The strange persistence of first languages

Julie Sedivy writes: Like a household that welcomes a new child, a single mind can’t admit a new language without some impact on other languages already residing there. Languages can co-exist, but they tussle, as do siblings, over mental resources and attention. When a bilingual person tries to articulate a thought in one language, words and grammatical structures from the other language often clamor in the background, jostling for attention. The subconscious effort of suppressing this competition can slow the retrieval of words—and if the background language elbows its way to the forefront, the speaker may resort to code-switching, plunking down a word from one language into the sentence frame of another.

Meanwhile, the weaker language is more likely to become swamped; when resources are scarce, as they are during mental exhaustion, the disadvantaged language may become nearly impossible to summon. Over time, neglecting an earlier language makes it harder and harder for it to compete for access.

According to a 2004 survey conducted in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, fewer than half of people belonging to Generation 1.5 — immigrants who arrive before their teenage years — claimed to speak the language they were born into “very well.” A 2006 study of immigrant languages in Southern California forecast that even among Mexican Americans, the slowest group to assimilate within Southern California, new arrivals would live to hear only 5 out of every 100 of their great-grandchildren speak fluent Spanish.

When a childhood language decays, so does the ability to reach far back into your own private history. Language is memory’s receptacle. It has Proustian powers. Just as smells are known to trigger vivid memories of past experiences, language is so entangled with our experiences that inhabiting a specific language helps surface submerged events or interactions that are associated with it. [Continue reading…]


Linguistic diversity in the U.S: 320 languages spoken; 1 in 5 Americans don’t speak English at home

Quartz reports: Every year, the US Census Bureau releases data on the languages spoken in American homes. Usually it groups the languages in 39 major categories. Now it has released much more detailed figures, which show that Americans speak not 39, but more than 320 distinct languages.

The bureau collected the data from 2009 to 2013 as part of the American Community Survey, which asks Americans all kinds of questions to create highly granular estimates on various demographic indicators. The new data estimate that more than 60 million Americans speak a language other than English at home.

Included are 150 Native American languages, as well as relatively obscure ones like Pennsylvania Dutch, Icelandic, Mongolian, and many others. The data estimate that Sudanese, for example, is spoken at home by only 35 Americans. Patwin, spoken by a group of Americans native to northern California, it estimates at just four speakers. [Continue reading…]

There are some anomalies in the data presented here — such as the 12,320 speakers of “African.” That should say: African, not further specified.


The dangerous consequences of routinized venomousness in public life

Pankaj Mishra writes: In the guise of hyper-patriotism, trash talk has gone mainstream in the world’s two biggest democracies. Donald Trump, the leading candidate in Republican primaries, set a new low in public discourse by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.” The Hindu nationalist chief minister of one of India’s richest states recently underscored the deterioration in India’s political culture by declaring Muslims could only live in the country if they stopped eating beef.

One hopes that a dignified retort of the kind that defused the menace of McCarthyism — “Have you no decency, sir?” — terminates this season of demagogues. But public support for them suggests that a disturbingly broad assault is underway on democratic values — indeed, on civility itself.

People foaming at the mouth with hate and malice have become a common sight on both traditional and social media. Mobs in India and mass shooters in America have thrived in this climate of irrationalism. Many people, it seems, can think only in the categories of friends and foes, group loyalty or treason; their preference for abuse kills all possibilities of reasoned debate. [Continue reading…]


A conversation with Koko the gorilla

Roc Morin writes: One of the first words that Koko used to describe herself was Queen. The gorilla was only a few years old when she first made the gesture — sweeping a paw diagonally across her chest as if tracing a royal sash.

“It was a sign we almost never used!” Koko’s head-caretaker Francine Patterson laughed. “Koko understands that she’s special because of all the attention she’s had from professors, and caregivers, and the media.”

The cause of the primate’s celebrity is her extraordinary aptitude for language. Over the past 43 years, since Patterson began teaching Koko at the age of 1, the gorilla has learned more than 1,000 words of modified American Sign Language—a vocabulary comparable to that of a 3-year-old human child. While there have been many attempts to teach human languages to animals, none have been more successful than Patterson’s achievement with Koko.

If Koko is a queen, then her kingdom is a sprawling research facility in the mountains outside Santa Cruz, California. It was there, under a canopy of stately redwoods, that I met research-assistant Lisa Holliday.

“You came on a good day,” Holliday smiled. “Koko’s in a good mood. She was playing the spoon game all morning! That’s when she takes the spoon and runs off with it so you can’t give her another bite. She’s an active girl. She’s always got her dolls, and in the afternoon, her kittens — or as we call them, her kids.”

It was a winding stroll up a sun-spangled trail toward the cabin where Patterson was busy preparing a lunch of diced apples and nuts for Koko. The gorilla’s two kitten playmates romped in a crate by her feet. We would go deliver the meal together shortly, but first I had some questions for the 68-year-old researcher. I wanted to understand more about her famous charge and the rest of our closest living relatives. [Continue reading…]


After centuries of colonial violence, a resurgence of indigenous language learning

Jason Coppola reports: It’s a crisis point in history for Native American languages. Without a concerted effort to revitalize them, many will soon go extinct, succumbing to the generations-long effort to destroy them.

“You could reasonably say every single Native American language, including the large ones, are endangered,” said linguist K. David Harrison, a National Geographic fellow teaching at Swarthmore College. “There’s no room for complacency whatsoever.”

The Maori people of New Zealand are one of many groups that have struggled against the violent effects of colonization on their languages. In 1840, the Maori came under the rule of the British Crown as more and more European settlers arrived and more land was needed to accommodate them. Land conflicts eventually broke out into all-out war, ending with huge tracts of Maori land being confiscated by the government. Displacement, poverty and racism became commonplace. Their struggle now reflects that of other Indigenous peoples and nations across the globe fighting to preserve their knowledge, culture and traditional way of life. [Continue reading…]


How language can shape a sense of place

Claire Cameron writes: English speakers and others are highly egocentric when it comes to orienting themselves in the world. Objects and people exist to the left, right, in front, and to the back of you. You move forward and backward in relation to the direction you are facing. For an aboriginal tribe in north Queensland, Australia, called the Guugu Ymithirr, such a “me me me” approach to spatial information makes no sense. Instead, they use cardinal directions to express spatial information (pdf). So rather than “Can you move to my left?” they would say “Can you move to the west?”

Linguist Guy Deustcher says that Guugu Ymithirr speakers have a kind of “internal compass” that is imprinted from an extremely young age. In the same way that English-speaking infants learn to use different tenses when they speak, so do Guugu Ymithirr children learn to orient themselves along compass lines, not relative to themselves. In fact, says Deustcher, if a Guugu Ymithirr speaker wants to direct your attention to the direction behind him, he “points through himself, as if he were thin air and his own existence were irrelevant.” Whether that translates into less egocentric worldviews is a matter for further study and debate.

Other studies have shown that speakers of languages that use cardinal directions to express locations have fantastic spatial memory and navigation skills — perhaps because their experience of an event is so well-defined by the directions it took place in. [Continue reading…]


Discover a society with no absolutes, populated by the ultimate empiricists — people happy without God

Daniel Everett summarizes the lesson for linguistics from his research of the Pirahã people and their language:

The lesson is that language is not something mysterious that is outside the bounds of natural selection, or just popped into being through some mutated gene. But that language is a human invention to solve a human problem. Other creatures can’t use it for the same reason they can’t use a shovel: it was invented by humans, for humans and its success is judged by humans.


Life’s stories

Julie Beck writes: In Paul Murray’s novel Skippy Dies, there’s a point where the main character, Howard, has an existential crisis.“‘It’s just not how I expected my life would be,'” he says.

“‘What did you expect?’” a friend responds.

“Howard ponders this. ‘I suppose—this sounds stupid, but I suppose I thought there’d be more of a narrative arc.’”

But it’s not stupid at all. Though perhaps the facts of someone’s life, presented end to end, wouldn’t much resemble a narrative to the outside observer, the way people choose to tell the stories of their lives, to others and — crucially — to themselves, almost always does have a narrative arc. In telling the story of how you became who you are, and of who you’re on your way to becoming, the story itself becomes a part of who you are.

“Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality, along with other parts, like dispositional traits, goals, and values,” writes Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, along with Erika Manczak, in a chapter for the APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology. [Continue reading…]


Marks of ownership

Matthew Battles writes: In ancient Greece, writing arose among traders and artisans doing business in the markets with foreigners and visitors from other cities. Their alphabet emerged not in scribal colleges or the king’s halls, nor was it brought by conquerors, but instead came ashore in the freewheeling, acquisitive, materialistic atmosphere of the agora, the Greek marketplace that also birthed democracy and the public sphere.

The Phoenician letters, transformed by Greeks into the alphabet, share an origin with the Hebrew characters. They crossed the Aegean Sea with trade that flourished between the Greek peninsula and the Canaanite mainland in the ninth century BC. The first alphabetic inscriptions in Greek appear on goods—keepsake vases, containers for oil and olives. The likely earliest such inscription extant, the “Dipylon inscription,” is on a wine jug; it reads something like this: “Whichever dancer dances most fleetly, he shall get me [this vessel]” — a trophy cup. The so-called Cup of Nestor, a clay vessel dating from the eighth century BC, bears an inscription that begins “Nestor’s cup am I, good to drink from.” For the next couple of centuries, Greek letters are used mostly to inscribe dedications — indexing acquisition and ownership in a society where property was the basis of participation in the lettered public sphere.

This was a society of freeborn traders and artisans, a culture that prized beauty, expressiveness, and originality — the perfect environment for the kind of flourishing public space writing seems everywhere to wish to build. And yet the magisterium of writing grows slowly in ancient Greece. Centuries pass before the first texts appear. [Continue reading…]


The problem of translation

Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes: One Enlightenment aspiration that the science-­fiction industry has long taken for granted, as a necessary intergalactic conceit, is the universal translator. In a 1967 episode of “Star Trek,” Mr. Spock assembles such a device from spare parts lying around the ship. An elongated chrome cylinder with blinking red-and-green indicator lights, it resembles a retracted light saber; Captain Kirk explains how it works with an off-the-cuff disquisition on the principles of Chomsky’s “universal grammar,” and they walk outside to the desert-­island planet of Gamma Canaris N, where they’re being held hostage by an alien. The alien, whom they call The Companion, materializes as a fraction of sparkling cloud. It looks like an orange Christmas tree made of vaporized mortadella. Kirk grips the translator and addresses their kidnapper in a slow, patronizing, put-down-the-gun tone. The all-­powerful Companion is astonished.

“My thoughts,” she says with some confusion, “you can hear them.”

The exchange emphasizes the utopian ambition that has long motivated universal translation. The Companion might be an ion fog with coruscating globules of viscera, a cluster of chunky meat-parts suspended in aspic, but once Kirk has established communication, the first thing he does is teach her to understand love. It is a dream that harks back to Genesis, of a common tongue that perfectly maps thought to world. In Scripture, this allowed for a humanity so well ­coordinated, so alike in its understanding, that all the world’s subcontractors could agree on a time to build a tower to the heavens. Since Babel, though, even the smallest construction projects are plagued by terrible delays. [Continue reading…]


How the language you speak changes your view of the world

By Panos Athanasopoulos, Lancaster University

Bilinguals get all the perks. Better job prospects, a cognitive boost and even protection against dementia. Now new research shows that they can also view the world in different ways depending on the specific language they are operating in.

The past 15 years have witnessed an overwhelming amount of research on the bilingual mind, with the majority of the evidence pointing to the tangible advantages of using more than one language. Going back and forth between languages appears to be a kind of brain training, pushing your brain to be flexible.

Just as regular exercise gives your body some biological benefits, mentally controlling two or more languages gives your brain cognitive benefits. This mental flexibility pays big dividends especially later in life: the typical signs of cognitive ageing occur later in bilinguals – and the onset of age-related degenerative disorders such as dementia or Alzheimer’s are delayed in bilinguals by up to five years.

[Read more…]


How we know

In a review of The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, by James Gleick, Freeman Dyson writes: James Gleick’s first chapter has the title “Drums That Talk.” It explains the concept of information by looking at a simple example. The example is a drum language used in a part of the Democratic Republic of Congo where the human language is Kele. European explorers had been aware for a long time that the irregular rhythms of African drums were carrying mysterious messages through the jungle. Explorers would arrive at villages where no European had been before and find that the village elders were already prepared to meet them.

Sadly, the drum language was only understood and recorded by a single European before it started to disappear. The European was John Carrington, an English missionary who spent his life in Africa and became fluent in both Kele and drum language. He arrived in Africa in 1938 and published his findings in 1949 in a book, The Talking Drums of Africa. Before the arrival of the Europeans with their roads and radios, the Kele-speaking Africans had used the drum language for rapid communication from village to village in the rain forest. Every village had an expert drummer and every villager could understand what the drums were saying. By the time Carrington wrote his book, the use of drum language was already fading and schoolchildren were no longer learning it. In the sixty years since then, telephones made drum language obsolete and completed the process of extinction.

Carrington understood how the structure of the Kele language made drum language possible. Kele is a tonal language with two sharply distinct tones. Each syllable is either low or high. The drum language is spoken by a pair of drums with the same two tones. Each Kele word is spoken by the drums as a sequence of low and high beats. In passing from human Kele to drum language, all the information contained in vowels and consonants is lost. In a European language, the consonants and vowels contain all the information, and if this information were dropped there would be nothing left. But in a tonal language like Kele, some information is carried in the tones and survives the transition from human speaker to drums. The fraction of information that survives in a drum word is small, and the words spoken by the drums are correspondingly ambiguous. A single sequence of tones may have hundreds of meanings depending on the missing vowels and consonants. The drum language must resolve the ambiguity of the individual words by adding more words. When enough redundant words are added, the meaning of the message becomes unique.

In 1954 a visitor from the United States came to Carrington’s mission school. Carrington was taking a walk in the forest and his wife wished to call him home for lunch. She sent him a message in drum language and explained it to the visitor. To be intelligible to Carrington, the message needed to be expressed with redundant and repeated phrases: “White man spirit in forest come come to house of shingles high up above of white man spirit in forest. Woman with yam awaits. Come come.” Carrington heard the message and came home. On the average, about eight words of drum language were needed to transmit one word of human language unambiguously. Western mathematicians would say that about one eighth of the information in the human Kele language belongs to the tones that are transmitted by the drum language. The redundancy of the drum language phrases compensates for the loss of the information in vowels and consonants. The African drummers knew nothing of Western mathematics, but they found the right level of redundancy for their drum language by trial and error. Carrington’s wife had learned the language from the drummers and knew how to use it.

The story of the drum language illustrates the central dogma of information theory. The central dogma says, “Meaning is irrelevant.” Information is independent of the meaning that it expresses, and of the language used to express it. Information is an abstract concept, which can be embodied equally well in human speech or in writing or in drumbeats. All that is needed to transfer information from one language to another is a coding system. A coding system may be simple or complicated. If the code is simple, as it is for the drum language with its two tones, a given amount of information requires a longer message. If the code is complicated, as it is for spoken language, the same amount of information can be conveyed in a shorter message. [Continue reading…]


Learning a language? Sleep on it and you’ll get the grammar

By Kathy Rastle, Royal Holloway and Jakke Tamminen, Royal Holloway

In 2006, former US president George Bush supported his embattled defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld with the words: “But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best.” This quotation quickly entered the folklore of political humour. But to psychology researchers, it revealed something fundamental about human language.

At that time, most Americans had not encountered the word decider. While this is a common word in some parts of the world, it refers to the part of a game that determines the winner. So how did people understand what it meant? They understood it because across all of the words that people know, the suffix –er often transforms a verb into a person (as in teacher, builder, dancer). Thus, a decider must be someone who decides.

The ability to extract general principles from a small number of examples is fundamental to language and literacy. In teaching children how to read, teachers introduce sets of words like chin, church, chest, chess, chop, to convey information about how to pronounce particular letters. This general knowledge might then be applied to new words like chick. In later years of primary school, children develop general knowledge about the functions of affixes. Through exposure to relevant sets of words like uncertain, unknown, unhappy, children become able to use affixes like -un in new contexts.

[Read more…]


How climate may have shaped languages

Scientific American reports: Opera singers and dry air don’t get along. In fact, the best professional singers require humid settings to help them achieve the right pitch. “When your vocal cords are really dry, they’re a little less elastic,” says Caleb Everett, an anthropological linguist at the University of Miami. As a result, singers experience tiny variations in pitch, called jitter, as well as wavering volume—both of which contribute to rougher refrains.

If the amount of moisture in the air influences musical pitch, Everett wondered, has that translated into the development of fewer tonal languages in arid locations? Tonal languages, such as Mandarin Chinese and Cherokee, rely on variations in pitch to differentiate meaning: the same syllable spoken at a higher pitch can specify a different word if spoken at a lower pitch or in a rising or falling tone.

In a survey of more than 3,700 languages, Everett and his collaborators found that those with complex tones do indeed occur less frequently in dry areas than they do in humid ones, even after accounting for the clustering of related languages. For instance, more than half of the hundreds of languages spoken in tropical sub-Saharan locations feature complex tones, whereas none of the two dozen languages in the Sahara do. Overall, only one in 30 complex tonal languages flourished in dry areas; one in three nontonal languages cropped up in those same regions. The results appeared in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. [Continue reading…]


Can a dying language be saved?

Judith Thurman writes: It is a singular fate to be the last of one’s kind. That is the fate of the men and women, nearly all of them elderly, who are — like Marie Wilcox, of California; Gyani Maiya Sen, of Nepal; Verdena Parker, of Oregon; and Charlie Mungulda, of Australia — the last known speakers of a language: Wukchumni, Kusunda, Hupa, and Amurdag, respectively. But a few years ago, in Chile, I met Joubert Yanten Gomez, who told me he was “the world’s only speaker of Selk’nam.” He was twenty-one.

Yanten Gomez, who uses the tribal name Keyuk, grew up modestly, in Santiago. His father, Blas Yanten, is a woodworker, and his mother, Ivonne Gomez Castro, practices traditional medicine. As a young girl, she was mocked at school for her mestizo looks, so she hesitated to tell her children — Keyuk and an older sister — about their ancestry. They hadn’t known that their maternal relatives descended from the Selk’nam, a nomadic tribe of unknown origin that settled in Tierra del Fuego. The first Europeans to encounter the Selk’nam, in the sixteenth century, were astonished by their height and their hardiness — they braved the frigid climate by coating their bodies with whale fat. The tribe lived mostly undisturbed until the late eighteen-hundreds, when an influx of sheep ranchers and gold prospectors who coveted their land put bounties on their heads. (One hunter boasted that he had received a pound sterling per corpse, redeemable with a pair of ears.) The survivors of the Selk’nam Genocide, as it is called — a population of about four thousand was reduced to some three hundred — were resettled on reservations run by missionaries. The last known fluent speaker of the language, Angela Loij, a laundress and farmer, died forty years ago.

Many children are natural mimics, but Keyuk could imitate speech like a mynah. His father, who is white, had spent part of his childhood in the Arauco region, which is home to the Mapuche, Chile’s largest native community, and he taught Keyuk their language, Mapudungun. The boy, a bookworm and an A student, easily became fluent. A third-grade research project impassioned him about indigenous peoples, and Ivonne, who descends from a line of shamans, took this as a sign that his ancestors were speaking through him. When she told him of their heritage, Keyuk vowed that he would master Selk’nam and also, eventually, Yagán — the nearly extinct language of a neighboring people in the far south — reckoning that he could pass them down to his children and perhaps reseed the languages among the tribes’ descendants. At fourteen, he travelled with his father to Puerto Williams, a town in Chile’s Antarctic province that calls itself “the world’s southernmost city,” to meet Cristina Calderón, the last native Yagán speaker. She subsequently tutored him by phone. [Continue reading…]