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Guest Andrew Moore

Language and technology

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Caterina writes:

I have been recently asked to translate technical terms from English into Italian for a glossary on electronics and I have wondered if it really makes any sense trying to find Italian equivalents for Input/output, browser, intranet, internet (either with small or capital "I"), host, etc

You might take a look at the ICT4LT (ICT for Language Teachers) website, which was produced with the aid of EC funding in four languages, including Italian. The Italian version was produced by Prof Roberto Dolci, University of Venice, one of our partners in the project.

The 15 original modules are available in English, Italian, Finnish and Swedish - and there is a Glossary of Terminology in three of the languages (Swedish is the odd one out): http://www.ict4lt.org

Most "international" terms such as "input", "browser", etc are not translated in the Italian version of the Glossary.

The ICT4LT site gets around 600 hits per day, mostly from the UK, with Italy a close second.

Prof Roberto Dolci has run several courses in Italy centred on the ICT4LT website. I contributed to one of his seminars in Venice a few years ago. The University of Venice has a well-equipped multimedia centre: http://venus.unive.it/cli/

Prof Dolci use to manage the centre, but he's recently moved back into Dipartimento di Scienze del Linguaggio and continues to lecture on languages and technology.

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One of my more bizarre jobs was once to teach Swedish to Swedish people (despite me being English). In fact, they were unemployed adults doing a computer training course, and there were lots of terms in 'Swedish' that they just didn't understand, such as 'databas', 'formatera' and 'hård disk'.

And I was once at a presentation in Swedish about computer systems where we counted up the number of 'real' Swedish words on the screens. It amounted to the Swedish equivalents of words like 'and' and 'the' ('monitorera' was my favourite).

This presents problems to an Englishman in Sweden speaking Swedish. I'm never sure whether the word I'm using is now part of the language, or is one which I've just made up by putting a Swedish ending on an English word.

One of the interesting aspects of this for me as a language teacher is the way English is being taken over by all the people around the world who use it with the result that English is slipping out of the grip of native speakers. 'xxxx' is an English word commonly used in schools here, both by teachers and pupils. The Swedish word, 'skit', just means dirt, but it's pronounced differently. The 'English' word is being used as it would be in the UK or the USA, but without any hint of 'swearing'. It's thus important for me to constantly point out to Swedish teachers that they mustn't use it in formal discussions with passing acquaintances in the UK.

I wonder how long it will be before 'xxxx' and words like it are part of mainstream English …

There's a concept called 'Majority English' which you'll find on a site in Sweden: http://www.bentarz.se. The newsletters are a good way of keeping up with developments in contemporary English.

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Guest Andrew Moore

If we (mistakenly) think of English as belonging to the UK and/or USA, then one can see why speakers of other languages might resist what look like imperialist tendencies.

I think this is profoundly mistaken, simply because English is a global lingua franca. There are, I know, daft people in Britain who think of it as theirs, and try to regulate it, and bemoan change. What they are regulating (or failing to regulate) is merely a national variety. But it's the international variety with which the future lies.

In the mediaeval and renaissance periods, there were real arguments about the appropriate use of national vernaculars and the academic/scientific common language (Latin). But an English Dominican wanting to move from Oxford to Paris to Bologna (a common enough career path) would write and speak in Latin. On the other hand, after long deliberation, Milton chose to write his Biblical epic (Paradise Lost) in English, rather than Latin. He wrote both languages expertly, but today no-one much reads his Latin stuff.

The French call the PC an ordinateur and the Norwegians call it a datamaskin - which sounds closer to English than it looks (which is the case with a lot of the language). But it would be silly not to use a common international lexicon for all of the detailed features - and, in practice, no-one does it, save in terms of adapting the spellings and pronunciations, as with David's 'hård disk'.

It would be silly, because in the absence of an existing term in the language in question, the use of the international English version promotes global intelligibility. In any event, whether we like this or not (I do), most of the world agrees with it. Here might is right.

The short answer to Caterina's question is yes and no. The global lexicon of ICT is mediated through English, but the true origins of the lexis (in a historical/etymological sense) often lie in other languages and loans - as with, say, Java, Javascript, interface, virus, Trojan. We use them in English, but they come from everywhere. Among many reasons why English is so readily used as the global language is its promiscuousness - it already helps itself to lexis from anywhere, and its speakers feel no need to find an Anglo-Saxon alternative. We may Anglicize the orthography for practical reasons, but otherwise we are happy with frangipani trees*, patchouli oil, chicken tikka masala, fjords, bagels, robots and so on. We use French loans to describe cuisine and ballet, and we use Italian loans to describe classical music; we use Greek for natural sciences and we use Latin and Latinized Greek for the taxonomy of plants and animals. We may use a greeting that is standard in Scandinavia (Hi/Hei) and say goodbye in Italian (ciao).

*Named after an Italian parfumier (a French loan there) - the scent of the tree supposedly resembles one of Sr. F's concoctions.

In ICT terms, two Italian or Japanese techies can speak their own language to explain a process, but do so while using the international lexicon which is standard in English, but also in every other language, save for literary French as dictated by the linguacrats of the Academie.

Microsoft, by the way, does not enforce this international lexicon in its interface designs - as anyone will know who has tried to use a PC in Finland, Portugal, Greece and the Netherlands, without being a native of any of these places. (Yes, I have, and I did not find it easy in any of the four cases.)

Edited by Andrew Moore

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Andrew writes:

There are, I know, daft people in Britain who think of it as theirs, and try to regulate it, and bemoan change. What they are regulating (or failing to regulate) is merely a national variety. But it's the international variety with which the future lies.

Yes, I agree that the future lies in the international variety. Sometimes I get confused, however. As a regular visitor to Canada, where I have relations, I slip into North American English almost automatically, as it avoids raised eyebrows, especially when talking about cars, but when I come home I find I am still talking about “gas”, “hood, “trunk”, “fender”, “windshield”, etc. North American English is now making such an impact on the variety that we speak on this island that I am no longer 100% which variety is which. I recently wrote an encyclopaedia article for Elsevier, who insist on US spelling conventions. No problem – easy if you set your spell checker to US English – but now I find myself writing “traveled” instead of “travelled” and failing to distinguish between “practise” (verb) and “practice” (noun).

Andrew writes:

In ICT terms, two Italian or Japanese techies can speak their own language to explain a process, but do so while using the international lexicon which is standard in English, but also in every other language, save for literary French as dictated by the linguacrats of the Academie.

The Academie has tried to impose French ICT terms instead of the more common English-based international terms. On a couple of occasions when preparing to lecture (in French) in France I tried to familiarise myself by learning the French terms, only to find that all the computer technicians I met habitually used English-based terms in preference to the French terms.

Andrew writes:

Microsoft, by the way, does not enforce this international lexicon in its interface designs - as anyone will know who has tried to use a PC in Finland, Portugal, Greece and the Netherlands, without being a native of any of these places. (Yes, I have, and I did not find it easy in any of the four cases.)

Using the different interfaces is a great way of learning the terminology in different languages: i.e. learn by doing. One of the CALL programs that I have written allows the teacher to set the interface to match the target language of the learner, thus “File/Open” can be made to appear as “Fiche/Ouvrir” or “Datei/Öffnen”. My language centre at Thames Valley University used different versions of Word with interfaces in French, German and Spanish.

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..... English is a global lingua franca. There are, I know, daft people in Britain who think of it as theirs, and try to regulate it, and bemoan change. What they are regulating (or failing to regulate) is merely a national variety. But it's the international variety with which the future lies.
Yes, I agree that the future lies in the international variety. Sometimes I get confused, however. As a regular visitor to Canada, where I have relations, I slip into North American English almost automatically, as it avoids raised eyebrows, especially when talking about cars, but when I come home I find I am still talking about “gas”, “hood, “trunk”, “fender”, “windshield”, etc. North American English is now making such an impact on the variety that we speak on this island that I am no longer 100% which variety is which. I recently wrote an encyclopaedia article for Elsevier, who insist on US spelling conventions. No problem – easy if you set your spell checker to US English – but now I find myself writing “traveled” instead of “travelled” and failing to distinguish between “practise” (verb) and “practice” (noun).

Yes, I also agree that the future lies in the international variety.

Thank you, Graham, in fact most Italian teachers of English try to teach both 'pavement' and 'sidewalk', 'lift' and 'elevator', which means double work for their students who have got to learn two terms instead of one.

Anyway, it is really interesting to see how English is used, modified, enriched, etc. all around the world: as far as most English/American people can really accept its changing without regretting its original forms or imposing regulations as the French have been doing, it could become the "global" language of mankind.

This is what is already happening, and, as Anrew wrote, "Here might is right".

What about the other foreign languages, then? Will there be many people interested in learning them, if not for the sake of reading literary works in their original forms?

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>Yes, I also agree that the future lies in the international variety.<

Varieties of English aren't just confined to the traditional English-speaking world. I don't know whether others have noticed that non-native speakers of English have, either by accident or design, contributed neologisms to English. Take the word "intercomprehension" for example, meaning the ability of speakers of related languages to understand each other. Run this through Google and you will notice how the websites using the term are mostly non-British and non-American. Then there are terms such as "defectology", which is of Russian origin and carries heavy cultural baggage. German scientists often pepper their research reports in English with "Germanisms". Will such expressions outside the Anglo-American axis be understood by all users of English, whether as a first or second language?

>What about the other foreign languages, then? Will there be many people interested in learning them, if not for the sake of reading literary works in their original forms?<

Although I followed a traditional university foreign language and literature course in the 1960s, I can now say that my current interest in reading foreign languages is far removed from the study of literary texts. As a special educator as well as a teacher of French and German, I use my languages to study how schools in other countries educate those with special needs. Most of this information is written by local teachers in languages other than English and it's often better than the bland stuff in English that European national education ministries usually publish.

David Wilson

http://www.specialeducationalneeds.com/

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Hmmm, I always feel strangely as though I'm barging in on someone else's conversation here, but maybe that's just me getting to grips with the conventions of online discussion... Anyway, I'm sufficiently interested to get over myself in order to comment on one of the threads in Andrew's guide, this idea that the degree of openness and privacy in communication is shaped or supported in different ways by different technologies. This kind of line of enquiry is far more interesting than the "new words and smileys" approach that was putting me off teaching this topic. (NB "smilies" just looks all wrong to me and appears, besides, to be current orthographic practice amongst teenagers for the word previously spelled "similies"... :beer )

I'm thinking a lot about this at the moment having been brutally savaged in conversation at a dinner party last weekend. These were some of my oldest and dearest friends, but whilst I see communications technologies as a hugely liberating source of good, they regard them as little short of pure evil. This made conversation a bit tense when they asked "so what have you been up to". Not wanting to talk about work, and knowing their current child-rearing activity rules out all conversation about films, books, or music, I picked what I thought was an innocuous topic - "I've been having fun catching up with some long lost friends, and getting to know some new ones".

Much interest was expressed at first, until they asked me what I'd been doing with all these buddies, and I said "talking", and they said "yes, but where". After I'd explained what i-messaging was, they went for me. It was an interesting experience in the hostility that technology can arouse...

What they were arguing so vociferously was that the relationships that this kind of communication produces are not real. Though none of them have used i-messaging, they were able to cite several articles from the broadsheets along the general lines of "how email ruined my life", Friends Reunited reunion orgies, etc, etc.... Their argument rested on the idea that computer mediated communication creates a false sense of intimacy because (1) it can be very private and (2) there is no social mediation of conversational openness. People say things they wouldn't ordinarily say, using language they wouldn't ordinarily use.

This is clearly a lazy red wine generalisation. When emailing my (distant, little known, power-crazed) Principal I deliberately express myself in a very guarded way, using very formal means of expression. As with anything to do with language, it's all about context. However, in computer-mediated communication with friends, I do use language differently, it's true.

I shall have to get my class to investigate this properly because it's too methodologically dodgy to investigate myself, but these are my observations so far based on all kinds of computer mediated conversations with many friends. They are vague "thinking aloud" generalisations at this stage.

1) Less frequent swearing than in face to face speech - something to do with writing it down, maybe, but also related to the next point...

2) A much less combative style. It's weird, and I don't quite know how to explain this yet, but I feel far more able to articulate myself in the gentle, cooperative manner much attributed to my gender than I do in any face to face situation - indeed, even with the same friends.

3) An ability to do "small talk" that I find very taxing in face to face conversation with new people. This may be because there is less opportunity to lose face.

4) An ability to strike up conversation because all I have to do is log on and say "hi"; it doesn't matter that I have nothing in particular to say. It's a bit like sitting in the common room of your hall of residence, and you just chat to whoever walks in. This is a very different dynamic from ringing someone up when you just feel like a chat. Though other people, especially women, seem far more comfortable with this, I never quite know how to start this kind of conversation.

This gives rise to far more interesting and philosophical issues about what kind of crazy screwed up world we live in where communication has become so fraught with difficulty. So, yes, I think the interaction of language and these technologies does create a greater intimacy between people, but this, to me, is a huge improvement! It only has as much potential to cause pain and heartache (cue David Beckham's text messaging...) as the people who are using it. We make choices...

In terms of teaching this stuff, I now have an interesting idea for a mini-investigation, but can anyone point me to some decent secondary material? Have Tim's book, which will be very useful, though the bit about the language of cyberpets and furbies did nearly kill me...

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Just a couple of observations regarding E-Julie’s message:

Email can be maddening. I nearly went crazy this summer when my business suffered a spam hijack, but…

My wife and I are in regular email contact with our cousins in British Columbia and a long-lost friend in Australia. The time differences in our countries makes telephone conversation difficult. For example, we can only phone our cousins in BC after one in the morning (our time) on weekdays, which coincides with the time that they get home from work. We exchange digital photographs of our grandchildren – very quick and very cheap! Asynchronous email means that we “talk” to one another more often.

The long-lost friend in Australia is a woman whom my wife and I met in the Swinging Sixties in London. We had great times together. Our friend married an Australian in the early 1970s and then emigrated. For a few years we remained in touch by letter, but then – for various reasons, including a broken marriage (the friend’s marriage, not ours!) – we lost touch. Early last year my wife joined Friends Reunited and tried to track down our old friend. I was able to remember her maiden name, and my wife was able to remember the area of London where she went to secondary school. On the first search the name of the long-lost friend appeared. We fired off an email, referring to the fun years that all three of us enjoyed in the 1960s. Bingo! We hit the jackpot. We now regularly exchange emails – and we have also telephoned one another on several occasions.

Modern communications can be wonderful!

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Guest Andrew Moore

Hi, Julie,

This is everyone's conversation, so it's certainly yours. :)

I have also met the same reaction that you describe. But any number of real-world meetings, that have been initiated or reinforced by these new ways of talking, belie that. Your friends would not, I bet, say the same things about the telephone. They are guessing about something they don't know. You are describing experience.

There is social mediation in instant messaging - but, like body language in face-to-face speech - one learns it (admittedly more quickly).

The value of what your friends say as objective evidence about the uses of the technology is zilch, rien, not a sausage. They are merely passing on the prejudices of other people who do not use it, and have some wish to discredit what they cannot understand. Often one can see why, as they inhabit a world where the means of publication are controlled by commercial interests, and Internet technologies threaten (they think) their livelihood. This is classical Luddism.

But its value as expressing attitudes to the technology is considerable - it tells us about the way they see it. There are two strands that I can see. One is to say the contact is unreal. The other is to say that it is harmful (the kind of argument that Carol Vorderman makes in the UK). Clearly, these are mutually contradictory.

The fact that bad people use smart technology does not make the technology evil. Far more children are harmed in the UK in traffic accidents (often driven by parents who won't let their children walk to school) than are harmed by molesters and paedophiles. We are talking of thousands of deaths and serious injuries annually, as opposed to a handful of cases of serious abuse (so few, that one can almost know them all individually). But people know what cars are like, so do not mind the damage they do.

Someone who does understand the technology (Charlie Brooker) writes this in the Guardian's listings guide: "I could go on about Watchdog until the cows start texting to say they're on their way home..."

Someone else who understands the technology is David Crystal. He makes a strong claim that computer-mediated interaction is a genuine third medium of communication after speech and writing.

I'm not sure what kind of trooper you resemble in your more profane moods or modes, but so far I've not seen or heard that in any digital communication from you. Of course, if your friends are rearing children, then these little people may eventually be able to put their parents right about the need for MSN and Yahoo...

Edited by Andrew Moore

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Well, I was going to say that I now feel a bit less like a freak as a result of these responses, but then I remembered Andrew Brown's piece from last week (he writes a column for subscribers to The Wrap, the Guardian's email news service). In it he argued that the internet was the greatest threat to global security, providing disaffected second generation immigrants with the opportunity to find an outlet for their disaffection in online communities that encourage terrorism. The problem, he suggests rather sweepingly, is that online communities do not have the same checks and balances that "normal" communities have, allowing like-minded people to express shared views in language that none find at all alarming or odd. So where does that leave us, I wonder?.... I didn't know I had terrorist potential... :)

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Picking up the thread of the Internet as a threat...

My younger daughter had a bad experience as a result of joining a chat room. One of the contributors kept asking for her real name and email address and threatened to commit suicide if she didn't tell him. As a susceptible teenager at the time, she was frightened by this experience and she began to feel guilty about ignoring the persistent contributor. My advice was: "Leave the chat room and let him top himself!". So she left the chat room and hasn't indulged in this kind of activity again.

I think we may have reached a point where the Internet needs to be properly policed - but then the question arises as to who does the policing. Actually, the Internet is closely watched by the police and security services already. A friend of my elder daughter, who is a Detective Chief Inspector, spent a couple of years tracking down paedophiles via the Internet - not a pleasant experence, she said. I know people in the USA, working for the State Department, who are involved in the development of transcription software that produces printed output of radio and TV broadcasts in Arabic and automatic gist translations. Then there is a whole industry devoted to automatic authorship identification of texts written by potential terrorists: http://ai.bpa.arizona.edu/COPLINK/authorship.htm

Big Brother is already watching you!

As Andrew says, one could say that the telephone is a dangerous invention. Indeed it can be - but most people use it for legitimate purposes. And, of course, telephone tapping has been a feature of anti-terrorist activities for a very long time. Voice and speech recognition software was developed as long ago as the early 1980s by GCHQ. And then there was Operation Tinkerbell at the time of the miners' strike...

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