Posted by: sbilingual | January 9, 2013

Exciting Careers in Medical Translation

Medical careers are the hottest careers going today. And, with the population getting older, medical careers can be expected to continue to be in demand.

Even in these challenging economic times, the medical field is still hiring at an amazingly rapid rate. The medical industry is anticipated to grow faster than any other – an estimated 3.2 million new jobs, (22% increase) by the year 2018.

One of the medical careers you may not have considered is medical translation. Roughly 26% the medical translators whom are currently working in the field are self-employed. Although, the overall industry workforce numbers are difficult to pinpoint; many workers are freelancers or part-time/piece work employees. Employment is expected to mirror the industry at large although, of course, employment potential varies by subject and language – it’s simply the nature of the business. For example, translators of French should produce more job opportunities because of expected increases in the Quebecois population in Canada.

With a current deficiency of translators meeting the required expertise and proficiency of employers, they will continue to have favorable occupation projections. Conversely, competition is anticipated for all translator positions – largely due to the publicized growth potential.

So, do you love language? Maybe you want to help care for people, but are not too sure how to go about it?

Medical translators use their language skills to ensure that medical procedures and explanations are properly translated from one language to another. This may be a match for you!

With that said, let’s take a look at what it takes to become a medical translator. Careers usually go to those who have a solid background in foreign languages. Then, that background is combined with training in the medical field to ensure that the translator also has an in-depth understanding of medical terms, so that translation is correct. As you might imagine, there is no room for translation errors when you’re translating illnesses, procedures or treatments.

To study for a medical translation career, you must have proficiency in at least two languages. In the US, the most sought after medical translators are fluent in Spanish and English. Though it is not necessarily a requirement, it can be helpful to take a class in medical terminology. In addition, a bachelor’s degree is most always required. There are a few colleges that offer a class specifically designed to prepare medical translators for the medical terms they will encounter.

Some offices use the term medical translator interchangeably with the term medical interpreter. However, in reality, a medical interpreter typically works with non-English speaking patients as a translator for the doctor and patient. A medical translator focuses on translating medical documents, rather than spoken interpretation.

A career in medical translation is a great way for anyone with proficient foreign language skills to find a job in the medical field. This field offers another way that people can find their niche in the medical field, which will offer great opportunity over the next several decades. It’s also a way that people with good foreign language skills can use those skills in a somewhat unexpected avenue.

Kallikak Jukes:

The reader’s attention should be called to the depraved nature and degenerate habits of Kallikak Jukes, so as to better inform themselves on the character of the author’s and how it might infect his scribbling. Fornication, either consanguineous or not, is the backbone of Jukes’ habits, flanked on one side by pauperism, on the other by crime. The secondary features that distinguish his entire line are prostitution, with its complement of bastardy and the resultant neglected and mis-educated childhood; exhaustion, with its complement of intemperance and its resultant unbalanced minds.

All of which has led Jukes to long service in the translation business as a disgruntled self-conceived technology wizard working on the bleeding edge of CAT, widely know, but who prefers to vent incognito, just like Batman, so no one will ever know his name.

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To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit

Posted by: sbilingual | January 8, 2013

Interpreter finds best fit is between doctor and patient

When Adalberto Villalobos was told he was losing his job with the company he’d worked at for nearly 16 years, he didn’t get upset or angry.

He smiled, packed up his belongings in a single cardboard box and walked out the door — into a new career that he says is the most fulfilling work he’s ever done.

Now, Villalobos spends much of his day at the hospital or area clinics, helping bridge the communication gap between Spanish-speaking patients and English-speaking health care providers. He’s part of the field of medical interpreters that is seeing increased demand as the St. Cloud area becomes more diverse, the St. Cloud Times reports.

For the 43-year-old Villalobos, a native of Costa Rica who moved to St. Cloud 20 years ago, interpreting is a chance to use his bilingual skills, natural curiosity and love of learning to help people.

“Being in different careers or works in my life, there’s none that has given me the immediate rewards that I get when I interpret,” he said.

While in college in Costa Rica, Villalobos thought he wanted to be a marine biologist because of his interest in science and biology. After a negative experience in a math class, he decided to pursue journalism instead.

“I’m a people person,” he said. “I love to dig and find out and connect and develop relationships and connections with people. I thought that by being a communicator, I could use that power to help society and to bring truth and reality and the facts onto the table.”

After moving to St. Cloud, Villalobos struck out getting a newspaper job. Instead, he went to work for Creative Memories, translating direct sales materials into Spanish, training staff and interpreting at conferences.

When the economy took a downturn, that program was dismantled, a painful process to watch, Villalobos said.

“I had just seen my baby put to death,” he said. “And I had helped to chop and cut and unplug the pieces that we had built in 15 years.”

While working at Creative Memories in a different department, Villalobos had the idea that he should put his bilingual skills to use again. He reached out to Jan and Francisco Almarza, owners of The Bridge-World Language Center in Waite Park, in 2010. He began using his vacation days to do some medical interpreting.

“I simply fell in love with it. I enjoyed it tremendously,” he said.

In October 2010, the Bridge offered a 40-hour training session on interpreting, and Villalobos was among the first group of graduates, spending every Saturday for five weeks honing his skills. Despite his lack of experience compared to his classmates, Villalobos passed the test.

Then one Tuesday in 2011, Villalobos was told he was being laid off from Creative Memories. He decided the time was right to make the leap into medical interpreting as a career. By Thursday, he was interpreting full time.

Villalobos feels blessed that his transition to a new career went so smoothly in the midst of a struggling economy.

“We all know how serious and tough and difficult it is out there for anybody,” he said.

By March 2012, Villalobos had passed grueling oral and written exams to become a certified interpreter. To prepare, he read his thick medical dictionary cover to cover, even having his two children quiz him.

Medical interpreters follow strict legal and ethical guidelines. They must maintain confidentiality and professionalism. Villalobos sits next to and slightly behind the patient and keeps his head down. He asks the doctor and the patient to address each other, not him. He interprets everything that’s said in the room, even if there are multiple people present. He asks everyone to speak in short phrases to make it easier to keep up, but not everyone obliges.

For Villalobos, one of the hardest parts of the job is keeping a professional distance. He’s not there to be the patient’s friend or advocate, even if the doctor is delivering bad news.

“It sounds cold,” he said. “And it is incredibly tough for me personally, because I’m a social bee, and I always want the best for people. I want to help people. I want to save them their pain and solve their problems. But when I put my interpreter hat on, I’m a machine.”

Sometimes that can be very difficult, he said.

“It’s tough when you have grandma who wants to tell you about her tamales recipe,” he said. “It’s really, really hard, but you have to work hard on removing the feelings and the emotional side of the business. It’s almost like a contradiction, because you’re dealing with humans … but you’ve got to be almost inhuman.”

One day in late December, Villalobos was interpreting for Zoila Bucaro, a 96-year-old resident of St. Benedict Care Center in St. Cloud, as she met with the nursing home staff to discuss how she’s getting along.

Villalobos leaned over to carefully explain near Bucaro’s ear what staff were asking: How is she feeling, how does she like the food, does she enjoy the daily activities? Bucaro, a native of Guatemala, listens carefully and answers in Spanish, even joking about her big appetite.

Bucaro’s daughter, Gloria, said she used to do the interpreting for her mother, but it didn’t always work well.

“Sometimes I would start talking about her health and all that with everybody, and she was left out,” Gloria Bucaro said. “I figured out it would be better for her to express her concerns and everything with an interpreter.”

Health care regulations require medical providers who receive federal funding to provide interpreters. Research on the effects of bad communication on patient safety is also growing, said Izabel Arocha, executive director of the International Medical Interpreters Association. In some cases, misunderstandings causing medical errors have resulted in lawsuits.

“There’s just been a huge increase in awareness that has changed these practices,” Arocha said.

Villalobos takes his job very seriously. He talks to doctors, reads about different medical conditions and treatments and has even observed heart surgeries and other medical procedures to expand his knowledge.

“That kind of gives you a better, clearer understanding of what you’re trying to convey when you interpret, so at the end you sound more professional and knowledgeable,” he said.

Villalobos is constantly trying to improve his language skills. Many medical terms have Latin roots; many sound similar in both Spanish and English, such as diabetes.

“I’m the hardest critic of myself when it comes to language, and I’m always trying to learn,” he said. “I’m always willing to be wrong or to make mistakes and to learn from them. I’m not perfect in any way.”

The cases Villalobos has worked on range from routine doctor’s appointments to mental health screenings to emergency room visits. He once worked from behind a curtain during a birth because no female interpreters were available.

“It’s full of excitement. There is never a dull moment ever,” he said.

Information from: St. Cloud Times,

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit

Posted by: sbilingual | January 7, 2013

Getting the Most From Language Interpreters

Communicating with patients who have limited English proficiency requires more than simply “finding someone who speaks their language.”

More than 31 million foreign-born people live in the United States. Eighteen percent report speaking a language other than English at home, and almost half say they speak English “less than very well.” Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 13166, patients with limited English proficiency (LEP) have the right to a trained interpreter. Any practice receiving federal funding aside from Medicare part B must comply. Failure to use interpreters for LEP patients has led to higher hospital admission rates, increased use of testing, poorer patient comprehension of diagnosis and treatment, and misdiagnosis and improper treatment. This article provides some general guidelines to help maximize communication with LEP patients when using interpreters of all skill levels.

What is a “trained language interpreter”?

Trained language interpreters have formal education in interpreting and abide by a professional code of ethics that includes confidentiality, impartiality, accuracy and completeness. Good medical interpreters are not only fluent; they are also familiar with medical terminology and have experience in health care. Although there are several accredited training programs for medical interpreters, there is no national certification. In fact, only Washington offers state testing and certification. Fortunately, most companies that offer interpretation services have developed procedures to “qualify” their interpreters and can provide verification of their training and certification.

Well-trained interpreters convert the meaning of all messages from one language to another without unnecessary additions, deletions or changes in meaning and without injecting their own opinions. They act as message clarifiers when there is a possible misunderstanding and are always careful to ensure that neither party is left out of the discussion. Interpreters can also act as cultural clarifiers when traditional health beliefs or practices lack equivalent terms. Well-trained interpreters will communicate both verbally and nonverbally, in such a way that their presence is barely noticed by either party. Trained interpreters are costly but can save time and resources in the long run by decreasing the number of callbacks, misdiagnoses and unnecessary tests, and increasing patient comprehension, compliance and satisfaction.

Although the success of an encounter with an LEP patient is strongly dependent on an interpreter’s training, family physicians can do several important things to facilitate the process. For example, if you have a choice or feel that a patient would prefer it, ask for an interpreter of the same gender as the patient. Some patients feel more comfortable having someone of the same sex interpret for them, particularly when discussing personal issues.


  • According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 13166, patients with limited English proficiency have the right to a trained interpreter.
  • Well-trained interpreters abide by a code of ethics and interpret without unnecessary additions, deletions or changes in meaning, and without injecting their own opinions.
  • Friends or family members may unconsciously screen what they hear and provide only a summarized interpretation to the other party.

Guidelines for using trained on-site interpreters

Other points to keep in mind when working with an on-site interpreter include the following:

Confidentiality. Prior to the office visit, give any necessary background information to the interpreter. Remind the interpreter that everything you and the patient say needs to be interpreted and that all information must be kept confidential. When you enter the exam room, introduce yourself and the interpreter to the patient. Have the interpreter explain to the patient that all information will be kept confidential.

Addressing the patient. If you can, position the interpreter so that he or she is sitting beside the patient, facing you. Maintain eye contact with the patient (if culturally appropriate) and be careful to address the patient, not the interpreter. For example, look at the patient and ask, “Have you had any fever?” instead of asking the interpreter, “Has she had any fever?” Before entering the exam room, ask the interpreter to speak in first person when speaking for either you or your patient (e.g.,“I think you have an ear infection”). Statements in the third person (i.e., “The doctor thinks you have an ear infection.”) can create a barrier between you and your patient. When both sides talk directly to each other, the interpreter has the opportunity to melt into the background and unobtrusively become the voice of each party.

Time constraints. Because English is relatively direct compared with other languages, interpretation might take longer than you expect. Consequently, you should allow for extra time. When interacting with LEP patients, keep your sentences brief and pause often to allow time for interpreting. Avoid highly technical medical jargon and idiomatic expressions that may be difficult for the interpreter to convey and the patient to comprehend. Use diagrams and pictures to facilitate comprehension. Listen without interrupting and make it a point to confirm that the patient understands by asking him or her to repeat important instructions back to you. Pause at several points during the conversation to ask whether the patient has any questions. Many cultures see questioning physicians as a sign of disrespect and may be hesitant to respond initially. Finally, if you have any concerns or questions about the interpretation, don’t hesitate to ask the interpreter.

Guidelines for using trained phone interpreters

If you don’t have an on-site interpreter available, using a phone interpreter service is another option.  Costs for phone interpretation services vary between $2 and $3 per minute, but you may be able to negotiate a lower price based on volume. Setting up an account with a service is the most cost-effective method for frequent users. If you rarely need interpreter services, some companies will allow you to access their services without an account, but will generally charge more per minute and add on a service fee of several dollars for each call.

A distinct advantage of phone interpretation is that companies generally offer a wide variety of languages from which to choose. The main disadvantage to phone interpretation is that the interpreter does not have the ability to read the nonverbal clues accompanying the interactions. Though the same general principles for using on-site interpreters apply, the following points are unique to working with phone interpreters:

Confidentiality. Interviews using phone interpreters should be conducted in a private room with a speakerphone. For three-way conversations, consider investing in splitters and extra handsets. These are relatively inexpensive and help to maintain privacy. Begin every phone interview by reminding the patient and the interpreter that all information must be kept confidential.

Setting the stage. The phone interpreter does not have the advantage of seeing you or your patient face-to-face. After introducing yourself, give a brief statement summarizing the clinical situation (e.g., “This is a doctor’s office and I’m with a patient who is six months pregnant”).

Time constraints. Because of the cost of using a phone interpreter, it is important to use your time wisely. Before calling, prepare yourself by compiling a list of questions you want to ask and the information you need conveyed. Often, two separate phone calls will be necessary during the patient visit: one to take the patient’s pertinent history and another on completion of the physical exam to discuss findings, diagnosis and treatment. Always leave time at the end of the phone call for questions or to have the patient repeat important instructions back to you.

Using untrained interpreters

It is not uncommon for LEP patients to have family members or friends interpret for them. Although the guidelines state that LEP patients can select an interpreter of their choice, using friends and family members has its limitations. For example, most untrained interpreters don’t have enough medical knowledge to be able to understand or explain medical terminology. Patient confidentiality may also be an issue. With friends or family members in the room, patients may be unwilling to volunteer sensitive information. It may also be difficult for friends or family members to interpret what is being said. Often, they will unconsciously screen what they hear and give a summarized interpretation to the other party. This decreases the accuracy of the interpretation and may also serve to weaken the doctor-patient relationship. If you don’t have access to an interpreter, it may be best to use a bilingual staff member rather than a patient’s friend or family member. However, some states have laws about who can perform medical interpretation. Before you ask a bilingual staff member for help, check with your state health officials.

Most patients are willing to use a nonfamily member as an interpreter once they are assured that patient confidentiality will be maintained. However, if a patient insists on a family member and you feel communication isn’t accurate or adequate, you have the right to call in your own interpreter as well. When using someone other than a trained interpreter, have the person doing the interpreting review the guidelines for on-site interpreters above.

A few words about documentation and billing

When documenting an encounter with an LEP patient, it is important to include the language spoken and the interpreter’s name (for on-site services) or the company used (for telephone services). If a patient insists on using a family member or friend, document that this was by choice (i.e., “per patient request”). Although you cannot bill a patient for the actual service provided by the interpreter, you may be able to bill a prolonged service code (99354-99357) in addition to the appropriate E/M code.

When you speak the language

You may decide you have enough proficiency in a foreign language that an interpreter isn’t necessary. Unless you are fluent in the language, it is a good idea to use an interpreter (especially following the exam) to ensure and document patient understanding. To do so, simply call a phone language service or ask an on-site interpreter to join you in the exam room at the end of the patient visit. Ask the interpreter to ask the patient if he or she has any additional questions. Also ask that the patient repeat back to you any instructions you may have given. You may be surprised to discover that you and the patient were not communicating as well as you thought!

Dr. Herndon is assistant professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. She currently works at a community clinic where less than 30 percent of her patients speak English proficiently.

Linda Joyce is coordinator for language interpretive services at Grady Health System in Atlanta and is a certified medical interpreter for Spanish and English. She coordinates a team of 19 staff interpreters who service Grady Memorial Hospital, Hugh Spalding Children’s Hospital and the Grady Health System Neighborhood Clinics.

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit

Posted by: sbilingual | January 4, 2013

Vanishing Voices

A last speaker of Chemehuevi

One language dies every 14 days. By the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will likely disappear, as communities abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, or Spanish. What is lost when a language goes silent?


One morning in early fall Andrei Mongush and his parents began preparations for supper, selecting a black-faced, fat-tailed sheep from their flock and rolling it onto its back on a tarp outside their livestock paddock. The Mongush family’s home is on the Siberian taiga, at the edge of the endless steppes, just over the horizon from Kyzyl, the capital of the Republic of Tuva, in the Russian Federation. They live near the geographic center of Asia, but linguistically and personally, the family inhabits a borderland, the frontier between progress and tradition. Tuvans are historically nomadic herders, moving their aal—an encampment of yurts—and their sheep and cows and reindeer from pasture to pasture as the seasons progress. The elder Mongushes, who have returned to their rural aal after working in the city, speak both Tuvan and Russian. Andrei and his wife also speak English, which they are teaching themselves with pieces of paper labeled in English pasted onto seemingly every object in their modern kitchen in Kyzyl. They work as musicians in the Tuvan National Orchestra, an ensemble that uses traditional Tuvan instruments and melodies in symphonic arrangements. Andrei is a master of the most characteristic Tuvan music form: throat singing, or khöömei.

When I ask university students in Kyzyl what Tuvan words are untranslatable into English or Russian, they suggest khöömei, because the singing is so connected with the Tuvan environment that only a native can understand it, and also khoj özeeri,the Tuvan method of killing a sheep. If slaughtering livestock can be seen as part of humans’ closeness to animals, khoj özeeri represents an unusually intimate version. Reaching through an incision in the sheep’s hide, the slaughterer severs a vital artery with his fingers, allowing the animal to quickly slip away without alarm, so peacefully that one must check its eyes to see if it is dead. In the language of the Tuvan people, khoj özeeri means not only slaughter but also kindness, humaneness, a ceremony by which a family can kill, skin, and butcher a sheep, salting its hide and preparing its meat and making sausage with the saved blood and cleansed entrails so neatly that the whole thing can be accomplished in two hours (as the Mongushes did this morning) in one’s good clothes without spilling a drop of blood. Khoj özeeri implies a relationship to animals that is also a measure of a people’s character. As one of the students explained, “If a Tuvan killed an animal the way they do in other places”—by means of a gun or knife—“they’d be arrested for brutality.”

Tuvan is one of the many small languages of the world. The Earth’s population of seven billion people speaks roughly 7,000 languages, a statistic that would seem to offer each living language a healthy one million speakers, if things were equitable. In language, as in life, things aren’t. Seventy-eight percent of the world’s population speaks the 85 largest languages, while the 3,500 smallest languages share a mere 8.25 million speakers. Thus, while English has 328 million first-language speakers, and Mandarin 845 million, Tuvan speakers in Russia number just 235,000. Within the next century, linguists think, nearly half of the world’s current stock of languages may disappear. More than a thousand are listed as critically or severely endangered—teetering on the edge of oblivion.

In an increasingly globalized, connected, homogenized age, languages spoken in remote places are no longer protected by national borders or natural boundaries from the languages that dominate world communication and commerce. The reach of Mandarin and English and Russian and Hindi and Spanish and Arabic extends seemingly to every hamlet, where they compete with Tuvan and Yanomami and Altaic in a house-to-house battle. Parents in tribal villages often encourage their children to move away from the insular language of their forebears and toward languages that will permit greater education and success.

Who can blame them? The arrival of television, with its glamorized global materialism, its luxury-consumption proselytizing, is even more irresistible. Prosperity, it seems, speaks English. One linguist, attempting to define what a language is, famously (and humorously) said that a language is a dialect with an army. He failed to note that some armies are better equipped than others. Today any language with a television station and a currency is in a position to obliterate those without, and so residents of Tuva must speak Russian and Chinese if they hope to engage with the surrounding world. The incursion of dominant Russian into Tuva is evident in the speaking competencies of the generation of Tuvans who grew up in the mid-20th century, when it was the fashion to speak, read, and write in Russian and not their native tongue.

Yet Tuvan is robust relative to its frailest counterparts, some of which are down to a thousand speakers, or a mere handful, or even one individual. Languages like Wintu, a native tongue in California, or Siletz Dee-ni, in Oregon, or Amurdak, an Aboriginal tongue in Australia’s Northern Territory, retain only one or two fluent or semifluent speakers. A last speaker with no one to talk to exists in unspeakable solitude.

Increasingly, as linguists recognize the magnitude of the modern language die-off and rush to catalog and decipher the most vulnerable tongues, they are confronting underlying questions about languages’ worth and utility. Does each language have boxed up within it some irreplaceable beneficial knowledge? Are there aspects of cultures that won’t survive if they are translated into a dominant language? What unexpected insights are being lost to the world with the collapse of its linguistic variety?

Fortunately, Tuvan is not among the world’s endangered languages, but it could have been. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the language has stabilized. It now has a well-equipped army—not a television station, yet, or a currency, but a newspaper and a respectable 264,000 total speakers (including some in Mongolia and China). Yet Tofa, a neighboring Siberian language, is down to some 30 speakers. Tuvan’s importance to our understanding of disappearing languages lies in another question linguists are struggling to answer: What makes one language succeed while another dwindles or dies?


I witnessed the heartrending cost of broken languages among the Aka people in Palizi, a tiny, rustic hamlet perched on a mountainside in Arunachal Pradesh, India’s rugged northeasternmost state. It is reachable by a five-hour drive through palm and hardwood jungles on single-track mountain roads. Its one main street is lined with unpainted board-faced houses set on stilts and roofed with thatch or metal. Villagers grow their own rice, yams, spinach, oranges, and ginger; slaughter their own hogs and goats; and build their own houses. The tribe’s isolation has bred a radical self-sufficiency, evidenced in an apparent lack of an Aka word for job, in the sense of salaried labor.

The Aka measure personal wealth in mithan, a breed of Himalayan cattle. A respectable bride price in Palizi, for instance, is expressed as eight mithan. The most cherished Aka possession is the precious tradzy necklace—worth two mithan—made from yellow stones from the nearby river, which is passed down to their children. The yellow stones for the tradzy necklaces can no longer be found in the river, and so the only way to have a precious necklace is to inherit one.

Speaking Aka—or any language—means immersing oneself in its character and concepts. “I’m seeing the world through the looking glass of this language,” said Father Vijay D’Souza, who was running the Jesuit school in Palizi at the time of my visit. The Society of Jesus established the school in part because it was concerned about the fragility of the Aka language and culture and wanted to support them (though classes are taught in English). D’Souza is from southern India, and his native language is Konkani. When he came to Palizi in 1999 and began speaking Aka, the language transformed him.

“It alters your thinking, your worldview,” he told me one day in his headmaster’s office, as children raced to classes through the corridor outside. One small example:mucrow. A similar word in D’Souza’s native language would be an insult, meaning “old man.” In Aka “mucrow” means something more. It is a term of respect, deference, endearment. The Aka might address a woman as mucrow to indicate her wisdom in civic affairs, and, says D’Souza, “an Aka wife will call her husband mucrow, even when he’s young,” and do so affectionately.

American linguists David Harrison and Greg Anderson have been coming to Arunachal Pradesh to study its languages since 2008. They are among the scores of linguists worldwide engaged in the study of vanishing languages. Some have academic and institutional affiliations (Harrison and Anderson are both connected with National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project), while others may work for Bible societies that translate Scripture into new tongues. The authoritative index of world languages is Ethnologue, maintained by SIL International, a faith-based organization. The researchers’ intent may be hands-off, to record a grammar and lexicon before a language is lost or contaminated, or it may be interventionist, to develop a written accompaniment for the oral language, compile a dictionary, and teach native speakers to write.

Linguists have identified a host of language hotspots (analogous to biodiversity hotspots) that have both a high level of linguistic diversity and a high number of threatened languages. Many of these are in the world’s least reachable, and often least hospitable, places—like Arunachal Pradesh. Aka and its neighboring languages have been protected because Arunachal Pradesh has long been sealed off to outsiders as a restricted border region. Even other Indians are not allowed to cross into the region without federal permission, and so its fragile microcultures have been spared the intrusion of immigrant labor, modernization—and linguists. It has been described as a black hole of linguistics because its incredible language variety remains so little explored.

Much of public life in Palizi is regulated through the repetition of mythological stories used as forceful fables to prescribe behavior. Thus a money dispute can draw a recitation about a spirit whose daughters are eaten by a crocodile, one by one, as they cross the river to bring him dinner in the field. He kills the crocodile, and a priest promises to bring the last daughter back to life but overcharges so egregiously that the spirit seeks revenge by becoming a piece of ginger that gets stuck in the greedy priest’s throat.

Such stories were traditionally told by the elders in a highly formal version of Aka that the young did not yet understand and according to certain rules, among them this: Once an elder begins telling a story, he cannot stop until the story is finished. As with linguistic literacy, disruption is disaster. Yet Aka’s young people no longer follow their elders in learning the formal version of the language and the stories that have governed daily life. Even in this remote region, young people are seduced away from their mother tongue by Hindi on the television and English in the schools. Today Aka’s speakers number fewer than 2,000, few enough to put it on the endangered list.

One night in Palizi, Harrison, Anderson, an Indian linguist named Ganesh Murmu, and I sat cross-legged around the cooking fire at the home of Pario Nimasow, a 25-year-old teacher at the Jesuit school. A Palizi native, Nimasow loved his Aka culture even as he longed to join the outside world. In his sleeping room in an adjacent hut was a television waiting for the return of electricity, which had been out for many months thanks to a series of landslides and transformer malfunctions. After dinner Nimasow disappeared for a moment and came back with a soiled white cotton cloth, which he unfolded by the flickering light of the cooking fire. Inside was a small collection of ritual items: a tiger’s jaw, a python’s jaw, the sharp-toothed mandible of a river fish, a quartz crystal, and other objects of a shaman’s sachet. This sachet had belonged to Nimasow’s father until his death in 1991.

“My father was a priest,” Nimasow said, “and his father was a priest.” And now? I asked. Was he next in line? Nimasow stared at the talismans and shook his head. He had the kit, but he didn’t know the chants; his father had died before passing them on. Without the words, there was no way to bring the artifacts’ power to life.

Linguistics has undergone two great revolutions in the past 60 years, on seemingly opposite ends of the discipline. In the late 1950s Noam Chomsky theorized that all languages were built on an underlying universal grammar embedded in human genes. A second shift in linguistics— an explosion of interest in small and threatened languages—has focused on the variety of linguistic experience. Field linguists like David Harrison are more interested in the idiosyncrasies that make each language unique and the ways that culture can influence a language’s form. As Harrison points out, some 85 percent of languages have yet to be documented. Understanding them can only enrich our comprehension of what is universal to all languages.

Different languages highlight the varieties of human experience, revealing as mutable aspects of life that we tend to think of as settled and universal, such as our experience of time, number, or color. In Tuva, for example, the past is always spoken of as ahead of one, and the future is behind one’s back. “We could never say, I’m looking forward to doing something,” a Tuvan told me. Indeed, he might say, “I’m looking forward to the day before yesterday.” It makes total sense if you think of it in a Tuvan sort of way: If the future were ahead of you, wouldn’t it be in plain view?

Smaller languages often retain remnants of number systems that may predate the adoption of the modern world’s base-ten counting system. The Pirahã, an Amazonian tribe, appear to have no words for any specific numbers at all but instead get by with relative words such as “few” and “many.” The Pirahã’s lack of numerical terms suggests that assigning numbers may be an invention of culture rather than an innate part of human cognition. The interpretation of color is similarly varied from language to language. What we think of as the natural spectrum of the rainbow is actually divided up differently in different tongues, with many languages having more or fewer color categories than their neighbors.

Language shapes human experience—our very cognition—as it goes about classifying the world to make sense of the circumstances at hand. Those classifications may be broad—Aka divides the animal kingdom into animals that are eaten and those that are not—or exceedingly fine-tuned. The Todzhu reindeer herders of southern Siberia have an elaborate vocabulary for reindeer; an iyi düktüg myiys, for example, is a castrated former stud in its fourth year.

If Aka, or any language, is supplanted by a new one that’s bigger and more universally useful, its death shakes the foundations of the tribe. “Aka is our identity,” a villager told me one day as we walked from Palizi down the path that wound past the rice fields to the forests by the river. “Without it, we are the general public.” But should the rest of the world mourn too? The question would not be an easy one to frame in Aka, which seems to lack a single term for world. Aka might suggest an answer, though, one embodied in the concept of mucrow—a regard for tradition, for long-standing knowledge, for what has come before, a conviction that the venerable and frail have something to teach the callow and the strong that they would be lost without.


The ongoing collapse of the world’s biodiversity is more than just an apt metaphor for the crisis of language extinction. The disappearance of a language deprives us of knowledge no less valuable than some future miracle drug that may be lost when a species goes extinct. Small languages, more than large ones, provide keys to unlock the secrets of nature, because their speakers tend to live in proximity to the animals and plants around them, and their talk reflects the distinctions they observe. When small communities abandon their languages and switch to English or Spanish, there is a massive disruption in the transfer of traditional knowledge across generations—about medicinal plants, food cultivation, irrigation techniques, navigation systems, seasonal calendars.

The Seri people of Mexico were traditionally seminomadic hunter-gatherers living in the western Sonoran Desert near the Gulf of California. Their survival was tied to the traits and behaviors of the species that live in the desert and the sea. An intimate relationship with the plant and animal worlds is a hallmark of the Seris’ life and of their language, Cmiique Iitom.

Traditionally the Seris, who refer to themselves as the Comcaac, had no fixed settlements, so their locale of the moment depended on what part of the desert offered the most food, whether the cactus fruit was ripe on the mountainside or the eelgrass was ready to harvest in the bay. Today they reside in two settlements, Punta Chueca and El Desemboque, each a small covey of concrete-block homes set in the vast red, seemingly empty desert beside the gulf. The homes are surrounded by rows of thorny ocotillo canes stuck into the sand, where they’ve taken root as living fences.

Each day, Armando Torres Cubillas sits in the corner of his open-air, beachside atelier in El Desemboque, his crippled legs curled under him on the sandy ground, carving sea turtles from dark desert ironwood. Occasionally, if he’s in the mood, he gazes out over the gulf and eases the artisanship with a song that relates the operatic story of a conversation between the small beach clam taijitiquiixaz and the mole crab. The verse is typical of songs of the Seri tribe: a celebration of nature, tinged with loss.

The Seris see their language as a defining characteristic, a seed of their identity. One Seri told me of a “local expression” that says everyone has a flower inside, and inside the flower is a word. A Seri elder, Efraín Estrella Romero, told me, “If one child is raised speaking Cmiique Iitom and another speaking Spanish, they will be different people.”

When American linguists Edward Moser and Mary Beck Moser came to live with the Seris in 1951 in El Desemboque, the group’s fortunes were at a low ebb—outbreaks of measles and influenza had reduced their numbers to a couple hundred. It was a propitious time for the researchers, though, because the group’s culture hadn’t yet been co-opted by the majority culture surrounding it. Mary Moser served the tribe as nurse and midwife. After many births, per custom, the families gave her a dried piece of their infants’ umbilical cords, which Mary kept protected in a “belly button pot.” They also gave her their long, eight-plait braids, markers of Indian identity that the men felt compelled to chop off when they traveled to Mexican towns. The braids were like cultural umbilical cords, severed connections between what was old and what was new, evidence of the broken link.

The Mosers had a daughter, Cathy, who grew up among the Seris in El Desemboque and became a graphic artist and ethnographer. She and her husband, Steve Marlett, a linguist with SIL International and the University of North Dakota, have continued the Mosers’ study of the Seri language. Today the community has rebounded to somewhere between 650 and 1,000 speakers. They have managed to hang on to their language, thanks in part to their hostility to the majority culture of Mexico. Steve Marlett diplomatically refers to this in one academic paper as “the general lack of cultural empathy between the Seri population and the Spanish-speaking population.” In 1773 they killed a priest who tried to establish a mission. The Vatican did not send a follow-up, and the tribe was never Catholicized.

The Seris maintain to this day a proud suspicion of outsiders—and a disdain for unshared individual wealth. “When the Seris become rich, they will cease to exist” is a Seri saying. Having been nomadic, they tend to regard possessions as burdens. Traditionally, when a Seri died, he was buried with his few personal possessions. Nothing was passed down to relatives except stories, songs, legends, instructions.

What modern luxuries the Seris have adopted are imported without their Spanish names. Automobiles, for instance, have provoked a flurry of new words. A Seri car muffler is called ihíisaxim an hant yaait, or into which the breathing descends, and the Seri term for distributor cap associates it with an electric ray that swims in the Gulf of California and gives you a shock. Such words are like ocotillo canes stuck into the sand: The Cmiique Iitom lexicon is alive, and as it grows, it creates a living fence around the culture.

Sitting in the shade of an awning in front of his house, René Montaño told me stories of an ancient race of giants who could step over the sea from their home on Tiburon Island to the mainland in a single stride. He told me of hant iiha cöhacomxoj, those who have been told about Earth’s possessions, all ancient things. “To be told” entails an injunction: Pass it on. Thanks to that, we have all become inheritors of the knowledge enshrined within Cmiique Iitom. Folk sayings and often even single words encase centuries of close observation of species that visiting scientists have only begun to study in recent decades.

Cmiique Iitom has terms for more than 300 desert plants, and its names for animals reveal behaviors that scientists once considered farfetched. The Seri word for harvesting eelgrass clued scientists in to the sea grass’s nutritional merits. (Its protein content is about the same as wheat’s.) The Seris call one sea turtle moosni hant cooit, or green turtle that descends, for its habit of hibernating on the floor of the sea, where the traditional fishermen used to harpoon it. “We were skeptical when we first learned from the Seri Indians of Sonora, Mexico, that some Chelonia are partially buried on the sea floor during the colder months,” stated a 1976 paper inScience documenting the behavior. “However, the Seri have proved to be highly reliable informants.” The Seris enjoyed eating sea turtles but not leatherbacks, for a simple reason. Leatherbacks, they say, understand their language and are Seri themselves. In 2005 the Seri name for shark, hacat, became the official name for a newly discovered species of smooth-hound shark, Mustelus hacat. Newly discovered by modern scientists, that is—the Seris had been aware of them for years.

The Seri language is what linguists call an isolate, though a better term might be “sole survivor.” “The Seris are a window into a lost world of gulf peoples,” Steve Marlett says, referring to the extensive family of potentially linguistically linked groups who once inhabited both coasts of the Gulf of California. “Many others are gone,” he says, and worse, gone before they could be documented. One remaining key to the nearly vanished cultures is Cmiique Iitom.

One way to preserve a language is to enshrine it in writing and compile a dictionary. Linguists both love and fear the prospect of inventing scripts for languages that are usually verbal only. Fear because the very idea of an alphabet changes the language the alphabet is meant to preserve and converts the linguist from observer to activist. David Harrison and Greg Anderson compiled the first Tuvan-English dictionary and are proud of the excitement the volume elicited from native speakers. Steve and Cathy Marlett worked until 2005 finishing a Cmiique Iitom dictionary begun by her parents in 1951. Steve remembers the day René Montaño asked, “Can I show you how I write?” and demonstrated a way of dividing words that had not occurred to the linguist before. The revelation meant revising years of work. But Marlett was delighted, because the project was enlisting native Seri speakers into diagnosing and defining their own language.

The cataloging of vocabulary and pronunciation and syntax that field linguists do in remote outposts helps keep a language alive. But saving a language is not something linguists can accomplish, because salvation must come from within. The answer may lie in something Harrison and Anderson witnessed in Palizi one day, when a villager in his early 20s came with a friend to perform a song for them. Palizi is far removed from pervasive U.S. culture, so it was something of a surprise to the two linguists when the teenagers launched into a full-bore, L.A.-style rap song complete with gang hand gestures and head bobbing and attitude, a pitch-perfect rendition of an American street art, with one refinement: They were rapping in Aka.

Were the linguists dismayed? I asked. To the contrary, Harrison said. “These kids were fluent in Hindi and English, but they chose to rap in a language they share with only a couple thousand people.” Linguistic co-optation and absorption can work both ways, with the small language sometimes acting as the imperialist. “The one thing that’s necessary for the revival of a language,” Father D’Souza told me one day, “is pride.”

Against the erosion of language stands an ineffable quality that can’t be instilled from without: someone’s insistence on rapping in Aka, on singing in Tuvan, on writing in the recently orthographized Cmiique Iitom. The Mosers’ and Marletts’ dictionary initiative has given birth to a new profession in Seriland: scribe. Several booklets have been authored by Seris. The Marletts hope the number of volumes will reach 40, one threshold, it is believed, for enticing people to maintain literacy in a language (though some put the number much higher).

The interest is already there. The Marletts had a regular visitor when they were living in El Desemboque, a young boy who would come each day to pore over a Cmiique Iitom booklet. One day he arrived, and the Marletts explained they’d lent it to someone else. “He just burst into uncontrollable tears,” Steve remembers.

The spread of global culture is unstoppable. Kyzyl, a capital city that never had a railroad connect it to the rest of Russia, will get one in the next few years. In El Desemboque power lines have been run through the desert to drive an electric pump for a municipal well. And in Arunachal Pradesh a new hydroelectric dam has been completed, ensuring the village of Palizi better access to electricity, refrigeration, and television.

To be involved in the plight of vanishing languages, even just as a journalist, is to contemplate the fragility of tribal life. Since my visits over the past two years to Palizi and Kyzyl and Seriland, Efraín Estrella died of pancreatitis, and young Pario Nimasow, who unwrapped his father’s shaman’s kit for me and wondered what its contents might mean, was killed in a landslide. A week after I wrote the paragraph describing Armando Torres’s daily singing, I received an email from Cathy Marlett. “Sad news,” its subject line read. Torres had died of a heart attack at 67, in his place by the beach in El Desemboque.

Their mortality is a reminder of the mortality of their cultures, an intimation that with each speaker’s death another vital artery has been severed. Against that—against the possibility that their language could slip away without alarm or notice—stands a proud perseverance, a reverence for the old, an awareness that in important ways a key to our future lies behind us. That, and an insistence that the tongues least spoken still have much to say.


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Craig Bartlett (BSL interpreter), Sindhuya Saseetharan, Asif Iqbal (president of HADC), Dikmaya Pun and Sankeetha Balakrishnan

Craig Bartlett (BSL interpreter), Sindhuya Saseetharan, Asif Iqbal (president of HADC), Dikmaya Pun and Sankeetha Balakrishnan

Anyone who could see could hear when Harrow Asian Deaf Club took part in yesterday’s New Year’s Day Parade in central London.

As part of the 27th annual event, deaf members of HADC stood on Harrow Borough Council’s bus and sang in British Sign Language to the theme of Oliver Twist’s Be Back Soon.

The Harrow contingent joined 6,000 other performers to put on three hours of entertainment for the 500,000 spectators who lined the 2.2 mile route through the West End.

Asif Iqbal, president of HADC, said: “It was a fantastic experience to go on the parade – it reminded me of the Olympic tour where the Olympians took their medals through London.

“It was just like that – the atmosphere was absolutely amazing and we were shocked to see so many people turning up for the event.

“We were told that we were the first deaf group to take part in the parade so it was a fantastic achievement to bring out the diversity and to introduce British Sign Language to a mass audience.”


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Gallaudet professor Carolyn McCaskill demonstrates differences in sign language between black and white users. Pictured left, McCaskill signs stuck, while Jason Begue signs pregnant.

Gallaudet professor Carolyn McCaskill demonstrates differences in sign…

Carolyn McCaskill remembers exactly when she discovered that she couldn’t understand white people. It was 1968, she was 15 years old, and she and nine other deaf black students had just enrolled in an integrated school for the deaf in Talladega, Ala.

When the teacher got up to address the class, McCaskill was lost.

“I was dumbfounded,” McCaskill recalls through an interpreter. “I was like, ‘What in the world is going on?’ ”

The teacher’s quicksilver hand movements looked little like the sign language McCaskill had grown up using at home with her two deaf siblings and had practiced at the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind, just a few miles away. It wasn’t a simple matter of people at the new school using unfamiliar vocabularly; they made hand movements for everyday words that looked foreign to McCaskill and her fellow black students.

So, McCaskill says, “I put my signs aside.” She learned entirely new signs for such common nouns as “shoe” and “school.” She began to communicate words such as “why” and “don’t know” with one hand instead of two as she and her black friends had always done. She copied the white students who lowered their hands to make the signs for “what for” and “know” closer to their chins than to their foreheads. And she imitated the way white students mouthed words at the same time as they made manual signs for them.

Whenever she went home, McCaskill carefully switched back to her old way of communicating.

What intrigues McCaskill and other experts in deaf culture today is the degree to which distinct signing systems — one for whites and another for blacks — evolved and continue to coexist, even at Gallaudet University, where black and white students study and socialize together and where McCaskill is now a professor of deaf studies.

Five years ago, with grants from the National Science Foundation and the Spencer Foundation, McCaskill and three fellow researchers began to investigate the distinctive structure and grammar of Black American Sign Language, or Black ASL, in much the way that linguists have studied spoken African American English (known by linguists as AAE or, more popularly, as Ebonics). Their study, which assembled and analyzed data from filmed conversations and interviews with 96 subjects in six states, is the first formal attempt to describe Black ASL and resulted in the publication last year of “The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL.” What the researchers have found is a rich signing system that reflects both a history of segregation and the ongoing influence of spoken black English.

The book and its accompanying DVD emphasize that Black ASL is not just a slang form of signing. Instead, think of the two signing systems as comparable to American and British English: similar but with differences that follow regular patterns and a lot of variation in individual usage. In fact, says Ceil Lucas, one of McCaskill’s co-authors and a professor of linguistics at Gallaudet, Black ASL could be considered the purer of the two forms, closer in some ways to the system that Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet promulgated when he founded the first U.S. school for the deaf — known at the time as the American Asylum for Deaf Mutes — in Hartford, Conn., in 1817.

Mercedes Hunter, a hearing African American student in the department of interpretation at Gallaudet, describes the signing she and her fellow students use as a form of self-expression. “We include our culture in our signing,” says Hunter, who was a reseach assistant for the project, “our own unique flavor.

“We make our signs bigger, with more body language” she adds, alluding to what the researchers refer to as Black ASL’s larger “signing space.”

No universal language

When she tries to explain how Black ASL fits into the world of deaf communication, Lucas sets out by dispelling a common misconception about signing.

Many people think sign language is a single, universal language, which would mean that deaf people anywhere in the world could communicate freely with one another.

Another widely held but erroneous belief is that sign languages are direct visual translations of spoken languages, which would mean that American signers could communicate fairly freely with British or Australian ones but would have a hard time understanding an Argentinian or Armenian’s signs.

Neither is true, explains J. Archer Miller, a Baltimore-based lawyer who specializes in disability rights and has many deaf clients. There are numerous signing systems, and American Sign Language is based on the French system that Gallaudet and his teacher, Laurent Clerc, imported to America in the early 19th century.

“I find it easier to understand a French signer” than a British or Australian one, Miller says, “because of the shared history of the American and French systems.”

In fact, experts say, ASL is about 60 percent the same as French, and unintelligible to users of British sign language.


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Posted by: sbilingual | December 31, 2012

Language Barrier Hurts Elderly Asthma Patients

Older people with asthma in the United States have a tougher time controlling the condition if they have poor English skills, a new study finds.

In a study of nearly 300 asthma patients aged 60 and older, researchers found that Hispanics with limited English ability had poor self-management of their condition and a lower quality of life than those with a good understanding of English.

Compared to non-Hispanics and Hispanics with good command of English, older Hispanics with limited English proficiency had the poorest asthma control, and were less likely to use inhaled medications such as corticosteroids, which can prevent symptoms.

The study was published in the September issue of the journal Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

“Effective asthma treatment requires appropriate self-management,” study lead author Dr. Juan Wisnivesky, a pulmonologist affiliated with Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, said in a journal news release.

Patients must be able to identify symptoms and administer as-needed and controller medications properly, he said.

“Language barriers can compromise patient-provider communication and obstruct asthma education efforts about these important topics, making it difficult for both patients and allergists to ensure optimal outcomes,” Wisnivesky added.

When asthma is not properly controlled, patients are at increased risk for worsening symptoms and asthma-related death.

“Asthma is a serious disease that is often misdiagnosed and undertreated, especially within the aging population,” Dr. Stanley Fineman, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, said in the news release. “It is important that all patients receive the same level of care and learn how to effectively manage their condition so they can lead active, healthy lives.”

More than 11 million people in the United States have limited to no understanding of English, the news release noted.

Asthma patients facing language barriers should have a bilingual family member or friend accompany them to appointments, Fineman’s organization suggested. They might also request asthma literature in their native language, ask the health care provider if a bilingual staff member is available, and attend a local patient support group, the group said.

Although the study found an association between poorer health and non-English-speaking patients, it did not prove cause and effect.

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Posted by: sbilingual | December 28, 2012

How Do I Go into Conference Interpreting?

Conference interpreting typically requires an advanced level of education, along with some practical experience. In addition, you can seek certification to qualify for higher-level positions as a conference interpreter. The unique skills needed will vary depending on the type of interpretation. There are a number of different venues and situations that utilize conference interpreting — foreign language interpreting, for example, has different requirements than sign language interpreting. To succeed as a conference interpreter, you also will usually need basic business skills and the ability to stay up to date on developments in the field.

Large conferences often make use of simultaneous interpretation, especially if there are attendees who speak different languages. International conferences frequently employ two interpreters at a time because of the intensity of the work and the amount of concentration required. When accommodations for the hearing-impaired are necessary, sign language interpreting is used as well.

To become a conference interpreter, your educational background should generally include a bachelor’s degree and fluency in at least two languages. Students interested in conference interpreting often follow their undergraduate degrees with a master’s degree or a certification program. In addition to the academic work, practical interpreting experience is extremely valuable when seeking a high-level conference interpreting position.

In most cases, you also will need a good memory and excellent listening skills to succeed at conference interpreting. There are certain physical requirements as well, such as good speaking abilities and, for sign language interpreters, manual dexterity. Additionally, an interest in diplomacy or international business is helpful for obtaining certain positions. Likewise, people with international experience and knowledge of other cultures can often find success as conference interpreters.

Certain interpreter jobs might necessitate special skills or certification. Working for the United Nations, for instance, normally requires the knowledge of two foreign languages and the ability to translate them into one native language. In the U.S., after passing certain exams, one can earn certification for conference-level interpreting from the U.S. Department of State. The International Association of Conference Interpreters also offers certification programs.

Conference interpreting is not limited to spoken languages. In many cases, an event might call for sign language interpreting. Aspiring interpreters can be certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), or in the U.S. by the National Association of the Deaf.

Since many interpreter jobs emphasize the value of practical experience, volunteering is a good way to practice and gain skills. There are many opportunities to provide voluntary interpretation, especially in areas where emergencies may call for such services. The Red Cross and similar local organizations often seek volunteers with interpreting abilities, for instance.

Conference interpreting is often a freelance position. As a result, self-employed interpreters typically need some business knowledge, such as knowing how to keep financial records and how to develop strategies for marketing their services. Common advice for someone who hopes to go into conference interpreting normally includes seeking out a mentor. Similarly, it can be helpful to establish a professional network of support. You can keep your interpreting skills current by attending relevant training seminars and pursuing other continuing education opportunities.

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Posted by: sbilingual | December 27, 2012

Spanish is Easier than French… Not!

There is a common myth among English speakers, at least in the United States, that Spanish is much easier to learn than French. In high school, more than 95% percent of my fellow students chose Spanish in order to meet the foreign language requirement. Some said that Spanish is more useful in the US (an interesting discussion for another day), but most claimed that Spanish is much easier and thus they wouldn’t have to work as hard. The same rumor abounded when I was in college, and I still hear it today. When asked for more information, perpetrators of this urban legend invariably mention how difficult French pronunciation and spelling are, in comparison to Spanish. And in this, at least, there is some truth.

Spanish is easier…

Spanish is what I like to call a phonetic language, meaning that the rules of orthography are very close to the rules of pronunciation. Each Spanish vowel has a single pronunciation and although consonants may have two or more, there are very specific rules regarding their usage, depending on where the letter is in the word and what letters are around it. There are some trick letters, like the silent H and the identically-pronounced B and V, but all in all Spanish pronunciation and spelling are pretty straightforward. In comparison, French has many silent letters and multiple rules with plenty of exceptions, as well asliaisons and enchaînement which add additional difficulties to pronunciation and aural comprehension.

There are precise rules for the accentuation of Spanish words and accents to let you know when those rules are overridden, whereas in French accentuation goes by the sentence rather than the word. The fact is that once you’ve memorized the Spanish rules of pronunciation and accentuation, you can pronounce brand-new words with no hesitation. This is rarely the case in French (or English, for that matter).

The most common French past tense, the passé composé, is more difficult than Spanish’s pretérito.* The pretérito is a single word, while the passé composé has two parts (auxiliary verb + past participle). The passé composé is just one of several Frenchcompound verbs** and the questions of auxiliary verb (avoir or être) and word order with these verbs are some of French’s great difficulties.

*The true French equivalent of the pretérito, the passé simple, is a literary tense which most French students learn to recognize but not to use.

**Spanish compound verbs are much simpler: there is only one auxiliary verb and the two parts of the verb stay together, so word order is not a problem.

French’s two-part negation “ne… pas” is also more complicated in terms of usage and word order than Spanish’s “no.”

French is easier…

French has fewer verb tenses/moods than Spanish. French has a total of 15 verb tenses/moods, four of which are literary and rarely used, thus only 11 are used in daily French. Spanish has 17, one of which is literary ( pretérito anterior) and two judicial/administrative (futuro de subjuntivo and futuro anterior de subjuntivo), which leaves 14 for regular use.

While the subjunctive is the bane of students of both languages, it is more difficult and much more common in Spanish.

  • The French subjunctive is used almost solely after que, whereas the Spanish subjunctive is used regularly after many different conjunctions: quecuandocomo, etc.
  • There are two different sets of conjugations for the Spanish imperfect subjunctive(and pluperfect subjunctive). You can choose just one set of conjugations to learn, but you must be able to recognize both.
  • Si clauses (If… then… clauses) are very similar in French and English but are more difficult in Spanish. Note the two subjunctive tenses that are used in the Spanish si clauses. In French these are literary tenses.
      Unlikely Situation   Impossible Situation
    English If simple past +conditional If past perfect + past conditional
    French Si imperfect + conditional Si past perfect + past conditional
    Spanish Si imperfect subjunctive
    Si past perfect subjunctive
    + past conditional or past perfect subjunctive

The Spanish subject pronoun is usually dropped, thus it is essential to have all verb conjugations memorized in order to recognize (as the listener) and express (as the speaker) which subject is performing the action. In French, the subject pronoun is always stated, which means that verb conjugations – while still important, of course – are not as vital to comprehension: your own or your listener’s. In addition, French has just two words for you (singular/familiar and plural/formal), while Spanish has four (singular familiar, plural familiar, singular formal, and plural formal).

Neither one is easier…

There are sounds in both languages which can be very difficult for English speakers: French has the infamous R apical (pronounced in the throat), nasal vowels, and the subtle (to untrained ears) differences between tu/tous and parlai/parlais. In Spanish, the rolled R, the J (similar to the French R), and the B/V are the trickiest sounds.

Both languages have two genders and require gender and number agreement for adjectives, articles, and certain types of pronouns.

The use of prepositions in both languages can be difficult, as there is often little correlation between them and their English counterparts.

Confusing pairs abound in both:

  • French – c’est vs il est, encore vs toujours
  • Spanish – ser vs estar, por vs para
  • Both have the tricky two past-tense division (Fr – passé composé vs imparfait; Sp – pretérito vs imperfecto), two verbs that mean “to know,” and the bon-bien, mauvais-mal (Fr) / bueno-bien, malo-mal (Sp) distinctions.

Both French and Spanish have reflexive verbs, numerous false cognates with English that can trip up non-native speakers of either language, and potentially confusing word order due to the positions of adjectives and object pronouns.

The bottom line…

Spanish is arguably somewhat easier for the first year or so – beginners may struggle less with pronunciation than their French-studying colleagues, and one of the most basic Spanish verb tenses is easier than French. However, beginners in Spanish have to deal with dropped subject pronouns and four words for you, while French only has two. Later on, Spanish grammar becomes more complicated, and some aspects are certainly more difficult than French. All in all, neither language is definitively more or less difficult than the other.

Also keep in mind that each language you learn tends to be progressively easier than the previous one, so if you learn, for example, French first and then Spanish, Spanish will seem easier. But don’t let that fool you!

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Posted by: sbilingual | December 26, 2012

Love Breaks Language Barriers

We went to Malaysia to celebrate Chinese New Year with my husband’s parents and relatives. It was a great bonding time for all of us. We stayed in a hotel close to the beach and we had a great time enjoying each other’s company. We got to eat the famous original Penang Char Kway Teow; we went to the malls and the beach. The kids enjoyed bonding with their father because it’s a once-a-year occasion that he gets to be with them for five straight days!

And we would have enjoyed it fully had we learned how to speak Chinese and talk fluently with my husband’s relatives. They speak English but, of course, among themselves they will speak their native tongue and that’s when the kids (and I) feel out of place. But, of course, when it’s my husband who will go to the Philippines, he will feel the same when we speak our native dialect.

The Chinese have their own set of characters to begin with. And a characteristic feature of the Chinese language is the four intonations of words. This means that the meaning of a word does not only depend on how it is pronounced, but also the intonation in which it is pronounced. These intonations are usually represented by accents placed on top of the vowels. Wrong intonation will have a different meaning already. It is very confusing, at least for me and my teenage daughter, because we are already too old to study—it’s either that or we are really not that interested.

My husband taught me a few common words but I cannot complete a sentence. Then I took a crash course and when I tried to talk to my husband in Chinese, it took him a long time to process what my sentence meant because of my wrong intonation. There goes my crash course.

Being in a foreign country is difficult because of the language barrier. It is difficult for us to communicate to the people effectively and even some people do not want to go out of the country because of this.

The kids had a hard time communicating with their grandparents. When it was time for us to go back to Singapore, we visited the old folks again and said goodbye to them, and my son gave his grandparents big hugs and kisses. Though they do not understand each other, actions speak louder than words. The exchange of hugs and kisses says it all: love breaks language barriers.


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