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Babbel On: August 2017 Language News Roundup

You can talk to your dog, and other news from the world of language.

Happy September! This is Babbel On, our monthly roundup of fascinating, motivating and enlightening articles for amateur linguists and language lovers.

When University of Michigan linguist Robin Queen adopted a border collie named Tansy, she wasn’t hoping to uncover the secrets of dog language. In an article in Wired, however, she talks about how her experiences training Tansy made her think that perhaps dogs can learn our language even better than simply knowing what “sit” and “speak” mean. Queen’s research hasn’t been published yet, but the research so far seems to show dogs are even better at comprehending language than humans’ closest relatives: chimpanzees and bonobos.

Animal Bonus Two more animals have shown off their language abilities this August: Japan’s Mainichi reported that a beluga whale at Kamogawa Sea World has been able to memorize objects with the sounds and symbols that represent them. Also, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has launched Hello in Elephant, a project for World Elephant Day that is studying elephant language in an effort to help save the species.

An article in the New York Times this month reports that exercising can help your learn a second language. Studies before have shown the numerous cognitive benefits of exercising on your brain, as it generally changes the brain’s biology so it is more malleable to memorizing, but this is the first time researchers have focused on language learning in particular. They found exercise helps people both memorize vocabulary and gain a better understanding of when to use the words in conversation. The takeaway is that if you’re learning anything, it’s best to not stay stationary all day. You can check out our article for ways to learn while moving.

Yes, this sounds like something from the first half-hour of a sci-fi horror film, but it’s true. The Independent reports that two of Facebook’s artificial intelligence robots were shut down after they stopped speaking English and started using a variation that seemed to be more efficient. To humans, however, it looks a bit crude:

These bots seem to be obsessed with balls and themselves, so really this isn’t too distant from a conversation in a men’s locker room. This is likely to keep happening as AI becomes more advanced. Hopefully, they’ll let us learn the language instead of murdering us all.

Two studies that came out in August have taught us more about how the bilingual brain works. A study out of Princeton University shows that babies as young as 20 months of age are able to process two distinct languages. This is further evidence that growing up as bilingual is not only not bad for you but also prepares you well for later in life.

If you’re a bilingual and older than a baby, there’s good news for you, too. Switching between languages is considered “inherently effortful,” but a new New York University study suggests that this is only the case when a person is “forced” to switch, like in certain language-learning settings. This means that learning a language on your own terms, or in a more conversational setting, is the best way to do so.

There are only three speakers of Nǀuu. More people speak Dothraki than this language, which is considered to be the first language of South Africa. The BBC writes that Katrina Esau is one of those speakers, and at 84 she is trying to save it from extinction. The main issue has been that until now, Nǀuu has never been written down, so once the speakers died off, so too did their dialects. Esau, however, has worked with linguists to create a written system and to start teaching the language to young students so they can carry on the tradition. South Africa has many, many languages because of its African roots and colonial past, and with each language that goes extinct, with it goes passed-on knowledge and a sense of identity for the Africans descended from those lines. This story is, fortunately, a hopeful one, but without people like Katrina Esau, languages will continue to fade out in this rapidly globalizing world.

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