Babbel On: June 2018 Language News Roundup

The future of English, later-in-life language fluency and more in this edition of Babbel On.
Language News in May 2018

The Future Of English In The World

Chinese may have the most native speakers in the world, but English has been the lingua franca of the world for the past few decades. Ironically, the country with the most English speakers is China, where 350 million people who know the language. Is English sustainable? To introduce a four-part series on the BBC podcast The Compass about the future of English, Robin Lustig wrote about whether the language can maintain its seat of dominance around the world.

The main threat to English’s throne, according to Lustig, is computer translation. As machines get better and better at translating both text and speech, it may begin to make learning English a less urgent need. It is interesting to ponder the ramifications of a world in which people don’t need to learn a second or third language. Lustig also mentions the rise of China and the use of hybrid languages like Spanglish could pose challenges to English’s role in the world. While English will always be around, it may decrease in importance.

On The Other Hand: After the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in 2016, people were unsure how that would impact the language in Europe. Some thought that maybe English could be removed, but in the European Commission’s new budget for the years 2021 to 2027, it appears English will continue to be the lingua franca. This is to the chagrin of some, such as the French diplomats who walked out of an E.U. meeting when and English-only plan was put forward. For the next decade, at least, English will stay the primary diplomatic language in Europe — though it may sound less and less like British English.

Can You Be Too Old To Become Fluent In A New Language?

A study on language learning published in Cognition launched a thousand articles this past month. Some publications, like The Guardian and Time, published stories saying that becoming fluent in another language as an adult might be impossible. After the age of 17, it seems, a person’s ability to perfect a language’s grammar and pronunciation starts to fade.

But Wait, No: In classic think-piece fashion, new articles were then written to refute the first wave of articles. Linguistics professor Monika Schmid pointed out in The Conversation that the actual study in Cognition didn’t even actually talk about “fluency,” and instead was looking at a critical window for learning. By administering a Facebook quiz to about 700,000 people, the study’s researchers did find that people who started learning a language after the age of 17 do have a steep drop-off in certain grammatical features. That does not mean a person can’t become “fluent,” however.

This is all to say that while the original study did find valuable information about learning and aging, it shouldn’t be used as evidence that learning a language is pointless after a certain age. It might be slightly more difficult to master every aspect of the grammar, but anyone can still learn to speak well enough to communicate fluidly. Basically, no matter what your age, a new language is possible.

When Speaking Spanish In The U.S. Is Dangerous

One of the biggest recent news stories that involved a language was about Aaron Schlossberg, a lawyer who went on a racist tirade at a New York City restaurant in which he threatened to call immigration agents on employees who were speaking in Spanish. The rant was captured in a video, and people on the internet pounced on it. All of this culminated in a mariachi band leading a protest outside Schlossberg’s apartment, and Schlossberg’s tepid apology.

Taken on its own, this story shows how people are forced to face the consequences of blatant discrimination. But sometimes the situation is more dire. In Montana, a Border Patrol agent demanded to see two people’s identification papers because they were speaking Spanish in a “predominantly English-speaking state.” Again, this was caught on camera and the Border Patrol agent’s actions were condemned, but it does show a troubling phenomenon. And there’s not always a camera on when things like this happen.

Agents are technically not allowed to profile based on race or ethnicity, and language does fall into that restriction, but it hasn’t stopped language discrimination from happening. Blatant racism against Spanish-speaking people is not a new phenomenon; anti-Hispanic hate crimes have been happening for years. But with a rise in immigration arrests in the past few years, it is feeling even more unsafe for some to speak Spanish in public.

Babbel Bites

The Babbel staff’s favorite language articles from the last month.

Fiat Lex: A Dictionary Podcast
Acclaimed lexicographers Kory Stamper and Steve Kleinedler started a new podcast all about dictionaries called Fiat Lex. The first episode is all about how a word makes it into the dictionary, and it is a must for all the word nerds out there.

6 Questions With A Bilingual Parenting Expert
Babbel interviewed bilingual parenting expert Maritere Bellas about raising a child who can speak more than one language. Hint: it’s not easy, but it is very rewarding.

The Race To Preserve An Endangered Cambodian Language
Nikkei Asian Review
has the story of linguist Jean-Michel Filippi racing against the clock to record as much of the Cambodian language S’aoch as possible before it dies out. With only 10 speakers left, S’aoch is on the brink of being lost to time.

The Language Of The Grimms’ Fairy Tales
The brothers Grimm are well known for their collection of German folklore, and a recent article in
JSTOR Daily talks about how their preservation of oral history has helped (imperfectly) shape the German language.

Saving The Hawaiian Language From Extinction
NBC News interviewed Larry Kimura, a man who was fought to bring the Hawaiian language back into Hawaii schools in the 1980s. And to learn a little more about Hawaii and its language, you can read our article about the Hawaii accent and Pidgin.

A Love Story That Transcends Language Barriers
A few years ago, the New York Times“Modern Love” column published a story about a relationship that is complicated by an Arabic-English language barrier. The story is now on the Modern Love podcast, read by Saoirse Ronan and an updated with info on where the lovers are now.

How Christian Missionaries Became Invaluable To Linguists
Babbel explores the long entanglement of language and religion, and how Christian missionaries ended up being one of the most valuable linguistic resources in the world.

Zora Neale Hurston’s Newest Book Was Held Back Because Of Language
African-American author Zora Neale Hurston had a new book published this past May,
Barracoon, though it was actually written in the early 20th century. The book is a biography of Kossula, one of the last enslaved Africans to be brought to the United States. It wasn’t published at the time of its writing because Neale Hurston insisted on using Kossula’s dialect rather than standard English, which is what the publisher wanted. Now, his story is finally available for anyone to read, and it’s thankfully told in his own voice.

OK, Fine, The Yanny-Laurel Thing
We’re going to mention that Yanny-Laurel happened, and we’ll link to a Wired article that talks about the phenomenon, but we won’t be happy about it.

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Thomas Moore Devlin

Thomas is the editorial lead, and he has been at Babbel for over five years. He studied linguistics in college, and also has a background in English literature. He has been based in New York City for 10 years, where he spends most of his free time walking around Brooklyn and reading an unhealthy number of books.

Thomas is the editorial lead, and he has been at Babbel for over five years. He studied linguistics in college, and also has a background in English literature. He has been based in New York City for 10 years, where he spends most of his free time walking around Brooklyn and reading an unhealthy number of books.