This week in languages: February 2, 2018

by on February 2, 2018

This week’s round up compiles language news from the last fortnight.



An increasing Latino population in the US has led to the perception that Spanish will become the United States’ most dominant language. Linguist Philip Carter, however, points out that Spanish use is [in fact] steady or dropping in the US. Bilingual children of Spanish-speaking immigrants tend to be English-dominant speakers because of social pressure including negative reactions to their speaking Spanish, and academic success based on being proficient in English.

Most American high schools require their students to learn a new language, often offering language courses in Spanish, French, German, and Latin. But in Mashpee High School in Massachusetts, students have an unusual native American option: Wôpanâak. The language died out in the 1800s when it was outlawed in favour of English, but was revived from written records by tribe member Jessie Little Doe Baird. The new offering has also prompted school officials to rename the language department from “Foreign Language” to “World Language”, reports WCAI.

China’s response to Apple‘s voice-recognition technology Siri is called iFlyTek. Launched in 2010, the app enables users to translate Mandarin speech into English text, and vice versa, and allows users to use the app to convert their speech in languages like Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hokkien to text messages with 98% accuracy, thanks to the 4.5 billion audio files it collects daily.

Infants as young as 12 months know that speech, even if it occurs in their non-native language, serves a communicative purpose. This was found from a study where 12-month-olds, with English as a native language, were given the opportunity to see a couple of actors communicate about passing around a target object. The communication took place in English, Spanish, Russian, or hummed speech. When a miscommunication occurred—indicated by the passing around of a wrong object—the infants gazed longer at the situation, regardless of whether the miscommunication had taken place in a native or non-native language. This signals that our tiny ones recognise that a communication had failed, even if it had failed in an unfamiliar tongue!

Commentaries and Features

More than 2 million people in the US and 1% of people in Britain require digital adaptive alternative communication (AAC) methods to make up for their inability to speak. In this thoughtful long-read, Jordan Kisner traces the anxieties and experiences of people who have lost their ability to speak (and along the way, their speech identity) and reclaimed some part of it through bespoke digital voices such as VocaliD, in The Guardian.

Many view Donald Trump as over-the-top, reactive, and out-of-control, but according to the linguistic expert in this Mic video, everything he tweets or says has been curated to spread his message, to manipulate us into believing that his words are both true and acceptable.

Things that were outrageous and impossible even to conceive of years ago have become normal.

After listening to US president Trump’s recent State of the Union speech, apparently the “slowest SOTU speech in history“, David Smith blogs about his analysis using R software, on the Revolutionary Analytics blog. The trend follows a long-term decline in complexity of the State of the Union speeches since the 1800s.

Birds are linguists! Or so it seems from a Scientific American blog by Adam Fishbein, which reported similarities in vocal learning between birds and humans. Parakeets were found, for example, to be able to detect misordering of elements in birdsong, which suggests their sensitivity towards “grammar-like rules about how their song should be arranged”. Researchers have also found neuron pathways connecting the sound-producing and -hearing regions of our avian friends to enable birdsong-learning the way similar pathways in our brain aid the acquisition and maintenance of “spoken words”.

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