This week in languages: March 16, 2018

by on March 16, 2018

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



We predict the names of unfamiliar objects even before we learn those names. This was found by psychologists at the University of Sussex who presented adult research participants with multiple unfamiliar objects and multiple unfamiliar words without any overt correspondence between objects and words. MRI scans of brain activity show that participants learn this correspondence through verification of their own self-proposed “name-object” correspondences, much like the way a scientist would propose and verify a hypothesis.

Said to have originated hundreds of years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico, pelota mixteca is a ball game that’s helping to keep indigenous languages alive. Players speaking indigenous languages like Zapotec, Mixtec, and Valle travel weekly to the San Fernando Valley to play and communicate in their native languages, free from stigma and the expectation that they adopt Spanish. “When there’s a safe space they often feel more free to speak in their native languages” says scholar Rafael Vásquez, in this piece for New York Times.

Need a safe language learning space to keep kids stimulated? Hillary Yip, a 13 year old CEO in Hong Kong hopes to fight prejudices through free-flowing conversations with her iOS language learning app targeted at children, might have just the solution for you. Called Minor Mynas, the virtual learning environment sees children chatting and practising their language skills in a safe space, with users from dozens of countries.

Commentaries and Features

In many places around the world, dominant languages like English and Mandarin are edging out local vernaculars. Guangzhou (formerly Canton), the capital of Guangdong province in southern China, parents and grandparents are speaking to the younger generations in Mandarin instead of Cantonese. In spite of its 60 million speakers, Cantonese seems to be losing a foothold in its place of origin due to discouraging factors put up by the state and schools. “The Ministry of Education and the State Language Commission said last year they wanted 80% of China’s population to be speaking Mandarin by 2020.”

As Public Radio International‘s “The World in Words” podcast explains, professional wrestling has a secret language all its own. Specifically, the word kayfabe, referring to the unspoken rule that wrestlers should maintain their scripted, staged personas both on television and in public appearances, is discussed in detail.

Curious about the origin of the term ‘gung-ho’, slang expressions like ‘sharking for parking’, and how we might end up with a “collective noun for librarians” along the lines of a ‘Marian of librarians’? These and other intriguing terms and expressions contributed by callers all over, and compiled by linguists and journalists alike, are discussed in this week’s A Way with Wordsa radio talkshow hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett. Listen to the podcast or read its written summary, take your pick, but be sure not to give this a miss or you sure are missing out on some good linguistic entertainment!

“No child should be left behind or deprived of learning their mother tongue.” In response to the Ministry of Education’s move to allow more pre-schools to offer Tamil and Malay classes in Singapore, V. Balu reflects on his personal experience and writes about the value of mother tongue education for the younger generation.

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