Language Learning for a Small World and a Big Introduction

December 11, 2014 § 2 Comments

Most commercials make me hit the mute button or click “Skip this Ad.” But some I like so much that I search them out on Youtube for a second, third, and fourth look. Here are two of those.

The first one, from Rosetta Stone Language Learning, begins with this: “Imagine the world if everyone learned just one more language. Imagine the stories we’d share.”

The second one, my favorite of the two, is from the American Heart Association. It opens with the words “Hello, Jack. Hello, Jack. I am your grandfather. I waited so long to meet you”—and ends with a nice surprise. (By the way, from what I can tell, the grandfather is learning his English from a Langenscheidt pocket dictionary.)

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Don’t Know Your Malayalam from your Malay? Try Listening with Your Eyes

June 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

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First, let me introduce you to The Great Language Game. Created by “data scientist” Lars Yencken, this online challenge presents you with a series of audio clips that you try to identify from the list of language names given below each one. The better you do, the further you go, and the lists get longer. It’s a little bit of easy. Of course that’s French and not Mandarin! It’s a little bit of impossible. That’s really the name of a language? And it’s a lot of fun.

Go ahead and give it a try. It doesn’t take long. I’ll wait for you.

I’m thinking I could get a higher score if I could see the people speaking. It would really be great if they were wearing their national dress (think Miss Universe pageant). OK, that’s a bit much, but it might help a little even if I could see just their mouths. Of course, being familiar with the languages at hand is the biggest factor. But it make sense that looking at the way people speak should help us distinguish one language from another. You don’t need to have a PhD to figure that out. Actually, you don’t even have to be in preschool.

Kids See the Darndest Things

Janet Werker, director of the University of British Columbia’s Infant Studies Centre, has long been studying babies’ abilities to recognize different languages. Her research shows that infants as young as seven months old can hear the difference between languages by listening to grammar patterns. Werker was also part of a team, led by one of her students, Whitney Weikum, showing that even-younger babies can see the difference.

The group of researchers showed four-month-olds—from English-speaking households—silent videos of bilingual speakers using English or French or switching between the two. The babies were more interested and watched the videos longer when the speakers alternated languages.

When they tested six-month-old infants, some from monolingual homes and some from English-and-French-speaking homes, the results were the same. But when they showed the videos to eight-month-old babies, only the ones from bilingual homes continued to be able to distinguish the languages.

According to the researchers, this suggests that older “monolingual” babies lose their sensitivity to visual cues in language recognition because they no longer need them. “Bilingual” children, on the other hand, keep their ability longer, because they still need it as they learn two languages.

So if we lose that skill with age, how can those of us getting along in years work on regaining it? Welcome the lip-reading computer.

And Computers See Even More

If I had a computer that could read lips, I’d just sit back and watch it in awe. But five years ago a team of scientists at the University of East Anglia’s School of Computing Sciences couldn’t leave well-enough alone and gave their lip-reading computer the ability to recognize languages. Stephen Cox, one of the team’s leaders, says that their work is “the first scientific confirmation of something we already intuitively suspected—that when people speak different languages, they use different mouth shapes in different sequences.”

The group, using “statistical modeling,” studied the mouth movements of 23 bilingual and trilingual speakers. The result is a technology that can distinguish between a range of languages—from the similar to the widely different—including English, French, German, Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Italian, Polish, and Russian.

So it seems that with practice, and a little technological help, we should be able to see the difference between spoken languages even if we can’t hear them. Why, we might get to the point where our looking-without-listening skills could rival our ability to listen with our eyes closed.

But We Don’t Need Our Eyes to Hear, Right?

Well, maybe it’s time to revisit The Great Language Game for a reminder of how imprecise our listening skills can be. Or if that isn’t sufficiently humbling, take a look at the following video on the “McGurk Effect.” Also called the “McGurk Illusion,” the phenomenon was discovered by accident as Harry McGurk and his lab assistant, John MacDonald, both of the University of Surrey, were studying how infants develop their perception of speech.

It’s bad enough when you need help to identify languages, but simple, basic letter sounds? I give up.

(Whitney Weikum, et al., “Babies Able to Tell through Visual Cues when Speakers Switch Languages,” ScienceDaily, May 25, 2007; “Lip-Reading Computers Can Detect Different Languages,” University of East Anglia, April 22, 2009;”The McGurk Effect: Hearing Lips and Seeing Voices,” Haskins Laboratories)

[photo: “Hear No Evil,” by McBeths Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]

Senior Citizens Teach English, Food Photogs Feed the Hungry, and Coca-Cola Makes a Rainbow

May 28, 2014 § 4 Comments

When teenagers teach senior citizens about the internet, cultures are crossed.

When the two groups use the internet to communicate between countries, the culture crossing is even greater . . . and the results are very cool.

The global advertising agency FCB and the Brazilian English school CNA have teamed up for the Speaking Exchange, a campaign that matches English learners in Brazil to retirement-home residents in the US, using video chat.

The idea is based on the premise “Students want to practice English, and elderly people someone to talk to.” CNA calls it “an exchange in which everyone wins.” Using the Speaking Exchange program, students find seniors looking to talk and begin their interaction with guided topics. They progress to free chatting and their conversation is uploaded to a private YouTube channel where it is evaluated by a teacher.

Currently, the Speaking Exchange is in a trial period, but retirement communities can sign up at the program site to be notified when “official activities” begin.

Brazil’s Speaking Exchange is just one example of the creative campaigns produced by FCB, which operates in 90 counties. Here’s another.

Food Photos: Share and Share Alike

Next time you snap a pic of your Caesar salad, you photo may just get “liked” by Chamissidini from Niger. This Chamissidini isn’t a real girl, instead her profile is one of many, created by UNICEF New Zealand and FCB, to represent needy children in the developing world. When food photos are uploaded to Instagram, they’re liked by the UNICEF profiles. And when the photographers look to see who their new fans are, they’re invited to visit foodphotossavelives.org.nz. There they can purchase meals for the hungry and download Instagram-style images of emergency aid items to share . . . and continue the conversation.

And here’s one more.

The Colors of a Country

To celebrate 20 years of democracy in South Africa last month, FCB Johannesburg helped Coca-Cola create an actual rainbow in the capital’s downtown—a skyline-sized symbol of what Desmond Tutu dubbed “the Rainbow Nation.” “In South Africa I’m a person because of other people.” says one resident. “We call it ubundu.”

Sprechen Sie Facebook? “Cyber Seniors” Learn a New Language

May 22, 2014 § 1 Comment

They are people worlds apart, speaking different languages, living out cultures foreign to each other, coming together in an unlikely place—in the assisted-living center across town.

Cyber Seniors is the story of teenagers who introduce a group of senior citizens to the internet: to YouTube, Skype, and that “Face something,” you know, the one with the friends.

In her new documentary, Canadian director Saffron Cassaday presents a great picture of learning, communicating, expanding horizons—and culture shock. It’s what crossing cultures is all about.

It’s so much fun to watch, and it’s got to be a lot of fun to join in.

How’s this for cross-cultural communication? It’s hard to ask questions when you’re not bilingual.

And here we see that you really are never too old—or too young—to learn a thing or two. Hallelujah!

These clips leave me with the question, When the two groups go “home,” what does reverse culture shock look like?

“Let It Go”: Dubbing Disney’s Oscar-Nominated Toe Tapper in 25 Languages

March 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Speaking of films, there is that Academy Awards thing tomorrow night. I’m predicting a sweep for Frozen in its nominated categories: best animated feature and best original song.

If you haven’t heard “Let It Go,” the nominated song from the Disney film, then you 1) haven’t seen the movie, 2) don’t spend much time on YouTube, and 3) don’t live with a seven-year-old who’s memorized all the lyrics.

And if you haven’t heard the original, then you probably haven’t heard the version dubbed into 25 languages. Even if you have heard it, it’s worth another listen.

The English version of “Let It Go” is sung by the Tony Award winning singer and actress Idina Menzel, who voices the movie’s character Elsa. She’s the one singing the English at the beginning of the multi-language video. But even though the rest of the song sounds as if it is sung by her, believe it or not, it isn’t.

So who in the world was tasked with finding all those talented songstresses? Look no further than Rick Dempsey, senior vice president of creative for Disney Character Voices International.

“In a lot of cases I think we fooled some people into thinking that it’s Idina in all those languages,” Dempsey told NPR. “And that, of course, is the goal, to ensure there is character consistency and the voices are all very similar around the world.”

But all that work isn’t a one-man show. Dempsey told The Hollywood Reporter, “We have 76 people around the world in 19 offices that oversee films in 55 languages. Our goal is to make every audience feel like Frozen was made in their country for their people.”

10152920204_d766fbe52c_qThe Los Angeles Times reports that the array of voice talents in “Let It Go” include Gisela (Castilian and Catalan), Serena Autieri (Italian), Willemijn Verkaik (German, Dutch), Takako Matsu (Japanese), Carmen Sarahi (Latin American Spanish), Marsha Milan Londoh (Malay), and Anna Buturlina (Russian).

And the impressive work of Dempsey’s crew on Frozen didn’t end with the only 25 versions of the feature song. While most stories report that Frozen has been dubbed into 41 languages, a Disney UK tweet puts the total at 43.

(“Let It Go’: A Global Hit in Any Language,” NPR, February 24, 2014; Tim Appelo, “‘Frozen’ Composer Robert Lopez on the Perils of Translating ‘Let It Go,’” February 25, 2014; Rebecca Keegan, “‘Frozen’: Finding a Diva in 41 Languages,” Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2014)

[photo: “Snowflake Macro: Silverware,” by Alexey Kljatov, used under a Creative Commons license]

If You Could Talk to the Animals . . . You’d Know They Have Accents, Too

February 11, 2014 § 4 Comments

3256530575_3b4016287d_nLooks like my See ‘n Say needs a regional update.

When a woman from Nevada asked the folks at How to Do Everything, “How would a person moo in a British accent?” the hosts of the podcast looked to none other than Sir Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek and X-Men fame). He turned out to be a good choice, as discerning between cattle accents seems to be one of his areas of expertise. “In England,” he says, “we’re dominated by class, by social status, and by location.” And, according to Stewart, it’s the same for cows, too.

But while Stewart’s imitations of cows from West Oxfordshire, cows from Yorkshire, Cockney cows, urban cows, and well-bred cows were done with a mock earnestness, animal accents is a legitimate field of study. And there are no shortage of specialists—particularly in Great Britain—who take animal accents very seriously. Seriously indeed:

Goats say . . .

[Researchers] found that a goats’ “accent” changed as they grew older and moved in different groups, disproving claims that their voices were entirely genetic.

The team, from Queen Mary University of London, said their findings are the first to suggest that most mammals can develop an accent from their surroundings.

The findings have caused great excitement in the science community amid suggestions that “if goats can do it, maybe all mammals accents can be affected by their surroundings.”

(“Goats ‘Can Develop Their Own Accents,’” The Telegraph, February 16, 2012)

Dogs say . . .

The woof guide found Scouse and Scottish pets have the most distinctive growl—but there were differences in tone and pitch across the country.

Tracey Gudgeon, of the Canine Behaviour Centre in Cumbria, said: “It seems dogs are more able to imitate stronger, more distinctive accents than softer ones. It’s one of the ways they bond with their owner.” Idea for the research came with today’s re-release of 1955 Disney classic Lady and The Tramp on a special edition DVD.

The study even found some dogs have “posh” accents—just like Lady in the animated film. A delighted Disney spokesman said: ‘It seems we were right all along.”

(“Exclusive: Experts Say Dogs Growl with Regional Accents,” Mirror, February 13, 2006)

Cows say . . .

Cows have regional accents like humans, language specialists have suggested.

They decided to examine the issue after dairy farmers noticed their cows had slightly different moos, depending on which herd they came from.

Farmer Lloyd Green, from Glastonbury, said: “I spend a lot of time with my ones and they definitely moo with a Somerset drawl.

“I’ve spoken to the other farmers in the West Country group and they have noticed a similar development in their own herds.”

(“Cows Also ‘Have Regional Accents,'” BBC News, August 23, 2006)

Apes say . . .

Gibbons have regional accents, a new study suggests. While not a sexy Southern drawl, these accents can help scientists identify the species of gibbon singing and where they are from.

“Each gibbon has its own variable song but, much like people, there is a regional similarity between gibbons within the same location,” lead researcher Van Ngoc Thinh, from the Primate Genetics Laboratory at the German Primate Center, said in a statement.

(Jennifer Welsh, “Singing in the Rain Forest: Gibbons Have Accents,” LiveScience, February 7, 2011)

Bats say . . .

Researcher Brad Law of the Forest Science Center found that bats living in the forests along the east coast of the state of New South Wales had different calls.

He said scientists had long suspected bats had distinctive regional calls—as studies have shown with some other animals—but this was the first time it had been proven in the field.

(“Australian Scientists Find Bats Have Regional Accents,” Reuters, September 13, 2010)

Whales say . . .

Dalhousie Ph.D. student Shane Gero has recently returned from a seven-week visit to Dominica. He has been traveling to the Caribbean island since 2005 to study families of sperm whales, usually spending two to four months of each year working on the Dominica Sperm Whale Project. One of the goals of this project is to record and compare whale calls over time, examining the various phrases and dialects of sperm whale communities.

When they dive together, sperm whales make patterns of clicks to each other known as “codas.” Recent findings suggest that not only do different codas mean different things, but that whales can also tell which member of their community is speaking based on the sound properties of the codas. Just as we can tell our friends apart by the sounds of their voices and the way they pronounce their words, different sperm whales make the same pattern of clicks, but with different accents.

(“Whales Have Accents and Regional Dialects: Biologists Interpret the Language of Sperm Whales,” May 12, 2011)

Dolphins say . . .

Dolphins on the east and west coasts of Scotland have different “accents.”

White-beaked dolphins use a complex system of tail slaps, whistles and clicks which were believed to be common among the species. But expert Olivia Harries said: “They use different clicks on the east coast than those on the west coast.”

(“Study Reveals Dolphins on Scotland’s East and West Coasts Have Different ‘Accents,'” Daily Record, November 9, 2013)

Birds say . . .

The [yellowhammer’s] song differs in terms of pitch and tone, especially in the final part, depending on where an individual bird is found. Birds can also add in various “phrases” to their song, according to their dialect.

Experts believe that dialects can be so thick they may hinder the chances of birds breeding with partners from other areas.

(Jasper Copping, “Britain’s Birds Boast a Colourful Array of Regional Accents,” The Telegraph, May 19, 2013)

City Birds say . . .

A group of scientists from Aberystwyth University studying the great tit’s dulcet tones have discovered that the birds sing their songs at a higher pitch in built-up areas to help them travel further. . . .

Researchers from the West Wales university, working alongside colleagues in Copenhagen, have found that it is the buildings that are changing the way birds sing in cities. . . .

“Our cities are packed with reflective surfaces, open spaces and narrow channels, which you just don’t get in woodland,” said researcher Emily Mockford. . . . “The higher notes mean the echoes disappear faster and the next note is clearer.”

(“Urban Birds Find Their Voice with a New Kind of Twitter,” Wales Online, December 13, 2011)

and Ducks say . . .

“Cockney” ducks from London make a rougher sound, not unlike their human counterparts, so their fellow quackers can hear them above the city’s hubbub. But their Cornish cousins communicate with a softer, more relaxed sound, the team from Middlesex University found.

(“Ducks ‘Quack in Regional Accents,’” BBC News, June 4, 2004)

So, what are the practical ramifications of all these findings? I’m not quite sure, but I have come up with one thing: Whenever you’re faced with that crucial question of our time, “What does the fox say?” you should reply, “That depends on where the fox is from.”

[photo: “See ‘N Say,” by Chris Murphy, used under a Creative Commons license]

It’s the New Year, So How About a New Accent?

January 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

11678039353_deb2f45a1b_nIf you’re tired of failing your do-or-die New Year’s resolutions, maybe you should make a resolution lite.

Can’t see yourself losing 50 pounds? Why not shoot for 15?

Don’t want to read a book a week? Maybe a page a day is more your speed.

And if you’re not ready to learn a new language, here’s an alternative: Acquire an accent instead.

Learn Accents from a Pro

Professional help is just a couple clicks, and a couple minutes, away. Just listen to Gareth Jameson, London-based actor and voice coach, and you’ll be speaking like a Brit, or an Aussie, or a German speaking English, in no time. Take your pick from Jameson’s series of 19 videos at Videojug.

“The key to any accent,” says Gareth Jameson, “is to isolate the sounds that are specific to that accent.” Isolating—and reproducing—those sounds is tough for me. To my ear, there are two kinds of English: American and non-American. Tell me to imitate a Scott, and it comes out as something like a parody of Ringo Starr. Same for imitating a South African or an Australian. I know they don’t really sound alike, but I just don’t know exactly why.

So hear you go (yeah, I meant to do that). Click on the photos below for a sampling of videos, or go to the complete gallery, and soon you’ll be well on your way to annoyi . . . I mean, impressing your friends.

[photo: “Happy New Year!” by Chris Chabot, used under a Creative Commons license]

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