This week in languages: September 9, 2016

by on September 9, 2016

02/09/2016–09/09/2016

Headlines

“The more foreign languages we learn, the faster the brain responds and processes the data it absorbs during learning.” Researchers from the Higher School of Economics (Moscow, Russia) and the University of Helsinki (Finland) have confirmed, by measuring electrical activity in human brains using electroencephalography—or EEG—that with more linguistic repertoires stored and processed in the brain, the more it is able to acquire more languages and react faster. This new paper was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Noam-enclature” debunked! Researchers Paul Ibbotson (Open University, England) and Michael Tomasello (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany) have debunked Noam Chomsky’s ideals about the way people acquire languages through Universal Grammar, popularised in the 1960s. Universal Grammar is explained in this Scientific American article.

The South China Morning Post has come up with an interesting world map of languages that charts the population size of the main language of each country in the world. From the map, we know that about 335 million people speak English as their mother tongue, 399 million people speak Spanish as theirs, and 242 million people speak Arabic as their first language. The map also claims 1,197 million people speak Chinese as a first language—though an editor at Unravel believes this is misleading, as the Chinese ‘dialects’ such as Gan, Minnan, Cantonese, Wu, and Mandarin are calculated collectively. The World Economic Forum posits that “1.5 billion people are studying English and a further 126 million either French, Chinese, or Spanish”.

Commentaries and Features

In Singapore, a 13-year-old student, Gauri Kumar, was awarded a prize in the junior category of The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition 2016, for which she submitted an essay about her real-life linguistic and identity struggles as an Indian-born speaker of English (and some Hindi) who has lived abroad in Jakarta, London, and Singapore. Gauri’s story mirrors that of many English-language speakers around the world who have eschewed their heritage language in the face of globalisation and Globish (or Global English).

At what point are fading languages no longer worth transmitting to the next generation? Joshua Lee ponders the fizzling out of Chinese dialects like Cantonese and Hokkien while watching Wong Kar Wai’s Cantonese films, and wonders if and when we should let go of our heritage languages in favour of the lingua franca of “the ideal world”, in Read Rice.

Writing for South Africa’s Sunday Times, Carolyn McKinney and Xolisa Guzula discuss the use of language by many South African and other African schools to exclude certain students—namely, those whose native language is neither English nor Afrikaans. Seeing as most African children speak an African language at home, forcing them to speak only a colonial language in school ignores the contribution that they could be making to greater linguistic and cultural diversity.

Columbian hip-hop group Linaje Originarios hopes to pass on their language to the younger generation through the power of rap. The group raps in Emberá, an endangered language that’s currently spoken by about 100,000 people.

Culturally sensitive icons to help facilitate communication? Check. Design firm Buero Bauer has developed a set of pictograms for use in refugee camps. Named “First Aid Kit”, the set of icons is available for download on the Buero Bauer website.

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