Thursday, September 20, 2018

We Can All Be Polyglots

Cardinal Mezzofanti

A friend in Paris has sent me a recent article from an unexpected source, The New Yorker. It's by one of their well-known staff writers Judith Thurman and its title is The mystery of people who speak dozens of languages. In what follows I will try to dispel some of the mystery.

Pruned of its New Yorker chattiness, the first part of the article gives interesting information about famous polyglots in the past:
*  According to Pliny the Elder, the Greco-Persian king Mithridates VI, who ruled twenty-two nations in the first century B.C., administered their laws in as many languages, and could harangue in each of them.
*  Plutarch claimed that Cleopatra very seldom had need of an interpreter, and was the only monarch of her Greek dynasty fluent in Egyptian.
*  Elizabeth I also allegedly mastered the tongues of her realm—Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, and Irish, plus six others [including the language of her enemy, Spanish].
*  The prowess of Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849) is more astounding and better documented. Mezzofanti, an Italian cardinal, was fluent in at least thirty languages and studied another forty-two, including, he claimed, Algonquin. In the decades that he lived in Rome, as the chief custodian of the Vatican Library, notables from around the world dropped by to interrogate him in their mother tongues, and he flitted as nimbly among them as a bee in a rose garden.
*  Thurman misses out the 18th-century English orientalist and translator Sir William Jones, who was reputed to know 26 languages. 
Those were champions, so-called hyperglots. Their achievement was the fruit of many years of learning. But scarcely less remarkable is the achievement by the little girl Bella Devyatkina who was described last month on this blog and who could converse in seven languages at the age of four. Yet the underlying reason why all of them could do what they did is the same. It's that human psychology and the physical human brain are built from infancy, perhaps from birth, for multilingualism (bilingualism being a special case of multilingualism and not the other way round.)  Bella's mother insists that her daughter, for all her precocity, is not a genius. It's just that she has been put in situations and relationships where she responds to the motivation of receiving a present from speakers of other languages.

Scientists and philosophers agree that language is one of the marvels of human evolution, No other animals have anything comparable. To it has been added another evolutionary marvel: the ability to learn multiple languages. The examples quoted above suggest that in principle there is no limit to their number. Yes, there are practical limits; the time we can devote to learning them and the length of our lives for instance, and the amount of contact we have with other-language speakers . And there are also psychological constraints, in particular motivation, without which we may be unwilling to work at it. But not the structure of our minds.

There are different degrees of multilingualism, which makes it difficult to compare polyglots. Full multilingualism requires much more than knowing the grammars and vocabularies of the languages. The functioning multilingual can do the following:
a)  Keep the languages separate. Actually very young bilinguals are prone to mixing their languages in the same sentence or utterance, a phenomenon linguists call code switching. Typically this weakness disappears around age three, but vestiges of it remain throughout life. We multilinguals are all used to occurrences of leakage or interference between our languages; for instance the common phenomenon of false friends. However, they dwindle to a frequency where they don't hamper communication.
Just how the separation is maintained is a matter of disagreement. Some psycholinguists believe we keep our languages in separate drawers, as it were, and take them out and activate them as we need them. Others think that on the contrary they are all present in our working minds but we suppress the ones we don't need at the moment.
b)  Switch between the languages. This may be done at will and almost instantaneously; or the switch may be triggered automatically by a stimulus, for instance when answering a question in the language in which it is asked.
c)  Use the languages appropriately to express the thoughts we want to convey or to understand what others are telling us. It may be, however, that we aren't equally competent at this in all our languages; it depends very much on the experience we've had in using them.
d)  Use the languages in ways that are appropriate for the speaker/writer and for the addressee. For more about it and the weakness of machine translation in this respect, enter pragmatics in the Search box on the right. 
There are several ways in which we can learn languages. For example, "Mezzofanti, the son of a carpenter, picked up Latin by standing outside a seminary, listening to the boys recite their conjugations." I learnt my mother language, English, unconsciously and effortlessly from birth as I'm sure you did; three languages (French, German, Latin) in compulsory formal courses at school from age 11; one (Arabic) in formal university courses from age 18 because I was interested in it and thought it would help me get a job; and two others later (Spanish and Valencian) without ever taking a course in them but from elementary teach-yourself books and everyday conversation with native speakers with whom I was working. Apart from English, age had little to do with it. If I went to live in another country, even at my advanced age, I wouldn't hesitate to learn its language. Of course, as with any natural skill, there is a pathology: a minority of people may have learning problems, and language learning becomes more difficult, requires more conscious effort, once the stage of early plasticity is passed.  It has seemed to me, though, that most of my English and Canadian compatriots who say they can't learn a foreign language are like people who don't learn to swim because they're afraid of the water.

Sources
Judith Thurman. The mystery of people who speak dozens of languages. The New Yorker, 3 September 2018. My thanks to Philippe Lambert for sending it.

William Jones (philologist). Wikipedia, 2018.

Image
Cardinal Guseppe Mezzofanti.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

A 4-Year-Old Polyglot Translator


Bilingual young children are commonplace in the village where I live. They speak Spanish and Valencian. Moreover, once they go to school they start learning English, so they become trilingual though their English is far from fluent. But a four-year old child who can converse in seven languages, and read from a story book in most of them – that is a rarity. Yet it's the achievement of a bouncy little Russian girl called Bella Devyatkina. Seeing is believing, so click [HERE] or go to https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=bella+devyatkina
to see her performing on TV.  There you will find a whole collection of videos of her.

Her languages are her native Russian plus Chinese. English, French, Italian, Spanish and – surprise – Arabic. What is most extraordinary is not the number of languages; an adult who accompanies her on one of the videos speaks ten and the eighteenth-century orientalist Sir William Jones is reputed to have learnt 28. Multilingualism is one of the universal miracles of human language evolution. Why are  we endowed with the possibility of speaking more than one language? Furthermore it's the ability not only to speak the languages correctly but also to use them appropriately. When Bella is asked a question she answers unhesitatmgly in the language in which it is asked. This is a bilingual's normal instinct. But when she is addressed by a succession of interlocutors using different languages, it requires her to change her language too. Bilinguals' apparently effortless ability to switch between their languages is yet another miracle and there's no agreement about how this is achieved. Bella's ability to do all this at such a young age and with so little exposure to her languages other than Russian supports Noam Chomsky's hypothesis that we are born with an inherited language acquisition mechanism.

There are some other interesting things to notice in Bella's performances.

1. She makes clean switches; she doesn't mix her languages. Up to the age of three, bilinguals tend to mix features of two languages in the same sentence (which the linguists call code switching). At age four, Bella is beyond this.

2. Her languages come from different language families: Slavic for Russian; Romance for French, Italian and Spanish, Germanic for English and German; Semitic for Arabic. The distance between the languages doesn't seem to matter.

3. She reads fluently in all her languages except Arabic. Reading skill is not so extraordinary, but still four years old is very young. She can also sing in them. Singing songs requires memory for melody as well as for words..

4. Bella doesn't use the foreign languages in her everyday life. Hers is not a language brokering situation. So she doesn't have the motivation that real communication need provides in language brokering. Instead, motivation is provided by accustoming her to expect a present each time she gets an interchange of conversation right. Notice that in one of the videos she begins by asking, "Where is my present?".

Is Bella an extraordinarily gifted prodigy, as the TV shows tend to suggest?  (Compared with this child I feel like an idiot," was the comment from one viewer of the Russian TV show, which is called Amazing People.) Not so, says her mother, and likewise the man who speaks ten languages and accompanies her on one of the videos. What's extraordinary is not her ability but her education. She was taught mostly by what's called the OPOL method, which means One Person One Language. It's the method used by the groundbreaking French linguist Jules Ronjat for his son Louis in the early years of the last century (see Sources below). Bella's mother too is a linguist. There's a full account of the teaching process in the Arkhangelskaya article listed below.

One question remains that's important for the Followers of this blog: Can Bella translate? The OPOL method avoids encouraging translation, so it's not surprising that there are no overt tests of it on the videos. But it has been documented since the time of Ronjat that four-year-olds can translate, and we can indeed find a proof that Bella can do it. It comes in the video where, having read fragments of stories in her range of languages, she answers questions about them in Arabic. Her answers are too summary to constitute what some people would consider translations, but we can't apply adult criteria to a child of four. She meets the fundamental characteristic of translation, which is the transfer of information from one language to another.

Thank you Bella, little darling!

Sources
Svetlana Arkhangelskaya. 4-year-old Russian girl speaks 7 languages.How did she do this? Russia Beyond, 28 October, 2016. Click [HERE] or go to
https://www.rbth.com/science_and_tech/2016/10/28/4-year-old-russian-girl-speaks-7-languages-how-did-she-do-this_642979

One person, one language. Wikipedia, 2016.

Jules Ronjat. Le développement du langage observé chez un enfant bilingue [Language development in a bilingual child]. In French only. Paris: Champion, 1913. 155 p. Click [HERE] or go to https://archive.org/details/ledveloppement00ronjuoft.

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Queen of Spain Thanks Her Tactile Interpreters



A little over a hundred kilometres to the south of where I live lies the resort town of Benidorm. IMHO it's a blight on the Spanish coastal landscape, famous for cheap package beach holidays and jnfamous for boozy Britons; though to be fair it also has a colony of respectable expatriates. Amongst the latest news from Benidorm is the following:
A shooting in the heart of Benidorm’s nightclub district on Wednesday night caused panic among innocent holidaymakers and resulted in a police lockdown of Calle Mallorca, known as The Square among Britons.

So it took an extraordinary event a few days ago to bring Queen Letizia of Spain to Benidorm for the first time. That  event was the 5th General Assembly of the World Federation of the Deafblind and 11th Helen Keller World Conference.

It may come as a surprise to read that the deafblind community is large and organised enough to support an international conference in a luxury hotel, but there are an estimated half a million deafblind people in the world and the conference has been acting as a forum since 1977.

The most obvious peculiarities of such a conference are first that all the participants need a personal interpreter in order to interact with other people and with the world around them; and second that, since they are denied sound and sight, the two usual media of interpreting, they must fall back on another of the human senses: touch. Interpreters who communicate by touch are called tactile interpreters, and the signs that they use are called haptic signs. (Tactile from Latin and haptic from Greek, both meaning touch.)

One classic, well-known haptic sign system is braille, which uses patterns of raised dots. perceived through the fingers, to represent the written alphabet. Like some other systems, it's used at two levels, elementary and advanced. The advanced level includes many short cuts and abbreviations. I know, from having had a blind colleague, that an advanced reader who's been using it since childhood can read a braille text as fast as a sighted person can read a printed one.

Tactile interpreters are one kind of interpreter who must be skilled in doing more than just transmitting language. Their clients being sightless, they must in addition convey some description and explanation of the context by an analogue of what is elsewhere called audio description.

The most famous tactile interpreter was Anne Sullivan (1866-1936). She was the interpreter, amanuensis and lifelong companion of the American deafblind writer, political activist and lecturer Helen Keller (1880-1968). In spite of Helen's disabilities, they travelled the world together. Anne had managed to obtain an education at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, where she became a teacher and learned the American Manual Alphabet, which can be used as a haptic code for fingerspelling (see Sources below). She was therefore not completely untrained when she was taken on as Helen's teacher. But Helen and Anne had less known though well documented predecessors, and there the story was somewhat different. Helen's predecessor was another American, Laura Bridgman (1829-1889). She too was a Perkins graduate 50 years before  Helen. She did receive ephemeral fame when Charles Dickens met her on his American tour and wrote about her. As a young child,
Her closest friend was a kind, mentally impaired hired man of the Bridgmans, Asa Tenney, whom she credited with making her childhood happy. Tenney had some kind of expressive language disorder himself, and communicated with Laura in signs. He knew Native Americans who used a sign language, (probably Abenaki using Plains Indian Sign Language), and had begun to teach Laura to express herself using these signs when she was sent away to school.
It's clear that. in the absence of any training, 'Uncle Asa' – as he was known to the family – was a Natural Sign Language Interpreter. Later, at Perkins, Laura was taught braille.

Since the tactile interpreters don't yet carry enough weight to form their own international organization, they have been taken under its wing by the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters, the organisers of the Benidorm assembly. Aong the goals of the WASLI are to
elevate awareness of Deafblind interpreting at conferences on a global scale [and] advocate for equal pay and working conditions for interpreters working with Deafblind people at conferences.
They deserve it.

Queen Letizia took pains in her closing speech to the assembly to give warm thanks to the tactile interpreters who had enabled her to converse with some of the participants.

Sources
Briton injured in gangland shooting. Costa News, 5 July, 2018.

World Federation of the Deafblind. World Conference 2018. Click [HERE] or go to http://www.wfdb.eu/wfdb-world-conference-2018/

Anne Sullivan, Fingerspelling, Helen Keller and Laura Bridgman  Wikipedia, 2018.

Edith Fisher Hunter, Child of the Silent Night: the Story of Laura Bridgman. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963. Excerpts at Google Books.

Kelli Stein et al. WASLI DeafBlind Interpreter Education Guidelines. Click [HERE] or go to https://wasli.org/special-interest/deafblind-interpreting

Image
Deafblind Catholic priest Fr Cyril Axelrod signing to interpreter Rita Vella.
Source: Malta Deaf Association

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Was Koko, the 'talking' gorilla, bilingual?




Many people felt a pang of sorrow last week at the news that the most famous and most studied of gorillas, Koko, had died peacefully in her sleep in California . Koko herself had felt such a pang when she was given the news  that first her beloved adopted kitten and later her friend the actor Robin Williams had died. How do we know that? Because Koko communicated her feeling to her carers in her language, Gorilla Sign Language.

The extent and nature of Koko's language ability is a matter of special interest to the Followers of this blog. It's long been  hotly disputed, though it's generally agreed she did have some and that she used the medium of sign language to transmit it. The signs she used were drawn from the American Sign Language (ASL) widely used by the deaf. It wasn't the full ASL – therefore it's misleading to say that she "mastered ASL" as some obits have done – but a modified subset of it, a baby sign language. Still, she learnt 1,000 to 2,000 signs -- accounts vary -- which is quite a big vocabulary.She wasn't the first primate to learn some sign language -- it had been done by chimps -- but she was the first gorilla.

The amount of ASL that Koko knew is unimportant. It probably wouldn't have been of any use to her to know more. Her cognitive ability was equivalent to that of a young human child, and in general people only learn as much language as they need at their age. Nobody knows the whole of, say, English. However, there's another feature of Koko's language that's of interest to translatologists. Although she only produced sign language, she could understand some spoken English. Apes don't possess the organs of phonation needed for producing the sounds of English so she had no possibility of speaking it; but it's not uncommon for humans also to be able to understand a language yet not speak it. What is documented is that Koko could be asked a question in English and answer it in sign language.

In a 1978 paper on translation by young children (see Sources below) we called this kind of interaction bilingual response. It's a variety of what linguists code switching. Can it be considered a kind of translating?  In the 1978 paper we classed it among the pretranslation phenomena in children which precede translation as it is generally understood.  But translation or not, it involves a transfer of thought between symbolic systems. It therefore implies that Koko was capable of what we have elsewhere called conversion. (For more on conversion, enter the term in the Search box on the right,)

There are many other indications that animals, and not only primates, are capable of conversion; but Koko's 'bilingualism' is an important one. It raises the tantalising question of whether some of the seeds of translating may already be planted in lower animals than humans

Sources
Koko: Gorilla death coverage rekindles language debate. BBC News, 22 June 2018. Click [HERE].or go to https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-44576449

Washoe (chimpanzee). Wikipedia, 2018. Click [HERE]. or go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washoe_(chimpanzee)

Brian Harris and Bianca Sherwood. Translating as an innate skill. 1978. Click [HERE]. or go to https://independent.academia.edu/BHARRIS


Monday, June 11, 2018

The Ethos of School Language Brokering


First a terminology round-up. The term language brokering came into use in the 1990s in the USA. The story of its later subdivision into child language brokering, etc., has already been told on this blog. To find the relevant post, enter school language brokering in the Search box on the right. As usual, the thing existed before the word for it: an early paper a Canadian school teacher and myself classed it as a form of "community interpreting" (see Sources below). As that early paper showed, the ability to interpret is not the preserve of exceptionally gifted youngsters; it's quite everyday in immigrant communities.

Child and adolescent language brokering in schools has been commented on favourably in this blog. However, there are admittedly some disadvantages and dangers. They are discussed extensively in the Cline-Crafter report listed below. It's therefore desirable for a school or related organization that uses students as language brokers to have an explicit policy that lays down what the latter can and can't do. The Cline-Crafter team has produced a Guide to Good Practice. Here's a more recent 'job description' from the EMTAS movement, which has pioneered SLB in the UK.
"Young Interpreters are trained to welcome new arrivals and make pupils with EAL feel settled at school. For instance, Young Interpreters might give tours of the school, play a game at break time, demonstrate routines, take part in activities which promote multilingualism, etc. The role of Young Interpreter is not to replace bilingual staff or professional interpreters. Pupils operate in situations which only require everyday language and do not miss out on their own learning to help others.
"At times, Young Interpreters may rely on their languages when these are shared with their buddies. At other times, they will tap into other skills to welcome pupils with whom they do not share a language: pupil-friendly English, visuals, body language, etc. This means all new arrivals can feel welcome from the start, even when no one else speaks their language. Young Interpreters therefore interpret in the broad sense of the term but most importantly, they are empathetic friends.
"As such, Young Interpreters can and should be selected from amongst bilingual learners as well as learners who only speak English and who have much to bring in terms of kindness and friendship. By selecting EAL and non-EAL pupils to train as Young Interpreters, the co-ordinator will send strong messages to the whole school community: everyone can welcome new arrivals, from the multilingual to the monolingual."
This is a view of SLB that goes beyond simple transposition of language and recognises brokers as facilitators of understanding between diverse cultural groups.

Sources
Tony Cline (University College London)  and Sarah Crafter (Institute of Education, London). Child Language Brokering at School. London: Nuffield Foundation. Click [HERE] or go to http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/child-language-brokering-school

Astrid Dinneen. What it means to be a Young Interpreter within the ethos of the scheme. Young Interpreters Newsletter, No. 31, Hampshire EMTAS, April 2018. Click [HERE] or go to https://dmtrk.net/YU8-5ITPW-21IFJ1AS41/cr.aspx

Carolyn Bullock and Brian Harris. Schoolchildren as Community Interpreters", 1995. Click [HERE]  or go to https://www.academia.edu/3087237/Schoolchildren_as_community_interpreters

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

NPIT4 at Stellenbosch



Today the 4th International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation (NPIT) opens at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town. and lasts for three days. It covers many of the topics treated in this blog. The programme is available by clicking [here] or going to http://conferences.sun.ac.za/index.php/NPIT4/index/pages/view/Programme.

As usually happens at such conferences, a few papers creep in that seem to have little to do with the subject. For instance the opening paper Generativity and the Practice of Translation; but appearances can be deceptive. As a whole the papers are wide ranging and draw attention to NPIT in Africa, though I would have liked a balance that had more from the wide world beyond Europe and the USA. One of the pioneers of dialogue interpreting studies, Cecilia Wadensjö of Sweden, is participating.

One paper in particular seems relevant to a topic that was raised on this blog only a few weeks ago and was dubbed inverse child language brokering. (To retrieve the post, enter inverse in the Search box on the right.)  It's the paper by Elena Garcia Gandia of the University of Nevada and graduate of my neighbour the Jaime I University at Castellón de la Plana (see below.)

To anyone at the conference who may happen on this post, my best wishes for a happy stay in South Africa.

Reference
Elena Gandia Garcia. Evaluating the  training needs of ad-hoc interpreters working with unaccompanied minors who seek asylum in the US. Paper to the NPIT4 Conference, Stellenbosch, 2018.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Karl Marx Bicentenary


Today, 5 May 2018, is the 200th anniversary of birth of the great German-British sociologist Karl Marx. British? Yes, Marx became stateless and he lived the most productive years of his life in London, where he's buried.  I used to walk past his home in the Soho district every day on my way to work, and do my research as he did in the reading room of the British Museum up the road,  Moreover his thinking was influenced by what he observed of British commerce and industry in Manchester, where his collaborator and benefactor Friedrich/Frederick Engels ran a successful business, and they would drink together at the Red Dragon pub in nearby Salford.

From among the many laudatory and critical articles published for the occasion in today's papers. I concur with the following in today's Guardian:
What makes Marx worth reading now is not his Panglossian prognoses, but his still resonant diagnoses…"The bourgeoisie,” Marx and Engels wrote, beautifully, “has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self- interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.”
I had thoughts like these while listening to Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook testimony to the US Congress las week.

Marx wrote mostly in his first language, German. His ideas and his influence couldn't have spread as far and as fast as they did without the help of his translators, so it's fitting to draw attention to the latter on this occasion. The early ones were NPIT Marxist acolytes whom Marx and Engels sought out or who did it on their own initiative. There's a tribute to a few of them in a short paper on the academia.edu web page that's the companion to this blog (see below).

And the labour of translating Marx continues, now professionalised, and is probably never-ending. The centre of activity has shifted from Russia, where it was in Soviet days, to China. At the Central Bureau of Compilation and Translation in Beijing, Gu Jinping, a highly professional and highly specialised translator now aged 85, continues to work with his colleagues on translations of Marx and Marxism.

Sources
Stuart Jeffries. Two centuries on, Karl Marx feels more revolutionary than ever. Guardian Unlimited, 5 May 2018.

Christopher Hooton. Pub where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels 'discussed communist revolution' shuts down amid redevelopment. The Independent, 8 August 2017.

Brian Harris. Marx's earliest English translators. Academia.edu, 2010-2017. To retrieve it, click [here].

Xinhua. China focus: for tranlators, Marxist works a lifetime labor of love. Xinhuanet, 8 May 2018. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-05/03/c_137154149.htm.