Monolingual USA?

The other day I found an interesting article in the New York Times about monolingualism and multilingualism in the USA and elsewhere. There’s a widespread belief that most Americans are monolingual in English, and that elsewhere it’s common for people to know two or more languages. The article asks whether this belief is true.

The question about language in the US census focuses on language use at home and doesn’t ask about use of languages other than English elsewhere, and the writer points out that many Americans who speak foreign languages speak only English at home, so for the purposes of the census they are monoglot English speakers. According to the 2009 census, for example, 20% of Americans speak a language other than English at home. The aim of the census is not to discover people’s foreign language skills, but to “track immigrants’ integration into mainstream American society and to ascertain what services they need, and in what languages”, so this is understandable.

The writer suggests that a better question would be “Can you have a conversation in a language besides your mother tongue?”, which was asked in a survey by the European Commission in 2006 – 56% of those who completed that survey answered yes. So perhaps the assumption that bilingualism and multilingualism are normal and unremarkable in much or the world is not entirely true. There are no reliable figures on this anyway, so it’s impossible to be sure. The conclusion is that Americans may be no more or less multilingual than people in other countries.

Ryukyuan languages

Following on from Sunday’s language quiz, I found an interesting article about Language Loss and Revitalization in the Ryukyu Islands.

There are apparently quite a few different languages spoken in the Ryukyu Islands – at least 10, and while they are related to Japanese, the percentage of shared cognates is 66% or less – 59% for Miyako (less than between English and German).

Do any of you speak these languages? Or have you studied them?

Languages in the news

Here are a few language-related articles I found recently:

Tolkien and Made Up Languages – an article about Tolkien, whose 120 birthday it would be today if he was still around, his languages, and other fictional languages such as Newspeak and Nadsat.

The secret to learning languages – Tips from the polyglots: Find out how your brain works.

I’ve also discovered that Collins Dictionaries in English, French, German and Spanish are available for free online. They also give translations of words in quite a few other languages.

Ingrown languages

In an interesting book I read recently, What Language Is by John McWhorter, the author discusses why some languages appear a lot more complicated or ‘ingrown’ than others. He gives the example of Persian and Pashto, two Iranian languages spoken in a number of countries in western and central Asia. Whereas Persian has more or less regular and simple verb conjugations, in Pashto the verb endings and other aspects of the language are much less regular. This is because Persian was the language of a large empire in which many people learned Persian as adults, and few did so perfectly, so many of the irregularities and other complex aspects of Old Persian were regularised and simplified. This process didn’t happen with Pashto, so the language is still ingrown.

Other languages that are or have been used as colonial languages or lingua francas with many adults learning them imperfectly have undergone a similar process of simplification. These include English, Mandarin Chinese, colloquial spoken varieties of Arabic, Indonesian and Swahili. According to McWhorter, these languages could be considered abnormal as many of their irregularities and eccentricities have been levelled out. As a result they are relatively easy to learn, or at least somewhat less difficult than more ingrown languages.

One example a particularly ingrown language is Navajo, which even linguists find superlatively forbidding. Some even claim that it’s not possible to learn it after childhood. Apparently none of the Navajo verbs follow a regular pattern, and regularity is notably absent in other parts of the language.

So if you’re struggling to get to grips with Spanish or Mandarin, it might be of comfort to you to remember that you’re not learning Navajo or a similarly ingrown language.

Humboldt’s parrot

Amazonian green parrot

There’s a story that in 1799 the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was exploring the Orinoco and Amazon rivers and documenting the languages and cultures of the tribes he encountered there. While spending time with one tribe of Carib people, he asked them about their neighbours and rivals, the Maypure, who he was keen to visit. He was told that the Maypure had all been killed recently by the Carib tribe he was visiting, however they did have a couple of the Maypure’s pet parrots who spoke some of their language. Von Humboldt took the parrots back to Europe and transcribed their words – the only record we have of the Maypure language, which is also written Maypure, Maipure, Maypore or Maypore’. There seems to be some doubt whether this story is true: there is no mention of the parrots in von Humboldt’s meticulous journals, but there are phonetic transcriptions of the Maypure words he heard on his travels.

In 1997 an American artist called Rachel Berwick made an art installation entitled May-por-e’ consisting of a large cage containing Amazonian plants and parrots who had been taught to speak the remnants of the Maypure language.

These two anecdotes were related by David Crystal at a fascinating talk about language death he gave yesterday at Bangor University. He used the first one to illustrate how languages can disappear completed if they are unwritten and undocumented. We only know something about Maypure because of the parrots, but in many cases once the last speaker of a language dies it is as if that language never existed.

The second story shows how the message of language death can be powerfully portrayed through the arts. Professor Crystal believes that this is the best way to make ordinary people aware of the issue. Linguists can document languages, and advise on revival and revitalisation efforts, but these are intellectual pursuits that do not engage the emotions, while art, music, drama and other artistic works appeal to the heart rather than the head. He finished his talk by performing part of a play he wrote entitled “Last Speaker”, which tackles language death, and he suggested that we tell any artistic types we know about this phenomenon and that we encourage them to create pieces related to it.

Yesterday evening I mentioned the talk to a friend and talked about it a bit. She thought that endangered languages are confined mainly to remote parts of Africa and was surprised to learn that there are endangered languages on every inhabited continent.

Benefits of being bilingual

According to a study at the University of Haifa in Israel, children who grow up bilingually are able to learn a third language more easily than monolingual children.

The study compared children who speak Russian and Hebrew with those who speak only Hebrew, and who are all learning English at school. It found that the bilingual children not only find it easy to learn English, but also that doing so raises their IQs, and that they speak Hebrew better than the Hebrew monolinguals.

The researchers believe that learning several languages at a young age bolsters one’s language skills, and as skill in language is an important cognitive function, this makes learning easier in general.

When researching the phenomenon of language decline and death for my dissertation, I found that one common reason why languages decline is because many people believe that it’s better for their children to speak a mainstream language rather than a minority language, and that trying to speak both languages is likely to overwhelm their poor little brains and result in them speaking neither language very well. This research suggests that such beliefs are mistaken.

What Can You Do With A Linguistics Degree?

Today we have a guest post by Brian Jenkins.

Linguistics is an intriguing subject to some college students, and many end up choosing it as a major. However, Kent Clizbe, a headhunter who specializes in recruiting linguists, offers this dispiriting advice: “I tell these students, ‘you did your dissertation specializing in Cherokee semantics. Great. Now get as much of a computer background as you can.'”

Associate’s, bachelors’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees and certifications are available on-campus and online. Most associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs offer career training for those who want to teach English as a Second Language (ESL). Those with a master’s or doctoral degree have wider career options. So yes, those with a linguistics degree are sought after in the job market.

What Can Linguists Do?

  • Build databases to help e-commerce customers navigate the Internet
  • Build natural language processing systems to improve customer service of Internet businesses
  • Develop grammar checking functions for software
  • Improve the quality of automated translation on the Internet
  • Work for natural language processing firms
  • Work on search engines, speech recognition, and artificial intelligence
  • Work with language consultants to document, evaluate, and preserve languages
  • Develop curricula and materials for education
  • Work for the F.B.I., police departments, or the foreign service
  • Work for product-naming companies

Careers for Linguists
Some of the occupations shown below require additional training:

  • Computational linguists (combines linguistics and computer science and overlaps with the field of artificial intelligence)
  • Lexicographers (compile, write and edit dictionaries)
  • Vocabulary resource managers
  • Speech therapists
  • Translators
  • Intelligence analysts or code breakers for the U.S. government
  • Forensic linguistics (analyzing linguistic aspects of evidence, legal texts, voice identification issues, and other topics)
  • English as a Second Language teachers
  • College linguistics instructors

There are more than 200 linguistics programs across the country. The Linguistics Society of America provides an extensive list of schools that offer linguistics programs and other closely related areas of study.

Linguistics Bachelor’s Degree Program
These programs typically cover phonics, general linguistics, computational linguistics, English as a Second Language, and statistics. In order to improve the chances of getting a job some students choose a double major and have a secondary specialization in a subject such as computer science, psychology, education, the speech sciences, philosophy, foreign language, or journalism.

Linguistics Master’s Degree Program
These programs focus on research and provide the skills needed to teach language. Students typically specialize in a specific area, such psycholinguistics or phonology. Applicants for a master’s degree program are typically expected to be highly proficient in English, English composition and English as a Second Language. They also need a comprehensive knowledge of at least one foreign language.

Linguistics Doctoral Degree Program
Students seeking a doctoral degree need an in-depth understanding of advanced linguistics theory and computational linguistics. They’re usually required to speak and read fluently in several languages. A Ph.D is typically required to teach at colleges and universities.

Online Linguistics Degree program
Online linguistic students basically receive the same education students attending a traditional school. They can easily access lectures, texts, and audio and video recordings. Foreign language classes are typically part of an online linguistics program. There are numerous accredited online linguistic programs to choose from.

Many schools offer linguistics education programs. A linguistics degree, especially when combined with other training, qualifies graduates for an array of jobs within the field.

About the author

A member of BrainTrack’s writing staff, Brian Jenkins writes about careers in education, among other topics.

Multilingual child

I’ve received the following request from the BBC that maybe you can help with:

The BBC are looking for a multilingual child and their family to participate in a major new BBC 1 science documentary series. Using cutting-edge CGI and amazing stories of human achievement and endeavour, “Human” will explore the physiological and developmental factors that make us the most remarkable species on Earth.

We are looking to spend 1 to 2 days filming a child, aged between 4 and 16, with exceptional multilingual ability. The filming will be observational and is likely to take place in a domestic setting. The final sequence is likely to form 5 minutes of a 60 minute film that will broadcast in Spring 2011. Our deadline for filming is the 5th October, so we are very keen to hear from interested families ASAP. Please contact Alex Hemingway at

Linguistics and languages

When I mention to people that I’m a linguist or have studied linguistics, they often ask something like “Oh, which language(s)?” The popular idea of a linguist seems to be someone who studies / speaks quite a few languages, and linguistics is thought of as studying languages, rather than the study of language in general. As I have studied both linguistics and quite a few languages, I could call myself a linguist in both the scientific and popular senses, and to avoid explaining linguistics every time I often go along with the popular definition.

Most of the people I met in Ireland were interested in languages, and some of them were interested in linguistics, including an American lass who is keen to study linguistics and document some of the native languages of North America, particularly of Alaska. There was also someone else who is studying Irish Sign Language (ISL – Teanga Chomharthaíochta na hÉireann) and was keen to find out about British Sign Language (BSL). Very few ISL signs were familiar to me, and it seems to have more in common with French and American Sign Languages than with BSL.

When people discovered that I speak Welsh, quite a few of them asked me it was hard to learn, as they think it looks very difficult to pronounce. My Welsh-speaking friends make similar comments about Irish. I find Welsh spelling easier as most letters only have one sound and all letters are pronounced, whereas most letters have at least two sounds in Irish and quite a few of them are not pronounced.

Satirical linguistics

The good people at Speculative Grammarian, the premier scholarly journal featuring research in the neglected field of satirical linguistics, would like your help – they are keen to receive submissions of satirical and humorous articles, poems, cartoons, ads, and all sorts of other material — no field within or related to linguistics is off limits.

Speculative Grammarian is free and run by volunteers, so your help would be greatly appreciated.