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Posts Tagged ‘language’

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.

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 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 Africa, some 70,000 years ago. . . .

The Origins of "OK"

The phrase “OK” is everywhere, but where did it get its start? A new book tackles its history.

The Upside of Profanity

A new study from the psychiatry department in New York’s Bellevue Hospital examines the use of offensive language by medical staff, patients, and families.

How the Market Influences What Language You Read In

My Dutch friends tell me that they read foreign (non-Dutch) novels that are translated into English rather than into Dutch.
Their English is very good, but their Dutch is clearly better. So, I ask, why read in English?

What Happens If You Are Far-Sighted in Thailand?

The first sign of middle age has hit home with my wife: she can no longer read small print up close and has to resort to the “reach,” where she extends her arm as far as she can to read books. That same fate probably soon awaits me as well, which makes me glad I am not Thai. I’ve never . . .

The Empiricist-in-Chief

Following up on yesterday’s post about quantifying political speech, Dartmouth’s Michael Herron — who is a first-rate political scientist and data hound — points out that Obama was the first president to speak about “data” in his inaugural address, and only the second to mention “statistics.”

Quantifying the President's Speech

Doug Mills/The New York Times Our friends at have put together a really fun tool to help you mine their database of the full text of all State of the Union Addresses (even though this wasn’t technically such an address) as well as inaugurals. It’s a fun way of tracking which issues have occupied the minds of our leaders. . . .

There Once Was a Fund Guy Named Bernie …

A reader named Van Brenner wrote to let us know about an online dictionary in which every definition is written in the form of a limerick. One of our favorites is the following one on bear markets by Robert Holland: Gentle Ben this bear market is not, Especially for bulls who are caught Unawares by his raid On the profits . . .

Our Daily Bleg: What's the Word for …

From a reader named Raymond DeCampo comes this interesting, poignant bleg. (Read up on blegs here; send your own blegs here; and see some other new Freakonomics-coined words here.) My wife and I recently undertook the task of securing our son’s future in the event we would not be there to secure it for him. In the process I realized . . .

English Guilt

English is everywhere — the lingua franca (should be lingua anglica) of today’s world! Its universal usage minimizes transaction costs in an increasingly integrated world — and that integration has increased interest in learning the lingua anglica. I feel guilty about this, and all American economists should: It’s easier for us to write our scholarly papers than it is for . . .

A Word on New Words

It is always fun to see language grow. (No, I don’t mean menu language.) One of my favorite rising words is “kindergarchy,” described here by Joseph Epstein as “rule by children,” a condition whereby “children have gone from background to foreground figures in domestic life, with more and more attention centered on them, their upbringing, their small accomplishments, their right . . .

How Much Does It Cost You in Wages if You “Sound Black?”

Fascinating new research by my University of Chicago colleague, Jeffrey Grogger, compares the wages of people who “sound black” when they talk to those who do not. His main finding: blacks who “sound black” earn salaries that are 10 percent lower than blacks who do not “sound black,” even after controlling for measures of intelligence, experience in the work force, . . .

How Networking Influences What We Speak

David Singh Grewal, an Eliot Fellow in the Social Sciences at Harvard University, is author of the book Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization, in which he explores, among other topics, the relationship between language, networks, and globalization. In the wake of the recent quorum we ran on this very subject, David has agreed to guest blog here. We . . .

Our Daily Bleg: Spanish-Language Music, Please

From a reader named Joe McCright of Alexandra, La., comes the following bleg. Please help him out in the comments section. Past blegs can be found here; you can send your own bleg requests here. I teach Spanish to kids in pre-K through 4th grade, and I play music of the Spanish-speaking world to expose them to aspects of the . . .

What Will Globalization Do to Languages? A Freakonomics Quorum

The headline says it all, although the unspoken question is: will globalization indeed result in the hegemony of English, as has long been promised/threatened? We gathered up some wise people who spend their time thinking about such things — Christian Rolling, Mark Liberman, Henry Hitchings, and John Hayden — and asked them to answer our question. Many thanks for their . . .

FREAK Shots: Outs de Temp

Minnesota Representatives Michele Bachmann and John Kline are pushing to make English the official language of the United States (and reduce multilingualism). But would this put the U.S. behind other countries in global awareness and education? One of our readers, Andy Little, noticed his own language ignorance by his initial interpretation of this sign: When I saw this sign in . . .