1. Education
Richard Nordquist

Language in the News: Top Stories of 2012

By December 31, 2012

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At the end of every month we gather a number of language-related items in the news. Some have significant scholarly implications; others are downright silly. For this final post of 2012, we've selected a dozen stories from the past year that continue to stir linguistic interest and debate.

  • The Happy Bias of English
    When a team of scientists set out to evaluate the emotional significance of English words, they expected most would fall at the center of the scale, at neutral, while equal shares trailed out to the positive and negative ends of the spectrum. That is not what they found, however: Instead, we appear to speak an optimistically biased language. . . . Read more
    (Wynne Parry, "English Is an Optimistic Language, Study Suggests." LiveScience, January 23, 2012)

  • Dictionary of American Regional English Reaches Zydeco
    [O]ne of America's most ambitious lexicographical projects . . . culminates with the publication by Harvard University Press of Volume V (Sl-Z) next month, a mere 50 years after the project was inaugurated by Frederic G. Cassidy, an exuberant Jamaican-born linguist given to signing off conversations with "On to Z!" . . . Read more
    (Jennifer Schuessler, "Regional Dictionary Finally Hits 'Zydeco.'" The New York Times, February 24, 2012)

  • The Benefits of Bilingualism
    Speaking two languages rather than just one has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalized world. But in recent years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age. . . . Read more
    (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "Why Bilinguals Are Smarter." The New York Times, March 17, 2012)

  • Why Is Bilingual Education in Decline?
    Developments in social science, global trends and demographics all reinforce the significant benefits of bilingual education. Despite that, American schools show a steady decline in language programs. How can this be? . . . Read more
    (Stephen Palacios, "Conditions Are Perfect For Bilingual Education--So Why Is It In Decline?" Huffington Post, April 15, 2012)
    See also: Language Skills Are Being Lost in Translation, by Charles Crawford (The Telegraph [UK], April 10, 2012)

  • The Language of Science
    The spread of English in global higher education is no secret. Even so, the recent decision by a leading Italian public university, Politecnico di Milano, to shift to all English language instruction at the graduate level is stark enough to have sparked a discussion. Given the dominance of English as an international language of science, how can universities compete on an international level while maintaining their national identities? . . . Read more
    (Elizabeth Redden, "All English, All the Time." Inside Higher Ed, May 21, 2012)

  • Endangered Languages Project
    While language can be consider an integral fiber that connects a community, the Web is what connects the world today. And a new website, called the Endangered Languages Project, aims to connect and collect the most current and comprehensive information about the more than 3,000 endangered languages of the world. . . . Read more
    (Michelle Maltais, "Google.org Helps Keep Endangered Languages Alive." Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2012)

  • Semantic Illusions
    [W]hen asked "Can a man marry his widow's sister?" most people answer "yes"--effectively answering that it would indeed be possible for a dead man to marry his bereaved wife's sister. What makes researchers particularly interested in people's failure to notice words that actually don't make sense, so-called semantic illusions, is that these illusions challenge traditional models of language processing which assume that we build understanding of a sentence by deeply analysing the meaning of each word in turn. . . . Read more
    (Economic and Social Research Council [ESRC], "Our Brains Often Fail to Notice Key Words That Can Change the Whole Meaning of a Sentence." ScienceDaily, July 16, 2012)

  • The Rise of She
    A textual analysis of 1.2 million books published since 1900 found that the proportion of male pronouns to female pronouns fell from 4.5 to 1 in the 1950s to less than 2 to 1 in 2005. Researchers say the changing ratio reflects the higher status and visibility of women in our society. . . . Read more
    (Jen Doll, "The Rise of She: What a Shift in Gendered Pronouns Means." The Atlantic Wire, August 10, 2012)

  • Protest Over English Words in a Chinese Dictionary
    Over 100 Chinese scholars have signed a petition calling for the removal of English words from an authoritative Chinese dictionary, reigniting a debate on language purity. The petitioners, most of them linguists, said the newly published sixth edition of the Modern Chinese Dictionary includes 239 English words and acronyms, which they believe constitutes a violation of the country's Law on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language. . . . Read more
    ("Language Purity Row Resumes After English Enters Chinese Dictionary." Xinhua News Agency [China], August 29, 2012)

  • New Research on Linguistic Universals
    In a new study, researchers from the University of Rochester and Georgetown University believe the brain's tendency toward efficient communication is an underlying reason that many human languages are comparable. Over and over, linguists have identified nearly identical grammatical conventions in seemingly unrelated languages scattered throughout the globe. . . . Read more
    (Rick Nauert, "Language Mirrors Brain's Desire for Clarity." Psych Central, October 17, 2012)

  • Microsoft Promises Instant Translations
    Microsoft has shown off a technology that translates someone's speech into another language, with the results being played back in the speaker's own voice. . . . Microsoft hopes to have "systems that can completely break down language barriers" within the next few years. . . . Read more
    (David Meyer, "Microsoft's Translation Breakthrough: Speak, and Hear Your Voice in Chinese." ZDNet, November 9, 2012)

  • Words of the Year
    - Dictionary.com: Bluster
    - Merriam-Webster: Socialism and Capitalism
    - Oxford Dictionaries UK: Omnishambles
    - Oxford Dictionaries US: GIF

To keep up with language in the news, be sure to visit this blog at the end of each month. If you'd like a reminder, sign up for our weekly Grammar & Composition Newsletter.

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