Tag Archives: language

Should Schools Ban Slang?

The headteacher at the Harris Academy in London has banned the pupils from using slang.  This is not a new thing:  Earlier this year, a school in Sheffield did the same thing, the Manchester Academy in Moss Side introduced a similar policy in 2008… and its exam results increased the following year.

UCB Radio asked me on the the Paul Hammond show to discuss the issue.  You can listen to my contribution by following this link, or via the SoundCloud player below. Continue reading

Was John Sargeant right to use the ‘N-word’ on the BBC?

John Sargeant’s performance on the BBC Newsnight Review show yesterday was bizarre. He managed to say the n-word twice during a discussion of Django Unchained, and later described parts of a TV programme as “American bullshit”.

Among those watching the show, some wondered whether the BBC would receive complaints. Others applauded Sargeant’s no-nonsense approach. I found his language tiresome.

Continue reading

Does Star Wars Prove That The Universe is Finite?

Star Wars Poster

Star Wars Poster

I’ve been thinking about the way languages are portrayed in the Star Wars film franchise, and what this says about the universe in which the adventures take place.

Some films portray all languages as English. This often happens in war and action films, where you’ll have German World War II officers or Russian spies speaking in accented English.

However, many English language films and television series choose to portray the other languages realistically, which involves subtitles (at least, when the dialogue is crucial).

In the Star Trek franchise, the Starfleet heroes encounter alien races every week. The problem is cleverly explained by the use of a Universal Translator (apparently built in to the little space ship emblem on the officers’ jerseys) which uses sophisticated AI to simultaneously translate the aliens’ words. There is even an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Universal Translator unexpectedly kicks in, thereby alterting the Enterprise Crew to the presence of a bizarre life-form, where they had perceived only crystals. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series solves the language problem in a similar way. Arthur Dent puts a Babel Fish in his ear, allowing him to understand all alien languages perfectly.

By contrast, Star Wars introduces no such trickery. Each alien race has its own language, and we often see subtitles when characters like Greedo or Jabba the Hut are speaking. R2D2 and Chewbacca speak languages that are unintelligible to the audience, but at least the main characters have learnt to converse with them. C3PO’s raison d’être is as a protocol droid, familiar in millions of languages.

What does this say about the English used in Star Wars? Well, since all the alien languages are rendered as one might hear them, with no concessions to the audience, then we can assume that the language we hear spoken by Luke Skywalker and Han Solo is also as we would hear them. The actors are not speaking English as a cheat for the audience. They are speaking English because that is the language that these characters actually speak. Continue reading

Handling Translation on the Web

Browsing through the Global Voices ‘Most Read in 2012‘ articles, I noticed for the first time the effort that the site makes to accomodate multiple languages.

First, each article has a header saying ‘this post is also available in…’   Then, within the text, any quotes are presented in their original language, followed by a translation.  This article on a Citizens’ Basic Income initiative in Switzerland is a good example.

A post on Global Voices , showing how the site handles translations.

A post on Global Voices , showing how the site handles translations.

Such efforts always introduce a design problem.  The foreign language breaks the ‘flow’ of the text, much like a banner advert in the middle of an an article.  On the Global Voices pages, the designers have made some slight attempt to slightly de-emphasise the original text in favour of the English translation.  However, the long list of alternative languages at the tope of the article presents a barrier to actually reading the text, even when the type size is small.

Technical advances could help solve this problem.  Automated tools like Google Translate allow you to put a rudimentary translation behind a single mouse click (you can read this very blog post in French, Arabic, Chinese or Hindi, for example).

However, it strikes me that some development of HTML standards to accomodate alternative languages would help.  It is possible to embed extra data into any piece of text on a website.  I ranted a bit last month about how quotes and links should include citation information within their code.  The abbreviation tag (<abbr>) typically allows the writer to include more information for the reader, about a particluar acronym.  An example of this feature in action: HTML.

It would be great if a ‘translation’ tag or an ‘original language’ tag were made available in HTML.  Then, any given piece of text could be directly associated with any alternative language translations.  This would allow web designers or app creators to display the translations in the way most appropriate to their content.  It would also give readers the flexibility to show or hide the orginal language text.

Translation is a highly cultural and political act.  How a piece of text is translated matters, and the nuance and tone imposed on the text by a sympathetic or antagonistic translator can have huge consequences.  Technical innovations that allow the original and translated texts to be compared easily would mean more transparency, greater international and inter-cultural understanding, and perhaps even help students to learn foreign languages, and the art of translation.  It may also help unify projects like Wikipedia, where there are almost three-hundred encyclopædias evolving in disparate directions.

Does anyone know if there has been any work or research done on this subject?

 

Eloquent Kashmiris

As the death toll rises, there seems to be very little I can say on the latest natural disaster to wreak havoc on unsuspecting peoples.

One thing that struck me: I was watching a report on the relief effort, and a random Kashmiri farmer was being interviewed. His son had an arm in a sling, and they were describing their predicament. They were talking in English… It never ceases to amaze me the capacity that other nationalities have for bilingualism, when in the UK its a struggle to get students to take a GCSE or a Standard/Higher in another language.

Clearly these people have a different conception of language and nationality to us islanders. Kashmir is a divided region of course, with several ethnicities, affiliations and identities. The requirement to speak more than one dialect is a fact of life.

Next time there is a river bursts its banks and swamps an English flood plain, I wonder how many people will be able to describe their experiences to the foreign news agencies?