Familiar in their mouths as household words

Mar 072013

My French isn’t that good: I can hold a conversation (sometimes) but I couldn’t hold a job. One way I try to get better is to read more and listen to more in French. I recently came across the Langue Française section of the TV5Monde site, which has an almost overwhelming range of features.

One of them is 7 jours sur la planète (7 Days on the Planet). It’s a regular feature  with three segments from the week’s TV news. For each segment, you can watch the video clip, read a transcript, and then test your comprehension with three levels of questions (elementary, intermediate, and advanced).

7jours exercises

I watched the first clip in the grid above, about fish fraud (one species of fish passed off as another). I got the gist, then brought up the transcript to spot words I didn’t know, or catch meanings I might have mistaken.

That’s when I discovered Alexandria. TV5Monde’s site is set up so that on a page with a special icon (red circle with a question mark in the upper right of the following image), you can double-click any word to bring up a multi-language dictionary:



In this example, I clicked on l’étiquette. Alexandria popped up with a French-language dictionary, which reminded me that une étiquette is a little card or tag with the price, origin, or instructions for some product or item of merchandise.

You can set the dictionary to translate into any of more than two dozen languages:


(“Choose your target language.”)

What impresses me about this approach is that TV5Monde doesn’t have to create specialized hypertext for certain words. As far as I can tell, Alexandria’s dictionary works with any word on the page.

If you don’t know any French, of course, this would be a terrible way to learn it. You wouldn’t have any background to decide between one meaning and another, and a dictionary can’t tell you much about syntax or context.  The title of the segment in French, La fraude  aux poissons passe à travers les filets, could be read as “Fish fraud passes through the nets.” But even my paperback French-English dictionary has 27 main entries for passer,  and given the subject, I’d translate the title as “Fish fraud is slipping through the nets.”

If  you’ve got a low-to-intermediate level of ability with French, this is a powerful tool to help you understand more of what you read on the TV5Monde site

It looks like there’s a lot more to Alexandria–more than I can spend time on this morning. I have the impression you can link any web page to the dictionary’s features. I haven’t tested that yet, but I will.

Sep 142012

When people talk about formal versus informal learning, or training versus instruction, or similar after-the-conference-but-still-in-the-bar topics, I tend to watch for hidden discriminations–clusters of things that are different, tucked into a conceptual container and wrapped in paper that says “generalization.”

Take “learning a language,” about as good an example of a complex skill as you could find. What do you mean by “learning?”  In fact, to me there’s a curious time-travel aspect to it: someone who’s learning a language clearly has a way to go; someone who’s learned a language is evidently a skilled user — but how did she get from the one state to the other?

When linguists get together, of course, they ask, “What do you mean by ‘language?’”  Or maybe they don’t, because most of them know about Max Weinreich, the linguist, who said:

אַ שפראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמײ און פֿלאָ
A shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot.
(A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.)

(I did come across a variation: a language is a dialect with a missionary.)

To me the relevant point is that, at least for adults, it’s the learner who decides what a language is, and who (probably with help) decides on what learning means. It might be the learner accepts the definition of other people, like the language program in a college. Or he may have a more pragmatic definition, like “get a job in Norway,” and uses that to help him choose what learning Norwegian means (reading, writing, and speaking it well enough to earn a living).

I’ve been mulling this over in terms of my own efforts to be more fluent in French. And like “learning” and “language,” “French” is a covert discrimination. Despite the eye-rolling that most Americans like to do when (once every six years or so) they think of l’Académie française, millions of people worldwide who are effectively if not officially part of La Francophonie don’t lose sleep over whether le week-end is in l’Académie’s dictionary.

There are the Acadiens, for instance, scattered over North America. The singer Zachary Richard gave a stirring performance of his song Réveille at an Acadien festival in New Brunswick a few years ago. I wrote about it and included an English translation of the lyrics here on my French-language blog, though I want to highlight what he said in his introduction:

I appeal for help on behalf of the Acadiens of Louisiana. We have fallen off the cliff, but we have not yet struck the ground.  The next generation in Louisiana will probably be the first in two hundred years not to speak French, or to understand that preserving the French language does not mean preventing the assimilation of Anglo-American words into our vocabulary — but preventing the assimilation of the French-speaking community on the border.

So what are they doing to (better) learn their language?  This video is in French; it describes efforts by Louisianans, especially those who identify as Acadien, to preserve or recover their language.  The first three minutes talk about people who meet weekly, for an hour, to speak only in French.

And if you advance to about the 3:00 mark, you’ll hear Erin Stickney from Lafayette, LA, speaking in French with a strong Southern American accent. At one point she says,

I would like (her children, when she has them) to learn the French of this region.  Because it’s important for Louisianans to learn the French of Louisiana. It’s good to learn the French of France also, but we have to learn this French we have here, because otherwise it’s practically the same as learning Arabic, Spanish, or Japanese. There’s a reason French exists here, and we have to continue that.

I admire the efforts these people are making. Stickney is able to converse with a French interviewer and to make herself understood.

Stephen Fry, of all people, spent some time with people who speak a much less widespread language: Irish.  (Many people tend to use “Irish” as the English word for Gaeilge, the Goidelic language of Ireland, and “Gaelic” for Gàidhlig, the Goidelic language of Scotland, though you’ll hear “Gaelic” applied to both.) He touches on native speakers and on efforts in Ireland to encourage use of the language, though it’s not an easily traveled road.

Jim McCloskey, an expert on modern Irish, has a refined view on the role of Irish.  ”Traditional Gaeltacht Irish [Irish spoken as a first language in certain regions of Ireland] will almost certainly cease to exist in the next 30 years or so,” he wrote in this post on the Language Log blog. He does, however, see the creation of a lively “second language community” that’s much larger than the Gaeltacht community.  So for him, the disappearance of Irish may be more a transformation–fewer and fewer native speakers, but many people who use and enjoy using the language.

A final look at language use, again from the Language Log, involves an attempt to revive Cornish. When I took a linguistics course in grad school, one “fact” we learned was that the last native speaker of Cornish died in 1777.  Whether Dolly Pentreath was in fact the last person to have learned Cornish as a birth language doesn’t matter, because give or take a few years, no one has learned it as a birth language since Vermont was an independent country.

I return to Geoffrey Pullum’s post time and again. He’s talking about “living languages,” rather than “learning a language.”  The two are related, though, and this is his elegiac summary of what learning would have to be like to keep a language living:

Always remember this, as we head into the sad time of massive language extinctions that is coming. Ask around the village and find the age of the youngest people using a language every day for all their normal conversational interaction. If the answer is a number larger than 5, the language is probably dying. If the answer is a number larger than 10, it is very probably doomed. If the answer is a number larger than 20, you can kiss it goodbye right now: no amount of nostalgic appreciation of it will make it last even one more generation as a going concern.


Sep 122012

Quite a while back, I came across a site that used to be called Universal Subtitles but now seems to call itself Amara.

You can submit a video via a URL of “an Ogg, WebM, flv, mp4, Youtube, Vimeo or Dailymotion video.” There’s also a script capability. Once you upload the video, you can enter or upload subtitles, and then synchronize to the video.

You can probably see lots of ways to apply this. I thought I’d enter the lyrics to a few songs, especially ones not well known to English speakers.  And since Amara lets you provide subtitles in multiple languages, I tried a few songs by Georges Brassens, a French singer-poet known throughout the francophone world, but who’s about as well known to English speakers as… most French-speaking singer-poets not named Jacques Brel.

In this song, he’s asking to be buried not in a cemetery, but on the beach at Sète, his home town (about 50 miles west of Marseille).

The control in the bottom left corner of the video lets you choose subtitles in English or in French; they’ll appear as the video plays, and you can switch between languages on the fly. (Although the embed code is finicky; I hope they’re working on something a bit more reliable for WordPress blogs.)

This seems like a great way to help connect the written words of a language with native speech (in this case, with Brassens’s distinctive accent), among many other things.

Besides, this is a terrific song. It’s a shame I don’t know more people who speak French, or I’d ask to include it at my funeral.

Jun 152012

“What do you call someone who speaks three languages?”


“What do you call someone who speaks two?”


“And what do you call someone who speaks only one?”


It’s an old joke — and I once hear it from someone who mocked her own countrymen by changing the punch line to “French.” It’s here because I’ve been wondering about how many Americans are able to speak more than one language.

A 2001 Gallup poll said that about 1 American in 4 can hold a conversation in a second language.  Looking at the topic from a different angle, a 2007 report from the Bureau of the Census said that “of 281.0 million people aged 5 and over, 55.4 million people (20 percent of this population) spoke a language other than English at home.”

Of those 55.4 million, about 31 million claimed to speak English “very well”, and another 11 million said “well.”

It’s something of a moving target, then, depending on how you define bilingual. I focused on it after seeing an article by science writer Catherine de Lange. The version I first saw appeared in the Washington Post, based on a longer piece de Lange wrote in New Scientist (paywall).  De Lange’s mother, who was French, spoke French to her from infancy, and the articles have to do with the effects of bilingualism on the brain.

One study she mentions discussed “a profound difference [in brain imaging] between babies brought up speaking one language and those who spoke two.”  In essence, researcher Laura Ann Petitto says, the babies’ bilingualism seems to “wedge open” the window for learning language, making it easier for them to acquire new languages through life.

And there’s this (from de Lange’s Washington Post article):

Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, first stumbled upon one of these advantages while asking children to spot whether various sentences were grammatically correct. Both monolinguals and bilinguals could see the mistake in phrases such as “apples growed on trees,” but differences arose when they considered nonsensical sentences such as “apples grow on noses.” The monolinguals, flummoxed by the silliness of the phrase, incorrectly reported a grammar error, whereas the bilinguals did not.

One explanation (based on work by Viorica Marian and her colleagues) is that the two languages “are constantly competing for attention in the back of the [bilingual] mind.” As a result, the brain is constantly getting “the kind of cognitive workout…common in many commercial brain-training programs.”  (Those programs require you to ignore distracting information.)

What about the long-term effect of this competition?  De Lange reports that Bialystock and colleagues found that bilinguals were slower than their monolinguals peers to show signs of Alzheimer’s — by four to five years, even after taking in factors like occupation and education.

So possibly all that activation strengthens the brain in a way that helps it resist the disease.  Not that you should try learning another language as a form of medication–though if that’s the way you look at it, enjoy.

More speculative, but just as interesting were de Lange’s comments on how a bilingual person can express himself — can behave, so to speak — differently in the two languages.  There’s a hint that the person may have the mental equivalent of two channels, one for each language.

Which probably bodes well for the bilingual Karen Matheson, who sings Canan nan Gaidheal (The Language of the Gaels).  (The song tells of the Western Isles — the Outer Hebrides — the stronghold of Scottish Gaelic.)


Dec 152010

Universal SubtitlesYesterday, I saw a tweet about Universal Subtitles, an open-source site to “make the work of subtitling and translating video simpler, more appealing, and, most of all, more collaborative.”  The site lets you add captions, subtitles, or translations to videos online.  (They say they work with Ogg, WebM, FLV, Youtube, Vimeo, Blip or Dailymotion.)

I’d been wanting to find out how to add captions to videos, the way I’d seen song translations done on Youtube.  On La charrette pélagique, the blog I (infrequently) write in French, I’ve tried translating some French songs into English.  The hard part there is that you can’t easily fit two translations side-by-side, so you end up alternating languages one verse or chorus at a time.

In addition, if you’re trying to understand spoken (or sung) language, I think it helps at times to be able to see the words in sync with the audio stream.

So, for a good part of yesterday afternoon and this morning, I used Universal Subtitles to create both an English translation and a French transcription of La berceuse (“The Lullaby”) by the French singer Bénabar (Wikipedia bio in English, French; French-language website).

(If you’re the parent of little kids, or know people who are, I think you’ll enjoy Bénabar’s take on lullabies.)

I haven’t figured out how to embed the subtitled version here, so if you’re curious:

  • Click this link: La Berceuse
  • Below the video, choose the language for the subtitles (“original” [meaning French] or English)
  • Play.

You singing to ME?

Universal Subtitles is a collaborative effort, which means someone else can come along to edit my French-language transcript (I have my doubts about a word here and there), my English translation, or my synchronization.  For myself, I wish there were a way to save my own version–to keep it as I made it, for my own purposes–but that’s a minor point.

What’s more important is the immediate usefulness of this tool.