I want to connect to the margins. In some ways, it’s where I feel comfortable. I lived a lot at the margins. I know what it’s like. In multiple countries, I did not live in an expat community, but immersed myself among locals only in places as diverse as Morocco, post-Soviet Ukraine, and France. At my university, I was a minority Gentile among a majority Jewish population, who taught me about life as a marginalized community.
At the same time, I could never live completely in the margins. I’m an upper-middle-class, English-speaking, graduate-degree-holding, straight white American. We have a lot of privilege. As I was told in Ukraine when I expressed my deep understanding of people in the margin, “It’s different. You can always leave.”
When I say that we need to sacrifice for the margin, I speak as someone who tries to express my appreciation of the marginalized, though any marginalization I ever experienced was temporary.
I can’t avoid my privilege. It’s part of who I am. It’s not evil and it’s not good. The way I use it defines it as good or evil. Previously (here and here) I spoke of my “why” for what I do and write:
I believe that we all should put ourselves out there to love. More specifically, we need to sacrifice for one another, especially for those in need.
But as much as this has been an exploration of the history of language in the United States, it has also turned out to be an examination of prejudice and privilege…. [American history] is genocide and slavery and discrimination
— Elizabeth Little, Trip of the Tongue (p. 252).
The history of language follows the ebbs and flows of one form of communication to another. It seems that human beings, born in the right circumstances, can switch from one language to another without much effort. One group spoke Hebrew, then Babylonian, then Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Arabic. Generation after generation, language blends into language.
Languages don’t just ebb and flow like tides of the ocean. They fight, kill, dominate, and oppress, like warring chimpanzees. Hebrew speakers sent the Canaanites to the hills, before being conquered by Babylonians, and then the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs. Each power came and imposed a language of privilege onto the next group. No language disappeared without a fight. Fight for the marginalized
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.
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.
Bilinguals represent the margin of US society, and monolingual English speakers, the mainstream. I belong to the mainstream, though I have a deep interest, curiosity, and admiration for the margins. I’ve found how my interest connects with something joyful with speakers of other languages. At the same time, I’ve seen people who are embarrassed of their language, and the descendants of this embarrassment. In both cases, the mainstream and marginal cultures suffer loss.
This week I saw an odd contradiction represented by a couple of different ways that bilingual folks view their native language. Briefly put, one was ashamed to speak about their language; the other didn’t want to stop talking about it. (I’ve changed some details to protect people’s identities.) I also saw an ethnic community here in Minneapolis, where the language pretty much disappeared, leaving only the names of a few foods. These experiences showed me that preservation of languages in the US require engagement from both the mainstream and marginal linguistic communities. When we engage individuals’ interest in their language, the language continues to the next generation, and all of society benefits.
Pride in one’s language
At work I learned a lot about the Hmong language. I had the opportunity to talk to a co-worker who is a native speaker of this language. I learned about the dialects. There are two, not entirely mutually-comprehensible dialects spoken in China and Laos because the Hmong people originated in China before they moved south. As far as I know, the Hmong immigrants in the US come almost exclusively from Laos. My friend told me that a group of Chinese Lao folks came to Minnesota, and their songs sounded Chinese to him.
He also taught me about the complex writing systems of Hmong. The most standard writing system uses the Latin alphabet. It uses letters to represent the tones. For example, the word for hello is written “Nyob zoo,” but is pronounced “Nyaw zhong.” The “b” at the end of the first word stands for a high tone. (This differs from Vietnamese that uses complex diacritics for tones.)
We could have talked for hours. I don’t know how often he gets to talk about his native language, but it was clearly a delight for both of us.
Shame in one’s language
In contrast, I recently met a friend of my daughters who speaks Tagalog (Philippines) at home–and she had no interest in talking about it. She speaks the language at home, though she speaks English mostly with her sisters. Her aunt, though, does not speak English, so they have to speak Tagalog to each other.
I asked how to say names of food and “hello,” and she claimed not to know anything, that she never speaks the language. I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to learn some of this language, but it didn’t happen. We talked a little about Philippino food, but that was as far as it went.
Consequences of bilingual shame
This week I also went to an ethnic festival; the identity of the ethnicity I saw does not matter because it demonstrates the standard fate of ethnicities in the US. The festival included a handful of foods, referred to by their traditional names, and some costumes. The only time I heard the language spoken was by recent immigrants. Some older folks of this ethnicity in their 70s spoke only English.
These people’s parents or grandparents probably went through the same thing as my Tagalog acquaintance. When they were little, they were embarrassed about being different, so they shoved the language aside, so by the next generation, the language was gone from the community, completely replaced by English. Only the foods and clothing remained.
Standing out as a bilingual
I saw this week that people have a deep love of their language. Though they may not have many chances to talk about it, they love the opportunity. At the same time, this can be a source of embarrassment. After a while, the embarrassment causes the language to atrophy, so that it plays no role, or maybe a very reduced role, in the next generation.
Some think that the way to bring non-English speakers into the mainstream of US culture, we need to teach them English, but we could be more successful if we brought their native or home language to the dialogue. When we show interest in the language of the bilinguals around us, we allow them to integrate into society better because they can engage their whole self–including their language.
Moreover, the mainstream culture benefits, too. Every member learns more ways of thinking and problem-solving. Diversity of thought leads to more intelligence. Highlighting bilinguality even encourages our monolingual culture to learn another language so that everyone can benefit from another language–and the joy it brings.
What can the mainstream do to encourage bilinguals? How can bilinguals benefit the mainstream?