Only German in Bavaria

In the news this week, we found out that the Christian Sociailst Union, which has been running Bavaria for decades, proposed a resolution to impose the use of the German language, in public and in the home, for all foreigners settled in the region. Their congress is being held this week in Nuremberg, I imagine in part to further discuss and possibly vote on this bizarre resolution.

The rest of Germany has by the looks as if it largely been rolling its eyes at these news, with the General Secreraty of the Social Democrat party stating that “it would be hilarious if it weren’t also highly dangerous”. What’s more, this region of Germany speaks in their very own variation of German, often largely incomprehensible to speakers from other regions.

So two questions raise themselves – are the CSU right in their belief that imposing the use of a particular language on people can also force their integration within a society? And if so, how on earth do they intend on enforcing this idea? Listening devices in foreigners’ homes? Spies outside the school gates?

Sadly (or not, depending on your point of view), history has shown that enforcing the use of a particular language, and punishing the use of another, has often resulted in accelerated acculturation. It can also result in the loss of the speakers’ original language and to some extent cultural knowledge within a generation (although the loss is not irreversable). Think of the punishments imposed in schools for the use of local languages like Breton, or the disintegration of certain cultural transmission in communities such as the Australian aborigines or the Native populations of Alaska, when English was imposed on children.

When this worked however, it generally involved the physical removal of children from their parents, sending them to English-language boarding schools for example, with or without the approval of the families. What these children gained in integration they lost in historical and cultural identity. Speaking one language in the home and another in school encourages bilingualism and the creation of a new generation at ease in both worlds, acting as a bridge between them.

What’s more, enforcing the use of a foreign language upon immigrants can be traumatic. Imagine being told that you were no longer allowed to use your mother tongue, that you had to get by and communicate even with your nearest and dearest in a foreign language. It would amount for many to a limitation on free speech and self-expression and would harldy encourages positive feelings towards the new homeland. Not to mention that to enforce anything similar would involve either isolating and seperating speakers of a foreign language, or the creation of a totalitarian 1984-like state.

So if this information is indeed correct, let’s at least hope that the CSU has a long and hard debate about this resolution before coming out in public with such absurd propositions again.

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Translators in wartime

If you’re unfamiliar with John Oliver I strongly suggest you get acquainted, and to get you started here’s a clip from the most recent show on Last Week Tonight  about the importance of translators in conflict situations and the injustice at how they’re being repaid for their service and selflessness.

The interview with Mohammad, the Afghan translator, ends poignantly with these remarks:

John Oliver: “Is there a word in Pashto to convey deep gratitude for someone’s service but also profound shame at how they’ve been treated?”

Mohammad: “Not really”

John Oliver: “There isn’t really in English either”

Try to sound more southern, luv.

In the news this week, everybody’s been up in arms about a minor incident during which an Ofsted school inspector allegedly insinuated to a school teacher in Berkshire that she should try to drop the Cumbrian accent and ‘sound more southern’. A comment which would be taken to be outright racist were it directed to a teacher of Indian, Jamaican or Polish origin has stirred northern sensibilities and undoubtedly caused embarassed mutterings in the south.

The teacher in question thankfully has no intention of altering her enunciation to please a misguided Ofsted inspector and has taken it all in good jest, as shall we. So here, in honour of all things Northern, is a lovely wee poem in Cumbrian.

Huh?

Languages are many, but some expressions are universal, or so it seems. A recent study funded by no less than the European Research Council and the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science (money very usefully spent, as always), has established that no matter where you are in the world, you can probably interrupt someone with a well-placed ‘huh?’ and they’ll know what you mean. That’s based on a direct investigation into ten languages and data from about 30 in total.

The first part of their paper is spent determining that ‘huh?’ is universal, the second that it is a word. In support of this second claim, the researchers point out that ‘huh?’ is not an innate, non-lexical grunt-like noise, but rather a learned mechanism for quiclky and efficiently signalling a misunderstanding or hearing difficulty during a conversaiton. So here it is, ‘huh?’ in ten languages from across the globe (and a good way to get your round-the-world trip funded through a research grant).

The researchers also speculate that other “words” like ‘oh’, ‘um’ and ‘ah’ might also be quasi-universal, with little change in their use and pronunciation across cultures. Guess they’ll just have to apply for another grant from the European Research Coucil to investigate that hypothesis next summer.

‘Gunna’ not ‘gunman’

What happens when you cross a paranoid population with lousy auto-correct? A surprise police lock-down of your school of course! At least that’s what happened last year in a school in Georgia (the State not the country) when a student there had the bad luck of sending a message which read ‘gunman be at west hall today’ to the wrong person.

What he meant was ‘gunna‘ which must be an American spelling of ‘gonna‘.

What happened was that an alert was raised and the school put under lock-down until further police investigation traced the source of the message.

Luckily for the student, the police believed his story and he did not end up in Guantanamo. The incident was merely described by police as a combination of odd circumstances‘.

Indeed.

Let it be a lesson to us all on the perils of auto-correct.

 

Eurotalk

Ah, the Eurobarometer, bless it, as ever working hard to figure out just how little people really care about the EU. For once it has spat out some results which are vaguely worth considering.

What with all the exchange programs and grants that the EU has put in place to get students and professionals to study and work abroad for a year, it is only to be expected that the number of bi- and multi-lingual Europeans is increasing. So when the Eurobarometer tells us that their number has actually decreased in comparison to the year 2006, surely we should all throw our arms up in indignation and demand our Euro-tax money back. The latest data on Language Diversity tells us that just above half of all European citizens (54%) (-2% since 2006) are able to have a conversation in at least one other language, and that one quarter (-3% since 2006) speaks at least two additional languages.

The long-term EU objective is that each citizen should acquire practical knowledge of at least two foreign languages, but for the time being, in only eight member states does this apply to a majority of the population – Luxemburg (84%), the Netherlands (77%), Slovenia (67%), Malta (59%), Denmark (58%), Latvia (54%), Lithuania (52%) and Estonia (52%). Note the important presence of Baltic countries in there (where a large segment of the population speaks Russian or other Slavic languages as well as the local tongue) and the dominance of Luxembourg (which has three official languages already, so I can only image two of them are counted as ‘foreign’ for the purposes of this survey).

It seems to me that multilingualism is more a result of a complex political history and possibly good schooling/a subtitling policy for English TV shows rather than anything EU politics has been able to achieve. Which does not mean that they should stop trying. If 77% of Europeans think that the promotion of language skills should be politically prioritised then I’m all for it too, even if French has fallen out of favour (-13%), whilst the perceived utility of Chinese has risen (+12%). Thankfully, overall a whopping 98% believe that learning a language is useful for a child’s future, and surely 98% of Europeans can’t be wrong.

The Interspecies Internet

The internet has unarguably been the biggest revolution in communication since the printing press. Never before have you been able to share so many thoughts with so many strangers and start arguments with someone half-way around the world in some common dialect of international English. Still, we have so far remained in the domain of human communication, but it seems that the next revolution may be just around the corner.

The concept of the Interspecies Internet has just been launched at a TED conference this week by Vint Cerf (chief Internet evangelist at Google and one of the founders of the world wide web), Diana Reiss (a researcher in animal cognition), Neil Gershenfeld from MIT, and Peter Gabriel (yes, as in the songwriter, who you can see in this video jamming with an ape).

They are interested in the power of using new technology to help us communicate with the more intelligent animals out there and have already started collaborating with elephant, dolphin and orangutan sanctuaries. It turns out that animals have generally been better able at figuring out how to communicate with us than the other way around, largely by pressing strange buttons to show us what they want.

So we are hopeful, even though the project is still at the stage of being ‘an idea in progress’, that one day soon we will be sharing videos and tunes with our animals friends around the world and seeing how they react. Will orangutans find cats and funny babies as fascinating as we do? Will elephants show their sense of humour or will dolphins express a penchant for jazz? Let’s just hope that we don’t simply end up arguing with them over whose momma is fatter.

 

Judging language in court

In the news these past weeks, the trial following the tragic and race-motivated killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida last year. His friend Rachel Jeantel has been talking before the judge, talking in African American English that is, a fact which has won her much mockery and a rather rude questioning from the defence lawyer regarding her ability to understand English (even though she was born and raised in Miami), to which she replied: “I don’t understand you, I do understand English”. 

While some criticised her ‘poor grammar’ and others tried to justify her language by the influence of her mother’s native Haitian creole, Jeantel merely represents a huge section of the American population who grow up speaking a non-standard dialect of English in their homes and communities, only to be told when entering public institutions that the language they speak is somehow ‘wrong’ or ‘ungrammatical’. 

It is neither, it is simply not the same as Standard American. If she says to the defence lawyer interrogating her “I had told you” instead of “I told you”, she is simply using the preterite “had” in a perfectly acceptable way which would be familiar to millions of other African-Americans across the country. They would also be able to tell you that “I don’t be listening that much” is the correct form, and that “I ain’t be listening that much” doesn’t work.

As I’ve mentioned this before in this blog, there are multitudes of linguistic variation across the USA, only this one holds particular stigma. Linguists like John McWorther who wrote on this subject for Time openly caution against this type of linguistic prescription – not only prescribing rules that govern language which do not reflect the way that people really use it, but by doing so reinforcing an elite class and stigmatising an entire population because of the way they speak.

The linguistic prescription which results in the categorical repudiation of African American English has social ramifications akin to  racial profiling. From school to the job interview to the witness box in a court-room, every institutional environment operates with an assumption about your intelligence and trustworthiness based on the way you speak English. The current situation in the USA is hardly the first or the last of such cases through history, but is perhaps all the more surprising for occurring in what is supposed to be a wealthy western democracy proud of its grounding in the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal”. As it turns out, the dialect you speak, perhaps as much as the colour of your skin, is a discriminating factor in social integration. If we hope to realise Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that people “will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character” then surely Rachel Jeantel’s testimony should be judged not by the form of her grammar but by the content of her words.

Foreign Accent Syndrome

Reported in such classy news sources as The Mirror and The Daily Mail this week, the case of an Australian woman who woke up speaking English with a French accent following a car accident. These cases being rare, you generally only get to hear about a new one every couple of years. In fact, there have only been little over 60 cases of Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) ever reported since its discovery in 1941.

To be sure, the news reports are often a bit misleading, and to the average person used to hearing English spoken with a French accent, the Australian case is only a vague approximation. The result of brain injury or stroke affecting an area devoted to language, FAS is in effect a speech impediment, and the people who wake up sounding French, Jamaican or Chinese have pretty much never had any experience of these cultures or languages.

We know relatively little about the functioning of the brain in terms of language production, and it is still appears to be somewhat of a miracle that humans can muster the ability to communicate with language to begin with when no other species even comes close. Cases like these are surely a godsend for neurolinguists exploring the language-producing areas of the brain. It is only when one particular little thing ceases to function that we can identify which part of the brain ceased to function along with it.

Saying that, with FAS the changes in the brain affect pronunciation in a myriad of ways – timing, intonation, control of tongue placement, voicing errors, truncation of words, vowel or consonant distortions, deletions or substitutions and other unusual errors can all be a part of the package. Despite all this, speech remains intelligible, and merely sounds somewhat ‘foreign’ to the casual listener. For the sufferers of FAS however, their social lives are gravely affected, many falling into depression or becoming recluse as a result, and finding it difficult to come to terms with this new voice which they feel deeply alters their identity.

Because cases are so rare, treatment is pretty much non-existent, with the suffers not knowing whether the affliction is temporary or if it will stay with them for the rest of their lives. A few researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas have launched a website for those seeking more information about FAS, and even they only mention one example from 2007 of a tentative treatment of FAS on an English-speaker who sounded ‘Swedish’, with no apparent success.