreters

Clear communication between patients and doctors is one of the most important components of quality medical care.  A medical emergency is neither an ideal time nor an ideal place to “practice” speaking in a language that you haven’t yet learned to fluently communicate in.

A new study from the United States illustrates just how true that is, and what a difference having access to a professional interpreter can make.

The study looked at two different pediatric ERs, and looked at how miscommunications between parents, patients and hospital staff could have had a “clinical impact” on the young patients. According to Reuters, when a professional interpreter was used, 12 percent of so-called “translation slips” had the potential to cause a harmful medical error.

Many people think that using a friend or a family member to interpret for a patient is a good (and free) alternative to a professional. However, in the study, when a non-professional was used or there was no interpreter at all, the percentage of clinically significant translation errors spiked to between 20 and 22 percent.  Again, these are errors that could compromise the health of the patient. For example, in one case mentioned in the article, a family friend told the physician that the patient had no drug allergies without first confirming with the parent.  As Dr. Glenn Flores, one of the authors of the study, told Reuters:

“The findings document that interpreter errors of potential clinical consequence are significantly more likely to occur when there is an ‘ad hoc’ or no interpreter, compared with a professional interpreter.”

Medical interpreters are not just fluent in both the requisite languages, they have also received some training about  interpreting medical terminology and on how to make sure all important information is being conveyed correctly between the doctor and the patient. For example, a trained interpreter would have understood the importance of asking about drug allergies rather than making an assumption.

In addition, the study found that the more training interpreters had, the fewer clinically significant mistakes they made- down to less than 2 percent for interpreters with over 100 hours of training.

Photo Credit:Attribution Some rights reserved by chimothy27


Microsoft App Adds Translation Subtitles

Microsoft just released an updated version of its translation app for Windows phones, and it comes equipped with nifty new features.  As described on the Bing blog, the augmented reality option sounds especially cool:

“With the Translator App for Windows Phone you can now translate printed language by simply pointing the camera. From street signs and posters to transit schedules and restaurant menus translating is now a snap. Well, easier than a snap – all you do is point and scan. Think of this as automatic subtitles for everyday life.”

Think of how much confusion that could save you the next time you’re somewhere where nobody speaks your language.

Of course, as with all machine translation, there’s always the risk that you’ll get back something awkward, misleading, or flat-out wrong, but it’s definitely better than having to bumble along with no help at all.

Another cool feature is the ability to use this app without a data connection. This is an exceptionally important capability because not only is data often unavailable in remote regions, even if it is available you’re likely to pay through the nose for using it.

The app also has voice recognition, so you can speak into it in your language and then have your phone play back the translated version of what you just said.

Travel is a great learning experience, and hopefully most people will use this app to teach themselves at least some key words and phrases in the language of the country they are traveling in, instead of using it as a crutch.  Either way, though, if it helps motivate people to get out of their comfort zones and experience another culture, it’s a good thing.

As Vikram Dendi, the Director of Product Management for Microsoft/Bing Translator, put it in a post on the Microsoft company blog:

“If we are able to provide you that little bit of extra confidence that makes the difference between going somewhere and not – then we would have succeeded.”

"My Valentine" Video Sign Language Bloopers

For the video to his latest single, “My Valentine,” Paul McCartney wanted to reach out to the deaf community.  So, instead of starring in the video himself,  he decide to leave the visuals to two talented (and attractive) Hollywood stars you might have heard of: Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman. The two sit in a dark room, sunlight streaming in, and gaze oh-so-soulfully into each other’s eyes, mouthing and signing the lyrics to the song.

It’s beautiful. It’s smoking hot. It’s Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman. Queen Amidala and Captain Jack Sparrow. That quirky chick from Garden State and Don Juan DeMarco. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for one thing, neither Depp nor Portman use sign language regularly. Despite the coaching they received, this led to some rather embarrassing bloopers that unfortunately weren’t caught until after the video’s release.

For example, as this article points out, at one point in the song Johnny Depp tries to sign “Valentine” and ends up signing “enemy” instead. The worst gaffe of all, though, is the accidental use of the British Sign Language sign for “tampon” instead of the American Sign Language sign for “appear,” a mistake made by both actors.  How romantic! (To be fair, the two signs are extremely close.)

However, a  spokesman for the British Deaf Association told the Sun that overall, the organization was still quite pleased with the video:

“It’s great that famous people such as Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman are highlighting the use of sign language. Their use of it is more a poetic expression. The sign for tampon does seem to come up from both Johnny and Natalie, which causes some confusion, especially as American and British sign languages are different. It would have been nice if genuine deaf people had been used. But it’s still great.”

The Hunger Games, Translated

Move over Twilight, another series of young adult books has made its way to the silver screen. The Hunger Games movie was released last month to record box-office sales in North America. The books are set in a dystopian future, another world with its own vocabulary that has drifted away from our own in subtle, but significant ways. Here’s your handy cheat sheet:

Panem: Panem is the totalitarian state that replaced the US after an environmental/societal collapse of unspecified origin. It is divided into 12 districts, plus the Capitol (which is located in the Rocky Mountains, not on the East Coast). As all of you Latin students have probably already guessed, Panem comes from the Latin panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses.”

Hunger Games: The Hunger Games are an annual ritual punishment for the 12 formerly rebellious districts, as well as the “circuses” part of the “bread and circuses” equation. During the Hunger Games, 2 children between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen from each district and made to fight to the death in a gory, brutal version of a reality TV show.

The Reaping: The Reaping is the ceremony in which the unlucky children’s names are drawn. In the novel, heroine Katniss volunteers to take her 12-year-old sister Prim’s place in the Hunger Games after Prim’s name gets drawn.

Tributes: The children made to participate in the Hunger Games.

Tessarae: Hunger is a constant problem in the outlying districts of Panem. To keep their families from starving, poor children are allowed to enter their names into the Reaping more than once in exchange for extra rations. Technically, tributes can come from any social class. However, except for districts where wealthy families train their kids to compete and then encourage them to volunteer, the government’s practice of offering tessarae means that poor kids are much more likely to be selected.

Quarter Quell: Every 25 years, a special Hunger Games called a Quarter Quell is held, and the rules are tweaked to make it even more brutal than usual.

Morphling: A common painkiller much like morphine or heroin. Morphling addicts are also called “morphlings.”

Avox: Someone who has had their vocal cords cut out as punishment for defying the Capitol.

Mutts: Rather than a mixed-breed dog, in the Hunger Games “mutts” are used to refer to genetically engineered creatures, or “muttations.” “Mutts” can be creatures grown in a lab for specific purposes, like monkeys with switchblades instead of claws, or they can be humans who have used had to rely on lab-grown tissue to heal from injuries.

Jabberjays: Genetically engineered birds that are capable of mimicking human speech. They were initially created to spy for the Capitol.

Mockingjays: Mockingjays are a hybrid of jabberjays and mockingbirds, capable of mimicking songs but not speech. Since they were never intended to exist, they become a symbol of rebellion against Capitol rule.

Tracker-jackers: Genetically-engineered yellow jackets with deadly hallucinogenic venom.

Nightlock: Deadly poisonous berries, like nightshade but much more potent and fast-acting.

Ladino Language Lives On Through Song

Starting in the 8th century, Jews flocked to what is now Spain, drawn by the comparatively tolerant religious climate created by the region’s Muslim rulers. They spoke a dialect of Old Spanish that was influenced by Hebrew, and without the threat of persecution they faced in most Christian countries at that time, their communities thrived.

However, once Europeans took back the Iberian Peninsula, all of that changed for the worse.  1492 was not just the year that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” It is also the year that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree, forcing all the Jews in Spain to either convert or leave the country.

Some did convert (or at least pretended to), but many left, scattering across Europe and North Africa to form Sephardic Jewish communities. They took their language, which came to be called Ladino or Judeo-Spanish, with them.

Once widespread throughout Europe, Ladino is now in trouble. It has anywhere from 200,000 to less than 100,000 speakers, and many of them are elderly.  Sephardic Jewish families have largely replaced it with local languages and dialects or with Hebrew.

As should be obvious, the Holocaust was a tremendous factor in the language’s decline. Entire communities of people were killed, and afterwards many others sought refuge in Israel. In many cases, their children and grandchildren grew up speaking Hebrew instead of Ladino. A language can only survive if families can teach it to their children, and the Holocaust made that vastly more difficult.

Still, in the US, one group has found a way to keep the language alive: through song. The Kol Sephardic Choir was founded in 1992 by retired NASA engineer Raphael Ortasse. The Los Angeles-based group meets regularly to sing traditional songs in Ladino.  They have already released one album, Las Romanzas y Cantigas de Sefarad, and they’re working on another one to be released later this year.

Choir member Elizabeth Martinez told Fox News that participating has helped her get in touch with a part of her heritage she was once unfamiliar with:

“The choir’s mission is to preserve the Ladino language and we need to hand it down to people in the United States who perhaps know or don’t know that they have Sephardic roots. In my case, I didn’t know and it’s pretty important that this culture survive through music and that we pass it on from generation to generation to keep it alive.”

UNESCO classifies the language as “seriously endangered.” With few children learning it today, it’s encouraging to think that it will at least live on in song.

Here’s a video of the choir:

Kol Sephardic Choir: O Dio Mio

Do You Tweet With an Accent?

It’s amazing how much information can be conveyed in a mere 140 characters, even without your knowledge. For example, did you know that analyzing your tweets can show where you come from?

In fact, in a study last year by Carnegie Mellon University, researchers found that they could narrow down almost any individual Twitter user’s location to within 300 miles based solely on the language they used in their tweets.

Now,  a new study from Ohio State lingistics grad student Brice Russ has demonstrated that Twitter can successfully be used to map linguistic variations across the United States. He examined three markers of regional American dialects: the use of Coke, pop and soda to describe a sweetened carbonated beverage; the use of “hella” to mean “very,” and the use of phrases like “the car needs washed” or “the computer needs fixed.”

He found that Twitter data could be used to map out which parts of the US these variations were used in. His paper may even have a revealed a trend: the “needs X-ed” construction seems to be moving southward compared to previous analyses.

Can analyzing posts on social networks replace traditional linguistic fieldwork? No. As Mr. Russ told the New York Times, “The ‘bobbasheelys’ and ‘crawdads’ of English don’t always show up on Twitter often enough to be mapped on a large scale.” (“Bobbasheely” means “close friend,” while “crawdad” means “Crayfish.”)

Still, it does have some advantages as a way to collect supplemental data.  In his paper [PDF], Russ notes that “Twitter is a very promising source for studying regional variation” because “data can be collected easily and effectively without interviews or supervision.”

Interestingly, earlier work by British linguist David Crystal found that aside from differences in British and American spelling, tweets as a whole “aren’t very regional distinctive,” and that people were more likely to use local dialect in their Facebook posts. It’s enough to make you wonder if the amount of dialect a person uses in their tweets varies depending on whether they’re American or British?

Image CreditAttribution Some rights reserved by topgold

Language Fracas Heats Up In Quebec

In Quebec, Canada’s sole French-speaking province, language has long been a contentious issue.  Now, the results of a recent survey performed by research agency CROP have added fuel to the fire.

To perform the survey, CROP interviewed 560 people who live in Quebec but did not grow up in French-speaking households. The participants were a mix of Anglos (Canadians who grew up in English-speaking households) and immigrants from other countries.

In its write-up of the results, local magazine L’actualité portrayed the results as devastating for the future of French in Quebec. The magazine cover featured a frog holding a sign that reads “Ici, on parle English” or “Here, we speak English.”

Inside, the article claimed that the survey results showed that young Anglos living in Quebec simply do not care about preserving the province’s historically French culture.

For example, only 37% agreed with the following statement:  “The predominant position of the French language is the key component of Montreal’s originality. Without it, the city would lose its soul.” Young English speakers also didn’t recognize local, French-speaking Quebec government figures and celebrities.

However,  most of Quebec’s anglos do in fact speak French, and 83 percent wanted their children to learn the language, too. Plus, surveys like this can be unreliable and this one had a rather small sample size.

Nonetheless, the government of Quebec has already taken action, encouraging the province’s “language watchdog” to take action more quickly, and finding the funds for the agency to hire more employees. One legislator has also proposed more stringent language rules.

However, according to  Globe and Mail columnist Lysiane Gagnon, these measures don’t get to the root of the problem:

“Nowhere in L’actualité’s issue on “the future of French” is there a word about the main reason of the (relative) decline of French in Montreal: the fact that the French-speaking middle class is leaving the city in droves to settle in the nearby suburbs.”

Image Credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Dougtone

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