Mother Tongues matter amid English-language push in Asia

March 13th, 2017 by British Council Senior Adviser John Knagg calls it “the global, suicidal run to early English” – the penchant of many education systems to prioritize English at the expense of other non-dominant languages, often children’s mother tongues. It’s an issue that is particularly relevant in Southeast Asia, as countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) come together – and compete – in the early days of the ASEAN Economic Community. While respect for the “different cultures, languages and religions of all the peoples” is a founding principle in ASEAN’s charter, that same document also specifies English as the grouping’s official working language. Underscoring this importance, ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh called English an "indispensable tool to bring our community closer together. " The 10 countries that comprise ASEAN are home to more than 1,000 languages and many of these are minority tongues whose existence is already precarious – Indonesia alone has 143 entries in UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. With English compulsory at the primary level in nine of 10 ASEAN countries (Indonesia the exception), experts argue that these languages could be crushed completely under the weight of policies that strive for inner-ASEAN competiveness by adopting a “dominant language plus English” formula in education. Read more: Global Partnership for Education

She? Ze? They? What’s In a Gender Pronoun

January 31st, 2016 by What happens when 334 linguists, lexicographers, grammarians and etymologists gather in a stuffy lecture hall on a Friday night to debate the lexical trends of the year? They become the unlikely heroes of the new gender revolution. That’s what happened here earlier this month anyway, at a downtown Marriott, where members of the 127-year-old American Dialect Society anointed “they,” the singular, gender-neutral pronoun, the 2015 Word of the Year. As in: “They and I went to the store,” where they is used for a person who does not identify as male or female, or they is a filler pronoun in a situation where a person’s gender identity is unknown. “Function words don’t get enough love,” a man argued from the floor. (Function words, I would later learn, are words that have little lexical meaning but serve to connect other words — or “the basic building blocks in language,” according to Ben Zimmer, the event’s M.C.) “We need to accept ‘they,’ and we need to do it now,” shouted another linguist, hidden behind the crowds. Read more: NY Times‎

The case of the missing “u”s in American English

January 18th, 2016 by When my American editor asked me to research why Brits spell their words with so many extra ‘u’s, I immediately knew he had it all wrong. As a British journalist, it’s perfectly obvious to me that we have the correct amount of ‘u’s, and that American spelling has lost its vowels along the way. “Color,” “honor,” and “favor” all look quite stubby to me—they’re positively crying out to be adorned with a few extra ‘u’s. But it turns out that the “o(u)r” suffix has quite a confused history. The Online Etymology Dictionary reports that –our comes from old French while –or is Latin. English has used both endings for several centuries. Indeed, the first three folios of Shakespeare’s plays reportedly used both spellings equally. But by the late 18th and early 19th centuries, both the US and the UK started to solidify their preferences, and did so differently. Read more: Quartz‎

There Is a Language of Sustainability… But Is it English?

January 10th, 2016 by "The limits of my language, means the limits of my world" said philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, our perceptions of the world are therefore constrained by the words we use. In the context of our challenges around sustainability this is critical, and I am left wondering whether english is perhaps failing us in this respect. Even the word 'sustainability' itself is hardly red-hot and inspirationally sexy. You wouldn't want your date to describe you as 'sustainable' or 'efficient' for example. And we're in danger of over-using and mis-using this term to the point of meaninglessness as cartoonist XKCD points out here. Maybe other languages provide more elegant terms to describe our relationships with the world, each other and our 'stuff'? Read more: Huffington Post‎

Why is Canadian English Unique?

November 22nd, 2015 by Is there such a thing as Canadian English? If so, what is it? The standard stereotype among Americans is that Canadians are like Americans, except they say ‘eh’ a lot and pronounce ‘out and about’ as ‘oot and aboot’. Many Canadians, on the other hand, will tell you that Canadian English is more like British English, and as proof will hold aloft the spellings colour and centre and the name zed for the letter Z. Canadian does exist as a separate variety of English, with subtly distinctive features of pronunciation and vocabulary. It has its own dictionaries; the Canadian Press has its own style guide; the Editors’ Association of Canada has just released a second edition of Editing Canadian English. But an emblematic feature of Editing Canadian English is comparison tables of American versus British spellings so the Canadian editor can come to a reasonable decision on which to use… on each occasion. The core of Canadian English is a pervasive ambivalence. Read more: BBC

Why is English so weirdly different from other languages?

November 16th, 2015 by English speakers know that their language is odd. So do people saddled with learning it non-natively. The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal. Spelling is a matter of writing, of course, whereas language is fundamentally about speaking. Speaking came long before writing, we speak much more, and all but a couple of hundred of the world’s thousands of languages are rarely or never written. Yet even in its spoken form, English is weird. It’s weird in ways that are easy to miss, especially since Anglophones in the United States and Britain are not exactly rabid to learn other languages. But our monolingual tendency leaves us like the proverbial fish not knowing that it is wet. Our language feels ‘normal’ only until you get a sense of what normal really is. Read more: Aeon

What will the English language be like in 100 years?

November 12th, 2015 by One way of predicting the future is to look back at the past. The global role English plays today as a lingua franca – used as a means of communication by speakers of different languages – has parallels in the Latin of pre-modern Europe. Having been spread by the success of the Roman Empire, Classical Latin was kept alive as a standard written medium throughout Europe long after the fall of Rome. But the Vulgar Latin used in speech continued to change, forming new dialects, which in time gave rise to the modern Romance languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and Italian. Similar developments may be traced today in the use of English around the globe, especially in countries where it functions as a second language. New "interlanguages" are emerging, in which features of English are mingled with those of other native tongues and their pronunciations. Read more: International Business Times

O Romeo, Romeo, What The Heck Are You Saying?

October 17th, 2015 by By now, it's pretty much settled: No one debates that Shakespeare was one of the greatest writers in the English language. What is debatable, however, is just how much today's audiences actually understand what he was saying. That's why the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has launched an unprecedented project to translate the Bard's entire canon from his original style into contemporary English. The ambitious and controversial experiment, called Play On, will commission 36 dramatists toward that end over three years — beginning with playwright Kenneth Cavander, who has drawn up a pilot version of Timon of Athens. Read more: NPR

Is Beirut the codeswitching capital of the world?

October 8th, 2015 by At this high-end organic farmer’s market in downtown Beirut, buyers and sellers speak a mishmash of languages, usually Arabic and English or French. Pia Bou Khater is at the market with me. At the juice stand, she switches too. “Oh, I think I have change,” she says in English, before she continues in Arabic, “3000.” Codeswitching this way is one of the characteristics that defines life in Beirut for visitors and for many Lebanese. “When I'm interacting with people, like buying things or trying to bargain, I rarely switch,” Pia explains. “I do try to often figure out what the green leafy thing in question is, like, oh, is this the same as that in English? And then the word in French comes up,” she laughs, “and I'm like oh no I don't know it in French, please stop making this difficult.” Red more: PRI

When Did We Stop Using ‘O’?

September 2nd, 2015 by For centuries, O was used in English literature to deliver longing, rapture, and melancholy in the package of a single letter. It appears in the writings of William Blake, T.S. Eliot, and even in the King James Bible. But today you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone using the word outside a Shakespeare festival. So what caused the death of literature’s favorite exclamation? According to Douglas Kneale, a scholar of Romantic poetry and administrator at the University of Windsor, William Wordsworth and poets like him may have set O's decline into motion. The romantic poet was known for trying to “democratize” language and move it away from the lofty, stylized verse that was standard in poetry at the time. “He tried to find a language really spoken by men,” Kneale told The Paris Review. O, which was used to invoke people, things, or ideas that weren't present, was exactly the type of language Wordsworth was trying to avoid. Read more: Mental Floss

The subtle sounds that English speakers have trouble catching

August 11th, 2015 by You've probably noticed how speakers of some languages can't seem to tell certain sounds apart. As a result, they can confuse word pairs such as wet and vet, beat and bit, thin and tin, or long and wrong. But have you noticed how you do the same kind of thing? You and everyone who speaks English? It's not simply that there are some sounds we don't make in English. It's that there are sounds we actually make, but we think they're the same as some other sounds. Here's your guide to some pairs of sounds that other languages treat as different sounds, but we in English treat as the same — and may not even hear the difference. Read more: The Week