Learn a new language, and the Silbo Gomero

I recently had the opportunity of meeting the co-founder of a new language-learning website called “Busuu”. Busuu is a language on the verge of extinction; apparently today it’s spoken by only 8 people in Cameroon. Other than that cool snippet of information, I didn’t pay much attention to the website until I got an email saying that it will teach you how to do the whistle “Gomero”, i.e. the Silbo Gomero.

The Silbo Gomero is a whistle that is (was?) used to communicate in Gomero, in the Canary Islands. People who know this language can communicate full sentences through this whistle, and since it can be heard up to a distance of 8 kilometers, it used to be an extremely useful way of communicating across the deep alleys and mountains of the island.(Voice can only travel 200 meters). It used to be a recognised language, but now since there are few people who can whistle this way and it’s not an easy whistle to learn, this “language” faces the threat of extinction.

Busuu aims to help preserve such languages that are under threat of disappearing, and their proactiveness towards trying to help users understand and learn this whistle is commendable. The fact that you are far from learning the whistle after looking at their material is a different point, but if they are planning to expand on such efforts, this is a great start. Here you can check out a great video they did that explores the hows and whats of this Silbo Gomero.

This whole learning the Silbo Gomero tactic could well be a publicity stunt for Busuu, but worth it if it drives traffic to this new and cool language-exchange/learning-community. The website is easy to navigate and presents a community-driven language learning system. Become a member and you can add study modules and attempt to familiarize yourself with a new language, with the option of being helped by native speakers of the language you want to learn. It all works on a system of mutual help, so it’s pretty cool to see it function well. Right now they offer opportunities to study English, French, Spanish, and German. Although you may not learn the language in any concrete or complete way, it’s a good place to start and to meet some multi-lingual people.

Making the most of your ‘staycation’: Learn a foreign language

With high gas prices and a low dollar the idea of “staycations” is all over the place. Go over to Urban Dictionary and there’s even an official definition of the term that has come to define Americans’ 2008 summer travel season: “A vacation that is spent at one’s home enjoying all that home and one’s home environs have to offer.” But as Jeremy pointed out, the whole thing feels rather lame. He came up with some good tips on how to cut down on travel costs so that getting away from home can still be possible, but what if you really only can afford a staycation? What then?

If summer 2008 is going to be the summer of staying close to home then it’s high time to do something productive with your time off, and just because you can’t travel to exotic lands doesn’t mean you can’t brush up on your foreign language skills. Adding to your foreign language repertoire is a great staycation activity for two main reasons:

  • Thanks to the internet you can do it from the comfort of your own home
  • You might be staying home, but you are still increasing your knowledge of other cultures

Here’s the quick and dirty guide to incorporating learning a foreign language into this summer’s staycation:
Getting started:
Check out websites like 101 Languages or Language Guide. 101 Languages has basic guides to vocabulary and grammar for everything from Polish to Tagalog. Although it offers less languages, Language Guide is a personal favorite of mine because when you move the cursor over the words and expressions you hear the native pronunciation. For a small daily dose of language, sign-up for Travlang’s Word of the Day which selects one word and translates it into over 80 languages.

Using your new skills:

Sitting in front of your computer is all well and good, but if you really want to improve your language skills you are going to need to use them in a conversational setting. A great place to start is Craigslist, where you can search for people that are looking for conversation partners or even post your own ad.

Visit the local library:

If you’re working on a common language like French or Spanish, take advantage of your local library and check out some children’s books. If picture dictionaries are a little too elementary, try tracking down a children’s book translated into your language of choice. When you’ve already read the likes of Harry Potter in English you will have a much easier time diving into it in the foreign language, plus you won’t have to deal with complex sentence structures found in your foreign language college literature class.

See, there’s really no excuse for having a lame, un-educational summer, even if you can’t travel abroad. What are your tips for learning a foreign language when you don’t have the possibility of traveling to the country where it is spoken?

The many languages of Suriname

If you’ve been following any of the recent language controversy in Philadelphia, you begin to see that a country’s language is a constantly evolving mix of the cultures, customs and the people who use it. Here at home, this interplay is at often work between our country’s de facto official language, English, and an increasingly populous minority of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Now imagine this same language debate among as many as ten languages, and you begin to get a picture of the small South American nation of Suriname as featured in this article.

Suriname is a former Dutch colony on the northern coast of South America. Due to the country’s colonial heritage, the official language is Dutch. But continuous waves of immigrants have left a unique mark on the country’s language culture. This includes a recent influx Brazilians, who speak mostly Portuguese, a small population of Chinese-speakers from the Far East and Indonesian residents of Suriname who speak Javanese. Add to this mix a local language called Sranan Tongo, a dialect passed down from West Africa by many of the former colony’s African slaves, and local indigenous languages like Arawak and Carib. AND, on top of all this, politicians in Suriname are urging the government to adopt English or Spanish as the new national language, hoping to create closer ties to with neighboring countries. Sound confusing? I’m with you.

It remains to be seen how this complicated language issue will play out in Suriname, but it raises some interesting questions. What factors should determine a country’s official language? The U.S. for instance, will always speak English, but what concessions, if any, should be made as our country becomes increasingly multi-lingual? Should we base our decision on economic circumstances? Political? Cultural? It seems to me it’s some combination of the three. What do you think?

[Via the New York Times]

Fête de la Francophonie: Celebrating the francophone world

French is the native tongue of over 80 million people. But many more people interact with it on a daily basis, be it through culture, as a second language or even as a subject being learned in school. The francophone world stretches from Hanoi to Abidjan, bringing together all kinds of foods and customs that aren’t always immediately associated with all things French; this isn’t about baguettes and wine, this is about creole music, saffron infused food and crazy carnivals.

If you haven’t had France on the radar, you may not know that March is the official month of La Fête de la Francophonie. The month long festival is intended to celebrate the international and linguistic community that share French — either as a native language or even a second one — that is referred to by the coined term La Francophonie.

Thursday March 20 is the big celebration, being the official International Francophone Day, and there are a whole lot of global celebrations to take part in wherever you may find yourself, from Cambodia to Mali to Canada.

If you are in the New York area you can check out the Fête de la Martinique taking place today, March 19, which will turn Le Skyroom into a tropical paradise, full of French Creole culture that the island of Martinique is so well known for. This isn’t a conservative event; prizes are being awarded for best carnival costume. Other events going on around the US include a French film festival in Burlington, Vermont and a French Cultures Festival in various cities across Texas.

For more Fête de la Francophone events go here.

The pocket translator goes mobile

One of the more difficult parts of my trip to Russia last year was the language barrier. Aside from having to navigate a whole new alphabet, it was difficult at times to find anyone that understood English. I frequently found myself pointing and gesturing or making use of a few phrases of poorly pronounced Russian I had picked up from my guidebook. That’s why I was excited to hear about Steape, a Dutch company that produces a line of language dictionaries and phrasebooks you can download to your mobile phone.

According to the Steape website, the company offers two main products, Steape Travel and Steape Mini Speaking Dictionary. Steape Travel offers a catalog of around 100 commonly used travel phrases, whereas the Mini Speaking Dictionary offers a database of around 500 traveler-friendly words. Both can be purchased on the Steape site for only $4 each. If you purchase Steape Travel or Mini Speaking Dictionary, you’ll also get Steape Knowledge as a free bonus, which has basic vocabulary like numbers and days of the week. The interface for each application works basically the same way – you search for a word or phrase you want to use and press the action key to have it pronounced using your phone’s speaker.

Currently, the applications are supported on more than 160 phone models and in 17 different languages. Check out the site to verify compatibility for your particular phone model and language needs. For only $4, Steape seems to have a cheap and highly useful application on their hands. Then again, as Jamie suggested recently in her post, there are “alternative” methods to help you learn foreign language phrases for your next trip.

[Via: Xellular Identity]