Archive for December, 2009

A final list

Posted on December 31st, 2009by Michelle
In English, Slang, Words | Leave a Comment »

A final list (for this year): the New York Times Buzzwords of 2009.

A fashionable word, a buzzword is used to impress rather than inform. The words of 2009 are unlikely to become part of the popular language.

Particularly of the moment is the Twilight-derived phrase “drive it like a Cullen”, referring to the series’ Cullen family and their penchant for fast cars.

Other entries include:

Undue worry in response to swine flu. Includes unnecessary acts like removing nonessential kisses from Mexican telenovelas and the mass slaughter of pigs in Egypt.

crash blossom
A headline that can be misconstrued, like “Shark Attacks Puzzle Experts.” Will Shortz is not in jeopardy; the sharks are just confounding scientists.

I’mma let you finish
Part of Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards, a widely popular joke meme on the Internet.

swine flu party

A gathering held so people can be infected by a mild form of swine flu, in theory creating antibodies against more dangerous forms. Such a practice is universally discouraged by doctors.

My favourite buzzword (although it’s not on the list) has to be:

Term used by $300-an-hour consultants when $5 words, such as reword, rephrase or rewrite, would work just as well. “I think we can relanguage that to be more effective.” (Source:

I’ll definitely be using that in 2010. What’s your buzzword of 2009?

Happy Christmas!

Posted on December 24th, 2009by Michelle
In Arabic, English, French, German, Hints and Tips, Italian, Japanese, Language acquisition, Mandarin, Portugese, Spanish | Leave a Comment »

Santa and childYesterday I posted about Christmas songs in different languages, and now it’s time to wish you a very happy Christmas, again in a few different languages! So….

Miilaad Majiid (Arabic), Joyeux Noël (French), Frohe Weinachten (German), Buon Natale (Italian), Meri Kurisumasu (Japanese), Shèng dàn kuài lè (Mandarin), Feliz Natal (Portugese), Feliz Navidad (Spanish), and finally Merry Christmas (UK)!

Try this Omniglot page for more translations in more languages, including some audio recordings.

From all of us at Language Museum, we wish you a safe and happy Christmas. See you in the New Year!

Christmassy language learning

Posted on December 23rd, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, English, Events, Hints and Tips, Language acquisition, Spanish, te reo Maori | Leave a Comment »

Christmas is pretty ubiquitous in the Western world, with Christmas songs being especially difficult to avoid.

Having spent the last few Christmases overseas, I’ve been interested to hear songs in different languages. For example, in New Zealand there are Maori versions of many traditional carols, such as Märie te pö (Silent Night). Another popular favourite is A Pukeko in a Ponga Tree (sung to the tune of The Twelve Days of Christmas).

In Spain, carols are called villancicos. As well as many songs that have been translated from English, traditional Spanish villancicos include Campana Sobre Campana. Another more modern popular song is Feliz Navidad by Jose Feliciano.

Songs are a great way to pick up new vocabulary, and this is a great way to get into the festive spirit as well as learning more about cultural aspects of your chosen language.

My favourite Christmas song is I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day by Wizzard. What’s yours?

You donut!

Posted on December 22nd, 2009by Michelle
In Events, Translation, Words | Leave a Comment »

Jelly DonutSo as we near the end of the year, there are a lot of awards and ‘top ten’ lists everywhere. We’ve already seen that the Word of the Year 2009 is either unfriend or Twitter depending on who you choose to believe, but more amusing (for me) is the recent announcement of the First Annual Jelly Donut Awards.

Never heard of them? Well, an American translation company has decided to award the donuts to the top 5 real translation and interpreting errors of the year. The name is in honour of John F. Kennedy’s pronouncement “Ich bin ein Berliner”, widely mistranslated as “I am a jelly donut”.

In first place, in a great example of being very careful about the words you choose, a high-level meeting between US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov became an international joke – all because of a button.

Look at the rest of the top 5 here.

Is your language the most difficult?

Posted on December 19th, 2009by Michelle
In Chinese, English, Language acquisition, Spanish | Leave a Comment »

Everyone seems to think their native language is more difficult than everyone else’s. But is it really?

People are fond of stating that English is a difficult language to learn, with all its many idiosyncrasies. Currently trying to wrap my head around Spanish, I’m starting to think it’s more difficult – for a start they use genders, which we don’t in English.

The idea of languages being ‘difficult’ to learn surely has more to do with perception than reality. For native English speakers, Chinese would seem difficult as it has many different tones, which are unfamiliar. The unfamiliar is often a source of bemusement and fear.

This article in The Economist explores the idea of languages being ‘difficult’ and concludes that Tuyuca, a language of the eastern Amazon, is the hardest:

It has a sound system with simple consonants and a few nasal vowels, so is not as hard to speak as Ubykh or !Xóõ. Like Turkish, it is heavily agglutinating, so that one word, hóabãsiriga means “I do not know how to write.” Like Kwaio, it has two words for “we”, inclusive and exclusive. The noun classes (genders) in Tuyuca’s language family (including close relatives) have been estimated at between 50 and 140. Some are rare, such as “bark that does not cling closely to a tree”, which can be extended to things such as baggy trousers, or wet plywood that has begun to peel apart.

Most fascinating is a feature that would make any journalist tremble. Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wi means that “the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyi means “the boy played soccer (I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.

What’s the most difficult language you’ve come across?

A whistling language

Posted on December 13th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, Silbo Gomero, Spanish | Leave a Comment »

Man whistling Silbo GomeroI’m coming to the end of my time here in the Canary Islands, and I thought it would be interesting to highlight one of the many interesting things about the islands – the language known as Silbo Gomero.

Silbo Gomero is unusual as it is a form of whistled Spanish. Silbo comes from the Spanish verb silbar meaning to whistle. Speakers are known as Silbadores.

Used on the island of La Gomera to communicate over long distances, it’s uncertain when and where the language originated. It’s known that Silbo was used when the Spanish conquered the island in the 15th Century, and experts think it may have originated in Africa.

The use of Silbo went into decline in the late 20th Century with the introduction of modern technologies – the telephone meant that whistling was no longer needed. However, the Canaries government saw the importance of the language and introduced it in to schools, meaning that today around 3,000 of the island’s 18,000 strong population can ‘speak’ Silbo.

It’s not just a case of whistling a tune though – the language has only four vowels and four consonants from which more than 4000 words can be expressed. Meaning is derived from tone and context, and the technique used to whistle is very important.

Wondering what Silbo sounds like? Watch this video on the island, narrated entirely in the whistling language (with Spanish subtitles).

Trying out languages – 37 of them!

Posted on December 11th, 2009by Michelle
In French, Language acquisition, Spanish | 2 Comments »

For many people, choosing which language to learn is a simple decision. It comes from necessity (business or moving to a country that speaks the language), or a particular interest.

But what if you’re interested in a lot of languages?

Well, you could emulate one man who has decided to try out 37 different languages to find the one that is “perfect” for him. Keith Brooks began his project in December 2008, and has so far covered 29 languages and is on to his 30th, Turkish.

The languages he is testing are pretty diverse – Romanian, Azeri and Xhosa along with more popular ones such as Spanish and French. His blog follows his learning progress and is a worthwhile read if you’re interested in any of the languages – he provides a lot of information about their history and usage along with personal impressions of what the language is like for him.

Watch this video and hear what Brooks has to say about the project, in his own words.

Subtitles aid language learning

Posted on December 10th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, German, Hints and Tips, Japanese, Language acquisition, Research, Spanish | Leave a Comment »

Yesterday I posted about a language, Na’vi, that was created for a movie.

Invented languages aren’t the only ones you can learn from films though – they’re a great way to improve your skills in your chosen language, be it Spanish, German or Japanese.

There’s a huge range of movies out there in every genre, so there’s something to interest everyone – from big budget Hollywood blockbusters to Japanese anime flicks. Sometimes the accents are a problem though, or perhaps the words are too unfamiliar to completely follow the plot.

That’s where subtitles become useful. A new study has shown that second-language listening ability can be improved by watching movies with subtitles in the second language. The research, published in the online science journal PLoS One, shows that foreign subtitles can help with speech perception, whilst native language subtitles may hinder this. The written word appears to help the learner perceive the speech more accurately as they can draw on previous knowledge of similar words.

So, next time you’re watching a foreign language movie, why not try switching the subtitles?

A new movie language

Posted on December 9th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, Invented languages, Words | 1 Comment »

New words are generally formed out of necessity – the need to communicate a new object or idea.

Whole new languages are much rarer. So it’s interesting that a whole new language has been created for a movie.

A linguistics professor at the University of Southern California has done just that, for James Cameron’s forthcoming film, Avatar. Working from the basis of a few words provided by Cameron, Paul Frommer created the Na’vi language that now consists of over 1,000 words as well as its own rules , structure and sound system.

The language is spoken by aliens from the planet Pandora, although the professor was restrained by the human actors who had to voice his creation. As well as words, Frommer added ejectives, sounds that are made in languages around the world. The finished language apparently sounds to some like an African language, to others like Japanese – no one language is predominant but Cameron hopes it sounds musical, not harsh like the famous invented language Klingon.

The professor hopes Na’vi will catch on and followers will speak the language, much like Star Trek fans do with Klingon. How successful the language becomes I suppose rests on how much people like Avatar. We shall see.

Read the full article on Paul Frommer here.

Multilingualism a brain boost?

Posted on December 7th, 2009by Michelle
In Language acquisition, Research | Leave a Comment »

Multilingual signThere are many benefits to speaking more than one language – from the ability to communicate with more people to increased cultural awareness.

Now scientists have discovered that multilingualism can increase your brain power. A new study from the European Commission has found that the ability to speak multiple languages can be beneficial to many areas of the human brain.

David Marsh, specialized planner at the Continuing Professional Development Centre of Jyväskylä University, who coordinated the international research team behind the study, says that especially the research conducted within neurosciences offers an increasing amount of strong evidence of versatile knowledge of languages being beneficial for the usage of an individual’s brain.

“The research report brings forth six main areas where multilingualism and hence the mastery of complex processes of thought seem to put people in advantage. These include learning in general, complex thinking and creativity, mental flexibility, interpersonal and communication skills, and even a possible delay in the onset of age-related mental diminishment later in life,” Marsh relates. (Source: Science Daily)

Interestingly, it seems that the benefits may not be limited to just fluent bi- and multi- linguals. The research found that even beginners in a new language may have altered electrical currents in the brain. Read the full article at Science Daily.