What’s trending in language news today? Sometimes we’re in our little bubble, knowing what’s happening in our own country and the words being added to our lexicon each day.

But it’s interesting to take a look at how language is changing in places around the world as well as how it changes our world, especially through translation from one language to another.

When we speak, we engage nearly 100 muscles, continuously moving our lips, jaw, tongue, and throat to shape our breath into the fluent sequences of sounds that form our words and sentences. These complex articulatory movements are coordinated in the brain to form languages, currently numbering 6,909 worldwide.

The world of language is ever-evolving, and so is our understanding of how we use it, learn it, and translate it. Let’s explore just a few pieces of language news from around the world.

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Language News

How the English Language Has Evolved

Those who study language tend to view it as a living thing, beautiful and ever-evolving, and always regenerating itself in various forms.

Recently, a linguistic research team conducted a study to analyze how languages change. They argue that natural selection and genetic drift—from the analogy of evolution—both have parallels in how languages change over time.

University of Pennsylvania evolutionary biologist Joshua Plotkin, along with another evolutionary biologist and two linguists from UPenn, analyzed three databases of historical English together containing more than 400 million words and ranging from 1100 C.E. to the 21st century.

The researchers used statistical methods from population genetics to analyze three well-known changes in the English language:
  • How past-tense verbs in American English have taken the “-ed” ending
  • How the word “do” became an auxiliary verb in Early Modern English
  • How negative sentences were made in Old to Early Modern English

In this bit of language news, they discovered, due to jagged fluctuations that were obvious in the data set, that language changes occur in random fits and starts. English historians have long held that social and cognitive factors primarily shape language over time.

For example, languages lose irregular verb conjugations and word forms that are hard to remember. However, the UPenn team determined that most language changes actually happen more randomly than previously believed.

Nouns and How We Process Language

In another bit of language news concerning how we speak, a team of researchers led by Frank Seifart from the University of Amsterdam and Prof. Balthasar Bickel from the University of Zurich studied how we speak and process language and how that affects translation.

Their study focused on how we pronounce some words more slowly than others, or make brief pauses and throw in meaningless sounds. These are called “slow-down effects,” and they provide key evidence for how our brains process language.

The research team analyzed thousands of recordings of spontaneous speech from linguistically and culturally diverse populations from around the world, including the Amazon rainforest, Siberia, the Himalayas, and the Kalahari desert, but also English and Dutch.

In these recordings, the researchers analyzed slow-down effects before nouns and verbs. They measured the speed of utterance in sounds per second and noted whether speakers made short pauses.

“We discovered that in this diverse sample of languages, there is a robust tendency for slow-down effects before nouns as compared to verbs,” explain Bickel and Seifart in an interview for Science Daily magazine. “The reason is that nouns are more difficult to plan because they’re usually only used when they represent new information.”

Otherwise, they are replaced with pronouns.

This important piece of language news allows us to peek into how languages work in their natural environment.

This becomes even more interesting in our digital age, where humans communicate more with artificial systems that do not slow down before nouns. It could explain how nuances of language can easily be missed through artificial, or digital, transmission or translation.

Interactive Games and Language Learning

While all language news is informative, some of it can even be fun. Such is the case with Dr. Simone Bregni, associate professor of languages, literatures, and cultures at Saint Louis University.

Dr. Bregni first began using video games in language labs in 1997. However, with the rise of new animated, interactive adventure games since 2009, he noticed his students achieving striking results in both culture and language through playing the games in the classroom environment.

As such, he uses games to reinforce vocabulary and grammar, introduce cultural data, and teach students to problem-solve in Italian. Students also utilize vocabulary and grammar worksheets, applying them in the relevant game, and discussing and reflecting on them afterward in written exercises.

“In my Italian Renaissance literature course, students explore Florence as it flourished under the Medici by playing Assassin’s Creed II,” Bregni told editors of Science Daily magazine. “My 21st-century American students partake in the life of Ezio Auditore, a 20-something man from an affluent family, by wandering around a cultural and historical re-creation of 1476 Florence.”

The Reinert Center and the language learning studio of the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures now have games that can be played in multiple languages, including Italian, French, Spanish, Russian and Chinese so that instructors and students can supplement their course work.

“I firmly believe that learning should be fun,” Bregni said. “The fact that it is fun doesn’t take away from the seriousness—it’s just more effective.”

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