[Repost] What is language? 8 myths about language and linguistics (by AllThingsLinguistic)

What is language?
8 myths about language and linguistics


What is language?

Language is an arbitrary, conventionalized association between a symbol and a meaning: there’s no necessary connection between the meaning of a word and how it’s represented in language (spoken, signed, or written). This idea comes from Saussure.

If there was a necessary connection between symbol and meaning, we would expect there to be only one possible language. Even for domains where there’s a closer link, such as onomatopoeia and the first words that a baby speaks (often mama, baba, papa, dada since these are easy to articulate), there are still differences cross-linguistically. And for other words, such as dog, chien, perro, languages differ even more.

The conventionalization criterion distinguishes language from other, non-linguistic forms of communication, such as body language and gesture. Two monolingual speakers of English are equally likely to produce similar or dissimilar gestures in describing a given situation (such as a ball rolling down a hill) as a monolingual speaker of English and a monolingual speaker of another spoken language, but two speakers of ASL will produce signs to describe that situation in a way that are systematically similar to each other and different from another sign language such as BSL.

What is grammar?

In linguistics terms, your mental grammar is the system of unconscious rules and patterns behind how you speak. It’s what tells you that “the cat sat on the mat” sounds natural in English but not “cat the mat the on sat” (although the equivalent could be fine in another language), or that “blick” could be an English word but no “bnick” or “tlick”. You aren’t formally taught a mental grammar, and it’s not just a list of all the words and sentences you’ve heard, because you can also understand words and sentences that you’ve never heard before:

“Last week a former Royal Marine who is the boyfriend of the model Kelly Brooks crashed into a bus stop while driving a van carrying a load of dead badgers.” (via Language Log)

anti-paper, anti-anti-paper, anti-anti-anti-paper “people who are against people who are against using paper” (etc)

What is a language?

A language like English, French, Japanese, etc. is an accumulation of all the unconscious rules in the brains of all the speakers who can understand each other. Mutual intelligibility is generally how linguists distinguish languages from dialects, although in practice there are also social factors at play. (Hence the quote: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”). For example, although Swedish and Norwegian are mutually intelligible, they’re spoken in different countries so people often call them languages, while Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible at all but are sometimes both referred to as Chinese.

Even with the mutual intelligibility test, there are inevitably going to be some inconsistencies between the mental grammars (idiolects) of various speakers, but there are enough general similarities that we can all understand each other and can thus be said to speak the same language. And although a language exists in the minds of speakers, as a speaker if you just up and decide some day that you’re going to call a pen a “frindle” that doesn’t necessarily mean that this is part of the language, because no one will know what you mean, but maybe if you do it long enough it might eventually spread more broadly. Linguists often study language in just a few individuals because any individual is a representation of how the human mind works with respect to language, even though there is also variation between individuals.

What is linguistics?

Linguistics is the study of human language, as we actually speak it, both in terms of an individual language spoken by an individual person and what that tells us about language in general. Linguists seek to answer questions like: what are the unconscious rules that we use when we speak? And, since no one ever actually taught us these rules, how did we come to learn them?

Myths about language

Myth #1: Children learn to speak through explicit teaching or memorization

Children learn language long before they enter a classroom, just from exposure to it, and they produce language that they couldn’t have ever heard before based on figuring out linguistic patterns. A classic example showing that children figure out patterns in language that they can generalize to unfamiliar data is the wug test, but another source of evidence comes from children’s overgeneralizations of irregular forms. For example, children may produce goed, eated, foots despite the fact that they’ve only ever heard went, ate, feet.

In fact, children may even resist explicit teaching of language, as this example shows:

Child: Want other one spoon, Daddy.
Father: You mean, you want THE OTHER SPOON.
Child: Yes, I want other one spoon, please, Daddy.
Father: Can you say “the other spoon”?
Child: Other … one … spoon.
Father: Say … “other.”
Child: Other.
Father: “Spoon.”
Child: Spoon.
Father: “Other … Spoon.”
Child: Other … spoon. Now give me other one spoon?

Myth #2: Animals have language just like humans

Animals can communicate with each other, but human language is unique for several reasons. Firstly, human language is recursive: sentences can be infinitely long (or as long as your breath/memory will hold out) by embedding one phrase or sentence into another. Some examples from children’s songs: “the branch on the tree and the tree in the hole and the hole in the ground…”, “…she swallowed the spider to catch the fly, and I don’t know why she swallowed the fly…”, “…who lived in the house that Jack built”.

Human language is also creative and productive: you can make sentences and even words that no one has ever heard before (e.g. snowpocalypse, I’m all cookied-out). Finally, human language is more abstract than animal communication: we can talk about past and future and even hypothetical events and entities. Although bee dances can communicate information about food and distances, and dogs can recognize names of toys and even whether you’re happy or angry, neither of them can tell you about how their weekend was or what they’d do if they had a million dollars.

Myth #3: Reading and writing are an essential part of language

Not all languages are written, and language has been around at least a hundred thousand years before any writing. Spoken and sign languages (at least for young children) are acquired naturally and without conscious effort, whereas reading and writing can take years of formal instruction and effort that results in varying levels of proficiency. Writing is also idiosyncratic and doesn’t reflect everything about spoken language (and is often even less accurate for sign languages). Spelling doesn’t change as quickly as speech and is more standardized.

English spelling is also complicated and inconsistent. For example, the sound /i/ can be spelled at least 8 different ways, as in meet, eat, Pete, funny, key, quay, machine, and ceiling. And the symbol “e” can represent at least 4 different sounds, as in pen, game, redo, and the. Even in languages with more logical spelling systems, like Spanish, the spelling doesn’t reflect the whole language because it misses important aspects like prosody (the intonational pattern of a sentence or phrase).

Linguistics looks at the sounds of language and analyzes the words based on their sounds, not their spelling, although “non-standard” spellings can often give clues as to how words were pronounced when we don’t have recordings of speakers.

Myth #4: Some languages/dialects are more complex or better than others

Children learn whichever language they are exposed to at a similar rate (although children exposed to multiple languages may learn each language slightly slower, they will catch up and often exceed their monolingual peers within a few years). What seems “simple” or “complicated” to you as an adult depends on what you already know: for example, if you speak a language that already has tone or case marking or definite/indefinite articles or a tense/lax vowel distinction, these concepts will seem easy to you, but if you haven’t been exposed to them early, these concepts will seem hard.

Languages that are straightforward in one area are often complicated in another area. For example, a language with a rigid system of word order and many prepositions may lack case marking, while a language with many cases may have freer word order and/or fewer prepositions. Another example is that a language with fewer sounds overall is likely to have longer words than a language with many sounds (the number of possible words of length CV is the number of consonants C in the language times the number of vowels V in the language), and languages with less complicated syllable structure tend to be spoken faster.

There’s some evidence that languages that have been learned by a lot of speakers in adulthood are likely to be more isolating, while languages that have predominantly been learned by speakers in childhood are more likely to be more agglutinative/polysynthetic, suggesting that these might be factors in relative ease or difficulty, but children are still equally capable of learning any language and even if we end up finding some differences, this is not evidence for one language being superior. (There are definitely easier and harder writing systems though: English-speaking children, for example, take longer to learn to read andare diagnosed with dyslexia at higher rates than Spanish-speaking children, because the English orthography is far more irregular than the Spanish one.)

Languages or dialects that people think of as “better” reflect a social (and often racist) judgement about who has power or who is considered more important, not anything intrinsic about the language itself (here’s one example).

Myth #5: Languages deteriorate over time

It’s common to think that “kids these days” aren’t talking as well as previous generations, but all living languages change over time and it is not a sign of inferiority: any language at any stage still consists of complex subconscious patterns. Borrowing words also doesn’t make a language inferior or corrupt: all languages borrow, and borrowed words get adapted into the sound system and grammar of the borrowing language.

Myths about linguistics:  

Myth #1: Linguists speak all the languages

Linguists aren’t necessarily polyglots, and a linguistics course will definitely not teach you how to speak all the languages (if only it were that easy!), although an awareness of the diverse features of language may make it somewhat easier to learn languages in the future. Although some organizations such as the military use “linguist” to refer to people who speak multiple languages, this is not the same as an academic/theoretical linguist. For more, see Why linguists hate being asked how many languages they speak.

Myth #2: Linguists correct/criticize how people talk

Linguists analyze language how it exists, not how some people wish it exists: for a linguist to tell someone that they’re speaking wrong is like a biologist telling a bird that it’s singing wrong. You may be thinking of grammar mavens, editors, and/or lexicographers, although many editors and pretty much all lexicographers are actually quite tolerant about this kind of thing and only give feedback when asked. For more on the interplay between prescriptivism and copyediting, see this post.

Myth #3: Linguistic/grammar rules include things like don’t split infinitives, don’t use ain’t

Linguists analyze the part of grammar that is automatic and generally subconscious. Grammar rules that you have to be taught in English class or a style guide are:

a) Often about spelling/punctuation, not the structure of the language, and we’ve already established that writing doesn’t reflect the full language anyway

b) Often based on the misapplication of Latin grammar to English by 18th or 19th century grammarians (for example, the confusion about “you and me” vs “you and I”)

c) Often modelled on the speech of people who have historically had power (rich old white men).

None of these are particularly relevant to answering the question of how language in both its diversity and commonality came to exist in the human mind: linguists analyze what people actually do when they’re speaking, not what they or someone else thinks they should do.


Cf. original: http://allthingslinguistic.com/post/82231926822/what-is-language-8-myths-about-language-and

[Repost] Clearing up the Top 10 Myths About Translation (by Nataly Kelly)

Nataly Kelly

Clearing up the Top 10 Myths About Translation

Posted: 06/13/2012 11:06 am


1. Translation is a small, niche market. The global market for outsourced language services is worth more than US$33 billion in 2012. The largest segment of the market is written translation, followed by on-site interpreting and software localization. The vast majority of these translation services are provided by small agencies — there are more than 26,000 of them throughout the world. These companies coordinate translation projects in multiple languages simultaneously, often involving many different file types, processes, and technology tools. The words themselves are translated and interpreted by the hundreds of thousands of language professionals scattered all across the globe. Many translators and interpreters also have direct clients, but most are freelancers whose work comes from agencies.

2. The need for translation is fading away. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statisticsestimates that there will be 83,000 jobs for interpreters and translators by 2020 in the United States alone. This job market is expected to grow by 42 percent from 2010 to 2020, significantly higher than the average of 14 percent for all professions. Data from Common Sense Advisory shows that globally, the market has a compound annual growth rate of 12.17 percent.

3. Most translators translate books; most interpreters work at the United Nations. Literary translation and conference interpreting are two of the most visible specializations, but they actually represent very tiny segments of the market at large. Who are the biggest translation spenders? Military and defense agencies spend the most on translation, with the United States routinely spending billions on language services for defense and intelligence initiatives. On the commercial side, some of the largest segments of the translation market are manufacturing, software, health care, legal, and financial services. As a result, freelancers often work in these specialty areas — as financial translators, medical interpreters, legal translators, and court interpreters.

4. Any bilingual can be a translator or an interpreter. The ability to write in English does not make a person a professional writer. The ability to speak English does not make a person a professional speaker. Likewise, the ability to write or speak two languages does not mean that a person can translate or interpret. Plenty of people who are perfectly fluent in two languages fail professional exams for translation and interpreting. Why? Being bilingual does not guarantee that a person will be able to transport meaning from one language and culture to another without inflicting harm in the process. Most translators and interpreters are highly educated, with advanced degrees and training in either translation, linguistics, or a specialty field. Also, while not mandatory, professional certifications are widely recognized and strongly encouraged. In the U.S., translators are certified by the American Translators Association, and a variety of certifications exist for interpreters.

5. Interpreters and translators do the same thing. The all-encompassing term that the general public uses to refer to language professionals is “translators,” but the reality is that translators and interpreters have very different job skills. Translation refers to written language, while interpreting refers to spoken language. Translators must have great writing skills and training in translation, but they must also be adept at using computer-assisted translation tools and terminology databases. Interpreters, on the other hand, have to develop their short-term memory retention and note-taking skills as well as memorizing specialized terminology for instant recall.

6. Translators and interpreters work in more than two languages. One of the most common questions translators and interpreters are asked is, “How many languages do you speak?” In reality, many translators work in only one direction — from one language into another, but not in the reverse. For translators and interpreters, it is better to have in-depth knowledge of just two languages than to have surface-level knowledge of several. Why? Of approximately one million words in English, the average person uses only 4,000 to 5,000 words on a regular basis. People who are “educated” know between 8,000 and 10,000 words. The professions with the widest vocabulary, such as doctors and lawyers, use about 23,000 words. Interpreters and translators who work for these specialized professions often use this kind of advanced technical vocabulary in two languages. Some translators and interpreters do work in more than one language combination — for example, conference interpreters often have several “passive” languages that they can understand. However, translators and interpreters are not usually hyperpolyglots.

7. Translation only matters to “language people.” The need for translation crosses both the public and private sectors. In the business world, executives at companies of all sizes are beginning to recognize that translation is a pathway to enabling more revenue and entering new markets. A recent study found that Fortune 500 companies that augmented their translation budget were 1.5 times more likely than their Fortune 500 peers to report an increase in total revenue. Also, government bodies are increasingly taking an interest in translation. Indeed, even those involved in development and non-profit work need to pay attention to translation. A report on translation in Africa conducted for Translators without Borders in May 2012 showed that greater access to translated information would improve political inclusion, health care, human rights, and even save lives of citizens of African countries.

8. Crowdsourcing puts professional translators out of work. As online communities have become more popular, so has something called “crowdsourced translation.” This phenomenon typically emerges when online community members get excited about a product and want to use it in their native languages. Sometimes, these customers and fans even begin creating their own translations and posting them in user forums. Instead of leaving their customers to pontificate on the best translations amongst themselves, smart companies are giving these communities the ability to easily suggest their translations. Are companies harnessing the work of these volunteers to obtain free labor? Actually, as the research shows, saving money is not a primary motivation — setting up these kinds of platforms can cost companies more time and money than just paying for traditional human translation. They typically pay human translators and translation companies to edit the group-translated content anyway, but they believe the collective approach gives power directly to customers and users, enabling them to have a say in which translations they like best.

9. Machine translation is crushing the demand for human translation. 
The opposite is true. Machine translation is actually expanding the demand for human translation and fueling the market at large. How? Machine translation — especially the free online kind — serves as an awareness campaign, putting translation squarely in front of the average person. Translating large volumes of information is never free — it comes at a cost, even with machine translation. Machine translation technology and related services make up a tiny percentage of the total translation market. Of course, machine translation can achieve some feats that humans cannot, such as quickly scanning large bodies of text and provide summaries of the information contained within them. However, as with most technologies, humans are needed to use machine translation intelligently. As Ray Kurzweil points out, technologies typically don’t replace whole fields — rather, they more often help fields to evolve.

10. All translation will someday be free. The translation and interpreting industry adds tens of thousands of new jobs to the global economy each year and there is no slowdown in sight. Translators and interpreters are extremely important members of this industry — in fact, they are the very heart of it. However, much like other professional service industries, the translation industry also relies on countless other professionals: project managers, account managers, vendor managers, production managers, schedulers, trainers, quality assurance teams, proofreaders, desktop publishing professionals, engineers, product managers, salespeople, marketers, technicians, and even people who work in procurement, human resources, billing, and IT. Research from Common Sense Advisory shows thatdemand for translation is outpacing supply — so if anything, human translators are becoming even more important. However, they are part of a much larger ecosystem, one that keeps global business churning and international communication flowing.

Follow Nataly Kelly on Twitter: www.twitter.com/natalykelly

[Repost] On mother tongue, native speakers and other linguistic myths (by Pierre Fuentes)

On mother tongue, native speakers
and other linguistic myths

It is often said that real professional translators translate only into their ‘mother tongue’ because only ‘native speakers’ are fully competent in ‘their language’. I wish to question these linguistic myths.

What does ‘mother tongue’ mean?

The meaning of the expression ‘mother tongue’ is ambiguous.

Admittedly, the only language that monolingual speakers generally claim to know is that of their mother. They first learnt that language through interaction with their mother, at an early age.

But the world is diverse. Some people first learned their father’s tongue. Some did not have parents. Some were raised by people who spoke different languages.

Moreover, the expression ‘mother tongue’ poses an ideological problem, because some people imply that their mother tongue is the mother of their identity, as if, without it, they would not be ‘their true selves’.

Such a claim can bring people together, as in the case of the Irish slogan ‘ní tír gan teanga’ (no land without language).

But we must not forget that romantic slogans can also be used to discriminate towards the Other.

The Nazis, for instance, used mother tongue fascism to justify linguistic discrimination towards multilingual Jewish Germans. They claimed that these multilingual speakers were perverting the ‘mother tongue’ because they were not true ‘native’ German speakers.

I will let you reflect on what ‘perverting a tongue’ might mean and move onto my second question.

Who’s the ‘native speaker’?

One can only marvel at the term ‘native speaker’. This bizarre expression implies either that we were born speaking – a rare achievement – or that we were born into a language. My non-native instinct tells me we’ve got a metaphor on our hands.

Obviously, ‘native speaker’ does not imply that we are linguistically autonomous from birth. In fact, nothing much happens linguistically in the first year of our lives. Any parent of a young child will confirm this: what first happens with your newborn is communication.

When we use the term ‘native speaker’, we imply that a person has alegitimate competence in a given language.

But how do we make it legitimate? By being born with it, or by acquiring it? In other words, does native legitimacy come from innate or learned behaviour?

As sociolinguist Deborah Cameron recently pointed out, UK statistics suggest that the test for British citizenship applicants advantages native speakers of white European ancestry. So it would seem that there are different types of native speakers and that they are not all legitimate.

Interestingly, discourses that promote the ‘native speaker’ concept are often qualified with adjectives like ‘pure’, ‘perfect’, ‘authentic’ or ‘unique’.

Let’s take a look at translators

Some of us have developed a high level of oral or written comprehension in various languages, but cannot speak or write such languages as ‘correctly’ as ‘native speakers’ would. Some of us can even write languages that we cannot speak.

Sounds weird? Try speaking like Julius Caesar. While we can read him and write like him, no one really knows what this true native Latin speaker sounded like.

In any case, we don’t need to interact with living people to read or write a language – be it ancient or modern. These activities involve a different type of language use than, say, buying a pint for your mates on a Friday night.

Indeed, it has to do with how we use languages. Since we do not speak like we write, conversation plays a limited role in the work of most professional translators. Speaking like a true native is therefore far less important than having excellent writing skills.

The second mother tongue

Using the language of your mother on a daily basis does not make you a professional translator. And English has in common with many minority and endangered languages the fact that most of its speakers were not ‘born into it’.

While these ‘new speakers’ are often criticized by those who claim to be ‘natives’ – for their mistreat of language conventions, ie illegitimate use – some of these new speakers reach a level of competency that is so high that their new language becomes their language of habitual use – a fact that ITI’s Code of Professional Conduct takes into account.

Such competency allows them to claim certain legitimacy, at least in some areas of language use. They may not be able to have a laugh in that language at the pub on a Friday night, but they can translate medical reports that most ‘natives’ would simply not understand.

As a group of intellectuals commissioned by the EU once put it, some people are capable of adopting a ‘second mother tongue’. Language diversity is not about building walls between languages. It is about recognising the diversity of use human beings make of their tongues.

About the author:

Pierre Fuentes is a French translator and a registered architect who works mostly with texts in the fields of architecture, design, property and construction engineering. He suffers from lingophilia, having been severely exposed to English and Spanish and, to a lesser extent, to several other languages, including Galician, German and Irish.