February 8, 2013 10:15 am
By the year 2100, the human race will have lost about half of the languages in use today. Every fourteen days a language dies. For native speakers of Navajo, Southwestern Ojibwa, Ohlone or Aragonese, losing their language means losing cultural heritage and history. And saving a dying language is really hard. But the people who provide life support for the struggling tongues can look to one success story: Yurok. The Los Angeles Times reports:
Last fall, Eureka High became the fifth and largest school in Northern California to launch a Yurok-language program, marking the latest victory in a Native American language revitalization program widely lauded as the most successful in the state.
At last count, there were more than 300 basic Yurok speakers, 60 with intermediate skills, 37 who are advanced and 17 who are considered conversationally fluent.
That might seem like a small group, but in the 1990s, there were just six Yurok speakers left.
Keeping small languages vibrant has always been a big challenge, says National Geographic:
Throughout human history, the languages of powerful groups have spread while the languages of smaller cultures have become extinct. This occurs through official language policies or through the allure that the high prestige of speaking an imperial language can bring. These trends explain, for instance, why more language diversity exists in Bolivia than on the entire European continent, which has a long history of large states and imperial powers.
As big languages spread, children whose parents speak a small language often grow up learning the dominant language. Depending on attitudes toward the ancestral language, those children or their children may never learn the smaller language, or they may forget it as it falls out of use. This has occurred throughout human history, but the rate of language disappearance has accelerated dramatically in recent years.
Many linguists are trying to preserve these languages as they totter along towards extinction. The Endangered Language Project is creating an online database of research and information about languages that are imperiled. There are currently 141 languages that qualify as extinct or “sleeping.” Aramaic isn’t on that list, but it’s close. Linguists are working furiously to preserve the language that Jesus spoke, Smithsonian reports:
Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic, was the common tongue of the entire Middle East when the Middle East was the crossroads of the world. People used it for commerce and government across territory stretching from Egypt and the Holy Land to India and China. Parts of the Bible and the Jewish Talmud were written in it; the original “writing on the wall,” presaging the fall of the Babylonians, was composed in it. As Jesus died on the cross, he cried in Aramaic, “Elahi, Elahi, lema shabaqtani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)
But Aramaic is down now to its last generation or two of speakers, most of them scattered over the past century from homelands where their language once flourished. In their new lands, few children and even fewer grandchildren learn it. (My father, a Jew born in Kurdish Iraq, is a native speaker and scholar of Aramaic; I grew up in Los Angeles and know just a few words.) This generational rupture marks a language’s last days. For field linguists like Khan, recording native speakers—“informants,” in the lingo—is both an act of cultural preservation and an investigation into how ancient languages shift and splinter over time.
The key to success for Yurok is teaching children the language that perhaps their parents forgot, says the LATimes:
The tribe has pushed for high school classes to be scheduled in the early morning — to get students there and keep them there. It seems to be working.
Alex Gensaw lives next door to tribal elder Archie Thompson and craved a deeper connection to his culture. He came into McQuillen’s class three years ago knowing only 10 words of Yurok: It wasn’t spoken in his home. But the 16-year-old (a second cousin to Yurok teacher James Gensaw) now is teaching his mom. And his feelings about the high school have shifted. “It’s like they care more,” he said.
In the Northwest Territories of Canada, a kindgerarten class might be the last chance for the Tlicho Yait language, Smithsonian reported last year:
In a bid to save their language, and with it, their culture, the Tlicho government has implemented an immersion kindergarten program taught entirely in their native language, Tlicho Yati, the first such class in neatly 20 years, reports the CBC. With only a few thousand native speakers spread amongst four main communities in the Northwest Territories, Canada, the language of the Tlicho people is in a tenuous position. A majority of Tlicho children do not speak the language, but similar immersion programs elsewhere have shown that kids are open to learning new languages.
And while many older native speakers are wary of academics and their recording devices, they’re also wary of losing their words.
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February 6, 2013 2:06 pm
Science savvy female teens in Asia, east and south Europe and the Middle East represent their gender well. These ladies, on average, outperform their male counterparts on science tests for comprehension. In the United States, however, women still lag behind men in science achievement. Only Colombia and Liechtenstein exhibit a higher gap between the genders than the U.S., where boys performed 2.7 percent higher than girls, the New York Times shows (with an interactive plot).
Sixty-five developed countries took part in the test, which was given to 15-year-old students. In the majority of countries, girls dominated. The U.S., plus a handful of countries mostly in west north Europe and the Americas, showed the opposite trend.
The Times writes that the tests point to cultural differences in the incentives offered for learning math and science. Andreas Schleicher, the project leader behind the test, from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said that boys in the U.S. are more likely to see science as something relevant to their lives than girls.
Christianne Corbett, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women, agreed, saying, “we see that very early in childhood—around age 4—gender roles in occupations appear to be formed. Women are less likely to go into science careers, although they are clearly capable of succeeding.”
In contrast, Schleicher said, “for girls in some Arab countries”—such as Jordan, where girls outscored boys by an impressive 8 percent—“education is the only way to move up the social structure. It is one way to earn social mobility.”
Like soccer is for young men in some African and Latino countries, science may be the new ticket to financial and societal freedom for women around the world. Women in the U.S., Canada, Britain and other European nations might not have the same incentive to break free of cultural discouragement, but if they could overcome that barrier, the scientific playing field would only become a more diverse and fruitful arena.
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February 1, 2013 8:37 am
In October 1941, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover received a strange bit of war intelligence in a classified document, the Appendix details. The correspondence warned that a secret German airbase had gone up deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. In a note quickly sent to the Assistant Secretary of State, Hoover warns:
“As of possible interest to you, information has been received from a reliable confidential source that there are rumors current in Brazil as to a German air base, reported to exist in the Rio Negro district of the upper Amazon. Additional information will be furnished you concerning this when it is received.”
Particularly concerned about an attack on the Panama Canal, the FBI began collaborating with Brazil’s secret police.
In December, another worrying message came through. The suspected culprits behind the scheme were a colony of German monks. The FBI wondered if these forest-dwelling worshippers may be preparing for a secret base for the Luftwaffe, the airborne arm of the German military.
The following July, Hoover received another piece of evidence. Large amounts of fuel had been spotted traveling upriver in Bolivia. Given that gasoline was very much in short supply given the world war, the numerous canisters raised suspicions. The FBI worried that the fuel could be headed to the secret jungle airbase, still yet to be discovered.
In the end, though, military leaders concluded that stockpiling enough supplies deep within the jungle would not be possible. The would-be Nazi monks were left to live their own quiet, solitary lives in nature.
Here’s the monk memorandum, for closer examination:
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January 28, 2013 11:38 am
Researchers from the University of Chile are at work on an innovative new vaccine that they hope will fight alcoholism, a prevalent problem in their country. People who have been given the vaccine will experience an immediate hangover from even a drop of alcohol, making drinking such an unpleasant experience that they’ll be forced to abstain.
The vaccine “works by sending a biochemical message to the liver telling it not to express genes that metabolise alcohol,” explains the Daily Mail. “Normally, the liver turns alcohol into the hangover-causing compound called acetaldehyde which is then broken down by a metabolising enzyme.”
The scientists plan to start trials on mice next month, and human subjects later in the year. Dr. Juan Ansejo told The Santiago Times that he and his colleagues were first inspired by a genetic mutation that’s fairly common in Eastern populations that naturally lowers tolerance to alcohol:
“People who are Japanese, Chinese or Korean and have this mutation – let’s say 15 to 20 percent of the population – they don’t touch alcohol, and that’s because they feel bad with the vomit and the nausea,” Asenjo said.
This isn’t the first time a drug has been used to discourage alcohol use by prompting hangover symptoms; Disulfiram is a pill that works the same way. The obvious problem with having the medicine in a pill format is that one could simply stop taking the pills when temptation won out.
The key to this new vaccine in Chile is that it’s administered by a shot (not that kind of shot, the needle kind), and it remains in the body for about six months to a year, with no way to reverse its effects during that time.
Of course, what this potential miracle drug doesn’t treat—and no drug alone ever could—are the underlying causes of the disease, both genetic and psychological. What would someone do after the vaccine eventually wears off? Get another, and then another? Does the desire to avoid an instant hangover count as recovery?
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January 25, 2013 9:24 am
Faithful monkeys, it turns out, are rewarded with more babies—and a better chance of their genes carrying on into the future—than unfaithful ones. When owl monkeys break up, researchers found, the mate that takes up with “the other partner” produces fewer offspring than monkeys that stick with their original animal spouse.
In the animal kingdom, monogamy, especially for males, does not make much sense. Why not just hook up with as many partners as possible, to spread your genes far and wide? This example, however, shows how faithfulness can give certain individuals the edge.
Since 1997, the monkey-loving research team intently watched nocturnal owl monkeys in Argentina, totaling about 154 individuals from 18 groups. In 2008, the researchers noticed so-called “floater” individuals—loner monkeys—stirring up trouble between normally monogamous couples. The floaters would swoop in, attack the same-sex partner in a couple and then steal the newly single male or female for themselves. The love fights were intense and sometimes the loser would die.
Pairs that underwent such a transition, the researchers found, produced 25 percent fewer offspring per decade than those that remained true from the beginning.
The researchers don’t know what causes this discrepancy, but they plan to further investigate the owl monkeys’ relationship dynamics. In the process, they also hope to turn up insight about the evolution of pair bonds in humans.
“There’s some consensus among anthropologists that pairs-bonds must have played an important role in the origin of human societies,” they said in a statement. “Call it love, call it friendship, call it marriage, there is something in our biology that leads to this enduring, emotional bond between two individuals that is widespread among human societies.”
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