This week in languages: Oct 2, 2015

by on October 2, 2015



A massive influx of migrants continues to enter European countries, most notably Germany, which has translated part of its constitution into Arabic for incoming refugees to learn. Google Translate has further requested for German-Arabic (Egyptian Arabic) and German-Persian translation assistance after reporting a five-fold rise in the use of its translation services this year, mainly due to incoming refugees in Germany. If you speak German as well as Arabic (specific varieties not listed out) or Persian, you can help out here.

Google Translate has also been given a massive Frisian boost by thousands of Frisian speakers, who have added more than 200,000 translations to the Google Translate database in the last week in a coordinated effort to “make their culture and traditions more accessible”. Google Netherlands’ Communications Manager Meghan Casserly thanked contributors, while noting that there is still much more work to be done for Frisian and other langauges. A video describing how to contribute can be found here (Frisian).

Google also announced that it will launch 11 new languages on Android in India next month after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the company’s HQ on Sunday as part of his “Digital India” campaign. Not all the languages were named, but at least one was confirmed by Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai to be Gujarati. The Times of India ran a related feature examining the launch in light of other companies’ recent efforts to cater to India’s linguistic diversity.

While being interviewed on Radio Liberty Belarus on Tuesday, former Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis said that Belarus should revoke the official language status (Russian) Russian has in that country. Ulmanis described his own fears that in Latvia Russian “will swallow the Latvian language in a very short time”. Latvian and Eurasian commentators generally supported Ulmanis’s comments, although they highlighted that there should not be “aggression” between languages.

A proposed Bill formalising English as Pennsylvania’s official language continues to raise questions in the United States: Mitchell Sommers asserts at Lancaster Online that the debate is really about issues of race, while Monica Weymouth at Philadelphia Magazine argues that “language should serve the community, not the other way around”. The Bill can be viewed here.

Also continuing to inspire debate was last week’s piece by Rebecca White in the Irish Examiner, which suggested that the Irish Languages Act is actually strangling the future of Irish. Ronan O Domhnaill dismissed this idea as “sensationalist” in a fiery rebuttal of White’s main points, while Daithi Mac Carthaigh countered with the assertion that beliefs like White’s were the ones preventing a flourishing of Irish in Ireland in daily life in the same way as Dutch in Belgium, for example.

A decision by the University of Naples “L’Orientale” to offer free Italian courses to migrants arriving in Italy has sparked a firestorm of protest (Italian), with some praising the university’s initiative and others, especially fee-paying students, accusing it of double standards. A separate opinion piece by Filippo Burla in Il Primato Nazionale blasted Italian President Sergio Mattarella for declaring that he wanted to focus on educating migrants while Italy’s functional literacy rate remains at 47% (Italian).

Sermons at Al-Masjid An-Nabawi, or the Prophet’s Mosque, will now be translated and broadcast in Chichewa, English, French, Hausa, Turkish, and Urdu on selected radio stations in Medina. Broadcasts will also be made available online. Director of the Prophet’s Mosque translation department Abdullah Al-Hattab said that the new initiative was to “assist and welcome visitors, worshippers and Muslims from all around the world”.

Estonia has launched a new full time Russian language television channel that apparently seeks to act as a counter against Russia’s own efforts to increase its influence through the language, which was highlighted last week.

Europe celebrated the European Day of Languages on Sunday. Observers in Cyprus and the United Kingdom wrote about learning languages as a way of understanding cultural diversity, while students in Austria (German) sang songs in foreign languages outside supermarkets and Utrecht held its annual Drongo Language Festival (Dutch). Not everyone was in a celebratory mood, however; Diego Marani at noted the lack of a coordinated strategy in the promotion of Italian (Italian) worldwide, while Sandra Lacic highlighted many Croatians’ impatience (Croatian) with learning a new language.

This week is Tuvalu language week in New Zealand, which also celebrates the traditions and culture of the Tuvalu people. The motto for the week is Tau gana ko tou lloga (Language is your identity), and there are approximately 13,000 Tuvalu speakers worldwide.

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev publicly thanked the Moldovan government on Tuesday at the 70th United Nations General Assembly sitting for protecting the linguistic rights of the Bulgarian minority in Moldova. Bulgarians make up around 2% of Moldova’s population of 3 million (not including the breakaway region of Transnistria).

In the breakaway Ukrainian region of Donetsk, demand for learning Ukrainian is falling (Russian), while Russian remains ascendant. Posters in Donetsk are also purporting to offer instruction in the “Syrian language” (Russian), apparently as part of growing efforts to structure the conflict and militia in Donetsk along the lines of those in Syria.

A prototype wearable sign language translator has been developed by Texas A&M Professor Roozbeh Jafari. Taking the form of a wrist sensor, the device sends translations of signed words to a computer via Bluetooth.

In focus: Languages in education

In conjunction with the European Day of Languages, Eurostat published figures for the number of primary school students studying a foreign language in the various European countries, figures that were celebrated in Spain (Spanish) and Italy (Italian).

In New Zealand, Pacific languages like Niue, Tokelau, and Rarotongan are experiencing a revival of interest among younger New Zealanders; however, funding for language programmes in such languages may be difficult to procure.

In Luxembourg, the Ministry of Education is attempting to push through reforms that would offer Luxembourgish to more students (French).

Switzerland and the United Kingdom are facing steadily falling demand and interest in learning foreign and even non-native national languages.

South Africa faces steep school dropout rates that could possibly be arrested through the introduction of student mother tongues as the medium of instruction.

Malaysia is introducing a revised examination syllabus for Malay, Tamil, and Mandarin Chinese-learning students.

The United States Department of Education blog highlighted the work being done at Ke Kula ‘o Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u Iki Public Charter School in Hawaii, where students receive instruction in Hawaiian, as part of a piece describing the need for the provision of universal quality preschool education.

The government of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia has published a new series of textbooks (Russian) written in the Ossetian language, which include information on the region’s history, traditions, and culture.

In focus: Minority languages

Two new language courses are featured this week: The first batch of twenty Romani speakers have graduated from a new Romani language course being run by a group of Roma associations and the EU-funded Civil Society Facility Turkey Programme, or Sivil Düşün, in Turkey, while in Mexico, the National Pedagogical University of the State of Chihuahua launched the first Raramuri language course.

Michigan Radio featured ongoing efforts to revitalise the Anishinaabemowin language by various organisations and individuals in Michigan state, and also provided a few resources for those interested in learning Anishinaabemowin.

Ecuador’s La Hora examined how Kichwa is being saved from extinction (Spanish) in the country.

NPR has profiled the Kuskoy Bird Language, a whistling language spoken in Kuskoy village in Turkey.

Sardinian language broadcasts (Italian) will be allowed on the Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), Italy’s national broadcast company, from next year.

In Australia, Chief Justice Wayne Martin has called for more indigenous interpreters in the Australian justice system, arguing that a continuing lack of such translation services may lead to the wrongful sentencing of innocents.

In Nigeria, the Christian Praise Him In Your Language Unity concert called on Nigerian Christians to use their native languages for prayer and praise. Concert organiser Sunny Irakpo hoped to use the concert to help raise awareness about protecting Nigeria’s cultural and linguistic heritage.

In Mexico, a new proposed amendment to the Constitution of the state of Nayarit will guarantee the provision of education in Cora, Huichol, Tepehuan, and Mexicanero should it be passed.

Commentaries and Features

As the Catalan regional elections concluded on Sunday, The Atlantic and The looked at how and why Catalan has survived through the ages, while El Pais Catalunya discussed the origin of the word vot (Catalan).

The Pakistani media continues to react to the Pakistani Supreme Court’s September 8 order that Urdu be made the official language of Pakistan. Two opinion pieces, in particular, argued that regional languages like Balochi, Hindko, Pashto, Punjabi, Seraiki, and Sindhi will be marginalised as a result of this move.

Russia is seeing a growing demand for Kyrgyz specialists (Russian) and those able to speak Kyrgyz, as the Vecherniy Bishkek reports in an interview with Moscow State University Professor Zhibek Syzdykova.

Germany apparently faces a huge obstacle that is preventing it from fully capitalising on its growing influx of capital and manpower: the German language.

A repeat instance of the devastating Hajj stampede earlier this month could be avoided with, among other things, the introduction of basic lessons in a common lingua franca for Hajj pilgrims, suggests Gökan Bacik at Today’s Zaman.

North Korean students are no longer interested in studying Japanese, a shift that appears to be at least partly politically motivated, according to the Japan Times.

What is happening to minority languages in the United States? Sawraj Singh argues that America is becoming a “cultural graveyard” that lacks a true spirit of multicultural and multilingual accommodation.

India’s aboriginal communities, the Adivasis, are beset by numerous social and economic disadvantages, not the least of which are linguistic policies and regulations that disfavor them, writes Suman Sacheva at the Brookings Centre for Universal Education blog.

Copywriting in Chinese presents its own unique set of difficulties in addition to the ones usually faced by international copywriters, which Hannes Ben goes into detail about at e-consultancy.

Anna Osipova profiles the Tatar language in Sverdlovsk Oblast’s Oblastnaya Gazeta.

Tuoi Tre News has listed some of the key issues facing foreigners who wish to learn Vietnamese.

How do bilingual babies cry? Univision News might have an answer (Spanish) for you.

The Boston Globe has profiled Boston University professor Daniel Erker’s research into changes happening to the variety of Spanish spoken in Boston as a result of the English pause fillers entering the dialect.

Quechua terms have made inroads (Spanish) into the speech and names of the city of Santiago del Estero in Argentina, writes Hebe Luz Avila in El Liberal.

Footballers Asamoah Gyan and Evgeniy Konoplyanka (Russian) shared their respective difficulties learning to speak Mandarin Chinese and Spanish in separate interviews at and Apostrophe.

Finally, two books related to language have been taking the Internet by storm. Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake features an invented language based on Old English, which Slate‘s Lexicon Valley examined on Tuesday; also appearing this week were several pieces on Dothraki creator David J. Peterson’s The Art of Language Invention, which was eagerly profiled by NPR, WiredThe Telegraph, and Mother Jones, among others. Mother Jones, however, added a bit of extra Dothraki to its piece, inviting Peterson to translate Donald Trump into the language.

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