Monday, April 13, 2015

Endangered Languages: "Flogging a Dead Horse?"

UNESCO estimates that the end of this century could see the demise of more than half of the 6000 languages that exist in the world today. Most languages that are in danger of going extinct are those spoken in relatively remote regions, by indigenous populations. The importance of languages and diverse tongues cannot be emphasised enough. 

A Manner of Thinking
Language is arguably the most unique feature of the human species. Although there is no doubt that other species communicate with one another, spoken, signed and written language are unique to humans. As such, it plays a fundamental role in shaping our daily experience. In fact, psycholinguists have found that we perceive things a certain way based on the language we speak and think in. Research on colour perception shows that we can see the colours that we have names for, in our native languages. In English, there are eleven basic hues, from which the spectrum of perceivable colour is named. However, the Himba tribe in Namibia only has five basic hues. While English-speakers distinguish between red, orange and pink, the Himba people have an encompassing name for these hues, serandu. Experiments comparing children from the Himba tribe and England show that people perceive colours based on their culture and language. As this research demonstrates, if a language is lost, a truly unique perception of the world dies with it. 

Perception of the world is one aspect that is lost with a language, but what happens to culture? 

Cultural Coefficient
Globalisation today is a contributing factor to the loss of languages. In our attempts to shrink the world and move towards homogeneity, we lose cultural subtleties that exist in part, due to language. Let's look at example of what is at risk, by travelling to the hills in South India. 

The Toda language is of Dravidian descent, and is related to Tamil and Malayalam. In the last century, the population of the Todas has been in the range of 700-1000 people. However, the exact number is difficult to estimate. The Indian Government identifies the Todas as a Primitive Tribe. The Todas live only in the Nilgiri district in Tamil Nadu, and have a unique lifestyle with many traditions. They are a pastoral community, and live in barrel-shaped houses. Often, their houses are beside "dairy temples," as they trade dairy products, and their religion revolves around the buffalo. 
A Toda woman wearing traditional embroidered clothing (left); Todas live in barrel-shaped houses called dogles (right).

Globalisation and the push for modernisation in India have caused a change in the Todas. Although traditionally vegetarian, many Todas now eat meat. Several of them have abandoned their traditional houses for the more common concrete houses. This move away from tradition in combination with the small population of Todas left in the world has resulted in their language becoming critically endangered. This means that the youngest speakers of the language are currently grandparents or older, and they only speak their language infrequently. The Todas stand out in the Nilgiris because of the way they dress and live. If they adopt modern customs, they risk losing their traditions for good. 

Why Save Them?
It is vital to save languages that are at risk of extinction, because speakers have a unique perception of the world, and cultural traditions that few other people share. Since the human experience is subjective, it is crucial to preserve the very means that make us individuals. Losing languages would also mean that we lose idioms that are not easily transferred between languages. For example, a phrase that communicates a lack of understanding in German is "Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof", which literally translates to "I understand only train stations''. It is analogous to "This is Greek and Latin to me" in English. Imagine losing idiosyncrasies like that!

Intrigued? Take a look at the list of the 25 most endangered languages today. 

  1. Moseley, Christopher (ed.). 2010. Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. Paris, UNESCO Publishing. Online version.  

Friday, April 10, 2015

Linguistic Sexism: Can we make gendered languages more inclusive?
Author: Kelsey Briggs

To speakers of many romance languages, “gendering” nouns is an unconscious exercise that is ingrained in daily communication. In Spanish, all nouns and pronouns are ascribed either a feminine “la” or masculine “el”, similarly in French, Italian, and Portuguese. Assigning a gender to words like “la fresa” (strawberry in Spanish) or “le lion” (lion in French) is so second nature that it becomes easy to forget to question why every object, and more importantly, every person described in that language must be classified as either male or female. A rising debate in the linguistic world is how to address queerness and gender neutrality in languages characterized by gender binaries.

Some Spanish speakers choose to use the ‘’@’’ symbol in writing to be more gender inclusive (e.g.: tod@s instead of todos or todas), but there still remains confusion about how to verbally pronounce gender neutral or queer pronouns. Others propose to create an entirely new third gender pronoun, similar to “zie”, “xe”, or “they” in English. Incorporating gender neutrality into languages founded upon a system of gender binaries would be a challenge, but is certainly not impossible. 

In Germany, for example, gendered pronouns are transforming to be more arbitrary and inclusive.  Many propose getting rid of gendered articles entirely, and now in Low German both men and women are referred to as “de” instead of the previous “der” and “die”. The state justice ministry is pushing for citizens to adhere to “’gender-neutral’ formulations in their paperwork” as well.[i] While many linguists argue that it is difficult and cumbersome to change the grammatical structures of a language through human will, we see modifications in languages occur all the time. This is especially so with the introduction of new words and concepts that are adopted across languages due to the technology boom and globalization. Convincing an entire population to actively change the way they speak and in turn conceptualize gender, however, could be a more lengthy and arduous process.

A study in 2012 led by psychologist Jennifer Prewitt-Freilino compared languages with global gender inequality, showing that “those who read in gendered languages responded with higher levels of sexism to a questionnaire they took after the study.” Gendered languages showed the highest rates of gender inequality. Interestingly enough, however, languages with no gender ascribed to nouns or pronouns didn’t rank as well on the gender equality scale as predicted. Prewitt-Freilino said speakers of gender neutral languages, like Persian, are actually likely to assume male characters when the gender is up to the speaker’s discretion. Natural gender languages, such as English (in which gender is assigned to pronouns but not nouns), fell somewhere in the middle.[ii] The study thus showed significant variability among languages and gender equality. Based on these results, incorporating gender neutral pronouns into gendered or natural gender languages may not contribute to actively reducing sexist tendencies. However, recognition of non-binary identities remains a crucial issue in many societies, particularly in the interest of individual identities.

[i] Oltermann, Philip. “Germans try to get their tongues around gender-neutral language”. The Guardian. Mar. 24 2014.
[ii] Pappas, Stephanie. “Gendered Grammar Linked to Global Sexism”. Live Science. Feb. 21, 2012.

Monday, April 6, 2015

On Being a Third Culture Person

Third culture: When the answer to the question "where do you come from?" takes about 10 minutes to answer.
Coined by Dr. Ruth Useem, "third culture"isa phenomenon of globalization, the term was originally intended to refer to children who accompany their parents into another society and not necessarily people who have grown up and identify with more than one society. A common behavioral occurrence in third culture kids is in picking and choosing the parts of the culture that we identify with. However, although there are definitely privileges that come with the ability to travel so extensively, including bilingualism and the open-mindedness and more analytical way of thinking from being able to compare knowledge from different cultures, sometimes, it is a lonely life as a Third Culture person. So, what are these problems, and how can we approach them?
1) "Nobody understands me."
Being a Third culture person, a common occurrence is not being able to share experiences with other people who may not have the same desire to travel and explore the world, or have a  very narrow-minded outlook. However, third culture people are more common than you think, so head to any backpacker spots that you may know. Often times, it is these spots that draw other third culture people. Or, talk to the internationals in your building; perhaps you''ll find a fellow third culture person out there as well.
2) "I don't belong anywhere."
The contradiction of being a third culture kid is that you understand many different cultures, but don't feel like you belong in any of them. There is no pressure to completely belong in one culture; simply know the societal expectations and culture, and from there, you can at least pretend to belong even if you do not. However, often times, the problem in this saying is more personally. This leads to the next problem...
3) "I don't know who I am."
Born in Thailand, studied abroad, living in the US. Culture and nationality is a core part of a

person's identity. For third culture people, however, this is not a possibility, which leads to 

identity crisis. However, can it not be that to have more have one nationality tied to your 

identity, can itself be an identity? The question of identity is one that only you, the third 

culture person, can slowly cultivate. However, one thing is for sure, knowing you belong to 

one culture does not in any way mean that you know more about who you are. This is a 

problem everyone faces, not just third culture people.

So, are you a third culture person? If so, have you ever heard these questions in your head? Comment below!


Friday, March 27, 2015

Language Dorms at Moho: What’s the vibe?

By: Hannah Rickard

As many of you may already know, there has been talk of creating designated language floors in some of the Moho dorms. Did you know that Amherst, Smith, UMASS (Amherst), and Hampshire each have language dorms? Here’s a little bit about them:

  1. Amherst College

Language floors at Amherst are part of Amherst’s student suggested “theme” houses. These language floors include a French House, a Spanish House, a Russian House, and a German House. Amherst also has cultural houses: The Charles Drew Black Cultural House, The Asian Culture House, and La Casa--the Latino Cultural House.

Here’s a snippet taken from Amherst’s website, showcasing the positive effects of language floors!:
"The French House is one of the best kept educational secrets on campus. The residents are so busy enjoying themselves, they don't always realize that they're perfecting their French." -- Paul Rockwell, Professor of French 

     2. Smith College

Smith has a French House on campus called Dawes, which was initially started in

Here’s what the Smith residential life staff has to say about Dawes:
“In Dawes, students are encouraged to speak French and all house meetings are conducted in French.The house subscribes to a variety of French magazines and newspapers. Even house flyers and signs are translated into French in keeping with the theme.”
     3. UMASS Amherst

UMASS offers six languages, one per floor, in a dorm called the Thatcher House. The six languages include Chinese, French, Italian, German, Japanese, and Spanish!

Here’s what UMASS-Amherst has to say about the Thatcher House: 
“Each of the language programs...occupies a floor which includes its own classroom/lounge. Students meet there to socialize in the language, and regularly during the week for a specially-designed two credit conversation/culture course. An experienced graduate student from the Language Department teaches the course and organizes social and cultural activities.”  

     4. Hampshire 

While Hampshire doesn’t have specifically designated language dorms, it does have some great sociocultural and religious dorms, which it calls Identity-Based Housing and Intentional Housing Communities.

Here’s some information on these living spaces:
Identity-based housing includes various group living situations with a common identity  such as race, culture, or sexual orientation. Current identity-based spaces include: International Students, Kosher, Latino/a, Queer, Students of Color, and Women of Color.”

“Intentional housing communities are living spaces in which the residents have chosen to come together around a particular area of interest that will contribute to and cultivate the campus' culture of learning. They work together with a faculty or staff advisor to educate themselves and the larger community about their area of interest. Students who elect to reside in these spaces can expect to gain meaningful relationships with one another, lasting connections with staff and faculty, access to greater campus resources, and sense of pride in their community.”

Here are some of the current Intentional Housing Communities at Hampshire right now:
“Kosher Mod, Prescott 82: A Kosher living space. All students welcome to apply, regardless of religious affiliation.

“Spiritual Womyn's Mod, Greenwich 36: A place for self-identified Womyn that promotes and heightens spirituality. A collective space to support and guide spiritual paths and encourage the mindful growth of the Hampshire community. Female and/or female self-identified continuing students welcome to apply.”

Women's Empowerment Mod Enfield 66: A safe and supportive space actively to engage with and challenge the normative expectations placed on women. Female and/or female self-identified continuing students welcome to apply.”

Would you like to see language designated floors at Mount Holyoke? We want to know your thoughts concerning this proposal! Did any of the housing options from the other five colleges strike your interest? Please take this short survey to help us to understand what you think of this proposal: Survey: Language Dorms at MHC.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Popular Language Software Review

1.) Mango Languages:
Mango Languages is an online language learning system teaching practical conversation skills for real communication. The list of languages we provide at Mount Holyoke College are below:
Mango Languages is especially good if you want to focus on conversational phrases for everyday life. It also focuses on the basics of grammar and conjugation (including tones). 


Who can use Mango Languages?

Anyone in the MHC community (that has a MHC e-mail) can use ML. That includes students, faculty, and staff. Alumni can use ML as long as they are on campus--you just have to use your old MHC e-mail.

Using Mango Languages (ML):

To access ML, you must click through the link on the LRC website (you cannot bookmark the site directly). If you're on campus, it will take you right to ML. If you're off-campus, it will go through an EZ Proxy page, where you'll need to sign in with your MHC username and password. 
Once you're on the ML page, you have the option to set up an a ML account, to keep track of your studies, or just start studying without making a ML account.


ML allows you to listen to the native speaker, then record your own voice, then compare the two. You can keep doing this until you like how similar you sound. ML also has a new program available--learning languages via movies, which is an easy way to get used to a language.
The movie program currently has movies in Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish (Latin America), but if you check back regularly, you'll find it's slowly adding more. Here's a great intro video about it:


ML feels the need to read everything out to you, so if you are a visual learner and just want to read through the flashcards and only listen to the native speaker speaking, it can be rather annoying. ML also has a "language placement" program but it doesn't seem very accurate at placing you where you belong, so I think it's best to judge for yourself.

2.) Rosetta Stone:

Rosetta Stone pioneered the use of interactive software to accelerate language learning. The list of languages we provide at Mount Holyoke College are below:
Rosetta Stone is a really varied software that will help you with speaking and recognizing words.


Who can use Rosetta Stone?

Anyone in the MHC community can use RS. That includes students, faculty, and staff. All you need is your MHC e-mail. You can access it anywhere on the internet. As of Fall 2015, we only offer the beginning level of the languages we provide.

Using Rosetta Stone (RS):

As of Fall 2015, you can create an account with RS via this link:

After using your MHC e-mail to make an account, pick the language you want to learn. You go to this page every time you want to use RS and just put in the information you put in the last time (your e-mail and the password you chose). You can change your target language this way, too, by choosing a different one than previously. 


RS is helpful if you're trying to get good at pronounciation as it forces you to speak loudly and correctly in order to let you move on. It also lets you hear native speakers and you can slow the native speaker down if you prefer. It is also a good refresher if you take a lower level of a language on RS that you've already learned higher levels of elsewhere. 


However, RS doesn't seem to explain when you don't understand something or if you're confused, it just moves on, focusing you to keep repeating yourself. It also lacks giving you vocab and meaning, so if that's what you're expecting, you won't be happy. Technically, I think RS's way of doing things is actually more helpful because instead of just giving you vocab vocab vocab, it gives you sentences that you need to know and you learn what the vocab is because of the pictures. But if you're not a visual learner, it may be hard for you. 

3.) Skritter

Skritter is an online learning system for Chinese and Japanese characters. 
It incorporates two key features for effective study: spaced repetition, so that you keep practicing characters regularly and practice those you get wrong more frequently, and physical rehearsal, so that you practice by actually writing, not just reviewing them. Skritter offers lists of characters from most major Chinese/Japanese textbooks, so you can start learning what you need to know immediately. You can also create your own custom lists.


Who can use Skritter?

Anyone in the MHC community (that has a MHC e-mail) can use Skritter. That includes students, faculty, and staff.

Using Skritter:

Anybody with e-mails ending in "" can register by clicking the login and then "Create an Account". Then you click "Alternative Payment Methods" and then "validate your school e-mail". You then will get a code that you'll have to submit on the same sign-up page on Skritter. For easy access/memory, I recommend you use your e-mail (i.e. wilki22l) for both your username and password. 
Skritter is web-based, so you can use it on any computer with an Internet connection, on or off-campus. 


If you're taking a Chinese or Japanese class, you're likely going to find your textbook already in the Skritter system. You can also access Skritter on mobile devices as there are apps available for iOS and Android (so you can practice Skritter while waiting for your class to start). 


If you do not like to be timed, you will not like this program. It also repeats itself over and over, to make sure you 100% know the characters. However, if you are a quick learner, it may become annoying. 

4.) Pimsleur

The Pimsleur Approach (audiobooks) will allow you to speak a new language so quickly that you may find yourself not only amazed and delighted at your newfound abilities, but also extremely motivated to delve more deeply into the language you've chosen to learn.
The languages Mount Holyoke College offers are: Italian, French, and German.


Who can use Pimsleur?

Anyone who can check out books from the LRC can check out the Pimsleur courses. 

Using Pimsleur:

If you want to check out one of the Pimsleur courses, you need to talk to the LRC consultant at the main desk. We have levels I, II, and III for each language, so please specify to the consultant which one you're interested in. Once you open the packet, you should find the CDs and a guide. If you have any questions, feel free to ask the consultant. 


Pimsleur is an audio-based course that presents phrases in the target language first, and then in your mother tongue for you to translate into that language. It is similar to Rosetta Stone in the way that it focuses on you listening and responding to what you hear. If you are an auditory-learner that has the primary goal to speak your target language, this may be a great option for you!


The system is almost entirely audio-based. Although there may be some reading material, it is only to be read while listening to the audio that gives instructions on how to proceed. The vast majority of what is said to you will never be written down in any form as it is trying to force you to speak the language and not read it at any time. For non-auditory-learners, this may be very difficult since you will not see the vocab you are learning.


Here are some other reviews you can read up on: