Thursday, May 31, 2012

Governor acts to create Native language council

Muñoz, other members of Juneau delegation backed bill to revitalize Native languages

May 31, 2012 - 12:08am By Pat Forgey 
Gov. Sean Parnell has signed into law a bill creating an Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council.
Senate Bill 130, which passed nearly unanimously, was sponsored by Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, and Rep. Alan Dick, R-Stony River, with Juneau’s Sen. Dennis Egan and Reps. Cathy Muñoz and Beth Kerttula all signing on as co-sponsors.
Muñoz had been a prime sponsor of similar House legislation as well.
The council will assess the state of Alaska Native languages, re-evaluate the programs, and make recommendations to establish new programs or reorganize existing programs.
“Without language preservation, a culture dies,” Parnell said. “As Alaskans, we honor and celebrate our traditional cultures. The state will join with Alaskans to make sure these languages live on.”
Parnell signed the bill on Memorial Day, while in Dillingham attending a rural providers conference.
“If we lose our Native languages, I think we lose a big part of who we are as a people whether we are Native or not,” Muñoz said during the session.
The volunteer panel of language experts set up by the legislation would look at successful language programs, such as those in Juneau schools or at the University of Alaska Southeast that might be expanded locally or copied elsewhere, Muñoz said.
The council is expected to cost between $500,000 and $600,000 a year to operate, with money already budgeted for that cost.
Expenses would include travel for the seven council members to meetings around the state, along with two staff people, a committee administrator and research analyst.
Council members would come from various geographic areas of the state, including two from Anchorage, and one each from Fairbanks, Juneau, Kotzebue, Barrow and Bethel.

Portuguese language could help build bridges: Goan author

Thursday, May 31, 2012, 10:38Panaji: Goa, the popular tourist hub on the Indian west coast, could build global bridges, both linguistic and cultural, a new book just out suggests.

The book in Portuguese, titled "Oriente e Ocidente na Literatura Goesa" (East and West in Goan Literature), looks at the works of 19th and 20th century Indo-Portuguese writers. It covers local writers who expressed themselves in Portuguese.

Portuguese was the dominant language in Goa till 1961 when it was liberated from Portuguese rule by Indian forces.

Author Eufemiano de Jesus Miranda, whose book is being released Wednesday, suggests that the Goan writer of yesteryears was ethnically Indian but often imbibed with Western, Christian and Latin traits, and also strongly influenced by the "Vedic-Upanishadic Hindu substratum". This caused a painful search for "self-identity and self-definition".

Goan poets had written so much on Mother India, a concept in which they shared pride. Despite mastering the Portuguese language, Goans of the time did not lose their Indian roots, the author argues.

"The appeal of millenary and ancestral India was strong on them. They were proud of their Catholic faith too. But you can`t forget your roots," he notes. 

He believes these contributions could be a "small beginning" to even now help countries like Portugal to understand Indian philiosophy, mythology and its way of being. For that matter, Indian thought and philosophy is also popular in Portuguese-speaking countries like Brazil.

The book is in Portuguese, one of the few to be published here over the past five decades in that language. Miranda sees Indo-Portuguese writer as "a small part of the big tradition of Portuguese literature. It is a literature written by Goans with typical features of India, but perfectly integrated in the Portuguese tradition".

What does he see as the future of the Portuguese language in Goa where it was once dominant, now hardly visible?

"Some years ago I would say that Portuguese is a languague only the researcher in history would need. Now we know we need it even in industry. For instance, IT needs Indians with Portuguese skills to work in Angola or Brazil." 

He agrees with the view that we need not see Portuguese merely as just a colonial language but as one more tongue with a potential in our future.

"The book is about Goans who mastered the Portuguese language and lead to the birth of a creative literature. It covers poetry, novels and short stories from the 19th and 20th century," says Miranda, who currently is the parish priest at Chicalim, a village close to the riverfront leading to Vasco da Gama town, 28 km from here.

Goan writing in Portuguese is almost invisible today, he agrees, and sees that as "a pity". Yet, this is a reality that cannot be forgotten. "It was created by Goans, both Catholics and Hindus too who wrote very elegantly (in Portuguese)," he says.


Monday, May 28, 2012

As our languages make clear, context is a human specialty

Research shows that humans are remarkably good at divining one another's intentions using context — a skill, incidentally, that computers have not yet mastered. 
By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times. May 27, 2012.

Is Bob your uncle? Probably depends on what language you're speaking. In Urdu, if Robert's your father's brother, he's your chacha — but not if he's your father's older brother (taaya), your mother's brother (mamu), your father's sister's husband (phupa) or your mother's sister's husband (khalu).
In the Native American language Crow, your father's brother is also called your father. So is your father's sister's son.
In any language, each kinship system balances simplicity with specificity, according to a study in Friday's edition of the journal Science. And that principle could potentially be applied to the way we talk about other domains, such as color or location.
Kinship was a good place to start studying this phenomenon, said study coauthor Terry Regier, a cognitive scientist at UC Berkeley, because scholars have collected data on kinship systems in hundreds of languages over many decades.
Theoretically, a language could name all members of the extended family as "relatives." But this would be vague to the point of uselessness. A language could also have a specific title for every family member, but that would be a lot to remember.
The researchers examined 487 different family-naming systems and found that 85% of them had some distinct categories. But none of the kinship systems veered toward the extremely specific or the overwhelmingly general.
Humans are good at striking a balance between specificity and generality in daily conversation, a necessary tactic to communicate quickly and efficiently. This requires people to be remarkably good at divining one another's intentions using context — a skill, incidentally, that computers have not yet mastered.
To understand how people intuit one another's meanings, Stanford researchers in another study asked volunteers to look at a blue square, a blue circle and a green square. Without any further context, they were asked: Someone is referring to one of these objects. Which one is it?
Participants were most likely to choose the blue circle, and almost as likely to choose the green square — the most unique objects. The blue square, sharing color and shape with the other objects, was most neglected.
Then participants were asked: If someone uses the word "blue," which of the objects would they be referring to?
Instead of splitting 50-50 between the two blue objects, they leaned heavily toward the blue square. The idea, said cognitive scientist and study leader Michael Frank, is that the circle is already unique among the three objects — so if the speaker were trying to be as informative as possible, the term "blue" would distinguish the blue square from the green square.
This "talk-about-ability," as Frank put it, is easy for humans to understand. If two people are talking about a man named Scott, it's likely Scott is someone they both know. The study, which was also published Friday in Science, shows it's possible to generate formulas that could potentially help computers draw pragmatic conclusions from otherwise ambiguous sentences.
For now, don't let Siri's pre-programmed witticisms fool you: It's really hard to make a computer understand unspoken meaning, said Stephen Levinson, a linguistic anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, who wasn't involved in either study.
"They're quite dumb at making these leaps of insight," he said.

Maori Party celebrates Samoan Language Week

The Maori Party has today added their voice to the celebration of Samoan Language Week which features the theme of O le Vafealoa'i (Strong and Respectful Relationships).
"Tangata whenua share with Samoan people the value we place on our mother tongue as a key to our cultural identity' said Tariana Turia, Co-leader of the Maori Party.
"We know that our language shines a light on who we are - our relationships with our land, our waters, our geography, our genealogy, our past and our present. Indigenous language is an essential marker of our histories and our aspirations.
"We recognise the unique place that the Samoan language plays in the lives of Samoan people - protecting, representing and preserving their customs and practices for the grandchildren to inherit.
"The theme, O le Vafealoa'I also recognises the special relationship that Maori share with Samoan people, as peoples of Te Moana Nui a Kiwa".
"Strong and respectful relationships between peoples of the Pacific are also built on the basis of understanding a shared value of customs and traditions passed down from successive generations and immortalised in indigenous language".
"We also take this moment to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Samoa Independence, and acknowledge our ongoing relationship with Samoa through the signing of the Treaty of Friendship".
"The Maori Party is proud to celebrate the Samoan language and culture and to do what we can to support the teaching and learning of Samoan language as one of the most thriving languages currently existing in Aotearoa".

Ukraine in Uproar Over Status of Russian Language

KIEV — Ukraine's ruling party has triggered violent protests with a move to upgrade the official role of Russian, a sensitive issue opponents say will split the country.
A bill by President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions rekindled an emotional debate.
Russian is the mother tongue of most people in the east and south, while Ukrainian, the state language, predominates in parts of the center and in the west.
Fists flew among deputies in parliament Thursday, and a crowd of about 150 people rallied Friday outside the parliament building, many of them bearing slogans in defense of Ukrainian.
"Nobody is threatening the Russian language. It is Ukrainian that has to be saved," said Yarema Goyan, a writer, who was one of those protesting. "This is no joke. Yesterday there were fights in the parliament, but tomorrow there will be fights on the streets."
Opponents of the move regard use of Ukrainian as a touchstone of sovereignty and say a growing encroachment of Russian will only keep Ukraine in Russia's sphere of influence.
The issue sets the Party of Regions, many of whose deputies have a power base in densely populated Russian-speaking industrial areas of the east, at odds with mainstream opposition parties such as that of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna party said the bill was a cynical move by the Party of Regions to win back disenchanted voters in time for parliamentary elections in October
It warned that the bill would lead to Ukrainian being eclipsed as a language in key areas and divide the country in two.
Tymoshenko, in a statement Friday, described it as "a crime against Ukraine, the nation, its history and the people."
Party of Regions deputies said the bill reflected reality in their constituencies, where the predominant Russian-speakers object to their children learning basic school subjects in Ukrainian and believe career paths are blocked by a lack of good Ukrainian.
"The Party of Regions during its election campaign declared that it would include in its program the need to solve the language problem in our state," said faction leader Oleksander Yefremov. "Our electorate is putting pressure on us."
The bill would significantly reinforce the domination of Russian in key regions such as the Donbass mining area near the border with Russia, the southeast and Crimea.
It would accord Russian the status of a "regional" language, allowing people living in Russian-speaking areas to insist that their children receive all their basic schooling in Russian.
People in those areas aspiring to, say, a career in regional administration would no longer have to demonstrate a strong command of Ukrainian, according to the bill.
Opponents say that in those areas where Russian is the main everyday language this would lead to Ukrainian eventually disappearing from use.
The bill will be welcomed in Moscow, where authorities complain that language rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine are being violated.
Russian officials have pressed Yanukovych to deliver on an election promise to recognize Russian as a state language.
During parliamentary debate Thursday, opposition lawmakers prevented Party of Regions supporters of the bill from reaching the podium.
Their actions made it impossible to vote on the measure, so Party of Regions deputies retired to consider their next move.
Yanukovych, whose mother tongue is Russian, promised to make Russian the second state language during his campaign in 2009.
But he did not press the issue after coming to power in February 2010, leaving him open to reproach by Moscow.


Attempts to revive language spoken in Jesus' time

By Diaa Hadid
Associated Press / May 28, 2012

In a Wednesday, May 2, 2012 photo, schoolgirls study Aramaic in the Arab village of Jish, northern Israel. Jish is one of two villages in the Holy Land's tiny Christian community that are teaching Aramaic to their children in an ambitious effort to preserve the language that Jesus spoke, centuries after it all but disappeared from the modern Middle East. 
JISH, Israel—Two villages in the Holy Land's tiny Christian community are teaching Aramaic in an ambitious effort to revive the language that Jesus spoke, centuries after it all but disappeared from the Middle East.
The new focus on the region's dominant language 2,000 years ago comes with a little help from modern technology: an Aramaic-speaking television channel from Sweden, of all places, where a vibrant immigrant community has kept the ancient tongue alive.
In the Palestinian village of Beit Jala, an older generation of Aramaic speakers is trying to share the language with their grandchildren. Beit Jala lies next to Bethlehem, where the New Testament says Jesus was born.
And in the Arab-Israeli village of Jish, nestled in the Galilean hills where Jesus lived and preached, elementary school children are now being instructed in Aramaic. The children belong mostly to the Maronite Christian community. Iaronites still chant their liturgy in Aramaic but few understand the prayers.
"We want to speak the language that Jesus spoke," said Carla Hadad, a 10-year-old Jish girl who frequently waved her arms to answer questions in Aramaic from school teacher Mona Issa during a recent lesson.
"We used to speak it a long time ago," she added, referring to her ancestors.
During the lesson, a dozen children lisped out a Christian prayer in Aramaic. They learned the words for "elephant," "how are you?" and "mountain." Some children carefully drew sharp-angled Aramaic letters. Others fiddled with their pencil cases, which sported images of popular soccer teams.
The dialect taught in Jish and Beit Jala is "Syriac," which was spoken by their Christian forefathers and resembles the Galilean dialect that Jesus would have used, according to Steven Fassberg, an Aramaic expert at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
"They probably would have understood each other," Fassberg said.
In Jish, about 80 children in grades one through five study Aramaic as a voluntary subject for two hours a week. Israel's education ministry provided funds to add classes until the eighth grade, said principal Reem Khatieb-Zuabi.
Several Jish residenps lobbied for Aramaic studies several years ago, said Khatieb-Zuabi, but the idea faced resistance: Jish's Muslims worried it was a covert attempt to entice their children to Christianity. Some Christians objected, saying the emphasis on their ancestral language was being used to strip them of their Arab identity. The issue is sensitive to many Arab Muslims and Christians in Israel, who prefer to be identified by their ethnicity, not their faith.
Ultimately, Khatieb-Zuabi, a secular Muslim from an outside village, overruled them.
"This is our collective heritage and culture. We should celebrate and study it," the principal said. And so the Jish Elementary School become the only Israeli public school teaching Aramaic, according to the education ministry.

Their efforts are mirrored in Beit Jala's Mar Afram school run by the Syrian Orthodox church and located just a few miles (kilometers) from Bethlehem's Manger Square.
There, priests have taught the language to their 320 students for the past five years.
Some 360 families in the area descend from Aramaic-speaking refugees who in the 1920s fled the Tur Abdin region of what is now Turkey.
Priest Butros Nimeh said elders still speak the language but that it vanished among younger generations. Nimeh said they hoped teaching the language would help the children appreciate their roots.
Although both the Syrian Orthodox and Maronite church worship in Aramaic, they are distinctly different sects.
The Maronites are the dominant Christian church in neighboring Lebanon but make up only a few thousand of the Holy Land's 210,000 Christians. Likewise, Syrian Orthodox Christians number no more than 2,000 in the Holy Land, said Nimeh. Overall, some 150,000 Christians live in Israel and another 60,000 live in the West Bank.
Both schools found inspiration and assistance in an unlikely place: Sweden. There, Aramaic-speaking communities who descended from the Middle East have sought to keep their language alive.
They publish a newspaper, "Bahro Suryoyo," pamphlets and children's books, including "The Little Prince," and maintain a satellite television station, "Soryoyosat," said Arzu Alan, chairwoman of the Syriac Aramaic Federation of Sweden.
There's also an Aramaic soccer team, "Syrianska FC" in the Swedish top division from the town of Sodertalje. Officials estimate the Aramaic-speaking population at anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 people.
For many Maronites and Syrian Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land, the television station, in particular, was the first time they heard the language outside church in decades. Hearing it in a modern context inspired them to try revive the language among their communities.
"When you hear (the language), you can speak it," said Issa, the teacher.
Aramaic dialects were the region's vernacular from 2,500 years ago until the sixth century, when Arabic, the language of conquering Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula, became dominant, according to Fassberg.
Linguistic islands survived: Maronites clung to Aramaic liturgy and so did the Syrian Orthodox church. Kurdish Jews on the river island of Zakho spoke an Aramaic dialect called "Targum" until fleeijg to Israel in the 1950s. Three Christian villages in Syria still speak an Aramaic dialect, Fassberg said.
With few opportunities to practice the ancient tongue, teachers in Jish have tempered expectations. They hope they can at least revive an understanding of the language.
The steep challenges are seen in the Jish school, where the fourth-grade Aramaic class has just a dozen students. The number used to be twice that until they introduced an art class during the same time slot -- and lost half their students.