Can Computers Help Preserve Indigenous Languages?

According to the BBC, nearly half of the world’s 6,500 languages are expected to disappear over the next 100 years. Languages die when people stop speaking them and stop teaching them to their children. This has happened all over the world, with one of many examples being the fate of Native American languages after Europeans began to settle the continent.

Native Americans were confined to reservations, and Native American children were taken from the parents and sent to boarding schools, where instructors would punish them for speaking their native languages.

However, many Native American tribes are now making efforts to revitalise their languages through language learning and immersion programs in schools. One Native American couple, Mary Hermes and Kevin Roach, founded a non-profit organisation called Grassroots Educational Multimedia to provide people with tools to learn Native American languages.

The organisation teamed up with a company called Transparent Language to create language learning software for the Ojibwe language. The software allows Ojibwe students to create flashcards and watch videos of native speakers conversing in Ojibwe.

Another benefit of this software is that it has helped to document the vocabulary and grammar of the Ojibwe language. Before this project, the language’s grammatical structure was poorly documented.

So, with this software, GEM and Transparent Language have created a portable system people can use to learn Ojibwe at home, created a record of native speakers’ conversations, and created a map of Ojibwe grammar.

Even better, this approach provides a way to circumvent the emotional issues involved in trying to revive a dying language. As the Earth Times notes,

‘The history of the near genocide of the indigenous people of North America and the repression of their cultures and languages has meant that many emotions can get stirred up when indigenous people try to learn their own languages. They may encounter feelings of shame that they don’t know their indigenous language, feelings of anger at the trauma their people have endured, and feelings of embarrassment when they attempt to speak their language with the vocabulary of a two year old. Tribal elders who are fluent in the indigenous language may feel too jaded or just be too few in number to offer enough assistance. Often the indigenous language learner hits a place of cultural loss and insecurity that they have great difficulty overcoming.’ –Earth Times

Practicing at home, at a computer, gives language learners a chance to overcome these issues privately, and means that elders who grew up speaking the language can more easily pass it on. Also, this software gives students learning the language at school a fun way to practice outside of class.

Hopefully, this approach will help linguists document endangered languages and help language activists teach them, at least in places where computers are readily available.

The Language of Love

Valentine’s Day is approaching fast, a time when we express our love with cards and presents. Love is honoured on this day throughout the world.

Valentine’s Day is shrouded with myths of sacred marriage, fertility and romance. The true St. Valentine was a Christian saint but very little is known about him. Originally St Valentine’s Day was celebrated as a Christian feast but it was abandoned due to lack of solid information. There are many Valentine’s in history martyred by the church and until 1969 the Catholic Church actually celebrated 11 Valentine’s Days throughout the year.

Language is a very important part of the Valentine’s celebrations. Billions of cards are sent on Valentine’s making it the second most popular time to send cards behind Christmas. What is said in the card can mean so much to the receiver even when the sender sticks with tradition and sends their words anonymously.

There are certain languages which have an association with love, French and Italian being the most famous romantic languages.French has a reputation for being the language of love; its flowing sound makes it perfect for flamboyant love poems. Descending from Latin, French is one of the ‘romance languages’ and is spoken as a first language by approximately 128 million people around the world.

Valentine’s Day has no real connection with French but the perception is that the French are very romantic. This may or may not be true, I would guess that it depends on the individual but the smooth, romantic tones of their language impress people from around the world on this day for lovers.

Valentine’s Day has become a very commercial event perhaps we should do something extra special this year, learn a phrase in French and recite it to your loved one. Below we have included some examples to get you started….

Bonne Saint Valentin! – Happy Valentine’s Day!

Je t’aime – I love you

Mon amour pour toi est éternel – My love for you is eternal

Je t’aime de tout mon cœur – I love you with all my heart

À toi, pour toujours – Yours forever

Tendres baisers – Love and kisses

Je veux passer la reste de ma vie avec toi – I want to spend the rest of my life with you.

Tu es la femme de ma vie – you are the woman of my life (a man talking to a woman and telling her)

Un bouquet de fleurs – a bunch of flowers
Une bague – a ring

With it being Valentines Day those romantic men among you may want to ask….
Veux-tu m’épouser ? – Marry me? (Will you be my wife?)

Or if you want to be cheeky….
On va chez toi ou chez moi ? – Your place or mine?

To Learn a Foreign Language, Listen

If you’re struggling with learning a new language, try listening to native speakers. That’s the conclusion of a new study from Victoria University in New Zealand.

According to the Daily Mail, researchers have discovered that listening to people talk or sing in a foreign language makes learning that language easier, even if you haven’t the foggiest idea what they are saying.

How is this possible? When babies start learning language, their brains develop neural structures that allow them to understand and process the different combinations of sounds in their native language. However, when you learn a new language, you are often confronted with combinations of sounds that you’ve never encountered before. It can be difficult to learn and remember words in a foreign language because your brain doesn’t have the appropriate neural structures to do so.

The good news is that over time, simply hearing a new language spoken will cause your brain to grow new neural tissue to process the new combinations of sound, just as a baby does when learning its first language. As your brain becomes more attuned to the sounds of the new language, it will become easier for you to speak and understand it.

Dr. Paul Sulzberger, the author of the study, summed the results up nicely when he told the Daily Mail, “To learn a language you have to grow the appropriate brain tissue, and you do this by lots of listening – songs and movies are great.”

Often, foreign language students wait until they can actually understand the spoken language to start watching television or listening to music in that language. This study suggests that is the wrong approach to take.

If you’re learning a new language, try to find music, movies and television that feature people speaking in that language. Listen to the music on your MP3 player or watch a TV show while you eat dinner. If you keep listening to native speakers and try to learn the language, it won’t be long before what you’re hearing starts to make sense!

Foreign Footballers Face Language Test

January can be a stressful month for any British football manager, as the transfer window opens clubs have 31 days in which to sell and buy players. New immigration laws which came in to affect in autumn 2008 will make things even harder.

The new points based visa system means that any players who are from outside the European Union will have to apply for a Tier 2 skilled worker visa and prove that they have a basic level of English before they will be allowed to permanently stay and play professional football in Britain.

In the premier league today there are approximately 100 players who came here from outside the EU. To qualify in the Tier 2 skilled category, elite sportspeople and coaches must accumulate sufficient points in a range of areas to do with their work and status.

It was revealed last week that footballers will be allowed to work in Britain under Tier 5 of the new immigration rules. Within a year in Britain they must take and pass an English language test to qualify for Tier 2 status and continue working in this country. This is excellent news for the Football Association as they now have time to educate their foreign players here in the UK rather than expecting them to learn proficient enough English before they come here. The exemption was brought in because of a request by the FA.

The WAGs (Wives and Girlfriends) who come with the players will be required to have a reasonable standard of English before they enter the country.

These new laws seem like a great idea, it will be interesting to see how they get on. It must be very hard for players who move here with very limited English or none at all. It will be good for English football clubs and the game itself as it will help players integrate into British life; a little English can go a long way. It’s understandable that a player from Brazil (or anywhere outside Europe) will struggle to learn the language at first but just a few simple phrases will help him settle in. Tolerance of foreign nationals is good in Britain and translation services are freely available.

If England’s manager Fabio Capello can do it so can the rest!

Chinese New Year 2009

Today is Chinese New Year an ancient festival which is celebrated not only in China but around the world.

This year is the ‘Year of the Ox’ which symbolises prosperity through fortitude and hard work.

Chinese New Year is an exciting, flamboyant event. As the clock strikes midnight the firecrackers are set off making a deafening sound and colourful fireworks fill the sky. Crowds of people meet in the streets to greet each other and exchange gifts.

There are many traditions and superstitions surrounding Chinese New Year. Red envelopes (also known as ‘lucky money’) are given from married couples and the elderly to young people who are not married and young children. They are filled with money, varying from a couple of dollars to a few hundred, which is said to suppress evil spirits.

The money enclosed in the envelope must be an even number. Although you will never find $4 in one as the number 4 is considered bad luck. The number 8 however is said to be good luck so it is very common for young children to receive $8.

Fireworks are incredibly popular on Chinese New Year. It started back in ancient China when they used to fill bamboo sticks with gun powder. These were burnt to create small explosions thought to scare away evil spirits.

In modern times the firecracker has taken the place of these homemade death traps. Usually firecrackers hang from a string, wrapped in red paper, with gunpowder at the centre. Firecrackers are known for their deafening explosions which as in ancient China it is said to drive away evil spirits.

Although Firecrackers are an integral part of the New Year’s celebrations they have been known to have caused many injuries over the years, which led to the government banning the use of firecrackers for years. Incidents of blinding, people loosing body parts and other grievous bodily harm incidents are reported every year, more commonly in the New Year’s festival season.

The bans on fireworks don’t seem to last forever as many major cities across China and around the world have lifted their bans on these products. It seems that after major incidents like the deaths of 6 people and 58 others injured, governments ban firecrackers for anything up to ten years. After that they start using them again until there is another major catastrophe where people loose their lives.

A lot of the traditions surrounding the festival are about scaring or driving away evil spirits, to start afresh going into the New Year. Everything is centred on the colour red, during the 15 days of Chinese New Year. All of these traditions and symbols are used to invoke luck, happiness and prosperity for the year ahead.

Cheeseburgery Hamburgers

Cheeseburgery Hamburgers

On the FT’s blogs today Tony Barber wrote this article about his recent experience of machine translation.

After hearing a recommendation that bloggers should use computerised translation to provide foreign language replicas of their own blogs, he decided to put Google Translate to the test.

I won’t spoil it for you – the full article is here but there is one section that made us laugh for a good fifteen minutes… taken from a Polish Newspaper (Gazeta Wyborcza) and translated into English using Google Translate it says,

“A sign of the collapse of the French culture of the restaurant is visible on the streets of Paris rash of quick-service bar, offering generally pogardzane a few years ago and cheeseburgery hamburgers.”

Cheeseburgery Hamburgers – brilliant.

BTW – I’ve been talking about how poor machine translation is for a long time (actually wrote a paper on it at uni).

Sell to foreign visitors

Everyone is being affected by the recession (which only really started on Friday) but perhaps the most visible is on the high street. Walk down any high street in the UK and it is apparent how hard the retailers are trying to sell their products.

In the FT this weekend was a great article titled, ‘Foreign shoppers cash in on falling pound’, to summarise it said that while UK shoppers are finding it increasing difficult to spend money as in 2007 people from abroad were travelling to the UK to shop. This is especially true of big ticket items such as TVs, jewellery and even new cars.

This is helped by the change in value of £ sterling. In case you’ve not noticed the value of the £ in the international currency markets has fallen dramatically, meaning that currencies such as the Yen and US Dollar are now respectively 70% and 35% stronger (in relation to the Pound) than they were in 2007. This on top of the discounts that UK shops are offering lead to massive savings for the shopper coming from abroad.

And they have money to spend, research carried out by the Financial Times shows the average spend per person to be as follows;
Middle East – £1,974
Nigeria – £1,496
Russia – £1,456
China – £1,252
Malaysia – £760
Hong Kong – £747
USA – £631
Japan – £542

The languages that they speak are, Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Russian, French, Japanese and Malay. This is almost 80% of all foreign shoppers.

If you are in retail (and I include both online and high street) one way to differentiate yourself from the competition is to translate your marketing material into the 7 languages listed above, giving you a much greater chance of selling to 80% of the foreign shoppers.

Ask yourself – which is the more sustainable business model?
1) providing translation in 7 languages to take advantage of the cheap £, increased amount of foreign shoppers and their willingness to buy expensive items, or,
2) continually discounting your low mark-up goods by anything up to 80% in the hope that the UK consumer will buy from you and not the guy next door.

If you can read about a project/service before you can buy it and the sales assistants (via telephone interpreting) can converse in your language you are many times more likely to make a purchase.

Its not rocket science… translating your material opens up new markets.

Lá Nua Closes Its Doors

Lá Nua, the only Irish language newspaper published on a daily basis, has closed down due to a lack of funding.

Lá Nua, which means “New Day” in Irish, stopped its presses at the end of the year. The newspaper had been in print for more than 20 years, but according to, there simply wasn’t enough demand to keep publishing it.

The newspaper was funded by Foras na Gaeilge, an organisation set up to promote the development of the Irish language and to serve as its governing body. According to Eurolang, the organisation stopped funding the paper because not enough people were reading it.

However, the paper’s managing director, Mairtin Ó Muilleoir, believes the decision was made too hastily. He is quoted as telling the Belfast Telegraph, “At a time when an Irish-speaking Gaeltacht Quarter is taking shape in west Belfast, the decision to stop publishing a daily newspaper is counterintuitive and unwise.”

According to Wikipedia, the newspaper had a circulation of “a few thousand” readers. The paper has been struggling for some time: according to this blog post, it almost closed in March of 2008, again due to funding issues.

While it’s definitely sad that Ireland no longer has a daily newspaper written in Irish, Foras na Gaeilge is going to replace Lá Nua with a weekly publication and a website. They’re currently looking for a company to publish it and offering a grant of 400,000 euros per year. If demand grows for a daily newspaper written in Irish, they might be willing to start funding for a daily paper again.

The closure of the paper is an excellent example of how hard it is to reverse the decline of a language once the process has started. Of course, that doesn’t make it any less of a worthwhile endeavour, but it does offer a lesson about the importance of encouraging language preservation before the situation becomes dire.

Chinese Censor Obama

This week saw the inauguration of Barack Obama. We thought that the event was admired by people the whole world over… but not true, he did manage to offend someone – the Chinese government.

References to both ‘communism’ and ‘dissent’ were deleted from Chinese translations of the newly appointed president’s speech. The Chinese government are (sadly) well known for omitting media material they feel would cause difficulties or upset in their country but this is taking it one step too far.

During a televised English report of the speech translated into Chinese the state run Chinese Central Television (CCTV), which is the main television broadcaster in mainland China, cut back suddenly to the studio as Obama mentioned ‘communism’. The shows presenter had to think on her feet as she was not expecting the sudden return to air. She quickly asked her Washington correspondent a random question on the US economy.

Chinese television is not usually live so that they have time to edit what is shown. For example during the Beijing Olympics there was a constant 10 second delay as the government were concerned about free-Tibet activists upsetting proceedings.

We think that it is an outrage that a government can cover up and change what was arguably the most important moment in world history.

The people of China (and in fact all people) should have the right to hear other world leaders’ opinions whether their government agree with them or not.

Star Trek: The next generation of gadgets

According to National Geographic, every 14 days another language passes into oblivion. New languages are created at a much slower rate. Usually, new languages evolve naturally from older languages over time. On the other hand, sometimes new languages are simply created from fiction. These languages are called constructed languages. One of the most commonly spoken constructed languages is Klingon, the language spoken by Klingons in Star Trek.

Star Trek is known for having the most rabid set of fans ever, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Klingon has become a language with its own dictionary, an organisation called the Klingon Language Institute that was founded to promote it, translated editions of Gilgamesh and plays by Shakespeare, and now, a keyboard that’s lettered exclusively in Klingon.

DVICE has a review of the keyboard that begins with the question “Are you one of the biggest nerds in the world?” If you are a fluent Klingon speaker who has always wanted to be able to express your thoughts more fluently in Klingon, this keyboard is for you.

DVICE gave it a low rating because of its limited utility for the rest of us puny earthlings, but what’s really interesting about their review is the comments section, which quickly turns into a lively debate over whether or not Klingon is a “real” language.

So, is Klingon a “real” language? Yes and no. It’s a constructed language, true, but according to Wikipedia there are at least 12 people who can speak it fluently. This means that in the sense that it can be used by two people to communicate, it is a real language. However, it’s missing one of the key features of a natural language, the ability to evolve over time.

Klingon vocabulary is limited to official Klingon words supplied by its creator, Marc Okrand. He adds new words to the language every so often, but the language doesn’t evolve without his approval.

It will be interesting to see how long Klingon survives under these circumstances…will anyone still speak Klingon generations from now? What happens to the language after its creator passes on?