No Hashtags, Please, We’re French

In recent years, the guardians of the French language have had trouble keeping up with the influx of English-language loanwords from the tech world. Buzzwords like “cloud computing” and services like Twitter and Facebook leave an unmistakable, and unmistakably English, impact on the language. Read more

Translation Award Winner Tells Story of Afghan Refugee

Reading stories from other languages gives you amazing insight into the lives of people from other cultures. However, unfortunately it can be difficult to get people in English-speaking countries to read literature that has been translated from another language.

In fact, according to the Guardian, only 3% of the books, poems and stories published in the UK are translations. Since 1996, The Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation has been awarded every two years to highlight the best young adult translations and to encourage more translations in the future. Read more

London Tube Translation

Translating the Tube

You may have heard London’s long standing tube network hit a milestone this month, 150 years old! 270 stations, more than 200 miles of track and an incredible 3 million passengers a day on average, that’s a lot of newspapers.

It’s been a busy time for our friends at Transport for London, with more than half a million foreign visitors pitching up to enjoy both the Olympics and Paralympics last Summer alone. With an influx of so many people using the iconic tube network, Transport for London had to make sure that everyone was able to find their way around, a pretty epic task! Read more

Burns Night Celebrates Scots Language

Happy birthday, Robert Burns! The “”national poet of Scotland” was born 254 years ago today, on 25 January 1759. During his lifetime, Burns earned widespread and lasting acclaim for his poetry, much of which was written in the Scots language or in the Scottish dialect of English. His best-known works include “To a Mouse,” “A Red,Red, Rose” and “Tam O’Shanter.” He also collected and preserved existing traditional Scottish songs and poems, including the New Year’s classic “Auld Lang Syne.”

In Scotland, his birthday is celebrated as “Burns Night.” Traditional festivities center around a “Burns Supper.” These gatherings follow a traditional format and menu. First, the host welcomes his guests. Then, the “Selkirk Grace” is recited to give thanks for the meal. The menu includes traditional Scottish foods like Scotch broth, mashed potatoes and turnips, and of course, haggis.

Haggis, in fact, is the centerpiece of the meal, and is brought to the table with great fanfare and to the accompaniment of bagpipes. Burn’s poem “Address to a Haggis” is recited, and everything is washed down with plentiful amounts of Scotch whisky.

This year, there’s an additional bonus for Burns enthusiasts. A previously unpublished letter from Burns to actress Elizabeth Kemble on the subject of slavery (Burns was an abolitionist) will be published for the first time today. In the letter, Burns asks Kemble to take care of an unpublished abolitionist manuscript for him, requesting her to “lay the book under lock & key, when you go out.”

Project director Helena Anderson Wright told the Daily Record:

“It is quite remarkable that, over 200 years after Burns’ death, a find like this is still possible. Now that we have had it authenticated, we are delighted to share this letter with the world. There is still a mystery surrounding its complete interpretation which will no doubt be hotly debated by academics for years to come.”

The Pope Tweets in Latin

Change sometimes comes slowly to the Catholic Church. However, last month the Vatican’s communications strategy took a huge leap forward when Pope Benedict XVI joined other world leaders on Twitter, under the username @Pontifex.

At first, his Holiness tweeted in English on his main account, with 7 other accounts dedicated to tweets in languages including Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. Last weekend, the Pope launched another account, this time in Latin. Read more

The Fresh Prince, Lost in Translation

Children of the 80s: you remember “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” right? For all of you young whippersnappers out there, this was the TV series that launched the acting career of Hollywood actor Will Smith.

In the series, Smith stars as a teenager from one of the rougher parts of West Philadelphia. To keep him out of trouble after a fight, he is sent by his mother to live with a rich aunt and uncle in Bel Air, Los Angeles. Shenanigans ensue. Most American kids of my generation have the lyrics to the show’s theme song tattooed somewhere deep in our collective memory.

Just for fun, a group called Collective Cadenza decided to run the lyrics of that iconic theme song through Google Translate 64 times, once for each of the language options Google provides. Then, they translated it back to English and performed the result. Read more

Almonds or Apricot Kernels

Q: When is an apricot kernel not an apricot kernel?

A: When it’s an almond, as droves of Chinese grocery shoppers are learning to their dismay.

Apricot kernels have  long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat afflictions such as colds and coughs. Almonds have a similar flavor, but are not believed to have the same medicinal value. So, Chinese grocery shoppers were dismayed to learn that the “American big apricot kernels” they’d been buying from retailers like Walmart for years were nothing more than common American almonds.

According to the Global Times, the misunderstanding is a result of a translation error that dates back to the 1970s. When the Almond Board of California began marketing their products in China, at first they used several different translations for the word “almond:”

  • xingren, or “apricot kernels”
  • badanmu, or “almonds”
  • biantaoren, or “flat peach kernels”

“Xingren” was the translation that stuck around, and most if not all Chinese consumers believed they were, in fact, buying apricot kernels.

Walmart shopper Zhao Hong told the Global Times:

“But when I heard that the nuts I bought are in fact almonds, I felt I’d been cheated…”The translation misled me, and I thought the almonds were apricot kernels from the US.”

She wasn’t the only one taken aback. The Chinese government was, too. The decades-old translation error only came to light in 2009, when the China National Food Industry Association tried to create an industry standard for apricot kernels. Weng Yangyang, secretary-general of the Specialized Committee for Roasted Seeds and Nuts, said the committee was “shocked when the ABC told us the ‘American big apricot kernels’ are not apricot kernels, and so have no association with the compilation of the industry standards.”

Even worse, “American big apricot kernels” go for several times the price of actual Chinese apricot kernels, with prices buoyed by the fact that produce from America is often believed to be superior. Plus, almonds are naturally bigger and thus have an advantage over real apricot kernels, as Meng Xianwu, director of the Working Committee of Apricot Kernels at the Association of Cash Forest of China under the State Forestry Administration, explained:

“Almonds can be easily puffed up during processing, while apricot kernels will be broken during the process. Consumers naturally would choose the bigger ones over the small ones.”

All of this goes to show how important it is to get your product names translated correctly the first time. The translation error may have given California almonds an advantage in the past, but it remains to be seen what will happen to their sales once the mistake is corrected.


Babies Start Learning Language in the Womb

By now, it’s a well-established fact that the earlier a child is exposed to a second language, the better. So, if you’re hoping to raise a bilingual child, how early should you start those language lessons?

A new study suggests that the answer may be “in utero.”

The study, covered in Science Daily, grew out of a collaboration between researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the University of Washington in the United States.

The researchers outfitted 40 newborn infants from each country with special wired pacifiers that played vowel sounds from both English and Swedish. The sounds changed in response to the length of time the infants sucked on the pacifiers. The infants all had monolingual mothers, and were no more than 3 days old.

Study co-author Patricia Kuhl explained the experiment in more detail in a statement to Science Daily:

“Each suck will produce a vowel until the infant pauses, and then the new suck will produce the next vowel sound.”

So, the longer the baby sucked on the pacifier, the longer he or she heard the vowel sound. In the study, the infants consistently sucked longer when presented with vowel sounds not found in the mother’s native language, indicating that they were recognized them as unfamiliar and were trying to figure them out. According to Kuhl,

“These little ones had been listening to their mother’s voice in the womb, and particularly her vowels for ten weeks. The mother has first dibs on influencing the child’s brain. At birth, they are apparently ready for something novel.”

The sense of hearing develops about at about 30 weeks gestation. After that, the unborn baby apparently begins to soak up not only music, but also his mother’s native tongue.

Kuhl called the findings “stunning,” saying

“We thought infants were ‘born learning’ but now we know they learn even earlier. They are not phonetically naïve at birth.”

So, should you start watching foreign films and playing those bilingual Baby Einstein videos about 10 weeks before your due date? If you want to, fine, but there’s no reason to think your little one would get any benefit from it. So far, the indications are that babies learn these sounds from listening to their mother’s voice. If you want to expose your unborn baby to the sounds of another language, the only way to be sure he’ll pay attention may be to sign up for language classes yourself!

Photo Credit: Wolfgang Moroder

Stroke Victim Wakes Up Speaking Welsh

It’s common for strokes to affect the regions of the brain that govern language processing. Stroke victims often struggle with difficulty speaking. Sometimes, these difficulties manifest themselves in surprising ways. For example, 81-year-old Alun Morgan of Bath spent most of his life speaking only English. Imagine, then, his surprise when he came to after a stroke unable to remember a word of his native language, but speaking Welsh instead!

In the midst of the Second World War, a young Mr. Morgan was evacuated to the Welsh countryside for four years to live with his grandmother and aunt. During that time, he became fairly fluent in the language, according to the IndependentRead more

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