For the latest newsy pod, Carol Hills and Clark Boyd from the Big Show help me pick our top five language-related stories from the past month:
5. Some birds develop distinct dialects based on the decibel levels of their habitats. Dialect here is a term of art. It does not mean that birds living in say, North Carolina chirp the avian version of “y’all.” No, it means that over time, some bird species can change the frequency, pitch and volume of their song according to their sonic environment. The latest study, of the white-crowned sparrow (pictured) shows that urban noise appears to have a profound impact on birdsong.
4. A British translation firm is offering to provide local interpreters to companies doing business in Glasgow. Proof that there are many, many variations of English, even on one medium-sized island. This service may be more useful at football match or a betting shop than in a boardroom: I can’t imagine that white-collar Glaswegians use terms like moroculous, laldy and maw during working hours. But it is true that Glasgow English is a massive challenge, especially for non-native English speakers. As is Newcastle, Liverpool and Swansea English.
3.The French President Nicolas Sarkozy is calling for reforms in how foreign languages are taught in schools. Surpringly, France lags behind many other developed countries when it comes to bilingualism and foreign language learning, as discussed in a couple of earlier posts and podcasts. Now, doubtless spurred by The World in Words’ efforts to give this matter an airing, the French government is vowing to act. The proposed reforms haven’t been decided upon yet, but they seem likely to favor oral skills over grammar. Some European language-learning groups however, are skeptical that the reforms will help much.
2. Chinese expats are doing battle over which script U.S. schools should use to teach Chinese. Schools have two options — traditional characters, favored in Taiwan and Hong Kong, or simplified characters, used in mainland China. Where there is a large expat Taiwanese community, as there is in certain parts of Los Angeles, schools are more likely to use traditional characters. But that’s changing, as more Chinese communites outside of China (eg in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) switch to simplified characters. And all that trade that the U.S. does with mainland China means that it makes a lot of sense to learn the script in use there. However, proponents of traditional characters aren’t giving up without a fight, sometimes perhaps to the detriment of the kids trying to learn the language.
1. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is going linguistically global. This is the organization that oversees and sets certain rules for domain names. ICANN is now allowing non Latin script urls. It’s something Latin script-writers think of as a mere technicality. But if you’re not used to writing Latin script, it’s a major pain to have to. So this should make the internet accessible to even more people around the world. And who knows, the Georgian script on the banner of this blog may one day end up as part of a domain name. (I took the photo. It’s of a billboard above a highway in central Georgia. The messages, courtesy of the government, are patriotic slogans. Someone told me exactly what the words mean, but…sorry, I’ve forgotten.)