Archive for June, 2009

From English to Mandarin

Posted on June 30th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, English, Language acquisition, Mandarin | Leave a Comment »

Speak Mandarin Campaign posterA couple of posts ago I was talking about Singlish, and the Singaporean government’s attempts to promote English.

Now it seems, however, that Mandarin is the favoured language. Whilst the Speak Mandarin Campaign has been around for a long time, now it is being actively promoted over English. This seems to make economic sense at least, with Mandarin spoken by approximately 870 million people and the Chinese economy being the third largest, as well as the fastest growing in the world.

Interestingly, the Minister promoting the campaign also actively discourages dialects, saying:

Learning dialects will add to our children’s burden, and take away time and energy from English and Mandarin. Dialects also cause negative interferences on the learning of English and Mandarin, due to differences in their vocabulary, phonetics and syntax.

With Mandarin, we can connect with the whole of China and its 1.3 billion people. Dialects will confine us to our original village or town or at the most, the province of our ancestors.

Personally I think this is a shame as dialects contribute to the diversity of languages and can be an integral part of a person’s cultural identity. There is debate among linguists however, as to whether people should be encourage to eliminate these “non-standard” ways of speaking. This Singaporean certainly seems to have a stong opinion on the subject.

A language rising from the dead

Posted on June 29th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, Education, Indigenous languages | Leave a Comment »

Following on from my last post (again!) is the hopeful news that another Aboriginal language is being brought back from the dead.

Dharug was one of the dominant Aboriginal dialects in the Sydney region when British settlers arrived in 1788, but became extinct under the weight of colonisation.

Details of its demise are sketchy but linguists believe the last of the traditional Dharug speakers died in the late 19th Century, and their unique tongue only survives because of written records.

In a remarkable comeback, Dharug now breathes again – its revitalisation helped by the efforts of staff at Chifley College’s Dunheved campus in Sydney.

The language is being taught partly through song, which I have mentioned previously as being a useful tool for language acquisition. It seems to be successful at this school, so their methods can hopefully be imitated in other places to promote the comeback of this Aboriginal language and others.

Read the rest of the article here.

Aboriginal languages

Posted on June 27th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, Indigenous languages, Pronunciation | 1 Comment »

UluruMy last post was about Aramaic, the language scholars believe was spoken by Jesus, making it approximately 2000 years old.

Perhaps even older are the languages of the Aboriginal people, the indigenous people of Australia. The Aboriginals, or Indigenous Australians, are thought to have inhabited Australia for around 40,000 years before the first European settlement. Pre-colonisation, Aboriginal people were part of different ‘nations’ spread all over the continent, each with its own language. There were an estimated 700 dialects and 250 distinct languages, which were as distinct as English, Swedish and Mandarin.

Today it is estimated there are 20 – 50 “healthy” Aboriginal dialects. These are spoken mostly in the Northern Territory. “Healthy” means the language is spoken to, and used by kids.

Aboriginal languages are strongly interlinked with their culture, with ancestral creative beings said to have left languages in the country.

In Aboriginal societies language is not only seen as a form of communication but as a method of right to land, forming boundaries for each family group, and language group. Language is used as social control as it has various forms depending on the ages and status of people within a language group. (Indigenous Australia)

Some elements of Aboriginal language have made it into Australian culture (for example, place names such as Canberra) and gone on to take a place in popular culture. Koala, kangaroo, and boomerang are all things we associate with Australia, generally without knowledge of their Aboriginal roots.

So, perhaps next time you think about Ayers Rock, you could spare a thought for this ancient culture and refer to it by its original name, Uluru*.

*Note: the correct spelling of Uluru has a retroflex under the ‘r’, which I cannot recreate here.

Aramaic – making a comeback?

Posted on June 25th, 2009by Michelle
In Aramaic, Education | Leave a Comment »

Aramaic scriptFirst, a confession. I did not think that anyone still spoke Aramaic, the language scholars say was spoken by Jesus. Sure, I’d heard that the controversial movie The Passion of the Christ was mostly in Aramaic, but it never connected in my brain that anyone would still actually speak it.

This article, however, proved me wrong. The world’s oldest living tongue, Aramaic is listed by Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) as an endangered language and as such efforts are being made to preserve and promote it.

With similarities to both Arabic and Hebrew, Aramaic is spoken mostly in the Middle East, principally in a few villages north of Damascus, Syria, in the form of Western Neo-Aramaic. The Syrian government has set up the Aramaic Language Academy in one of the villages to assist in the continuation of the language.

Linguistic experts say that Syria is doing well in fostering this part of its heritage. “Aramaic is actually pretty healthy in Maaloula,” said Professor Geoffrey Kahn, who teaches semitic philology at Cambridge University. “It’s the eastern Aramaic dialects in Turkey, Iraq and Iran that are really endangered.”

Listen to the Lord’s Prayer being spoken in Aramaic here. And for more articles on Aramaic, see here.

Creoles: Singlish

Posted on June 22nd, 2009by Michelle
In Creoles, English | 1 Comment »

Recently I was lucky enough to visit the city-state of Singapore for a few days and soak up the culture and language (in amongst all the shopping).

A multicultural country made up of ethnic Malays, Indians and Chinese, along with quite a few ex-pats, Singapore has four official languages: Malay, Tamil, Mandarin and English. In addition to these, a number of dialects are spoken, including Hokkien, Hakka and Teochew.

What you’ll hear on the streets, however (and despite the government’s efforts with their Speak Good English Movement), is Singlish, a form of English mashed up with words borrowed from Tamil, Malay, Hokkien and other languages and dialects spoken by Singaporeans.

Primary based on British English, with some American English influence, Singlish is a creole that is the first language for many Singaporeans. Evolved gradually after the withdrawal of the British from this former colony, Singlish has its own grammatical forms and is spoken on a continuum ranging from an almost-pidgin to something very similar to British or American English. It even has its own dictionary!

The term you’ll probably hear most often though, is lah. Tacked on to the end of many sentences, lah is used like a full stop. Examples from the Coxford Dictionary:

1. “It was just like that, lah.”
2. “He was running, lah.”
3. “Donno, lah.”

Whilst this may not be “good English”, Singlish is definitely a great example of language helping form and shape culture and identity.

DIY Dictionary

Posted on June 18th, 2009by Michelle
In Events, Language acquisition, Technology, Words | Leave a Comment »

I’ve posted before about dictionaries and the huge amount of work that goes into them. Now, you can get involved yourself in a new type of dictionary making – in online video form. is “the world’s first democratically compiled, multimedia online dictionary” and is made up of videos uploaded by everyone from your average Joe on the street to the illustrator Quentin Blake. The danger is obvious – how do you know the definition offered is true and accurate? Wordia solves this by having the definition of the word from the Collins dictionary in text below the video.


Probably my favourite of the videos I’ve viewed so far is the vaguely hysterical one from Nikki Grahame, a former Big Brother UK contestant (above). Although won’t help you too much if you want to know the proper definition of the word invention, it is amusingly overwrought.

Currently the site is asking for videos on words related to Refugee Week 2009, which runs from 15 -21 June. Entries include musings from The Archbishop of Canterbury on refuge and Baaba Maal (community). Upload your own video giving a definition of one of the selected words for the week, and you could win a Simple Acts journal.

Whilst it’s just getting off the ground at the moment, could really develop into an interesting tool for language learning, especially if it goes global and definitions from different languages are added. Watch this space.

“Hey y’all!”

Posted on June 17th, 2009by Michelle
In English, UK vs US English, Words | Leave a Comment »

Y'allSpending a lot of time talking to an American man from the South, the word “y’all” has struck me as very interesting, although probably unusable if you don’t have a Southern accent. It has, however, spread to the extent that it’s included in the Merriam-Webster, so maybe it’ll catch on across the Atlantic eventually.

“Y’all” is short for “you all”, and is pronounced something like “yawl”. “Y’all” is commonly incorrectly spelled “ya’ll”, but think of the two words it’s made up of and it’s simple: “you” and “all”. When saying or writing “y’all”, you’re merely taking out the “ou” in “you” and replacing it with an apostrophe. “All” is one word that you cannot break up.

So when and how do you use it? As David Parker explains on Another History Blog:

…the word serves an important function in English. We have separate singular and plural first person pronouns (“I” and “we”) and third person pronouns (“he”/”she” and “they”), but there is no distinction in the second person; “you” is both singular and plural. The distinction between the French “tu” (singular) and “vous” (plural) doesn’t exist in English. It did until a few centuries ago: “thou” was singular, “you” plural. But by the time the American colonies won their independence, “thou” had practically disappeared and “you” was serving a double function. It’s almost as if we’re missing a pronoun now, and “y’all” admirably fills the second person plural position.

In other words: it’s OK to say “how are y’all doing?” if you’re referring to a group of people, but if you’re just talking to the one person, it’s best to stick to “how are you doing?”

And some further usage examples from my American friend:

“Y’all gon be around later?”
“Where y’all from?”
“Who won between y’all and em?”

How to learn: so, which method do I choose?

Posted on June 14th, 2009by Michelle
In Hints and Tips, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

ConfusedI’ve presented here the main ways people tend to learn a new language, but modern technology will always come up with more. You could meet a native speaker on Skype and chat with them for example, or try this video-learning site.

From my own experiences of learning languages, I would say that a combination of all the above methods is perhaps best. I know that without deadlines and a place to be I would not make the effort, so a class is probably my best fit. However, when I’m travelling I like short and simple podcasts so I can revise and practice on the way and whilst in-country. In the end though, it’s all about trial and error and finding the right method(s) that are right for your style of learning. For a list of free language products, try this as a guide.

So, having weighed up the various pros and cons, considered how much time and money you have to commit, and how tech-savvy you are, it’s time to get out there and start learning!

How to learn: correspondence/distance learning

Posted on June 12th, 2009by Michelle
In Hints and Tips, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

CorrespondenceI once took a course in Esperanto by correspondence. Back in the days before email was widespread, it was a time-consuming process to send letters back and forth, and I soon lost interest.

Receiving a hand-written letter in the mail was lovely though, and the words of encouragement and tidbits of personal information helped me feel connected to both the tutor and the language. It’s a great way to learn at your own pace, and good for improving both reading and writing skills.

However, the lack of instant feedback can be frustrating, and you need to be dedicated. With set deadlines for certain pieces of work, you will need to be motivated to put aside the time to meet these. It’s all too easy to leave the work until the last minute, but by doing this you’re not maximising your chances of success!

For more detailed information on correspondence or distance learning, take a look at this article.

How to learn: the book

Posted on June 10th, 2009by Michelle
In Hints and Tips, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

Book learningLearning from a book has a similar advantage to the podcast, in that it’s very portable. Unlike the podcast though, it’s more suitable for those wishing to improve their writing and reading skills, as there is generally no spoken element apart from practicing aloud to yourself.

Although learning from a book is a flexible method – you can learn when and where you like – there is no one to ask questions of if you are struggling. Also, the book cannot correct you if you are making mistakes! Books are generally well-structured, and you can move at your own pace. If you feel you’ve mastered a section, you can quickly move on to the next.

In addition, the initial price of the book is the only cost you’re likely to bear. It’s worth doing some research before buying though, to make sure the book is the correct one for your level and what kind of skills you want to get out of it. Online book store sites often have user reviews, and this site has some reviews for a handful of languages.

Cheryl from Manchester has been learning Russian:

I’ve found my book really useful for learning the Cyrillic alphabet and can now read Russian to quite a good level. I put aside time each week to go through the next chapter, although it’s hard to stick to it sometimes as I have to say no to dinner or going out with my friends. It hasn’t really helped me with speaking skills though, so I’m trying to find someone who speaks Russian to converse with, like a language exchange.