Twitter is awash with trolls, spammers and misanthropes, all keen to ruin your day with a mean-spirited message or even a threat that can cause you genuine fear. It seems all too easy to set up an account and cause trouble anonymously, but an emerging field of research is making it easier to track perpetrators by looking at the way they use language when they chat.
According to a recent survey coordinated by the European Commission, 80% of European 15-30-year-olds can read and write in at least one foreign language. This number drops to only 32% amongst British 15-30-year-olds.
As a linguist, I dread the question, “what do you do?”, because when I answer “I’m a linguist” the inevitable follow-up question is: “How many languages do you speak?” That, of course, is not the point. While learning languages is a wonderful thing to do, academic linguistics is the scientific study of language.
It’s difficult to understand what people mean when they say that a language is “old”. A person is old who was born a long time ago, but a language is recreated by its speakers every generation – so every generation, it changes.
Imagine a world in which Siri always understands you, Google Translate works perfectly, and the two of them create something akin to a Doctor Who styles translation circuit. Imagine being able to communicate freely wherever you go (not having to mutter in school French to your Parisian waiter). It’s an attractive, but still distant prospect. One of the bottlenecks in moving this reality forward is variation in language, especially spoken language. Technology cannot quite cope with it.