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Posted 4 years ago by Colin Farlow

Bilingual Advantage

Ellen Bialystok, a research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, claims a polyglot child develops cognitive efficiency from constantly speaking more than one language: "[t]he constant necessity to resist attending to a second language in favor of the one in use, and the need to switch between languages demands more effortful attention than does monolingual speech production, and this greater cognitive demand fosters the development of a higher level of attentional control." [1]

This affect appears to help stave off the symptoms of Alzheimers. In Bialystok’s study individuals with Alzheimers who had equal levels of outward symptoms were compared. The study essentially shows that people who regularly speak more than one language can perform certain cognitive tasks with significantly less amount of functioning brain matter than can someone who only speaks one language. It seems that bilingualism delays the onset of outward symptoms associated with Alzheimers; provided everything else is equal, those who have the disease and are bilingual will still suffer from brain deterioration, but their symptoms will be less severe. In this sense, bilingualism serves some protection against the effects of Alzheimers.

In a recent New York Times article about her research Bialystok explains, "[t]here’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what is relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them. If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient."

The claim that bilingualism can actually be advantageous is significant, because in the past bilingualism was generally regarded as a liability. Bialystok notes, "until about the 1960s, the conventional wisdom was that bilingualism was a disadvantage. Some of this was xenophobia. Thanks to science, we now know that the opposite is true." [2] Bialystok describes questions posed to her about which language should be taught to children whose parents speak more than one language, “People e-mail me and say, “I’m getting married to someone from another culture, what should we do with the children?” I always say, “You’re sitting on a potential gift.”

[1] Schweizer TA, et al., Bilingualism as a contributor to cognitive reserve: Evidence From brain atrophy in Alzheimer's disease, Cortex (2011), doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2011.04.009 (available at []( "Science Direct"))

The author of this post, Colin Farlow, is a 02011 summer intern with the Rosetta Project. He recently graduated from Indiana University, where he studied East Asian Languages and Cultures and Philosophy.


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Posted 4 years ago by Harry Willoughby

Busuu Swan Song becomes Viral Video

Busuu, a language of Cameroon, is reported to have only eight speakers left in the world. Speakers of Busuu have nearly all shifted to using another local language Jukun, which has about 2,500 speakers. Jukun and Busuu are related, but are only partially intelligible with each other. Jukun is used by Busuu speakers for almost all purposes, Busuu generally being reserved for use only at Busuu reunions, and only by adults - no children are learning the language. For all intents and purposes, Busuu appears to be a lost cause, destined to disappear from use with the passing of its current generation of speakers.

Yet despite this (or perhaps because of this) it has been adopted as a cause by the eponymous language learning website, and awareness of the language’s plight is being spread through the medium of a professionally-produced video with a catchy song featuring the few remaining (but all apparently charming and good-humored) Busuu speakers. The website encourages people to spread awareness about Busuu through Facebook, Twitter and e-cards by sending recorded greetings from each of the remaining speakers. A clever and unusual tactic in raising the profile of an endangered language - but is increased awareness among online social networks likely to translate into increased use within the Busuu heritage speech community?

There are in fact a few notable cases where languages in rapid decline have been reversed, and threatened languages have significantly expanded in use and numbers of speakers - among these are Catalan, and Welsh and Hawaiian. For languages that have only a few remaining speakers like Busuu, Leanne Hinton, a linguist who works with critically endangered languages of Native California in the United States, has devised a technique whereby speakers and learners can create their own immersion environments for language learning. [1] These speakers then teach others the language, including their children. In this way a language can be passed along on a very localized level to a new generation.

To bring a language back into more widespread – even national – use, the key factor is support from every direction possible – top down from the government; bottom up from local communities. [2] Everyone needs to be invested, from governor to grandma, and real world-benefits to potential speakers is key. [3] So if this effort by to raise social awareness is effective, and generates broad recognition for the Busuu speech community, the resulting increase of local prestige for the Busuu Language could be significant indeed.

We're certainly willing to give it a try - Busuu Busuu!

[1] Hinton, Leanne. 2002. How to Keep Your Language Alive. Heyday Books.

[2] Crystal, David. 2000. Language Death. Cambridge University Press.

[3] Fishman, J.A. (ed.) 2001. Can Threatened Languages Be Saved? Reversing Language Shift, Revisited: A 21st Century Perspective. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

The author of this post, Harry Willoughby, is a 02011 summer intern with the Rosetta Project. He recently graduated from the University of Wales with a degree in Linguistics.

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Posted 4 years, 1 month ago by Colin Farlow

Telling Time in Amondawa

In a new study published in the journal Language and Cognition “When Time is Not Space,” a team of researchers from University of Portsmouth and Federal University of Rondonia claim that the Amondawa, a small Amazonian tribe, speak a language with a very uncommon conceptualization of time. The story was recently picked up by BBC, revealing that the debate about whether language influences thought is very much alive and newsworthy.

According to researchers Sinha et al., the Amondawa have no words for talking abstractly about time (as in the English word 'time'), or time periods (like 'year'):

“What we don't find is a notion of time as being independent of the events which are occurring; they don't have a notion of time which is something the events occur in.”

The mapping of time to physical space is commonly found in human language, and its absence in Amondawa is perhaps the most surprising result of the study. Rather than having a time-space metaphor, the Amondawa conceptualization of time is based on “social activity, kinship and ecological regularity.”

Pierre Pica, a theoretical linguist at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, question the conclusions derived from this new research. Pica explains that just because Amondawa does not use cardinal chronology, does not mean they view themselves advancing through time any differently than the rest of us who use a cardinal chronological system.

Sinha et al. state that the tribe’s language in no way affects their cognitive ability to grasp temporal concepts -- they talk about events, and sequences of events, and learn Portuguese which does have abstract time expressions. Rather, the Amondawa language provides a different way of construing and talking about temporal concepts in daily life.

This contention about whether the Amondawa language affects its speakers’ thought processes hearkens back to a famous study by Benjamin Lee Whorf on the Hopi Language in the first half of the 20th century. This study was a foundational example for Whorf’s “linguistic relativity hypothesis” – the idea that the language you speak influences the way you think. From his study of Hopi, Whorf concluded:

“The Hopi language is seen to contain no words, grammatical forms, constructions or expressions that refer directly to what we call TIME, or to past, present or future, or to enduring or lasting…the Hopi language contains no reference to TIME, either explicit or implicit.” [1]

Whorf’s ideas about Hopi have received a great deal of criticism over the years, and his data was critiqued as erroneous evidence resulting from deficient research practices. [2] Nevertheless, the idea that language influences thought has certainly stuck around, and is now being raised by a new generation of researchers like Sinha et al who are gathering new data from small and threatened languages around the world.

For more on the relationship of language and thought, listen to our podcasts of previous Long Now seminars by Lera Boroditsky as well as Daniel Everett who talks about Pirahã, a language also from the Amazon.

[1] Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1950. An American Indian Model of the Universe. The International Journal of American Linguistics 16(2).

[2] In an interview by BBC, Guy Deutscher explains his ideas about language and thought in addition to describing Benjamin Whorf’s research on Hopi Language.

The author of this post, Colin Farlow, is a 02011 summer intern with the Rosetta Project. He recently graduated from Indiana University, where he studied East Asian Languages and Cultures and Philosophy.


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Posted 4 years, 1 month ago by Alex Mensing

Big Talk: The Possibilities of Large Linguistic Databases

How does human language work? What are its possibilities and limitations? Where did it come from? Many linguists have asked these questions and made contributions to our understanding of language, but how do they get their answers?

One approach is to go out and document a language, which can then be compared to other languages, writings from the past, etc. Through various methods, linguists have succeeded in discovering patterns within and between languages that allow us to define some of their parameters and to organize them into families. But, as two recent publications demonstrate, our ability to recognize patterns—and their underlying causes—may be dramatically increasing with the development of technology that can centralize, organize and manipulate enormous amounts of information.

The two studies were highlighted in The Economist, and both of them offer conclusions that are likely to spark lively debate. Dr. Michael Dunn, from the Netherlands’ Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, published a paper in Nature magazine addressing word-order dependencies—the idea that, for example, if a given language places verbs before objects (eat lunch) it will also place prepositions before nouns (at home). By comparing different languages, linguists have found that there are some strong consistencies in these dependencies, indicating that they are the result of “underlying cognitive or systems biases.” Dr. Dunn, however, has used large databases of basic vocabularies and statistical methods borrowed from evolutionary biology to approach the problem of dependencies in a different way:

To substitute for fossils, and thus reconstruct the ancient branches of the tree as well as the modern-day leaves, Dr Dunn used mathematically informed guesswork. The maths in question is called the Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) method. As its name suggests, this spins the software equivalent of a roulette wheel to generate a random tree, then examines how snugly the branches of that tree fit the modern foliage. It then spins the wheel again, to tweak the first tree ever so slightly, at random. If the new tree is a better fit for the leaves, it is taken as the starting point for the next spin. If not, the process takes a step back to the previous best fit. The wheel whirrs millions of times until such random tweaking has no discernible effect on the outcome.

When Dr Dunn fed the languages he had chosen into the MCMC casino, the result was several hundred equally probable family trees. Next, he threw eight grammatical features, all related to word order, into the mix, and ran the game again.

He found that particular word-order traits were not necessarily linked to others in the way that current theories propose. Rather, such dependencies seemed to be ‘lineage-specific,’ suggesting that they have been passed down through language families. “Nurture, in other words, rather than nature,” as The Economist put it.

The other article, published in Science by Dr. Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland, also uses statistics and databases in an innovative way. He looked at information from the World Atlas of Language Structures on sounds in different languages and found that phonemic diversity (the number of sounds used in a language) decreases as you follow the pathways of human migration outwards from central/southern Africa. The Science article argues that modern language originated in that part of Africa and that phonemic diversity decreased with every stage of human expansion as small groups of people set off in search of new territory.

Both of these studies utilize phylogenetic language groupings, based on evolutionary theory, and they run statistical analyses with large amounts of data made available by central repositories of linguistic information, such as the World Atlas of Language Structures. The Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta Project is an effort to improve and facilitate that very sort of creative methodology—to organize and make available large amounts of data so that researchers can develop fundamentally new methods of inquiry.

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Posted 4 years, 3 months ago by Austin Brown

Dr. Laura Welcher - The Rosetta Project & The Language Commons

Laura Welcher talking about the Rosetta project at Long Now

Photo by Pat Tufts

Languages are works of art, great libraries, how-to guides for living on planet Earth, windows into our minds and inalienable human rights. Long Now's own Dr. Laura Welcher, Director of Operations and The Rosetta Project, spoke on March 3rd to a group of Long Now Members about the beauty, variety and value in the almost 7,000 languages spoken in the world. The event was part of our new Salon Series: occasional, intimate talks held in The Long Now Museum & Store for Members of the Foundation.

Laura's talk was called The Rosetta Project and The Language Commons and in it she discussed several efforts to preserve linguistic diversity around the world. The Long Now Foundation's role thus far, she explained, has been to develop and manufacture The Rosetta Disk: a durable, nickel archive of linguistic data. Laura also discussed her work with The Language Commons Working Group - a collaboration of linguists, archivists and programmers working to create an open and accessible encyclopedia of languages and linguistic diversity as a tool for teaching, studying, preserving and sharing languages.

The full audio of Laura's talk can be streamed from the player below or downloaded as an mp3. You can also click through the slides she presented in the window below the audio player.

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Posted 4 years, 3 months ago by Laura Welcher

Human Language in the Palm of my Hand

Two days ago, we learned that a Rosetta Disk made its way into the Special Collections of the University of Colorado Boulder library, and was on public display there. One of our members, Zane Selvans paid a visit, and had an extraordinary experience. He took fantastic pictures and wrote it up on his blog Amateur Earthling - we repost it here with his permission. It is a great illustration of the challenge in keeping information alive over time, place, and people.


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Posted 4 years, 4 months ago by Laura Welcher

A Rosetta Disk is on public display in the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries Special Collection

In 02008, one of the first prototype Rosetta Disks went to the family of the late Charles Butcher, who was the founder of The Lazy 8 Foundation. Lazy Eight was one of the first supporters of the Long Now 10,000 Year Library and Rosetta Projects...


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Posted 4 years, 5 months ago by Laura Welcher

An Archive Model with Long Term Benefits

On January 9, The Rosetta Project presented a poster at the Linguistic Society of America annual meeting, describing a distributed archive model we've developed and implemented with the Rosetta digital collection. Here is a video describing this model, and some of its long-term benefits:

A pdf of this poster is available for download here (12 MB).

The Rosetta Project: A Distributed Archive Model


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Posted 4 years, 5 months ago by Austin Brown

North American Dialects On Twitter and YouTube

Using data from the Atlas of North American English (ANAE) by William Labov, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg combined with his own research, linguist Rick Aschmann created the detailed map above to show regional dialects throughout North America. One of the coolest features is that he's linked over 600 YouTube videos to the map, so that clicking a region will take you to video clips of (mostly famous) people raised in that area so that you can hear a sample of the dialect.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have done some similar research, though they're using social media - Twitter specifically - as the data source, rather than just to illustrate linguistic nuance. Jacob Eisenstein and his colleagues looked at 380,000 geo-tagged tweets recently and explored the geographical dialects represented within. They saw differences in the way people abbreviate words to fit the short medium and the slang terms they used in informal messaging and were able to create a statistical model from the variation they saw that could predict the location of a user to within about 300 miles based on the dialect used.

The existence of Twitter and other informal, microblogging platforms affords a newly accessible, low-cost source of data for linguistics researchers since they don't require labor-intensive in-person interviews to uncover patterns of informal speech:

Studies of regional dialects traditionally have been based primarily on oral interviews, Eisenstein said, noting that written communication often is less reflective of regional influences because writing, even in blogs, tends to be formal and thus homogenized. But Twitter offers a new way of studying regional lexicon, he explained, because tweets are informal and conversational. Furthermore, people who tweet using mobile phones have the option of geotagging their messages with GPS coordinates.

- Carnegie Mellon University

Eisenstein also points out that the identifiable regional variation could be an indicator that the internet is less a force for homogenization than often thought.

The Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics later this year will explore many ways in which these, "new worlds of words occasion innovative uses of language and new spaces for constructing identities, forming relationships, and expressing social meanings." (GURT 2011)

So, expect to see plenty more research mining social media and remember to act normal online so you don't throw off the results.

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Posted 4 years, 6 months ago by Laine Stranahan

Add a Word List to the 300 Languages Project

Significant amounts of machine-readable data exist for only a few of the 300 languages spoken by nearly 95% of the world’s population. The 300 Languages Project is taking the first steps toward democratizing language technology by collecting parallel text and audio for the rest. You can help us bridge the gap by contributing an audio recording of a simple word list in your language.

If you speak one of the following languages, follow the link, record yourself reading the list out loud (if you don't have recording software, try Audacity), and then email your recording to (you can also use a free file-sharing service) or submit it manually to our collection.

Catalan-Valencian-Balear Greek Portuguese
Chechen Gujarati Russian
Danish Hindi Sicilian
Dutch Italian Swedish
Finnish Japanese Tamil
French Kabardian Tatar
Galician Kannada Telugu
German Malayalam Western Panjabi
[Only read words in the target language (skip the English translations), and if a word appears on a list twice, read it only once.]

If you speak one of these languages and want to help, you can make a translation of the English word list and email it to

Awadhi Limburgish Occitan
Bashkort Lombard Spanish
Bavarian Mainfränkisch Swiss German
Bhojpuri Marathi Venetian
Chuvash Mirpur Panjabi Vlaams
Hunsrik Napoletano-Calabrese Walloon
Ligurian Norwegian

Email with questions.


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