This week in languages: Oct 23, 2015

by on October 23, 2015



The United States hopes to have at least one million K-12 students learning Mandarin by 2020 under a new initiative known as “1 Million Strong”. American President Barack Obama made the announcement during a visit to Washington D.C. by Chinese premier Xi Jinping. As The Hill notes, “fighting current and future challenges, from climate change to violent extremism, depends on a constructive U.S.-China relationship”, and the new initiative is seen as a key step in developing that relationship.

The Romanian parliament overwhelmingly approved a motion on Friday to make November 13th the Day of the Hungarian Language in Romania (Hungarian). As Nyelv es Tudomany reports, Romania has consistently initiated previous legislation for days celebrating other “linguistic minorities” within the country, including September 28th as the Day of the Czech Language in Romania, and December 13th as the Day of the Tatar Language. November 13th was chosen to coincide with Hungarian Day in Hungary.

The first Israeli online sign language dictionary went online on Wednesday after more than two years of development by the Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons in Israel (IADP). The dictionary accepts search terms in Arabic, English, Hebrew, and Russian, and returns video results when an Israeli Sign Language speaker demonstrates the desired word. In other online language news, Facebook users in Rwanda will soon be able to post their updates in Kinyarwanda.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko indicated his desire to see English become “a second working language” (Ukrainian) in Ukraine in the near future while speaking at the 400th anniversary of the founding of Kiev’s Mohyla Academy. He also stated that 2016 was to be declared the Year of the English Language in Ukraine. Russian media were visibly frustrated with Poroshenko’s remarks, with noting that a recent Gallup poll showed that more than 80% of Ukrainians would prefer to communicate in Russian (Russian).

Similarly, a conference in Taiwan on Sunday discussed a proposal to make English the second official language in Taiwan, after Mandarin. With more than 70 countries having English as a second official language, Taiwan’s scholars assert the importance of English in view of the export-driven country’s efforts to be competitive on the global level. However, CNA reports that disagreement regarding the distribution of funds between mother tongue and English language programmes makes this a challenge.

Over in the U.S.A., CNN reports the rise of the ‘telenovela’ or mini-series of soap operas targeted at English-speaking Latino audiences, as networks such as Telemundo increasingly target young Latinos who mainly consume English-language media. On Friday, the Spanish language network HBO Latino aired an English-language documentary ‘The Poet of Havana’—a story of Cuban singer Carlos Varela—in a bid to “mirror [the] U.S. audience, which is mostly bilingual”, according to Jackie Gagne, HBO’s vice president of multicultural marketing.

Hot on the heels of last week’s announcement that the Bible had been translated into Tzotzil comes the news that it has also been translated into Andi (Russian), this time by the Institute for Bible Translation in Russia. The announcement was made on the official Russian Patriarchate website, which also features an exploration of Andi’s unique linguistic characteristics and its relation to Avar. Separately, there have been calls for the Bible to be translated into Nahuatl, (Spanish) spoken by more than a million people in Mexico, who have yet to have the holy book to read in their native tongue.

American scholar Jeffrey Miller has discovered the earliest known draft of the King James Bible in a rare books library at Cambridge University. Despite being one of the most influential texts written in the English language, little is known about how the King James Bible was put together. The draft, dated from 1604 to 1608, is the first draft of the King James Version whose translator can be properly identified and suggests that individual translators may have played a greater role in its production than previously thought.

Ghanaian Minister for Education Professor Jane Agyemang believes that a key step in reducing poverty further in Ghana would be to remove English as a medium of instructionshe believes that children who are taught in their mother tongue will be able to learn better. With at least 45 other languages spoken within Ghana’s borders, however, what hasn’t been finalised is the language or languages that would take the place of English, with some commentators concerned that choosing one “native” language such as Akan over another would unduly privilege it at the expense of other “native” tongues.

Over in Goa, debates rage over the medium of instruction to be used in schools. One group supported by the Roman Catholic Church advocates the use of English while the other, backed by the Hindu nationalist group, RSS, supports the use of indigenous languages. The issue threatens to heighten tension between Goa’s Hindu and Catholic communities.

Meanwhile, Iban students in the Malaysian state of Sarawak have been told to brush up on their language so that they can be equipped to teach the increased number of students that are projected to learn the language in the future.

Mayan archaeologist Alfredo Barrera was awarded the Yuri Knosorov medal for his extensive work in investigating, documenting and teaching about the Mayan civilisation. The award was presented at the 2015 Mayan Roundtable, which brings together both Mexican and foreign academics to discuss and expound on the cultures and languages of the Yucatan peninsula.

Celebrated this week was the 16th annual Igbo Youth Movement, which featured the theme “Ibuli Asusu Igbo” [Uplifting the Igbo Language] amid calls by former Vice-President of Nigeria Alex Ekwueme for Nigerians to work together to stop the decline of Igbo and to “rediscover their rich past”.

This week marks a significant milestone for Urdu in India and Turkey. India celebrated 200 years of Urdu with a felicitation seminar in Srinagar, where the National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Languages (NCPUL) urged a standardised approach to the promotion of Urdu. NCPUL’s director, Professor Irteza Karim hopes to achieve a higher take-up rate of Urdu literature, having published dozens of books in Urdu himself. Over in Turkey, the 100th year of Urdu was celebrated with an international symposium presenting the evolution and promotion of Urdu around the world. To mark the celebrations in Pakistan, the Pakistani government issued a commemorative stamp and highlighted student exchanges and Urdu literature as key measures to promote Urdu studies in Turkey.

The (declining) status of classical Arabic has become a hot topic in Saudi Arabia. Concerns have been raised that the language of the Qur’an is being overtaken by dialectal forms because classical Arabic is not properly taught in schools or used appropriately by official media outlets. Many teachers, for instance, teach in dialect but neglect Arabic. Newspapers also publish in dialect even though it was previously seen as shameful to do so.

The Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota is running a federally-funded K–12 Native Language Programme that teaches children to speak in their native language. Lakota language teacher, Waniya Locke believes this effort—one-of-a-kind in the state—would “break the generational cycle of poverty in the Pine Ridge Reservation”.

Over in Canada, The Guardian reports a rise in youth activism for Canada’s indigenous languages, which number around 60. Electronic music, flash mobs, and Skwomesh language immersion programmes for adults rallied indigenous people to embrace their identity after decades of “internalised racism”, in the words of Khelsilem, founder of the Skwomesh Language Academy.

The ministry of education in China published a 2014 report on the state of the Chinese language (Chinese)《2014年度中国语言生活状况报告》that investigated the addition of 5,264 new collocations in the language since 2006. This has been attributed to the evolution of technology and lifestyle, which experts point out have have enabled people to be creative in self-expression on social blogging platforms (Chinese) such as Weibo. Interestingly, Professor Hou Min from the Communication University of China reports that a third of new coinages often don’t make it to the following year.

The Mandingo people of West Africa have reason to rejoice. Radio France Internationale (RFI) will broadcast (French) two sessions on their international radio channel in Mandingo, a language spoken by more than 40 million across Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Guinea. The decision aims to keep the Mandingo people better informed on issues of health, education, economy, history, and culture. The first session was broadcast live on 19 Oct at 9 am UTC.

The 25th annual Italian Language Week (Italian), an initiative to promote Italian abroad, began on 19 Oct. A collaboration between the Foreign Ministry of Italy, the Accademia della Crusca, and the Swiss government, this year’s theme is “l’italiano della musica, la musica dell’italiano”, and will, for the first time, showcase Italian music.

Commentaries and Features

What’s in a name? Same sex marriage, homosexual marriage, and marriage equality are terms that may refer to the same thing, but the emotional and political baggage that each carry may mean that a conservative or a liberal would use these in different ways.

A debate about the place of Afrikaans in modern South Africa continues, with the Minister of Higher Education accusing Stellenbosch University (the only place of higher learning in the country to teach in Afrikaans) of using the language as an exclusion strategy, while an Afriforum spokesman counters that Afrikaans as a South African language also deserves to be taught.

Walloon, which was once spoken widely in the South of Belgium, is at the brink of extinction, with only about 10% of Belgians in the region speaking the language presently. La Vanguardia (Spanish) explores the roots of this decline and efforts to preserve the language, results of which have been mixed thus far.

A similar story plays out in Mexico, across the Atlantic Ocean. Almost all native Mexican languages are at risk of extinction, with some languages such as Zapotec and Ayapanec having less than 10 speakers. While Kumiai seems to be in better shape with more than 300,000 speakers, Gilberto Gonzalez Arce, a 24 year old Kumiai nursing student is taking no chances. Read his story, and that of other endangered Mexican languages at La Hora (Spanish). For the Ecuadorean perspective, where native languages are also in danger, head over to Telegrafo (Spanish).

Belarusian is making a comeback in Belarus after years of stigmatisation and persecution of its speakers by the Belarusian government, reports Ukraine Today. Separately, Radio Svaboda interviewed Belarusian translator Mikhail Bulavatsky about his translating of the works of Vladimir Vysotsky into Belarusian (Russian).

Manx, a once-extinct Gaelic language that isn’t Irish or Scots, is experiencing a revival on the Isle of Man. Dr Tadhg Ó hIfearnáin gives a short profile of the language.

News of the UK government’s plans to increase the difficulty of English language proficiency tests that non-European Union students must pass in order to study in UK universities, has led to anxiety. The Economic Times of India blogs about the expected impact on Indian students. Earlier this year, the government had also imposed stricter student visa rules.

In other news, Koko the gorilla has adopted two kittens! The childless gorilla is famous for her ability to use a modified version of American Sign Language (ASL) and knows over 1,000 signs. A video from The Gorilla Foundation shows Koko being introduced to a litter of kittens on her 44th birthday. Koko later signed ‘cat’ and then ‘baby’, implying that the kittens were now her children.

A new Google Translate video documents how the app made communicating with his Northern Ireland teammates in English a reality for Spanish footballer Alberto Balde, who plays for Northern Ireland team Portadown.

Finally, emojis continue to attract significant media attention, with The New York Times chiming in this week on their future and whether they might eventually constitute some sort of new language.

East Journal published an opinion piece on the importance of distinguishing Farsi, an Indo-European language, from Arabic, a Semitic language (Italian). Matteo Zola goes on to describe how Persian languages are relatives of Italian, by showing numerous cognates of Persian words in Italian and other Indo-European languages.

António Félix Bagão criticised the sluggishness with which Equatorial Guinea is implementing Portuguese as a co-official language (Portuguese) of the country more than a year after being admitted into the Community of Portuguese Language Countries last July. He suggests that the seven scholarships being given to government employees for a three-month intensive language course in Portuguese is far too little.

An opinion piece published by La Dépêche de Kabylie exposes the lack of political will in Algeria to implement policy increasing the provision of Tamazight language education (French). The ministry of education in turn blames a dearth of social demand for the language, and promises that classes will be opened even if only one student attends. In the school year 2015/2016, Tamazight classes were spread to 20 wilayahs (‘provinces’), and are set to expand further in the coming years.

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