Why Putin could (will?) eat Trump’s lunch

Who has greater global insight? Who speaks more languages?
Who has greater global insight? Who speaks more languages?

Russian Federation President Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin possesses some amazing language skills for the leader of a world power. In this video of a town-hall style discussion, he jumps in on the interpreter and does it himself.

We all know he spent a good portion of his career in Germany, which explains his very strong German skills.

But let’s think of it this way. When Mark Zuckerberg addressed a Chinese university audience in Mandarin in 2014, the audience literally responded with Oos and Ahs.

(I was disappointed that President Obama spoke so little Bahasa Indonesia after living there as a boy. He got Zuckerberg-style applause.)

Mr. Putin also gives speeches in English, but I don’t hear anyone Oo or Ah.

Why this contrast? Because Americans don’t learn foreign languages to a professional level. A Russian leader is trilingual, and gets modest applause. An internationally-renowned American CEO speaks modest Mandarin and receives great accolades.

Now we have a president who has shown no interest in foreign languages, for himself or for anyone else.

Mr. Putin possesses a clear advantage over President-Elect Trump. When one knows foreign languages, one has insight into other peoples, countries, and cultures.

Who needs this sort of insight more than a powerful world leader?
Languages at the top of power

Schwäbische Schande: Dialect shaming in German

Is this a fashion statement? or just a bumpkin?
Is this a fashion statement? or just a bumpkin?

Shame plays a significant role in language. Everyone uses a language, and a society can distinguish insiders and outsiders according to arbitrary linguistic criteria. For example, one can declare that the person who says, “I’m not,” to be educated and sophisticated, but the one who says, “I ain’t,” to be provincial and backwards. What if we made a rule to say that “I ain’t” is correct? The rule is arbitrary, but it creates real divisions by shaming those who say the latter.

Germany teaches a standard literary dialect called Hochdeutsch, or “High German,” to all its citizens, while at the same time includes a dizzying number of dialects, some of which remain incomprehensible to fellow-citizens. Germany follows a strong national agenda, with the idea that Germany should be unified and so works to level differences among its citizens. One sees that the purveyors of High German shame speakers of dialects.
Dialect shaming

Keeping up the other languages: A six (five and a half?) language week!

As a polyglot I get to talk to all sorts of people!
As a polyglot I get to talk to all sorts of people!

Yes, I’m focusing on learning the Somali language. Somali takes the majority of my linguistic time and energy. But speaking lots of languages makes me a polyglot—and that brings me so much joy. This week I got to talk to old friends, discover great music, and meet new people. Though I haven’t had much time for more than the bare minimum of Somali, here’s how I worked on my languages this week.
My polyglot week

Lose your accent! Making the guttural “r” (German & French)

With an eye on your uvula you can pronounce this sound
With an eye on your uvula you can pronounce this sound

Improve your pronunciation of “r” in French and German! Richard explains how to position your tongue and control your breath to make this sound correctly. In this video I explain how to position your tongue and control your breath to make this sound correctly. These are the methods that I used to teach myself how to make this sound back in the day.

Many people get overwhelmed with the idea of sounding like a native in studying a foreign language. Speaking with an accent seems like a normal state. However, with a few tips on being aware of how our mouth makes sounds, a little concentration can produce great results. I made this video series to show you how to increase your awareness of all the parts of your speaking apparatus.

You can sound like a native in any language. Even though speaking with a foreign accent seems like a normal state, you can learn how to make the sounds that sound easy in the mouths of natives. This video series increases your awareness of all the parts of your mouth you use for speaking. A language never felt so good!

Speaking a language feels wonderful as you work to move your mouth like a native.

Dr. Thomas Coates blew my mind. He taught me how my tongue, lips, jaw, and teeth create language. Like a Chinese calligrapher learns how each finger holds a brush, like a yogi breathes with specific depth and stretch of her diaphragm, I took the first steps towards mastering language: losing my accent.

Enjoy!

Photo credit: Evil Erin via Foter.com / CC BY

Lose your accent! German vowels “ö” and “ü”

Pay attention to your lips!
Pay attention to your lips!

You can sound like a native in any language. Even though speaking with a foreign accent seems like a normal state, you can learn how to make the sounds that sound easy in the mouths of natives. This video series increases your awareness of all the parts of your mouth you use for speaking. A language never felt so good!

German “ö” and “ü” confound learners with awkward contortions. Technically, though, English includes the same mouth positions, but in a different order. If you can speak English, you can make these sounds—only pay close attention to how you arrange your tongue and lips. The video will show you how.

Dr. Thomas Coates blew my mind. He taught me how my tongue, lips, jaw, and teeth create language. Like a Chinese calligrapher learns how each finger holds a brush, like a yogi breathes with specific depth and stretch of her diaphragm, I took the first steps towards mastering language: losing my accent.

Enjoy!

Photo credit: Kate Dreyer via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Lose your accent! Dental consonants (t & d)

Make sure you use your teeth right!
Make sure you use your teeth right!

Many people get overwhelmed with the idea of sounding like a native in studying a foreign language. Speaking with an accent seems like a normal state. However, with a few tips on being aware of how our mouth makes sounds, a little concentration can produce great results. I made this video series to show you how to increase your awareness of all the parts of your speaking apparatus. Speaking a language feels wonderful as you work to move your mouth like a native.

This video focuses on consonants, specifically, the sounds “t” and “d”. English (and German) speakers tend to pronounce these sounds in a peculiar way, which is distinct from how Russian and Spanish speakes do. Watch so you can make this subtle change for a great improvement in sound.

Dr. Thomas Coates blew my mind. He taught me how my tongue, lips, jaw, and teeth create language. Like a Chinese calligrapher learns how each finger holds a brush, like a yogi breathes with specific depth and stretch of her diaphragm, I took the first steps towards mastering language: losing my accent.

Enjoy!
Photo credit: Rupert Taylor-Price / Foter.com / CC BY

On pronunciation and memorization: A eulogy for Dr. Thomas Coates

My first German teacher (circled) along with his class
My first German teacher (circled) along with his class

Wer noch? Du? Steh auf! Blitzschnell!

A-Be-Tse-De-E-Ef-Gay-Ha-Ee-Yot-Ka…

Who are the most influential teachers? It’s not always obvious at the time, but some lessons seep into your bones.
My first German teacher

Week 14 of Loving Somali: Beauty beyond comprehension

Exploring complexity leads to experiencing beauty
Exploring complexity leads to experiencing beauty

Languages bring me into a world I do not understand and reveal complexities I never imagined. Sometimes I feel like Darwin in the Galapagos. Study and observation bring me joy, and when I immerse myself in these complex phenomena, I discover deeper truths. The more complexity, the more beauty, even if comprehension eludes me. And exploring the facets of language lead me to the subtle dynamics of the culture around it. Continue reading “Week 14 of Loving Somali: Beauty beyond comprehension”

I love Schwyzertüütsch! Lessons on learning a minority dialect

My Swiss aunt (left) and my mom (right)
My best teacher! My Swiss aunt (left), next to my mom

In my love of languages, something always calls to me from the realm of the rare or unexpected, so for my visit to distant relatives in Switzerland I wanted to learn the local language of Swiss German, or as they say there, “Schwyzertüütsch.” While Switzerland declared four languages to be official, Swiss German is the most widely spoken. Nevertheless, materials are difficult to find, as I discussed previously here.

This language does not have standard grammar or even spelling, and it differs significantly from one area of Switzerland to another, even though the country is a bit smaller than the combined size of Vermont and New Hampshire. For example, I played a bit of a Swiss podcast for a relative and asked what dialect the narrator spoke. “Maybe Zürich with a little bit of Lucerne,” he guessed. Even though these two cities lie only 50 km apart, they each bear unique, identifiable characteristics.

After my week in Switzerland, I successfully learned a bit of Schwyzertüütsch, and lessons on how to tackle a rare language. The lessons I learned can help you when you’re trying to learn a less-commonly learned language.
Continue reading “I love Schwyzertüütsch! Lessons on learning a minority dialect”

Do robots love language? Bias and Google Translate

Translate Tongan? You'll have to ask him--Google Translate can't help.
Translate Tongan? You’ll have to ask him–Google Translate can’t help.

I tend not to follow the mainstream. I study languages that others don’t, and I’ll often gravitate towards marginal dialects when I can. When I speak Arabic, I try to throw in a little Moroccan when I can. Speaking Russian, I might add a little bit of a Ukrainian accent. Right now, I’m learning Swiss German, which I’m afraid will irritate my standard German-speaking friends.

Google Translate follows the mainstream. It is a tool developed by a savvy business filling a commercial need. People who have and spend money need an application to conduct their business more easily. I addressed the relative value of languages in an earlier post.

Unfortunately, Google Translate reflects the mainstream. It offers the languages of the powerful, and translates using the language of the status quo without respect for what is good or right independent of how things are done. For using language the way most powerful people do, Google Translate works well; those of us who seek out the margins and buck the trend of “standard” speech see clear limitations in the language and gender bias of our world reflected in this software.

Which languages are most important?

I don’t know how I missed it, but I just saw this week that Google Translate expanded into African languages a few months ago.

80 languages at Google Translate
80 languages at Google Translate

You can see that now it includes five African languages: Somali (how did I miss that?!) and Zulu, plus the three most widely-spoken languages of Nigeria (Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa). The only other African languages offered previously were Swahili and Afrikaans from 2009.

The service follows the power structure of the Internet. You can see the stages of growth of the software in this article. Here is the general process of expansion. The first languages were all EU languages, and quickly were accompanied by ones from East Asia. After Arabic and Russian appeared, eastern European and Southeast Asian languages came next. Other Southeast Asian and Central Asian languages arrived, until the first American (Hatian Creole) and African languages were incorporated (including Afrikaans, which some may call a European language). Even though Hindi was one of the earlier languages, other Indian languages surprisingly only came at a late stage–after Latin!–and, finally, in the last stage, a group of African languages and the first Oceanic language, Maori, made it in. No indigenous languages of North or South America are yet to be represented.

I don’t believe Google would have a policy to include or exclude languages. As a successful business, they would naturally gravitate to languages that would bring the most sets of eyes to their site. Also, when they figured out a language so they could add it, adding a closely-related language wouldn’t take much additional effort. For example, adding Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian in the same release makes sense, and once Spanish is well-established, Catalan probably takes minimal effort.

Their stages of development reflect a reality of the internet and commercial value of languages. Europe and East Asia are the most important, then Asia and Southeast Asia, and finally Africa. The indigenous peoples of Oceania and the Americas are insignificant. I noticed some odd anomalies. Hundreds of millions of Indians’ mother tongues were left till quite late. I think there’s an assumption that Indians can just use English. At the same time, Welsh or Irish were added much earlier, in spite of very few monolingual speakers. For some reason, Western European languages received preference that Indian languages did not. I don’t think this is racism, however; Google reflects an economic reality in its amoral inequality of wealth and poverty.

Is Google Translate sexist?

At one time, some people accused Google Translate of gender bias. They noted that phrases that included ambiguous gender sometimes came back with a gender. Some people were scandalized because translations reflected an unwanted stereotype. For example, this article describes gender bias manifested in German. In German, Lehrer can mean a man or woman teacher, while Lehrerin is a woman teacher. I translated “physics teacher” and “math teacher” and they both used Lehrer, while “French teacher” and “cooking teacher” translate with Lehrerin, imposing a gender bias of certain areas of specialization.

I ran another experiment. In Arabic, like many other languages, there is no “it,” so one uses a masculine or feminine pronoun based on the grammatical gender of the noun. So “door” is “he,” while “car” is “she,” for example. I translated, “He fixed the car” into Arabic, and translated it back, and got the same, “He fixed the car.” When I translated, “She fixed the car” into Arabic and back, Google served up, “It fixed the car.” Maybe it is more easily imaginable that a wrench would fix a car than a woman would.

These results reflect the methodology of the translation, which is to draw from a large corpus of incidents. The author of this article interviewed an engineer working on the software who said, “Statistical patterns were used to allow the tool to determine what gender was being referred to. Should the text include the word “dice”, which is Spanish for “says”, the algorithm will not only assess the frequency that this is historically used to refer to a male or female speaker, but also the other words in the inputted text.” The software reflects how the phrase is used. It is a robot reflecting the real use of human language with stereotypes, biases, and all.

We can’t really blame the bias of the software–we can only blame our own biases. The software has no ability to understand the pragmatics of the situation. Modern Hebrew reflects the gender of the subject in present verbs. When I translated, “I am nursing the baby” or “I am giving birth,” the gender was masculine. It seems that when there is little evidence, the software defaults to masculine, even if it can’t make sense in real life. When a real bias comes out of the language, the software presents that as what you, as a “typical” speaker of the langauge, were “probably” getting at. Simply put, people talk more about women as French teachers than as physics teachers in German. Google Translate reflects our world.

Our tool in our world

I love all languages. I think we can use language to lift people up. We don’t have to marginalize languages or individuals with what and how we speak.

But our world is what it is: biased. You can make more ad revenue with some languages than with others. We tend to find fewer women working in math and science than with children. Google reflects this right back at us.

Languages rise and fall and adapt more quickly than our software. Humans can see trends coming that computers can’t. People feel right about speaking one way instead of another.

I buck the trend, though. I want to speak languages that are not money-makers. I want to find ways to focus on the marginalized rather than keep them on the margins. If I want to change the status quo, I can’t rely on Google Translate. I have to learn to speak for myself, with my own words.

Be sure to “Like” if you support the margins, those people and languages who don’t follow the trend.

Photo credit: Light Knight / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)