This week in languages: September 21, 2020

by on September 22, 2020


While being under quarantine is challenging in a number of ways, Sophie Hardach talks about the benefits quarantine has had on language use in multilingual families around the world. Children are spending more time around their direct family and are immersed in their caregivers’ mother tongues, in many cases resulting in a resurgence of heritage languages. This is not only good news for language transmission, but is also strengthening families’ engagements with their cultures and providing familiarity and comfort in an ever-changing time.

Despite having signed and ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML), the UK has caught flak for falling short of its prior commitment to promote minority languages spoken throughout the British Isles, such as Cornish, Irish and Ulster Scots. This article discusses several findings from a report published by the Council of Europe, which indicated that the visibility and use of these languages remains low in education and media, placing them at constant risk of dying out. Recommendations have thus been made for the UK government to dedicate greater financial and political support to saving its endangered languages.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for the reversal of a recent policy implemented in China which mandates that all schools in Inner Mongolia switch the language of instruction from Mongolian to Mandarin Chinese in their delivery of literature, history and “morality and law” classes. Though justified by Beijing authorities as a pivot towards “bilingual education”, the HRW reports that this decision is part of a worrying trend in which minority linguistic rights are being taken away for political expediency, citing similar situations in regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet.

Commentaries and Features

Community relationships and the values of connecting with land and culture shine through in this article, which covers the effort spent to both maintain and grow the use of Gaelic in Nova Scotia.  Immersion in the language for youth and adults alike has fostered a love for Gaelic songs, stories, dance, and world views along with the language itself.  The care and energy invested by teachers and learners guarantees that Gaelic in Canada has a vibrant future as well as a rich history.

An individual’s language, dialect and accent is considered to be an important part of one’s identity. In the case of music artists who may ‘code switch’ from one genre to another, issues of authenticity arise as switching singing accents in this way may be perceived as being ‘fake and inauthentic’. This article takes a look at Taylor Swift’s musical and linguistic switch from country, which is strongly connected to the idea of ‘realness’ through personal storytelling in songs, to pop music and how she has struggled with the perception of authenticity. Although not alone, she has received much criticism for including inappropriate and revealing information about her personal life in song lyrics and has been accused of having a ‘fake accent’. 

In this audio clip from BFM 89.9, presenters Lim Sue Ann, Sharmilla Ganesan & Dashran Yohan discuss the status of Baba Malay, an endangered contact language spoken in Melaka and Singapore, with Lee Yuen Thie (Manager of Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum and Vice-President of Baba & Nyonya Association of Malaysia). They discuss the value of preserving contact languages like Baba Malay, which forms an integral part of speakers’ cultural identities, despite facing pressure from more dominant languages like standard Bahasa Melayu, English and Mandarin. Check out Unravel’s Feature of Baba Malay over here!

Are you interested in learning more about Baba Malay and Peranakan identity and culture? The National University of Singapore’s Baba House is organizing an online Speaker Series over the coming weeks, complementing their exhibition on Glossaries of the Straits Chinese Homemaking. This speaker series will be held on Zoom — more information can be found here!

Why do linguists do linguistics? Check out this new podcast: Word to the Whys, created and produced by TILCoP Canada (Teaching Intro Linguistics Community of Practice), who are instructors and faculty members at universities across Canada.

Traditional machine translation has relied on large bodies of parallel corpora to map sentences onto each other. Recently, researchers are trying to translate lost languages by using much smaller data sets and implementing a set of constraints on the translations. Symbols and characters in related languages should appear with similar frequency. If words are related, then the order of characters should be similar. Using these types of constraints, the researchers tested their program on Linear B and found that they could translate into Greek cognates with 67.3% accuracy.

So could this really be used to translate lost languages? Unfortunately, no. Without a known, related language to compare to, it is still quite impossible to decipher the lost languages.

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