Archive for September, 2011

Jackspeak collection

Posted on September 30th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, Slang | Leave a Comment »

Naval slang words and phrases are known as “Jackspeak”, and a collection of these has just been published.

It’s surprising how many of slang phrases have made it into modern English, including “running the gauntlet”. For the past 40 years one man has been collecting the words and phrases coined by the Royal Navy, which have been published in a new book. Rick Jolly OBE is a former Surgeon Captain in the Royal Marines who served in the Falklands War and was decorated by both the British and Argentineans for his service.

His years on board ship, both in the marines and later on cruise liners, have given him a passion for slang.

Part of its charm, he feels, comes from its exclusivity, because the terminology used is only understood by fellow naval comrades.

“For instance, this description of a crusty old sailor’s toothache needs some nautical knowledge, but then has a perfect and startling clarity: ‘Tis from the aftermost grinder aloft on the starboard side…’,” he says.

He believes the humour of nautical slang is an essential coping strategy for people dealing with the multiple uncertainties and dangers of war.

“During my own 25 years in a dark blue uniform, I had several opportunities to confirm that fact,” he explains.

“In addition, as a direct result of my misunderstanding of a term used by one of my Royal Marine patients, I set out in 1971 to make a new collection of slang terms.

“From the start, I tried to take each word or phrase in context, giving an example of its usage as well as a definition.” (Source: BBC News)

Some examples of Jackspeak:

“Green Death” – 3rd Commando Brigade, Royal Marines
“Snotty” – midshipman
“Order of the Golden Toecap” – redundancy
“Whitehall Puzzle Palace” – Ministry of Defence

Fry’s Planet Word

Posted on September 27th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, Words | Leave a Comment »

Stephen Fry’s looking into languages again, with a new TV show called Fry’s Planet Word on the BBC.

The first episode was broadcast on Sunday but is also available on BBC iPlayer. The five-part series will see Fry exploring various languages and come “to understand how we learn it, write it, sometimes lose it, why it defines us to the very core of our being and can make us laugh, cry, tear our hair out and simply inspire us.”

Episode one seeks to discover the origins of human language and why we are the only species to have this ability. It includes Fry taking part in a Klingon version of Hamlet – definitely worth a watch!

Tom Stoppard speaks up for languages

Posted on September 25th, 2011by Michelle
In Language acquisition, Russian | Leave a Comment »

Playwright Sir Tom Stoppard has presented to a committee of MSPs on the subject of languages.

In a petition, he told the committee that more needs to be done to protect lesser taught languages such as Polish, Russian and Czech. The teaching of these languages in Scottish institutions is currently under threat, with Glasgow University considering axing the teaching of five languages.

Sir Tom was born in Czechoslovakia and came to Britain as a refugee. He told the committee:

“For me the reputation for teaching language in general, and East European languages most particularly, gave Glasgow University, and by reflection the country, a distinction.

“It made it a place to be recommended everywhere.”

He warned: “It is on its way out, it will be gone.” (Source: BBC News)

Official letters will now be sent by the committee to Glasgow University and the Scottish government to ask what can be done about the decline.

Are you learning one of the “lesser taught” languages?

European Day of Languages

Posted on September 24th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, Education, Events | Leave a Comment »

© Council of Europe, Strasbourg

Happy European Day of Languages! This year the EDL celebrates its 10th anniversary.

The EDL was initiated by the Council of Europe, who promote plurilingualism for all people across the continent. The Council comprises of 47 member states, with over 300 languages spoken!

Everyone is encouraged to participate – you can find an event near you on the website. There are also materials to promote the events, like the poster in the picture to the left. Plus you can self-evaluate your language skills with a fun game!

What will you do for European Day of Languages?

Embarrassing mistakes

Posted on September 18th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, Hints and Tips, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

We’ve all made mistakes in our target languages, some of them embarrassing. The Johnson blog at The Economist asked readers to share their most depressing moments on the path to fluency – here are a few gems:

Hydriotaphia - I also have a Japanese story. Having just returned from a year of intense language study, my girlfriend, two other Japanese-proficient friends and I decided to order in Japanese at an Izakaya in NYC. Of course, having been served our oden (if I recall correctly), I tried to ask our waitress whether there was any spicy mustard (karashi) available. Unfortunately, I in fact asked her whether she had a boyfriend (kareshi). Neither my girlfriend nor the waitress were pleased with me.

Faedrus - One of the more famous mistakes English speakers make when learning to speak Spanish is to use the term “embarasada” – which means “pregnant” – when trying to say “embarrassed”. I had been speaking Spanish for about 15 years when I actually made that mistake at a dinner party, although I certainly knew better. I was – to say the least – embarrassed after I said it. But actually I just felt like an idiot.

My most embarrassing moment so far was in Spain, when I was buying something in a clothes store. The transaction went well until the assistant asked me in Spanish if I’d like a bag. I had no idea what she asked (although I suppose I could have guessed in the context) and my brain went completely blank – I couldn’t even say “sorry, I don’t speak Spanish”! The pressure really got to me as there was a queue behind me. Eventually the assistant guessed that I spoke no Spanish and waved a bag at me whilst repeating her question. As soon as I’d paid I escaped from the store very quickly!

Like Johnson’s writer and many of the commenters though, I find that native speakers often appreciate you making an effort in their language. Try not to take yourself too seriously, and laugh with the locals if you make a mistake!

Chat robots

Posted on September 17th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, English, Japanese, Language acquisition, Technology | Leave a Comment »

A Japanese company claims to have invented the first robots that can chat with people.

Specifically designed for English language learners, the “chatbots” are accessed online. The online characters use high-speed speech recognition technology which allows them to interact in real time with students. Students can also participate in the chatbots’ virtual world.
Interestingly, the level of conversation can be adjusted depending on the student’s needs, and dialogue also appears on screen in English.

According to the Telegraph:

The “chatbots” are currently targeting Japanese students learning English however the company is planning to expand internationally.
The concept was inspired by the lack of opportunity for many Japanese students unable to afford costly lessons to practice speaking native English, according to SpeakGlobal.

“The percentage of Japanese who can actually speak English freely is in the low single digits,” added the company.

“This is due to the lack of opportunities to practice speaking with native English speakers. While many English conversation schools and online schools exist, some simply cannot afford this luxury.” (Source: Telegraph)

I’m not sure how I’d feel about interacting with a “chatbot”, but I suppose it is less scary than practicing your language skills with a live person – robots can’t judge you after all (yet!).

Why do foreign language speakers talk so fast?

Posted on September 11th, 2011by Michelle
In Spanish, Speech | Leave a Comment »

Something that has always struck me about Spanish speakers is that they talk so fast in their native language. I’ll normally catch the beginning of a sentence, but the rest of it is lost as they talk at what seems like a million miles per second.

I’m not alone in thinking this. An interesting study just published in the journal Language has attempted to answer the question of why some languages sound faster than others. Researchers from the Universite de Lyon recruited native speakers of seven common languages – English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish – and one uncommon one, Vietnamese. The speakers were recorded reading different texts, and the recordings used to analyse language.

What they found was that some languages have a higher “information density” than others. English has a high information density and is spoken at an average rate. Spanish has a low density so is spoken much faster (about a syllable per second). Japanese is even faster. The differences mean that in the same period of time, each language will convey around the same amount of information.

“A tradeoff is operating between a syllable-based average information density and the rate of transmission of syllables,” the researchers wrote. “A dense language will make use of fewer speech chunks than a sparser language for a given amount of semantic information.” In other words, your ears aren’t deceiving you: Spaniards really do sprint and Chinese really do stroll, but they will tell you the same story in the same span of time. (Source:

The study is fascinating, but it doesn’t make spoken Spanish any easier for me to decipher!

The Noun Project

Posted on September 8th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

The Noun Project is a great idea with a simple mission: “sharing, celebrating and enhancing the world’s visual language”.

The project “collects, organizes and adds to the highly recognizable symbols that form the world’s visual language, so we may share them in a fun and meaningful way” with the aim of being able to communicate across cultures through visual imagery. All the symbols featured on their site are free, as the founders are excited by the idea of being able to communicate through simple representations as well as their artistic merits.

In August the project hosted an “Iconathon” to design symbols for concepts of food and nutrition. The idea behind it was to “facilitate better and easier communication between communities and the food organizations working to improve consumption of healthy, nutritious, locally grown foods”. Whilst not all the symbols are yet available on their website, the project does have symbols for both cake and cupcake already!

If you’re interested, take a look at their website, or follow @NounProject on Twitter.