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Language Journalism

I call myself a language journalist. What does that mean? Just check out some of the feature articles I’ve written for newspapers and magazines since 2000:

How the Chinese government is promoting Mandarin Chinese in dozens of countries around the world (including the US), as a soft projection of China’s growing power. (Wired, Foreign Policy, 2006)

How the latest research in slips of the tongue and hand continues to teach us about language and the brain. (Science, 2007)

How an online community, Librivox, became the largest audiobook publisher in the world by getting volunteers to record books they love. (Reason, 2007)

The emergence of a new form of discrimination, labeled “linguistic profiling,” or discriminating against someone because his or her voice “sounds” Black, Hispanic, Asian, gay, or some other protected class. (Legal Affairs, 2002)

How governments in Europe and Australia are using a controversial technique of language analysis to verify the origins of people who are claiming political asylum, many of whom lack documents. (Legal Affairs, 2002)

A hush-hush FBI-CIA project called the National Virtual Translation Center, which uses technology to enhance the abilities of foreign language experts in the federal government. (Technology Review, 2004)

About Unicode, an ambitious international project to allow every alphabet and writing system on the planet, from Chinese characters to mathematical symbols, to be universally displayed, stored, searched on the world’s computers. (The New York Times, Technology Review, 2003)

How voice technology in the virtual world, Second Life, is enabling foreign language education. (Technology Review, 2007)

About “hyperpolyglots,” people who can speak more than 6 languages, and what linguists have to say about them (and the possibility that language talent may be an inherited trait). (New Scientist, 2005)

The Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language in the Negev Desert in Israel, one of those rare instances where scientists are getting to witness a language being born. (New Scientist, 2006)

How arguments about whether or not speaking in tongues is Biblical is creating political turmoil within the Southern Baptist Convention. (Texas Observer, 2007)

Why the US needs a language czar, someone at the federal level powerful enough to unite and drive language policy in the US — and how proposed legislation to create such a position didn’t go far enough. (The New Republic, 2005)

How the survey of the world’s languages, Ethnologue, produced by missionaries, is now the secular world’s standard guide to the 6,912 languages on the planet. (New York Times, 2005)

How a new symbol was accepted into the International Phonetic Alphabet. (New York Times, 2005)

How the “king of closed captions” got his crown. (The Atlantic, 2001)

How Google can protect its brand (and why it shouldn’t restrict the use of “google” as a verb. (Design Observer, 2006)

The joys of sentence diagramming and Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog (Design Observer, 2006)

A new argument for why endangered languages are worth saving — because they do things with information that other languages don’t do. (Design Observer, 2007.)

On a controversial experiment with stutterers in the 1930s, the Monster Study, which came to light in an ugly way. (Lingua Franca, 2001)

Do languages make up a word for “butterfly” that mimics the butterfly? (Lingua Franca, 2000)

Is y’all moving northward? (Lingua Franca, 2001)

Language at the intersection of religion, policy, technology, law, and science is rich with stories. Each of these pieces depended on original reporting that I did, and in each one I set out to advance the story: to tell it in a way that went beyond the usual cliches that journalists use to tell these stories. (The headlines of these stories weren’t always uncliched, but they would have been had I written them!) Doing more stories about language and doing them better is my goal. It’s the only way to give people the tools to talk about language in their everyday lives which they’ll need to meet the challenges of a diverse country and a globalized economy.