Archive for April, 2012

The learning paradox

Posted on April 30th, 2012by Michelle
In Language acquisition, Research | Leave a Comment »

It’s incredibly frustrating when you grasp for a word or phrase in your target language but it’s just out of reach. Your teacher won’t help, your classmates look blank, and you’re slowly getting more red in the face as your mind struggles to find those elusive words.

Don’t worry though – it’s good for you! Researchers at the National Institute of Education of Singapore found that struggling to learn new information leads to better recall later. Traditionally teachers will guide students and support them in their learning. The learning paradox shows that when this support is taken away, students may not be able to come up with the correct solution, but have learned more in the process.

The apparent struggles of the floundering group have what Kapur calls a “hidden efficacy”: they lead people to understand the deep structure of problems, not simply their correct solutions. When these students encounter a new problem of the same type on a test, they’re able to transfer the knowledge they’ve gathered more effectively than those who were the passive recipients of someone else’s expertise. (Source: Time)

So what does this mean for language learners? Well, perhaps next time you’re cursing your teacher for setting you some difficult homework, consider the longer term benefits – they’re probably doing it to help you become more comfortable with your target language.

New hope for Welsh?

Posted on April 29th, 2012by Michelle
In Indigenous languages, Language acquisition, Welsh | Leave a Comment »

There is renewed hope for the future of the Welsh language following the Welsh language commissioner’s first speech earlier this month.

Meri Huws is the first Welsh Language Commissioner, and her duties include promoting and facilitating use of the language, conducting inquiries and working towards Welsh being equal with English. Huws’ first speech highlighted these duties as she spoke of her vision that Welsh speakers have the confidence to use the language and trust that any prejudice would be rectified by law.

About 21% of the population of Wales speak Welsh, according to the Welsh government. There is a wide range of views on the future of the language, with some welcoming the Commissioner’s policies, others seeing them as a burden on small businesses or that Welsh is a dying language not worth saving.

The appointment of Meri Huws may herald an increase in the number of language commissioners across the UK, with Scotland and Northern Ireland watching closely; there is an argument that commissioners should also be established in England to help protect minority languages.

(Source: Guardian)

Swahili in Chinese

Posted on April 28th, 2012by Michelle
In Chinese, Swahili, Translation | Leave a Comment »

Just last week I posted about a man who had made it his life’s work to produce a Yiddish-Japanese dictionary.

Now it’s revealed a Chinese man is compiling a Swahili-Chinese dictionary. Twenty-six year old Shen Yuning announced the plan on his blog last December, and has so far completed nearly 5,000 words.

Yuning is studying African languages at university in Germany, but is currently an exchange student in Kenya. He works up to 15 hours a day on the dictionary, and plans to include 25,000 words by August. The words included come from interaction with locals as well as Yuning’s study of books, newspapers and television.

Yuning’s friends say he is very interested in linguistics and can talk about word meanings for hours. He hopes that his dictionary will help international workers:

There is an increasing exchange of labor between Africa and China, but many Chinese workers here can speak only Chinese, while locals only speak Swahili and poor English,” said Shen, an exchange student at Kenya’s Kenyatta University.

“Of the several African languages I’ve learned, Swahili is my best,” Shen said, adding that Swahili is also the most important language in East African countries including Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, with more than 80 million speakers.

He hopes the dictionary will be helpful for Chinese workers in East Africa.

“There are free online translation tools, but they are rubbish when it comes to the translation of African language,” Shen said.

“Moreover, most Chinese workers in Africa don’t have easy access to the Internet, while a dictionary is portable and much more convenient to use.” (Source: China Daily)

Yiddish in Japan

Posted on April 22nd, 2012by Michelle
In Japanese, Translation, Yiddish | 1 Comment »

Yiddish is most associated with Jewish people, particularly the Ashkenazi Jews. It has been translated into many languages, but until now not a non-European one.

One man has changed this through his life’s work. Kazuo Ueda is a Japanese linguist who originally specialised in German before teaching himself Yiddish. He is now Japan’s leading scholar in the language, and several years ago published a Japanese-Yiddish dictionary.

But why did Ueda become so devoted?

He stumbled upon the Jewish language while reading Franz Kafka, himself a fan of Yiddish theater.

Ueda was immediately smitten with the language that is written in Hebrew letters, but is a hybrid of German, Hebrew, Russian and other languages.

“Yiddish was full of puzzles for me,” Ueda says. “That’s what I love about it. Reading sentences in those strange letters — it’s like deciphering a code.” (Source: NPR)

Perhaps language learners can take something from this story – to learn a language well requires a little bit of love.

David Crystal’s English in 100 Words

Posted on April 20th, 2012by Michelle
In English, Etymology | 1 Comment »

Last October, I highlighted the linguist David Crystal’s new book, The Story of English in 100 Words.

It appears the book has just come out in America, as Crystal has given a fairly lengthy interview to NPR. You can listen to the interview and read some extracts over at NPR’s website. My favourite extract is this, about the origins of ‘OK’.

On the origins of ‘OK’

“One of the reasons why I love it is because of the point that Roger has made, and that is that it has had so many guesses for its origins. I stopped counting at 50.

“I think we do now know where OK comes from. There was a great American lexicographer called Allen Walker Read, who many years ago did a huge study and found out that the word ‘OK’ first appeared in the 1830s … in a newspaper in Boston. Because at the time, there was a vogue for inventing humorous abbreviations using initial letters.

“And OK came, at that point in time, from ‘oll korrect,’ … O-L-L for ‘all,’ and K-O-R-R-E-C-T for ‘correct.’ Now, there were dozens of other abbreviations in the Boston newspaper at the time, and most of them had disappeared. But this one didn’t. OK stayed. And the reason is it had a completely fresh boost of life the following year, when it began to be used as a slogan in the U.S. elections in 1840.”

Being British in fantasyland

Posted on April 18th, 2012by Michelle
In Accents, Culture | Leave a Comment »

The BBC has been investigating an important issue of our time: Namely, why are fantasy world accents British?

A range of British accents have been used in movies, particularly for the stereotypical baddie or upper class people in period dramas. And there’s always the Bond films. But why do fantasy characters speak with our accents?

Well, it seems to be partly because of our friends across the pond.

“It’s such an ingrained part of fantasy and science fiction that I’m a little surprised when those kind of characters don’t speak in British accents,” says Matt Zoller Seitz, TV critic for New York magazine and

“In the fantasy realm they could have any kind of accent but British does seem to be the default.”

A British accent is sufficiently exotic to transport the viewer to a different reality, argues Seitz, while still being comprehensible to a global audience.

The neutral Mid-Western accent is still what counts as “normal” in the US dominated entertainment industry. A British accent provides a “splash of otherness”, when set alongside it. (Source: BBC News)

Read the full article here.

Irish third most used language

Posted on April 15th, 2012by Michelle
In French, Irish, Polish, Research | Leave a Comment »

In the first report to be published from last year’s Census, it has been revealed that Irish is the third most spoken language in Ireland.

Census figures show that more people speak Polish (119,526) at home than speak Irish (almost 82,600). French is spoken by 56,430 people. The number of people who answered “yes” to the question “Can you speak Irish?” increased from 2006, to 1.77 million in April 2011. More women identify themselves as Irish speakers than men.

Interestingly, Irish doesn’t seem to be catching on with young people, with one in three 10 -19 year olds answering “no” to the question “Can you speak Irish?” Just over 12% of the population speak Irish on a daily basis in the education system only though. It seems as if Irish is seen as a language for school use only – what can be done to combat this?

(Sources: RTE and Central Statistics Office report)

Loose or lose?

Posted on April 14th, 2012by Michelle
In English, Words | Leave a Comment »

In English there are many words that look similar but have different meanings. Brought and bought for example, or lose and loose.

A single letter marks the difference in meaning in each of these four words. Let’s look at lose and loose, as I’ve recently seen a lot of examples of misuse of these words. In particular people seem to write loose when they really mean lose.

Loose is an adjective, and means not tight or constricted; free. Examples include “my shoes feel really loose today” and “the dog got loose”. When someone tells you to “loosen up”, they mean for you to relax, chill out.

Lose, however, means to be without something through theft, accident, etc. Examples include “I lost my wallet” and “I lost my job”. When someone tells you to “get lost”, they mean for you to go away!

There’s an easy way to remember the difference – just think that “lose has lost the extra o”!