Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How Useful are Conlangs?

Conlangs (constructed languages) are incredibly fascinating things. While most languages are the result of hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people talking to one another over thousands of years, conlangs are usually the creation of a single person or small group of people over a short period of time (in terms of human history, at least).

For those not familiar with conlangs, they are languages whose structure and vocabulary have been consciously devised by humans, rather than developing "naturally" over many years as other languages do. However, while I do find them very fascinating, the question of how useful they are keeps creeping into my mind.

What are conlangs for?

There are many reasons why conlangs are created. Some create them just for fun, while others create them in an attempt to create a universal language for all of the world's people to speak. Esperanto, for example, was created with this goal in mind.

In popular culture, science fiction probably makes more use of conlangs than other genre. This is because a fictional universe will always feel more convincing if an eight-eyed extraterrestrial speaks an alien language rather than plain old English.

But how useful are conlangs? Can they or will they replace natural languages? I'd like to try to answer a few of the most common questions surrounding these captivating creations.

How can you judge a conlang's utility?

First, let me say that you can only judge how useful something is if you know what you're trying to use it for. As I said, there are several reasons why you would create a conlang, and this will dictate how you create your language. If you are creating a conlang to be used in a handful of scenes in a film or a few pages in a book, you probably won't attempt to create a vast vocabulary where every word has hundreds of synonyms. However, if you are wanting you conlang to be used as a lingua franca, like Latin across the Roman Empire or English today, you might consider plenty of business and trade terms.

I believe the best way to judge a conlang's utility is by how well it accomplishes the goal of its creation.

What can they tell us about natural languages?

On an individual level, there are few things that will show you just how nuanced and complex languages are as trying to create your own. A lot of things you rarely think about when you speak a natural language will quickly come to the fore when you have to consider phonology, a writing system, creating a vocabulary and then putting a grammar system together.

Will a universal language ever build up a head of steam?
Will there ever be a universal language?

If a conlang such as Esperanto is designed to be everyone's second language, we have to first consider whether or not there is any trend towards there being a universal lingua franca, and if so, why would we pick one that has just been created, over one already spoken by millions or billions of people?

This is the main challenge for any conlang setting out with this goal. While there are conlangs that have thriving communities of speakers, none have ever come remotely close to achieving a widespread global status. Is this due to the languages themselves, or is there just too little demand for such a thing?

While languages are dying out at an alarming rate, this trend doesn't appear to be heading towards a singularity just yet. In fact, a number of minority languages have seen a revival in recent years and even extinct languages have come back from the dead (Manx, for example).

In fact, as long as people consider languages to be a part of their identity, the language which forms that identity will survive as long as that identity does. As long as the community and history that is home to a language still exists, people will continue to speak the languages that embody the shared history and culture.

This is why its almost impossible for a universal conlang to gain a footing on a global level. While there will always be those pragmatic people amongst us who wish to see an entire world communicating with one language, there will also always be those who don't.

So are they useful?

As I said, defining utility for conlangs is based on why they were created. For those created for fun, if you enjoy creating them and using them, then they serve their purpose. If you're trying to get the whole world to sing to the tune of just one conlang, you may be barking up the wrong arbo...

Agree or disagree? Tell us your thoughts on the utility on conlangs in the comments below!

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Sorry State of Languages at GCSE

Here in the UK, yesterday marked the day that children in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland received their GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) grades. The results for the Standard Grades, the equivalent in Scotland, were published earlier in the month.

For those not familiar with the UK education system, the GCSEs are the qualifications generally taken by students over their final two years of compulsory education (between 14 and 16 years old). This is the time of year when regardless of the results, people will complain.

If the trend is that grades are getting worse, then it is assumed that kids today are not as smart as those who studied before them. If the results are better, then the exams must be getting easier. I don't subscribe to either of those opinions because it's almost impossible to standardise the exams each year and the percentages for each grade given are fairly arbitrary.

Over a decade has passed since foreign languages were removed as compulsory subjects at GCSE, and the trends for foreign language education in the UK are not looking good. It seems every year the number of students taking a foreign language at GCSE decreases, and this year is no exception.

Declining Numbers

Perhaps one day all of these new Portuguese students
will be able to understand a performance at the
Municipal Theatre of São Paulo in Brazil!
In 2013, around 332,000 students were taking foreign language GCSEs. This figure dropped in 2014 to 321,000 students. This year it dropped yet again by an even greater amount to just over 300,000 students. It goes without saying that as a language lover, this doesn't feel great.

Those who do choose to study a modern foreign language at GCSE are also moving away from languages traditionally taught in the UK, such as French and German. Spanish has dipped in popularity this year, but this does follow nearly a decade of increasing popularity. Mandarin is doing well, with the number of students studying the subject increasing by nearly a fifth. More students have also been choosing to study Portuguese, Polish, and Arabic.

Some figures have suggested that foreign languages are being squeezed out by what I would call "modern" subjects, such as ICT (information and communications technology) and computing. It's hardly surprising that students are opting for these subjects given the world we live in and the increasing use of computers.

However, I don't think these two types of subjects are in competition. In fact, I believe the spread of telecommunications is the reason that languages are more important than ever. As the world becomes more and more connected, we've seen a rise in the demand for both communication technologies and foreign language abilities; it's just that the latter seems to have gone unnoticed by a number of students taking their GCSEs.

Easy "A"s (or "A*"s)

There are also stories going around that an increased number of migrants are taking the foreign language GCSE of their mother tongue. There have been suggestions that students are being encouraged to do this to either boost their school's performance or their own. While I suppose this isn't really in the "spirit" of taking a foreign language qualification, it would balance out having to take a number of other GCSEs in your second language.

The beautiful countryside and mountains of Crete, Greece.
This trend has also been said to be the reason for the increase in some of the less-common languages, such as Polish, Urdu, Turkish, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Farsi, Modern Greek, and Modern Hebrew.

The Reaction

Obviously, few are calling any of this a good thing. Negative adjectives are being thrown around as they seem to be every year. The UK is miles behind so many countries across Europe and the world in terms of foreign language education, and it's not going to close the gap if things continue as they are.

I find this all pretty abhorrent because it's certainly not caused by the teachers who are constantly given more bureaucratic hoops to jump through, more work to do, less pay, and yet still attempt to impart their knowledge upon the teenagers of this country.

What I find even worse is that although several groups with a bigger voice than me have spoken out about these disappointing trends, little seems to be changing.

What are your thoughts on the decline of foreign languages at GCSE? Any ideas on how to improve the matter? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Why the Hardest (or Easiest) Language in the World Doesn't Exist

There are plenty of lists around the internet of the hardest and easiest languages to learn. While these lists can be interesting and helpful if you're trying to decide upon a new language to learn, they're inherently flawed due to the idea that such languages actually exist.

Hold on! I'm not saying languages don't exist; that'd be completely absurd. Of course they do! What I'm saying is that it's pretty much impossible to classify languages as difficult or easy to learn. However, I have seen a number of clever criteria for attempting to create these classifications, so I'd like to look at a few of them today.

Hong Kong, the home of both Chinese and English!
Similarity to your Native Language

One of the first ways many people classify language difficulty comes down to similarity to the learner's native language. While I agree that I've seen plenty of evidence to support this statement, this does mean that the world's hardest or easiest language differs depending on your native language. Does this mean it could also be affected by which dialect of your native language you speak? I'd love to see some studies about that...


The complexity of a language is said to influence how easily somebody can learn it. However, "how complex is a language?" is as difficult to answer as "how difficult is a language to learn?". If one language uses more phonemes in speech, is it more difficult than one that uses more characters in its alphabet? How do we assign value to each component part? We couldn't possibly all come to an agreement on which elements complicate a language the most and which parts the least.

Time Spent Studying

Time is a fairly scientific way of measuring progress. The less time taken to become proficient in a language, the easier the language must be. However, at what point is a speaker "proficient"?

I don't find language learning to be a journey from A to B with a definite endpoint, but rather an ongoing adventure. I definitely couldn't pinpoint an exact moment when I became proficient in any of the languages I speak.

If proficiency is judged by passing a test, then the tests would have to be standardised across the entire world. I'm sure they're not...

All roads lead to Rome, but do all Romance languages lead to
a simple language learning experience?
Easy Languages

When it comes to English speakers, most lists put the Romance languages in the easy category. French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese tend to feature regularly as easy languages to learn because of their similarity to English.

Difficult Languages

The languages that generally get lumped together as the most difficult languages tend be geographically and linguistically distant from English (at least if you consider the language to be from the UK, as I tend to do). Languages from Europe don't tend to be included in this list.

Many of these languages make use of a different writing system to English, such as Arabic, Mandarin, Korean, and Japanese. However, I'm sure Mandarin speakers wouldn't struggle as much with the Japanese writing systems as someone more familiar with the Latin alphabet would.

With all that said, I tend to find that similarities can also make something more difficult to learn instead of simpler. For example, I know how to walk and I know how to drive. If you make me walk on ice, I struggle, and if you put me in a car that I'm not familiar with, I have to spend a while working out where everything is. However, I can still walk to the car and start driving and start walking when I get out the car, despite the two being completely different activities. Differences can make something more memorable!

While these are all fair ways to measure how difficult a language might be, they all ignore a number of factors. I'm not disparaging those who have tried to measure something that's seemingly immeasurable, I'm just saying that you can comfortably ignore a lot of these lists. If you want to learn Tagalog before you learn French, then go for it!

Everyone has their own experiences while learning a language. In fact, in a recent post I complained about the subjunctive tense and a few of the reasons that English speakers may find it difficult. That said, I know plenty of people who comfortably master it without even breaking a sweat!

What I'm trying to say is that when learning a language, there will always be things you find easy and things you find difficult. You'll never get to find out which is which if you don't start!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Translation and Copyright

I watched a fascinating web series on intellectual property (IP) the other day, which got me to thinking about how copyright, which is absolutely everywhere nowadays, affects translators. Rather that getting bogged down with the ins and outs of the law, since it differs from country to country, I'm going to look at the general concepts of IP while focusing on copyright and how it affects translators.

The symbol for copyright-free, like all
the images we use on The Lingua File.
Intellectual property is a concept whose goal is to promote the advancement of the human race and encourage people to make more, create more, and design more. Since there are few things more encouraging than money, it manages to do this by giving those who create things a temporary monopoly so that they can make money on their ideas.


What kind of thing you create dictates what kind of IP protection you can get. If you invent something, your invention can be protected as a patent. Of course, you can't patent things that already exist. Generally, patents are defined as new, non-obvious inventions with an industrial applications.


A trademark designates a brand rather than a product. The brand indicates the product's origin and can be a powerful thing. Brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Microsoft, for example, exist so that consumers know that the products they buy and use come from one of those manufacturers and not from competitors such as Pepsi, Burger King, and Apple.


This is the area of IP that should be of interest to those who, like me, are translators. Copyright generally covers what we would consider artistic creations, as it does not cover ideas or concepts, but rather how they are expressed. Everywhere is a bit different, but things covered by copyright include:

Written works, books, poems, plays, motion pictures, films, television shows, music and recordings, paintings, sculptures, and photos. While this list isn't exhaustive, you start to get the idea. Most of a translator's workload will include copyrighted materials.

I'll admit, sometimes when I translate I get a bit of an ego. When I reconstruct a sentence in a marvellously clever way, I genuinely believe that the translation is my baby, my creation. However, under most copyright law, particularly here in the UK and in the US, my creativity can sometimes be considered the copyright of the original author.

Derivative Works

This is when translations are deemed to be derivative works, and why wouldn't they be? I did use the source text as the "inspiration" for my work. Derivative works often include translations and cinematic adaptations. You could even argue that cinematic adaptations of literary works are actually translations, since they use a source material to create a target material.

The only way you would get to keep the copyright would be if you could prove that your work has a certain level of originality. This is almost impossible as a translator if you are trying to be faithful to a source text. However, if you have been given a certain level of freedom, you could argue that your own creative inputs have provided the necessary originality. As long as your translation isn't part of a work for hire...

Work for Hire

A number of legal jurisdictions include the concept of "Work for Hire" (WFH) as part of copyright law. This means that no matter how original you've been, you cannot claim copyright over your translation when the work was done as part of your salaried work, rather than in the freelance sense.

So how do you get copyright for your translations? Ask nicely, I suppose...

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Problems with Dubbing and Subtitling on Netflix

If you like TV shows and movies, Netflix is pretty great. The streaming service is one of the quickest ways to lose hours upon hours of your free time to popular media, and I'm cool with that. Netflix's algorithms always seem to suggest shows I end up liking, but there is one thing I don't like - its dubbing and subtitling.

Origami, another of Japan's fine artistic exports.
In the past, we've discussed dubbing versus subtitling at length (I tend to prefer subtitling over dubbing where possible). However, when watching anime (Japanese animation) I tend to take it on a series-by-series basis.

If the subtitles are good, I will happily watch an entire series with the original Japanese dialogue. However, when anime subtitles are bad, they are really bad! The internet is full of great examples of this.

Before I get into this rant, I need to clarify a couple of terms. For the purposes of this post, I'm taking "closed captioning" (CC) to refer to user-activated text that is generally used for those that are hard of hearing and "subtitling" to refer to a translation of foreign language dialogue that is not likely to be understood by the viewer. A quick way to distinguish whether you're watching CC or subtitling would be to see whether there are descriptions of sounds that wouldn't be considered dialogue, such as "[Phone rings]".

Aside from the bad grammar, unnatural syntax, or odd vocabulary choices present in bad anime subtitles, Netflix has a great way of making subtitles completely redundant. Aside from their low linguistic quality, I firmly believe there's also a technical issue at play here.

When I watch anime series on Netflix, I usually have two options for audio and two options for subtitles. The audio is available in either Japanese or English, while the subtitles are only available in English and can be "off" or "on". This is what causes problems.

The subtitles, just like the dubbing, are a translation of the original dialogue in Japanese. However, they are clearly not done simultaneously, nor do they appear to have any relation to each other.

On the one hand, the dubbing tends to have altered the original dialogue to make it fit better with the timing of the characters' speech, as well as make the lines more natural and easier to deliver by voice actors.

On the other hand, the subtitles tend to more strictly follow the meaning and structure of the dialogue. The massive difference between the dubbing and subtitling means that I find it almost impossible to have both dubbing and subtitling active at the same time.

Since you can either have all of the subtitles or none of the subtitles, Japanese text that appears in subtitles, such as explanations of time passing or where a scene takes place, are left untranslated. This is when I really get annoyed. I have to pause, turn the subtitles on, and rewind back to the start of the scene, just for the subtitles to load and tell me something like "One week later".

It should be noted that Netflix has also received criticism from deaf communities for the low quality of its CC. As much as I love the fact that it allows me to binge on watching massive robots and ninjas fight each other, it really needs to work harder on its foreign materials.

What do you think of Netflix's subtitling? Love it or loathe it? Are there better streaming services for subtitling? Or worse? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Introducing TLF Translation, Translation and Language Services from The Lingua File

Today's post is more of an announcement instead of our usual content. Over the next month, you'll be seeing a few changes to our blog and our Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, and LinkedIn profiles.

We'd like to announce TLF Translation, our translation and copywriting service. The new website can be found at and will be completed and fully operational in September.

What will happen to The Lingua File blog?

Don't worry about that! We'll still continue to provide language content through our blog (at the same URL, and social media channels. However, the social media channels will be named TLF Translation, so don't worry if you see the name on your feeds, it's just us!

What does TLF Translation do?

For details on our language services, feel free to check out the new website. In short, we mainly provide Spanish and French to English translation services (including translation, transcreation, and localisation) as well as English copywriting, editing, and proofreading services.

How can I help?

Thanks for offering! As we're starting out as freelancers with a passion for languages, you could always tell people about us or keep us in mind if you're in the market for translation work! Making sure people know we're here is one of the trickiest things about taking the freelance plunge, and we greatly appreciate all the help we can get!

Normal service will be resumed on the blog on Monday. We'd like to thank all our readers for their ongoing support over these past three years! Keep loving languages!