The Scientist in the Crib

Since becoming a parent, I’ve gotten even more interested in children, their language acquisition, and their development, so I recently read The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff and Patricia K. Kuhl.

The book is about how children learn about the world and what we adults can learn from studying children, especially babies. There’s a chapter particularly about how children learn language. But what is actually involved in learning a tongue? “First, you have to break up the continuous stream of sounds into separate pieces and identify each sound accurately…Then you have to string the sounds together into words…Then you need to understand all the nuances of meaning each word can have…And, finally, you have to figure out something about the larger intent of the sentence.” (p. 92-3) Gopnik, Meltzoff and Kuhl call it “code-breaking” and say how challenging it is, but “most complicated of all, people speaking different languages hear sounds totally differently.” (p. 96)

But what does language do for us anyway? Well, ”the most obvious advantage of language is that it lets us communicate and coordinate our actions with other people in our group…The fact that we speak different languages also lets us differentiate between ourselves and others…And the development of language is probably linked to the development of our equally distinctive ability to learn about people and things. It allows us to take advantage of all the things that people before us have discovered about the world.” (p. 100)

Here’s how it works: “Babies master the sounds of their language first, and that makes the words easier to learn….Babies seem to learn some general rules about the words in their particular language before they learn the words themselves.” (p. 109) As parents, we need to talk to our babies often, especially in a slow and slightly exaggerated way, so they can hear the sounds and then start understanding the words.

If, like me, you hope your child will learn a language from a young age, when should you start? The earlier the better. “Children who learn a second language when they are very young, between three and seven years of age, perform like native speakers on various tests…If you learn a second language after puberty, there is no longer any correlation between your age and your linguistic skill…Early in development we are open to learn the prototypes of many different languages. But by the time we reach puberty, these mental representations of sounds are well formed and become more fixed, and that makes it more difficult to perceive the distinctions of a foreign language.” (p. 192-3)


The Scientist in the Crib is an interesting, if somewhat repetitive, book, and I recommend it to parents in particular.

Some words sound lovelier than others—and learning a new language can teach you why

When we listen to a foreign language, we may hear sounds which do not exist in our mother tongue, and may sound different from anything we have ever heard before. The first time we hear something new, a foreign sound or word—even an unknown word in our own languages—something in it may provoke delight or revulsion.

Often with familiar words, it’s almost impossible to simply look at one and separate it from its meaning. Words like “putrid” or “disgusting” have nasty connotations already built in to our subconscious and therefore meaning will play a key role.

However, when we learn a new language, we encounter words free of associations and connotations in our mind. This presents an opportunity for researchers to determine what’s in a word itself that the mind finds pleasing or unpleasant.

From a very young age, everyone is exposed to music and to language, and every culture has its local variants of both. We all perceive words in different ways. How we feel about different words, whether we like the sound of some of them more than others, will depend mostly on what experiences in our life we attach to them and how people in our community use those words.

The British linguist David Crystal conducted some research on phonaesthetics, the study of what makes certain sounds beautiful, and noted that the most popular words have positive connotations—no surprises there. But what’s interesting is what these words have in common: two or three syllables, short vowels, easy-to-produce consonantal sounds such as /l/, /s/ and /m/.

None of these sounds—or “phonemes”—require much energy or effort to be pronounced and so evoke natural and peaceful tones. Some examples are: autumn, melody, lullaby, velvet, luminous, tranquil, marigold, whisper, gossamer, caress.

For centuries, the repetition of certain sounds in literature has been popular in poetry, often with the aim of mimicking nature to elicit moods and feelings. Both in English and Spanish poems, words where /s/ is a prominent sound symbolize the hissing sound of the the wind or the sea, and words with nasal sounds like /m/ are soothing and mellow, like a soft murmur.

Separating meaning from words

In the English language, the very same word will sound differently when pronounced by speakers of different areas, within the UK and abroad. Geography not only affects the way a word sounds but also its meaning—like “close”, which describes proximity and the feeling in the air immediately before a storm.

When we hear a word, the way we perceive it will be influenced not only by denotation but also by connotation. Understandably, words associated with positive experiences will be perceived as pleasing.

However, the way our experiences influence what words we like remains fluid throughout life. For the last 20 years or so, I have witnessed this with my Spanish beginner students.

If we effectively “conquer” a word, it becomes a word we like to say and hear. Sounds that at the start of the course British students struggled with – /θ/, /x/, /ɲ/, the rolled /r/ and /ʧ/—because they are scarce or do not exist in their mother tongue, became more popular by the end of the year.

New and positive experiences thus bring new “love” for words with initially tricky consonants, such as esperanzaizquierdaagujetas and contraseña.

There are also words which students used to find challenging at the start of their course but after some months have grown confident using and pronouncing with the kind of pride that arises from knowledge, hard work, and learning, regardless of the word’s connotations. This is particularly striking in the example of “desafortunadamente.” This means “unfortunately” in Spanish. Desafortunadamente therefore has obvious negative connotations, but learners of a new language are more likely to experience disassociation with a word from its meaning, which rarely happens in your mother tongue. Speakers of a new language can therefore enjoy a word on its own merits, disregarding its connotations.

When I teach pronunciation and intonation to Spanish beginners, I use the word “jeringuilla” as an example. It has all the makings of a word our brains love—syllables that flow, short vocalic sounds, /n/ and the strong Spanish /x/, which offers a worthy challenge for a native English speaker—but imagine their surprise when they learn it actually means “syringe”…

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

South African Schools to Start Teaching Kiswahili As An Optional Language

South African schools will from 2020 offer Kiswahili as an optional language for learners, the minister for basic education, Angie Motshekga said on Monday.

Motshekga, who said the decision had been approved by the country’s Council of Education Ministers, said the language will be offered at public, private and independent schools.

“Kiswahili has the power to expand to countries that never spoke it and has the power to bring Africans together,’‘ Motshekga said.

We are confident that the teaching of Kiswahili is South African schools will help to promote social cohesion with our fellow Africans.

‘‘It is also one of the officials languages of the African Union. We are confident that the teaching of Kiswahili is South African schools will help to promote social cohesion with our fellow Africans.’‘

Kiswahili will be the first African language, from outside South Africa, to be offered at schools.

French, German and Mandarin are among foreign languages already offered in South African schools as optional subjects.

The rise of Kiswahili

Kiswahili is a Bantu language with lexical and linguistic similarities with many African languages spoken in the continent.”

Last month, South Africa’s radical opposition leader Julius Malema singled out Swahili as a potential common language that could be used throughout the continent, as one way of ‘decolonising Africa’.

In May this year, social networking giant, Twitter officially recognised Kiswahili as a language, making it the first African language to achieve the feat.

Hashtags like #SwahiliIsNotIndonesian and #TwitterRecognizeSwahili had been pushed by several Kenyans for a long time, petitioning Twitter to recognise the African language.

By  MT

Faithful vs. Effective Translations

Posted on  by 

A Bridge Too Far

Most of the time, when we describe a good translation, we refer to the concept of fidelity. We believe the target text should be true to the source, respecting its style as well as the things it describes. However, at times, translators run the risk of over-egging the pudding, so to speak. The source text is translated so literally that the target text is difficult to comprehend. Thus, the translation’s function is not achieved. It’s times like this we must ask, “do we need faithful or effective translations?”

Let us take for example instructive texts, such as user’s manuals or cookbooks. English cookbooks tend to be more detailed than cookbooks in Spanish, laden with a lot of information that the Spanish reader takes for granted. Given a faithful translation of an English cookbook, a Spanish person would probably feel slighted and stop reading.

Something similar happens to copywriting. Imagine once again how an advertisement written for British audiences would fare in Spain. Most likely, a lot of references would be lost, and so the advertisement would lose its impact. Sales of the product would be less than expected, and the translator would have failed his mission.

Some Theory

In 1978, the linguist, Hans Vermeer, introduced for the first time the theory of skoposSkopos is a word of greek origin (σκοπός) meaning “purpose”. The theory upholds that both translators and interpreters must keep in mind, above all other things, the function of the words they are translating. If, for example, the purpose of a piece is to sell a product, the target language should be adapted to achieve the same impact in the target audience.

This concept is not limited to language; it also comprises the customs, world views and preferences represented in this language.

Perhaps the importance of skopos is most evident in translations of movies, especially when children are the target audience. The purpose of dubbing is making sure children the world over are just as entertained as the children who speak the original language. And while perhaps a complete makeover of the soundtrack is uncalled for, a lot of it -word play, jokes, register- will have to be adjusted. Professionals tasked with translating this kind of material must really have the knack for it.

The Goal

To answer the question that set off this discussion, I dare say that, as a general rule for translations, effectiveness is more important than faithfulness. Of course, we would never change the meaning of the source text, but rather adapt anything that may be lost in translation. Preserving the author’s intent is always our first priority.

Can Humor be Translated?

By Danielv

There are many magazines with funny jokes, books that describe amusing situations, videos and movies where it is inevitable to let out a few laughs. Everyone loves to laugh and enjoy that intense moment of glee. And it is only natural to want to share these funny creations with others.

Now, it is very tempting to believe that a humorous text can be translated to any language easily, and that the humor will produce the same effect in other cultures. Humor is something universal, is it not? If something is funny, everyone should laugh all the same, regardless of the language it’s expressed in. But, actually, the translations of jokes and amusing stories are a great challenge for translators. It turns out, the job is not a simple translation, but a challenging .

There are different reasons why a funny text can lose a bit its charm when translated. It may fail miserably, or, in the worst case, it may even offend the reader. The reason is that many jokes are based on puns or rhymes, things that tend to disappear in a translation. Many translators find the task impossible. Humor is also laden with sociocultural themes belonging to a specific region. An obvious example would be that whereas in some countries, certain animals are venerated as deities, in others, these animals are consumed for sustenance. Think  in the US versus  in remote areas of Guangxi. This is what it means to localize, it is understanding the concept of a joke, but adapting it to a different , in order to achieve an effect as similar as possible to the original text. Surely we have to change wording, characters, and settings in a story and perhaps remove or replace some bits of a joke. It is therefore imperative we give the linguists license to refit the texts when translating them, in order to make people from diverse places laugh.

Of course, there are also cases in which a text has a kind of translatable humor requiring no changes, but, in general, you have to be prepared to let many stories and jokes undergo a small metamorphosis, so they can be funny in others countries.

Translation in Afrikaans Today

Afrikaans is the third largest first language speaker group in South Africa(1). It is the only language in Africa that takes its name from the continent, indicating its indigenous identity, if not origin and status. This can be seen in the way it has, since its early South African origin, assimilated elements of other South African languages, either by transliterating words or translating everyday expressions.

Afrikaans in translation has come a long way since then.

Today it is not limited to translating classical and contemporary literature in all genres from various local and foreign languages. From mainly English, translation takes place in the fields of general Christian literature, of national and international legal, paralegal and technologically technical texts, and of various written communications with socio-economic impact.

In all fields of textual translation, particularly since finally also gaining official status alongside English in 1925, Afrikaans has gained a rich tradition and expertise. It continues to do so under the new, democratic dispensation in South Africa. Section 6 of the current Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, also provides for parity of esteem among the now 11 official languages, of which Afrikaans is one.

After years of delicate deliberations, Parliament has recently given full effect to this Constitutional provision by approving and publicly launching and publishing the National Language Policy Framework(2) in the 11 official languages. The Framework provides, among others, for the eventual compulsory usage of six official languages for all government publications at national government level(3). This provides an overall boost to the local translation and language development industry.

In practice, the working language in both private and public sector is English. The required subsequent translations to be done in the public sector require enhanced skills and terminology development, especially for the previously disadvantaged indigenous South African languages. This is very much the mandate of the National Language Service (NLS) and the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB). In the process Afrikaans not only maintains its level of development, but also shares its growth.

Textual translation, as an established language activity, gives the non-speakers/readers of any language access to the information and cultural context conveyed by means of that language, promoting general understanding and acceptance. Globalisation and provincialisation are effected simultaneously, be that good or bad. In the diversely multicultural South African society, access to one another’s culture is a powerful enabling tool necessary for nation building. The continued translation into and from Afrikaans contributes to such nation building.

Hence, the experience gained in developing and standardising Afrikaans is, at various institutions, being translated into training interventions. This experience is being made applicable to the general development and standardisation of the previously disadvantaged indigenous South African languages.

In doing so, Afrikaans and the speakers thereof is also benefiting markedly from the formal interaction with the previously disadvantaged indigenous South African languages and its speakers – informal, interpersonal interaction was never absent. The greatest overall national benefit is experienced not so much in the field of non-literary translation, but in the field of literary translation.

The locally and internationally much awarded South African author, Antjie Krog(4), for instance, recently published Met woorde soos met kerse [With Words as with Candles] (2002), a collection of indigenous African poetry “translated” in an unusual, if not novel, way. If direct translation is understood to be translation without third language intervention, one could call the kind of translation activity used by Krog indirect translation.

Poems of cultural and literary importance from the various cultures of the previously disadvantaged indigenous South African languages were identified by literary experts in those languages. Those poems were explained extensively to Krog mainly in a mutual language other than the first language of either party. Krog, a poet laureate herself, subsequently wrote Afrikaans versions for each of those poems. Hence, indirect translation. The Afrikaans text of each poem is published alongside the text in the language of origin.

An example of such indirect translation, from Afrikaans into Xhosa(5), where the mutually common third language was English, is the following:

Afrikaans English Xhosa
Huil nie as Ek struikel nie;

slegs hartseer huil.

Ween ook by my neerslaan nie;

net weemoed ween.

Verdriet is traanloos

in my wêreld wat wankel,

in my hart wat vergaan.

Do not cry when I stumble;

only heartache cries.

Also do not weep when I fall down;

only woe weeps.

Sorrow is tearless

in my world that falters,

in my heart that perishes.

Ungakhali xa ndikhubeka

Yintliziyo ebuhlungu kuphela ekhalayo

Ungakhali xa ndisiwa phantsi

Lusizi kuphela olukhalayo

Ubuhlungu abunazinyembezi

Kwilizwe lam elixengaxengayo

Kwintliziyo yam etshabalalayo


This kind of linguistic access to one another’s culture unfortunately is always limited to a select readership, i.e. adult readers of serious literature. Prescribing translated works of literature and informal texts at school and post-school level increases that readership and enhances understanding of the cultures in which the various texts originated.

By actively, even aggressively so, increasing the readership of translated South African works in South Africa, former President Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation can begin to understand and appreciate Africa’s unique cultural diversity and thereby eventually meaningfully participate in the African Renaissance, as envisaged by President Thabo Mbeki.

(1) According to the latest official statistics (1996), first language speakers of the 11 official languages number as follows: Zulu (9,2 m), Xhosa (7,2 m), Afrikaans (5,8), Northern Sotho (3,7 m), English (3,5 m), Tswana (3,3 m), Southern Sotho (3,1 m), Tsonga (1,8 m), Swati (1,0 m), Venda (0,9 m) and Ndebele (0,6 m).
(2) Pretoria, 18 and 19 Maart 2003.
(3) These are: Afrikaans, English, Tsonga, Venda and, rotationally, one language each from the Nguni and Sotho groups.
(4) Antjie Krog was voted overall winner of the South African Translators’ Institute Award for Outstanding Translation of the Year, 2003.
(5) Writer’s original Afrikaans for Station 8 of South African born German composer Isak Roux’s multilingual mini oratorium, Stations (2002). English for première in Stuttgart, Germany, 19 April 2002 (spoken). Xhosa by Bukelwa Kubheka for première in Bloemfontein, South Africa, 23 August 2002 (sung).
By Johann P. Boshoff. Copyright © 2003. 
Published by, November 2003.

How to Avoid Language Attrition

The more languages we learn, the more difficult it can become to devote enough attention to these languages to maintain them. What if we lose these languages, forget them? This is sometimes referred to as language attrition. What can be done to avoid language attrition?

Even people who’ve only learned one foreign language may lack the opportunity to use it, and therefore may well worry about how to maintain or improve those language skills. For people who have learned more than one language, it can be an even bigger problem. In studying my 18th language, Arabic, I am of course not in a position to work on languages that I already studied. Do I forget them? I don’t think I do, but I am aware of slipping in them.


Can We Maintain Our Level in a Language?

How to Avoid Language AttritionThe last time I visited Berlin some while ago, I was very conscious of the deficiencies of my German. Yes my German friends insisted that I was doing just fine. So to some extent we tend to be sensitive to our own shortcomings, whereas other people, especially native speakers listening to us, are more inclined to give us credit for what we can do. They’re less aware of the fact that we’re frustrated because we can’t do as well as we would like to do. To some extent we are too hard on ourselves. Often we struggle at first but with a little interaction regain the level we had before. To a large extent how well we do depends on how well we know a particular language.

In my own case, with French and Japanese, I can turn them on whenever I want and I really don’t miss a beat. That’s because I lived in France for three years and Japan for nine years. There’s absolutely no question that the more you have spoken a language, the better you can speak it. I say this again and again, even though I am a proponent of input-based learning. You need to build up your vocabulary and comprehension, which provides you with the base you need, the potential to speak well. In order to speak well, you ultimately have to speak a lot but without this base, you can’t engage in enough meaningful conversations to really bring your language skills up to comfortable fluency. Once you do achieve comfortable fluency you are less likely to experience much slippage in your skills.

The other language I can probably turn on, although I am aware of slipping in the language, is Mandarin Chinese, a language I’ve spoken a lot of over the years.However, if I really want to make sure I do well, I spend a little time refreshing in the language. For example, in Vancouver whenever I was invited to participate in television programs in Mandarin, I would typically spend a few hours during that day reading or listening to audio in Mandarin, just to kind of refresh my memory, something I wouldn’t have to do in French or Japanese. That’s not to say that I couldn’t improve in French and Japanese – I would love to. Whenever I have listened to audiobooks in French or Japanese I have found that it definitely elevates my language skills. Without doubt, listening to interesting material is always a way of refreshing yourself in languages, even for languages you already speak well.

How to Avoid Language Attrition

Spanish is another language where I don’t slip much but like to refresh at LingQ  before making a video in Spanish for example. The same is true for Swedish and German, but there I have gaps and more problems. Once I reach further down into Italian, Portuguese, not to mention the languages that I’ve learnt more recently, then it’s just not that easy to get myself to a level where I can have a conversation comfortably. In Russian, for example, before I participated in a language conference in Moscow, via Skype,  I spent a good two weeks going over my lessons on LingQ, working with material from Ekho Moskvy, looking up words. I also had online discussions with our tutors too, so when I came to make my presentation I had kind of revved myself up to a comfortable level, maybe even better than I ever was.


Rediscovering a Language

If I have to do a video now in one of my weaker languages I know that I have to spend at least two weeks reading and listening a lot in those languages. I would also include five online discussions with native speakers during the period. One thing I have found when refreshing myself in a language is that the more I have spoken in that language in the past, the less I need to practice actually speaking. Just the input activity does it for me, and when I start speaking I have little trouble. In the weaker language, more speaking practice is necessary in order to “hit the ground running” when I need to.

Speaking is always good practice. It helps you identify your gaps so that in your listening you can deliberately try to notice those areas where you have a weakness You always hope that you can avoid these weaknesses the next time you speak, but there are no guarantees.

How to Avoid Language AttritionIt’s not realistic to expect that people who have learned a second language, or speak several languages, can just turn them on at will. This is especially true if they haven’t had the opportunity to live in a country where the language is spoken. However, whatever effort has been put into learning a language remains with us, I find. It is always enjoyable to go back and engage again with languages that we learned in the past. This enables us to refresh in the language, but more than that there is the satisfaction of rediscovering an old friend, and finding that with a little effort we regain our previous level and even improve.

As long as we don’t worry about how well we perform, we can feel comfortable in the knowledge that languages we have learned remain with us. There may be short term slippage, but there is no really language attrition.


Just Go For It!

So if you are going to be in a situation where you want to do well in a language you have learned in the past,  just put a little effort into getting back into it. Depending on your level, input activities alone, just plain reading and listening, or even watching a movie, can be enough. If you have the opportunity to practice speaking, go for it but it is not an absolute necessity.  Just talk when you need to. Even if you find that your level has fallen off, after your renewed engagement with the language you may find that you’ve taken the language up to another level.