This week in languages: June 9, 2017

by on June 9, 2017



A new American Sign Language dictionary recognises something that most others don’t: Sign Language isn’t alphabetical! Naomi Caselli, a language and literacy professor at Boston University worked with a team from Tufts University and San Diego University to produce the first dictionary called ASL-LEX that reflected the way deaf people communicate. You can search for signs based on parts of speech, access data on ASL, and find out more about the ASL-LEX project on the web-based portal.

For the second week now, the top song on the Billboard Hot 100 list in the US is not in English. This week, the song is “Despacito”, a Spanish track by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. In a piece for The Washington Post, Philip Bump suggests that this is an indication of the growth of Spanish speakers in the country. “In 1980, 4.9% of the country spoke Spanish. In 2015, 11.5% did — more than 1-in-10”

An upcoming language documentary on written Chinese called Hanzi presents an exciting opportunity to peek into the world of logographs. Made alongside filmmakers from New York, Hong Kong, London and Taipei, Hanzi includes interviews from ShaoLan, founder and creator of Chineasy in London; Akira Kobayashi, a Roman font designer in Japan; Sammy Or, a veteran Chinese font designer based in Hong Kong; also Ri Xing Type Foundry, the last traditional Chinese letterpress type foundry in the world and more, gathering some of the most important figures and insight in the current Chinese education and typography field. The documentary aims to answer critical questions such as: “How does language shape identity? What role does handwriting play in the digital age?” Support the Kickstarter project here!

Commentaries and Features

Against the complex socio-political and linguistic landscape of in Singapore, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong has suggested that learning a third language—in addition to English (the lingua franca) and a prescribed ‘mother tongue’ of Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, or Urdu—could teach empathy and encourage social cohesion. The Ministry of Education in Singapore “recognises the benefits of acquiring a third language among our official languages. However, there are few facilities and programmes to support it”, reports Valerie Yeo for IPS Commons.

The Lombard effect refers to the behaviour of humans and animals to raise their voices in a noisy environment. A recent study of this effect in “big brown bats” was conducted by Johns Hopkins University researchers. The findings indicate that the total amount of time it takes for the bats to detect background noise that interferes with their hunting and to adjust their “vocalization amplitude to compensate” for this interference is “just 30 milliseconds”. This is “10 times faster” than the time it takes for humans to blink their eyes. The speed with which the Lombard effect occurs in bats suggests that it is fundamentally a temporal reflex. This suggestion has implications for the design of assistive medical devices for patients of Parkinson’s disease for whom the Lombard effect can be rather apparent.

How do education policies, street signs, and language rights inform the linguistic policy for minorities in the Sinosphere? Alexandra Grey ponders her PhD research on China’s minority language policies (here, specifically on the largest minority language group, Zhuang, spoken in the Guangxi Zhuangzu Autonomous Region) operate and what socio-political undertones they convey, in Language on the Move.

In a sign of what’s to come in a future of multilinguals, Korean-American Yoojin Grace Wuertz shares her experience as a bilingual mother raising her son with Korean parents and a husband of German, Irish, and Italian descent, for Guernica. “I imagine that behind every bilingual person there is a story of separation. Of homes left behind, families divided, identities remade over and over again. A history of loss in addition to the mixed gains of the American Dream.”

Fancy hearing the languages of Tibet halfway across the world! In New York, there now appears to be close to 20,000 speakers of languages of the Himalayas, such as Mustangi, Sherpa, Kham, Amdo, and Ü-tsang varieties. A new oral history project called “Learn about Voices of the Himalayas: Language, Culture, and Belonging in Immigrant New York documents the transient nature of the speakers of these endangered Himalayan languages.

Faced with multi-tiered communicative challenges, Ayah Wehbe, an Australian Lebanese-Muslim woman with a hearing impairment doing her degree in Social Research & Policy at the University of New South Wales is not unfamiliar to minority voices, she write in Language on the Move. To contribute to the body of research on “the silent invisible women”, she wrote her honours thesis on the self-perceived identities and lived experiences of deaf Australian Lebanese-Muslim women, most of whom claimed Auslan (Australian Sign Language) as their primary language and identified first and foremost as a deaf person.

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