Friday, February 27, 2015

Using Print Media to Learn a Language

Regardless of the language you're learning, you often get the same suggestions for the best ways to learn. Aside from just studying vocabulary and grammar, using media in the language is often suggested. Over the next few days, we'll be looking at how you can use various kinds of media to help you learn a foreign language, starting with print media.

A man reading a newspaper in
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's "Café in Davos".

Since most newspapers are published regularly, they are an almost limitless resource of opportunities to learn a language. Reading a newspaper in the language you're trying to learn is a great way to keep up-to-date with the news and even see differences in viewpoints. As long as you live in a moderately-sized city, you should have access to a shop that stocks foreign-language periodicals.


Just like newspapers, magazines are regularly published, albeit not as regularly as newspapers. However, magazines come in all shapes and sizes and deal with a wide range of topics (there's even an entire magazine dedicated to sheep!). You'll find learning a language much easier if you're interested in the subject being covered. Print media is great for improving your reading and comprehension skills too, as you can always look up any words you don't understand, plus pictures often help provide context to stories.


For the more advanced learner, books are a fantastic resource. When you think you've plateaued, you should pick up a book! Reading the foreign-language versions of books you've already read is a great way to challenge your comprehension and discover plenty of new words that you might not be familiar with yet!

Which is your favourite way to learn a foreign languageusing print media? Leave your hints and tips in the comments below! We'll be back on Monday with a few other forms of media that can aid your language learning adventure.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Film Club: The Oscars 2015

Since we watched the 87th Academy Awards on Sunday night, it seems only fitting that we take a look at all the wonderful nominees for the "Best Foreign Language Film" award today. While we may already know which film took home the coveted Oscar, we still think that all of the films on this list probably deserve a spot on your "films to watch" list. They're certainly at the top of ours!

Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes) - Argentina

Wild Tales is an anthology film written and directed by Argentine filmmaker Damián Szifron that features six short films that all feature vengeance as a theme. The film's diverse settings include a wedding, a small restaurant, and a highway. It has been getting great reviews and prestigious nominations from film festivals around the globe due to its rich stories that combine elements of both comedy and drama. The Spanish-language film also counts legendary Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and his younger brother Agustín as co-producers, so it's no surprise that film festivals have taken notice.

A depiction of Timbuktu, Mali from 1830.
Timbuktu - Mauritania

This film covers the brief occupation of the city of Timbuktu, Mali by the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine in 2012. While it features dark subject matter, Timbuktu is a beautiful French-language film complete with captivating traditional Malian music. It also features dialogue in other languages, including Arabic.

Tangerines (Mandariinid) - Estonia

Tangerines takes place during the War in Abkhazia that took place between 1992 and 1993 in the country of Georgia. It tells the story of Ivo, an Estonian man who has remained in the war-torn region to harvest his tangerine crop, who ends up taking in a man wounded in the conflict. The film, which features the use of the Estonian, Georgian, and Russian languages, may sound depressing, but it has been widely praised due to its funny and touching moments.

Leviathan (Левиафан) - Russia

Another Russian-language film, Leviathan tells the story of a man named Kolya who is fighting the demolition of his house by a corrupt mayor. It is a Russian adaptation of the story of an American man named Marvin Heemeyer, who went on a highly-publicized rampage with a bulldozer after disputes with city officials in 2004, but also features elements adapted from biblical stories. If you're interested in watching a riveting story that deals with contemporary social issues in Russia, then you'll want to view this winner of the "Best Foreign Language Film" award at this year's Golden Globe Awards.

Ida - Poland

Last, but certainly not least, we have Ida, a Polish film about a young woman about to take her vows to become a Catholic nun. However, she ends up on a journey to uncover her family's fate after learning that her parents, who left her during the Nazi occupation of World War II, were Jewish. In addition to winning the Oscar on Sunday night, Ida has also won "Best Film Not in the English Language" at the BAFTA Awards, as well as many other film accolades. It features the use of the Polish, French, and Latin languages.

Have you seen any of these great foreign language films? If so, what did you think of them? Do you think a different film should have been awarded the Oscar? Let us know in the comments below.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Iraq

It has been quite a while since we've investigated the linguistic diversity of a Middle Eastern country. Back in November we looked at the languages of Iran, and today we're returning to the region to learn more about Iraq, which borders it to the west.

The Official Language

For much of Iraq's history, Arabic was its sole official language. This should come as no surprise since Arabic is generally considered to be the most important language in countries where Islam is the dominant religion. The majority of Iraq's population speaks Mesopotamian Arabic, a variety of Arabic that is primarily used in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey.

In 2004, Iraq recognized another official language in its new constitution: Kurdish. This Indo-Iranian dialect continuum is spoken by Kurds, members of an ethnic group that comprises between 10 and 15% of the country's population. However, despite finally receiving official language status in Iraq, use of the Kurdish language in nearby countries such as Syria and Turkey is often discouraged or even dangerous for political reasons.

The Euphrates River
Recognized Languages

Since the adoption of its new constitution, Iraq has also begun to recognize regional languages based on the idea that every citizen should be able to educate their child in their native language. Currently, there are three recognized regional languages in Iraq: "Turkmen", "Syriac", and Armenian.

That first language is in quotation marks because what Iraqis generally refer to as "Turkmen" is not actually Turkmen, the official language of Turkmenistan that is a member of the Turkic language family. Instead, they use the name to refer to South Azeri, a variety of the closely related Azeri language (also known as Azerbaijani) that is spoken by approximately 600,000 people in Iraq.

The second language is also in quotation marks because the term Syriac is generally used to refer to a dialect of Aramaic used centuries ago that has since evolved into modern languages. The language referred to as "Syriac" by Iraqis today is more commonly known to linguists as Assyrian Neo-Aramaic. It is spoken by approximately 30,000 people in Iraq.

Finally, there's Armenian, a fascinating independent branch of the Indo-European language family. It has approximately 60,000 speakers in Iraq.

Minority Languages

Iraq is also home to many other minority languages, including Persian, Mandaic, and Shabaki. There are approximately 227,000 speakers of the Persian language in Iraq. Mandaic, a variety of the Aramaic language, is spoken by around 5,000 Iraqis. Last but certainly not least, Shabaki, the language of the Shabak people, is an Indo-Iranian language with an unknown number of native speakers.

Friday, February 20, 2015

5 Essential Archaisms in the Divergent Trilogy

Obviously I'm a bit behind on book trends, but I recently read the Divergent series by Veronica Roth and was particularly fascinated by the vocabulary used in the dystopian future it presents. Today, we're going to take a look at five key words that are essential to understanding the books. Don't worry - no spoilers lurk ahead!

If you've somehow managed to escape learning about this massive book and film phenomenon, here are the basics: this young adult series focuses on life in a futuristic, dystopian Chicago where society is divided into five distinct groups. These groups, known as "factions", consist of groups of people with similar values and aptitudes. There's a specific reason why they've structured society this way, but if you want to learn about it and the thrilling story of one of its young members, you'll just have to read the books!

The Chicago skyline as seen from Lincoln Park.
In any case, the names of these five factions are the terms that caught my attention: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. While I recognized all of these English words, they struck me as old terms that are rarely heard or read nowadays, which made me wonder how many people have learned their definitions solely from reading these books. I'm pretty sure I've only ever heard one of these words in a sentence before, and that would be "candor", as in "I appreciate your candor".

Since I've spent the past several days reading them over and over in books, I thought it might be nice to shine a spotlight on these five words to learn a bit more about their etymology and definitions. Perhaps they'll even make a comeback in English usage - it's not unheard of for a cultural phenomenon like a popular book series to influence the popular lexicon! In any case, here they are, in all their glory:

Abnegation is a noun that means "self-denial". It appeared in the English lexicon around the year 1500, and comes from the Latin verb abnegare, which means "to refuse" or "to deny".

Amity is basically the opposite of "enmity", a word we tend to hear much more frequently. This noun means "friendly relations", and made its way into English from the Old French word amitie after originating in Latin as amicus.

Candor, the most familiar of these terms, refers to the quality of being "open and honest". It was originally used in English to refer to "whiteness", since the Latin term candor referred to both "purity" and "whiteness", two concepts that are often connected in the English language. However, sometime between the 17th and 18th centuries its primary English definition shifted to focus on being candid, or honest.

Dauntless is an adjective that refers to being "fearless" and "determined". It made its way into English around 1300 from the Old French verb danter meaning "to fear". This term also originated in Latin as the verb domitare, which meant "to tame".

Erudite is also an adjective, which means "having or showing great knowledge or learning". It joined the English language in the early 15th century from the Latin word eruditus, meaning "learned" or "well-informed". You may have heard someone say the word before, and if they did, they probably were erudite themselves!

Have you read the Divergent series? What did you think of the author's use of Latin-based archaisms instead of creating new terms for her futuristic society? Were you familiar with all five of these terms before reading the books or this post? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

5 Things Languages Could Do Without

If you hadn't already guessed, I love languages. However, languages are far from perfect. If you've ever had a misunderstanding, you know what I mean. While imperfections and subtleties are part of what makes languages amazing, here are a few things that I think would make languages easier for everyone if they were removed:


This is something the English language doesn't feature, which I'm so glad about. However, many other languages do have gendered nouns. Take the beautiful French language, for example. Nouns are either masculine or feminine and singular or plural. Thanks to the concept of objects being arbitrarily designated as one gender or another, you have to remember two different words for "the", le and la, and then when something is plural, you have to use les. This also means that adjectives "agree" with nouns, forcing everyone to have to learn different adjectives depending on the noun.

Pronouns or Conjugations

These two have to go hand in hand as you can't really get rid of them both. Pronouns help you identify who's doing what in a sentence. They're quite useful when verb conjugations are similar or identical. In English, a lot of verbs have the same conjugation regardless of the pronoun used. Try conjugating the verb "to speak" in the present tense:

I speak
You speak
He/She/It speaks
We speak
You speak
They speak

Without the pronoun, you'd probably have no idea who was doing the speaking. However, Spanish doesn't have the same problem with the verb hablar.

(Yo) hablo
(Tú) hablas
(Él/Ella/Usted) habla
(Nosotros) hablamos
(Vosotros) hablaís
(Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes) hablan

The reason the pronouns are in parentheses is due to the fact that in Spanish they're not necessary and can often be omitted. Of course, if there are two other people with you and one is a guy and the other is a girl, you can clarify who you mean with the use of either él (he) or ella (she). It would seem given the latter example, that you could either have one conjugation per tense, using pronouns for clarification, or a conjugation for each pronoun, meaning you don't need to use any pronouns.


Having a whole host of different conjugations to learn just because things happen in different tenses is crazy. Especially in languages where you have several new conjugations to learn every time you learn a new tense. British Sign Language deals with tense in an interesting way, marking when events take place by the position of the sign.

Of course, this can't be done in the written form of languages, but it could be done with temporal markers that indicate when events take place. We already have words for "future" and "past", so why not just say those along with one individual tense?

Case or Syntax

Since I've been using Romance languages for examples, I'm going to use Latin as my example here. Case is interesting as I can see how useful it can be, but absolutely hate having to learn it! Case, for those who don't know, is when a word changes to match its grammatical function in a sentence. This means words have various alterations depending on their function. There are 8 cases that can be found throughout a number of Indo-European languages.

English only uses a few of these because you can generally figure out a word's function from where it appears in a sentence. So why have both? Either have an unwavering syntax that allows users of a language to know exactly what a word does without any need for several cases, or a completely free syntax in which words appear in any order but make use of an obvious case, but never both!

Silent Letters, Diphthongs, and Irregular Spellings

What the hell are these even for? How about we just have a letter for each sound and leave it at that? We would probably have to accommodate a 40-letter alphabet to do it, though...

What do you reckon? What do you think languages could do without? Is there something in a foreign language that you think your mother tongue should have? Tell us in the comments below!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Sudan

While we looked at the linguistic diversity of Poland last week, this week we're heading south. In fact, we're shifting our focus all the way south from Europe to Sudan, the third largest country in Africa.

The Official Languages

Until 2005, the sole official language of Sudan was Arabic. As you may recall, there are many different varieties of Arabic due to its widespread use across a huge geographic area, many of which are not mutually intelligible. It should come as no surprise that the variety of Arabic used in Sudan is called Sudanese Arabic. It is somewhat similar to Egyptian Arabic, but contains many loanwords from Nilo-Saharan languages that are also spoken in the region.

Sudan's newest official language is English, which was included in the country's 2005 constitution. As a result, both Arabic and English are used for official government purposes as well as throughout all levels of education in Sudan.

The Nuba Mountains in Sudan
Other Languages

In addition to its two official languages, Sudan is home to over 70 other languages. These come from a wide variety of language families. Beja, also known as Bedawi, and Hausa are the two most spoken Afro-Asiatic language in Sudan. There are nearly a million speakers of Beja in the country's Red Sea area, while there are approximately 80,000 speakers of Hausa, an important language in Niger and Nigeria.

Other languages spoken in Sudan include Fula and Domari. Fula, also known as Fulani, is spoken by approximately 90,000 people in Sudan, as well as significant populations in Senegal, Cameroon, and Guinea. The number of Domari speakers is unknown, but you may recall that we mentioned this Indo-Aryan language used by the widespread Dom ethnic group in our country profile of Egypt.

Finally, we must mention a few important members of the Nilo-Saharan language family that are used in Sudan. The Fur language is spoken by around 500,000 people in western Sudan, while the Ama language is spoken by about 70,000 in the Nuba mountains. The Nubian languages are also spoken in northern Sudan, including the Nidob variety, which is used in the region near the Malha volcanic crater.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Language and Culture in Sci Fi: Elysium

As part of my ongoing look at how science fiction portrays languages and culture, I decided to revisit the Neill Blomkamp film Elysium. While many people I've spoken to didn't like the film, I did enjoy it. However, I do agree that it is nowhere near as good as District 9. In this film, Blomkamp follows the same theme as his previous work: taking a social issue and looking it through a science fiction lens. This time, the film focuses on the issues of immigration, segregation, and health care.

The events of Elysium take place in the 22nd century, where a load of posh people live in an "ideal" society on a space station and habitat called Elysium. The rest of humanity lives in squalor with limited access to work and health care. The film's protagonist, Max Da Costa (played by Matt Damon), lives in future Los Angeles where everyone lives in slums and speaks both Spanish and English. Max likes to randomly throw Spanish sentences into his speech when talking with his peers. That said, he did seem to speak much more Spanish as a child when he wasn't being played by Matt Damon...

Aboard the space station Elysium, however, the wealthy business owners and social elite speak both English and French. Last week, we discussed how French gave English many of its "sophisticated" words. It seems that Neil Blomkamp decided that the addition of the French language would help portray an elitist society of monstrous and heartless millionaires.

Los Angeles skyline
Why choose French for the upper classes and Spanish for the slums? You'd have to ask Blomkamp or someone else involved in the film's production to know for sure, but it's not too hard to guess. As we mentioned in that post last week, English words of French origin tend to be of higher prestige than those of Anglo-Saxon origin, due to various historical reasons. However, it seems pretty clear that French prestige isn't just limited to English words, but also expands into many other areas of society.

Just think about how often you hear people gushing about the superiority of French cuisine and literature... in English-speaking societies, Victor Hugo and bouillabaisse tend to come up in discussion much more frequently than Miguel de Cervantes and paella, especially amongst the elite. Perhaps it is connected to the same historic reasons that French terms came to dominate the English language. 

The reverence for all things French even seems to extend to the language itself. It's frequently called the language of love, and its speakers are also often said to have one of the world's sexiest accents. While there are certainly those that love the Spanish language too, it just never seems to have the same prestige as French, despite the fact that it is spoken by an immensely larger percentage of the world's population. Perhaps that's why French was chosen as the language of Elysium's elite... Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, so it would be far too common, whereas the less-spoken French language would help to distinguish its speakers and make them seem even more refined.

What did you think of Elysium? Did you enjoy the use of multiple languages? Do you agree with our theory as to why French was chosen as the language of the elite? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.