Musings on Language Learning, Linguistics, Accent, Phonetics, Grammar and More
11 March 2022
The Hare and the Tortoise: Learning the most useful words
When I first started learning French at school, one of the first lessons was one of the Fables of La Fontaine, The Hare and the Tortoise. It’s an entertaining story, particularly for an eleven-year-old boy who doesn’t yet know the punchline.
But there is a problem in using this parable for teaching French. In all the thirty years that I’ve been speaking that language, I have only ever had to use the word “tortoise” a couple of times, and I have never once used the word “hare”.
We’ll be looking more at the benefits and pitfalls of language apps elsewhere, but let’s just examine briefly one area where we have to be careful.
Duolingo is one of the most popular language learning apps, and for good reason. It’s free, it has a gaming element to it, and many people find it fun to use. I like it in many ways.
As a vocabulary learning tool, however, it has serious drawbacks. We are asked to learn many words that we will rarely use – lists of animals, for example, or items of clothing. How often have you used the words ‘owl, whale, beetle, cape’ lately? Why would a beginner need to learn the words ‘elephant, pig, cape’ anyway?
3 March 2022
English: The Magpie Language
Consider the words chocolate, tomato, potato, maize. The first two are from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs; the last two are from Taíno and Arawakan, two Caribbean languages. English really doesn’t care where it gets its words from.
21 February 2022
A little goes a long way: What Dr Seuss can teach us about language learning
In everyday life, most of us use a very limited number of words to express ourselves.
You may have read Dr Seuss' The Cat in the Hat as a child. The book contains only 225 words. Afterwards, the good doctor decided that he’d been too verbose and restricted himself to a book using only 50 words. Forty-nine of them contained only one syllable.
We usually need to talk about rather more than cats and hats and Green Eggs and Ham – the title of the 50-word opus – but Dr Seuss teaches us that a knowledge of a few words can go a long way.
To converse on general topics, it has been estimated that we only need 1,000 words. Or, put another way, if we learned six words a day, we could have the vocabulary we need to speak in six months. That’s encouraging, isn’t it?
There is, predictably, a caveat. They have to be the right words. Language-learning apps have their uses, but the big problem with most of them is that they make us use words that we will probably hardly ever need. When was the last time you used the word ‘owl’? Yes, Duolingo, we are looking at you! In chapter 2 we will show you how to choose the words you need. Six a day, for six months. And by selecting the languages you learn with care, you could learn to express yourself in a number of languages at once.
Find out more in our new must-read book on language learning, The Language Secret.
13 February 2022
Cortesía: Why does Spanish have so many words for 'you'? And why does English have only one?
Cortesía. Courtesy, politeness. It’s important in every language.
Almost all of them make a basic distinction between ‘you’ when addressing one person and ‘you’ when talking to many.
Peninsular Spanish has ‘tú’ for one person and ‘vosotros’ for several. And in the River Plate region of Argentina and Uruguay, they use another form as well: ‘vos’.
But these words are generally reserved for family and close friends. To show added respect, Spanish has two other words for ‘you’: ‘usted’ for one person, and ‘ustedes’ for many. ‘Usted’ was an abbreviation of ‘Vuestra Merced’, which literally means “Your grace”. Cortesía.
English also used to have a distinction between singular and plural ‘you’, but the singular form ‘thou’ was ousted. Why? Because it was thought more polite to speak to everybody using the plural form ‘you’. Cortesía.
17 January 2022:
Mpasi: Language as a pathway into another culture
Every child in Congo receives a personalised name, so when a Congolese person introduces him or herself, we instantly know something about them. Mpasi is a very common name. It means ‘pain’ or ‘suffering’ in Lingala and Kongo. Perhaps the mother had a difficult pregnancy, maybe she even died in childbirth – an all-too-frequent occurrence in Congo – perhaps life was particularly hard at the time. It usually is there. Mpasi. Suffering, pain.
Learning a language does more than just enable to communicate words. It is a pathway into a new culture.
6 January 2022:
Baby Steps in Spanish
How do you get started in learning a language?
Well, we have to take baby steps - we can't run before we can walk. In this interview with Talk Radio Europe, the author of The Language Secret talks about the reasons why we should learn a language, the doors that knowledge of another language can open, and the initial challenges faced by those learning Spanish. And one little trick he taught the interviewer caught her by surprise!
3 December 2021:
Rapunzel - How can she help you learn German?
She is one of the characters in the many fairy tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm. These two remarkable men were also philologists and were responsible for introducing the concept of sound shifts to the wider world.
If we want to learn one of the Germanic languages - German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish or Icelandic - a knowledge of sound shifts can help us to learn faster. Why? Because English belongs to the same family as these languages. And knowing about sound shifts can really accelerate our language learning.
19 November 2021:
Would you like to be a "Special One" too?
Maybe you know the man in this picture. He's Jose Mourinho, the self-proclaimed "Special One", one of the world's most successful football coaches. We can't claim to be able to make you as successful as he is at football, but in one area at least you can equal his talents.
It's said that he speaks six languages fluently. You can do that too.
The six languages he is said to speak fluently are: Portuguese, French, Spanish, Catalan, Italian and English. The first five of them are in the same group of one language family, and English - by an accident of history - has a link to them all. So six languages are within everbody's reach.