Great Language Game Tests Your Ear For Foreign Languages

Welcome sign - foreign language game
Flickr, Sanctu

Any seasoned world traveler can tell the difference between Italian and Russian, but how about Tamil and Punjabi? Estonian vs. Slovenian? Do you even know where they speak Hausa?

Test your ear for foreign languages with the Great Language Game, compiled from audio samples of 80 languages (just a drop in the bucket compared to the six or seven thousand spoken in the world!) and presented as a multiple-choice quiz. Each correct answer gets you 50 points, the highest so far is 8600 points. The samples were collected from SBS Australia and Voices of America by Australian data scientist Lars Yencken. The easiest language is French, while the hardest to guess is Shona, a Bantu language native to Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Test your language skills at GreatLanguageGame.com

Victoria & Albert Museum Showcases Treasures From Royal Courts

Victoria & Albert Museum
The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has just opened a new exhibition about the development of trade and official relations between Russia and the United Kingdom.

“Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars” brings together more than 150 objects for a look at the interaction between both courts from the accession of Henry VIII in 1509. He and later Tudor monarchs were eager to expand contacts with Russia to tap into the lucrative fur trade, selling English wool and luxury items in return. The artifacts show how the courts affected one another through the reigns of two English dynasties.

Timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the founding of the dynasty of the Romanovs, the exhibition focuses on gifts and cultural exchanges between the two royal courts instead of the rather humble trade that financed them. Included are Shakespeare’s first folio, a little-seen portrait of Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s suit of processional armor and royal jewelry.

The exhibition also includes objects loaned from Russian institutions, such as this odd silver basin showing a dolphin from 1635. It’s part of a collection of English and French silver given to the Tsars by the British royal family. Examples of this kind of silver are rare in England because most of it was melted down to finance the English Civil War. What’s interesting about this basin is the way the dolphin is portrayed – more like those seen in Greek and Roman art than what dolphins look like in reality. It appears the silversmith had a Classical education but not much contact with the sea!

%Gallery-180975%There’s also quite a bit about the Muscovy Company, an English firm given a monopoly on trading rights with Russia from 1555 until 1698. The company’s captains made a fortune trading with Russia and even tried to open a route to China by sailing north of Siberia. The so-called Northeast Passage was as bad of an idea as it sounds and many sailors froze to death in the attempt.

The Northeast Passage remained a dream until 1878, when the Finnish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld sailed the Vega from Europe to Japan via Siberia. Sadly for him, the Suez Canal had opened nine years before and there already was a shorter route to China.

“Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars” runs until July 14.

[Photo courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

VIDEO: Ride The Moscow Metro


If you’ve traveled to Russia, you’ve probably ridden on the amazing Moscow Metro with impossibly deep and fast escalators, Soviet-realistic sculptures and mosaics, and constant flow of passengers. If you haven’t been, or just want a refresh, you can take a virtual ride with this video. It combines beautiful images, clever editing and dramatic music for a powerful travel video. Sčastlivovo puti!

NASA to replace Russian rockets with space taxi by 2014

russian Currently using less-than-reliable Russian space agency vehicles to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station, NASA wants to go a different direction. This week, the space agency asked commercial space companies to submit bids for a new space taxi as part of the latest round of the Commercial Crew Program.

“President Obama is working hard to create an American economy built to last,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in TheStateColumn. “NASA’s support of commercial innovation to reach low Earth orbit is helping to support these efforts by spurring new technological development and creating jobs and economic benefits for years to come.”

NASA said they expect to select two companies that can provide “safe, reliable, and cost effective human access to space,” noting that they expect to make multiple awards this summer, with values up to $500 million, an investment they could get back rather quickly.

The Russian space agency charges $63 million per seat for a ride to the international Space Station and has had a lot of problems in recent months. Among them, a probe intended for Mars failed to reach beyond low-Earth orbit.

Looking for alternatives to the retired space shuttle, winning firms would have until May 2014 to complete their integrated designs and have them ready to test fly by the middle of the decade.



Kepler-22b Planet Just Like Earth Discovered

Knocked up abroad: foreign baby names in a foreign country

foreign baby namesJust arrived? Read more about pregnancy in a foreign country, Turkish prenatal care, travel in the first trimester, and Turkish superstitions on Knocked up abroad.

“Whatever you do, if it’s a girl, don’t call her Natasha,” was the first bit of advice a Turkish friend gave me about having a baby in Istanbul. While a common and inoffensive name in the US and Russia, in Turkey and many other European countries, Natasha doesn’t have the best connotation. It tends to be slang for, well, a certain kind of professional woman from Eastern Europe, or just a gold-digger; not things with which you want your baby to be associated. Naming a baby is always a difficult decision, but when you live a place where local names sound foreign to you, your own country’s names become foreign names as well.

Since the beginning of my pregnancy abroad, I’ve been certain I wanted to learn the baby’s gender as soon as I could, feeling that enough things were a mystery when having a baby in a foreign country and I didn’t need to add to them. My husband and each of our mothers disagreed, feeling a surprise is nicer, but suddenly my husband came home from work having changed his mind. He explained that he could never get the Turks to understand why he’d want it to be a surprise and try to tell him that he could find out nowadays. “But you know they can tell now? They can see in the ultrasound,” they’d say, perplexed. This is a similar reaction to my questions about cloth diapers or natural childbirth. There’s a newer and better way, they argue, so why wouldn’t we want that?While my husband and I are both American, we initially considered a name to reflect our baby’s Turkish birthplace. We loved Sofia, for Hagia Sofia, and it works with many languages and pronunciations. Unfortunately, we aren’t the only ones: Sophia/Sofia is now the most popular baby girl name in the US, meaning that in 2016, kindergartens will be full of Sofias. While we are also big fans of Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, the names Mustafa and Kemal just wouldn’t go over so well in America as they do here. Perhaps Constantine for a boy, in honor of one of the city’s former names? The one season I watched of American Idol with the smarmy contestant Constantine Maroulis ruined that name for me, and I couldn’t deal with a boy nicknamed Connie. Maybe something to reflect our neighborhood of Nişantaşı, but spelling and pronunciation would be tricky in English.

The Turkish alphabet is mostly similar to English (thanks to Ataturk!), with a few notable exceptions. The letter C is pronounced as a J, so the Turkish name Cam is actually more like Jam, but if you add a tail under it, it becomes a “ch” sound. English amight have the “ch” and “sh” sounds, but our keyboards don’t have Ç or Ş. The Turkish alphabet lacks X and substitutes it with “ks,” familiar if you’ve taken a taksi to Taksim Square. There are two forms of I: with the dot sounds like “ee” and without the dot is “eh” or “uh.” Then there’s the tricky Ğ, which has no sound at all, except elongating the vowel before it, often making it a “ya.” Hence the former royal residence and now luxury hotel Çırağan Palace is pronounced “Chuh-ran.” Let’s not forget the pesky umlauts that sometimes accompany O and U, and mean that months after moving here, taxi drivers still don’t know what I’m asking when I say Ortaköy. I won’t even get into vowel harmony, which often changes a letter’s pronunciation entirely, but otherwise Turkish is relatively phonetic.

Language lesson over, there are many names which just don’t translate culturally. The best example is the Turkish boy’s name Ufuk, which sounds perfectly respectable in Turkish, but not so nice in English. Kıvanç is a popular name that sounds nice in Turkish but to English ears “kuh-wanch” sounds like a polite euphemism for a rude body part. Berk is common enough here, but say the name to a Brit and learn what it’s slang for in the UK (idiot is the nicer way to say it).Americans would also snicker at Tuba, Voltan, and Fatih, while Turks would think Adam (meaning man), Dennis (sea, spelled Deniz) Dana (veal or calf), or Erik (plum) are a bit silly. An American/Turkish couple I know have named their son Aslan, which means lion in Turkish and sounds cool in either language but I hope he’s called Lan for short on visits to the US.

Going back to the Natasha problem; after a few months, my Leningrad-born-but-US-naturalized husband decided he wanted a Russian name and only a Russian name for the baby. I immediately nixed names like Svetlana, Vladimir and Olga, giving elaborate descriptions of the sour-faced old Russian masseuses I associated the names with (apologies to any Svetas, Vlads or Olgas reading this, I’m sure you are lovely people).My husband speaks fluent Russian whereas I only know a few basics and curse words, so anything I can’t even pronounce like Nadezhda (long form for Nadia) is out. Nikita is a cool name and while it’s for a boy, the movies and tv shows La Femme Nikita have permanently associated it as a feminine name. Ditto for Sasha, actually a diminutive for Alexander, but better known now as one of the first daughters. I began to call the baby Rasputin partially to mock my husband until it started to actually seem like a viable choice.

In case you wondered, we did finally see our baby’s gender and it turns out we are having a Natasha, er, a girl. I’ve been leafing through the book Russian Fairy Tales as a source if I want to name the baby after a swan maiden or bear hunter’s wife. I imagine we’ll continue to argue about her name until she is born, so if you have good ideas for Russian girls names, I’m open to suggestions. If you want to learn more Russian, Turkish, or other foreign names, check out HearNames.com. Each listing has an audio sample as well if you are still wondering how to say Ufuk without getting slapped.

Image from Cafe Press Turk Onesie store.

Stay tuned for more Knocked up Abroad.