June 2020: translation & public health, LingComm Grantees, and IPA masks

I wrote an article for Wired in which I got to talk with a lot of really interesting people about the importance of language to public health: Covid-19 Is History’s Biggest Translation Challenge.

You, a person who’s currently on the English-speaking internet in The Year of The Pandemic, have definitely seen public service information about Covid-19. You’ve probably been unable to escape seeing quite a lot of it, both online and offline, from handwashing posters to social distancing tape to instructional videos for face covering.

But if we want to avoid a pandemic spreading to all the humans in the world, this information also has to reach all the humans of the world—and that means translating Covid PSAs into as many languages as possible, in ways that are accurate and culturally appropriate.

It’s easy to overlook how important language is for health if you’re on the English-speaking internet, where “is this headache actually something to worry about?” is only a quick Wikipedia article or WebMD search away. For over half of the world’s population, people can’t expect to Google their symptoms, nor even necessarily get a pamphlet from their doctor explaining their diagnosis, because it’s not available in a language they can understand. […]

According to a regularly updated list maintained by the Endangered Languages Project, Covid information from reputable sources (such as governments, nonprofits, and volunteer groups that clearly cite the sources of their health advice) has been created in over 500 languages and counting, including over 400 videos in more than 150 languages. A few of these projects are shorter, more standardized information in a larger variety of global languages, such as translating the five WHO guidelines into posters in more than 220 languages or translating the WHO’s mythbuster fact sheets into over 60 languages. But many of them, especially the ones in languages that aren’t as well represented on the global stage, are created by individual, local groups who feel a responsibility to a particular area, including governments, nonprofits, and volunteer translators with a little more education or internet access.

Read the whole thing.

The Lingthusiasm main episode was about tracing languages back before recorded history (transcript) and the bonus episode was about doing linguistics with kids. We also released new nonmedical face masks, by popular request, in our IPA, tree diagram, and esoteric symbol prints. It’s a weird world where suddenly face masks are our most popular merch item, but we’re heartened to hear from people that it makes them feel a bit more cheerful about wearing a mask.

We also announced the winners of the 2020 LingComm Grants! We had over 75 applications from around the world and we’d like to thank all applicants for making the job of deciding extremely difficult! Stay tuned for further updates from these great projects:

Media list:

Selected tweets:

Selected blog posts:

This month’s image is one of the new IPA masks, which I now also own! They’re made out of a soft, jersey-like material and are pretty comfortable for short wear.

IPA mask navy

March 2020: Mutual Intelligibility project for online linguistics teaching resources

The large print edition of Because Internet is now a thing that exists, in case you need to explain how we talk online these days to a person in your life who likes large print and hasn’t already gone for the resizable-text ebook.

If you’re in the Montreal area, I’d appreciate people’s support these days for my local indie bookstore, Argo Bookshop, which did the book launch party and signed copies of Because Internet, and are now facing the loss of foot traffic like all small, “non-essential” business. Argo takes orders online (now including gift certificates and local delivery!) and everyone who goes to their events would really like to see them still be there after this!

A lot of linguistics professors started scrambling to move their courses online this month, so I revised and updated my post with a very long list of linguistics youtube channels and other free online videos about linguistics, and did a couple threads answering questions about further resources that people were looking for.

The popularity of our existing linguistics resource roundups led Lauren Gawne and I to launch Mutual Intelligibility, a project to connect linguistics instructors with existing linguistics resources suitable for teaching online in a bite-sized, easy-to-digest fashion. (Also potentially of interest to linguistics fans who want a distraction from the news cycle.)

We’re putting up thrice-weekly Mutual Intelligibility newsletters for the next while: on Mondays and Wednesdays short “3 Links” posts on a particular topic, and also on Fridays six longer Resource Guides diving deep into topics with a whole bunch of resources. We’re fortunate to have Kate Whitcomb and Liz McCullough (different spelling, no relation) along to help us make them. Thanks to everyone who has sent in queries and suggestions!

Read our first Mutual Intelligibility newsletter here, check out the archive so far, and put your email here to get future themed linguistics resource updates.

Because Lauren Gawne is essentially my partner in all forms of business, we also spent a substantial amount of time this month working on scripts for Crash Course Linguistics, along with Jessi Grieser and the Crash Course team. (Nothing official to report yet but stay tuned!)

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was about the tricky question of what makes a language “easy” (Spoiler: it’s not that straightforward).

The Lingthusiasm bonus episode was about teaching linguistics to yourself and other people — how to articulate what you find so cool about linguistics (and other complex topics you may find yourself needing to explain). We also experimented with doing live listen-alongs of new Lingthusiasm episodes on Discord, and made a Lingthusiasm Turing Test, where you can see how well you can identify which Lingthusiasm quotes are real and which robo-generated.

Lauren and I also announced that we’re giving out a second LingComm Grant, thanks to the support of Claire Bowern’s NSF grant. If you’re a linguist with a linguistics communication idea that could use a $500 boost to make it, you can apply at lingcomm.org by June 1. (Also a reminder that there are no conditions on how the grant money is used, so if you need it to take care of some living costs so that you can allocate your time to a project, that is totally fine with us!)

This month’s media hits:

National Print/Top Online: 

  • Kottke.orgfeature “Weird Internet Careers”– 3/9
  • Financial Times mention 3/15
  • CNBC’s Make Itfeature “How not to sound like a jerk (and communicate effectively) over Slack and email, according to a linguistics expert”– 3/18
  • Mel Magazine – feature “WILL CORONAVIRUS FINALLY END THE SCOURGE OF ‘I HOPE THIS EMAIL FINDS YOU WELL’? ”– 3/26
  • The Guardian Solitary refinement: a lockdown survival guide – mention 3/27
  • HerCampus.com – roundup “3 Books To Read While Stuck At Home” – 3/30

Newsletters:

Podcasts:

Local Print/Online:

Selected tweets:

Selected blog posts:

Obviously I didn’t go anywhere this month, so this picture is of an emoji-Escher-esque exhibit in the Burke Museum of Natural History from last month in Seattle, which I went to for a science journalist “Night Out at the Museum” event at the AAAS.

emoji ish symbols escher burke museum seattle aaas

January 2020: a robo-generated episode of Lingthusiasm, Lingthusiasm Discord server, LingComm Grant, and xkcd hovertext

I got namechecked in the hovertext of an xkcd comic this month, which may have resulted in more congratulatory messages from friends than when my book was reviewed in the New York Times, so, you know, it’s good to see that everyone has their priorities on track.

My Wired article about code being based on English got translated into Japanese for Wired Japan. I can’t actually read it, but I suppose that’s the point. Here’s the English version again if you missed it.

Several exciting Lingthusiasm-related announcements! 

Our main episode on Lingthusiasm was an interview with Janelle Shane, who the Very Online might recognize as that person who gets neural nets to come up with weird names for ice cream flavours, colour terms, and other delightfully strange experiments. We talked about how machines understand language (and don’t) and her excellent new book You Look Like A Thing And I Love You.

We also challenged Janelle to train a neural net on Lingthusiasm episode transcripts, which Lauren and I performed to great hilarity in a special bonus episode (technically February’s bonus, but released at the same time because we didn’t want to make you wait). Here’s a short excerpt:

Gretchen: “We’re gonna start with the question of, ‘How do we spell “soup”?’ How do we spell soup?”
Lauren: “Yes. I had to say ‘soup’ in the first 10 minutes or so of this episode because I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! I just can’t spell “soup.”’”
Gretchen: “Oh, my gosh! I just can’t spell ‘soup.’”
Lauren: “Oh, my gosh! I just cannot spell ‘soup.’”
Gretchen: “Oh, my gosh! I just cannot spell ‘soup.’”
Lauren: “Oh, my gosh! I do not know how to spell ‘soup.’”
Gretchen: “I know how to spell ‘soup.’”
Lauren: “Oh, my gosh! I have never been able to sell ‘soup.’”
Gretchen: “I’m sorry, Lauren, but I can’t spell ‘soup.’”
Lauren: “Oh, my gosh! I’m so sorry.”
Gretchen: “Thank you, Lauren.”
Lauren: “We are very sorry. This is a problem.”
Gretchen: “Sorry, Lauren.”
Lauren: “Can I borrow you some soup?”
Gretchen: “Yeah.”
Lauren: “And soup.”
Gretchen: “And, you know, I think it’s a good question.”
Lauren: The thing thinks we’re very into soup.
Gretchen: We’re in a soup loop.
Janelle: I love it.

As you may have noticed, GPT-2 did okay at figuring out the tone of a Lingthusiasm episode and the back-and-forth turntaking between me and Lauren, but as for the content…let’s just say that we don’t vouch for any of the linguistics in this particular episode. But we do vouch for the hilarity.

Technically, January’s bonus episode was about predicting the future of English, so you effectively get two bonuses this month! Make sure to also read Janelle’s blog post about making the robo-generated Lingthusiasm episode.

We also made a Discord server (easy to use chatroom) for Lingthusiasm patrons, thus solving the problem of “Your podcast got me into linguistics, but now I don’t have people to fan out about language with! Where do I make lingthusiastic friends?” Here’s how to join.

Finally, we announced the LingComm Grant, a $500 (USD) grant that we’re giving out to help another linguistics communication project, thanks to the support of the Lingthusiasm patrons! See the announcement thread or check out our new LingComm.org website for details.

I started the year by attending the Linguistic Society of America annual meeting, this year in New Orleans. As usual, I ran a lingwiki Wikipedia editathon and judged the Five Minute Linguist competition.

This month’s media list, which is finally calming down again to something resembling normalcy:

National Print/Top Online:

Newsletters:

  • Math With Bad Drawings – roundup “Books I loved in 2019”– 1/6
  • Dan Pink’s Pinkcast newsletter – roundup “my 4 favorite books of 2019”– 1/7

Local Print/Online:

Selected tweets:

Selected blog posts:

This month’s photo is the obligatory screenshot of the hovertext in the xkcd comic containing my name.

ok okay xkcd