Language: You’re Doing It Wrong

In a lot of high school foreign language programs the instruction is often loaded down with grammar exercises. For someone enjoys grammar, this isn’t a problem, but it is for many people who have less patience for it. Grammar can be tedious and often doesn’t convey any of the vibrancy of that language. It can be difficult to pick up Spanish when they drill you on conjugations in the present indicative versus the present subjunctive. As a result, people treat language classes like medicine; the sooner you take it, the sooner it’s over.

Sometimes, people try again in their later years, whether it’s through a class or buying Rosetta Stone. I can personally attest that picking up a language through Rosetta Stone is irritating and unhelpful, by the way. To me, Rosetta Stone presents the opposite extreme: loaded down with sentences with no way to parse them.

The reason that you couldn’t pick up Spanish in high school was because you were too immersed in grammar. It was hard to see that a language is organic and sometimes behaves in ways you don’t expect. You couldn’t pick up Spanish later in your life because you focused too much on getting individual sentences. You couldn’t see the structure and use that to your advantage in understanding it.

So how should I learn a language, then?

Rather than excessively focus on repetition of phrases or simply grammar exercises, it’s better to have both in equal proportions. Picking up the grammar is important, no matter how much you might not like it. If you don’t have a blueprint for the fundamental structure of that language, your ability to acquire that language in the long run is fairly inhibited. Why? Because you’re memorizing phrases more than patterns. The important part is to be able to synthesize your own sentences, instead of spitting out rote-memorized sentences. Rather than understanding the sentences intuitively, you’re just memorizing a bunch of sound that has a given meaning.

In simpler, so-called “easier” languages like French or Spanish, you can get away with the rote method much more easily. Compared with some other languages, there’s minimal futzing around that you need to do with the sentences. This doesn’t work in a language like Korean, with a complex system of honorifics and verb styles. A keen awareness of how to form words, especially with respect to formality and politeness, is of the utmost importance. For a polyglot, it’s better to have a fairly consistent method, or at least a flexible one.

In my opinion, you need an even mix of formal grammatical training as well as real world experience. You need to ride with training wheels before you can ride without them. Sure, there are some people who can just pick things up by listening. But for a more complete and functional knowledge, you should combine grammar and real experience.

In conclusion

Obviously, not everybody has the same needs. Sometimes, you’re a linguist who may not really need to pick up the whole language, but rather understand it formally or in theory. Other times, you’re just a tourist or frequent traveler who could use a few phrases to get around once in a while. This post is more for those who want to learn a large part of if not the whole language in question, and long-term strategies are key for developing your skills.

Don’t feel weighed down by grammar, but don’t rely too much on set phrases. Learning a language is learning to interact with an organic part of people’s lives. It’s OK to depend on videos of the language in practice to reinforce your understanding of a grammatical concept, and you can try parsing recurring forms through the phrases you learn. But relying on either in excess could very well make you give up. Take the happier and more efficient route to learning a language! Pick up a book, pull up some YouTube videos, and get to work!

Why French Is Completely Overrated

French is easily one of the most widely studied modern languages from the 17th century in the courts of English nobles to the classrooms of American public high schools to one of the most widely learned languages among wannabe polyglots all over Tumblr and the rest of the internet.

Here’s the irony, though: French is an incredibly useless language to learn.

French literature has an impressive literary presence, but it’s full of long depressing stories of post-revolutionary France like Les Miserables and irritatingly short things like Candide, both of which are treated as some of the crowning jewels of European literature. I mean, who wants to read something depressing when you can read existentialist people like Dostoyevsky, and oh… Sartre. That one, with his meaningful choice of coffee with milk or creamer.

Not to mention the French language is basically silent. La fille? That –lle is there to take up space on the page, my friends. Nearly all the filler letters and weird-ass spellings are things artificially preserved by the Académie Française in order to reflect Old French pronunciation and make it seem more prestigious and steeped in history. There are so many words that sound the same but mean very different things. Out of all of the Romance language siblings, French has wandered hopelessly far from its ancestor, Latin. It wouldn’t be very cool if it didn’t have something old like Old French (how inventive) to ground it in prestige. I mean, sure a lot of people in France speak it, and it’s fairly useful to get around, but I mean you could just be American and pull out English wherever you go. All you have to do is be a complete asshat about English is the only useful language.

Let’s also observe the fact that there are, what, like six major countries that speak French? In several of which you can get away with speaking a more important language like Italian or German? I mean there are African Francophone countries and Vietnam, but let’s be honest: I’m fairly certain they’d rather use their own languages than participate in imperialist bullshit like speaking the language of their conquerors for socioeconomic expediency. Speaking of language repression, the Académie Française was hating on its own Frenchmen for speaking regional languages other than French for years until it’s like “Oh shit that was mean hahah sorry loooool” and now these languages are gasping for breath in the North and South (stuff like Breton and Occitan by the way).

Canada, a major nation in which French is officially spoken, doesn’t even speak French as a majority; my cousins live in Canada and basically never use French. I mean yeah, they live in Guelph, Ontario, but it’s Canada. They’re weird, anyway. Universal healthcare and whatnot.

The point is that French is like a complete asshat to its learners with a completely illogical orthography and extremely pretentious background. Why suffer the abuse? Come to the dark side where we learn the language of real men like Russian with like eighteen verbs for “to go”, Finnish with case declensions like nobody’s business, and Arabic where words can look exactly the same in writing but mean completely different things in context. Fun, right?

First things first: this was a work of satire, and I think that French is a perfectly fine language to learn. But I do give it a lot of shit for the orthography bit. I will never let it live that down.

Language in Jeopardy: How to Protect Our Mother Tongues in Public

Take a look at this article before reading on: http://blog.angryasianman.com/2016/06/40-civil-rights-groups-demand.html

When I read this post from Angry Asian Man, I became an angry Asian man, to say the least. This kind of ignorance needs to be stamped out. In an age where Islamic terrorism threatens the lives of innocent Muslims who live in the diaspora, we need to be more vigilant on the behalf of these members of our societies. It is our responsibility to listen to them when they decry Islamic terrorism, rather than ignore them and then ask why they don’t say anything.

But more than anything, this incident’s relation to language struck me particularly strongly. Why the hell are these two men being arrested because some idiotic passenger thinks that any brown-skinned people speaking a language they don’t understand is a terrorist. When this keeps happening on planes, buses, and other forms of public transport, I’m just floored by the people who say they should have been speaking English. Let’s consider the facts: these two men are foreign nationals (Pakistani and Indian respectively) who don’t speak English very well and are in a land very far from home. It’s only natural that they would find solace in finding someone else who speaks their language in a foreign land. Why do people suddenly have to place a label of suspicion on people who haven’t done anything, or cannot be proven to have done anything?

The lack of respect for the Sikh man’s violation of his person by removing his turban, a sacred item in the Sikh religion, is not enough, apparently. This man is apparently not even allowed speak his own language with someone else who does.

Something similar happened with a Chinese woman in Arizona (you can read the article here). Getting punched by someone for speaking your mother tongue in public is racist, prejudiced, and unbelievably horrible in so many ways. Even though I live and go to school in fairly liberal places (California and New York, respectively), I’m dreading the day where I have to be careful about what language I speak in public. As an aspiring polyglot who aims to specialize in Mandarin and Arabic translation/interpretation, these incidents are of great concern to me. These people who hear Arabic, Punjabi, Chinese, and other Asian and Middle Eastern languages in public and then react in these ways are a problem. This needs to stop. But what can we do?

  1. If you hear or see someone making private or public accusations of terrorism based on someone’s appearance or what language they’re using, you tell them that’s not okay. Just because you can’t tell the difference between Punjabi and Arabic doesn’t automatically mean they’re Middle Eastern, and that definitely doesn’t mean they’re terrorists even if they were. Leave them alone!
  2. Start learning other languages! Those who know other languages are frequently more open-minded than others and are exposed to a wider variety of opinions and beliefs than they might be otherwise. We should be instituting the teaching of Arabic and immigrant languages in schools rather than traditionally taught languages like French, Latin, or Spanish. Mandarin in schools is a step in teh right direction.
  3. Help out non-English speaking communities by employing your language to supply them with opportunities for jobs, community, basic amenities, and other necessities for living in a country where few people speak your language.
  4. To immigrant children: Don’t let go of your language. If you never knew it, try to get back in touch with it. Help out those in your community who need you. If you don’t speak it well, it’s never too late to start brushing up (as I can testify in the case of my Kannada skills).

And no, just because this is America doesn’t mean you have to speak English all the time. This isn’t a refusal to speak English at all. But if I want to have a conversation in another language, I have every right to do so. You have no business regulating what and what I can’t say, since we have the freedom of speech. Not everything we say has to be for public consumption. Immigrants and other people use their languages because it’s what’s comfortable for them. We are under no obligation or responsibility to use English if we don’t need or want to. Don’t tell us what to speak.

Stop demonizing immigrants and their languages.

Thanks to Angry Asian Man for these articles. They have inspired me to be more active and political in my involvement with language.

Starter Kit for Romance Languages

A lot of you may wonder about what language to learn, and while I have written in the past on the utility of languages, I’m thinking that it might be better to write a series of posts about what separates different languages, through their grammar, history, or their unique difficulties. Many languages belong to what is known as a “language family”, which is a grouping of languages that have common roots and features. This means that the languages in a particular family are usually structurally similar, and given what level they’re being examined, may even have similar vocabulary. Families themselves may be part of a larger family, where the commonalities are fewer.

The language family I’m going to be discussing in this post is the Romance language family, which belongs to the Indo-European language family. Romance languages are related by the fact they all are evolved forms of Latin in different parts of the Western Roman Empire, where Latin was the lingua franca. Some examples of Romance languages include Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. There are other, smaller Romance languages spoken throughout Western Europe, as well as creoles and pidgins that developed in colonial territories of Western European countries. Nowadays, the Romance languages are spoken in many different regions of the world, including Africa, North/Central/South America, and even parts of Asia.

The value of learning a Romance language varies from language to language, since each language has its own charms. Spanish is the most widely spoken Romance language and is the language of many famous works of magical realism. Italian is the language of Dante’s La Divina Commedia, though in a medieval form, as well as of Italo Calvino, a renowned modernist writer. Many lyrics of classical opera and vocal pieces are written in Italian, as well as in French. French is often said to be the “language of love”, and some writers of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, and the author of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, were speakers of French. Romanian and Portuguese are unfortunately the unnoticed children of the Romance family, since very few major works of literature were ever written in these languages and did not spread extensively to many territories (except perhaps Portuguese in Brazil). However, every one of these languages is worth learning in its own way!

Basic features

The basic rundown of how all Romance languages work is that they are moderately inflective, since verbs drop affixes and add others that reflect multiple meanings, such as tense, person, etc.

The general sentence order of Romance languages is SVO (Subject-Verb-Object), which is to say the default form of a sentence is to order it in that way. This is the way English orders sentences. However, it’s not as strict in Romance languages, since verbs conjugate according to person and tense. For questions, Romance languages typically flip the sentence order, but the simply making the original statement a question by inflecting has a slightly different meaning. For example, take the sentence “They eat apples” in Spanish: Ellos comen manzanas. The usual question form is ¿Comen manzanas ellos? (Do they eat apples?). However, saying ¿Ellos comen manzanas? is slightly different, as it’s asking about what they’re eating, rather than who’s doing the eating.

Verbs

Romance language verbs are fairly straightforward. There six groups of conjugations, each corresponding to person and plurality. They are: “I”, “you (non-polite)”, “he/she/it/you (polite)”, “we”, “you all (non-polite)”, and “they (male)/they (female)/you all (polite)”. The word for “it” usually doesn’t have its own word, and speakers simply use the pronoun according to the grammatical gender of the noun in question (we’ll get to this in just a bit). This varies from language to language, as some do not use certain forms anymore. Brazilian Portuguese doesn’t use the “you (non-polite)” form anymore and Latin American Spanish doesn’t use the “you all (non-polite)” form anymore, for example.

Verbs belong to one of three categories, each with their own slightly different conjugational endings. These endings reflect tense and person. While the verb “to love” in English only changes for “he/she/it”, in Romance languages, there is a unique form for each category mentioned before. So, “I love” in Italian, for example, is io amo, but “we love” is noi amiamo. Because of these distinctions, Romance languages are almost all pro-drop languages, which is to say that you can drop the pronoun subject if it is obvious from context who you’re talking about.

French might be the only exception, because even though spellings are distinct, some verb conjugations are said the same way. Even many nouns can sound identical and other contextual clues as well as a pronunciation rule known as liaison are required to understand spoken French properly. For this reason, French is not as much a pro-drop language (if at all).

Every Romance language also has unpredictably irregular verbs (which you have to commit to memory) and certain types of verbs with (sometimes) predictable irregularities.

The tenses that you absolutely need to know are present, preterite, imperfect, future, as well as conditional. You also need to know their perfect forms (“have done, had done, will have done, etc.). Most Romance languages distinguish preterite and present perfect, whereas in French and Italian, they are the same, since the actual preterite in those languages has passed out of common use.

You will also need to learn a mood known as the subjunctive, an essential part of Romance languages. The subjunctive mood is a verbal mood that indicates hypotheticals or uncertain actions, to put it very simply. There’s a little more to it than that, but you can learn more about it if you decide to learn a Romance language. That’s more or less all the basics to verbs.

Noun Properties

Nouns in Romance languages have singular and plural forms, the latter of which, depending on the language, are extremely straightforward to construct. Even the languages with different ways to pluralize different nouns have easily understood patterns (except for possibly French). All nouns have definite and indefinite articles, the words for the and a/an.

Nouns also generally do not have declensional cases, except for Romanian, which has retained many features from Latin, including the neuter gender. This brings us to grammatical gender, something that confuses many novice language learners. All Romance languages have grammatical gender for nouns, and it almost never has anything to do with biology or any kind of logic whatsoever. That is, unless the noun in question is a person, in which case, grammatical gender corresponds to biological gender.

Now, adjectives and adjectival phrases behave much like nouns, having to agree in gender and number. Take the word o urso (bear), in Portuguese. If I want to say “black bear”, the word “black” has to be of the same gender and number as “bear”. So that means, “black bear” is o urso preto, where both urso and preto are singular and masculine. If I wanted to make it plural, it would become os ursos pretos.

Nouns can also be replaced by object pronouns, so as not to be repetitive. Take the following exchange in Italian as an example:

—Where is the key that I gave you?
—I put it in the box.

—Dov’è la chiave che ti ho dato?
L‘ho posta nella scatola.

The word for “key” (la chiave) is replaced by the direct object pronoun (DOP) la (contracted to l’ due to Italian conventions), which as with adjectives, corresponds to the feminine gender of la chiave. The word for “you (non-polite” (tu) is implicitly referred to by the indirect object (IOP) ti. There are a variety of double object pronoun combinations in most Romance languages, which are all fairly easy to learn. That’s about it on nouns.

Learning strategies

You may already know this, but vocabulary in Romance languages is simply a matter of memorization when it comes to irregular forms and grammatical gender. Just use flashcards and spaced repetition programs like Quizlet, Memrise, and Anki.

For verbs and other grammatical features, all you can do is just do lots of exercises and write a lot. Also, read! Reading in the language (and this goes for any other language as well) helps immensely in gaining vocabulary as well as contact with native-level uses of the language.

If you are a reasonably well-read speaker of English, you will probably notice that many words in Romance languages sound familiar. Like la biología in Spanish, or il sistema in Italian. This is because these words are of Greek and Latin origin. A handy thing to note is that in all Romance languages, words of Greek origin are all masculine! For Latin origin words, the original gender of the word transfers to their Romance language form; feminine stays feminine, masculine stays masculine, and neuter becomes masculine (except in Romanian, where the neuter gender is still around). In the end, it’s just a lot of diligent practice and a willingness to learn.

I also recommend using the WordReference dictionary, as their Romance language dictionaries are great. For language lessons, about.com’s lessons are OK, though not to my liking. There are many language learning textbooks out there and I cross-reference materials a lot. Of course, you could just use my books on Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan, if you plan to learn those languages!

For Spanish books, I don’t recommend Realidades past Realidades 2 or if you can avoid it, mostly because you’ll end up with very, very politically correct Spanish that doesn’t sound native in any particular way. Temas is a great book for advanced learners, since it’s written for the  AP Spanish Language and Culture Exam. For advanced Italian textbooks, you can definitely use Con Fantasia: Reviewing and Expanding Functional Italian Skills (also an AP textboko). Learning Portuguese with Rafa is a great start to learning Portuguese grammar. There’s always Duolingo as well, since it gives you a good start, and keeps you practicing. Fair warning, Duolingo doesn’t help advanced learners very much.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and please don’t forget to share and comment on Facebook, Tumblr, or here. I’m planning to write more of these Starter’s Kits in the future, so keep an eye out!

しりとり (Shiritori) and Word Games

Today, while hanging out with a few of my Japanese friends, I learned about a game called しりとり (shiritori), which is a type of word game where people say words, take the final kana (or syllable) and use that to find another word that begins with it. It was pretty difficult for me, since I have a fairly limited knowledge of Japanese words. So, that means if I say umi, the person after me has to say word that begins with mi. Obviously, you have to know the kana spelling of a word in order to play this game properly. The catch is that you cannot play words that end in the kana ん (n), since no words in Japanese end with this kana. On top of that, you can only play common nouns, so no names of places or people. If you are in a position where you have no choice but to play a word that ends in ん, then you lose. A similar game called “word chain” exists in English, though this version has way fewer way to ways to lose, since very few letters in English are like ん for the purposes of the game.

Now, what this made me think about is the fact that the idea of “spelling” is an almost unique thing to English, since nearly all letters have more than one possible pronunciation that overlaps with other letters. In Spanish and Italian, for example, spelling is fundamentally unimportant, since every letter has a one pronunciation and one only, and all words are spelled exactly the way they sound. French could conceivably have spelling-based games, since more letters are ambiguous the way English is. Even if the letter or symbol of a language has multiple pronunciations depending on the position of it in a word, spelling is insignificant so long as there no overlaps with other letters. For example, the letter “f” and the combination “ph” make the same sound, but are used to spell things in different ways. “Ph” is used in almost exclusively words of Greek origin, like “philosophy” or “philanthropy”, and “f” for everything else. But for the unlearned player of word chain, these words have ambiguous spellings.

Another thing that this pointed out to me is that in many languages, this game can end very quickly. For example, in Italian, nearly every word ends in a vowel, and that significantly shrinks the bank of words you can use for the game. Spanish has a similar problem, since relatively few words end in consonants other than and s. In many (if not all0 Indian languages, this game is not feasible, at least if it’s played like shiritori. Using the final syllable is very difficult, since even though Indian languages use abugidas, where each letter is almost always syllable unto itself. The problems come up when you have a syllable that has more than one consonant in it. For example, if I were to use the Kannada word ಮಿತ್ರ (mitra), the next word has to begin with ತ್ರ (tra), of which there are very few. It’s even worse if you play a word that ends in the sound ಋ (ṛ), since there are very, very few words that actually start with this letter. It’s just that the writing system is not suited for such games. For what might be obvious reasons, Chinese languages cannot play this game, since hanzi don’t work that way. Using radicals to determine the next word requires too much knowledge on the part of the player. Also, pinyin finals can’t always start a word, and tones restrict syllables even more.

Some of the languages that I think are suitable for this game (using either the Japanese or English version of the rules) include Greek, Russian, Korean, possibly Vietnamese, maybe Irish, and Catalan. Correct me if you think I’m wrong. One of the keys to this game is that there has to be a letter or symbol that little to no words can start with.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and I highly suggest playing it for practice in the languages mentioned. Please remember to share this wherever you think people will be interested!

“Is Watching Foreign Language Movies a Waste of Time?” from Fluent in 3 Months – Response

I recently read through a post about foreign language films from Fluent in 3 Months (run by the legendary Benny Lewis; you can read it here). In this post, I’m going to address points made in the post, as well as discuss the worth of media in general as a foreign language tool. With that, here we go!

Movies/Media have to be studied actively. Passive watching is unproductive.

I’ve paraphrased it, but this is a very big point, and is true of most media in general, when you’re using it to learn another language. Even though I’ve watched Bollywood films for a good part of my life, why isn’t my Hindi-Urdu really good? That’s because I’m not paying attention to what the actors are actually saying. By focusing on subtitles, you’re tuning out anything you can possibly learn.

It’s a good idea to have the remote with you while you watch. You should find yourself pausing and rewinding a lot, to closely examine what they’re saying. If you’re watching something on YouTube, you can slow down the video so the speech is slower and easier to understand. Writing down the words will help immensely for remembering what you hear.

However, even though the post breaks down the method into, “Focus”, “Segmentation”, “Repetition”, “Engagement”, and “Subtitles”, I think one more thing should be added: “Searching”. In almost every movie, song, TV show, or whatever it is, there will be words or phrases that are repeated over and over again. Look for these! It will make your life so much easier when you can pick out what you have learned and what you haven’t.

I find the tip about trying to respond in the role of a character by pausing before the character answers really interesting. I’d never really considered it before, and it’s a great way of practicing synthesis, putting sentences together by yourself, rather than using set phrases.

Warning: the media method isn’t for everyone.

I’m sure that Benny Lewis is aware of this, but using media such as television and music is inadvisable for people who are starting out. This is especially true of music; languages such as Hindi-Urdu and Mandarin use vocabulary that is exclusively poetic, literary, or figurative. This isn’t helpful for a person who doesn’t already know a lot of basic vocabulary and grammar. You can read my views regarding this phenomenon in Bollywood cinema here.

Even for television, which is more likely to use mundane or everyday words, cannot be of use to a person who’s not familiar with the language at least at an intermediate level. For example, I wouldn’t recommend watching a Spanish telenovela when you don’t know all the tenses and moods in the language. For a language like Spanish, more complicated structures involving the subjunctive are commonplace in everyday speaking, and are essential to certain nuances that people wish to convey.

Currently, I’m studying the Italian text of a video game, Final Fantasy X (you can read Part 1 of the analysis here), and I have to pause through a 2-minute cutscene several times from time to time because there are words that I don’t understand. It also helps that I did the blog post, actually. But the point is that it doesn’t matter what media form it is, you you have to be able to understand 40% of the text/speech from the start (most of which is grammar and basic vocabulary), and the other 60% (more advanced/specific vocabulary) will come in time. I might be over/understating the the ratio, but it just goes to show that prior knowledge is necessary.

Pick a movie/form of media that you like.

I also have some reservations about using films that you know. Depending on the film, your target language’s dub either uses cultural contexts and expressions that are completely foreign to itself, even if they’re totally normal for you. This is a problem because it will present situations that the language isn’t built for. Unless the societies of two languages have a lot in common in other ways, it is unlikely that the dub of a film that was originally in another language can fully render all the intricacies of the original language. I’m not saying don’t watch the French dub of Disney movies to practice your French; just don’t depend on it as your sole source of foreign language media. Watch a film that was made in France/Canada for French speakers. As the original post points out, these authentic films will give you a glimpse into real cultural situations that the language was made for.

This is where we have conflicts over the question of fictional works. By which I mean, films/books such as The Lord of the Rings. It’s a prime example of an unhelpful text for learning a foreign language, at least at lower levels. The Lord of the Rings is highly literary in its style, and consists of fictional cultures and languages that may or may not have anything in common with real world ones. The point of this warning is for you to have some variety in what you learn from; venture from your comfort zone (media you’re familiar with and understand on a basic level anyway) into the depths of authentic, original foreign language material made for the people who speak that language. It’s not to say that reading The Lord of the Rings in Russian would be entirely unhelpful; it would be, but it would give you only insight into how a Russian native might perceive the Tolkien’s fictional universe, which is not unhelpful in and of itself.

My experience with Final Fantasy X in Italian is another example of this predicament. The universe of the game is not Italian, and so it doesn’t give me any insight into Italian culture, not much anyway. On the other hand, it does let me see how Italian translators choose to render fantasy, which is still a useful thing to know. I get my dose of Italian culture through what I read on occasion (Italo Calvino in Italian is pretty helpful), so I’d like to think I’m not deficient. You should have a healthy balance of both in order to understand a language.

I realize that might have been a lot to process, but if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments, and I’ll answer them as best and as quickly as I can!

Check Out the Sankethi Language Page on Omniglot!

I recently contributed some of my material on Sankethi to Simon Ager, who runs a blog about foreign languages and their scripts, called Omniglot. Thanks to that, there is now a page on how to read and write in the Sankethi language! You can check it out here: http://www.omniglot.com/writing/sankethi.htm.

Omniglot has been an invaluable resource to me as learner of foreign languages, as I learned to read and write in Hindi, Kannada, Hebrew, and Korean because of it. I highly recommend the blog, as even the pages on languages with Latin scripts are immensely helpful, as it details all the possible combinations of letters and what the pronunciation of those combinations will be! French learners, do not pass up the opportunity to use the French page! It just seems to me that it clears up a lot of ambiguities and such. As a rule of thumb, I always visit the Omniglot page of a language before I start learning it or even consider starting to learn it. So, bookmark his blog and make use of the incredible resource!

The English Language Identity (ELI)

In this article, I use and define terms of my own making and will use abbreviations where I deem it appropriate. This is a purely exploratory article, and does not serve to posit any definite position on the subject of this article

Due to the preponderance of English as the de facto global lingua franca, many communities around the world have become much more in touch with their own identities as speakers of certain languages, especially those of minorities that have been driven to the brink of extinction due to sociopolitics, geopolitics, etc. There is often a great deal of individual, social, and political lore surrounding such languages, and most languages besides English, really. Or at least, so one thinks.

English’s privileged position in the world gives it an connotation of neutrality, which often leads people to devalue, whether it be consciously or subconsciously, the language’s history. In fact, this phenomenon is similar to the reason that many people in the world (including within English speaking countries such as the US and the UK) regard the US as having no unique cultural identity, as it is almost identical to England in foundational traditions, due to much of the US’ creations now being widespread in the world. Take fashion and ethnic wear. The US (as well as Europe, to a degree) doesn’t have a specific ethnic wear or article of clothing that is truly its own, because the default mode of dress in many parts of the world is American/European in style. In the same manner, English does not have a uniqueness (as perceived by much of the world) the way some other languages do.

Like any other language, English has a unique history. It stems from Anglo-Frisian dialects brought by Anglo-Saxon settlers, grouped together as Old English, and shifted into Middle English due to the Norman Conquest, bringing a great deal of Norman French influences. The Great Vowel Shift and the introduction of the printing press began to standardize spelling and pronunciation, and the beginnings of British imperial conquest and the separation of the US from Great Britain effected important changes in the English language as it transitioned into Modern English.

Now comes the real question: Do English speakers have a unique cultural and linguistic identity? Do they feel a strong attachment to the ELI, and feel that it forms a critical part of their personal and communal identity?  It is hard to say, due to the sheer number of English speakers in the world, but to narrow it down, it is important to identify the type of English speakers we’re talking about. People who grow up speaking and hearing only English, regardless of whether they learn another language along the way. Exceptions include the children of immigrants who do not grow up speaking their mother tongue, and instead speak only English, as they may only speak English out of convenience and then learn their native tongue later on, which may cultivate a separate identity. This is not to say that the existence of one identity precludes the existence of another, but it is safe to say a non-English language identity is likely to overshadow the ELI.

This brings us to what one might call the converse of the ELI: the Single or Sole Language Identity (SLI). The SLI is similar to the ELI, except that it applies to the speaker of a language who speaks only one language other than English, such as an SLI individual of French. An important assumption that must be made, or rather, a possibility to be acknowledged, is that the individual or individuals in question do not have a frame of reference to compare languages, by virtue of speaking only one language. The question here is: Do SLI individuals feel strongly about speaking their language exclusively, and object to learning or speaking another language on a regular basis, in place of their native language?

I’m thinking about conducting a survey on this topic one day, and write a proper article that has some concrete conclusions. If any of you have something to say on this or think it’s worth sharing, do so on Facebook and Tumblr! I hope you enjoyed reading this!

“Italian Dialects” by fearlessinger

This piece was not written by me, but by a Tumblr user, whose express permission I have obtained to share this on my blog.

I was hoping to finish this in time for the celebration of the International Mother Language Day, but ended up being late. Well, here I go anyway.

So, I already talked at length about the fact that, contrary to popular belief, all of the Italian dialects are not, in fact, dialects of the Italian language (those also exist, they are more or less regional variations of Standard Italian), but fully realized languages that evolved from Latin of their own accord, each with their own peculiar history and literature.

Despite having lost a lot of ground to Italian over the course of the last century, the Italian dialects all survive to this day, some struggling, some thriving and still counting several millions of speakers (yes, you read that right, check it out).

The Italian dialects can be as different from one another (and from Italian) as French is from Spanish, and they are often not mutually intelligible.

Here’s a map, courtesy of Wikipedia, that shows more or less all of them:

Here’s another map:

If you are in one of the colored areas and are fluent in at least one of the dialects pertaining to that area, you might be able to more or less understand what’s going on when people speak dialect at you. Or not.

Probably not.

In truth, a couple hundred km are enough to screw you up. Prepare for worst case scenario, is what I’m saying (and I’ll be honest, even in a best case scenario, you’ll probably end up wearing a space suit at a toga party).

Now, it occurs to me that, to the English speakers visiting or planning to visit our country, the above might sound a bit daunting.
Don’t worry, international friends! The Game of Dialects is played only by Italians against other Italians. You’re safe! People will actually make the effort to communicate with you! If all else fails, we will mime the words for you! In fact, you might eventually find yourself wishing that you could just shut us up!

Besides, not many people realize this, but a good number of Italian dialects have a surprisingly large amount of words in common with the English language.

Skeptic? I’ll give you an example.

Let’s say you’re in the Langhe, touring a lovely farmers’ market, and you see some sweet, sweet artichokes that look like they’re just begging to be put in a risotto. Well, how would you say artichoke in Piedmontese?

That’s right, it’s the exact same word! You’re basically already speaking Piedmontese! Isn’t it neat?
Of course, it’s not always that easy. You see, while the words may be the same, the meanings don’t always align perfectly.

Let’s go back to that lovely farmers’ market in the Langhe. As beautiful as those artichokes are, you may think that the price is a bit much. You may then comment in a deceptively disinterested tone: “soon car, sea artichoke.” * There’s a 95% probability that the vendor, moved to tears by the sound of his own mother language, will give you a generous discount. You may then take the adorable baby artichokes into your arms and start caressing them, soothingly murmuring “soon may. May, may.” **  in a slightly Gollum-like voice.

* “these artichokes are expensive”
** “they’re mine. Mine, mine.”

To those of you who don’t like artichokes, first of all: WHAT THE HELL?
And secondly, since I’m an extremely open minded person, here’s a totally plausible situation I made up just for you. Let’s say you’re buying milk, or delicious piedmontese ravioli, in the middle of a very crowded, very loud area of the market, and you need to signal to the seller that you want more than what he’s giving you. You may do so by enthusiastically shouting: “pee light!” *, “pee a new lot!” ** in their general direction.

* “more milk!”
** “more piedmontese ravioli!”

And that concludes your very first Piedmontese lesson. I think we all need time to process what I just wrote.

If my fellow Italian tumblr users would be so kind as to offer their collaboration, I’d like to end this with a little challenge!

How about we all translate the infamous Game of Thrones quote into our respective dialects? It might be fun to compare. I’d suggest using the standard Italian spelling (if possible) so that we can all more or less figure out the sound of what we’re reading.

I’ll go first:

ENGLISH –  “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”

ITALIAN – “Quando giochi al gioco del trono, o vinci o muori.”

PIEDMONTESE – “Quanch at’gieughi al gieugh adl tron, o t’gagni o t’meuiri.”

My Article From Italki: “How You Can Speed Up Your Language Learning”

Here’s the article that I wrote for Italki, and in case you’re interested, you can check out my teacher profile here: http://www.italki.com/teacher/1430507. Merry Christmas to you all!

Many language learners have a great deal of difficulty trying to memorize hundreds upon hundreds of vocabulary words from the lists in their textbooks. Teaching experts call this stage of learning rote. This means that the information is remembered, word for word, and the very definition is burned into your brain. However, this information, while retained, is not understood. The goal of learning a language is to understand words and what a person is trying to say. The stage of learning that the ideal language learner should aspire to is called application. Application suggests that you comprehend and correlate acquired knowledge with new material, draws conclusions, and synthesizes information independently.

To apply this to language learning, we need to show that languages can be correlated. If you look at the linguistic map below, you can see the gradations of Romance languages throughout Europe. Ibero-Romance languages (in green), such as Portuguese and Spanish, have certain characteristics that distinguish them from other Romance languages. However, Catalan, spoken in northeastern Spain, is a Gallo-Romance language. It shares many features with Spanish, as well as with Occitan (a language spoken in southwestern France, near the border with Spain) and French. Here, we see green fade into the blue areas in France, signifying the correlation between languages in that area. And we see this in the languages themselves, too. 

In Spanish, the word for “language” is la lengua, in Catalan it’s la llengua, and in French, it’s la langue. Ignoring the fact that they sound alike (because, as we’ll see, that is not a reliable guide) Even more curious is that all three also happen to mean “tongue.” And to top it off, they’re all feminine nouns! So, with these clues in mind, we can reasonably conclude that these words are cognates, words of common origin and of similar meaning.

So, you may be wondering, “What does this all mean?” Well, it’s the key to accelerating your learning! You may not realize it, but when you start learning a language, your brain instantly tries to link it to ideas and concepts you already know, to be able to store it more easily. The first mistake that some people make is assuming that they have to start completely from scratch in order to learn a new language. But that cheats you out of an incredibly easy way to learn! Your brain recognizes that two words may mean the same thing, but are from different languages. This separates the two words in your long-term storage, especially if they sound different. I myself used my knowledge of Spanish to expedite my Italian learning, and that helped immensely in getting all the vocabulary down.

In my guides to Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan, which you can download at http://theworldspeaks9.wordpress.com/language-guides/, I make frequent mention of parallels between Spanish, Italian, French, and other languages to help speed up learning. This is very helpful in the analytical part of my teaching method. By helping my students correlate things they already know, the information is retained in the long-term, and it makes language learning easier and more fun. Learning a language should not be a drag and endless trudging through vocabulary lists.

If you know Portuguese, and you’re learning Italian, exploit it. Not only are words similar, languages often have very similar structures. For example, in Portuguese, the imperfect subjunctive of the verb ser looks incredibly similar to those of the Italian verb essere. Take the phrase, “As if it were a dream.” Como se fosse um sonho (Portuguese) and Come se fosse un sogno (Italian) sound nearly identical.

I know you might be thinking that if you try to correlate words all the time and find cognates, you’ll start mixing up languages altogether. But there are a couple of things that you can use to to work against this. First, is that your brain, as mentioned before, instantly recognizes the similarities as well as the differences. All that’s left for you to do is to practice the vocabulary in context. Second, is practicing languages at different times. The temporal separation helps your brain process the languages separately, and keep them from mixing with each other. Study Italian at night, and Spanish in the daytime.

I hope that this was helpful in providing a strategy for learning a language! Remember: many languages are related, so you should exploit any links that your target language has to one that you already know.

References:

Romance Languages in Europe in 20 C. AD. 2009. Wikimedia Commons. By Fert. Web. 16 Nov. 2014. <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Linguistic_maps_of_Romance_languages#mediaviewer/File:Romance_20c_en-2009-15-02.png>.

Romance languages in Europe in 20 c. AD by Koryakov Yuri Serg!o, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“Romance languages in Europe in 20 c. AD” links to: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/78/Romance_20c_en-2009-15-02.png

CC BY-SA 3.0 links to: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/