Posts Tagged ‘Language’

The Power of The Human Mind

December 29, 2007

This, I think, is one of the reasons why instant machine translation systems are not losing their audience and continue to push on, despite their obvious and generally decried flaws. A marketing argument is made out of pilfering and butchering languages, but it works.

The power of the human mind is such that it can overlook all kinds of mistakes: spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, even an imperfect choice of words. Of course it has been spelled out here that this is not entirely true and you can change the meaning of a sentence by simply changing the position of a comma. Last year, Lynne Trusse published this exquisite book entitled Eats, Shoots & Leaves on exactly the same subject.

If you think this is a minor subject, think twice. I was once asked by a French client to edit one of his documents. Written in his own language, not translated. He was the kind of person who should be supplied with a special keyboard–without the ‘comma’ key. He was using commas every couple of words and the result was, well, unreadable to the normal mind, but recognizable if you stood 3 feet away from the text, like in the opening example above.

In a language, whatever the language, every little bit of information counts. By this I mean EVERY BIT. It’s the beauty and the specificity of each language.

There are extremes of this. My dentist, who travels extensively to, and speaks at, international conferences, was telling me once how he was priding himself on his speaking a decent level of Japanese. Until the time when, as he was asking an innocent question from an honorable colleague from Japan, he saw his colleague’s face turn colorless and the man hastily turned away.

He was so shocked that he talked about it to other people and quickly found the answer. By simply switching two syllables in the question, he had asked whether his colleague was homosexual. So the human mind has its limits: culture.

I am not the kind of person to rant about text messaging and how young people are destroying the language. I don’t believe that speaking or writing in another language (texting for me is another language, which I don’t use) makes you less fluent or educated in your own language.

For me, language is a human thing. What I am ranting about is the pretense under which ‘close enough’ translation produced by computers, however sophisticated they may be, is made to pass as ‘acceptable’ and even ‘workable’ translation. This is the product of our technology-obsessed world. To me, the power of immediacy over quality of communication is producing a slow, but inexorable shift in languages and is conducive to yet more incomprehension, and may be, in the longer run, counter-productive.


The Loss of Languages

December 23, 2007

I came across this excellent article this morning, the Featured Story of the Natural History Magazine. It reminded me of the research I did for a previous post on Francophony.

The author, Sarah Grey Thomason, the William J. Gedney Collegiate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Michigan and former president of the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas, tells us that at least half of our planet’s 6,000 languages will be lost by the end of this century. Of course, if you speak one of the major languages, there’s no need to worry, these are probably to stay. Although I might say that one can never tell what the future has in store for us.

‘Losing a language’ may have different meanings. This article points to the fact that not all ‘dead’ languages are really dead, as in totally extinct. Latin is given as an example here. It is widely thought to be a dead language, because hardly anyone speaks it actively now. But it is not dead the way the language featured in the article will become extinct when the last person to speak it dies. Latin is very much alive, through the Romance languages descended from it.

But the most challenging implications are that if you are a member of a Native American tribe, the chances are that your children have been taught in English, and that they will speak it. So your language becomes extinct when you die.

This reminded me that within UNESCO, the question of linguistic diversity, including teaching and learning in native languages, is taken very seriously. In Africa alone, it is estimated that between 1,200 and 2,500 languages are competing, and surveys have found that very young children acquire better skills, and achieve better grades later, when they have been taught in their native languages. It is a policy issue for countries with a varied ethnic profile, where different languages are used. Yet, contrary to the view we might have from the North, it is essential for the future of literacy and development of those countries.