Archive for November, 2009

A new language learning tool?

Posted on November 30th, 2009by Michelle
In Japanese, Language acquisition, Research, Spanish, te reo Maori, Technology | Leave a Comment »

A student in New Zealand may have come up with a way to make learning a language easier.

Michael Walmsley, a PhD student, is working on a project to allow learners to read texts in a foreign language interspersed with words in their native language. He’s been awarded almost NZ$100,000 to help fund his research into the idea.

The software engineering student will spend the next three years researching ways to tap into existing online resources, such as Wikipedia and the Wiktionary, to create suitable reading texts for language learners.

Both online resources come in around 170 languages.

Mr Walmsley hopes to develop software to use them to automatically create suitable texts.

At this stage he is focusing on Japanese and Spanish with the hope to one day bring in te reo.

“The goal is to make learning a language fit into people’s busy schedules,” he said. (Source:

The idea is an interesting one, especially as people are increasingly busy with less time to spend on learning a language. It would also take away some of the frustration learners feel when constantly reaching for a dictionary whilst reading a text. My concern is that it would create gaps in knowledge, however, and perhaps even create more hybrid languages such as Spanglish – people could end up merely speaking a mix of their native language and target language rather than becoming fluent.

It’s definitely worth watching out for the results of the project though.

Listening and learning – Part 2

Posted on November 29th, 2009by Michelle
In Hints and Tips, Language acquisition, Spanish, Technology | Leave a Comment »

I was thinking further about yesterday’s post, where I advised trying to understand the gist of a sentence, rather than every word.

Another tip is to listen to a lot of the language you’re studying, even if you don’t understand any of what is said. This can get you used to the rhythm of the language, and how words sound. I like to have Spanish TV or radio on in the background of whatever I’m doing, occasionally tuning in to actively try and listen and understand. It’s helped make the fast Spanish I hear in everyday life a little less scary!

This is backed up by research which shows the best way to learn a language is through frequent exposure to it.

“Our ability to learn new words is directly related to how often we have been exposed to the particular combinations of the sounds which make up the words. If you want to learn Spanish, for example, frequently listening to a Spanish language radio station on the internet will dramatically boost your ability to pick up the language and learn new words.” (Source: Victoria University)

If you’re wondering where you can find an internet radio station in your chosen language, is a great find which has numerous popular languages broadcast in news and podcasts as well as internet radio and television.

Listening and learning

Posted on November 28th, 2009by Michelle
In Hints and Tips, Language acquisition, Spanish | 1 Comment »

ListenListening is an integral part of language learning, but when you’re just starting out, it can be difficult.

To me, Spanish sounds impossibly fast, which scares me. I start to wonder if I will ever be able to understand, and this inhibits my ability to understand.

So, my tip for the day is: don’t try and listen to every word that is said.

Even at my basic level, I try and catch a word or two and pick up the gist of the sentence. This can go wrong – if I miss a negative for example – but works reasonably as long as I am aware of the context of the situation. When I’m ordering in a restaurant and the server asks an unexpected question, I know it is likely to be something about the food, so I try and concentrate on picking out any food-related words. It also helps to ask the speaker to repeat what they are saying slightly more slowly.

I also try and look at the speaker as much as possible, so I can gain clues to what they’re saying from body language. There are many gestures that are universal so you may be able to pick up what is said from there.

My final piece of advice? Try not to be scared! The more you listen, the more familiar the language will be. And soon, you’ll find that no one is speaking impossibly fast.

Canis mea studia domestica devoravit*

Posted on November 27th, 2009by Michelle
In Education, English, Language acquisition, Latin, Spanish | Leave a Comment »

There’s been a lot of debate in the UK recently over what language skills should be taught to children, and when.

Since learning a second language stopped being compulsory in secondary school, there appears to have been a decline in the amount of students taking up a language, with a knock-on effect on university courses, and perhaps the economy.

So could Latin be the solution?

According to this report, the language has been popular in pilot schools in Cambridgeshire, and the project has just been expanded. Latin is seen as a good way of introducing children to language learning, especially of the Romance languages, of which Latin is the root. It also provides an interesting way to look at history and civilization, says the head of the project.

Others argue that children would be better off learning a language that they can use in more practical ways. Spanish, for example, is the world’s number 2 language in terms of number of speakers, so would arguably be far more helpful for children travelling and eventually going into business.

Whatever the debate, it’s good to see that someone is pushing for language learning for British schoolchildren. I learned some French and German at school but have continually been put to shame by my European counterparts who can speak fluent English!

*That’s “the dog ate my homework” by the way.

Theatre translation

Posted on November 26th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, Language acquisition, Technology, Translation, Vietnamese | Leave a Comment »

Water puppetsA great way to experience local culture when travelling is to visit the theatre, particularly in countries with a strong theatrical tradition.

For example, when I visited Hanoi a few years ago, I made time to attend a water puppet performance. Water puppetry is a traditional art in this part of Vietnam. However, whilst it was interesting to watch, it was sometimes hard to follow the storyline as the songs were sung in Vietnamese.

It’s a great way to immerse yourself in a language, but what if you want to enjoy the show in your native language?

A British company has come up with a solution – hand held translation devices called ‘AirScript’. These small screens provide a real time translation of what is happening on stage, in eight different languages including French, Russian and Japanese.

Whilst only available at The Shaftesbury Theatre in London at the moment, the devices could become popular with theatre-goers.

I guess using the device is a decision between becoming immersed in the visual aspects of the performance, and knowing precisely what is said. Which would you choose?

Just be careful what you order….

Posted on November 22nd, 2009by Michelle
In Hints and Tips, Language acquisition, Spanish, Words | Leave a Comment »

ChurrosOne of my favourite things to do in a new country is try out the new and exotic foods on offer, and it’s also a great way into the local language. Here in Spain I’ve been eating a lot of delicious tortilla, paella and churros, for example.

Most of the Spanish I’ve picked up has been from reading menus and ordering in restaurants. Hunger is a great motivator!

A language school in Montreal, Canada is taking this one step further, holding classes in local restaurants so students can experience both culture and cuisine along with their chosen language. In such a relaxed setting, it’s easy to pick up new words and you may feel more free to make mistakes.

You don’t even need to be in a different country to try out this idea; just pick up your phone book and find some local ethnic restaurants. The staff may be a little surprised at first, but explain your enthusiasm for learning and they may become a great teacher!

Just be careful what you order – I recently asked for jibia in a restaurant (the innocuous sounding cuttlefish), and got quite a shock when I saw the tentacles!

(Side note: if you’re interested in Spanish dining and cuisine, click on the picture.)

Unfriend and other new words

Posted on November 20th, 2009by Michelle
In English, Events, Words | Leave a Comment »

Night of the Living Dead ZombiesFollowing my earlier post about the relative merits of unfriend or defriend, I thought it may be interesting to look at the other words on the shortlist for 2009 Word of the Year. Honestly, I’ve never heard of most of them, which means I’m either behind the times or they’ve made these up! Here are some of my favourites.

intexticateddistracted because texting on a cellphone while driving a vehicle

funemployedtaking advantage of one’s newly unemployed status to have fun or pursue other interests

zombie banka financial institution whose liabilities are greater than its assets, but which continues to operate because of government support

I love the term ‘zombie bank’ for the imagery it invokes – imagine going in to your local branch to be confronted with zombie staff! Based on the criteria for WotY though, I think my winner has to be netbook. It’s not flashy and it’s not fashionable, but I think netbook may stand the test of time.

What’s your favourite word on the list?

To unfriend or defriend?

Posted on November 20th, 2009by Michelle
In English, Events, Words | 2 Comments »

I do love announcements of new words, especially when they cause a debate.

The New Oxford American Dictionary has pronounced ‘unfriend’ its 2009 Word of the Year. All well and good… except I, along with many others, thought the term was ‘defriend’.

The official definition: unfriend – verb – To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.

Whilst I agree with the definition, I prefer ‘defriend’ – it rolls off the tongue better, don’t you think? And it sounds nicer – unfriend is short for unfriendly after all.

I’m not alone in preferring ‘defriend’ – New York Magazine agrees with me, and even went so far as to ask Facebook which term they prefer (they don’t mind).

Do you prefer to unfriend or defriend?

An internet language revolution

Posted on November 18th, 2009by Michelle
In Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, English, Historic, Technology | 1 Comment »

Chinese keyboardI take it for granted that most of the content I want to view on the web will be in my native language, English, and I merely have to type the website’s name into my browser to navigate to the site.

For speakers of languages with non-Latin based writing systems (including Arabic, Cyrillic and Chinese), this is not the case. To navigate to websites, they need to type in characters such as the ones you see here. And for those unfamiliar with Latin letters, this proves a hindrance to accessing content.

Last month, however, the internet regulator Icann (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) approved the use of different alphabets, ending the dominance of Latin alphabets such as English.

It’s been hailed as a big move which can increase accessibility to the web, especially among those unfamiliar with Latin letters:

The impact will vary by location, with more remote countries seeing the biggest expansion. Rod Beckstrom, Icann’s president, called the step “a historic move toward the internationalisation of the internet … We just made the internet much more accessible to millions of people in regions such as Asia, the Middle East and Russia.” (Source:

With the first official international web addresses expected in 2010, you could perhaps be logging on to 语言-博物院.com soon!

Lego language

Posted on November 13th, 2009by Michelle
In English, Invented languages, Words | Leave a Comment »

Lego peopleA confession: I never played with Lego as a child. I believe it was only when my younger brother was born that it even entered our house.

And it seems that I missed out not just on building brightly coloured models, but a whole section of highly creative language.

This fun article explores the diverse nomenclature of Lego pieces:

This language of Lego isn’t just something our family has invented; every Lego-building family must have its own vocabulary. And the words they use (mostly invented by the children, not the adults) are likely to be different every time. But how different? And what sort of words? (Source: The Morning News)

The table at the end of the article is particularly awesome. What names have you heard for Lego pieces? There could be a rigorous academic study in this – linguists, it’s over to you!