March 20, 2023Comments are off for this post.

Language and the Human Brain

While many folks struggle to master their own mother tongue, others seem to pick up new languages easily and quite naturally. Does the ability to acquire language have something to do with intelligence? Or is it simply a matter of how our “grey matter” is wired? Some revealing answers can be found in the field of neuroscience.

Putting Together the Puzzle

Scientists have long known that different parts of the brain are responsible for different bodily functions. Unlike other paired organs—such as the lungs or kidneys, which have identical functions—the two hemispheres of the brain are much more specialized. In general, the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body along with spatial acuity, creativity and musical ability, while the left hemisphere controls the body’s right side plus abstract reasoning, linear thinking and physical tasks that require a step-by-step progression.

French neurologist Pierre Paul Broca (1824~1880) was among the earliest pioneers in studying the connection between language and the brain. In 1861, by examining patients suffering from a speech impairment called “aphasia,” he discovered that lesions occurred in a very specific region of the cortex, in the left frontal lobe. Today known as Broca’s Area, this region is responsible in most persons for articulated language or “output”—the words we formulate, clarify and effectively utter.

Broca’s research inspired German neurologist Carl Wernicke (1848~1905) to look for other pieces of the brain’s language puzzle. He found that a language deficit could also be caused by damage to the superior posterior temporal lobe, an area that handles receptive language or “input”—what we hear, see and process. Linking Broca’s area to Wernicke’s area is a bundle of nerves called the “arcuate fasciculus.” Damage here can cause difficulty repeating what other people say.

Based upon the Broca-Wernicke model of language locations in the brain, later behavioral neurologists were able to map out such language processes as speech-to-comprehension, cognition-to-speech and writing-to-reading. They also found that language processing does not happen in strict sequential order. Instead, various parts of the brain function simultaneously, like orchestral instruments playing in harmony.

From the Mouths of Babes

Apart from revealing where language ability resides, neuroscience has also provided a wealth of information about how language is acquired. In studying infants, researchers have broken the process into three stages: discovering the distinct units (words) of their native language amid a stream of acoustic input; parsing the units into meaningful grammatical combinations; and creatively organizing units into new expressions without the benefit of guidance.

To explain how a baby might be able to accomplish such complex feats, American linguist Dr. Noam Chomsky (1928~) was the first to theorize that human infants are born with a unique “language acquisition device” (LAD), not found in other species. LAD, he said, is an inborn reflex that allows children exposed to language to acquire it naturally, as if by magic. Chomsky further postulated the existence of an innate, genetically-encoded “universal grammar” that precedes language learning and aids in its acquisition.

Even linguists who do not subscribe to Chomsky’s theories agree that there is a critical age for acquiring a fluent mother tongue. Almost all human beings do so to the level of native competency before age 5. Constant contact with the language on a daily basis, frequent repetition of visual cues, positive reinforcement from parents and interaction with siblings can all play a role in furthering the process of acquisition. In bicultural homes, a young child may acquire two native languages at once, too, through consistent exposure to “mother’s words” and “father’s words” or “parents’ words” and “nanny’s words.”

Of course, that raises an obvious question, “If language learning is instinctual, why is it so hard for adults to learn a second or third language?” Once again, neuroscience has some answers.

First vs. Second Language

Unlike adults, children employ both hemispheres of their brains to acquire language. In other words, they learn “three-dimensionally” with the whole brain. However, this natural ability tends to diminish rapidly around the age of puberty, as lateralization of language occurs in the left hemisphere of most individuals. Thereafter, language is acquired “two-dimensionally,” making the process much more difficult.

Additionally, the anatomy of the adult brain may play a role. A 2007 study conducted by Northwestern University neuroscientists focused on the role of a specific brain structure called the Heschl’s Gyrus (HG), a finger-shaped structure present in both the right and left hemispheres. The HG is not typically associated with speech but with handling the basic building blocks of sound. It usually accounts for 0.2% or less of brain volume.

Through tests conducted with brain-scanned volunteers, the researchers found that the size of the left HG, but not the right one, made a difference in which participants were more successful in learning 18 words in a “pseudo” language. The results were so conclusive that it was possible to predict success based solely upon pre-test HG measurements.

Fortunately, learning a second language is not totally dependent on the body’s “hardware.” It has been found that musical training, when started at an early age, can contribute to more successful spoken foreign-language learning. The learner’s attitude toward the learning process also plays a critical role, especially when the motivation is intrinsic (wanting to learn) as opposed to extrinsic (reward driven).

The Role of Language in Society

Given the way language is entwined with being human, it is impossible to imagine human society without it. Language is how we encode and transmit information. It encompasses not only speech and writing but also sign language and the collection of gestures, postures and facial expressions known as body language. It is an integral part of our identity as individuals, families and communities as well as our primary means of communication and education.

However, that’s not to say that language is always employed to society’s benefit. It can be inspiring at its best and malicious at its worst. Although a common language may bring people together and unify them through a shared dialect, it can just as easily be used to divide populations, shun speakers of other tongues and leave minorities out of the social dialogue. When English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote in 1839, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” he was referring to language. Words have the power to clarify or confuse, to enlighten or deceive, to attract or repel, and to build or destroy.

And just as language helps shape society, so does society shape language. Evolving together through periods of prosperity and conflict, the two reflect each other, exposing an incredible cultural complexity that ranges from the gritty street lingo of rappers to the finesse of the politically correct and the guile of so-called “spin doctors.” As regards the role of language in social development, neuroscience has no insights but one—if society isn’t perfect, it’s the programming, not the wiring, that’s to blame.

March 20, 2023Comments are off for this post.

The Evolution of Chinese Translation

Chinese history stretches back more than 4,000 years to the Xia Dynasty (夏朝) of 2070~1600 BCE. However, it was not until the 11th century BCE that any form of serious translation activities were undertaken—what might be deemed the first of four waves of knowledge and cultural exchange with the rest of the world.

Beginning with Buddhism

During the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) from roughly 1122 to 256 BCE, the vernacular of China was 上古汉语 or “Archaic Chinese.” The very earliest writings recorded in this language were inscriptions on bronze artifacts, including poems and historical accounts as well as portions of the I-Ching (易经) or “Book of Changes.” At this time, Chinese monks conversant in both Buddhist doctrines and Sanskrit began translating the classics written by Indian and Central Asian Buddhists, producing scripts that would have a permanent influence on religion, philosophy and social life in China.

The keen interest of monastic translators in the spiritual pursuits of other cultures would continue well into the next millennium and the Tang Dynasty (唐朝) of 618~907 AD, when the common language was 中古汉语 or “Middle Chinese.” Among the most prominent of all translators of that era was Xuanzang (玄奘), who was born in 602 in what is now Henan Province. As a boy, he took to reading religious books, from the Chinese classics to the writings of ancient sages, before entering the Buddhist monkhood when he was 13 years old.

In the course of his studies leading to ordination at age 20, Xuanzang became concerned about how incomplete and misinterpreted were the Buddhist scriptures that had reached China. In 629, the young monk set off for India to discover for himself the true nature of the original texts. Seventeen years later, he returned with a train of pack animals bearing the many documents he had collected. The traveler then set up a school for interpreting the Buddhist scrolls and, with the aid of assistants, he translated into Chinese such a volume of Indian holy books that they would measure 84 times as long as the Bible. Scholars today still refer to Xuanzang as “perhaps the best-known translator in the world.”

Contact with the West

Italian explorers such as Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and Marco Polo journeyed to the Far East during the 13th century, creating significant interest in Asian trade and culture. But it was not until the Ming Dynasty (明朝) of 1368~1644 that the second great wave of translation got under way in China, especially after the Spanish priest St. Francis Xavier arrived and subsequently died on the Chinese island of Shangchuan in 1552.

Xavier’s evangelical example as a founding member of the Society of Jesus inspired the church to pursue a mission on the Chinese mainland, starting in 1563 with a semi-permanent settlement of Portuguese Jesuits in the area now known as Macau. However, they soon found that if their message was to be understood, it would have to be translated into Chinese. As a solution, the St. Paul Jesuit College of Macau was established in 1578 to produce a generation of young Chinese scholars. Among the first trained was an Italian named Matteo Ricci (1552~1610). In 1584, he would translate the first Jesuit Latin book into Chinese, entitled 天主實錄 or “The True Account of God.”

On the other hand, the Jesuits realized that getting the attention of influential Chinese authorities would require more than religious tenets, so they set about offering scholarly and scientific assistance to the imperial court as well. Ricci and other missionaries translated books on Western astronomy, hydraulics and math into Chinese, including Euclid’s Elements. In the 16th and 17th centuries, no group other than the Jesuits played a more significant role in transmitting knowledge and culture between China and the West.

The Third Wave

Unlike the first two waves of Chinese translation spurred on by religion, the third was set in motion at gunpoint. The 1842 signing of the Treaty of Nanking marked the end of three years of conflict known as the First Opium War; Great Britain and Ireland had defeated the Qing Dynasty (清朝), which was founded in 1644, thus forcing China to open its long closed markets to trade. The Treaty also ceded the “Crown Colony of Hong Kong” to the British Queen.

An unintended result of this new diplomatic relationship was a boom in translation. Chinese citizens previously isolated from foreign contact suddenly wanted to know everything there was to know about their new trading partners. Of special interest were works related not only to social and military science, international law and foreign relations but also to literature. Chinese artistic and cultural life gradually began to embrace the kind of world culture found in the West and Japan.

One of the most famous Chinese translators of this period was 严复 or “Yan Fu” (1854-1921), who learned English at the Naval Academy in Greenwich, England. This scholar was responsible for first introducing Charles Darwin’s concepts of “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” into China. Among his most celebrated works were Chinese versions of Thomas Huxley’s “Evolution and Ethics,” Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” and Herbert Spencer’s “Study of Sociology.”

Throughout this period of transition, the Qing government held on, continuing to rule until the Republic of China was formed in 1912. Of great importance during its last 50 years, the Qing imperial court replaced Nanjing Mandarin (南京普通话) with Beijing Mandarin (北京普通话), setting the stage for a single national language. Although non-Mandarin speakers in southern China would continue to use various regional dialects for everyday life, the court’s endorsement of Beijing Mandarin created a standard that all could follow in the future.

The Modern Era

The fourth and current wave of Chinese translation activity got its start in the 1950s, following the aftermath of World War II and the slow return to stability in East Asia. This wave was interrupted briefly by a trough during the outbreak of the so-called “Cultural Revolution” in the PRC, but momentum resumed in the late 1970s as commerce and economic development became top priorities throughout the region.

In 1952, a movement began in Beijing to simplify and standardize written Chinese characters. The goal was to aid in the spread of Chinese literacy by making the ideograms easier to read and write as well as fewer in number. Today, simplified characters (简化字) are the norm not only in the PRC but also in Singapore, while traditional characters are still used in the Republic of China (Taiwan), Hong Kong and Macau plus many well-established communities of overseas Chinese immigrants.

The focus of Chinese translation in the current era encompasses almost all fields of endeavor—from the “hard” side of documentation for business, technology and industry to the “soft” offerings of fiction, music and cinema. Nevertheless, translation into Chinese from other languages continues to present an array of difficult and intriguing challenges. This is especially true of translations from English, given the huge differences found in the two languages and the dissimilarities of the cultures and societies in which they are used.