Monthly Archives: February 2013

What Beatboxing Tells Us About Language Acquisition

British Beatboxer Grace Savage

British Beatboxer Grace Savage

Anyone who tries to learn a foreign language as an adult or teenager knows that certain foreign sounds are almost impossible to pronounce “naturally,” as a native speaker would. For English speakers, the rolled r’s of Spanish and the umlauted vowels of German are tricky, though they are by no means the hardest sounds to pronounce: for a real challenge, try the clicks of African click languages.

Some people, though, appear better than others at getting their facial muscles and vocal cords around sounds alien to native English speakers. A team of researchers from the University of Southern California decided to focus on one such group: beatboxers– people who mimic the sounds of percussion, bass lines, digital beeps, and song, sometimes almost concurrently. the researchers studied the movements of the larynx of a beatboxer in a series of MRI scans.

The most intriguing results from the images were that certain vocal movements were borrowed from languages that weren’t native to the beatboxer. Researchers identified sounds found in languages as diverse as Quechua (spoken in Andean regions of South America), Xhosa (South Africa), as well as indigenous languages spoken in southern Russia and North America.

“We could use the same sort of tools to describe the sounds of the world’s languages to describe the sounds that the beatbox artist was producing,” said lead researcher Shrikanth Narayanan, a professor of engineering.

It’s clear that beatboxing is a learned skill, but Narayanan says we’re a long way from understanding just how the skill is learned. Until we discover more about the mechanics of that, it may remain a mystery why some people are so much more capable than others of acquiring and accurately pronouncing foreign languages.

Compare that with the scan of a soprano singing “Ave Maria.”

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Five Foreign Language Films You Might’ve Missed

Still from Germany's "Barbara"

Nina Hoss in Germany’s “Barbara” (2012)

A guest post today from the Big Show’s Nina Porzucki…

It’s Oscar time and we called on Matt Holzman host of KCRW’s film series, Matt’s Movies to bring us five foreign language films that didn’t make the final five Oscar nominees:

Les Intouchables,” Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, directors, France

“Polisse,” Maiwenn, director, France

Beyond the Hills,” Cristian Mungiu, director, Romania

Barbara,” Christian Petzold, director, Germany (Also a favorite pick from World in Words editor Patrick Cox.)

This Is Not a Film,” directors Jafar Ranahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran

Word of warning, says Holzman, the foreign language category can be somewhat bleak.

Here’s the trailer for Polisse, Holzman’s foreign language pick — that won’t win, but he wishes that it could — film of the year.


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Obama’s Simple Rhetoric, and Rubio’s Spanish Reply

Was President Obama’s rhetoric “dumber” than that of George Washington, as The Guardian claimed after analyzing State of the Union speeches over the years? A conversation with much-traveled speechwriter and political consultant Tad Devine.

Also, was Senator Marco Rubio’s Spanish language response effective in turning Latino heads and attitudes? We ask Richard Pineda, who teaches politics and communication at the University of Texas at El Paso.

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The Pope’s Big News Came in…Latin

Pope Benedict’s decision to resign has taken many people by surprise—and not just because of what he said. How he said it also raised eyebrows.

He delivered the speech in Latin. Now, Latin is far from being a dead language on the page, but spoken Latin is barely living.

“I find it extremely moving and exciting,” said Harry Mount, author of ‘Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life.’ “He clearly can speak Latin in a way that very few people can. Lots of people study it but they can’t actually speak it.”

Mount says that at the cardinals’ conference at which the pope announced his resignation, “quite a lot of the cardinals didn’t understand” what he was saying.

That’s quite a moment to miss out on, the first papal resignation in almost 600 years. It flew over the heads of most reporters there too. They tend to wait for the Vatican press office to translate the pontiff’s words.

But one reporter did understand what the pope was saying—Giovanna Chirri of the Italian news agency, ANSA.

“I understood but I didn’t want to believe,” said Chirri, a fan of Pope Benedict. But despite not wanting to believe the words, Giovanna Chirri did her job: she broke the news, and in so doing became part of the story.

Giovanna Chirri is no spring chicken. She’s often described as a veteran Vaticanista. She said the pope’s Latin is easy to understand. But her high school Latin must have stayed with her. “Boy, she knew her stuff,” said Harry Mount.

The pope appears to know his stuff too. As well as his speeches in Latin, he has re-introduced the Latin mass, and he even now tweets in Latin (or someone at the Vatican does).

Younger people are also helping revive the language. Several countries report that more school kids are studying Latin.

But you may still wonder what the point is of studying a language that perhaps just a few hundred people speak fluently.

“In English, two-thirds of English words are Latinate,” said Mount. “If you know that, you can swop between Latinate and Anglo-Saxon registers and you just understand the language, like someone who knows the rules of football or golf. You can play around with the language more because you know how it was constructed.”

There’s now an additional reason to study Latin: you may wind up breaking some big news.

Want more Latin? Here’s a previous podcast on the origins of everyone’s favorite dummy text, Lorem Ipsum.


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Lost in a Sea of People and Languages

Pilgrims gather at the third Shahi Snan in Har ki Pauri to take the Royal Bath in the Ganges, 2010. (Coupdoeil / Philipp Eyer / Wikimedia Commons)

Pilgrims gather at the third Shahi Snan in Har ki Pauri to take the Royal Bath in the Ganges, 2010. (Coupdoeil / Philipp Eyer / Wikimedia Commons)

Getting lost in a crowd can be scary at the best of times. But imagine if that crowd runs into the millions, and there’s no shared language. In fact, people in the crowd may speak hundreds of mutually incomprehensible languages.

That’s the linguistic reality at the Kumbh Mela Hindi festival in northern India. Millions of devotees travel from all over India for a ritual dip in the Ganges. Most travel in groups, and can easily get separated. Some have mobile phones. Many don’t– and even those do can’t keep them charged. Many aren’t used to travel; for some, it’s the first time they have left their home state. Lots of people get lost.

That’s where the Kumbh Mela Lost and Found camp comes in. From 1946 to 2012, camp staff say they have reunited 1,064,748 adults and 19,717 children with their traveling parties. How do they do it, if they don’t speak the same language as the lost person? They have that person speak in his or her own language over public address system.

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Is It Racist For a White Guy to Mimic Jamaican Patois?

In some white American circles, it is completely socially acceptable to “do a Jamaican accent.” Reggae and marijuana tend to bring this on; so does a trip to Montego Bay. And there aren’t other black accents that white Americans can fearlessly mimic. There are certainly far fewer socially acceptable circumstances under which they could put on a black American accent for comic effect.

Now, on the eve of the Super Bowl, there is criticism that a Volkswagen ad due to be broadcast during the big game is racist because it features a white guy speaking Jamaican patois. This appears to be a spoof of a spoof: the lilywhite Minnesota office setting (complete with token Asian man) appears to be playing off NBC’s The Office, which has had characters faking Jamaican accents.

But Jamaicans seem happy that the ad is giving their nation and culture some free publicity. And they also seem to understand that in the ad, the joke is on the deeply unhip white office guys.

Also in the podcast: will a 15-year-old Icelandic girl get to officially use the name her parents gave her? A court in Reykjavik has decided.

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Translating the Untranslatable: ‘Finnegans Wake’ in Chinese

The following is a guest post from The Big Show’s Leo Hornak.

One of the best known novels of the 20th century, Finnegans Wake, has been variously called great, unreadable and untranslatable. It may be all of those; it may be none of them. But right now, it’s a literary sensation in China.

Not every work of literature is destined for the best-seller lists. But recently, James Joyce’s novel has been doing very well indeed– in China. Copies of the first translation of Finnegans Wake available in mainland China have sold out.

Books in translation are often popular in China, but they tend to be global bestsellers like the Harry Potter series. So why has a text from pre-war Europe proved such a hit, particularly, one which has a reputation for being almost incomprehensible– even in its own language?

Congrong Dai

“I realized that Finnegans Wake was a great book,” says Congrong Dai, who spent eight years working on the translation. “This book can change the idea of Chinese reader. Besides, introducing this book to Chinese reader is my responsibility.”

Joyce’s newest translator says that Chinese readers can learn a lot from Joyce’s experimental novel.

Finnegans Wake is a book of freedom,” she says. “I do not only mean political freedom. Joyce will create new words to transcend social restraints. So the making of a new word shows Joyce’s disobedience.”

The creation of new words, the disobedience– perhaps a form of rejection of society– is one of the things that has made Finnegans Wake so notorious, and so infuriating for many readers. Almost every line is alive with puns, filthy double entendres, ancient Dublin slang and quotes from other authors.

Because the language in Finnegans Wake is so dense and complicated, translating it into another language might seem an impossible task. Is it even possible to convey any of this in translation?

“Yes, it’s possible and its been done,” says Michel Hockx, a professor of Chinese at the University of London. “Most of his work has been translated. Anything can be translated into any language.”

James Joyce

Is it more difficult to translate something like Finnegans Wake than any other piece of literature?

“I would say so,” Hockx says. “I mean it took the German translator 30 years. And the French translator 18 years. It’s really hard. There’s so many things that Joyce does with the language in terms of puns, in terms of different etymologies. He just creates a language of his own.”

If it isn’t exactly beach reading, there could be many reasons why Finnegans Wake has proved a hit in China. After all, there can be many reasons for buying a book.

Some people may “just want to have it on their coffee table,” Hockx says. “You know how many people are actually going to read it? I will frankly admit that I own a copy of Finnegans Wake that I haven’t finished either. I just felt I had to own it. So there is part of that happening.”

Read Congrong Dai’s A Chinese Translation of Finnegans Wake: The Work in Progress here. For more on how Chinese puns work, and how some Chinese use puns to avoid censorship, check out this post and podcast.


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