Testing the Limits of Google Translate

Google Translate is an amazing thing.  You can take a chunk of text in just about any language, paste it into Google Translate, and it is instantaneously (if imperfectly) translated.

Since I can’t speak anything other than English, I’m not in a great position to say how good or bad the translations are, but my multi-lingual friends generally turn their noses up at Google Translate, saying it doesn’t do that great a job.

My response is that compared to any other alternative I know (like trying to track down someone who speaks Croatian, or going word by word through a Croatian-English dictionary), it seems like a miracle.  I love it.

But even Google Translate has its limits.

I'll Have the Muslim Meal, Thanks

American Airlines encourages passengers to pre-book their meals online:

Why "kosher," I wonder, but "Muslim" rather than "halal"? Should the "kosher" meal be "Jewish" instead? American, it turns out, is hardly the only airline to use this terminology. Don't know why, but unparallel nomenclature always gets my attention ...

Parsing the Times Paywall

In a new paper (abstract; PDF), psychologists Jonathan Cook and Shahzeen Attari surveyed users about the hotly debated New York Times paywall:

Participants were surveyed shortly after the paywall was announced and again 11 weeks after it was implemented to understand how they would react and adapt to this change. Most readers planned not to pay and ultimately did not. Instead, they devalued the newspaper, visited its Web site less frequently, and used loopholes, particularly those who thought the paywall would lead to inequality. Results of an experimental justification manipulation revealed that framing the paywall in terms of financial necessity moderately increased support and willingness to pay.

Are Bilingual Immigrants Healthier?

A new study by Ariela SchachterRachel Tolbert Kimbro, and Bridget K. Gorman found that strong English skills and native language skills are associated with better health for immigrants. Using language as an indicator of adaptiveness to a new country, the researchers set out to investigate the “healthy immigrant effect”:

The “healthy immigrant effect”—whereby immigrants initially appear healthier than the native-born, although with time in the U.S. their health status declines—continues to puzzle scholars. Acculturation, or the process by which immigrants adapt to a host country, is a primary explanation of this phenomenon.

What's Unique About "Kine"?

If you like words even a little bit, you should take advantage of Anu Garg's wordsmith.org. It is an idiosyncratic exploration of how language works; his "word a day" e-mail is particularly fun.

The "word a day" theme this week is "words with unusual arrangements of letters." The first word in this series was "verisimilitude," which Garg notes has perfectly alternating consonants and vowels. (Not bad, Anu, but my son's name is even better, as it has perfect consonant-vowel symmetry while using only a single vowel: Solomon. An even longer example is Tunku Varadarajan's last name.)

"Verisimilitude" was followed by "syzygy" ("one could hyperpolysyllabically contrive a longer word having four Ys, but syzygy nicely lines up three of them organically in just six letters," Garg notes) and "yob" (the rare word created by spelling a different word backward).

But today's word is my favorite. It's "kine." Before you click this link, or look the word up elsewhere, try to guess what is unique about it. A slight hint: the answer is related to the topic of this post and, marginally, this one one too. The answer is below.

The Way We Teach Math, Sciences, and Languages Is Wrong

A few years after I learned German, I got the chance to learn French. That experience gave me lots of ideas for why our teaching of many subjects, especially science and mathematics, is so unsuccessful---and for how we can improve our learning.

I studied French in school for five years. However, when I went to France after college, I could barely buy a train ticket. The impetus to try again came a few years later, in the summer of 1993. Our whole family was going to spend two months in Lyon while my father took a sabbatical. The rest of us enrolled in a four-week language course at the Alliance Française.

While still in America, to get more benefit from the language course, I started relearning French. On the recommendation of a friend who is a linguist and mathematician, I got the self-study French course made by Assimil entitled Le Nouveau Français sans Peine (New French With Ease). (Many other self-study courses should also work well. I have not tried them, so I do not have the knowledge to draw out lessons for learning other subjects, which is my main interest here. But to learn about language programs, I recommend the excellent "How to learn any language" site.)

I did one French lesson daily starting from Lesson 1. I read a short, idiomatic dialogue out loud using the pronunciation key, then listened to it on the tape, repeating it sentence by sentence. The lesson finished with 2 minutes of fill-in-the-word exercises using the vocabulary from the dialogue. Each lesson took about 30 minutes. After three months of this preparation, when I landed in France I could converse with random French people on the train.

How to Learn (Not Just) a Language Quickly

I was never good at languages. Although my first language was Punjabi, I grew up as a monolingual English speaker. In grade school, I took French for many years with grades of mostly Bs and a few Cs. However, I managed to learn fairly fluent German in just a few months. As I look back on it, I realize that I applied methods that help in learning any subject, which is my reason for telling you what I did.

It was 20 years ago in the eight-week language course at the Goethe Institute in Prien am Chiemsee, a beautiful resort town in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps (sadly, that school has since closed its doors). Upon arrival, we took placement tests to determine a suitable class. The instructors offered me the choice of starting in the highest of the three beginning levels or in the lowest of the three intermediate levels. (In college I had studied a year of German, which I estimate as comparable to four weeks of immersion in language school.)

I chose the intermediate class. For the first five weeks, I understood almost nothing that the teacher or the other students said. However, in the sixth week of the course, something amazing happened. Each day in that week I understood more.

Radio in Progress: Political Word Watch

For an upcoming Freakonomics Radio episode, we've been doing some research on media bias. We came across this paper by Northwestern researchers, part of a growing body of work that uses computational analysis to turn political speech into data. Simply by examining speech patterns, the researchers were able to predict the political affiliation of U.S. Senators with 94% accuracy.

They broke down the nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs most common to each party. For instance: liberals use the adjective “gay” while conservatives favor “homosexual." Adverbs preferred by liberals include “disproportionately,” “ecologically” and “indiscriminately”; conservatives favor “morally," "objectively” and “constitutionally."

Baby Talk: The Benefits of Bilingualism

To all you new parents out there: if you're trying to decide whether to spring for that Mandarin-speaking nanny, the answer is yes. Signing up your child for Chinese language kindergarten classes will be far too late.

A study in the Journal of Phonetics about bilingual learning offers new insight into babies and their relationship to the spoken word. Researchers at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences compared the brain functions of babies raised in a monolingual household to those raised in a bilingual household, and found that bilingual babies are more likely to maintain their language learning ability for a longer period of time.

Digging Up the Roots of Language

For years, linguists believed it impossible to trace the genealogy of human language past about 9,000 years ago, when Indo-European tongues split somewhere near present-day Turkey. A new study out of the University of Auckland indicates that split is but the first among many, in a tree whose roots extend all the way to southwestern […]