Author Archive

Would a Rose By Any Other Name Smell As Sweet?

Having just completed the reading of a provocative article echoing the on-air story broadcast by National Public Radio on January 16, I am left with a feeling of some concern and sadness.  According to this piece, entitled “Google’s Artifical Intelligence Translates Poetry” ,  http://www.npr.org/2011/01/16/132959095/googles-artificial-intelligence-translates-poetry , researchers are tackling a daunting task–successfully translating poetry.

Poetry is such a nuanced, linguistically sensitive subject.  The words, meter and rhyme are chosen by the poet only after deep and lengthy ponderance of the myriad choices available in the writer’s language.  Words create worlds.  The choice of a word, with its flow of vowels and consonants, sounds soft or strong, rhythms graceful or powerful, contribute totally to the overall effect of the finished line, stanza, work.  A finely crafted poem creates a world in which the reader momentarily lives.  Blessings to the poet who makes something out of nothing through the sensitive use of language.

It saddens me to think that someone believes a machine can equal this richness.  Approximate it, maybe.  Equal it, I don’t think so.  We humans have such hubris.  In our headlong rush to prove we can reinvent life, we fail to see that some things are simply beautiful in the simplicity of their being.  Poetry, whether you love it, like it or ignore it, is one of human beings’ loveliest creations.  Why must we tinker with the human capability to produce beauty by giving it to a machine? 

I’m sorry.  Call me old fashioned.  Call me sentimental.  I think that giving the translation of poetry to a machine and thinking it can spit out an equivalent to the original piece of art is a disappointing, misguided idea.

Gotta Love It

Read the greatest little article today.  It’s by a guy named Nicholas D. Kristof.  You can find it here:  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/30/opinion/30kristof.html?_r=1&src=me&ref=homepage.  He starts off with a quiz:  If a person who speaks three languages is trilingual, and one who speaks four languages is quadrilingual, what is someone called who speaks no foreign languages at all?    Answer: an American.

 Ugh–how pathetic!   Unfortunately, it’s mostly true (what an insular bunch this country is), but take heart, oh souls, there may be some change afoot.  At least, if he has anything to say about it, there could be.

His article is about how Mandarin Chinese is the cool language to teach American kids these days and how many of this country’s citizens are rushing headlong into trying to learn it.  Yes, Kristof says, Chinese is really the language to know for the future, and China will be a force to be reckoned with, but if Americans want to learn a foreign language that is immediate and practical, they’d better learn Spanish.  Hooray!  I love Spanish!

 Kristof argues that the Hispanic population of the U.S. is growing exponentially and within forty years will become nearly 1/3 of the residents here.  That combined with the interesting speculation that as Americans vacation and retire, more and more of them will be enticed to go to Latin America (think, Costa Rica, not just Mexico) where the healthcare, climate and living are easy–and cheaper–and that business opportunities will inevitably involve our neighbors to the south.  All this leads him to say that all America’s kids should learn Spanish–beginning in elementary school–period. 

He notes that anyway, Chinese takes four times as long to learn as Spanish does (it’s not just character driven but is grammatically remote from anything Western Europe has even dreamed of) and tonal based, to boot, so it makes sense to get us all on the Span-wagon before we jump off into the China sea.

Not coincidentally, guess which two languages have been in the most demand at Eloquence lately?  Yup, you got ‘em–those two.

Any time anybody is gung-ho about teaching Americans a foreign language, man, am I on that team.  As his article title says, “Primero hay que aprender [el] español.  Ranhou Zai Xue Zhongwen.” — First  learn Spanish.  Then study Chinese.  

¡Adelante!

Lost and Gone Forever

Linguists estimate that a language dies every 14 days.  Nearly 7,000 languages are spoken on this earth, and between 60% and 80% of them are still undocumented. 

When a language dies, a culture dies with it.  Think of the richness of a language of the Inuit in Alaska or the indigenous tribes of the Amazon.  Their experiences of survival in the harshest climates of the planet are key to their continued survival and have been passed down from generation to generation in spoken language.  But larger civilization inevitably encroaches and the offspring speak that language less and less. And then one day, the language vanishes and the culture with it. 

They are lost forever.

Every continent on earth save for Antarctica has vanishing languages.  K. David Harrison and his team traveled around the globe to interview the few remaining speakers of dying languages from Siberia to Bolivia.  He documents this extraordinary adventure in his book, “The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages.”  This book is published by National Geographic and has become available this year at Amazon.com.

As a linguist I feel like a tapestry holding the humanity of the world whose threads are the languages that interweave in a complex and fascinating pattern is slowly developing holes that over time grow larger and unravel until only the skeletal fragments of the tapestry will be left–those being the big, major languages of the world–while the small, rich, unnoticed, lesser language fall by the wayside, victims of modernity and progress, taking their unique rich lustre with them.

I wish K. David Harrison and his team Godspeed and good luck.  They have a lot of work ahead of them. And they are running out of time.

Foreign Accent Syndrome?

Talk about strange.  Apparently there is a peculiar malady called “Foreign Accent Syndrome”.  According to msnbc.com, people hit their heads and develop accents from places they’ve never even visited.  Example:  Woman in Fairfax County, VA, falls and hits her head in a stairwell at a 4-H youth conference and suddenly starts speaking English with a foreign accent.  She’s now suing the National 4-H Council for $1 million.  Even more peculiar, a women in England suffered a migraine last spring and began speaking with a Chinese accent.  Or how about this?  In April a 13-year-old girl from Croatia woke up one morning speaking only German.  She’d been studying it in school and entirely lost her native language ability.  This is from a condition called “bilingual aphasia”.

Click here for the article

Think of all the people who thought they had no foreign language aptitude.  Who knew it would just take a knock on the head?!

Lost in Translation II, or Through the Looking Glass

One of the most fascinating articles I’ve read in years about how language shapes how we see the world appeared today in an article by Lera Boroditsky entitled, “Lost in Translation” (found here:  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703467304575383131592767868.html?mod=djemLifeStyle_h )

She describes how humans, through their 7,000-some-odd world languages, have created a structure that engages different cognitive parts of our brain.  For example, she describes how English is an agent-centered language, even if an accident is involved (“John broke the vase”), while Spanish or Japanese report the same accidental event by saying “the vase broke itself”. 

Look at how this plays out.  This fundamental view of the world around us substantially influences people’s view of life in the respective cultures.  Because English is agent oriented, it abhores use of the passive voice (“the vase broke itself”, equivalent to “the vase was broken”), always preferring to state the subject and then the action that subject took, in that order. This action-driven view of the world through our language profoundly influences our legal system and the way we comprehend what we see as proper and fair action to take in the case (punishment of the agent rather than restitution to the victim).

Studying another language is a unique study of the human brain.  Language and culture are as intricately entwined as a strand of DNA.  They are inescapable mates and provide a chicken/egg conundrum:  which came first, or at least, which one influences which?  I believe that they both continually reinforce one another. 

In order to really internalize and understand another culture, it is imperative to study its language.  Business people, government officials and public servants in contact with the myriad of nationalities in these United States would benefit immeasurably from learning a second language–not just to be able to communicate, but to experience a new sense of empathy with the foreign language speaker who behaves in a way that is culturally appropriate for his own upbringing and but strange to ours.

Short of pleading, “My language made me do it!”, communication and comprehension of any other-language-based culture truly begin at the fundamental level of word.

Heiroglyphics

What a hoot!  And no, this isn’t about Egypt and the discovery of the latest King Tut tomb.

The Wall Street Journal just ran an article about a Colorado woman named Letha Sanders who has started a business called Shorthand Translation Services.   She accepts documents written in Gregg shorthand from people who can’t figure out what the “heiroglyphics” say and translates them (transcribes, them, actually), much as a foreign language translator would do.  Here is the link to the article, where you can see examples of the shorthand  she translates. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703303904575292982869708158.html?mod=djemLifeStyle_h

Do you wonder that people stop and gawk?  When you stop to think about it, Gregg shorthand IS a foreign language to the average person.

I was so excited about this that I wrote to Ms. Sanders.  I wanted to tell her how much I admired her.  I studied shorthand in high school and used it during the summers to help pay my way through college.  I still use it, in fact, when I take personal notes.  (Trust me, you wouldn’t be able to read them. You’d have to call Ms. Sanders to decode them for you.)  I love the system.  It’s an elegant, brilliant way to capture the spoken word in just a matter of a few graceful penstrokes. To think that somebody is making money deciphering this stuff is so cool to me it’s totally off the wall.  More power to ya, Letha!

This makes me want to go find my Gregg shorthand book and review my brief forms!  (That’s not underwear.  It’s abbreviated phrases.)  

I guess it just goes to prove that a translator is a translator in any language–even when the subject is the English language coded in inscrutible squiggles.  You think that fifty years from now someone will be deciphering abbreviations for texting?   CUL8R!

Speaking of Speaking…

There is a lovely short video at this link http://video.nytimes.com/video/2010/04/28/nyregion/1247467719180/city-of-endangered-languages.html?WT.mc_id=VI-D-I-NYT-MOD-MOD-M147b-ROS-0510-HDR&WT.mc_ev=click of a dedicated linguist in New York City named Daniel Kaufman.  He has founded the Urban Fieldstation for Linguistic Research in New York City.  Kaufman made the fascinating discovery that New York City is home to speakers from some of the most rare and endangered languages in the world, and he set out to capture, document and study them.  It is a wonderful act of preservation for languages so far flung, remote or endangered that within 20 or 30 years these, along with the richness of the cultures that created them, may vanish in a blink.  Human culture lives through language.  When the language goes away, an irreplaceable part of human history goes with it.  Hooray for people like Daniel Kaufman!  Save the Whales or Save the Languages–it’s all to the benefit of our planet and humankind.

The Joy of (not) Cooking

A great article came out in the Wall Street Journal today about tapas.  Tapas are Spain’s glorious contribution to the world cuisine.  Instead of ordering a full meal, tapas are all about ordering a variety of small dishes, each one a gem in a world of creative taste designs.  Wine, of course, is de rigueur. (Pardon the French when describing a Spanish delight.)

Tapas are served at places that specialize in these things.  The practice is a grandly social one of “tasca hopping”–going from place to place (tapa bar to tapa bar) to sample the tapas.  Do it with friends, and you end up with a delightfully full tummy at a fraction of the cost of a sit-down meal and with a whole lot more fun in the interim. 

Here is a link to this article, which is fun just to read! http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703787304575075523479248834.html?mod=djemLifeStyle_h

Hooray for Spain!

¡Buen provecho!

Say What?

There’s a great Doonesbury cartoon today (March 28) in the Sunday funnies related to language.  A young character named Jeff is working in Afghanistan for the CIA and has apparently been assigned the job of surveying the tribal elders on their opinions of the surge and the Taliban.  This kid fancies himself as a Pashto speaker.   The hubris and perils of dealing in a foreign language without professional assistance become painfully (not to mention embarrassingly)  obvious.

See the cartoon here http://www.gocomics.com/doonesbury/2010/03/28/.

 If you want to make a positive impression on foreign speakers, ad hoc translation and interpretation sure aren’t how to get the job done.  

Eloquence will never put your credibility in peril.  Call us.

What kind of impression is YOUR organization making?

The Google Behemoth

Google has set its sights on translation.  According to an article in the New York Times on March 9, 2010 (see the article here), the company has determined that it will single-handedly overcome the language barrier (single-handedly, that is, with the help of “a few hundred billion English words”). 

Machine translation, which is what this is, has long been a subject of intense disagreement among language professionals and the entities promoting automation.  David Bellos, Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, offered a clear perspective on this in a March 20, 2010, New York Times op-ed piece entitled “I, Translator” (see the article here).

Language and its use are a key distinction between humans and other creatures on our planet.  The human infant’s brain is enriched and exponentially expanded by listening, watching and experiencing the communications of other human beings all around it.  Mastering speech, syntax and written communication skills in one’s own language takes years, if not decades.  Some people never master it. And those who master it especially well become society’s writers, speakers and leaders. To think that a machine can replicate the talent of a gifted native speaker is inconceivable. 

Language is created out of need–the need to express something ineffable, something that specifically moves one human brain to reach out to another.  Language is created by feelings to create feelings. Machines don’t feel. Speaking or writing launches an arrow targeted squarely at the listener or reader. How it lands–or whether it lands at all–and how perfectly the language is communicated make the difference between inspiration or indifference.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that the magnificent human brain can be replaced by a language robot. When it comes to nuances and the fine details of foreign language translation work, no machine, no matter how sophisticated, will ever replace a sentient human being. Machines are incapable of that exquisite flash of insight with precisely the perfect word to nail the target. To get the job done right, ask a human.

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