Tag Archives: English language

What do the words mutton, sheep and robot have in common? Translation!

Photo: andrea via Flickr

Photo: andrea via Flickr


Here’s a guest post from Nina Porzucki.

Two translators on a ship are talking.

“Can you swim?” asks one

“No” says the other, “but I can shout for help in nine languages.”

Okay, not the best joke, and even though translation won’t exactly save you from drowning it is something that is all around us and that impacts our lives in many ways.

11431000Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring what translation is all about in a series we’re calling “In Other Words.”

If you go by what’s in the Bible, we’ve been in need of translators since the Tower of Babel. And this need has given rise to a whole host of interesting ideas — both real and fictitious — of how to better communicate with one another.

Remember the Babel fish? That small, leech-like fish that you stick in your ear and instantly translates any language. If only, Douglas Adam’s invention from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy did exist.

“Is that a fish in your ear? Well no, it’s not, it’s a translator,” said David Bellows translator and author of Is that a Fish in your Ear? “There’s something going on that is very clever but it’s not magic.”

Oral translation or interpreting is as old as language itself. Humans have always spoken different languages and there’s always been a need for a middle man or a go-between. However scholars have actually pinpointed a starting point for written translation.

Writing arose around 5000 years ago but it wasn’t until about 2500 years ago that anything like a translation came into existence. The two first examples of translation occurred right around the same period.

In the middle of the 3rd century BC, a community of Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, which was then a Greek speaking city, translated the Torah into Greek. That translated text is called the Septuagint.

“There are lots of myths and legends surrounding it but there are no surviving texts of the Old Testament that are older than the Greek translation,” Bellos said.

There are different accounts of how this translation came to be, according to Bellos. In one story Ptolemy II, adding to the great Library of Alexandria, sought to collect every known book in the world and commissioned a translation of the holy book of the Jews.

Another story is that the Jews of Alexandria had lost touch with the language of the bible and actually needed the bible translated into Greek.

“A bit like American Jews now,” said Bellos, “not very many American Jews really can read the Torah in biblical Hebrew.”

Meanwhile within a few decades of the creation of the Septuagint, across the Mediterranean in the southern part of Italy, a Greek-speaking slave, Livius Andronicus, was commissioned to translate Homer’s Odyssey from Greek to Latin, launching, according to Bellos, the classical tradition.

Fragment of a Septuagint (Wikimedia Commons)

Fragment of a Septuagint (Wikimedia Commons)

“In a way you could say that translating of Homer is the beginning of an invention of the literature of Latin,” Bellos said.

So, Hebrew was translated into Greek, Greek into Latin, but what impact has translation had on English?

“English was made by translation — translation from Latin and above all translation from French,” Bellos explained.

A huge number of words came into English in the mash-up of the French the Normans spoke and the Anglo-Saxon the people spoke.

“And so English often has two words for the same things — one of French origin and one of Saxon origin, like, for example, sheep and mutton,” Bellos said. “Sheep is what the peasants looked after and mutton is what the masters ate.”

Mutton is the French word and sheep is the Germanic, or Saxon.

“We’re constantly translating between these two as we speak English and navigate the different registers of language that are more or less French depending on how high or low the register is,” Bellos said.

An example of one word that came to English purely through the translation of literature is “robot.” “Robot” is actually a Czech word and it came into English in the 1930s through the translations of the Czech writer Karel Čapek’s science fiction novels and plays. The word “robot” actually means “worker” in Czech.

Besides being a linguist, Bellos has been a longtime translator of French literature. And while he doesn’t quite believe that translation is a calling, the relationship between a translator and an author is a special one. For one, unlike the reader, a translator can’t skip over the boring parts of a book. A translator becomes intimately familiar with every single word.

“In a way the translator of a new book knows that book better than anybody else and that’s a great privilege and a great pleasure,” Bellos said.


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The English language: a hodgepodge from the start

At Bede's World in Jarrow, UK, a staff member dressed as a monk poses in front of a recreation of an Anglo-Saxon animal shelter. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

At Bede’s World in Jarrow, UK, a staff member dressed as a monk poses in front of a recreation of an Anglo-Saxon animal shelter. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Set among the call centers and storage facilities of Jarrow in the northeast of England is a farm, of sorts.

There are pigs, sheep and goats here. Some are ancient varieties, more popular 1,400 years ago than they are today. Like a shaggy-haired pig described my guide, John Sadler, as “half a ton of very grumpy animal … only interested if you feed it, or if you fall in — in which case you are food.”

A pig at Bede's World: "Half a ton of very grumpy animal." (Photo: Patrick Cox)

A pig at Bede’s World: “Half a ton of very grumpy animal.” (Photo: Patrick Cox)

The animals are part of a re-creation of an Anglo-Saxon village, with timber-framed buildings and turf-covered sheds. The farm is called Gyrwe, Old English for Jarrow. It’s part of a museum called Bedesworld.

Even with jets flying overhead and container ships unloading nearby, Bede’s World brings to life a time and place when the English language was in its infancy. The monk who Bede’s World is named after, the Venerable Bede, lived in the monastery next door in the late seventh and early eighth centuries.

“He’s famous as a writer and a teacher,” says Sadler, the living history coordinator at Bede’s World. “And he has this keen interest in history and language.”

Bede wrote an ecclesiastical history of the nation at the time.

“He’s the first person to actually write down who it was that actually came to the British Isles,” says linguist David Crystal, co-author with Hilary Crystal of Wordsmiths and Warriors:The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain. “He talks about the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes, and discusses the range of languages that were spoken around the country.”

These languages arrived in Britain after the Romans had left. The newcomers found themselves in a place already heaving with languages — various Celtic tongues, as well as bits and pieces of languages left behind by Roman mercenaries who came from all over the empire.

Which explains why English, from its very beginnings, has been a mongrel tongue — a Frisian word here, a Latin one there, and so on. Pure English? It never existed.

These waves of migrants also helped form the dialects that you can still hear in Britain. On average, you can hear a different dialect every 25 miles you travel.

Crystal says it all goes back to those original days when people from one part of northern Europe settled in one part of England, and people from another part of northern Europe settled nearby.

“You only have to settle on the other side of a river or a mountain range,” says Crystal. “Before you know it, within a few years you’re starting to speak in a slightly different way. After a hundred years, it’s very different.”

Bede's Chair, St Paul's Church, Jarrow, UK (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Bede’s Chair, St Paul’s Church, Jarrow, UK (Photo: Patrick Cox)

This is one of the reasons Bede’s writings are so valuable: they’ve helped linguists trace the origins of today’s dialects. Of course, that early migration didn’t stop. Vikings, Normans and, much later, Indians, Irish and Jamaicans have all left their stamp on Britain’s dialects.

Inside Bede’s church, there’s a small section that dates back to the seventh century. John Sadler shows me his favourite item there is the chair the Bede supposedly sat on.

“It’s actually impossible to say whether it’s original or…a copy,” says Sadler with a shrug.

If it’s a copy, so be it. The monk who may — or may not — have sat on it was documenting a language that itself copied, and liberally borrowed and stole, from many other languages.


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Does Banning Bilingual Education Change Anything?

Nine years after bilingual education was banned in Massachusetts, educators are still arguing over the effect on students’ language abilities.  Massachusetts is among of several states, including California and Arizona, to ban bilingual education. The fear seems to be that non-English speaking kids won’t learn English fast enough if they receive much of their instruction in their native tongue (which in the US is usually Spanish). The solution has been “total immersion” in English.

There’s no shortage of studies related to bilingual education. Here are the cases for and against . Also, the National Association for Bilingual Education, and some other links.

Reporter Andrea Smardon of WGBH-Boston has been looking at why the ban came into being, and its effects– whether  non-English speakers are now picking English faster, or whether they’re dropping out of school. There’s more on her series here.

Also in the pod, more conversation with UK-based American, Lynne Murphy. Murphy teaches linguistics at the University of Sussex. She also writes the clever and droll blog,  Separated by a Common Language. In the last podcast, we talked about twangy accents, pronunciation of the world water, and the declining status of British English in the United States. This time, we consider politeness, and why neither Yanks nor Brits live up to each others’ expectations. One word encapsulates this: toilet. Misuse this word at your peril. But there are others: excuse me and sorry have subtle differences in usage, which if you don’t get them right, may result in the locals thinking you arrogant.

Murphy has an entertaining theory about British people and the word sorry. If you’ve spent any time in the UK, you’ll know that the word comes up all the time, especially in official announcements (“We are sorry to announce that the 9:16 train to Chingford is delayed due to a staff shortage.”). But when Brits bump into people– which they do a lot on their crowded island–  they don’t always apologize. Murphy suspects this is because they are in denial about having made any physical contact.

We round off the pod with some girl pop from the 1960s, en español.

Back then, Francisco Franco was still running Spain with an iron fist, and his government resisted anything that smacked of  youthful rebellion.  But there were mini skirts (not quite so mini in Spain). And there were carefree female singers.

Spain’s best known singer was Marisel.

Marisel is one of many artists featured in a new CD called Chicas: Spanish Female Singers 1962 to 1974.

Most of the tunes on the CD were released as original singles, composed by Spanish song writers.

They had been influenced by British rock, American soul and dance crazes like the twist. The lyrics are Spanish, but the musical language is very much imported.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Britain Today: Hoodied Looters, Language Tests, and a Cuss Box

London’s burning, again. There was the Great Fire of 1666. There was the Great Tedium, as documented by Joe Strummer and The Clash (“London’s burning with boredom now, London’s burning, Dial 99999”). And now there is the Great Looting Spree, in which the city is vandalized by people often described as “hooded youths”.

No-one in Britain seems satisfied with the state of the nation. There’s finger-pointing galore: at the looters, the police, the Murdoch press, the politicians, the footballer-celebrities. And, of course, at the immigrants.

As of late 2010 the UK requires applicants for some immigrant visas to take a proficiency test in the English language. If you want to settle in Britain, the logic goes, you should learn the language. Cities should not be multilingual mosaics. Everyone should speak the common language.

Try telling that to the 58-year-old Indian husband of Rashida Chapti. Chapti, a naturalized British citizen, was born in India. Her husband still llives there. Before the language requirement came into effect, securing a resident and work visa for her husband would have been virtually automatic, as it is in the many nations that have family reunification immigration policies. But in Britain, Chapti’s husband must now prove that he has a basic command of English.

Chapti’s husband lives in a remote village, more than 100 miles from the nearest city, where he could take English lessons. In any case, she says, he wouldn’t be able to afford the lessons. Chapti is suing the British government under the European Convention of Human Rights.

Also, in Britain, the town of Barnsley has starting fining people for swearing in public. Heck, yeah. Not sure how widely that’s being enforced amid the riots and looting (which, I hasten to add, have not spread to Barnsley).

In Alaska, meanwhile, no-one’s too worried about swearing. (I briefly lived in Alaska, where I learned a great deal about American English expletive usage.) Some Alaskan children are learning a language. But not English, which they already speak.

These kids are the American-born children of  Sudanese refugees. They  are learning their parents’ native Nuer language. Some may end up speaking it at home. Some may use it if they visit their parents’ homeland. Some may never use it outside their Anchorage classroom.

Finally in the pod this week, a conversation with Greg Barker, director of  Koran by Heart.This is the story of three children who take part in a competition to memorize and publicly recite the entire Koran.

Hearing the interview reminded me of an encounter I had a few years ago in Bangladesh. I visited a  madrassa, a religious school.  The school building was essentially a countryside shack.  Inside were a few tiny classrooms, each with a dozen or more students crammed inside.

I talked with several students, including one who told me of his primary educational goal: to memorize the Koran. He recited a lengthy segment of it for me– in Arabic, not his native tongue, Bengali. He’s the student on the far left in the picture below.

I talked to the head of the madrassa. He said that although this was a religious school, most parents who sent their kids here weren’t especially devout. The choice, like in so many parts of the world, was between underfunded, sub-par government schools and religious school like this one.


Listen to the podcast via iTunes or here.


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English-only in the US, translating tweets in Japan and satire in Egypt

The English Only movement in the United States is always active during times of high immigration (check out my previous interview with US English lobbyist Tim Schultz). Now, the movement has got a shot in the arm from the Tea Party. It may help convince lawmakers and voters in the 19 remaining states that don’t yet have a law on their books declaring English to be the official language.

The issue with most of these laws is that they are ineffective (here is a map of English Only legislation in the United States). Many are symbolic only: they don’t specify how and when English must be used. Some do get specific.  In Arizona and Oklahoma, for example, you can’t take a driving test in a foreign language. But even then it’s not clear how much English Only laws affect linguistic behaviour.

There’s a long-established pattern of English acquisition among immigrants and their children. The first generation often speaks little or no English. The second generation, born in the United States, is bilingual, but often more proficent at English than the home language. The third generation is usually monolingual English, unable to communicate with their immigrant grandparent. People like language writer Robert Lane Greene, interviewed in my story, believe that pattern is again playing itself out.

Still, that hasn’t stopped Tea Partiers from bumper-sticking their love of English and fear of (mainly) Spanish from Florida and Texas all the way to Wasilla, AK.

This video has more than 14 million hits on YouTube, and this duo have performed it numerous times at Tea Party events.

Also in the pod this week, a conversation with Aya Watanabe, who has spent much of the past month translating earthquake-related tweets from Japanese to English.

It’s part of a project started by Japanese blogger Gen Taguchi to collect tweets that may give succor and inspire Japanese people in the face of this tragedy. Volunteers have translated tweets into at least 17 different languages.

In English, many of the tweets have more than the 140-characters maximum permitted by Twitter. That’s partly because a single Japanese character conveys more information than a single letter in the Roman alphabet. It’s also because Watanabe has sometimes added contextual details (eg ” on Kyushu Island, a thousand miles south of Tohoku”).

Below are some of Aya Watanabe’s favorite tweets, starting with the two that inspired her to start translating them into English.

At a jammed crossing
I was driving home after the quakes. Streets were extremely jammed and at many crossings only one car could cross the street per green light. At a spaghetti crossing, all traffic was paralyzed for more than 5 min. All drivers, I encountered, waiting to cross streets were calm, giving way to others. All thru my 10 hr driving, I didn’t hear any honking except those showing gratitude to others. Of course this travel was scary but also heart warming. This experience made me like Japan all the more.

At Tokyo Disneyland
They distributed sweets that are part of their merchandise. High school girls with heavy makeup took away more candies than they would possibly eat and that raised my eyebrows. Later, I saw those girls giving the candies to kids at evacuation areas. Families with kids had limited mobility and couldn’t get to where the candies were distributed. Go girls!

My mother’s foot warmer
Mom goes, “Oh! My little foot warmer got away!” My sister goes, “No I did not! ;D” And Mom goes, “Oh, there you are 🙂 🙂 ” … Mom and sister were sharing a futon during a blackout and Mom was searching for my sis’s warm feet. Cute mom 🙂 🙂

A little knight
I was walking behind a mother with a little boy and a baby in a carriage. The mother said to her young boy, “What if another earthquake hits? Scary, isn’t it?” The kindergarten boy said, “No worries, Mom. I will do THIS!” Then the boy bent over the baby in the carriage to protect his young sibling. What a little knight in a shiny armor. My heart felt warm.

Disgraceful
A teenage boy walked into a drugstore, a package of toilet paper in hand. He said, “My parent hoarded and bought two packages yesterday. How disgraceful. I would like to return one.” –My friend who works for the drugstore was impressed to hear a word “disgraceful” from a high school boy. We have bright future ahead in this country.

Packing for a move
When I was packing for my move, my mother handed me a flashlight and survival food she had kept for the family, saying “Take these and don’t buy new ones. There are people who really need them now. Us? We are fine. We have family and neighbors. We can help each other if a disaster strikes our area. You will be living by yourself, a stranger in a strange land. You have all the reasons to be anxious about your new life. No need to be anxious about us, your family.” I felt so proud to be my mother’s daughter, to be part of this family.

Mom’s Pep Talk
Called my Mom to let her know I survived the quakes. She lives in Kagoshima, on Kyushu Island, a thousand miles south of Tohoku. Thought she was worried about me and wanted to calm her down. Instead of tears, what I got from her was a pep talk. “Know, with all your heart, the meaning of your being where you are, at this timing and age in your life. Do the best you can to serve others.” Mother, I am proud to be your son. I will live through all this.

In the podcast, I also mention an interview on the Big Show with Tik Root, a Middlebury College student. Root was arrested in Syria where he was studying Arabic. He was detained for 15 days, suspected of being a foreign agent provocateur in Syria’s pro-democracy protests.  Here’s the interview.

Finally in the pod, we hear from Egypt about an instantly popular news satire show whose host is being compared to Jon Stewart. Here’s a translation of the video clip:

TALAT ZAKARIYA: You must have heard what’s happening in Tahrir Square.

BASSEM YOUSSEF : No! What? What?

T: Drums and horns and dancing…girls…and boys…and drugs…and full sexual relations.

Y (on the phone to someone): Didn’t I tell you we need to go to Tahrir Square? Dude, they’re saying there’s music and women and sex, and we’re sitting here? … Sorry, sorry.

Y: Mr. Talaat, is there a video that proves what you’re saying?

[Belly-dancing video]

Y: Sorry, clearly we got the video mixed up. We’ll fix it. Mr. Talaat, sorry, go ahead, tell us what else is happening in Tahrir Square?

T: What happening right in Tahrir Square is a carnival.

[Carnival clip]

T: There’s a band..there’s a one act play..all of it against the president..there are snacks and drinks and sodas and tea.

Y: I’ve finally learned what’s happening in Midan Tahrir. Out of solidarity with the eminent Mr. Talat Zakariya, I’m going to show you the proof.

T: Drums and horns..

[Crowds singing the national anthem]

Y: So ill-bred. People singing in Midan Tahrir.

T: Full sexual relations…

[Protesters fighting police]

Y: You’re right. It was an orgy…Anything else to add, Mr. Talat?

T: And who knows how many Muslim Brothers, and God knows what else, there…

Y: What, with the music and the girls and the drugs and the sex? What kind of Muslim Brothers, dude?

Mr. Talaat, concentrate for a moment–are you sure of what you’re saying?

T: And I take full responsibility.

Y: So when we write the history of the revolution… There was music and dance, girls and boys, drugs and sex, and Muslim Brothers. They had a carnival, they ate snacks and this lead to the fall of the regime.

Y: Mr. Talaat, is there anything else you’d like to add– anything else bothering you?

T: “Depart”: What does that mean? What does it mean to simple people?

[Video of Wael Ghonim and friends]

“Depart” means get out of here! What don’t you understand?

Y: I hope we answered the question.

Listen to the podcast here.


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The staying power of English, and Shakespeare in Shona

Top five language stories this month with Patrick and cartoon queen Carol Hills:

5. Multi-lingual Shakespeare. All of Shakespeare’s 38 plays will be performed next year in London, each in a different language. Hosting this 6-week season — part of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad —  is the reconstructed Globe Theater. The environs may be authentically Elizabethan, but no-one back in the 16th century would have seen Titus Andronicus in Cantonese, The Tempest in Arabic, Love’s Labour’s Lost in British Sign Language, or The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu.

Given the diversity of languages and, presumably, styles of stagecraft, it’s surprising the Globe isn’t presenting these plays at a diversity of venues. Putting on plays at the Globe is all about conjuring up a specific time and place in English history. This season of plays seems designed to do the opposite. Think of all Shakespeare-inspired foreign language movies, like Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood — based on Macbeth — that transport you worlds away. That’s when you get a sense of the universality of Shakespeare. I’m not sure if the setting of Globe for all these plays will convey that.

4. Texting surprises. Two new studies on texting are out. The first focusses on literacy acquisition, and the scond on the texting habits of Australians. In the first, a group of children in the UK were given mobile phones to text to their hearts’ content. Their literacy acquisition skills — reading and spelling — did not suffer as a result. In the second,  Austalians, and men in particular, expressed disatisfaction with texting shorthand (even the Aussie-specific stuff like totes (totally) and redic (ridiculous). Also — this is really surprising — more than 75% of  Australians age 65 years and older send at least one text a day. Those elderly Australians are totes techno. Redic!

3. Eliminating an unwanted language. In these times of language disappearance,  it’s not often you hear of an effort to willfully eliminate a language. That, though, it what’s happening in South African. The language in question is more like pidgin. It’s called Fanagalo, and it’s like a simplified version of Zulu, with some Xhosa, Afrikaans and English thrown in.  During colonial times, it was used as a language of instruction in the mines. Colonial bosses would issue orders to workers in Fanagalo. Over the years, it acquired quite a few technical mining phrases and so it is still used today. Now, there’s a debate in South Africa over its usefulness, even as there’s widely-held distaste for the way in which it came into being. The National Union of Mineworkers is pushing to have Fanagalo abolished — which has set South Africa’s Chamber of Mines thinking about how exactly to do that.

2. Keeping Russian and Chinese pure. Efforts are underway to keep Russian and Chinese free of English words and acronyms. Here are two languages that developed largely in isolation during large parts of the 20th century.  Now that Russia and China are more connected,  Russian and Chinese are having trouble incorporating (or resisting) Anglicisms. Some new Russian words include steyk-kholdery (stakeholders), autsorsing (outsourcing), riteyl (retail) and franchayz (franchise). New Chinese words often derive from English-language acronyms: NBA, CPI, WTO, GDP.

Both countries are taking ham-fisted approaches: Russia’s anti-monopoly service penalized a Japanese sushi chain which displayed a billboard saying Happy New Menu. It also took action against a sportswear store  using the expression new collection. China’s General Administration of Press and Publication issued an edict barring Chinese newspapers, books and websites from using English words and phrases. Neither approach seems likely to work.

1. New book sparks a debate about the staying power of English. Nicholas Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca makes the argument that one day in the distant future English will cease to be a global language, that most English speakers will be native speakers (right now, an estimated 30% of English speakers are native speakers).  Not only that, but it won’t be replaced by any other lingua francas. The world won’t need a common tongue, says Ostler, because we’ll all be able to speak in our own native tongues, and communicate via translation devices. Not surprisingly, Ostler’s theory/prediction has been roundly criticized, by champions of English as well as by techno-skeptics. Still, one of Ostler’s main points, that history has not stopped, and that language evolution has not played itself out, is well taken. And just look at Aramaic, Greek and Latin, all in their days lingua francas.

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The events of English and the future of Tibetan

Five language stories from the past month with Patrick, Carol and Rhitu

5.Tibetan in schools

Tibetans have been protesting over the potential loss of their language in schools.

It started after the Chinese Communist Party’s Qinghai province chief, Qiang Wei reportedly called for “a common language” in schools.  He went on to propose that Qinghai use Mandarin as the language of instruction in all schools. Now,  it already is the language of instruction in most schools in Qinghai, as in the rest of China. But the province is also home to a significant number of Tibetans, who typically learn at elementary level in their own language. Those who stay on in higher grades switch to Mandarin.

Estimates put the number of protesters between several hundred and several thousand. They spread beyond Tibetan speakers, with Uigher-speaking students also taking to the streets in sympathy. They know they could be next.

4. Spain re-orders its family names

The Spanish government has drafted a law that would change birth registration rules. That could result in a dramatic transformation of naming customs. Spaniards have two family names.  Right now, either of those names can come first, though it’s customary for the father’s name to assume priority. Under the proposed law, the two names would simply be listed alphabetically, unless otherwise instructed by the parents. This may well result in gender neutrality, but it would certainly discriminate against letters at the end of the alphabet. Zapatero? Forgetaboutit! Just think: had the law been around in 1892, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco might have been known as Generalísimo Bahamonde. Would he have won the Spanish Civil War with a name like that?

3. Events that shaped English

A non-profit group in Britain called The English Project is putting together a list of historical events and places that have shaped the development of the English language. It’s a thoroughly UK-centric list. Which is fair enough, until that time in history when Britain began exporting the English language. Here’s the list.  Post your ideas for a more expansive global list on English either there or on this site.

2.When can you say you speak a language? There’s no widely-accepted standard for speaking a second language, nor should there be: people use languages in so many different ways that there can never be  a single answer to this question.  But it’s instructive to try to come up with your own definition.

For the writer of this Economist blog, it’s a test of linguistic skills in journalism: “If my editor sent me to a country where I needed to report on a topic of general interest for The Economist, could I pull off interviews and research?  If yes, I speak it.”

The comments after the blog post are all over the map, as they should be:  “When you find yourself dreaming in a language, you can safely say that you can speak it.” (I disagree: I dream more fluently than I speak).  I prefer this one: “When you have mastered all, I emphasize all, the nuances contained in a given cuss word, and know when and when not, to deploy the word, so that you obtain the precise effect you want, not more, not less. This you do a native speaker of the language.”

1. We speak, therefore we think. New research out of Australia on how the languages we speak may determine how we think. Pormpuraawans — aboriginals living in a remote part of Australia — relate spatially to things according to the position of the sun. So while they think east and west, we English speakers often think left and right,  Arabic and Hebrew speaker right and left, and Chinese speakers up and down.  This plays in nicely to the recently renewed debate over language and thought: does language arise out of thought, or does it give shape to thought? Are we all prisoners of our native tongues?

Musings on this here and here. And more coverage of the research in a recent World Science podcast.

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