This week in languages: Oct 16, 2015

by on October 16, 2015

9/10/15–16/10/15

Headlines

The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing a new program that would allow for real-time “essential” battlefield translation between all 7,000 of the world’s existing languages. The Low Resource Languages for Emergent Incidents (LORELEI) programme does not hope to “comprehensively translate”, but rather aims to provide “key information—things such as names, events, sentiment and relationships—from public news sources in any language”, including rare and not-well-understood languages. Contracts for Phase 1 of LORELEI have been awarded to 13 organisations and institutions, and include the development of both a Technology Development Environment and Run-Time Framework for LORELEI.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco spoke at the opening of the Moroccan Parliament on Saturday about a new law that would make Amazigh an official language alongside Arabic in the kingdom. The King noted that both languages “have always fostered unity” and that any decision taken by the Moroccan Parliament should ensure that the languages “will never be the cause of dissension and division”.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, proposed legislation that would make Arabic a “compulsory subject” was rejected by a National Assembly standing committee on law and justice. Committee chair Chaudhry Mahmood Bashir Virk observed that the learning of Arabic was already mentioned in and supported by Article 31 of Pakistan’s constitution, while two other committee members noted that making Arabic another compulsory subject on top of others such as English would put undue stress on Pakistani students.

A new Tahitian dance performance encouraging its audience to consider the decline of the Tahitian language (French) finished its inaugural three-day run today in Papeete. Entitled “The Contempt of Silence”, the show was performed by Tahitian dance troupe Manahau, who “were forced to acknowledge their occasional inability to speak their own language”, and devised by the troupe’s leader, Jean-Marie Biret. Also on stage this week was bilingual Singaporean comedy “Chinglish”, with actors delivering lines in English, Mandarin Chinese and occasionally a mix of both, and with subtitles for those unable to follow the latter two. “Chinglish” has received positive reviews since its opening show on Sunday, and will run until October 25 in Singapore.

The third annual Polyglot Conference was held in New York City over the weekend, drawing some seven hundred attendees. An impressive list of polyglot speakers included Timothy Doner, Michael Erard, John McWhorter, Loraine K. Obler, and David J. Peterson. Next year’s venue has already been announced as Thessaloniki, Greece. Also celebrated this week were Niue Lanugage Week in New Zealand, Irish Sign Language Awareness Week, the All-India Regional Languages Conference in Jalandhar, India— whose participants called for greater efforts to preserve India’s regional languages—, the Festival Acadiens et Creoles in Lafayette, Louisiana in the United States—which showcased among other things Cajun and Creole French—and the 32nd annual First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, celebrating the languages and traditions of various indigenous groups, including AthabascanYup’ik and Tlingit. The mood at the latter was especially festive after it was announced that Alaskan Governor Bill Walker had declared the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples Day in Alaska. The Fijian Times also ran a short review of New Zealand’s Fijian/iTaukei language week held last week.

Malta has joined the sizeable number of European Union member countries making plans to help migrants learn local languages. The Times of Malta reported on Tuesday that the Maltese Education Ministry is currently developing a syllabus to help migrants who do not know either English or Maltese.

A Irish-medium radio documentary on Manx topped the “Best Irish Language” [Craoltóireacht le Gaeilge] category at the Phonographic Performance Ireland awards on Friday. The documentary, entitled “Us and the Manx” [Muidne agus na Manannaigh] provides an in-depth look at the current Manx language revival, a focus which earned it praise from Manx media.

The Dalai Lama highlighted the need to protect the Tibetan language and Tibetan culture on Saturday while speaking to students and staff at a Tibetan school in Dharamsala, calling Tibetan “the lifeline” that has kept the Tibetan identity together. Mexican historian and philosopher Miguel Léon-Portilla argued for the same spirit of regard and preservation for all languages in his Premio Alfonso Reyes 2015 acceptance speech on Saturday, commenting that “every language is another beautiful world” (Spanish).

The Bible has been completely translated into Tzotzil, an achievement that was the result of some 25 years of work on the part of nearly 60 communities in the municipality of Los Altos in Chiapas, Mexico. The feat was celebrated with a mass in Chiapas. Tzotzil is (as of 2014) the 532nd language that the Bible has been translated into. Separately, Mexico also saw its first mass in Nahuatl, held at the Basilica of Guadelupe in Mexico City.

Thailand intends to introduce several new education reforms over the next two years, including the implementation of Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) standards for English language assessment. Deputy Education Minister Teerakiat Jaroensettasin noted that teachers would also be assessed using CEFR benchmarks.

Commentaries and Features

Where else might one find polyglots besides the Polyglot Conference? Mecca, as it turns out, is quite the polyglot city, according to the Saudi Gazette, with Meccan polyglot residents eager to help Hajj pilgrims who might not speak the local variety of Arabic. Also profiled by the BBC as polyglot cities were Port Moresby, Jakarta, Lagos, Delhi and Los Angeles (Spanish), in which altogether some three hundred languages are represented. Not to be outdone was Seattle, whose students speak some 167 languages.

The Internet is set to become more multilingual than ever when the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), currently managed by the United States Department of Commerce, becomes an independent entity sometime in the next year. Al-Jazeera America considered the implications this will have for “non-American content and languages other than English”, including domain names with full display functionality in Hangul, Cyrillic, and the Arabic abjad. (However, Al-Jazeera America also noted the United States’ longstanding reluctance to move on the issue).

Should the United States adopt English as its official language? Linda Bentley at The Sonoran News highlights the case of Terri Bennett and suggests that the “unifying” position of English in the country is being jeopardised by policies that favour multilingualism.

Indeed, what should people in the same country speak—one language or many? Clare Foges argued rather forcefully in The Telegraph that what she calls the “linguistic abasement” of English in the United Kingdom in favour of other languages is “multicultural nonsense” that is creating a significant barrier to integration and the development of a cohesive British identity, as well as the “reinforcing of ghettos”. Ooi Kok Hin in The Malaysian Insider called for tolerance of an individual’s linguistic choices, arguing that “If people do not want to learn either language, then I say, fine”; however, he also noted that “if you are weak in a particular language but realise its importance in communicating with other Malaysians, learn it”. Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem noted that “putting priority to English and Mandarin does not mean one is neglecting the national language” [Malay in Malaysia], while Miguel Ángel Bastenier took the middle ground, asserting that the evolution of language and shifts in what is considered standard are “unavoidable” (Spanish), although he highlighted that English in its various forms has undergone a “dizzying evolution” that Spanish has not.

Cultural appropriation is unfortunately alive and well, and especially in its more insidious form of linguistic appropriation; as Nahla Aboutabi argues at James Madison University’s The Breeze, Arabic has become especially susceptible to exploitation since the War on Terror began 15 years ago.

The Hindu described a growing movement in favor of having India’s regional airlines provide in-flight announcements in the regional languages of the destinations they serve, and more than just in English and Hindi.

Tanja Cranz examined the “linguistic legacy” of the Cold War in Germany on the Oxford University Press blog, and considered whether words from the former German Democratic Republic have altered the standard German lexicon.

Interested in learning Sanskrit? The Bangalore Mirror featured Bangladeshi lawyer S Arun and his organisation Sanskrit Awareness through Virtual Education (SAVE)’s new project, known as Sanskrit to a Billion, which hopes to provide a multitude of platforms and avenues for all types of learners to approach the Sanskrit language through crowdfunding. The project can be found here at CrowdRabbit.

How much of a role does language play for incoming European Union migrants in where they choose to settle? Jeremy Hobson examines the question with University of Duisburg-Essen professor Ulrich Ammon at wbur‘s Here and Now programme. However, some migrants might not have this choice: Sally Hunt observed that the British government’s decision to reduce spending on English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes in the country will have only negative effects on migrants’ standard of living, ability to locate a job, and other such facets of life in a new country.

French might be a significant barrier to startups in Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Senegal, Cameroon, and other French-speaking countries in Africa. As CEO of Ivorian startup Airshop Francis Yapobi explained to VentureBurn, Francofrique entrepreneurs remain unable to create “bridges between our ecosystems” and those of the more successful startups in Ghana, Kenya, and other English-speaking countries in the region.

The once-dying Dhudhuroa language is “waking up” in the state of Victoria in Australia; however, it remains, at best, an “esoteric” language, according to Timna Jacks in The Age Victoria. Viewed as less esoteric (thankfully) is Frank Yamma’s music in Pitjantjatjara—the Australian singer and songwriter explains why he chooses to create music in the language in an interview with InDaily. Also profiled this week were Mohawk in Kahnwake, Canada, where revitalisation efforts seem to be making great headway, according to Christopher Curtis in The Montreal Gazette, and in the United States, Dakotah, which has just received its first dictionary (Subscription), and Shoshone, among the other languages that Lewis and Clark’s translator Sacagewea spoke.

Demand for Egypt’s Arabic language courses is rebounding after the chaotic political situation that overtook the country in 2011, observes The PIE News, while demand for Tokyo’s Burmese language courses in the city’s “Little Yangon” is also growing, notes the Nikkei Asian Review. Not to be outdone, Kenya’s Mandarin language courses are also seeing a surge of interest, especially following the establishment of four Confucius Institutes around the country; but is the world running low on Mandarin Chinese teachers? Meanwhile, Spanish is thriving as evidenced by the debates (Spanish) it is causing across the world, writes José Guillermo Zelaya in La Prensa Grafica.

Several new works on language were highlighted in the media this week. Pondicherry University professor K Rajan’s monograph on the as-of-yet-undeciphered Indus Valley script, “Early Writing System: A journey from Graffiti to Brahmi” in The Times of India, and University of Notre Dame professor Barry McCrea’s Languages of the Night: Minor Languages and the Literary Imagination in Twentieth-century Ireland and Europe in The Irish Times both received in-depth reviews and examinations of their content. In Kenya, The Star profiled the latest anthology of fiction released by Pan-African writers’ collective Jalada, which highlights languages and language use in Africa. In the United States, Michelle Toh and Griselda Nevarez profiled a new study that suggests there are numerous advantages to being a “balanced bilingual”, while Suzanne Wilson spoke glowingly of the new documentary “Rising Voices/Hothaninpi: Revitalizing the Lakota Language”, and described some of her own experiences with Lakota.

Several artists were also featured this week: Jalada also released an interview with Nigerian author Chika Unigwe about Hausa literature and writing in different languages as part of its ongoing Jalada Conversations series, while Kashmir Life profiled writer-actor Syed Abdul Rashid Gumgeen about his experiences writing, acting and directing in Kashmiri. Finally, The Quietus spoke to British artist Anna Barham and highlighted her interest in, among other things, squid, Siri, and “language as a found object”.

South Africa’s debate over whether African languages should be compulsory for university students continues, with University of Leipzig researcher Stephanie Rudwick suggesting that such a move will stymie students’ interest and create resentment toward the language, a process that she suggests is already happening in Zulu lessons at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Also in South Africa: sadly, it appears that Afrikaans is being used as a vehicle to resurrect apartheid-era slogans, songs and other “tools of exclusion”, and this in turn is contributing to a ferocious backlash against the language, as Max du Preez observes at News24.

How should English speakers deal with the changes sweeping across their language? Three university faculty weigh in: Fiji National University’s Ravnil Narayan asserts that speakers should try and understand when and how to code-switch between Standard and “techno” English, while University of Columbia’s John McWhorter believes that gender neutral pronouns like ze will eventually become an accepted part of the English lexicon, regardless of the current debate surrounding their use. (Here at Unravel, we’re already using them.) Rutgers University’s Richard Epstein discussed the differences between prescriptive and descriptive grammar, and who decides what counts as good grammar in Standard American English: according to him, it’s “the grammar patterns of rich white men”.

Finally, Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic provided some predictions as to what the next few emoji included by Unicode in 2016 might be, with a full list of 63 candidates and some fascinating insights into how the entire selection process takes place, while Nick Patch at OurWindsor.ca went a step further and examined just how many enthralled “word nerds” there might be among millennials (with the oldest Unravel editorial team member turning 27 this year, we can say with confidence that there are quite a few!)

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