Archive for the ‘Spanish’ Category

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.

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.)

Worldwide spelling alphabets

Posted on November 3rd, 2009by Michelle
In Alphabet, English, Spanish, Words | Leave a Comment »

Spelling alphabetRecently I tried to use the spelling alphabet (Alfa, Bravo, Charlie) when I needed to spell something here in Spain (haven’t completely grasped the Spanish alphabet yet). To my surprise, I found out it is not as universal as I thought.

In fact, there are different countries have their own spelling alphabets, as this site (although old) shows. Spain’s spelling alphabet begins Antonio, Barcelona, Carmen, for example.

The alphabet I was using is known as the NATO phonetic alphabet, or the international radiotelephony spelling alphabet. It’s been adopted by many military and civilian organisations around the world, including the Federal Aviation Administration and International Telecommunication Union, which I suppose is why I assumed people would know it here. It’s also been used for art, and a comment on language.

Looking at the various alphabets, it seems that most are based on names, particularly of people. The names appear specific to each country (Désirè for example), which would not be useful for an international alphabet. I particularly like the older English alphabets, which include gems such as Xantippe (British A), Monkey, Nuts (British Royal Air Force from 1924-1942) and Xerxes (British Royal Navy – 1917).

Do you know a spelling alphabet? What words are used?

Who’s your interpreter?

Posted on October 29th, 2009by Michelle
In English, Language acquisition, Spanish, Translation | Leave a Comment »

Interpreter symbolWith no previous knowledge of Spanish before I moved to the Canary Islands recently, I have found myself relying on other people for translations and information.

As someone who is very independent and capable, I’ve found it quite difficult to depend on others. A recent article brought my situation in to perspective, however. Whilst I am only in Spain for a few months, there are people who move to a new country permanently without speaking the language – and sometimes have to rely on children to translate their everyday needs.

The first woman in this article, Dolores Pedro, has learned two additional languages in order to fit in to her community – first Spanish and now English. Her son says translating for his parents is not hard, as he “speak[s] three languages”.

There is some debate about the effect this responsibility has on children, however, especially when it comes to medical issues.

Whippo said the hospital tries to discourage using children as translators because the child may not have the vocabulary in both languages to fully explain the situation in English and another language. Also, she said, medical information can be a heavy burden on a child. (Source: Garden City Telegram)

A doctor in Tennessee, USA, also wrote an opinion piece earlier this year putting himself in a child translators shoes. He concluded that “children often lack the vocabulary and the psychological and emotional maturity required to communicate health information.” (Source: Education Week)

Luckily, I have no need to rely on children to communicate for me. Much like the woman in the article, I’ve made the conscious decision to learn the local language and improve quickly, so I can depend less on others.

Forgotten languages

Posted on October 24th, 2009by Michelle
In English, French, Language acquisition, Research, Spanish | Leave a Comment »

ForgetfulMany of us have learned a language at one time or another. For most, uninteresting compulsory classes at school meant the language was easily forgotten once exams were over.

It may be that the language has not completely disappeared though. A new study has found that participants who had learned a language as a child could remember phonemes – the smallest sounds in a language, and could quickly relearn vocabulary.

The findings, published in Psychological Science, suggest being exposed as young children to foreign languages, even if they do not continue to speak them, can have a lasting impact on speech perception.

“Even if the language is forgotten — or feels this way — after many years of disuse, leftover traces of the early exposure can manifest themselves as an improved ability to relearn the language,” the study authors said in a statement. (Source: Times of the Internet)

Anecdotally, I can say that having studied French for four years at school, I can still recall some vocabulary and full sentences, despite not having really used it for over a decade (this is a hindrance in my current attempt to learn Spanish!).

It’s bad news for lazy learners though – there’s no excuse now for not taking up that language you ‘forgot’!

The debate on dying languages

Posted on October 22nd, 2009by Michelle
In Chinese, Culture, English, Spanish | Leave a Comment »

World in HandsI seem to reasonably often post about languages that are becoming extinct, so I found this programme on the BBC of some interest.

Generally, I tend to think of the death of languages as a bad thing because of the associated loss of culture and heritage. This show presents alternative views, for example explaining that some tribes want the next generation to learn the most dominant language in their area so they can progress and get a good education.

With 6% of the world’s languages spoken by 94% of the population, there are arguments that the loss of some languages is the result of natural selection.

One linguist, Professor Salikoko Mufwene, of the University of Chicago, has argued that the social and economic conditions among some groups of speakers “have changed to points of no return”.

As cultures evolve, he argues, groups often naturally shift their language use. Asking them to hold onto languages they no longer want is more for the linguists’ sake than for the communities themselves.

There will continue to be debate about this issue, and it’s interesting to see what the commenters say about the story. One poster is for a single global language:

The utility of a single global language, spoken by everyone as their mother tongue, would surely outweigh any loss of cultural heritage. The proliferation of Scots Gaelic bilingual signs in areas without Gaelic speakers (Aberdeenshire?!) is eccentric to say the least. Let languages die their natural deaths -there are plenty left.
Danny McShane, Aberdeen

While another feels:

When a language disappears, the knowledge and thought that has been stored in the language through generations of use, disappears with it. With the growth of powerful and widespread world languages, such as English, Chinese and Spanish, it will be necessary to take steps to protect linguistic diversity, in order to ensure the survival of smaller languages.
Shouvik Datta, Orpington, Kent, United Kingdom

What are your thoughts? Is a single global language a good idea? Would it help promote peace and understanding? Or is linguistic diversity essential to human culture?

Speak up!

Posted on October 18th, 2009by Michelle
In Hints and Tips, Language acquisition, Spanish | Leave a Comment »

Recently I moved temporarily to Spain and, with no previous knowledge of the language, have been attempting to learn Spanish.

Whilst I’ve had some success picking up individual words, and can already read some simple Spanish, speaking is my real ‘problem’ area.
My biggest fear is getting words wrong – I dislike being incorrect. This fear is very unhelpful in language acquisition, as you learn from your mistakes!

And as a recent study shows, conversing is essential to language development. A UCLA study found that activities that got children talking were more conducive to language acquisition than other methods.

Each day, children hear an average of some 13,000 words spoken to them by adults and participate in about 400 conversational turns with adults. More conversations mean more opportunities for mistakes and therefore more opportunities for valuable corrections. Furthermore, they also provide an opportunity for children to practice new vocabulary. (Source:

Whilst the study focused on language acquisition in children, I think the findings can be applied to all language learning. Make the most of any opportunity you have to converse in your chosen language – and don’t be scared to make mistakes!