Being American doesn’t mean speaking English

This is not the US!
This is not the US!

My family forgot, over the course of 2-3 generations, how to speak German (Swiss Basel dialect and Pennsylvania Dutch), Irish, Welsh, and Scottish. My wife’s family forgot how to speak Russian, French, and German. In the place where I live (Minnesota, USA), they forgot Ojibwe, Lakota, and Menominee, along with a countless number of European, Asian, African, and South American languages. (I have a coworker who personally forgot how to speak Aymara and Quechua.)

They didn’t simply “forget,” though. They were forced to forget. US society forces families and communities to forget. From the physical punishment of African slaves and Native American boarding school students, to the shaming peer-pressure of the modern suburban Middle School, our society squeezes the languages out of communities. Our society makes plain that to be one of “us,” your speech cannot betray any trace of the “Old World.”

Forgetting about the Old World makes us Americans.
Defining ourselves

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Languages won’t make you more money, so why do it?

If you have to choose between love and money, where does your language motivation lie?
If you have to choose between love and money, where does your language motivation lie?

Let me correct that: English will make you more money. Because the US, UK, Canada, and Australia have a lot of it. With other languages, you’ll have to be lucky.

Learning foreign languages will improve your relationships with others. A more fertile ground for diverse languages will produce a better crop of human beings, better able to understand and respect one another.

Cultivating the environment around us has value that doesn’t show up in standard calculations of “Return on Investment” (ROI). I listened to a speech by environmental activist, Vandana Shiva. Working the land with our neighbors produces a better environment and healthier community, but eating what we produce does not produce wealth that can show up in GDP. In contrast, industrial agriculture, which does produce capital wealth, creates environmental problems and destroys species.

I am a native English speaker. I can get a job paying six-figures without ever learning another language. Not so in, say, the Philippines or India, where English is more valuable for learning potential than a college degree is in the US. When we say that languages are “valuable,” we are saying that the economic system has made one language more valuable than another. I can get a higher-paying job with this language than I can with another.

Economics does not drive my desire to learn languages like these forces drive industrial agriculture. The desire for a healthier community for my children and neighbors drives me to learn languages.
Language ROI

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! Clean up your vowels

How can you make yourself clearer?
How can you make yourself clearer?

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 vowels. English speakers tend to pronounce vowels in a peculiar way, differently from speakers of many European languages, such as German and Spanish. Watch so you can hear and imitate the vowels of these languages.

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: Beverly & Pack / Foter.com / CC BY

Loving languages in NYC: Polyglot Conference 2015

We could affix the languages we spoke to the name tag.
Not often do I get to speak five languages in 2 1/2 days, but I had the fortune of attending the Polyglot Conference last month in NYC. I dreamed that the conference would motivate and focus me on my language-learning, so I used the event itself as motivation. I challenged myself at every opportunity to find out what languages people spoke—whether at the conference itself or not—and practice and learn. I knew my friends and family would ask me what languages I spoke at the conference, and I didn’t want to disappoint.
Read what I spoke!

Myth: Our ancestors happily learned English

America's multilingual past, forced into monolingual present
America’s multilingual past, forced into monolingual present

A common language brings people together. Historically, learning English was a priority for German, Italian, Russian, Chinese and Japanese immigrants (to name a few) because it helped them participate in the communities they joined. And because the United States is still predominantly an English-speaking country, that practice should continue today.
From Dear Abby, “Sharing Common Language Is Simply Common Sense,” Jan 23, 1997

Because the United States was at war with Germany, those of German heritage were the main target of suspicion. Soon German language instruction was banned in public schools. Then, parochial schools were forced to use only English in their classrooms. The churches were next, and eventually Iowa’s Governor Harding declared that only English was legal in public and private schools, public places and over the telephone.
From “It’s the Law—Speak English Only!”

How English was actually established in the US

Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Anything can translate

Is translation impossible sometimes?
Is translation impossible sometimes?

This post follows on the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea, and to the first in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain” and the second in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe.”

3. Anything you can say in one language you can say in another.
This above premise contradicts a widespread notion among language enthusiasts. Indeed, when I originally suggested this point, I received several comments by folks who disagreed with it. All over the internet we find lists of “words with no translation” (note that they assume that the target language is English), but the list begs the question of the nature of translation.

Continue reading “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Anything can translate”

Schwytzertüütsch, ech ha di gärn! Will the Swiss allow me to love their language?

How much can I learn the language of this isolated land?
How much can I learn the isolated language of this land?

Grüetzi! Lately I’m experimenting with Swiss German because I’m going to Switzerland to stay in the German-speaking area. About two-thirds of Switzerland speaks German as their first language. However, they speak a unique dialect, or, more accurately, a diverse family of dialects. I’ve been having a hard time because the internet does not offer a lot of resources, and I could not find any native speaker resources where I live and work.
Continue reading “Schwytzertüütsch, ech ha di gärn! Will the Swiss allow me to love their language?”

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)