This week in languages: Feb 26, 2016

by on February 26, 2016



Google Translate now offers translations in 13 new languages: Amharic, Corsican, Frisian, Kyrgyz, Hawaiian, Kurdish, Luxembourgish, Pashto, Samoan, Scots Gaelic, Shona, Sindhi and Xhosa. This brings the total number of Google Translate languages to 103, a number that Google claims covers “99% of the online population” and which now benefits an additional 120 million users.

Following days of violent protests over the language policy of the University of Pretoria, where pro-Afrikaans groups clashed with majority black students over what the medium of instruction would be, the university announced that all lectures will be offered only in English. It also stated that Afrikaans and Sepedi would be used outside of lectures to provide additional support to students and promote multilingualism. It is unclear at this stage when the new policy will come into effect.

On Wednesday, a thumping majority of senators in Florida, USA voted in favour of a proposal to recognise computer coding as a foreign language across the state starting 2018. It appears the senators consider the bill a step towards making Florida a “technology leader in this country” and recognising computer coding as a “valuable skill”. This magazine considers the bill a big mistake and votes with only five senators (out of 40) who voted against.

UNESCO has affirmed the importance of linguistic diversity in its message for this year’s International Mother Language Day. Said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, “mother languages in a multilingual approach are essential components of quality education, which is itself the foundation for empowering women and men and their societies.” The message also notes the importance of mother and local languages and that multilingualism is vital to the success of the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. More below.

Commentaries and Features

Writer Petina Gappah discussed her desire to be able to write in Shona and her ongoing project to translate George Orwell’s Animal Farm into the language on Lit Hub.

Nicole Stellon O’Donnell writes about monolingualism in “The Sadness of Speaking One Language”. She points out that multilingualism may be the key to deeper connection and commonality, and that the United State’s emphasis on teaching English (and now the recognition of coding as a foreign language in US schools) comes at the expense of other second and third languages like indigenous languages and limits students.

To commemorate International Mother Language Day (21 February), countries around the world took the opportunity to raise awareness of the linguistically diverse landscapes in their communities, and writers sharing the woes and wins of their heritage languages. This year’s theme is Quality education, language(s) of instruction and learning outcomes, and was chosen by the the United Nationas Educations, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)—which initiated the day in 1999 to promote awareness of multilingualism and cultural diversity.

In South Africa, a national campaign to encourage leisure reading—called Nal’ibali—has illustrated that 42% of books published from 2000–2015 were in English, in a call for more African language reading materials for children on International Mother Language Day. The campaign cited “choice” and “relevance” as the biggest motivations for children to pick up books to read. In Port Elizabeth city, the Department of Arts and Culture is giving out bursaries to post-graduates working on the fields of translation, interpreting, and language planning, reported in SABC News.

The Aikuma Project, which works on collecting speech recordings, preserving languages, and the Android app Aikuma—which translated speech recordings in real time—, organised a session of “Treasure Language Storytelling” at a cafe in line with International Mother Language Day in Oakland.

Over in Russia, the town of Salekhard commemorated International Mother Language Day by hosting the first regional total dictation—a language exam for students in school—to assess students’ native language fluency and proficiency and to involve young people in preserving indigenous Arctic ethnic languages for groups like the Nenets, Komi-Zyryan, Khanty, and Selkups.

Mauritius celebrated with activities organised by the Ministry of Arts and Culture. The events included poetry recitals, songs, readings, and dances by cultural unions and language artists from around the globe. In her message for the event, UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova emphasised that the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals aims to enable people to acquire skills, knowledge, and values that allow them to “participate fully in their societies”.

The Tibet Policy Institute marked the day with a panel discussion on the Tibetan language and the effects of mixing local dialects in written language, in Dharamsala, north of India, where the Institute is based, reported VOA.

The Pakistan Mountain Culture Festival coincided with the celebration of International Mother Language Day on Sunday, at a three-day event featuring language conferences, Mushaira and folk musical performances, and poetry sharing sessions from artists representing various languages such as Shina, Khowar, Balti, Brushaski, Kalasha, Wakhi, and Domaki. In a country with 69 spoken languages, Pakistan-native Zubair Torwall, in an opinion piece for The News International (Pakistan), laments the lost experiences of current and future generations of Pakistanis as literary material and documentation exists mostly in Urdu and English, instead of the country’s 27 endangered languages.

UNESCO in Tehran commemorated the day with speeches, music performances, and traditional songs in Farsi and other Iranian languages.

Over in Surrey, in southeast England, Peace Arch News reports a special event to mark the day, with Cree songs and exhibitions, Tagalog and Punjabi poetry, Hun’q’umi’num stories, and a talk on the state of Cantonese in Canada.

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