Interesting & varied language stories from all around the world, curated by our dedicated writer. From the topical to the absurd, the grand and the obscure, it’s all here for you to enjoy.

Slovakia and Hungary in Language Law Row

On the last day of June, Slovakia passed a law governing language use in their country. According to this article, posted on Euractiv.com, the law makes it illegal to use “incorrect” Slovak in Slovakia. The punishment is harsh with fines as high as 5,000 euros (£4,315).

Basically, the law makes it very difficult for speakers of minority languages to publicly communicate in their native language in Slovakia. For example, at public events, speeches and such must be given in Slovak first and the other language second-even if the only people present at the event speak the minority language.

Michael Gahler, the vice-chair for the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, has condemned the new language law as a violation of EU standards regarding minority languages. In the article referenced above, he is quoted as saying:

“Slovakia is violating commonly respected standards in the EU and is disregarding respective recommendations of the Council of Europe, which foresee the extended use of minority languages,” Gahler said, going as far as declaring that the country “risks discrediting itself as an EU member and becoming a totalitarian state again if the new provisions are consistently applied”.

The main minority language in Slovakia is Hungarian, which means that Hungary is not pleased, either.  The Hungarian government has asked the Slovakian government to stop the law from being implemented, but they have this far declined, with Slovakian leaders saying that it is not discriminatory.

However, Laszlo Öllős, a political analyst, was quoted as saying that the law is very ambiguous, increasing the potential for abuse.  According to Mr. Öllős, it could even be interpreted to apply to conversations between doctors and patients who speak the same (minority) language.

Debates over “official languages” and how much support to give minority language speakers have raged in many different countries. All too often, the debates become more about hostilities between two different groups than about protecting a specific language or culture. Fining doctors and patients for conversing in a language that they both share seems to be somewhat mean-spirited, and possibly dangerous if it keeps the patient from getting the best possible care.

Online Role-Playing Game Teaches English to Chinese Students

According to the New York Times, the video game developer behind the popular Age of Empires game has just released a new video game in China aimed at teaching children a second language.

The fantasy role-playing game is called Wiz World Online, and it incorporates many of the elements that make role-playing games so exciting for children. For example, they get to choose their own avatars and solve challenges in a fantasy world. However, instead of testing how well they can combine spells or how fast they can press buttons, these challenges test their English skills.

The important thing about Wiz World Online is that it allows kids to practice everyday words and phrases in the language they are learning. Also, it allows them to pick up new skills as needed, by sending their character to a “wizard’s library” for English lessons.

By giving kids an incentive to practice, Wiz World Online helps them overcome the shortcomings of traditional, school-based language learning programs.

Alex Wang, the chief executive and co-founder of 8D world, the company responsible for the game, says that the seeds for the idea that later became Wiz World Online were planted during his first visit to America from China. Although he had studied English, he found that he had a hard time communicating in day-to-day conversations with English speakers. His classes simply hadn’t adequately prepared him to be alone in an English-speaking country.

Honestly, no matter how much you study a language in a classroom, visiting a country full of native speakers is likely to be a trial by fire. People use languages differently in real life than they are taught in class, and the only way to truly prepare for that would be to spend a lot of time talking to native speakers from the country and region that you are visiting before you go. Still, games like Wiz World Online have a place in language learning classrooms, especially if children like them enough to play them on their own time. Knowing the fundamentals makes it easier to catch on when you do travel to a foreign country, and too many language classes don’t even leave children with a fundamental grasp of the language.

How Does Learning Another Language Affect Your Brain?

How does a learning a new language shape your brain? Are the brains of bilingual people different from those of people who only speak one language? Despite our advanced medical technology and  fancy brain-imaging machines, our understanding of how the human brain works is still in its infancy.  This is true where learning a new language is concerned, as well.

However, an interesting case study recorded in detail by Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim at the University of Haifa may shed a little bit of light on the subject.  Dr. Ibrahim observed a brain-injury patient who had been fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic before he was injured. As he recovered, it became apparent that he had a speech disability called aphasia as a result of the injury. Even after undergoing rehabilitative therapy, some disability remained.

The interesting thing is that the man in the study showed a much greater improvement in being able to speak and write Arabic after rehabilitation than he did in Hebrew. Although Arabic was his first language, he was fluent in both before the injury. So, to Dr. Ibrahim, the patient’s experience seems to indicate that language skills for a second language are stored in a different part of the brain than language skills for your first language are.

In an article posted on the Science Daily website, Dr. Ibrahim explained why this one case study was significant:

“The examination of such cases carries much significance, since it is rare that we can find people who fluently speak two languages and who have sustained brain damage that has selectively affected one of the languages. Moreover, most of the evidence in this field is derived from clinical observations of brain damage in English- and Indo-European-speaking patients, and few studies have been carried out on individuals who speak other languages, especially Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic, until the present study,” he added.

Star Trek's Universal Translator: Coming Soon to an iPhone Near You?

Remember the Universal Translator from Star Trek? The translator enabled members of the Star Trek crew to understand alien languages as they were spoken. According to Geek.com, there is currently an iPhone app in beta that is reminiscent of the science-fiction device.

The iPhone app from Sakhr Software and Dial Directions, which is being used by US diplomats and soldiers in Iraq, can translate from Arabic to English and back again.

To use it, all you have to do is press a button on the iPhone and speak the phrase that you need to have translated. The app does the rest, using voice recognition algorithms to decipher what you are saying and translate it.

When the translation is complete, the app speaks the phrase in the other language, as well as displaying the translated version on the screen. Unlike earlier pocket translation programs, you don’t have to type anything.

Unlike most computerized translation programs, this one is actually pretty accurate, and based on this video demonstration, can even translate relatively difficult and complicated sentences.

As cool as it would be to have this on your own iPhone, it’s not available to the general public yet. But just imagine how much easier it would be to travel to another country if you had one of these!

Of course, I can’t see this app completely replacing trained, fluent and human interpreters who understand the nuances of both languages and cultures. Also, even if devices like this become common, it would still be preferable to learn as much of the language of the country you are visiting as possible. After all, most people prefer it when you talk to them, not to a machine. However, I think a pocket translator like this could make learning another language easier if you tried to learn from it instead of using it as a crutch.

Earliest Known Example of Cherokee Alphabet Found in Cave

According to the New York Times, carvings found in a cave in Kentucky are the earliest known examples of the Cherokee alphabet. The Cherokee alphabet is a syllabary devised by Sequoyah, a well-known Cherokee silversmith and soldier. Sequoyah observed how European settlers used writing to communicate, and was inspired to devise a similar system for his native Cherokee language.
The carvings found in the cave don’t spell anything. Instead, they are just a series of symbols, similar to the handwriting primers you may have used to practice your penmanship in school. This suggests that the carver was practicing forming the shapes of the letters in the wall of the cave. In addition to the letters, there is also a date, but it’s blurry. It could be either 1818 or 1808. If it’s 1808, the syllabary would have been in a very early stage of development, and the letters were probably carved by Sequoyah himself. If it’s 1818, the letters could have been carved by one of Sequoyah’s students, but it would still beat the earliest known example of the syllabary by at least a year.
Sequoyah’s wife destroyed some of his early work on the syllabary because she thought it was “the devil’s work,”  according to the New York Times article. However, he was able to teach the alphabet he developed to many of his fellow Cherokee, and they soon outpaced their white neighbors in literacy. The alphabet is still in use today.  One of the cool things that Kenneth B. Tankersley, the professor who discovered the carvings, hopes to learn is the degree to which some of the characters in the alphabet are related to ancient Cherokee glyphs.

According to the New York Times, carvings found in a cave in Kentucky are the earliest known examples of the Cherokee alphabet. The Cherokee alphabet is a syllabary devised by Sequoyah, a well-known Cherokee silversmith and soldier. Sequoyah observed how European settlers used writing to communicate, and was inspired to devise a similar system for his native Cherokee language.

earliest known examples of the Cherokee alphabet

The carvings found in the cave don’t spell anything. Instead, they are just a series of symbols, similar to the handwriting primers you may have used to practice your penmanship in school. This suggests that the carver was practicing forming the shapes of the letters in the wall of the cave. In addition to the letters, there is also a date, but it’s blurry. It could be either 1818 or 1808. If it’s 1808, the syllabary would have been in a very early stage of development, and the letters were probably carved by Sequoyah himself. If it’s 1818, the letters could have been carved by one of Sequoyah’s students, but it would still beat the earliest known example of the syllabary by at least a year.

Sequoyah’s wife destroyed some of his early work on the syllabary because she thought it was “the devil’s work,”  according to the New York Times article. However, he was able to teach the alphabet he developed to many of his fellow Cherokee, and they soon outpaced their white neighbors in literacy. The alphabet is still in use today.  One of the cool things that Kenneth B. Tankersley, the professor who discovered the carvings, hopes to learn is the degree to which some of the characters in the alphabet are related to ancient Cherokee glyphs.

Welsh to Headline Top American Arts Festival

The 10 day Smithsonian Folklife Festival takes place in Washington DC from the 24th June. The 2009 festival focuses on Wales and Welsh heritage.

Over 100 firms, artists and experts will be attending the festival to showcase contemporary Welsh culture, industry and traditions under the theme of sustainability.

The annual Smithsonian Festival is held at the National Mall, which is where President Obama was inaugurated in January.

The Welsh programme of events includes talks by five up and coming Welsh writers, the woodland charity Coed Cymru who will showcase their affordable housing project, Cardiff choir ‘Only Men Aloud!’ and various Welsh professions.

There will be a ‘pub’ stage and a main stage which are designed to represent urban and rural environments; they have even erected some rugby goal posts!

It will be an interesting event for those visiting Washington DC this summer.

Welsh Language Opera Company Launched

A new Welsh language opera company was launched this week. Opera is performed throughout the world in various languages for example Italian, Spanish and English. Wales is known for being the ‘land of song’ but there are not many operas performed in the Welsh language.

The company has been set up by Patrick and Sioned Young, the Welsh opera company was launched on Sunday 21st June with a concert which featured eight soloists and an orchestra.

Mr Young, an opera director who has worked with the Royal Opera House told Walesonline:

“We wanted to set up the company because there’s so much talent here in Wales and people don’t get to perform in their own language.”

It has taken the couple a year to set up the company ‘Opra’. They approached the Arts Council of Wales who has supported their idea. Their plan is to stage an event every summer and also start a small scale autumn tour, during which some of the best known operas will be performed in Welsh.

The couple are now trying to secure further funding to support their company.

Welsh Language Activist Denied US Visa

Arfon Gwilym, a Welsh folk singer, author and the director of Gwynn Music Publishers, has been denied a visa to visit the United States, according to Celtic News.

Mr. Gwilym had been invited to perform at the Smithsonian Institute’s cultural festival, which takes place next week. However, the US Embassy denied him a visa based on “moral turpitude” for acts he engaged in many years ago as a Welsh language activist with Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Society.

What does it take to get denied a visa on grounds of “moral turpitude?” Not that much, apparently. According to Wales Online, although Mr. Gwilym was sent to jail three times, his crimes consisted of non-violent activities like taking down road signs as part of a campaign for bilingual road signs and occupying a house to protest against English speakers occupying second homes in Wales.

In the UK, Mr. Gwilym is even considered to have a clean record, because the crimes all took place in the late 60s and early 70s. Under UK law, after a certain period of time, convictions become “spent” and fall off your record. In the United States, however, there is no such thing as a “spent conviction:” once something is on your record, it stays there.

Mr. Gwilym has appealed to US President Barack Obama for assistance via email. From the Celtic News article referenced above, here’s an excerpt of the email he sent:

“After September 11 I can understand the concern for safety in your country, and I can understand also why you do not wish to see murderers and rapists enter your country. May I respectfully suggest that you would not be in your present position were it not for the great battle for civil rights in your country when it was necessary to break the law in order to succeed. Can you imagine Martin Luther King and other civil rights campaigners being refused entry into Britain for ‘moral turpitude’?”

You know, the man has a point…

To Tweet or Not To Tweet-That Is the Question

Well, its official. “Twitter” has officially joined the English language as a verb, at least according to the Associated Press.

The latest addition of the AP’s Stylebook (the style Bible for most of the press) includes the verb “to Twitter” as acceptable usage. Of course, if you use Twitter, you may be aware that some people say “to tweet” instead of “to twitter.”

Snotty grammar geeks on both sides of the divide often step up to ostentatiously correct each other in blog comments and forums.

Currently, it’s almost impossible to talk about Twitter without sounding foolish to somebody. Nobody disputes that an update posted on Twitter is a tweet, but saying “I just posted a tweet” sounds awkward, so you really do have to take sides.

Has the AP settled the debate? Actually, no… They have also approved the use of “tweet” as a verb, leaving the word choice up to individual writers.

So which is it, to twitter or to tweet? The AP may not be taking sides, but Twitter co-founder Biz Stone did, in an interview with TV show The View, last month. According to Mr. Stone, “to Twitter” is the preferred nomenclature.

In addition to approving the use of “twitter” and “tweet,” the AP Stylebook also has its very own Twitter account. You can keep in touch with them by following @ AP Stylebook. However, they don’t take grammar questions through the Twitter account. If you have additional questions about how to write about Twitter’s products and services, you can use the “Ask the Editor” feature on the AP website.

By the way, a couple of weeks ago, we reported that the English language was about to acquire its one-millionth word, at least according to the publicity-hungry folks at the Global Language Monitor. Oddly enough, the one-millionth word was recently declared to be “Web 2.0.”

Google Analytics gets Spanish Blog

Web giant Google have just launched a Spanish version of their analytics blog.

The blog covers a range of Google measurement tools including Google Analytics, Website Optimizer, Insights for Search, AdPlanner and others.

Both Googlers and Google Analytics Authorized Consultants (GAAC’s) who speak Spanish will use the blog to share basic tips and advanced web analytics techniques which will hopefully help the decision makers integrate data from these tools into their business strategies.

The blog has been named ‘Central de Conversiones’. Important posts from the English Google Analytics blog will be translated into Spanish and uploaded onto the new blog. There will also be original content created and share studies which will be specific to the Spanish speaking markets.

The English blog is very useful so this new blog should open Google Analytics to a much wider audiences.

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