This week in languages: Dec 4, 2015

by on December 4, 2015



Using the Uni gadget, an automatic American Sign Language (ASL) translator that can be attached on a tablet, deaf persons can now better communicate with hearing people who don’t know ASL! Uni records sign language gestures and translates them into speech, and can also convert speech into text for its deaf users to read. Its inventors hope that the technology will increase the number of job opportunities for the hearing-impaired.

Google Translate has added the Star Wars equivalent of the English alphabet, known as Aurebesh, to its list of available languages, as part of a wider array of marketing tie-ins leading up to the release of the seventh film in the Star Wars saga on December 18th.

The Malaysian state of Sarawak has just made English its second official language. While some have lauded this move, others have noted that without changes to the education system and concrete steps towards the improvement of the use of English, this may just be an empty gesture. Language is a prickly issue in Malaysia, with some politicians and people criticising the move as they feel that this would adversely impact the status of Malay in the country. This earned a riposte from former Federal Minister of International Trade and Industry Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, who called for language issues to be de-politicised.

To raise English language standards in Singapore, the Ministry of Education developed a national curriculum called Steller (Strategies for English Language Learning and Reading), which includes storytelling, role-playing, and multi-genre analysis into lessons—a break from the old-fashioned drilling exercises and rote-learning. This year, students taking the Primary School Leaving Examination English paper sat for a revised assessment format to reflect the changes.

The saga over the use of Afrikaans in Stellenbosch University in South Africa continues, with protests carried out by Open Stellenbosch calling for a change to the University’s language policy to address perceived inequalities in teaching because black students could not cope well with learning in Afrikaans. A trade union, Solidarity, is not taking this lying down, noting the wide support that it feels Afrikaans enjoys in the area.

According to a new study by researchers in the UK and India, those who speak two or three languages are twice as likely as their monolingual counterparts to regain normal cognitive function following a stroke. They also appear to be less likely to develop dementia later in life.

Commentaries and Features

Jakelin Troy champions the linguistic cause of the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia, in a commentary for The Guardian. With the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples in mind, the recent announcement that Aboriginal languages will be part of the curriculum in New South Wales is a win for her cause. Troy, a native speaker of Ngarigu, laments that “our involvement overall has been light, and content that speaks to our perspectives, knowledges and histories has become a point of severe—and arguably racist—criticism”.

A Slovakian woman apparently lost her job after serving customers in Hungarian rather than Slovak (Hungarian). Working for the German footwear chain Deichmann in her hometown of Somorja in Slovakia, Judy (as she was identified by Slovakian media) was fired after a colleague complained to their manager about her behaviour (Hungarian); however, Deichmann has since issued a statement asserting that she lost her job for other reasons. Slovakia possesses a significant Hungarian-speaking minority, but the official language is Slovak.

Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court postponed a corruption trial involving four people possibly tied to energy companies, Gazprom and ABB after the Court demanded that the lawyers for the defense present statements in German (German). Three of the four lawyers initially spoke in French, which, although one of the four official languages of Switzerland, was apparently not suitable for the Court, which “typically” uses German for its sessions. The trial has been postponed to early 2016.

Over in Hawai’i, a group of local activists are on trial for protesting the construction of a telescope atop a mountain sacred to native Hawaiians. However, the court case has been delayed because the group insists on emphasising Hawaiian identity by testifying in Hawaiian—an official language of the state—and so the judge requires an interpreter.

Representatives from the Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit Language Authority of the Canadian territory of Nunavut admitted that they should try harder to search outside the boundaries of their already under-staffed organisation when it comes to hiring new employees. The Language Authority will especially look to hire Inuit people who can assist in the preservation and standardisation of the Inuktitut language.

Graphic designer Mark Jamra has created a typeface known as Phoreus Cherokee that will allow the as many as 10,000 speakers of the Cherokee language to send text messages and type in Cherokee. Jamra based the font on a writing system that was originally developed in 1820 by Sequoyah—a Cherokee silversmith. The Cherokee language itself is notoriously difficult to learn, but John Standingdeer has recently developed and patented a new technique for teaching Cherokee that he hopes will inspire others to learn the language and make doing so a less daunting prospect.

Sisters Deepti Suchindran and Aarti Prasad have built a robot called Phiro as a computer education tool. Phiro can support a wider range of programming languages than existing robots and “accommodate learners at every level of proficiency”. It is part of the crowd-funded Robotix program aimed at teaching children from minority groups in Boston how to code computer programs.

Over in Australia, an elderly Catholic nun is teaching Indigenous children to first read and write in their own languages. She and a team of Indigenous women have produced schoolbooks that translate these ancient oral languages into written text and have raised school attendance and English literacy rates in the process. Said Sister Tess Ward, “If they want to go into higher education and be recognized by the Western world, they certainly need English. But I see it as an inalienable right of children to be able to maintain their own language while learning English.” It is hoped that “raising the status of Indigenous languages in communities is an incentive for learning English and thus for employment and self-esteem.”

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