All posts by Don

2009 Linguapax Prize winner: Katerina Te Heikoko Mataira

Maori language activist, educator and author Katerina Te Heikoko Mataira of New Zealand (or Aotearoa as it is known in Maori) is the recipient of the 2009 Linguapax Prize (source, Hispanidad press agency). She has been active for 30 years on Maori language issues. In 2001 she was recognized in New Zealand with the Te Waka Toi Exemplary Award. The press release on the latter mentioned further that

Among her many achievements Katerina has been affectionately described as the mother of Kura Kaupapa Maori, having co-authored Te Aho Matua – the philosophy and charter for kaupapa Mäori schools.

In 1996, Katerina’s lifetime contribution to te reo Mäori was recognised by Waikato University when she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate. A year later, she was named in the Queen’s Honours List as a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. (Scoop.co.nz, 2001/10/23)

Huia Publishers has a short bio on Katrina Te Heikoko Mataira in which she is described as a prolific writer. Bookfinder.com has a list of several of her publications in Maori and English.

Linguapax awards the Prize annually on International Mother Language Day. This is the eighth year that the prize as been awarded.

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Reflections of a Vienna bicyclist

For various reasons, I’ve been doing a lot of bicycling over the last few months in Vienna. No, not that Vienna (dream on), rather the one in Virginia, not too far from Washington, D.C. This has me thinking about a number of things: transportation, energy, environment, sociology of bicycles, etc.

In this season, bicyclists really stand out. But even in the warmer weather I did not note very many in Vienna. Judging by the car to bike ratio locally, the estimate that 1% of all trips in the US are by bicycle seems high.

Whatever the numbers, there are some particular patterns to where one does and does not see bicycles in Vienna, and what kind of bicyclists. To begin with, I’m tempted to contrast two routes in Vienna. One of these is more affluent, running mainly along the Washington & Old Dominion trail (W&OD), serving mainly recreational and sports cyclists, and probably a few who use bicycles as part of their commute to work (though those would seem to be very healthy commutes judging by where W&OD approaches Metro stations in Dunn Loring and Falls Church to the east or office parks in Reston to the west).

The second route is less affluent, running on the sidewalks of main commercial road, Maple Ave./Chain Bridge Road/Rte.123 (the road itself seems much too risky for bicycles), and serving mainly people who are going to local jobs. (Noting mention of bicycles as “a common mode of transportation” for day laborers elsewhere in northern Virginia, this demographic in Vienna could be researched further.)

The two routes intersect in the center of Vienna town (on the town map these make an X with one thick red leg and one thin green leg). One sees more bicycle helmets and spandex on the W&OD – and more bicycles overall when the weather is good – than on Maple Ave.

There are not a lot of bicycles off of these two routes from what I’ve seen, though some people bike to the  Vienna Metro station which is a couple of miles to the south (the 54 bicycle rack spaces were full on the rare occasions I checked – don’t be impressed as there are 5800 car parking spaces there which fill up quickly each day). I generally take the Maple Avenue corridor, or some quieter sidestreets that roughly parallel it, and encounter only occasional adult or youth cyclists on Maple, and rarely children bicycling on the side streets.

Bicycling in the US is not as common as it is in some other parts of the world, and indeed some of the infrastructure disfavors bicycling. The W&OD trail is a unique resource in this regard (some other urban areas in the US have similar trails on old rail right of ways), privileging Vienna and some neighboring communities. Apart from that there is not much – Virginia apparently ranks 45th among the 50 US states for funding of bicycle and pedestrian projects, so maybe I’m reporting on the low end of the spectrum in the US.

Aside from the classes of bicyclists I discern on the two routes in Vienna, the age dimension is worth noting. One essay puts it this way:

In America, bicycling appears to be an unacceptable activity for adults. It is viewed as a pastime reserved for children (people who are not old enough to drive cars). Adults who sense they are violating this stricture, excuse their bicycling as the pursuit of physical fitness, referring to their bicycling as training rides. … Some also refer to themselves as serious cyclists, a term used to describe riders who, typically, keep track of pedaling cadence and other bicycling statistics, thereby giving proof that their riding is not child’s play. (quote from the FAQ Archives)

It’s hard to tell what the attitudes are in this regard in Vienna, although it’s clear that not a lot of adults are biking – especially off the recreation-friendly W&OD trail. On the other hand I haven’t noticed that many kids on 2 wheels either. Also, from what I’ve experienced, Vienna drivers generally are quite courteous to bicyclists – certainly no behavior one could interpret as a negative judgment on the appropriateness of someone my age on a bicycle. And in one store, a younger cashier asked if I was biking for environmental reasons – for some it may even be a bit cool (although the weather lately has taken that all the way to downright cold!).

On the individual level, one of the big reasons to bike rather than use the car is the savings in gas money. Fitness too is a benefit (why drive to a fitness club where you pay to use an exercycle?). Environment might be a motivation too, but it should be a factor on the macro level on which planners operate.

Bicycling may not be appropriate for all people and in all situations, but more people traveling on bicycles instead of cars (at least for shorter errands) could have benefits both in terms of lower national consumption of fossil fuels, and improved public health.

In all the talk in the new Obama administration of improved environmental policies and of increased expenditures for infrastructure, could bicycles and bicycling be given more attention as an area to develop? Hopefully the advocacy groups in this area like Bikes Belong , the League of American Bicyclists, and the Thunderhead Alliance will make this point. What about a goal to get the US closer to European or Chinese levels of bicycle use (though in China there has been a trend to more use of cars in recent years) – say moving from 1% to 5% of trips on bicycle rather than cars?

Back again to the local level, what would it take to get Vienna, Virginia to use bicycles more?

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VOA features on Lost Crops

The Voice of America (VOA) is planning two sets of 5 features on the Lost Crops of Africa. The first, created by VOA correspondent Cole Mallard is scheduled to air in about 4 weeks, according to information from Bill Eagle, another VOA correspondent who is working on the second set of features.

The first set includes: an overview; one feature each on fruits, vegetables and grains; and consideration of the future of Lost Crops.

I hope to post additional information closer to the actual broadcasts.

In 2006, VOA special English had a feature on Lost Crops.

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International Decade of Languages?

As we draw to the end of 2008 – which is designated as, among other things, International Year of Languages (IYL) – I wanted to ask what’s next? And to propose the possibility of an International Decade of Languages to follow up on issues that the IYL dealt with as well as some others.

A year is a short time to do much more than raise awareness, achieve some limited project results, and begin to link and expand networks interested in such a vast topic as languages. Is it time to prepare the rationale and plans for a longer term campaign?

Issues that could be addressed by an International Decade of Languages might include:

  • What more can be done for endangered languages and their speakers, from documentation and preservation, to development and education
  • Highlight the situation of languages that are not on lists of endangered languages like the Red Book, but are contracting or not being developed for education and advancement of their first language speakers.
  • Explore how the languages of the least powerful regularly get less attention in education and development, than those of the more powerful, even when significant numbers of speakers are involved.
  • Related to the above, consider the importance of languages in achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the objectives of the UN Literacy Decade, etc.
  • Discuss how to develop language policy and planning worldwide, on country, regional and global levels.
  • Consider the importance of language education for individuals and in regard to other goals of education and language development.
  • Develop an official International Declaration of Linguistic Rights for ratification by the UN and the world’s countries.
  • Explore how localization of ICT and application of human language technologies can impact language preservation, development, arts, and learning.
  • Consider whether, how and when to adopt an official international auxiliary language (or to just let English continue to evolve into this role de facto).
  • And others.

There is a little bit of time yet to consider such a concept before the end of the IYL – which was officially launched on the last International Mother Language Day (21 Feb. 2008) and will officially close on the next (21 Feb. 2009). Should proclamation of an International Decade of Languages be a recommendation to come out of the IYL experience?

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Mass digitization and oral traditions

In the previous post, I looked at a possible ramification of “mass digitization” of text. But what about the spoken word? And more precisely verbal presentations, performance, and broadcast in languages often described as having “oral traditions” (and generally less material in writing)? Can we do something significant to capture significant amounts of speech in such languages in digital recordings?

There are some projects to digitize older recordings on tape, and certainly a need for more effort in this area, but what I am thinking of here is recording contemporary use of language that is normally ephemeral (gone once uttered), along with gaining access to recordings of spoken language that may not be publicly accessible. One place to start might be community radio stations in regions where less-resourced languages are spoken.

The object would be to build digital audio libraries for diverse languages that don’t have much if any publication in text. This could permit various kinds of work. In the case of endangered tongues, this kind of thing would fall under the rubric of language documentation (for preservation and perhaps revitalization), but what I am suggesting is a resource for language development for languages spoken by wider communities.

Digital audio is more than just a newer format for recording. As I understand it, digital storage of audio has some qualitative differences, notably the potential to search by sound (without the intermediary of writing) and eventually, one presumes, to be manipulated and transformed in various ways (including rendering in text). Such a resource could be of use in other ways, such as collecting information on things like emerging terminologies in popular use (a topic that has interested me since hearing how community radio stations in Senegal come up with ways to express various new concepts in local languages). Altogether, digital audio seems to have the potential to be used in more ways than we are used to thinking about in reference to sound recordings.

Put another way, recordings can be transcribed and serve as “audio corpora,” in a more established way. But what if one had large volumes of untranscribed digital recordings, and the potential to search the audio (without text) and later to convert it into text (accuracy in this area, which would not involve the normal training involved with use of current speech-to-text programs will be one of the challenges)?

Can digital technology do for audio content something analogous to what it can do for text? What sort of advantages might such an effort bring for education and development in communities which use less-resourced languages? Could it facilitate the emergence of “neo-oral” traditions that integrate somehow with developing literate traditions in the same languages?

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Can we localize entire libraries?

How close are we to being able to localize entire libraries?

The question is not as crazy as it might seem. Projects for “mass digitization of books” have been using technology like robots for some years already with the idea of literally digitizing all books and entire libraries. This goes way beyond the concept of e-books championed by Michael Hart and Project Gutenberg. Currently, Google Book Search and the Open Content Alliance (OCA) seem to be the main players among a varied lot of digital library projects. Despite the closing of Microsoft’s Live Search, it seems like projects digitizing older publications plus appropriate cycling of new publications (everything today is digital before it’s printed anyway) will continue to expand vastly what is available for digital libraries and book searches.

The fact of having so much in digital form could open other possibilities besides just searching and reading online.

Consider the field of localization, which is actually a diverse academic and professional language-related field covering translation, technology, and adaptation to specific markets. The localization industry is continually developing new capacities to render material from one language in another. Technically this involves computer assisted translation tools (basically translation memory and increasingly, machine translation [MT]) and methodologies for managing content. The aims heretofore have been pretty focused on particular needs of companies and organizations to reach linguistically diverse markets (localization is relatively minor still in international development, and where markets are not so lucrative).

I suspect however that the field of localization will not remain confined to any particular area. For one thing, as the technologies it is using advance, they will find diverse uses. In my previous posting on this blog, I mentioned Lou Cremers‘ assertion that improving MT will tend to lead to a larger amount of text being translated. His context was work within organizations, but why not beyond?

Keep in mind also that there are academic programs now in localization, notably the Localisation Research Centre at the University of Limerick (Ireland), which by their nature will also explore and expand the boundaries of their field.

At what point might one consider harnessing of the steadily improving technologies and methodologies for content localization to the potential inherent in vast and increasing quantities of digitized material?

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