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Prairie Dogs: Do You Speak “Chien”?

By Shlomo Maital

       Suppose you are a biologist, choosing a topic for research. Would you choose to study, say, how prairie dogs communicate?   Probably not. Well, a Northern Arizona University professor named Con Slobodchikoff did. And what he found is amazing, and may change how we think about, and relate to, animals in general. And it shows how crucial it is for scientists to choose freely what they study – you never know where a breakthrough will come from.

       Prairie dogs live in underground colonies. They come up to forage, and are vulnerable to predators. So they are alert for danger and signal danger vocally.   Here is what Slobodchikoff found (reported in the New York Times, Science section, May 17):

       Prairie dog “warning calls” can identify and communicate the type of predator they spot; they also specify its size, shape, color and speed; they use their calls to structure a ‘message’ informing about a predator they have never seen before; and their calls are rich, informative and flexible.   Slobodchikoff believes this qualifies the prairie dog calls as a language.   It probably developed through evolution — prairie dog colonies better able to signal danger and state its nature in detail survive longer to procreate than less verbal counterparts. 

   The French called prairie dogs “petits chiens” because they thought they sounded like their small pets back home. So, we could call the prairie dog language “chien”.

     And thanks to Slobodchikoff, if we learn their chien language well, maybe we could communicate with prairie dogs someday.   This, in turn, might be helpful, if some day we need to communicate with aliens, in their language.

     How did Slobodchikoff figure out the chien language? Mainly, by having different people and dogs walk through the prairie dog colony, record their warning calls and then study them. He had people wear different colored T-shirts and traverse the colony, and then on a wire, sent different shapes and sizes of figures through it.

     Again, we are learning how sophisticated animals are, and how well they make use of their very tiny brains.   We humans boast of our huge brains – but perhaps we could make better use of them?  


Pinyin: The Story of Zhou Youguang

By Shlomo Maital


Zhou Youguang


Pinyin Alphabet

     This is the story of how an “amateur” with courage and passion can change a huge nation and enhance the lives of many millions of ordinary people.

     Zhou Youguang, father of Pinyin, died last Saturday in Beijing. He was 111 (one hundred and eleven)!  

       Here is his story.   We can learn a lot from it.

       But first – what is pinyin? Pinyin in Chinese means “spelled sounds” – i.e. phonetics. Pinyin is simplified Chinese, or “Romanized” Chinese. What is Romanized? It is “the conversion of writing from a different writing system to the Roman (Latin) script”. Mandarin Chinese has thousands of characters; it is a pictorial language, with a great many symbols or pictures. Learning those characters was well beyond the schooling abilities of ordinary Chinese. And using those characters, it was very hard to spell Western names, or Chinese names, or to use the computer.

       There have been many “Romanized” Chinese systems. But Zhou Youguang’s system was by far the best and simplest. How did it come about?   The New York Times obituary (Jan. 17) reveals a lot.

           He was the son of a prominent family – his father was an official of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, 17th c. to 1912. Zhou was born in Changzhou. He studied economics at St. John’s University and Guanghua Univ. During the war with Japan he moved to the then-capital Chongqing. There he worked for a bank, and met Zhou Enlai, a star who would become China’s long-time premier, 1949-1976.   In 1946 Zhou went to New York to work with China’s Wall St. agent Irving Trust, and returned to China after the Communist take-over in 1949. He taught economics, until Zhou Enlai asked him to head a committee that would alphabetize Mandarin and boost literacy.

       “I’m just an amateur,” Zhou said to Zhou Enlai. “Everyone is an amateur”, came the wise response. Pinyin, developed by Zhou, was adopted by the Chinese government in Feb. 1958. It met rapid acclaim, and brought literacy to millions. It also saved Zhou’s life. Chairman Mao was very suspicious of economists, jailed many of them, and with Zhou’s U.S. Wall St. background, would likely have been jailed for many years (a friend of his was jailed for 20 years and committed suicide), had it not been for his Pinyin fame.  Zhou himself spent years in a labor camp, like many Chinese intellectuals.

     Today Chinese schoolchildren first learn to read by the pinyin system before graduating to studying characters. China’s illiteracy rate is only 5 per cent!   Around the world, foreigners study Chinese through the pinyin system.

   What do we learn? First, Zhou was passionate about language, and curious about it. He leveraged this into an outstanding innovation, perhaps because he was not a professional linguist, and hence able to simplify.   He was willing to try, despite lacking academic credentials. He pursued his passion.    Second, optimism. “When you encounter difficulties, you need to be optimistic”, he told an interviewer. “Pessimists tend to die.”

     This echoes the famous story about the two wolves within us: Fear and Hope. Which wolf wins?   The one you feed….    

Young Man, Young Woman:  Go West! Go East!  Just…Go!

By Shlomo  Maital    

           World Traveller

Each year, New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof chooses an intern, to travel with him and report on ‘neglected issues’.  This year’s winner?  20-year-old Nicole Sganga.   In his column “Go west young people! And east!”,  Kristof makes an interesting point.

   First, a little joke.   If ‘trilingual’ means knowing 3 languages, bilingual means knowing 2 – what is a person called who knows no foreign languages?   Answer: an American.  Most Americans do not have a passport, do not know a foreign language, and do not travel abroad.  The result is an insular nation ignorant of geography and other cultures.

   Kristof notes that of all the 50 American states, the most cosmopolitan, and the best state in which to do business (according to Forbes magazine) is…not New York!  It is..Utah, the state with a large population of Mormons (Church of the Latter Day Saints), a religion not known for liberality.   Why?  Because young Mormons are required to do two years of missionary work in a foreign land, and they return speaking Thai, Mandarin, Korean and a blizzard of languages – 130 languages are spoken in commerce in Utah, as a result!

    Kristof notes that fewer than 10 per cent of US college students study overseas during their undergraduate years. 

    In my country, Israel, young people complete their compulsory army service, then pack a backpack and trek through India, South America, Thailand, anywhere, partly to cleanse themselves of the early-rising army discipline.  One result is to make Israel a very cosmopolitan nation, which I think helps our startups a lot. 

    Kristof suggests: How about if American colleges gave students a semester credit for a gap year spent in a non-English-speaking country?    

     America has paid heavily for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bungled in part because America had little understanding of the complex cultures of those nations, cultures you can understand only by living there  and learning the language.  So simply as a matter of survival, if America wants to understand this complex often hostile world, more young Americans need to experience other nations.  It’s a matter of national security.    

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital