Microsoft is killing languages with Skype Translator (and so is Google Conversation Mode)

How can tech companies aid the survival of minority languages?
How can tech companies aid the survival of minority languages?

Microsoft is killing language diversity—but they’re not the only high-tech culprit. Google is doing the same thing. Both of them are developing real-time translating apps, where people can speak and hear their own language as they converse with someone speaking a different language. These tech giants are the new world empires, following neatly in the footsteps of empires, from the Babylonians to the British, who initiated language-loss millennia ago.

Sounds contradictory, no? How could an app that allows people to speak and be understood in their own language be detrimental to language variety?
How can tech companies help?

Week 3 of loving Somali: Coffee and Somali

Coffee is the "brown" of Africa
Coffee is the “brown” of Africa

“Are you going to eat?” This is my spontaneous Somali phrase I came up with as I bumped into a Somali friend in the cafeteria at work. I left out the mood particle (see below), but he understood me. Hooray for a victory!

Speaking of eating, I learned a little about coffee this week. “Coffee” is the stereotypical brown color in North Africa, it seems.

Continue reading “Week 3 of loving Somali: Coffee and Somali”

Week 2 of loving Somali: Time and greetings

How do you greet people in Somali? At what time?
How do you greet people in Somali? At what time?

This week I noticed some cool facts about time in Somali, namely, how they tell time, name the days, and greet each other. I also found some parallels with other languages I know. I think the latter might help some of my readers. Since I’ve studied a lot of languages, I’m able to see some interesting parallels that may help others to skip some steps in trying to learn these facets of Somali. I find it fascinating when I find some peculiar construction in a language, and then stumble upon it unexpectedly in a totally unrelated language. “This looks familiar!” always gets me excited.
Continue reading “Week 2 of loving Somali: Time and greetings”

Your brain loves language–feed it more

Your brain delights in connecting and communicating
Your brain delights in connecting and communicating

Everyone loves the joy of understanding a new language. When people are speaking with others in a new language–whether in or outside of a classroom–they’re having fun. They might sound clumsy, but good-natured laughter takes the place of gawkiness. A couple of folks might feel frustrated, but if someone engages them, sure enough they’ll get into it. The brain has everything it needs to learn languages, and it will reward itself with giddy ecstasy as it absorbs more words and creates relations with others. It loves to make new language connections and rewards us with cerebral sprays of happy chemicals.

At my work we have a Spanish table during lunch once a week. Anyone of any level of Spanish ability–beginner through native speaker–can come to speak and hear Spanish. The awkwardness delights as we speak slowly, loudly, and with large hand gestures. Google Translate fills in the gaps that the native speakers can’t.

Everyone leaves lunch happy, some even giddy. People who struggle through a sentence see progress after just a couple sessions–and we all enjoy ourselves. I was chatting afterwards with a gentleman who said how cool it was that he was able to put ideas together as he grasped this or that word from what we were saying. I realized that the human brain enjoys comprehending.

Who doesn’t smile when they finally understand a complete thought in a new language? I’ve never seen someone connect the language dots and remain nonchalant. Our brain must shoot some chemical, some endorphin, into itself when it makes that connection. It’s wired to feel happy when it grows in language comprehension.

Every human child works very hard to learn language. We would have been exhausted if the brain didn’t offer itself so many rewards. We get the reward of forging a new brain pathway, plus the emotional connection with another person, someone who wants to understand us and grow closer to us. Language offers the joy of connection–whether between people or neurons.

Brains are buit to love to construct new connections off the beaten (neural) path. What makes everyone laugh? Jokes! What is a joke but using language in a way that subverts our expectations? In everyday life, our brain wires language together to run “typical” processing. When we hear or see language that goes against that wiring, our brain wires language together in a new way–and we love it! (A favorite example: “What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhinocerous?” “Elephino!” [Hell if I know!])

The newer and fresher the joke, the more delight we receive. Kids, with their fresh minds, can repeat the same joke over and over and keep laughing till they lose their breath. Newness is the key. Once a joke becomes ingrained into our internal language matrix, the joke becomes old; when we can guess the punch line, we laugh less.

New languages sit nicely in reach of almost everyone, as the human brain is built to contain multiple languages. We’re all polyglots waiting to happen! In many cultures in the world, throughout history, people grow up speaking multiple languages. People were speaking several languages in colonial North America (see this post regarding English colonies and this one for Dutch), and in modern Singapore and India (see this post and this one). We even see this in the modern US. How often do we meet uneducated immigrants here who speak English in addition to their native language(s) (see this post)? The human brain soaks in new languages with or without formal education. For example, the multi-lingual Dutch fur trappers and the average polyglot citizen of Hyderabad may not be particularly well-educated–if they’re educated formally at all. Humans pick up languages when the environment is correct because the brain loves to absorb them.

Our brain can’t help but love languages. It loves to create new connections. The person who rejects their natural love for languages denies themselves of great joy. When you can finally pronounce “Hello” in Chinese with the correct tones, or when you are shocked that you actually understood a response to your question in Spanish, you will smile–guaranteed. You mastered a new skill and you connected with someone in a new way. Your brain thanks you.

Tell me about the greatest “Aha!” moment of language-learning for you!

Photo credit: Photosightfaces / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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)


How to re-start learning a language

Get ready to get back on the horse!
Get ready to get back on the horse!

It’s easy to get off track in one’s language learning (unless you’re one of the lucky few who gets paid to do so).  Work projects become demanding, kids’ schedules take up time, and the spring cleaning needs to get done somehow.  I found myself in this situation over the past couple months; I got off track.  But languages always pull me back.  Fortunately, I’ve thought for a long time about methods for learning languages, and a few of my favorite on-line language-lovers offer good advice that got me going again.  The two pieces of advice that helped a lot: 1) work a little every day and 2) passive learning is important.

No shame in falling off the horse

I admit that I got out of the daily habit of setting aside time for my languages.  This happens to everyone.  I am not independently wealthy, so I spend a lot of time working.  I do not work professionally with languages, so I have to find the time amidst my spare time.  As we all know, spare time ebbs and flows; we have little control over how much we have.  Many voices call out for our spare time, as well.  Family, community, and relaxation all require some of our time–and that’s after coming home from work.

Nevertheless, I want back up on the language horse I fell off of.  I needed to find a way to work on my languages amidst all these demands.  So I recalled some great things I’ve learned from the web.

Everyday language-learning

Aaron Myers at the Everyday Language Learner site constantly reminded me via his Twitter feed (@aarongmyers) to do something every day.  I love the name of his blog because the double-meaning fits me perfectly.  I need to learn languages “every day,” plus I’m a simple, garden-variety “everyday” language learner with cares, demands, and responsibilities like everyone else.

Finding 30 minutes to figure out what exercise I should do, though, was more than I could do.  Learning every day was too much.  So I was hardly learning anything.  This was demoralizing and out-of-character for me.  I had to learn how to do something every day, even if it was 5 minutes.

Passive learning jump-started my active learning

Passive learning allowed me to start up right away with little concentration and commitment, and then it led me easily–and unexpectedly–to more active study.  Steve Kaufmann, who blogs and vlogs about language-learning, advocates passive language input, which will aid language-learning when one turns to more active methods.  While I’m not beginning my language, I thought taking a passive-learning approach for now would help.

The BBC offers a one-hour daily news digest in Farsi, and I challenged myself this week to listen to the whole thing every day.  It’s certainly over my head, but it’s well-produced and discussing topics I already know a little about.  I listened a little in the morning while brushing my teeth, during my commute, and during some of my workouts.  Though I didn’t make it all the way through every episode, and on a couple days I listened to the last few minutes while I was falling asleep at night, I still benefited.  I was remembering words I thought I had forgotten and I looked up words occasionally.  My mind turned again towards Farsi–exactly what I’d hoped for!

On Saturday, then, I started using the great learning app, Anki.  This app soups up my old flash cards.  It offers universal accessibility–platforms for PC (Windows and Linux), Android, and on-line–and keeps track of what words I know best.  It also reminds me when it’s time to study.  Creating new cards I find the hardest, but the application makes it easy to cut and paste from emails, articles, or Google Translate.  I can also tag the source of my word.  Thanks to Anki, I spent 10 minutes in bed this morning reviewing some words, in addition to the 25 minutes (so far today) of listening to the BBC.  I’m back!

Quantity, not quality

Of course, the quality of your language-learning materials are important, but quantity got me back up into language-learning.  Doing something–anything–every day not only helped my language knowledge but also my motivation.  It’s easy to lose focus when life is busy, but 10 minutes that’s over your head is better than nothing.

Another thing I learned was that searching for quality input is important, but can’t stand in the way of practice.  When I’m looking for material more than I’m praticing, I’ve lost my balance.  I can tend to be a perfectionist, so I have to beware of this balance.  “Just do it!” has to be my motto.

This coming week, I’m going to try more of the same.  I’ll listen to the Persian BBC podcast as well as work my Anki cards as much as possible.  We’ll see where I end up.

Are you languishing in your language-study?  Did you fall off the horse?  What’s one thing you can do–even for one day–in the next day or two to work on your language?  Tweet this article and help spread the encouragement!

Photo credit: Eduardo Amorim / / CC BY-NC-SA