Friday, May 30, 2014

Why We Both Love and Hate Google's Spell Up

As most of my web browsing starts from searching for something on the internet, setting Google as my homepage seemed like an ingenious idea. However, with a lot of stuff on the internet being little more than an aid to procrastination, has become a thorn in the side of my productivity.

This was particularly true yesterday, when I discovered Google Chrome's new experiment, Spell Up. Only after playing for thirty minutes did I see the promotional video explaining its purpose.

While not explicitly saying that the game is for those learning English as foreign language, it's quite clear that the benefits of playing this game will be clearer to somebody who does not speak English as their first language. Let's start with the reasons as to why we love the game:

The Good

More Language Video Games

I'm really fond of video games, in all shapes and forms, and while racing fast cars, killing terrorists, or embarking on a mystery quest are all my cup of tea, there are very few language games that I have actually enjoyed and wanted to continue playing.

A Focus on Spoken Language

The game's focus on speaking is an aspect that is often overlooked when learning to speak a language from a book, podcasts, CDs, or, if you can remember that far back, cassettes. Many language learning programs ignore this or add it as an afterthought in a way that means the learner never has their spoken language skills evaluated, and instead just speaks aloud to themselves in public like a lunatic.

A Sense of Achievement

Gameifying language learning is a fantastic way to encourage the continuation of your "quest" for a new tongue. With achievements, levels, power-ups, and bonuses, the player must actually do something. In a book, you can just keep reading whether you understand the concept or not.

The Bad

Understanding Native English Speakers

As a Geordie (a native of the northeastern English city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne), I certainly do not have the clearest and most easily-understood accent when speaking my mother tongue, and I can accept that. However, I do not accept when the phonemes I can pronounce well are misunderstood by a machine, forcing me to alter the way I speak just to play the game. This is even more annoying when you're spelling the last letter of discombobulate and the machine thinks I said "a" when I said "e" and have to go back to the start of the level.


It's very unnatural to spell words as slowly as the program requires and when it finally catches up it throws up a suggestion of what it thinks the combination of the four letters it couldn't hear could be if they were just one letter.

Aside from the obvious linguistic issues I have with the program, it is still a video game at the end of the day and it will be faced with the same scrutiny as I would judge any other game. It doesn't run well! The frame-rate is poor and jumpy.

Put simply, Spell Up is a good idea, poorly executed.

Have you played Spell Up? If so, tell us about your experience with it in the comments below and whether or not you're a native English speaker. We can't wait to hear from you!

Friday, May 23, 2014

National Day and the Languages of Cameroon: Part 2

On Wednesday, we celebrated Tuesday's National Day in Cameroon. Since Cameroon is such a wonderfully diverse country, we only managed to cover the Niger-Congo language family that a great number of Cameroon's languages belong to. In the same vein, today we'll cover the remaining language groups found in Cameroon.

The linguistically diverse continent of Africa.
Afro-Asiatic Languages

The largest remaining language family is the Afro-Asiatic languages. There are no less than 55 of these languages present in Cameroon and the languages in this family spread from the Middle East to the western coast of North Africa. The Afro-Asiatic language family is thought to have the longest recorded history of any language family, and is the fourth largest in the world with over 350 million native speakers worldwide.

Arabic is the most widely spoken Afro-Asiatic language, and its native speakers make up nearly two-thirds of the Afro-Asiatic language speakers. That said, this figure does include all varieties of Arabic, many of which are not mutually intelligible.

Ubangian Languages

The Ubangian languages are principally spoken in the Central African Republic, though 4 of them can be found in Cameroon. While the entire language family only has around 2 to 3 million speakers, it is unlikely that you will find a Ubangian language being spoken in every Cameroonian city you visit.

While we have considered them as a separate group for the purpose of this post, some linguists have posited that the Ubangian languages be placed within the Niger-Congo language family in its Adamawa branch.

Nilo-Saharan Languages

The last of the language families to be encountered in Cameroon are the Nilo-Saharan languages. The Nilo-Saharan languages are spoken across the length and breadth of Africa, so it is hardly surprising that a couple of them are also spoken in Cameroon.


While those are the remaining language families present in Cameroon, the country's linguistic diversity has led to the development of a number of lingua francas in Cameroon. Cameroonian Pidgin English (CPE) is a creole language based on English that is spoken natively by 5% of the population. While only one in twenty Cameroonians speak this pidgin as a first language, around half of the population are estimated to be speakers of it and use some form of it.

In addition to CPE there is also Camfranglais, which is a mix of French, English, and Cameroonian Pidgin English. The name comes from the French words for Cameroonian, French, and English, camerounais, français, and anglais. While Camfranglais is not as widely spoken as CPE, it is commonly spoken in areas where French and English speakers mix, particularly Cameroon's larger cities.

Well that's it for Cameroon's language families. We'll be back on Monday with our weekly language profile. See you then!

Part 1 | Part 2

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

National Day and the Languages of Cameroon: Part 1

As yesterday was the National Day of Cameroon, we thought we'd take some time to acknowledge the languages spoken in the African nation. Cameroon as we know it today was two different countries when it gained independence from its two colonial masters, France and the UK. As Cameroon was two entities, it technically gained independence twice, first from France on 1 January 1960, when French Cameroun became self-governing, and again when British Southern Cameroons became a federal part of the already self-governing Cameroon on 1 October 1961.
The flag of Cameroon
In order for the country to have one national day, 20 May was declared National Day in Cameroon. This is because on this day in 1972, the country's first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, abolished the federal system and made Cameroon a unitary state.

To say that Cameroon is linguistically diverse would be an incredible understatement. While the country only has two official languages, French and English, Cameroon is also home to an additional 228 languages. 

Aside from Cameroon's two official and colonial languages, the remaining languages fall into a number of language families. As 169 of Cameroon's languages are part of the Niger-Congo language family, we'll attempt to quickly cover those today and get to the remaining languages when we return on Friday. Let's get started!

Niger-Congo Languages

As one of the world's major language families and perhaps the largest language family in the world when you consider the huge number of distinct languages, the presence of Niger-Congo languages in Cameroon is hardly a surprise. The Niger-Congo languages in Cameroon are further divided into subdivisions, perhaps in order to allow us to comprehend their sheer number more easily.

Benue-Congo Languages and Bantu Languages

Of the 169 Niger-Congo languages in Cameroon, the majority, 142 to be exact, are Benue-Congo languages. Benue-Congo languages are also the largest branch of the Niger-Congo family, so mathematics enthusiasts will see this as a given. A total of 900 Benue-Congo languages exist in the world, which means that 15% of them can be found in Cameroon.

130 of the Benue-Congo languages in Cameroon are Bantu languages. The most spoken Bantu languages worldwide in terms of native speakers are Shona and Zulu, though Swahili has the most speakers when you consider non-native speakers.

Adamawa Languages

Around a third of the 90 Adamawa languages in the world are found in Cameroon. As they are all found around central Africa in the Adamawa Plateau, this subdivision of Niger-Congo languages isn't widely accepted as a language family but rather as a geographical grouping of languages. There are only around 1.5 million speakers of Adamawa languages worldwide.

Fula - A Senegambian Language

The only Senegambian language in Cameroon is Fula. We had a look at the Fula language when we covered the languages of Senegal.

So that's the Niger-Congo languages in Cameroon... you didn't seriously think we'd go through all of them individually in one blog post, did you? We'll be back on Friday with the rest of the language groups in the hundreds of languages spoken in Cameroon.

Part 1 | Part 2

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Intro to Translation Studies: Vinay and Darbelnet's Translation Procedures

Way back in the 1950s, two French scholars named Jean-Paul Vinay and Jean Darbelnet explored the linguistic aspects of translation. The field of Translation Studies didn't really exist at the time, so most of what Vinay and Darbelnet did was considered comparative literature.

When looking at the work of Vinay and Darbelnet, the term contrastive linguistics seems much more appropriate, as what they did was look at the differences between two languages in order to inform their understanding of both of them. While other scholars sought to merely compare two languages in order to inform the relationship between them, Vinay and Darbelnet looked at the process of translation.

Their efforts culminated in what is considered their seminal work in the linguistic turn of translation studies, Stylistique comparée du français et de l'anglais : méthode de traduction, which around four decades later was translated into an English version, Comparative stylistics of French and English : a methodology for translation. The fact that it was still worth translating into English nearly half a century later shows you just how important it was. In the book, Vinay and Darbelnet posited that there were seven main processes, or procedures, at work during any given translation. Here's the seven they came up with:


Unless you are one of these people that confuses borrowing and lending, then this should cause you little trouble. Borrowing is the idea of taking the word from the source language (SL) and maintaining it in the target language (TL). It is considered the simplest of the procedures and tends to be employed in two situations: either when discussing a new technical process for which no term exists within the TL, or when maintaining a word from the SL for stylistic effect, in which the translator uses the foreign term to add flavour to the target text (TT).


A calque is when an expression from the source text (ST) is transferred literally into the TT. Calques either follow the syntax of the TL while translating each word literally or ignore the syntax of the TL and maintain the syntax of the SL, rendering the calque in an awkward syntactical structure in the TT.

Literal Translation

The third translation method is only to be used under certain circumstances according to Vinay and Darbelnet. The idea of translating word for word in a way that does not alter the meaning is considered an acceptable use of literal translation by the two scholars. Literal translation, put simply, expands the scope of a calque but in a much more acceptable way.


Vinay and Darbelnet referred to transposition as changing word class without changing meaning. This refers to when translators (often without thinking) change the word type, such as from nouns to verbs. Vinay and Darbelnet considered transposition to be either obligatory or optional, and referred to the ST as the base expression and the TT as the transposed expression.


The fifth of Vinay and Darbelnet's procedures is modulation. Modulation refers to rendering the TT from a different point of view to that of the ST. Vinay and Darbelnet consider this procedure to be necessary when the results of the former procedures would produce an awkward-sounding translation, despite it being grammatically, syntactically, and lexically correct. Modulation is a way for the translator to find a degree of naturalness in their TT without sacrificing any meaning or accuracy originating from the ST.

A great example given by Vinay and Darbelnet shows how the double negative construction used in English is uncommon in French, and how modulation would render this in French as a simple affirmative statement using a positive modifier.


The idea of equivalence can be simultaneously simple and complex in Translation Studies. Vinay and Darbelnet explain equivalence as something almost inherently cultural, using the example of someone expressing pain. In English the term "ouch!" is used, while in French, a literal rendering of the sound would be of no use to the reader. Instead, the equivalent of "ouch!" in French is "aïe!". Both words would immediately indicate to readers that there is some level of pain involved.

Equivalence also relates to idiomatic expressions, whereby all the lexical and grammatical elements are there but translating literally would leave a reader confused. In fact, you can't "speak of the devil" in French, as in the equivalent expression they speak of a "wolf".


The beautiful city of Paris at night, complete with banlieues.
The most complex of Vinay and Darbelnet's translation procedures is the final one, adaptation. Adaptation is similar to equivalence in the way that the translator seeks to render the SL into the TL whilst ensuring it is just as relevant and meaningful as the original was. Imagine the ST mentioned something that was so undeniably English that translating it into French would have absolutely no meaning, or vice-versa. At that point the translator must use adaptation. A brilliant example of this is the term banlieue, which can be a bit of a double-edged sword when translating into English. While the suburbs of French cities can be rich or poor, the term has been increasingly used to describe run-down areas of cities with low income housing, which is not the idea that springs to mind when the English hear the term suburbs. In this case, a translator would be forgiven for translating banlieue as council estate (UK English) or even the projects (US English).

That's all of Vinay and Darbelnet's translation procedures. What did you think of them? Do they apply to translators now or are they an oversimplification of the work that translators do? Tell us in the comments below!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Europe Day: Celebrating Language in Europe

Beautiful Europe, as seen from Space.
Today we're celebrating "Europe Day", a celebration of peace and unity in Europe. The EU celebrates Europe Day today, on 9 May, as opposed to the Council of Europe, which celebrated it on Monday, 5 May, coinciding with their establishment in 1949.

9 May is celebrated by the EU as it was the day that the Schuman Declaration was proposed in 1950. The aim of the declaration was to propose a supranational community, which led to the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community and eventually the European Union (EU). 

Instead of a history lesson on the EU, let's instead take a look at some of the languages in Europe... this is a language blog, after all. Rather than discuss the main languages, which have all been covered in their respective language profiles, we thought we'd take a look at the "genesis" of language in Europe, travelling right to the roots of Europe's language tree, where we find Indo-European languages.

So the "European" from Indo-European refers to Europe, but what about "Indo"? Indo actually refers to India and if India's included you know this is a big family of languages. However, linguists believe that there is a shared ancestry among the over 400 languages that are considered to be part of this heritage.

Indo-European languages make up the majority of the world's languages, with 45% of the world's population speaking an Indo-European language. In fact, Indo-European languages make up 12 of the top 20 most-spoken languages in the world.

With nearly half of the world speaking an Indo-European language and "European" being in the name, surely every language in Europe belongs to this language family, right? Wrong!

Ignoring languages spoken in Europe due to current immigration trends, such as Chinese, for example, many of the "native" languages of Europe are not Indo-European. We've already seen that Basque is a language isolate with no strong evidence to support its relation to any other language in the world.

While Basque is a well-known exception, there are also the Karvelian languages, which include Georgian and several related languages. There is also not a strong consensus on which family the North Caucasian languages belong to, or whether they are in their own family at all.

There's also the Uralic languages, including Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian, which all reside in Europe, though this language family is also contested. Turkic and Mongolic languages are also not Indo-European languages, and once you get to the Semitic languages of Cypriot Marionite Arabic and Maltese, spoken in Cyprus and Malta respectively, you begin to get a sense that  Europe is not as linguistically homogeneous as you may think. The final Semitic language, Hebrew, has been spoken by Jewish communities throughout Europe for years, and nicely brings us to the end of the exceptions.

So celebrate Europe with us today! Whether you love or loathe the EU, celebrate the beautiful linguistic diversity of this continent, then be ashamed of it tomorrow as you watch near-monolingual monstrosity that is Eurovision!!!

    Wednesday, May 7, 2014

    Why Must Eurovision Be So Monolingual?

    Last night, we watched the first of this week's semifinals in the lead up to Saturday's Eurovision Song Contest. Despite our best intentions, we actually enjoyed it. What we didn't enjoy was the way in which a Europe-wide competition of music, for lack of a better description, seemed to lack any kind of linguistic diversity.

    As we watched 16 countries vie for a place in the final, it was pointed out to us by the show's commentators that only two of these countries would actually be singing in a language other than English.

    Copenhagen, the beautiful host city of this year's Eurovision.
    The whole evening was aired live from Copenhagen, Denmark. Watching from the UK, we viewed it on BBC3, which quickly had its own commentators interrupt the three Danish hosts, despite them speaking in English, as if it would have been an atrocity for the British audience to hear near-perfect English from non-native speakers.

    Performances in English

    As a bit of a flag enthusiast, I did enjoy the country introductions, in which the performers made a version of their own flag out of something. After some pomp and ceremony, the first performance was Armenia's entry, "Not Alone", which as you can guess from the title is in English, rather than Armenian, the official language of the South Caucasus nation.

    Though we salivated as Latvia made their flag out of cake, they didn't bother with Latvian. Their English-language song was a quirky number about cake, which I admit would have been lost on me had it not been in English. While I found the Estonian entry fairly forgettable, it would have probably been more memorable had it been in Estonian, or even the regional languages Võro and Setu, just to mess with everybody's heads.

    As a big ABBA fan, I can hardly complain about Sweden's entry being in English, but after three songs in English, another language, especially Swedish, would have been nice change for the international competition. On a personal note, I loved Iceland's entry and was delighted when they made it through to the final, though I also think the performance was vibrant enough and the tune was catchy enough to have been in any language, except maybe Klingon...

    I thought Albania's entry was so dull that I would have preferred it in Albanian so I could have at least researched the lyrics later, and perhaps even learn a tiny bit of the language whilst I was at it.

    The Russian entry, complete with blonde twins on a see-saw, was bound to cause some controversy. Even though it wasn't in Russian or any of its 27 regional languages, it was still quite sad to see the Copenhagen crowd boo the performers. The 2012 hosts, Azerbaijan, didn't bother to promote their own language either, with their entry "Start a Fire", which made it through to the finals on Saturday.

    The Ukranian entry, despite having a guy run in an over-sized hamster wheel, progressed through to the final. The song entitled "Tick-Tock" is English onomatopoeia rather than Ukranian or any of the 18 regional languages of the country, though as onomatopoeia, it is probably the most universal of the English-language semifinalists from Tuesday night.

    Belgium, despite its three official languages, still picked a song in English. This is especially odd as two of Belgium's official languages, French, and German, are considered to be two of the most important languages in Europe, whilst the other official language, Dutch, is a personal favourite of mine.

    Moldova's "Wild Soul" wasn't enough to get them to the final, and by this point I was pretty sick of English-language songs and would have happily welcomed a song in either Romanian, Ukranian, Russian, or even the Gagauz language, a Turkic language spoken by the Gagauz people native to parts of both Ukraine and Moldova.

    While the Principality of San Marino didn't sing in Italian, they made it through to the final and their entry, "Maybe (Forse)", was performed in English, though an Italian version was also recorded.

    As I have a soft spot for the Dutch language, it was a shame to hear that their entry was also in English. The Hungarian entry was sung by András-Kállay Saunders, a Hungarian American, though from the language choice and accent, you can tell he doesn't speak English as a second language, though he probably could sing in Hungarian.

    In Their Own Language

    The only two entrants to bother with their own languages were Portugal and Montenegro, who were both drawn to perform late in the running order. While the Portuguese entry "Quero Ser Tua" failed to make the final, the Montenegrin entry "Мој свијет", which was rendered using the Latin alphabet as "Moj svijet", made it to the final, making it the only finalist from the first semifinal to not be in the English language.

    Did you watch the first semifinal? Will you be watching the second? Which of the acts were your favourite and would you prefer they sing in their own languages? Tell us in the comments below.