Archive for January, 2012

English is a positive language

Posted on January 31st, 2012by Michelle
In English, Research | Leave a Comment »

Reading or watching the news may make it hard to believe, but new research shows that English is biased towards being positive.

Researchers from the University of Vermont gathered billions of words from sources including Google Books and looked at the top 5,000 words from each source. They found that happier words cropped up more frequently.

Why is this? “It’s not to say that everything is fine and happy,” Dodds says. “It’s just that language is social.”

In contrast to traditional economic theory, which suggests people are inherently and rationally selfish, a wave of new social science and neuroscience data shows something quite different: that we are a pro-social storytelling species. As language emerged and evolved over the last million years, positive words, it seems, have been more widely and deeply engrained into our communications than negative ones.

“If you want to remain in a social contract with other people, you can’t be a…,” well, Dodds here used a word that is rather too negative to be fit to print — which makes the point. (Source: Science Daily)

I wonder what other languages are as ‘happy’ as English?

UK universities concerned by lack of language skills

Posted on January 28th, 2012by Michelle
In Education, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

Top UK universities are emphasising the importance of language learning by requiring applicants to have a GCSE in a modern language.

In some counties two out of three children leave school without a language GCSE, with the study of French, German and Spanish “dying out” in some areas. UCL is this year set to become the first university to require applicants to have a modern language GCSE.

“We believe that knowledge of a modern foreign language and the possession of intercultural skills are an integral part of a 21st-century education,” a spokesman for the university said.

Entries for French in English schools have dropped by 59 per cent since 2001, from 347,000 to 141,800, while even Spanish and Italian — subjects that have remained relatively healthy in recent years — lost ground last year. The uptake of German has also dropped by more than half in the past decade and, for the first time, it has fallen behind Spanish.

The one silver lining has been the rapid growth of minority languages such as Russian and Urdu, although the figures are still relatively small. (Source: The Times)

Perhaps this importance should be stressed to school children when they’re selecting subjects to study at GCSE level.

Extraordinary language learners?

Posted on January 25th, 2012by Michelle
In Culture, Language acquisition | 1 Comment »

There’s a good review over at The Economist of a new book on hyperpolyglots – Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners by Michael Erard.

A hyperpolyglot is someone who speaks a lot of languages, although there is debate over how many ‘a lot’ constitutes. The term was apparently coined by the linguist Richard Hudson, and derives from the word ‘polyglot’, meaning someone who can speak multiple languages.

Erard defines a hyperpolyglot as someone who speaks eleven languages or more. Yet whilst many have claimed to be hyperpolyglots, hard evidence is more elusive.

Ziad Fazah, raised in Lebanon and now living in Brazil, once held the Guinness world record for 58 languages. But when surprised on a Chilean television show by native speakers, he utterly flubbed questions in Finnish, Mandarin, Farsi and Russian (including “What day is it today?” in Russian), a failure that lives in infamy on YouTube. Perhaps he was a fraud; perhaps he simply had a miserable day. Hyperpolyglots must warm up or “prime” their weaker languages, with a few hours’ or days’ practice, to use them comfortably. Switching quickly between more than around six or seven is near-impossible even for the most gifted. (Source: The Economist)

The book certainly looks interesting, and Erard makes a discovery familiar to many language learners – Cardinal Mezzofanti of Bologna, birth date 1774, used flash cards.

Not awesome?

Posted on January 22nd, 2012by Michelle
In Culture, English, Words | Leave a Comment »

Like many others, I’m probably guilty of overusing the word “awesome”. It’s a good thing I don’t live in LA (although I would love the sunshine), because one man is on a mission to ban the word.

British-born but LA based poet and journalist John Tottenham has launched CPSOA – the Campaign to Stamp Out Awesome. His headquarters is a bookstore which he is trying to turn into an “awesome-free zone”. Tottenham argues that the word has been so overused it has been rendered meaningless.

Tottenham already is looking toward other cliches to conquer.

“Other words will be addressed once we get rid of awesome,” Tottenham promises. “‘It’s all good.’ That’s definitely crying out to be done.” (Source: LA Times)

Do you see the problem with awesome? Or is Tottenham just a grouch?

Do you speak the Queen’s English?

Posted on January 21st, 2012by Michelle
In Accents, English | Leave a Comment »

Being mistaken for a local is seen by many language learners as the ultimate in being fluent in their target language. This involves learning not just the language but the accent to go with it.

It’s not just language learners who want to ‘perfect’ their accent though – apparently there’s a rise in the number of British people taking elocution lessons. Many feel that their regional accent is holding them back in the workplace or hindering getting a job.

In what we like to think of as an increasingly classless society, and at a time when the distinctive regional accents are gradually being melded and lost, it seems a shame that there are so many people anxious to lose their accents. “I get a lot of requests from people looking to reduce their regional accents, Midwinter says. “I think as long as people speak clearly, if they have an accent, that’s OK, as long as they can be understood. But there are times when a voice with less of an accent might be an advantage, for example at an interview, or if you are speaking to a large group of people, when it helps to have a voice that is loud and clear. Most people have very specific needs that they want to correct. Very few come to me and say, ‘I want to speak like the Queen.’” (Source: The Independent)

I have the opposite issue – being the lone southerner in an office full of northerners I often wish that my accent was from somewhere else! The Yorkshire-born people I work with seem particularly proud of their accents, and I can’t imagine them taking elocution lessons. We should celebrate this diversity!

Ooh, mademoiselle!

Posted on January 14th, 2012by Michelle
In Culture, French, Words | Leave a Comment »

Wait – that should be madame.

A town in France has banned the word “mademoiselle” (the French word for “miss”), instead saying that all women should be addressed as “madame”.

In Cesson-Sevigne, official documents no longer say “mademoiselle” as it is argued that women should not be defined by their marital status. But when women face bigger issues, why does this matter?

Professor of applied linguistics Dr Penelope Gardner-Chloros, of Birkbeck University, says that a society’s language – and how it chooses its terms of address – can reflect deeply ingrained attitudes.

“[Language] it is a sensitive indicator of the distinctions that a society makes – so if it is important to know if a woman is married or not, then it will be indicated in language,” she explains.

“‘Mademoiselle’ was a courteous title and there was even a male equivalent – ‘Mondamoiseau’, though it was very rarely used,” and later fell out of use completely. (The word “damoiseau” can be translated as “squire”.) (Source: BBC News)

English enclave in China?

Posted on January 12th, 2012by Michelle
In Chinese, Culture, English | Leave a Comment »

Ever wanted to visit China but fear the language barrier? You’re in luck!

In one of the oddest pieces of news I’ve seen in a while, it’s reported in China’s People’s Daily that a Beijing suburb is to build a European style town where no one will be allowed to speak Chinese. To be built within 5 years, the town will have an English castle and create “the illusion of being abroad”.

The local mayor, Wang Haichen, said one courtyard has been turned into a boutique hotel, and promised to transform Miyun County into an international tourism and leisure attraction.

We shall have to wait and see how successful this is!

Banished words

Posted on January 8th, 2012by Michelle
In Culture, Words | Leave a Comment »

Happy New Year everyone!

Hope your holidays were great and you’ve made some achievable new year resolutions (language learning-related of course!).

Let’s kick off with some English words you definitely shouldn’t be using this year, with Lake Superior State University’s List of Banished Words:

1. Amazing
2. Baby bump
3. Shared sacrifice
4. Occupy
5. Blowback
6. Man cave
7. The new normal
8. Pet parent
9. Win the future
10. Trickeration
11. Ginormous
12. Thank you in advance

These are pretty America-centric, particularly “trickeration” (it’s a term used by American football analysts apparently). I definitely have to agree with “baby bump” though – it’s so cutesy I can’t stand it!

Which words would you banish?