The Babbel Blog

Language & Learning

Failed symbolism – perils for non-native speakers

Posted on December 16, 2008 by

Imagine the moment, when the responsible editor of the “Max Planck Research” magazine learned, that the chinese symbols on the cover of its latest issue were an advertisment for some kind of strip club. That was not intended by the publication of the old and respected German research institute -  as can be read in an apology to the readers: “Prior to publication, the editorial office had consulted a German sinologist for a translation of the relevant text. The sinologist concluded that the text in question depicted classical Chinese characters in a non-controversial context. To our sincere regret, however, it has now emerged that the text contains deeper levels of meaning, which are not immediately accessible to a non-native speaker.” The cover replacement (see above on the right) is the title of a centuries old book from a swiss jesuit.

(via Spreeblick)

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Lack of language a security risk?

Posted on December 12, 2008 by

More then 200 Million high school students in China study English while about 25,000 of their U.S. counterparts study Chinese language according to a Report from a Northwestern University graduate journalism student. It is not only  global competition in economic terms which suffers under the unwillingness of more then the half of US high school students to learn a foreign language – but, according to some,  it’s also a national security risk. A language professor was cited as saying: “As the U.S. helps piece together the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, the former intelligence agent said he suspects there will be a greater need for Urdu, spoken in Pakistan; Hindi, spoken in India; and possibly Pashto, spoken in Afghanistan or Dari, spoken in eastern Iran and western Afghanistan.”

The Marines, at least, are taking language learning from a security point of view: Working together with the monolith of language learning software – Rosetta Stone – which won a $1.2 million contract for courses, the soldiers can learn about 30 languages in 150-200 hour courses through the MarineNet distant learning portal.

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Does code count as a language?

Posted on November 20, 2008 by

The following statement of Kristian over at web-translations made me wonder. He was writing about how much is too much in language learning, and ends with the following: “As for me, well, I speak 6 languages…English, French, small talk, MSN speak, some basic programming languages (do they count? They should as they have strict syntax like any other language) and, of course, the language of Luurve.”

Yes, what about “code”? Does it count? There are several dozens of important programming languages and many more derived dialects plus some pidgin codes. And one would think, well, you don’t speak them literally, you hack them into the keyboard. But there are stories about conferences with lots of tech geeks where insider jokes and whole presentations consists just of spoken code. Over here for example, some programmer wishes to speak code.

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Connectivism: Education as an act of liberty

Posted on November 18, 2008 by

How about a glimpse into the future of online education? Stephen Dowes’ article about “The Future of Online Learning: Ten Years On” is an informative read about recent trends in eLearning. It also gives quite plausible predictions for things to come. Besides statements about “informal learning” (have a look at our factsheet for all these terms) and technology trends – e.g. the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project – the most interesting part for me was the one about “Connectivism”.

The concept of a “learning theory for the digital age“, introduced by George Siemens, is based on the assumption that the amount of accessible knowledge is growing at an exponential rate: “Connectivism is driven by the understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired. The ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital. The ability to recognize when new information alters the landscape based on decisions made yesterday is also critical.”


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Language is a human right: A printable English primer for US Spanish-speakers

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In all the hullaballoo lately about the democratization of foreign language education through the internet, one issue that tends to get left by the wayside is: What happens if you want – or really need – to learn a language but don’t have access to a computer?

Under the banner of “Language is a Human Right”, the non-profit, based in Hollywood, CA, has developed “El Book”, a free primer for US Spanish-speaking immigrants with absolutely no prior knowledge of the language on the bare rudiments of English. A friendly, straight-forwardly designed lesson in black-and-white printable PDF with an accompanying (though not essential) set of audio files – easily burned onto a CD – is aimed not directly at the presumed student, but rather at NGOs, churches, local and state governments who could do the duty of transferring the material to analogue and distributing it to those who would use it.

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Pirahã meet the crooked heads… and don’t care: Everett’s book challenges the Universal Grammar theory

Posted on November 16, 2008 by

Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive psychologist, referred to it as “a bomb thrown into the party”. The bomb? The discovery by Christian-missionary-cum-Linguistics-chair Daniel Everett of a group, the Pirahã, deep in the Amazon, whose language seems to eschew the grammatical use of “recursions”. What kind of party is that then, you ask? It’s a academio-linguistic one that’s been going on for about forty years now, celebrating the idea of Universal Grammar, which according to the Chomskyan theory, essentially allows language to occur.

But according to the Guardian, “it only takes one black swan to falsify the proposition that swans are by definition white.” That is, the fact that the Pirahã exist basically turns upside the idea that the grammar is actually universal. (more…)

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Lost your alphabet? Korean is up for grabs

Posted on October 31, 2008 by

Apparently there are people who lack any alphabet for their spoken language. You find such groups for example on some of the 10.000 islands of Indonesia – that’s what linguists from South Korea are reporting. But these minorities are ready to embrace “Hunminjeonguem” -nowdays called “Hangeul” – the Korean alphabet, researchers found out.

The aphabet was invented some hundred years ago as an alternative to the rather complex Chinese characters. Hangeul (or Hangul) is well known for its logical design: It has 24 letters – ten vowels and 14 consonants — and is capable of expressing 11,000 different sounds.

Since last year, another group of Korean linguists has been working together with ethnic minorities in Yunnan, China, to preserve their cultural heritage: They speak with eldery tribe members, “walking museums” and try to develop a custom Hangeul writing system to record it all. Some of the minority groups in Yunnan lost their language altogether, adopting Mandarin or other ethnic languages.

(via Omniglot)

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Some lists and it’s dialects again

Posted on October 27, 2008 by

courtesy of failblog.orgThey couldn’t find one, and so they simply made their own list of the “Top 100 Language Blogs” . That’s how the people over at LexioPhiles explained their motivation for searching through 300 blogs, sorting them by “three main categories: content, consistency and interactivity”. They also made some lists about language Podcasts, most spoken languages and translation blunders (see picture, courtesy of LexioPhiles belongs to, which purports to become the “Wikipedia of languages”.

Following a link on the Bremer Sprachblog about people being stigmatized for their dialect, I stumbled upon the work of Babara Soukup. In her own account, she is “fascinated by the study of language attitudes and ideology” and did her PhD about “The strategic use of Austrian dialect in interaction”. She worked on “Language attitudes in the United States towards Southern American English” as well.

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“The words should roll out of the mouth” – On the dubbing of “The Wire” in German

Posted on October 24, 2008 by

For the original interview in German click here.

Frank Schröder is one of the two authors of the German dubbing of the acclaimed television series “the Wire”. In an interview with Babbel Blog, he speaks about the difficulties of translating the dialogue-rich series, which portrays the day to day goings-on of the police and drug dealing millieu in Baltimore. The series has been running for the past few weeks on German pay television. Schröder not only took care of direction for the dubbing of the first season, but he also dubbed the voice of the role of the policeman “Herc”.

Babbel-Blog: Even in the USA, some have to use subtitles to understand what’s happening in the show, because the slang can be almost incomprehensible to the untrained ear. As authors of the dubbing text, were you a bit stunned at first?

Frank Schröder: At first we were a bit stunned…when the raw translation of the first episodes were ready. I had a look at them together with “continuity,” that is, the English script and the German raw translation. That way I could understand a lot more than on the first look. My English isn’t that bad, but that way it was more understandable in some places.

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Maps: 1,000 dialects and 6,912 living languages

Posted on October 17, 2008 by

Last week we had Mara interviewing the Dialect Doctor, who claims to cure accents and strengthen dialects. Well, now here is databank of roughly nearly 1,000 speech samples: Native and non-native speakers of English all read the same English paragraph; the recordings are collected and listenable over at the speech accent archive. They have the nice feature of a world map with a red flag from every region they’ve got a sample from. Click on the flag for an audiofile and a phonetic transcription.

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