After learning new words, brain sees them as pictures


When we look at a known word, our brain sees it like a picture, not a group of letters needing to be processed. That’s the finding from a Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, which shows the brain learns words quickly by tuning neurons to respond to a complete word, not parts of it.

Neurons respond differently to real , such as turf, than to nonsense words, such as turt, showing that a small area of the brain is “holistically tuned” to recognize complete words, says the study’s senior author, Maximilian Riesenhuber, PhD, who leads the GUMC Laboratory for Computational Cognitive Neuroscience.

“We are not recognizing words by quickly spelling them out or identifying parts of words, as some researchers have suggested. Instead,  in a small brain area remember how the whole word looks—using what could be called a visual dictionary,” he says.

This small area in the brain, called the visual word form area, is found in the left side of the visual cortex, opposite from the fusiform face area on the right side, which remembers how faces look. “One area is selective for a whole face, allowing us to quickly recognize people, and the other is selective for a whole word, which helps us read quickly,” Riesenhuber says.

The study asked 25 adult participants to learn a set of 150 nonsense words. The  associated with learning was investigated with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), both before and after training.

Using a specific fMRI technique know as fMRI-rapid adaptation, the investigators found that the visual word form area changed as the participants learned the nonsense words. Before training the neurons responded like the training words were nonsense words, but after training the neurons responded to the learned words like they were real words. “This study is the first of its kind to show how neurons change their tuning with learning words, demonstrating the brain’s plasticity,” says the study’s lead author, Laurie Glezer, PhD.

The findings not only help reveal how the brain processes words, but also provides insights into how to help people with reading disabilities, says Riesenhuber. “For people who cannot learn words by phonetically spelling them out—which is the usual method for teaching reading—learning the whole word as a visual object may be a good strategy.”

In fact, after the team’s first groundbreaking study on the visual dictionary was published in Neuron in 2009, Riesenhuber says they were contacted by a number of people who had experienced reading difficulties and teachers helping people with reading difficulties, reporting that learning word as visual objects helped a great deal. That study revealed the existence of a neural representation for whole written real words—also known as an orthographic lexicon —the current study now shows how novel words can become incorporated after learning in this lexicon.

“The visual word form area does not care how the word sounds, just how the letters of the word look together,” he says. “The fact that this kind of learning only happens in one very small part of the brain is a nice example of selective plasticity in the ,”

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Collocations or the key to linguistic naturalness

take collocations

One of the first concepts you are taught in Translation Studies is that of “collocation”. A collocation is a sequence of words that are commonly used together. In fact they co-occur more often that would be expected by chance. Collocations are partially or fully fossilized co-occurrences, which have reached this state through repeated context-dependent use. An example of collocation is the expression “the gates of heaven”. While the sequence “the doors of heaven” is equally correct from a syntactic point of view, most English speakers would consider the later awkward at the very least. Now, you might wonder about Bob Dylan’s song “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” . Shouldn’t the title “knocking on heaven’s gate”? Well, a possible answer is a collocation again: the verb “know” always typically occurs together with “door”, not with “gate”.

Native speakers will intuitively know that “fast train” and “fast food” sound “good”, but that “quick train” or quick food” sound “bad”; or that “quick shower” and “quick meal” sound natural whereas “fast shower” or “fast meal” does not. If we are foreign language students, no rule will tell us that this or that word goes together with that or that one. Therefore, we will have to learn them by heart or by exposing ourselves to the context long enough to gain a quasi-intuitive knowledge of the language. Collocations are key to writing and speaking natural-sounding English – or any other language for that matter, and thus mastering them are crucial to any good translation.

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Transcreation: a neologism for the language industry


Over the last few years the translation industry has been flooded by a new term from the marketing industry: “transcreation”- Transcreation, which was reportedly coined by publicist and former chairman of UPS Plc Bernard Silver in the 1960s, describes creative translations aimed at adapting a message from one language to another so that its intent and tone is kept in the target language. We can say that transcreation is to translation what copywriting is to writing: adapting a message to a cultural background.

United Publicity Services registered this word as a trademark in 2000. The term got to be so extremely popular that it eventually became standard within the translation industry, and UPS was not allowed to renew the trademark.

It’s always nice to get to coin a new term, but did Mr. Silver discover something good translators weren’t aware of? The answer is: Not really…

Transcreation is nothing more than an adaptation of a message to a different culture. Other terms are used to describe the same concept: creative translation, recreation, localization – we could even coin our term: “cross-market translation”.

How is that different from a good translation? When translating marketing, a good translation should always reflect all these aspects in the target text. Good marketing translation is always “transcreated”; a translation that is not “transcreated” is simply a bad marketing translation.

Transcreation is less important in technical texts, and it does not apply to literary translation, where the translator’s task is precisely to maintain the tone and cultural background of the source language.

Any good translator is aware that marketing messages must be adapted to their own culture. Websites are a clear example. In some sectors informal, direct, an overly enthusiastic language might be appealing to a country or a culture but not to another. In the finance domain, websites in English are usually very friendly, but in Spanish and other languages the friendly tone needs to be lowered a little bit and come up with a more formal version. Why? Because in some countries the language of financial institutions is, traditionally, formal.

Marketing is culture-specific: therefore, a good marketing translation must speak to the target clients in their own cultural keys.

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Language of the Day: the Indo-Iranian family


Hindi, Bengali, Persian, and Urdu are some of the most demanded languages here at Wordwide FX. The reason is simple: India and Pakistan are emerging markets (BEM), together with Brasil, Egypt, Poland, and others. Also, India is, with 1.241.492.000 inhabitants, the second most populated country in the world. To that we have to at least sum 177.276.594 inhabitants in Pakistan (2010 data) and over 77 million of Iran.

These languages belong to what some linguists call the Indo-Iranian family, a branch of Indo-European, divided into Iranian and Indic. The Iranian sub-branch includes about 2 dozen different languages, including modern Persian (also called Farsi or Parsi and spoken in Iran), Pashto (the official language of Afghanistan), and Kurdish (spoken in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria). Other Iranian languages are found in Pakistan, the former USSR, and China.

The Indic sub-branch includes around 35 different languages. Most of the languages spoken in  Northern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh belong to this branch of Indo-European. Hindi-Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, and Gujarati are the most widespread. Hindi and Urdu are two dialects of the same language, but they use totally different writing systems and are also associated to different cultures: Urdu is spoken primarily in Pakistan by Muslims and Hindi is the spoken mainly in India by Hindus.

Less well known as an Indic language is Romany or Gypsy. It is believed that the Gypsies were an entertainment caste in India who were invited to perform in the Middle East sometime in the Middle Ages. They never returned to India but they traveled instead to Turkey and, eventually, Europe. Romany contains many borrowed words, particularly from Greek, which was spoken in Turkey at the time of their stay.

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History of Oil: Part II


On the first part of our History of Oil we saw how the ancient peoples used it for different purposes, one of the most famous being the so-called Greek Fire. Another on the uses of petroleum is tar, which was used to pave streets as early as the 9th century in regions like Baghdad. The oil was extracted from the natural fields in the region. Travelers and geographers like Marco Polo, the so-called “Arab Herodotus” Abu a-Hasan Ali al-Masudi, and Persian alchemist Al-Razi, known as Rhazes in the Latin world (in the stamp, above), described oil fields in modern Baku, Azerbaijan. Baku people used ground impregnated with oil for heating purposes because of absence of wood. Also in the Azerbaijan region, a unique medicinal oil-derivative was produced that was exported to other countries through the Black Sea. Arab and Persian chemists also distilled petroleum for kerosene lamps and flammable products for military purposes.

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