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!

My Language Learning Calendar!

This is a picture of my language learning calendar, to mark the order in which I learn languages. It may not end up being in this exact order, but I aim to do so! Wish me luck, as this may take several years!

My language calendar!

The Stigma Against Europe in America

When I started learning Portuguese, I was surprised at how the Brazilian and European (also known as continental) versions are so different. However, I realized this wasn’t completely out of the question, considering that Latin American and European (also known as Castilian) Spanish are also somewhat different (though not to the degree that Brazilian and European Portuguese are). Old World powers that, back in the day, colonized abroad successfully, also transported their languages to these places as well. Words from indigenous languages, and words for things specific to the contexts in the New World came into being. The four most successful powers were Britain, Spain, France, and Portugal (poor little Italy didn’t have its act together yet). You might actually notice that the entirety of political North America is former colonial territory. Many of the colonies of these countries gained their independence from their European motherlands, except for France, which effectively had to give up Canada to Britain after the French and Indian War.

Given all this, the colonial versions of the languages of these countries had their own circumstances to develop within. In modern day America, where people from all over the world immigrate to, many people learn Spanish, Portuguese, and French. I realized this only much later, but people in America typically learn the colonial version of these languages. America had a particularly nasty relationship with Britain, and its relations with France were a bit strained, to say the least. Perhaps it’s only natural, then, that in America, many people have cultivated a distaste for European things (aside from wine that is).

Most people in America will learn Brazilian Portuguese, because people forget about Portugal entirely (Portugal kind of disappears after the colonial era in most history books), and also most Portuguese-speaking immigrants are likely to be Brazilian. Similarly, French speakers in America are likely to be French Canadian, and most Spanish speakers are likely to be from Latin America. Sure, you could argue that it’s just a matter of convenience, but I think there’s more to it than that. Canadians, Brazilians, and Latin Americans are well aware that there exist European counterparts to their languages, in a similar way to how Americans are aware of British English.

But I’m certain that there is some stigma against the European versions. You can see it everywhere, particularly in the media. Europeans, no matter where they’re from, are frequently depicted as pompous, heavily accented, and/or flamboyant. In English, to make someone sound like they’re very proper or uptight, we put on a British accent, for God’s sake!

Up until around my third year of Spanish, I knew virtually nothing about Spain or its particular brand of Spanish. People are often advised to learn the colonial variant because it’s easier to understand, which to a degree, is true. Speakers of Brazilian Portuguese tend to be very distinct when they speak Portuguese, whereas their European counterparts chop off the ends of words, and speak with what is called boca fechada, or “closed mouth.” The seseo, or ceceo (which is the Spanish word for the way you distinguish s, c, and z), of Spain, is often considered an impediment to comprehension when learning. This is because it is not discussed until the latter years of learning.

I have a friend with whom I practice Spanish, and I do try to use the Castilian accent, because I don’t get to hear or use it otherwise (I use the Latin American pronunciation in class, because that’s what’s expected). He doesn’t really mind, but he has said that he thinks that the Castilian accent sounds pretentious. I don’t really see how it’s pretentious, considering that everyone in Spain speaks that way. I’m also learning the European version of Portuguese as well, because it resembles Spanish more, and also because my particular book teaches the European form.

I’m further convinced by the conversations I’ve had with Latin American Spanish speakers and Brazilians that there is a distinctly American aversion to the European versions. Brazilians say that it’s kind of amusing to hear the European version in a conversation, but that’s mostly because they don’t hear it every day. Latin Americans don’t really care one way or another. Overall, they don’t really mind the European version of their language, even if it might be a little harder to understand. This could be because they are taught in school that this other version exists, and that it’s not worse or better than their own. Not that Americans are taught that their English is better than that of the British. In fact, when I was in elementary school, they didn’t even tell us that there was this other way of speaking English, and we only heard about it through TV and other media.

The point here is that in America, language classes should address the predominant forms of a language, especially when it comes to word choice, pronunciation, or even grammar. Language is inherently global, so it’s only fair that you learn about (though not necessarily learn entirely) the other versions. For example, I would say that it’s appropriate for a class to cover Brazilian and European Portuguese, but not for Swiss and Peninsular Italian. The latter two are not different enough to warrant extensive coverage on both, especially considering how close they are. Similarly, you cover Hindi and Urdu distinctly in the same class, but not two very similar varieties of Russian. You might say that Latin American Spanish and European Spanish aren’t different enough, because a Spaniard and Peruvian can understand each something like 90% of the time. But they are, considering pronunciation, word choice, and expressions (and the fact that two different versions of Disney and other movies exist for Latin America and Spain).

I hope you enjoyed reading this post, and I hope to get more out soon! Please leave some comments if you have any! Please note, that my statements about what Latin Americans and Brazilians say about their European counterparts are from personal experience. I’m only saying these things based on what I know, have read, and learned.

Tips For Learning A New Script

When it comes to learning another language, you sometimes encounter languages with a different script from the one you usually use. This is especially the case with Eastern languages. The Nastaliq script is highly artistic in its aesthetics, and is written from right to left, instead of left to right like most scripts. Cyrillic is the script for many Slavic languages, primarily Russian, Serbian, etc, and is deceptively similar to the Latin script. And then you have the scripts of Asia, which can be complicated like Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese, mixed up like Japanese, or like Hindi, which uses diacritics. While it can seem daunting to memorize three different writing systems for Japanese, or having to recognize the vowel sounds from context for Arabic and Hebrew, there is a way to learn!

1. Practice. I cannot stress this enough. You are not going to learn a script as quickly if you simply use flashcards. Despite being in a time where computers and typing are the primary form of written communication and letters are dying out, writing the characters of a writing system with a pen or pencil helps internalize the characters in your mind. Your brain learns to recognize the patterns you write down. Get a notebook or use several pieces of paper, and practice the characters. It’s usually best to practice them in groups of five, especially for Indian language scripts, and Japanese, whose spoken, “alphabets,” are recited as such. After you finish a page, go to the next one, and write out every single character that you’ve learned so far, in order. Then continue to the next set of five, when you can write all the ones you have learned with little to no difficulty.

2. Flashcards. This is more of an aid for reading. It is important to realize that even though I said you should write the characters in order, characters do not appear that way in written language. You need to train yourself to recognize characters in different instances, and out of order. After a while, you should be able to write a character without thinking too long if someone asks you to.

3. Read. Find a grammar school primer or simple children’s story books, and try to read it slowly. If you have trouble, keep a chart of the characters next to you, and transcribe the letters to your own script. This helps you to recognize characters in different positions in words.

4. Write. This comes into play more when you actually start learning the language itself. Write all words in the target language in its script, to force yourself to practice writing them, and also reading them when you review your notes. I got into the habit of writing my Spanish notes in Spanish this year. While not exactly the same situation, it works on the same principle. By putting everything you can into the target language, you model immersion to an extent, and force yourself to work with the language.

5. Recall. This is probably the hardest part of learning the script, because it doesn’t involve a tangible activity. You should only attempt to do this when you have a good grasp for most of the characters, though you can try to do this as you go along. Recall entails recalling the image of the characters in question in your mind, and writing them in the air, if you need some help. This is especially helpful for ideographic languages, such as Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese.

Good luck with learning those scripts!

Watching Films and Other Media in Other Languages

Since I was a little kid, it always fascinated me to watch films that my family had at home in other languages. After watching the film, I would immediately want to go to, “Setup,” and change language, and put subtitles. Now, I find it an invaluable source to watch familiar films in Spanish to practice my listening skills, which I find the hardest thing to do in my Spanish class, because the speakers on the audio tracks speak so fast.

I definitely think that films should be available in other languages for this reason, more so than they are now, anyway. You get French and Spanish on most US films, but little else (I think I saw Italian once). I actually watched Frozen in Latin American Spanish yesterday, and I found that I could understand maybe 65% of what was said (and that’s being a bit generous). As of now, I’ve yet to find a site that provides films in multiple languages. I imagine such a site would charge monthly fees in much the way that Netflix does, and it doesn’t seem like it’s that out the question for such a service to exist. Many foreign language teachers often have to go out of their way to find films in the language they teach. To watch a film in the target language would be an invaluable learning tool, because not only do learners enjoy watching a familiar film, but they also learn by doing so.

Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Hindi learners have perhaps some of the greatest resources when it comes to media in the target language. J-Pop, K-Pop, C-Pop (yes, that’s a thing), and Bollywood songs are ubiquitous, as you can buy them on iTunes or download them off the internet, due to the genres’ immense global popularity. They also have access to a number of dramas, as many sites let you watch dramas for free, or sometimes paid when they’re higher quality and have more options. The thing about dramas, especially Korean and Indian dramas, despite their very specific situations, contain most of the words you need to have a functional knowledge of the language. This is also the case with the infamous telenovela of Latin American countries. Bollywood movies are also very accessible, and in some Indian grocery stores, there is an entire section full of Indian movies in many different Indian languages. Sadly, not many animated movies are dubbed in Hindi, because many people in India  know English, and animated movies are not very popular.

However, overall, your options are pretty limited when it comes to finding movies or TV shows in a language such as say, Russian or Portuguese. You can find a lot of Disney movie songs in other languages, but not always the movie itself. You’re not going to be able to get Aladdin in Russian very easily in the US, unless you import it.

If anyone finds a site that shows films in other languages, please post it in the comments!

Constructed Languages

Ah, the horror that is a constructed language (con-lang for short). Con-langs are languages that take elements of existing languages to create the new one, usually with the intent of making accessible to a wide variety of people. I personally think the process of making a con-lang is ultimately fruitless, with respect to actually putting them into use. You can’t force millions of people to adopt a language that they have no real reason to speak. That would involve legislating the language, and history has shown too many times over that legislating a language does not work. This happened in Russia and its captured territories, where a campaign of Russification was started. The government tried to force the people in non-Russian territories to assimilate in terms of not only territory, but also religion, culture, and specifically, language. A similar event occurred as Germany began to gather territory pre-World War II, and also during the days of the Holy Roman Empire.

Unless you’re as talented as J.R.R Tolkien to construct languages for one’s universe in a book, I consider it highly unnecessary. English has already proven itself many times over the international language, but its difficulty necessitates the learning of the other languages. Adding new, made-up ones will just make things more difficult.

However, this is not to say that con-langs should be discouraged. It is perfectly OK to make them. I started making one two weeks ago, just for fun. I’ll attach it to the post, if anyone wants to look at it. However, I feel that there are some minimum criteria con-langs should meet, if you actually plan to advocate the use of said con-lang.

1) They should be usable by a wide variety of people, because that’s usually what a con-lang is for: to enable communication between larger groups of people. This is a major failing of Esperanto and Interlingua, because they are really only understood and learned easily by English, Romance language, and possibly German speakers. Not so easy for people from China or Vietnam, because they have no common roots with those con-langs.

2) It should be relatively simple and easy to pick-up. This can be easy in terms of grammar. This is especially the case if you speak English, because while some conjugations and pronunciation rules are absolutely terrible for non-natives, English grammar is relatively simple: SVO (Subject-Object-Verb), essential lack of mood distinction, and relatively intelligible to most when grammar is not perfect.

3) Make sure your vocabulary is wide enough to accommodate a wide variety of settings. This is probably what makes a con-lang the most difficult, because if you really wanted to make a language that everyone on the planet could learn if he or she sat down and studied, that language’s vocabulary would have to encompass word/word roots from all language families, and also include words for everything. Kannada speakers will need a word that means the same thing as sankocha, embarrassment due to an inordinately grand or expensive gift or being asked to stay for dinner when you just wanted to chat (basically receiving an obligation you don’t want). Spanish speakers will want a word for paella and Russian speakers will want words for all the different kinds of the same verb they have.

As for my con-lang, it’s supposed to be a conglomerate of Spanish, Catalán, and Italian, which I have dubbed Avreça. I’ve done away with all moods, so things like the imperative are indicated solely by the way you intone words. Again, because I did this for fun, I’m at liberty to make this however complex I want, but for my purposes, supposing I wanted to teach my kids the language, I’m making it simple and relatively easy to understand. If my kids did speak Avreça, they could branch off and learn Spanish/Italian/Catalán with little to no difficulty. In any case, this con-lang serves no particular purpose. Also, note that it is a work in progress. The lists of verbs, adjectives, and such can be by no means be considered complete. The current lists allow for a more topics to be discussed, and also adds a new tradition for learners to take part in.

Download Link: Avreça

Languages That Should Be Taught in High Schools But Aren’t

So, I’ve recently been thinking about how much people treat foreign language study as a chore. Universities and high schools often require at least two consecutive years of the study of the same language for admission and graduation respectively. I believe that this treatment of such a field can be remedied by freeing up the choices that students have in this respect. This means, you can’t just offer Spanish, French, and Mandarin Chinese and expect them to be happy with it. People like to have a lot of choices and  might want to learn some other language. Most importantly, why are we only teaching three languages? French is not very useful outside of France, Canada, Switzerland, and a few African countries (sorry, French speakers, but it’s true). Spanish is in a similar position, although it has the advantage of being more  intelligible with respect to Portuguese and Italian, and having more applications within the United States, specifically. Mandarin Chinese is indeed useful in China, a major economic and political entity, and its introduction into American education systems is admirable. But this is only the first step.

However, first of all, I want to make something clear: Spanish and French don’t need to be removed from the curriculum. They are still useful, in their own ways, but in the context of the whole world, they lack in usability. People should still learn them, whatever their reasons are. However, we should introduce more useful languages (or at least make these more widely taught), which I’m going to  list and explain. Remember, in the context of the United States as whole, I regard these as true, because the languages below have a greater number of uses overall than Spanish or French. Part of my definition of usefulness includes how much you can use the language in the world.

1) Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew

OK, while it certainly doesn’t need to be each of these in the same school, but there’s no denying that these would be extremely useful. Arabic is important, because of negotiations and diplomacy in the Arab League nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria. Farsi is also important, because with the right tactics, America could actually enter into peaceful relations with Iran. We don’t even have an embassy or formal diplomatic relations with them, for God’s sake! We have an embargo on trade with them, which was set up in 1995. Lastly, Hebrew is useful for similar reasons, as if we could have more diplomats in Israel to help resolve tensions between Israelites and Palestinians and also between Israel and surrounding Muslim countries. The Middle Eastern languages in general, I feel, are powerful diplomatic tools.

2) Japanese and Korean

These two languages are native to two very important nations that directly concern the United States. Not only that, Japan and South Korea are formidable world powers in their own rights. In both nations, there are a number of growing business opportunities. Not only that, they can be easier alternatives to learning Mandarin Chinese, especially Korean.

3) German and Russian

German might come as a surprise, because many people in Germany can probably speak English pretty well. However, it is my firm belief that communication is always done better in the language of the country you’re visiting. It’s kind of a matter of politeness. Russian can be useful, because not only are there economic opportunities in Russia, it’s also possible to work with Russian in the diplomatic field, because Slavic languages, particularly the ones of the former Soviet Republics, are mutually intelligible with Russian.

It is certainly important to consider the regional uses of these languages. Korean will be more useful than Russian to a physician on the West Coast, due to a larger Korean population. But that’s for another post. The key idea is that the listed languages are useful, because their global contexts are much greater. In high school, most people have not decided what they want to do, and having a language that is useful in relatively high number of contexts is invaluable.

If you have any thoughts on this yourself, or if you think there are any other languages you think should be included in schools, do say so in the comments!

The Foreign Language Study Assocation

If you’re a language aspirant in high school, and you want show others the wonder of the study of foreign language, make a club! I made an organization this year, in my high school, as a sort of pre-collegiate Alpha Mu Gamma, called the Foreign Language Study Association. Another thing: this site will be very helpful when it comes to self-studying languages!


Anyway, here’s a quote for you:

(xué yì mén yǔyán, jiù shì duō yí ge guānchá shìjiè de chuānghu.)
To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.