Tag Archives: Google

Silicon Valley gets linguistic enlightenment from India

Dancers relax after performing during a Diwali Festival in Silicon Valley (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

Dancers relax after performing during a Diwali Festival in Silicon Valley (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

Here’s a guest post from Silicon Valley-based reporter Alison van Diggelen

Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, will be celebrated around the world on November 3. In Silicon Valley, where Indian engineers make up one third of the tech workforce and have founded many successful startups, Diwali is an integral part of the culture and celebrations start early.

I went to a Diwali Festival in October in Cupertino. Silicon Valley’s Indian community was out in force.

On the main stage, Indian boys and girls danced; around them, vendors sold vibrant clothes and crafts. The smell of aloo gobi, chicken tikka and naan filled the air. Most women wore dazzling saris. Some elderly men wore embroidered kurtas, or tunics. But most wore the classic garb of Silicon Valley: jeans and T-shirts.

I chatted with Jasho Patnaik, a software engineer from Odisha state, in Eastern India. He said Diwali is much more than a festival of lights.

“It’s a festival of spreading love. Love is not specific to India, not to America, not to British, not to anybody.”

Patnaik added: “Love is love, light is light.”

For Patnaik, Diwali and other Indian traditions like meditation inform his view of technology. Take the word avatar, a Hindu concept popularized by the blockbuster movie. It pops up all over the place: in computer sciences, artificial intelligence and even robotics.

“Avatar is actually a Sanskrit Hindi word, it’s a spirit taking a new form for something,” said Padmasree Warrior, chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco Systems in San Jose. “Every time I see that word, it instills a sense of pride.”

This spiritual influence from India has become embedded in Silicon Valley culture. Of course words like guru and mantra have been around in America for decades but in tech boardrooms and coffee shops, expressions like coding guru and fail-fast mantra are now part of the Silicon Valley vernacular.

Junglee is a Hindi word meaning wild or ill-mannered. It was used by a Silicon Valley startup (founded, of course, by a team of Indians) that was acquired by Amazon.

Then there are the cultural differences. In Indian culture it’s hard to say “no.” Instead, according to Raj Oberoi, CEO of software startup Talygen, Indians obfuscate, often using what he calls the “bobblehead” gesture.

“A bobblehead is a unique Indian artform,” said Oberoi. “Indians have the unique ability to move their heads from left to right and it looks just like a bobblehead…on your car dashboard.”

I asked him if it always means no.

“No, it can also mean a yes. Which is what’s so confusing,” he chuckled. “Is that a yes, is that a no, is that a maybe, or are you having neck issues?”

During India’s colonial days, the English language absorbed many words from Hindi: words such as jungle, juggernaut and pundit. These words have migrated from India to Britain to America, but some well-educated Indians in Silicon Valley still talk in a stilted English of centuries past. Raj Oberoi shares some examples: Phrases like ‘do the needful’ or ‘I beg to stay.’

This old-fashioned talk sometimes leaves American colleagues in the IT world scratching their heads and seeking explanations.

Oberoi explains that it’s a rediscovery for Americans of a language that, even in Britain, is basically dying out. It’s more archaic, very formal, very flowery and it harkens back to the days of the Raj.

Cisco’s Padmasree Warrior shares an example of Hinglish, a Hindi-English mingling that adds Hindi suffixes to English words.

“Hey did you go to the Gym–shim yesterday?” Warrior said. “That means did you go work out?” Some, like me, consider Hinglish delightful. Others worry that people who use it too much will never properly master Hindi–or English.

Growing up in India, Warrior described how she was taught to conform. In Silicon Valley, her words and the way she thinks have changed.

“Close your eyes and say what words come to your mind…risk taking, entrepreneurship, out of the box…” she said. “In the [Silicon] Valley, we want talent that breaks the rules, creates disruptive innovation. These words have been added uniquely to my vocabulary.”

Silicon Valley’s Diwali Festival is a home from home for many Indians. It made Jasho Patnaik think about Indian concepts and how they may relate to his adopted home. Enlightened thought, he said, is the key to both computer programming and changing the world.

“It’s the way you think. That’s where it starts, ” he said.

It’s true: Enlightenment is coming from multicultural, multilingual India. But an American version of enlightenment is also rubbing off on the Indians who now populate multicultural, multilingual Silicon Valley.


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Silicon Valley’s Immigrant Janitors Learning English at Work

A Google employee tutors one of the company's janitors in a weekly class. (Photo: Jason Margolis)

A Google employee tutors one of the company’s janitors in a weekly class. (Photo: Jason Margolis)

Here’s a guest post from Big Show reporter Jason Margolis

If the new US Senate immigration reform bill becomes law, millions of people will need to learn English to become permanent US residents. It’s hard enough for any of us to learn a new language, but it can be especially difficult for immigrants. Many work multiple jobs and have little spare time. And there are diminishing resources available for them to learn.

Consider the case of Daniel Montes. When he was 18, Montes moved to the Bay Area from Mexico. Everything was an adjustment, but nothing was more difficult than the new language.

“It would be equal to losing your voice and not being able to speak from one day to the next,” said Montes.

Montes found work as a janitor. He said he remained virtually silent at work for two years until he found an ESL class in a church in San Jose.

“It was a big commitment, and it was very difficult physically to sustain. There were times when I would lose my pencil because I was so tired from working two jobs.”

That was in the late 1970’s. Today Montes runs the company Brilliant General Maintenance in San Jose. He has about 300 janitors on his staff, most of whom are immigrants like himself. Montes said he’s glad his employees have an easier path to learn English.

Thirteen years ago, the janitor’s union in California, SEIU, struck a bargaining agreement with contractors like Montes. Employers up and down the state now contribute a few extra pennies per hour worked toward training programs, everything from health education, to new parenting classes, to English instruction.

Companies must independently agree to allow classes at the work site, and many firms are allowing them in both Los Angeles and the Bay Area. In the past two years, a growing number of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies — Facebook, Cisco and Adobe among them — have agreed to transform boardrooms into classrooms.

I visited a class at Google’s Mountain View campus, where student janitors were taking classes with a trained teacher and also working one-on-one with volunteer tutors, who are Google employees. Both student and tutor arrived early in the morning, an hour before their shift started. Classes also take place at night.

“Before I worked here, I had three works (jobs), and I didn’t have time for school,” said janitor Edith de la Rosa, originally from Mexico. She started taking classes at Google last year.

The convenience of learning English at the workplace isn’t just benefiting janitors; it helps the companies as well. A Google manager I met expressed his support for the training program. But he preferred that I let the janitors do the talking.

De la Rosa said she’s certain she’s a better employee now.

“Every day I learn two or three words, it helps me in conversations with the clients. For example, ‘Excuse me, do you know who is fixing the toilets or the lights, or something?’ And I say, ‘Oh no, the water has come to the floor, oh yea, I do it. Let me take something to clean it up.’”

Even that basic conversation would’ve been impossible last year.

But again, companies like Google are under no obligation to open their buildings to the janitors. And many Bay Area companies are refusing.

“When anyone hears about it, when foundations hear about it, the government, it’s held up as a win-win partnership. It’s labor, it’s the community, it’s the biggest corporations in the world partnering for the janitors,” said Alison Ascher Webber, associate director of the non-profit Building Skills Partnership, which coordinates the English classes.

Yet, she said, “It’s surprisingly hard to sell (the English program) because it’s a subcontracted workforce. Often the corporations that employ them (the janitors) indirectly don’t even want to hear or talk about it.”

“It’s not their (the corporation’s) bottom-line, it’s not what they do. They’re just about numbers on a finance sheet. As long as the rooms are clean, it’s all about cutting costs.”

Webber mentioned Intel and Chevron as two companies that have refused the program. I sent multiple e-mails and placed phone calls to both Intel and Chevron to ask about the English-learning program. Neither responded.

Webber called this attitude “short-sighted.” There’s plenty of talk about how Silicon Valley is splitting into two classes, rich and poor. Webber stressed that Silicon Valley increasingly needs mid-level managers.

“How are we going to get people to check the water systems at the sewage treatment center? How are we going to get people to become firemen, be metal workers and machinists?”

English will allow immigrants to step into those positions. But learning English in California has become increasingly difficult.

Over the past five years, adult education budgets have been slashed by some 60 percent statewide across local districts where beginning adult ESL classes are traditionally taught. Five years ago, the San Jose Unified School District had 10,000 adults enrolled. Today, there are less than 2,500 adult learners.

Community colleges can’t pick up all that slack either.

With these severe cutbacks, that makes the option to study English at work all the more critical.



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Language adoption and the future of spelling

This week’s pod has two contrasting stories on language adoption. In the first instance, the intention is to encourage bilingualism; in the second, it’s  to promote nationalism.

Belgium hasn’t had a revolution since 1830 (see pic), after which a new constitution established French as the national language. Today, Dutch and German are also recognized. But another,  slower revolution may be taking place, with language again the weapon of choice. The country’s Dutch-speaking Flemish majority want out, and they did well in enough in parliamentary elections to advance that agenda. The French-speaking Walloon minority are less independence-minded, perhaps because they’re not so well-off.

Belgium’s capital, Brussels, is the only place where the two language groups intermingle. Now a Brussels-based organization is urging Belgians to adopt people from across the linguistic divide.  OK, so it’s just online adoption, but the idea is to rekindle Belgium’s former affection for multilingualism. More on Belgium’s language battles here and here.

In Montenegro, the government has adopted a language that may not be a language at all. But as the saying goes, “a language is a dialect with an army and navy” (the quote is often attributed, wrongly, to Max Weinreich). As of 2006, Montenegro has been its own country, with the toys to prove it, like the Gazelle helicopter pictured above — see the Montenegrin flag on the tail. This means that it can call its dialect of Serbo-Croatian a language in its own right. After all, the Serbs have Serbian, the Croats Croatian and the Bosnians Bosnian. In reality, Montenegrin is even less distinguishable from Serbian than Croatian or Bosnian are.  But this is the Balkans, and languages, just like everything else, get balkanized.

Finally, a discussion with David Wolman on what happens to spelling in the age of Spell Check and Google’s did you mean function. Do we need bother to learn how to spell, or at any rate,  spell well?

Wolman is the author of a history of English spelling, Righting the Mother Tongue. Check out my previous interview with him here.

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Google’s humanoid translator, accent phobia, and misleading job titles

In this podcast, our monthly top-five roundup of language stories:

5. Why Google Translate rules (and why human translators shouldn’t feel threatened.)  Google, as we’ve come to expect by now, does things differently. And that includes translation. We tend to think of translators as human or robotic. Google Translate combines the best of both. Which is why its translations can be poetic — yes poetic – as well as accurate. Of course, it’s still not difficult to outwit Google Translate, and make it fail. But with each new iteration, it’s getting better. However, it’ll only continue to improve so long as humans keep translating stuff (because Google Translate uses online human translations as its source material). Also, one day, Google may need to clarify that its translation tool,  however ubiquitous and accurate it becomes,  is no substitute for learning a foreign language. Humans live and thrive — and love and make money — by communicating  with each other. And they do that most effectively with their mouths, tongues and vocal chords.

4. Over-egging the job title pudding. The BBC reported that a weight-loss company recently advertized for a Product Testing Associate.  This job would consist of eating an extra 400 calories a day, as well as popping a few of the company’s Proactol pills. That got a bunch of readers of the online BBC article to relate their own favorite misleading job titles:  modality manager (translation: nurse, not to be confused with mortality manager); coordinator of interpretative teaching (tour guide); welcoming agent and telephone intermediary (receptionist); and field force agent (tax collector).  All of a sudden, I’m thinking my job title — language podcast host — isn’t  grand or pretentious enough. So henceforth, I will be known as a digitized philology presentation practitioner.

3. Accent discrimination. As a native English speaker with Brit accent (it’s drifted into the Atlantic after 20+ years in the United States) I think I’ve experienced positive accent discrimination.  Many Americans have told me they’ll  believe anything a Brit tells them — a good, if dangerous, thing for a reporter to hear. However, there are plenty of examples of the other type of discrimination. The latest concerns a US-based native French speaker who’s a senior partner in a global consulting firm. She speaks of being dis-invited to meetings with American clients, because of the fear that her accent would put them off.

2. The rise of Hindi (and English). My Big Show colleague Rhitu Chatterjee told me about an old friend of hers. He was born and raised in New Dehli by a Marathi-speaking mother and a Telugu-speaking father.  Because of the language divide, the languages of the household were Hindi and English; Rhitu’s friend neither spoke nor understood the native tongues of either of his parents. That story writ large is the linguistic story of modern India — multilingual marriages, migration to big cities, a big generational shift to Hindi and English. English has now eclipsed Bengali as the the second-most popular language in India, according to recent census analysis, and Hindi continues to dominate.

1. New French words to replace English invaders. The Académie française (pictured) is the jealous protector of all things French: it determines what can and cannot be said and written, even if people often ignore its pronouncements.  Often, the Académie finds itself with no alternative but to make up new words, usually when the hoi polloi are using one of those nasty English words (like podcasting).  Some officially coined terms stick (logiciel, meaning software); others don’t (frimousse, meaning smiley). Authorities have now taken a new tack: they have turned to the people themselves. Citizens sent in their suggestions for words to replace Anglicisms such as buzz and newsletter. A committee decided which to adopt.

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Windows 7 in African languages, unfortunate name translations, and the new Klingon

For the latest podcast, I have five language news stories from the past month:

5. African languages to get their versions of Windows.

Microsoft says by 2011 it will release versions of its new Windows 7 operating system in ten African languages:  Sesotho sa Leboa, Setswana, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Afrikaans, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, kiSwahili and Amharic. It’s a big boost for those languages, as well as for the people who prefer to speak and write in them, rather than English or French.

4. The government of Moldova moves to change the name of the country’s official language.

Most people who live in small eastern European nation of Moldova speak a dialect of Romanian.  But in Moldova, the language is known officially as Moldovan. This is an act of  placation: it placates non-Romanian- speakers in Moldova and, more importantly, in Moscow. Calling the language Romanian is seen by some in the Kremlin as tantamount to a vote for unification with Romania. Russia, of course, doesn’t want that: it views Moldova, a former Soviet republic, as part of its “Near Abroad”.  But Moldova recently elected a pro-Western government. One of its first acts was to change the name of the language on its official website from Moldovan to Romanian. What’s more, the President-elect has declared himself a speaker of Romanian. (He also declared himself “a Romanian.”) That’s in sharp constrast to his  pro-Moscow predecessors, who insisted on translators when they had meetings with Romanian officials.

3. South Korean birthing centers go multilingual.

South Korea doesn’t have much of a history of immigration; very few foreigners have learned Korean, at least with a view to settling there. Now though, there’s a shortage of women, especially in the countryside. So South Korean men have starting marrying women from other Asian countries. And they’re having children.  Most of women speak very little Korean, so doctors and nurses are learning a few words in Chinese, Thai and Tagalog.  That’s just the start of what appears to be quite  an ordeal. Even with Korean speakers in their families, the women and their children have a hard time integrating, linguistically and otherwise,  into Korean society.

2. Unfortunate foreign meanings of baby names and how YOU can protect yourself (should you wish to).

A London-based translation company with an eye for publicity is offering what appears to be a unique service: for about $1,700, it will run a translation check on the name you have chosen for your baby. It will, of course, alert you if that name means say, pickpocket  in Japanese (“Suri”) or shut up in Yoruba (“Kai”). Maybe the celebs, with their surfeit cash and zany name choices will be tempted. For the rest of us, there’s Google Translate. Or we could just call our firstborn, I don’t know, Jessica. Or John.

1. Na’vi, invented for the silver screen, hopes to emulate Klingon.

Klingon’s been in the news a lot recently. There was the (recycled) story of the man who tried to raise his son bilingually — in Klingon, and just to be on safe side, English. Then there’s the story of a new Klingon dictionary in the works. Now, there’s another nod to Klingon. James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar is scheduled to annex and occupy the cinematic world on December 18.  Much of the movie takes place on a planet whose inhabitants are 10 feet tall, have tails and blue skin, etc etc. And they speak their own language. Tolkein created Elvish . Star Trek came up with Klingon. And now Avatar has midwifed Na’vi. Cameron  commissioned University of South California linguist Paul Frommer to dream up a new language. And he did.

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