Friday, December 27, 2013

5 Tips for Learning a Dialect by Amy Rinkle

Just as there are dialects and regional variations to spoken English, students of languages quickly become aware of the many dialects that exist within other languages. As an Arabic student myself, I soon learned there are many different shapes and forms of Arabic; spoken dialects that were far more commonly spoken in daily life than the Modern Standard Arabic I was being taught at University. One of the many hurdles I’ve faced when studying Arabic is how to acquire the vocabulary, phraseology and inflection that was specific to the dialects I was interested in speaking, not just the formal language I was being taught. I’m not alone in this problem, and Arabic is not the only language where students face this issue.

So what should you do if you want to learn a specific dialect, but the resources and classes available to you are oriented to a different one? Here are five tips to help:

1. Learn the professional spoken and written language

Yes, that’s right. Even if the classes and resources that are available to you are not available in the dialect you most want, it is not a waste of time to learn the common or professionally spoken and written dialect. This knowledge will aid you when you are learning your dialect, and it will enable you to at least communicate with native speakers, and give you a base knowledge of vocabulary and grammar from which to compare where one dialect differs from another.

There is a debate on whether or not it is better to learn a regional dialect first, and then the formal or professional dialect, and I will not take sides on that debate — I will only say that in my experience, many of the resources and books that are available for teaching students a regional dialect are supplemental, and would be vastly confusing to someone who did not already have familiarity with the language. Therefore, I do not consider a waste of time (just the opposite!) to put in significant effort in learning the most common or professional dialect.

2. Look in obscure places to find new resources

Though they might not be easy to find, and though it may be harder to find classes that are taught in your target dialect, there are resources out there for those who are looking to learning a regional dialect. It’s finding them that can be the problem!

There are several different ways to find books and recordings meant to teach you your chosen dialect. I would suggest first finding a university that is teaching your language and has a strong study abroad program to the region, and email or talk to the language department or area studies center and ask for resources. Since most professors who will be teaching in that language are native speakers, they will often know about obscure curricula in regional dialects, and they will have access to the niche publishers and organizations that produce them. Some resources are not even available to the general public! It certainly can’t hurt to ask, and many professors will be delighted to help advise you on learning a dialect, or even recommend a tutor, if you are living in the country and region that speaks the dialect you are trying to learn.

It may sound bizarre, but missionary organizations or aid groups are other places that might have excellent recommendations on resources for learning a dialect. Since many of their members are interacting with the public and therefore need to speak a dialect in a specific region, they will often have either created their own curriculum for learning that dialect, or they will know where to find classes, tutors, books, or other resources. All it takes is an email to find out.

3. Watch and listen to local media

Sometimes, the best way to begin learning words in your chosen dialect is by listening and watching media that features that dialect. Movies that are set in the regional where the dialect is spoken, even when its in your target language, are often not the best bet — accents are often toned down in movies, or actors are hired who are not from that specific region. But the news can sometimes be a good source for hearing the dialect, and I have found that talk shows and interviews in particular are excellent for hearing the dialect spoken. Talk radio that is specific to a major city in the region is also a way to begin listening.

Music can also be a great way to pick up a dialect, and especially vocabulary that is specific to a region. Artists from a region will often sing in that particular dialect. Rap, however, is often very specific to the region and you will hear a lot of new words and vocabulary. Personally, it’s not my favorite style of music, but for learning an accent, I would recommend listening to up and coming rap artists — and this is regardless of the language. Rap as a genre is available in a wide variety of languages, and even if it isn’t, it’s still worth it to seek out the music that is produced and sung by artists who speak your target dialect.

4. Find a native speaker to talk to

The three tips above will help you in beginning to learn a dialect, but you will never be able to master it unless you find native speakers to talk to and ask questions. If you live in a region that speaks the dialect you want to learn, this is fairly easy to do — you will be running into native speakers that you can practice with, and many expat groups and language centers are able to recommend native speakers to partner up with.

If you do not live in the area and you want to learn to connect with a native speaker, I recommend emailing a university, again. Oftentimes a language department will host conversation clubs and will have contacts in the community who will know native speakers that might be able to meet with you. If that is not an option, then I suggest looking online. There are several sites that exist to help facilitate language partnerships and meetings via Skype. Look for someone who is a native speaker of your target dialect, and jump onto Skype.

5. Use technology to help fill the gaps

Beyond the sites mentioned above, the internet is a great resource. Use Twitter to find people from the region where your dialect is spoken — many of them will be writing and interacting in that dialect. Jump onto forums or sites specific to that region and see how the members write back and forth to each other. Use Youtube to look up video clips of interviews, shows, and even regular people talking to each other in your target language and dialect. This information is not designed to help you learn a dialect, but it will still assist you, especially if you combine it with the tips above.

There is also a site called that is crowdsourcing spoken language with clips of native speakers pronouncing different words. The clips specify which country the speaker is from. It is not precise, but it can help with hearing the pronunciation of the dialect, and if there is more than one recording, then hearing the differences between speakers from different countries and regions.

Finally, my last suggestion is to be a part of the online language learning community, and to follow blogs such as the Lingua File. I myself work from Lango, an iOS app that will help record and crowdsource languages and their dialects, and I have only learned about sites like and other resources by being part of the language learning community. Though reading a blog may not directly contribute to learning a dialect, it might point you to new tools that can.

Amy Rinkle is a 25 year old perpetual Arabic student, French speaker, and freelance writer. She is currently affiliated with Lango, an app to learn any language, anywhere, which is fundraising on Kickstarter until January 13th, 2013.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Wherever you are, if you celebrate it, we'd like to wish you a Merry Christmas! We'd like to thank everyone who reads, contributes, and gets involved. Thank you for your support. Normal service will be resumed on Friday. Until then, don't overindulge and enjoy this time of year.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Dos and Don'ts of Siamese Twins

Today we're looking at Siamese twins, not the politically incorrect version of conjoined twins, but rather a linguistic concept that almost dictates your word usage. Have you ever wondered why you can say "dos and don'ts" yet not "dont's and dos", and why it would be so incredibly wrong to do so?

The term is named after original Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, the conjoined twins from Siam who effectively popularised the condition and "inspired" the name used for the condition.

Mmm... peanut butter and jelly!
If you feel uncomfortable using the phrase "Siamese twins" in this day and age, then feel free to use any of the other, perhaps more acceptable, linguistic terms that include the word binomial, meaning "having two names". These irreversible binomials are expressions with two principal elements that can be nouns, adjectives, verbs, or adverbs, usually joined by a conjunction (andornor, and but in most cases). Sometimes they are instead composed of the two words in isolation. Examples include "above and beyond", "peanut butter and jelly", and "rain or shine". There are even trinomials, such as "tall, dark and handsome" or "signed, sealed, delivered". 

Perhaps you've been thinking to yourself that a pre-existing relationship between words that can dictate their usage sounds familiar. If you were just about to say that this sounds a lot like a collocation, you would be right. Some Siamese twins are effectively a collocation so strong that it is effectively frozen, hence the term freezes being another more accurate and politically correct name for the phenomenon.

Though certain Siamese twins are indeed a collocation that is so unbreakable that reversing the order sounds almost disgusting, some are not collocations at all and instead are idioms that through regular use are ingrained into the lexicon of the language.

Given that Siamese twins are fixed, unchangeable, and therefore, always the same, they inevitably become clichés and catchphrases through overuse.

There are really no such things as the dos and don'ts of Siamese twins, as the only thing you can do is use them as they are and make sure you don't change them. That said, they are a fascinating phenomenon that we probably never give much thought and often overlook despite being almost innately aware of their existence and constraints.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Key to Learning Pronunciation by Gabe Wyner

As rumor has it, you can’t learn to have a good accent if you’re above the age of 7, or 12, or some other age that you’ve most definitely already exceeded. But that can’t possibly be true. Singers and actors learn new accents all the time, and they’re not, on average, smarter than everyone else (and they certainly don't all start before the age of 7).

So what’s going on here? Why does everybody tell you that you can’t learn good pronunciation as an adult? And if that’s not true, what is?

In this article, we’ll take a tour through the research on speech perception and pronunciation, and we’ll talk about learning pronunciation efficiently as an adult. But first, allow me a moment on my soapbox:

Pronunciation is important

This is a big topic, and as an opera singer, it’s a topic close to my heart. I find accents extraordinarily important.

This is a fényképezőgép
For one, if you don’t learn to hear the sounds in a new language, you’re doomed to have a hard time remembering it. We rely upon sound to form our memories for words, and if you can’t even comprehend the sounds you’re hearing, you’re at a disadvantage from the start. (Try memorizing Hungarian's word for camera, fényképezőgép [recording] or train station, vásutállomás [recording]. These words are brutal until you really get a feel for Hungarian sounds.)

But in addition to the memory issue, a good accent connects you to people. It shows people from another culture that you’ve not only taken the time and effort to learn their vocabulary and their grammar; you’ve taken the time to learn how their mouths, lips and tongues move. You’ve changed something in your body for them – you’ve shown them that you care – and as a result, they will open up to you.

I’ve seen this repeatedly when I sing or watch concerts in Europe. As a rule, audiences are kind, but when you sing in their native language, they brace themselves. They get ready to smile politely and say, “What a lovely voice!” or “Such beautiful music!” But beneath the surface, they are preparing for you to butcher their language and their heritage before their eyes. No pressure.

At that moment, if you surprise them with a good accent, they open themselves up. Their smiles are no longer polite; they are genuine. You’ve shown them that you care, not just with your intellect, but with your body, and this sort of care is irresistible.

But enough romanticizing; how do you actually do something about pronunciation?

Research on Ear Training and Pronunciation

Good pronunciation is a combination of two main skills: Ear training and mouth training. You learn how to hear a new sound, and you learn how to make it in your mouth. It’s the first of these two skills that’s the trickiest one; if you can hear a sound, you can eventually learn to produce it accurately, but before then, you’re kind of screwed. So for the moment, we’ll focus on ear training.

While doing research for my book, I came upon a wonderful set of studies by James McClelland, Lori Holt, Julie Fiez and Bruce McClandiss, where they tried to teach Japanese adults to hear the difference between “Rock” and “Lock.” After reading their papers, I called up and interviewed Dr. McClelland and Dr. Holt about their research.

The first thing they discovered is that ear training is tricky, especially when a foreign language contains two sounds that are extremely similar to one sound in your native language. This is the case in Japanese, where their “R” [ɺ] is acoustically right in between the American R [ɹ] and L [ɫ]. When you test Japanese adults on the difference between Rock and Lock (by playing a recording of one of these words and asking them which one they think you played), their results are not significantly better than chance (50%). So far, so bad.

The researchers tried two kinds of practice. First, they just tested these Japanese adults on Rock and Lock for a while, and checked to see whether they improved with practice.

They didn’t.

This is very bad news. It suggests that practice doesn’t actually do anything. You can listen to Rock and Lock all day (or for English speakers, //[bul/pul/ppul] in Korean), and you’re not going to learn to hear the differences between those sounds. This only confirms the rumors that it’s too late to do anything about pronunciation. Crap.

Their second form of practice involved artificially exaggerating the difference between L and R. They began with extremely clear examples (RRrrrrrrrrock), and if participants improved, stepped up the difficulty until they reached relatively subtle distinctions between the two recordings (rock). This worked a little better. The participants began to hear the difference between Rock and Lock, but it didn’t help them hear the difference between a different pair of words, like Road and Load. In terms of a pronunciation training tool, this was another dead end.

Then they tried feedback, and everything changed.

Testing pairs of words with feedback

They repeated the exact same routine, only this time, when a participant gave their answer ("it was 'Rock'") , a computer screen would tell them whether or not they were right ("*ding* Correct!"). In three 20-minute sessions of this type of practice, participants permanently acquired the ability to hear Rs and Ls, and they could do it in any context.

Not coincidentally, this is how actors and singers learn. We use coaches instead of computerized tests, but the basic principle is the same. We sit with an accent coach and have them read our texts. Then we say our texts out load, and the coach tells us when we’re right and when we’re wrong. They’re giving us feedback. They’ll say things like “No, you’re saying siehe, and I need sehe. Siehe…Sehe. Hear that?” And as we get closer, they’ll keep continue to supply feedback ("You're saying [something that's almost 'sehe'] and I need sehe.”) After the coaching, we’ll go home, listen to recordings of these coaching sessions, and use those recordings to provide us with even more feedback.

Now, some caveats. Participants didn’t reach a full native ability to hear the difference between Rock and Lock. Their accuracy seemed to peak around 80%, compared to the ~100% of a native speaker. Further investigation revealed what was going on.

Consonant sounds have lots of different components (known as 'formants'). Basically, a consonant is a lot like a chord on a piano: on a piano, you play a certain combination of notes together, and you hear a chord. For a consonant, you make a certain (more complex) combination of notes, and you hear a consonant. This isn’t just a metaphor; if you have a computerized piano, you can even use it to replicate human speech.

English speakers tell the difference between their R’s and L’s by listening for a cue known as the 3rd formant – basically, the third note up in any R or L chord. Japanese native speakers have a hard time hearing this cue, and when they went through this study, they didn’t really get any better at hearing it. Instead, they learned how to use an easier cue, the 2nd formant – the second note in R/L chords. This works, but it’s not 100% reliable, thus explaining their less-than-native results.

When I talked to these researchers on the phone, they had basically given up on this research, concluding that they were somewhat stumped as to how to improve accuracy past 80%. They seemed kind of bummed out about it.

Possibilities for the future

But step back a moment and look at what they’ve accomplished here.

In three 20-minute sessions, they managed to take one of the hardest language challenges out there – learning how to hear new sounds – and bring people from 50% accuracy (just guessing) to 80% accuracy (not bad at all).

What if we had this tool in every language? What if we could start out by taking a few audio tests with feedback and leave with pre-trained, 80% accuracy ears, even before we began to learn the rest of our language?

We have the tools to build trainers like this on our own. All you need is a spaced repetition system that supports audio files, like Anki, and a good set of recorded example words (A bunch of rock/lock’s, thigh/thy’s, and niece/knee’s for English, or a bunch of sous/su’s, bon/ban’s and huis/oui’s for French). They take work to make, but that work only needs to be done once, and then the entire community can benefit.

Pronunciation is too important, and this solution is too valuable to wait for some big company to take over. Over the next 9 months, I’m going to start developing good example word lists, commissioning recordings and building these decks. I’m going to recruit bilinguals, because with bilinguals, we can get recordings to learn not only the difference between two target-language sounds, like sous and su, but also the difference between target language sounds and our own native language sounds (sous vs Sue). I ran this idea by Dr. McClelland, and he thought that may work even better (hell, we might be able to break the 80% barrier). And I’m going to do a few open-ish beta tests to fine tune them until they’re both effective and fun to use.

Hopefully, with the right tools, we can set the “It’s too late to learn pronunciation” rumors to rest. We’ll have a much easier time learning our languages, and we’ll have an easier time convincing others to forget about our native languages and to speak in theirs.

Gabriel Wyner is the author of Fluent Forever (Harmony/Random House, August 2014) and the Fluent Forever blog. His Kickstarter project, a series of pronunciation trainers in 11 languages, will run until January 2, 2014.

Friday, December 13, 2013

How Crowdsourcing Is Like The X Factor

This crowd at a cricket match are probably as good at
choosing a national pop icon as they are at translating.

Over the last few weeks we have ashamedly become somewhat addicted to the X Factor in the UK. With the final this weekend, we will certainly be watching and hating ourselves for it. It did get us thinking though, that the X Factor is exactly like crowdsourced translation.

First of all, if you didn't know, the X Factor goes through auditions followed by a series of rounds in which one contestant is eliminated each week. The two contestants with the lowest number of votes, as voted by the public, compete in a sing-off whereby the panel of judges select the better of the two to save, at least until the following week.

Although the finalists are selected by the judges from nationwide auditions, it's certainly not guaranteed that you'll necessarily like all of the finalists. You can only hope that the public will vote to eliminate the worst contestants first.

With crowdsourced translation, the translation solutions are provided by a large community of people, just like the public voting for contestants on the X Factor. Crowdsourcing often comes under criticism for providing a lower quality in translation. One explanation for this is that often there is no prior screening to ensure the skills of the translators who translate, just like how those who vote on the X Factor are not necessarily music experts, talent scouts, or agents. They may know what they like, but that doesn't mean they know what qualities constitute a pop star that will be famous for years to come.

However, some crowdsourced translation efforts are edited or harmonised by a professional, much like the judges that are entrusted to "save" the best act of the two with the lowest number of votes on the X Factor. This cannot always work though, if for instance the public vote has put two acts who deserve to stay in the competition into the bottom two, or if perhaps there are mistranslations that have permeated through the crowdsourcing systems and made their way to the editor.

This comparison provides a good argument against crowdsourcing. If you consider the previous X Factor winners, Steve Brookstein, Shayne Ward, Leona Lewis, Leon Jackson, Alexandra Burke, Joe McElderry, Matt Cardle, Little Mix, and James Arthur, how many have had sustained musical careers, or even success amongst their peers through awards?

The UK isn't the only country to have the X Factor.
In the same way that not everyone is a translator, not everyone is good at choosing the best musicians or singers. Of course, the business model of X Factor is not entirely geared towards producing stars, but rather generating earnings through sponsorship, marketing, TV ratings, and the huge buzz that surrounds the show in the build up to the final. Of course, if crowdsourced translations provided the same buzz and entertainment as a national spectacle culminating in one solitary winner, then perhaps it would be worthwhile having it.

We're definitely not saying that crowdsourced translation is a lost cause that produces terrible results. Much like the X Factor, the proof's in the pudding. Whereas the X Factor has only had 9 "winners" and the quality of those 9 acts is debatable, crowdsourced translation has produced a huge amount of work and from the criticisms levelled at it, the quality is certainly significantly behind that of work produced by an individual professional translator or a harmonised team of translators.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Intro to Translation Studies: André Lefevere and Cultural Theories

As part of our series on Translation Studies (TS), we've looked at the foundations of the field, how it was subject to three important turns (linguistic, cultural, and sociological), and in our last post in the series we looked at the concept of dynamic equivalence, as popularised by Eugene Nida.

Today, we'll be delving into the second of the turns in TS, the cultural turn. As you will have seen in our previous post, dynamic equivalence was one of the first widely-accepted theories in TS to put the cultural aspect of translation to the forefront.

The city of Ghent, where Lefevere first studied his
undergraduate degree.
Following dynamic equivalence, the focal point of TS began to change, whereby culture took centre stage. Translation was no longer a transfer between texts, but a transfer between cultures. Perhaps the first noteworthy theorist to stake their claim as a cultural translation theorist was Itamar Even-Zohar with his polysystem theory. However, polysystem theory was focused solely within literature as a system of systems.

Belgian theorist André Lefevere built upon Even-Zohar's work viewing translation as far beyond linguistic transfer and seeing translation as not being trapped in texts, but as a means of adapting and retelling the source text (ST) or source medium.

Lefevere was also one of the first to take the focus of translation away from the source and put greater importance on the target as a product of the ideology, economics and status within the the target culture. He was not the first theorist to involve culture in the paradigm of TS, but he was one of the first to view culture seriously as an aspect of the translation act.

Though some modern-day scholars have argued the validity of both linguistic and cultural theories, scholars of the cultural turn were very quick to oppose the linguistic turn and dismiss its theories. The quality of translation could not be simply judged on how well equivalence is met between the source text (ST) and target (TT). During the turn, translation became considered as an act that takes place within a particular time in history, within a particular culture.