This week in languages: December 2, 2016

by on December 2, 2016



From describing hypersensitive millennials to being used as a generic insult for thin-skinned politicians or resistance to free speech, the term snowflake has become “the most combustible insult of 2016” writes The Guardian.

Early learning of words “is based not on conscious thought,”concludes a research team from their observations of a humanoid robot, iCub, programmed to hear, see, and identify new objects. Like two-year-olds, iCub used the strategy of mutual exclusivity to work out that a third object was called “giraffe” when it was aware that the only other two objects around were called “rabbit” and “duck”. What was noteworthy was that given its simple software, iCub clearly did this without conscious awareness of the strategy it was using. As one researcher points out, this suggests that real human toddlers’ “association making” abilities evoked in the learning process are not necessarily consciously-driven.

Google Translate has just got brainier! Using a neural network, the online, artificially-intelligent translation tool launched in September this year now has the capacity to translate languages it wasn’t previously trained to, and has created an ‘interlingua’ in the process, reported The New Scientist. “For example, if the neural network has been taught to translate between English and Japanese, and English and Korean, it can also translate between Japanese and Korean without first going through English. This capability may enable Google to quickly scale the system to translate between a large number of languages.” Google currently supports translation in 103 languages and translates more than 140 billion words a day.

Once-thought to be the tongue of choice for thugs and criminals or a counter-language, slang is now seeing some renewed appreciation. We celebrate the launch of British lexicographer Jonathan Green’s Green’s Dictionary of Slang, the largest English slang dictionary in the world with terms from English-dominant countries like the US, England, Australia. Similar to the Oxford English Dictionary, each entry in GDoS contains information on definitions, etymologies, and pronunciations.

“Of the approximately 1.5 billion people who speak English, less than 400 million use it as a first language. That means over 1 billion speak it as a secondary language.” The World Economic Forum determined the top 10 countries that excel in English as a second language, (viral video here) based on the English Proficiency Index 2016. The Netherlands come up tops in this list, followed by Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Singapore, Luxembourg, Austria, Germany, and Poland. Interestingly, Singapore—the only non-European country in the top 10 list—is classified as having English as a second language in the survey.

Meanwhile, government agencies in Singapore are warming up to the use of non-Mandarin Chinese languages in public campaigns to raise awareness of health and public policy among the elderly (some of whom speak only Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, and/or Hainanese), reports The Straits Times. A half-hour segment of Jaik Ba Buay (吃饱没) that showed on national television concluded its first season earlier in Nov and was deemed successful.

Commentaries and Features

Is it genuinely possible to adopt a foreign accent after an extended amount of time spent abroad? According to recent research from linguist Jennifer Nycz, such “semester abroad accents” may not be as put-on as they seem, as mentioned in Atlas Obscura.

What sound does a shaken rotten egg make? Speakers of !Xoon know. With as many as 164 consonants and 44 vowels, the Khoisan language !Xoon (aka Taa) is believed to have the largest sound inventory of any tongue in the world, reports The New York Times.

Being punished for speaking one’s mother tongue is a common story across communities that prize English over other local languages. Nigerian novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani shares her story growing up speaking the forbidden Igbo language at home in Umuahia, southeast of Nigeria, in this piece for the BBC. “They are trying to be like white people.”

In an NPR blog post aptly titled “The Chinese Babel”, Chris Taylor writes about China’s many “dialects”—many of them languages that ostensibly lack an army or a navy of their own. In his engaging review of David Moser’s book titled “A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language”, he discusses the “artificial classical language” of China, and the radical solutions that China considered, including abandoning Chinese characters altogether, in its attempts to establish a common language. For perspectives on the iffy language-dialect divide, check out Frances Loke Wei’s profile of Cantonese in Singapore.

Despite the rise of English as the lingua franca of the 21st century, the foreign language study required by many—but not all—American universities has become perhaps more important than ever in recent years. Rebecca Schuman explains why in Slate.

Stephen Pinker gives his two cents in the more-than-half-a-century-old debate about the innateness of language learning in this piece from the Scientific American. While criticism around it has been fierce, Pinker believes that the core of Noam Chomsky’s belief that language is innate will survive in one form or another in modern linguistics.

A reminder of the uniqueness of languages: Medical graduate and artist Carmen Moreno recreates her interpretation of idioms from languages around the world and their translations in English. Hope y’all slide in on a sandwich! Check out more of Carmen’s work here.

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