This week in languages: April 6, 2018

by on April 6, 2018

This week’s round up compiles language news from the last fortnight.



The Canadian National Film Board has launched an Indigenous Cinema website with more than 200 films directed by indigenous people available for streaming! The repository contains short- and feature-length films from 1968 to 2017, and is part of the NFB’s three-year Indigenous Action Plan, which includes other commitments to bring awareness to indigenous languages and culture.

In a lush region in British Colombia, Canada called Lower Nicola, one would hear the indigenous language nłeʔkepmxcin spoken. The Lower Nicola Indian Band language nest sees “kids as young as a couple months old are seated alongside their siblings, parents and elders” interacting in the one of the First Nations languages. Running three days a week, the programme—made possible by the $50 million investment in language revitalisation programmes by the BC government’s budget—emulates family visits and empowers new speakers whose ancestors did not learn nłeʔkepmxcin due to the “legacy of the residential school system”, reports Merritt Herald.

On March 19th, Alaska lawmakers declared emergency status for the state’s 20 indigenous languages on the verge of extinction. This week, the Department of Education in Alaska announced new programmes to support Native-American language learning amongst Native students, as well as to improve English proficiency.

Spoken in northern Turkey’s Black Sea region, Kusdili (bird language) is an endangered whistled language that’s about to get an alphabet. Turkish academics (from linguists to musicians) are planning to create an alphabet for the language to “pass on this cultural heritage to future generations”. UNESCO has listed Kusdili as being “in need of urgent safeguarding”.

Commentaries and Features

Language researchers from the University of Newcastle, Australia and Western Sydney University have published a new paper in the journal, Ditchronica, speculating and proving that all of the country’s indigenous languages stemmed from a single source called “Proto-Australian”, according to this piece in the BBC News. “However, he said the findings did not fit well with existing understandings of how populations had moved across the continent.”

One does not need to speak aloud anymore to get a message across. This may soon be the case with MIT researchers’ development of a computer interface that can transcribes subtle neuromuscular signals in our jaw—signals that supposedly correspond with the words/subvocalisations in our head before we utter anything. In practical terms, the interface is expected to offer an alternative means of communication in a high-noise environment, e.g. in a power plant, or where speech communication is situationally non-feasible, e.g in special ops, or simply impossible, e.g. in the case of a disability.

Does moving at a glacial pace mean you’re going too fast or too slow? Rob Nixon writes about the changing semantics of the English language in a time of climate change, in this piece for Aeon. “As consciousness of climate change has grown, a new class of dead metaphors has entered the English language. We speak routinely of carbon footprints, of wiping species off the face of the Earth, and of greenhouse gases, but we no longer see the feet, the hands, the faces and the backyard sheds that were once vivid when those phrases were newly coined.”

Living out of one’s native country for prolonged periods of time could be at the cost of proficiency in one’s native tongue. More fillers, pauses and backtracking, and a blunted discernment of appropriate pronouns and honorifics to use, are some features that characterise this phenomenon of language loss, known as language attrition. If you foresee language attrition to cost you the opportunity of a job upon return to your native country from a foreign land, this article by Monika Schmid, Professor of Linguistics in the University of Sussex, is well worth a read for its tips on how to better your position in the job market.

Bestselling Italian writer Elena Ferrante dislikes the use of the exclamation mark:

“How much exclaiming the phony innovators of political communication engage in, the blowhards in power, young and old, who tweet nonstop every day. Sometimes I think that exclamation marks are a sign not of emotional exuberance but of aridity, of a lack of trust in written communication.”

Read what she has to say over at her column for The Guardian (!!!).

Sinhala, Tamil, and English are the three most widely-spoken languages in Sri Lanka, but they are joined by many less well-known minority languages, including Sri Lankan Malay. Spoken by the Malay community, this language and its associated culture and traditions have recently become the object of preservation efforts.

With free skills-upgrading credits for all citizens above 25 years old from the Singapore government, foreign language classes on the tiny island-nation with four official languages (English, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil) are seeing an increase in demand. “Singaporeans used to learn a foreign language mainly for pragmatic reasons, but more are now doing so out of interest, said language-school operators.”

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