Bilingual Schools Open in England

There have long been concerns about whether or not England’s students are receiving adequate instruction in foreign languages. Of course, it’s proven that children learn language more easily while they’re young, so one possible solution would be to start intensive foreign language courses from an early age.

Now, as the BBC reports, bilingual primary schools have begun to open up to give English students an immersive foreign language experience. For instance, in 2004, Wix Primary School decided to team up with the French Lycee that shared its building, to teach students in both languages.

The head of Wix Primary School, Marc Wolstencroft, explained the decision to the BBC:

“I started work at Wix in 2004 and at the time the school wasn’t doing well. We shared accommodation with a branch of the lycee, a French primary school, and I thought we had a wonderful opportunity between the two schools to create something which would raise the standards of the school and do something novel and exciting in the world of education which parents would buy into.”

The school has been quite successful thus far, getting attention from as far away as China.

Soon, another bilingual school will open up in London, this time teaching lessons in both English and German. Peter Johnson, the founder of Judith Kerr Primary School, grew up in an English/German bilingual household and wants to provide other children the same benefits he received as a child. He told the BBC:

“An awful lot of language studies have faced a decline so that it has become an elite activity. One of the things that motivates me is the challenge of working against that (view).”

What do you think? Should there be more of these types of schools available for British students?

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by James Sarmiento

Anatolia: The Birthplace of Indo-European Language?

The Indo-European language family is one of the world’s largest, encompassing languages as diverse as English and Hindi. Linguists have managed to reconstruct quite a bit of Proto-Indo-European , but the origins of the language family remain shrouded in mystery. Who spoke it, and how did it spread across two continents, and eventually the world?

There are two competing hypotheses regarding how Proto-Indo-European began to spread and fragment. The first, and most popular, hypothesis has the language family originating in the steppes of eastern Europe, among the warlike Kurgan people. The underdog hypothesis has the language family originating in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), among early adopters of farming, and spreading along with agriculture.

Now, a group of researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand believe they might have solved the puzzle, using a computer-driven analysis that relies on techniques used to track the spread and mutation of viruses in epidemics. After analyzing the similarities and differences in the vocabularies of 103 Indo-European languages, including both living and extinct languages, the researchers concluded that the Anatolian hypothesis is the most likely to be correct.

As study author Quentin Atkinson explained to Voice of America,

“So the argument is that agricultural populations were able to increase their population density relative to hunter gatherer populations around them, and so they expanded out generation by generation.”

But does language really evolve in the same way a virus does? Not to so fast, say some scholars.

Advocates of the steppe hypothesis point to the fact that as currently reconstructed, Proto-Indo-European has an entire vocabulary to deal with chariots, wagons and other wheeled vehicles. Therefore, the language couldn’t possibly have begun to fragment until after the use of such vehicles became widespread: about 3500 B.C, well after those Anatolian farmers began to go forth and multiply.

As archaeologist David Anthony of Hartwick College told the New York Times, “I see the wheeled-vehicle evidence as a trump card over any evolutionary tree.”

Cue the back-and-forth sniping between rival academic factions, with Dr. Anthony calling the computer analysis ““a one-legged stool” and Dr. Atkinson calling his objections “hand-wavy.”

Meanwhile, study co-author Michael Dunn is taking the long view, expecting that history will eventually vindicate the team. He told the Washington Post:

“These things take a lot of time in science, but in the long run, I would bet on our theory. You just can’t explain away the data.”

What do you think?

Newspaper Discovers Limits of Google Translate

In the United States, Spanish-speaking Latinos are a rapidly growing demographic. Naturally, some news organizations cater to them with Spanish-language editions, especially online.

However, according to Fox News, when the Hartford Courant decided to follow suit, they did not hire a translator, choosing instead to run all of their articles through Google Translate.

The results were about what you’d expect: embarrassing.

Former Hartford Courant columnist Bessy Reyna collected some of the most ridiculous examples of poor translation on her blog. Here are a couple of the juiciest nuggets of failure on display:

  • ”El hombre florero Over Head Smashed novia, policía dice” Literal translation: “The man flower vase Over Head Smashed Girlfriend, police said”
  • Este mujer Hartford acusado de apuñalar con el hombrepelador de patatas” which literally reads: “This woman Hartford Accused of stabbing the man with potato peeler.”

To address the criticism, the paper issued the following disclaimer:

“However, readers should be aware that due to limitations in the Google software some of the translations of the English headlines and articles don’t always translate accurately word-for-word into Spanish.”

Duh. On one level, it’s understandable that a local paper might not have the resources to devote to hiring a full-time Spanish translator. However, simply plugging all of their content into Google Translate appears to be counterproductive. According to Bessy Reyna, Latinos perceived the error-ridden translations as insulting, even offensive:

“Their reactions ranged from “This isn’t even Spanglish” to “Did you see the one today about Norwich? It’s to laugh and cry at the same time.” Others thought it was simply lack of respect and yet another way to humiliate the Latino community.”

The truth is, no matter what business you’re in, if you’re trying to communicate with customers in another language, there’s no substitute for a translator who knows both languages in and out. It’s impossible to put your best foot forward using Google Translate, or any other machine translation program for that matter!

Do you think newspapers should rely on Google Translate?

Penelope Cruz on Acting in Translation

Penelope Cruz was born in Madrid, Spain, and grew up speaking Spanish. Today, she is a globally acclaimed movie star who has acted in three languages: her native Spanish, English and Italian.

Acting in more than one language is quite an accomplishment, when you think about it. After all, at least one study has shown that for most people, it’s impossible to stop thinking in your native language, even when you’re speaking a second language that you’re fully fluent in. How does this subconscious translation affect acting? For Cruz, at least, it definitely makes the process of getting into and staying in character more challenging. In an interview with W Magazine, she explained:

“There is a part of your brain that has to stop when you’re acting. You have to be in the moment and dare to fly. Words can’t be on your mind.And yet, when you are working in a foreign language, you have to be thinking about the words every single second. It’s difficult, but I’m not complaining. It’s just the way it is.”

That said, the slight difficulty of acting in translation is obviously not holding her back at all. Indeed, there have been some roles in which being able to speak more than one language was a clear advantage for Cruz. For example, in Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, Cruz’s character speaks Spanish. However, Allen, who wrote the script, does not. Instead of hiring an outside translator, the director allowed Cruz and her co-star Javier Bardem to handle the translation themselves:

“He gave us the script he wrote in English, and he gave us the freedom to translate and improvise. Woody told me recently that he still doesn’t know if we are talking about the atomic bomb. And it’s the same thing in To Rome With Love—he doesn’t speak Italian. I translated my lines. So he still doesn’t know what I am saying.”

Endangered Languages Want the Airwaves

We’re always reading about the promise of new technology to help restore endangered languages, but one of the most promising technologies is surprisingly old-fashioned: radio.

The Atlantic recently ran an article about how radio broadcasts are boosting endangered languages all over the world. In the United States, for example, The Pew Research Center reports that there were 48 Native-owned radio stations in the United States as of 2011. Many, though not all, broadcast some content in indigenous languages.

Worldwide, radio has been an important component in the revival of many endangered languages, with the Maori language in New Zealand a particular success story.

Radio is effective precisely because the technology has been around for a while. Easy access and relatively low costs make it an accessible way to ensure that people continue to hear indigenous languages spoken and take pride in their cultural heritage.

Cultural Survival, a group dedicated to protecting indigenous languages and culture, provides support for groups wishing to create or expand such stations in Guatemala, which according to UNESCO has 23 languages under threat of extinction. Mark Camp, the group’s deputy executive director, told the Atlantic:

“[Radio]’s not a silver bullet, but it’s an important piece. If you don’t have some sort of media—and radio is the best in our opinion—to counterbalance the predominant commercial media that is all in Spanish or in English, it makes language less of a modern, living thing. It becomes something that you might do with your grandparents.”

By necessity, radio stations with programming in endangered languages also tend to be run by members of the local community, with programming that reflects local perspectives and concerns. So, they serve a dual purpose: preserving languages and providing more relevant news and entertainment.

Some endangered and minority language stations also broadcast online. Omniglot has a fairly long list of them, if you’re interested.

Photo Credit:  Attribution Some rights reserved by Serendipiddy

Farewell to Welsh Language Activist Eileen Beasley

Eileen Beasley, a pioneering Welsh language activist, died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 91 on Sunday.

Mrs. Beasley, along with her husband Trefor, attained near-legendary status among Welsh activists when the couple decided to convert their deeply held commitment to the language into direct action.

In the 1950’s, you see, Welsh had no official status or protections. Despite the fact that 90% of the Beasleys’ neighbors in the village of Llangennech spoke the Welsh language, all local government business was conducted in English. In protest, Eileen Beasley and her husband simply refused to pay the tax bills sent (in English) from their local council until the bills became available in Welsh as well.

As a result, the couple was hauled to court repeatedly over a period of 8 years. In lieu of the unpaid taxes, bailiffs came more than once for their personal possessions, at one point leaving the empty room barren of everything except a jar of homemade jam. In 1960, the Beasley’s were finally successful, and the council agreed to send bills in both Welsh and English.

In an obituary posted on Wales Online, Adam Phillips, chairman of Balchder Cymru, called Mrs. Beasley the “Rosa Parks” of the Welsh language movement, saying

“To have bailiffs come into your house and take everything you own because you refuse to pay on a point of principle – imagine the shame of that in those days with people looking down their noses at you. It’s people like these activists that make things happen. She and her husband did it peacefully, but suffered for it.”

The Beasleys’ protest inspired other Welsh language activists, leading to the founding of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society) and eventually to a variety of political and cultural gains for the Welsh language, such as the passage of the Welsh Language Act in 1993.

Former Cymdeithas yr Iaith chair Angharad Tomos told the BBC that the Beasleys ” lit the flame of hope” with their fight for Welsh, which “persevered for a decade at a time when such action was unheard of in Wales.”

Dante, Translated for 2012

Classical literature lovers, here’s something that might make you take all those Mayan prophecies about 2012 a bit more seriously: a new translation of Dante’s “Inferno” is out, and it’s stuffed with references to modern-day pop culture phenomena like Eric Cartman and Superman.

But don’t head for the underground bunker just yet. The translation is the work of American poet Mary Jo Bang, and it’s not so much a crass modernization of Dante’s masterpiece as it is a modern re-imagining. Think “O Brother Where Art Thou?” as opposed to the 1996 remake of “Romeo and Juliet.”

In an interview with the Minneapolis Post, Professor Bang explains why she decided to bring Dante into 2012:

“Each pop-culture reference is evidence of my effort to find an exact equivalent, something that might read to a contemporary audience the way the original read to a medieval audience.”

That makes sense. Also, consider how many allusions to the scandals and politics of Florence and other Italian city-states (the “pop culture” of the day) Dante sprinkled throughout his “Inferno.” The strength of Dante’s talent made the poem timeless, but it was written to appeal to his contemporaries. In that light, rather than merely pandering to modern audiences unwilling to learn more about 14th century Florence, well-chosen pop culture references could make the translation hew more closely to the spirit of the original poem.

For an example of how these contemporary allusions can enrich the text, see this review in the New York Daily News, which explains just how Eric Cartman ended up in Dante’s vision of hell:

“The original reference in Italian is to a character named Ciacco, or “hog,” one who is suffering for the sin of gluttony. Bang explains that “Eric Theodore Cartman is a greedy, selfish character,” one who in fact refers to himself as “a little piggy.”

Well…it’s hard to argue with that!

If you’re in the market for something light to read on the beach as summer breathes its last, you can order “Inferno: A New Translation” from

BBC Cymru Wales Plans to Double Welsh Language Users

Technology is a double-edged sword for many minority languages. On the one hand, it can be instrumental in preserving these languages, teaching them to others and connecting fellow speakers. On the other hand, English is one of the dominant languages on the web, and people who speak both English and a minority language are often content to visit websites and social networking in sites in English.

This is one of the challenges that the Welsh language will face in the years to come. In a speech at the National Eisteddfod, Rhodri Talfan Davies, the director of BBC Cymru Wales, discussed how the news organization was preparing to meet that challenge.  Despite the obstacles involved, BBC Cymru Wales plans to more than double the number of people who view the Welsh-language content on the website in just three short years.

That’s an ambitious goal. Here’s how Davies says the BBC plans to make it happen:

“We have to recognise that most, younger, Welsh speakers live their lives largely through the medium of English – and few will turn to Welsh-language interactive services out of any sense of duty. They’ll only come if the quality is there and we’re offering something they can’t get anywhere else. That’s the challenge for all of us…We don’t have all the answers – we never did – and we know that there are many people outside the doors of the BBC who have exciting ideas with the potential to transform our services. We need to open our doors to these people – and their ideas.”

That’s the challenge with any website, really, no matter what language it’s in: offering enough added value to entice users to choose your site over the competition.

What do you think BBC Cymru Wales can do to add value for Welsh speakers?

Man Builds "Translation Glasses"

The tech world has been eagerly awaiting Google’s “Project Glass” ever since it was announced, and Google’s dramatic demonstration of the project at the Google I/O conference in April has only fueled the fires of anticipation.

In fact, one developer was so impatient that he went ahead and build his own version of the augmented reality glasses. Will Powell’s creation is clunkier and less fashion-forward than Google’s product, but that’s to be expected. What’s amazing is that one man was able to come close to replicating the efforts of one of the world’s largest corporations, even adding a real-time translation feature.

In a blog post, Powell demonstrated how he modified his homemade augmented-reality glasses to provide real-time translation from English to Spanish and back again. In the video below, Powell’s sister speaks Spanish while he replies in English. The Spanish-to-English translations are shown, Terminator-style, as subtitles on the inside of Powell’s glasses, while she listens to the Spanish-to-English translations through a headset.

The glasses use Microsoft’s Translation API to provide the translations. As with all machine translation, it would be unrealistic to expect perfect (or even intelligible) translations 100% of the time.

However, as Slate notes:

[T]hose of us who are more interested in chatting briefly with a new acquaintance who doesn’t speak the same language, or just trying to order a sandwich in a foreign country, don’t need polished translations that won’t inadvertently spark military or diplomatic fights.

All in all, it’s an interesting experiment. It seems almost inevitable that Google’s own glasses will include a similar feature using Google Translate when they come out, or that an app will be available to provide this functionality. While you obviously shouldn’t take shortcuts with important communications, these could prove quite useful for casual situations in which a skilled interpreter is not practical.

Here’s the video. What do you think?

Blog Posts

Available Pages


Archives by Month: