This week in languages: April 22, 2016

by on April 22, 2016



Southwest Airlines has come under heavy fire online after University of California (Berkeley) student Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was escorted off a Southwest Airlines flight for speaking Arabic and, as fellow passengers reportedly put it, presenting a security threat. The Huffington Post, among others, has responded by calling the incident “blatant islamophobia”. However, more detailed coverage is steadily revealing more nuance to the story than was previously highlighted: Slate and Quartz, for example, note that Southwest Airlines’ official statement observes that Makhzoomi was reported by a passenger who actually spoke Arabic and was concerned about Makhzoomi mentioning martyrdom.

This 20th April marked the seventh Chinese Language Day! The United Nations headquarters in New York marked the event with Chinese cultural art performances and tea-brewing demonstrations, reported Xinhuanet. Chinese is one out of six official languages of the UN, and it is estimated that its “spoken by more than a billion people, which means one in seven people communicate using Chinese in the world.”

Members of the European Parliament voted 375-133 this past week to recommend the adoption of Turkish as an official language of the European Union. This decision occurs ahead of the expected reunification of the Turkish and Greek communities of the island of Cyprus.

Come 9th May, New Zealand will be celebrating New Zealand Sign Language’s 10th-year anniversary as an official language. This year also marked the first time deaf secondary students could study curriculum-based NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement) achievement standards in sign language rather than the unit standards which operate on a pass/fail basis.

The Swallow Theatre in Whithorn, Scotland will be staging a one-woman production about the Scots languages in June to explore issues related to identity and the future of minority languages. “O is for Hoolit” had been earlier staged in Glasgow, where it won praise for bringing to light the Scots language’s situation in its native Scotland.

A husband and wife team from Queensland have documented the life, language, and culture of the Murui Indians in the Colombian Amazon. The Murui, as with many indigenous cultures, are caught between tradition and modernity, with children refusing to learn their mother tongue due to the irresistible pull of mainstream Colombian culture. A documentary on their struggles is expected to come out by the end of 2016.

Commentaries and Features

When and how do babies learn language? Naja Ferjan Ramirez gives a quick introduction to the language acquisition systems of babies, and debunks the myth that the brain has a fixed capacity for languages. “All the world’s languages put together comprise about 800 or so sounds. Each language uses only about 40 language sounds, or “phonemes,” which distinguish one language from another… At birth, the baby brain has an unusual gift: it can tell the difference between all 800 sounds,” writes Ramirez for The Conversation.

What’s up with ??? these days? Writing for Wired, Clive Thompson claims that “92% of all people online use emoji now, and one-third of them do so daily”, so what goes on behind such rampant use of those cutesy mini-images? Thompson makes a case for a new variety of language used by your average “thumbfolk”. ?

The swearing-in of a dozen deaf and hard-of-hearing lawyers to the United States Supreme Court bar this past week marks yet another major advancement for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. learned the phrase, “Your motion is granted,” in American Sign Language for the occasion.

Travelling to a foreign country but don’t speak its language? Swiss company Iconspeak has come up with a range of items printed with icons to help travellers “try to get their message across“. One such item includes a t-shirt printed with 40 different icons that have been road-tested by the company’s founders. The icons provide ways to communicate about things like the weather, airplanes, buses, the police, and beer.

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