This week in languages: May 18, 2018

by on May 31, 2018

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



Babies prefer to listen to other babies than to Mummy and Daddy. These are the results of an experiment “probing infant speech perception”. Infants were found in to pay longer attention when the sounds of real baby talkers were played to them than when the sounds of adult females imitating baby speak were played. Properties of authentic baby speak are said to be “uniquely formed by the resonance of [babies’] very small bodies”.

We express more hesitations before nouns than before verbs. These pre-nominal “slow-down effects” are found across a range of languages, including English and Dutch, by an international team of researchers. The effects are suggested to interfere with the development of contracted forms involving nouns and their preceding words. The case of German, where prefixes are supposedly “far more common in verbs…than in nouns”, is given as an example. The New Yorker breaks it down in this article.

Commentaries and Features

Yanny or Laurel? The internet went nuts this week over an audio clip poll posted on Reddit by an 18 year old student Roland Szabo from the state of Georgia, USA. The New Yorker conveniently built a tool so we can determine the sounds for ourselves on a slider. “Some speculated, like Dr. Keating, that the differences might be related to hearing loss or the age of the listener. It is known that some sounds are audible only to people under 25.” Rachel Gutman speaks to Chelsea Sanker, a phonetician at Brown University, to decipher the phenomenon here, for The Atlantic.

Linguistic diplomacy in Africa: One of the continent’s most significant economic partners, China, has started a wave of interest in Mandarin Chinese lessons via its global language-teaching bodies, Confucius Institute. Proficiency in the language bodes well for folks of African countries like Senegal, where speaking Mandarin Chinese could mean access to good jobs and an awareness of the increasingly large Chinese diaspora in the region. “The Chinese government, on the other hand, has eased visa requirements for Senegalese students, and each year it funds scholarships for 50 of the best students from the Confucius Institute to study Mandarin at Chinese universities.”

In 2015, China’s State Language Commission launched a five-year project to record China’s languages, cataloguing used at 1,500 sites and online. “It has already resulted in a 20-volume work on China’s ‘linguistic culture’, published last December, complete with QR codes that readers can scan to access online audio recordings of regional tongues.” In a show of support for its regional Han languages, in 2020, the project will use the data for local-language software for voice-controlled products to assist speakers of regional languages, reports The Economist.

A great example of language revitalisation that appeals to young ones: An ethnic Biripi teacher named Jaycent Davis was recently recognised with the Award for Outstanding Leadership in Aboriginal Languages in Sydney. Through songs, music, and hands-on activities, Davis has successfully immersed his students in indigenous language such as Gathang. “An estimated 35 Aboriginal languages are spoken across NSW with dozens of different dialects.”

Leave a Comment