This week in languages: November 2, 2020

by on November 2, 2020

Headlines

In these pandemic times, wearing a mask might seem to interfere with both speech production and comprehension. While masks limit mouth movement, they also cut off visual cues (e.g. lip reading) that we rely on as listeners for processing what is being said. However, studies have found that comprehension difficulties surrounding mask-wearing are usually attributed to noisy (and/or socially distant!) conditions, and not so much to the lack of audio-visual cues. While those studies suggested that minimising noise or using transparent masks might improve comprehension, it’s probably better to prioritise safety during this pandemic!


In Hokkaido, speakers and learners of Ainu are working hard to save the Indigenous language from extinction. Preserving Ainu identity along with the historical and cultural knowledge that is tied to the language is essential, and language teacher Kenji Sekine has looked to the successful revitalization of Maori for strategies. As one of the interviewees notes, the act of speaking a language that has been colonized and oppressed can be an act of resistance and decolonization. It is important that the future of Indigenous languages like Ainu are protected and embraced.

Commentaries and Features

In this interview, University of Toronto Professor Ryan DeCaire from Wáhta Mohawk Territory talks about his experience learning Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) and working in language revitalization. He answers questions about motivations and advice for learning language, what the process of building up the number of speakers needs, and how the approach taken to instruction and learning must be tailored to the wants of the language community. Check out the full interview to learn more about the ways Indigenous language revitalization helps speakers and their communities.


In the first of a 3-part series on linguistic diversity, based on their undergraduate students’ research projects, Dr LI Jia and Ms LV Yong from Yunnan University share insights on how Chinese dialects (fangyan 方言) have in recent times increasingly been used as a marker of identity and as a profitable commodity. Historically, speaking fangyan has been associated with negative stereotypes, such as the lack of education or signalling a lower social class. In this piece, the authors reveal their students’ observations on how the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how fangyan’s emergence on social media has changed this trajectory for the better.


The goal of plain language is straightforward: be more accessible. Andrew Pulrang, a Forbes Contributor on diversity and inclusion, stresses that plain language should not be about censoring details or providing less information, but repackaging the information in a way that is more accessible for people with cognitive or learning disabilities. A true translation of the original. So how do you write in plain language? A few key features are to avoid multiple ideas in one sentence, use active voice, and short paragraphs. In short, write plainly and clearly!


This interview with historical linguist Sarah Thomason from the University of Pittsburgh provides a discussion on what has been dubbed “fantastic linguistics”.  She addresses claims and common themes in this pseudoscience, ranging from the search for the world’s original language to unknown languages spoken by people under hypnosis, and even linguistic claims that involve the paranormal. Thomason suggests that many of these claims stem from a lack of knowledge about language but can still be educational, even for linguists.

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