Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The CEFR and Standardising Language Learning

If you speak a foreign language and live within the EU, you may be familiar with the Central European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment, which is usually referred to as CEFR.

The framework is an initiative that for the last two decades has aimed to establish standardised levels for gauging a language user's proficiency in any given foreign language throughout the EU. The most widely-recognised feature of the CEFR is the letter and number classification given as a reference to language speakers.

The classifications go from A1, which is used to describe those beginning their language-learning journey, to C2, which describes those who have mastered their foreign language. Between those two extremes you have A2, B1, B2, and C1.

The CEFR is certainly useful when it comes to employment as there are a number of exams that language users can take in order to prove to what level they can use their foreign language. On the one hand, this helps employers, who can have these claims verified and backed up by an employee's exam results. On the other hand, it can also open doors for language users looking for work, if they have completed any of the appropriate exams.

It's great that this framework promotes language learning around Europe and encourages many people, especially adult learners, to continue learning foreign languages that they may have studied in school, or even pick up completely new ones.

However, this framework can become an issue when it takes on the form of red tape and bureaucracy. When students consider learning a language to be little more than a means to a certificate and take no joy in it, it makes me incredibly sad. Of course, everybody has their reasons for learning a language, but when you make it a joyless business venture or just something to put on your CV, I think you might be missing a much bigger picture...

I don't think I could ever tell someone not to learn another language, even if I think it's for all the wrong reasons. I just think that if you learn a language only for employability, it's a lot like stargazing during the day.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Honduras

A few months have passed since we looked at the languages of Guatemala and Ecuador, so today we're finally returning to the Americas to explore the linguistic diversity of Honduras.

The Official Language

Given its location, it should come as no surprise that the official language of Honduras is Spanish, just like most other countries in Central and South America. Spanish was first introduced to the area in the 1500s with the arrival of famous colonizers that included Christopher Columbus and Hernán Cortés.

Other Languages

While Spanish is the dominant language in Honduras and is spoken by the vast majority of the population, the country is also home to several other fascinating languages. The largest of Honduras' minority languages is Garifuna, a member of the Arawakan language family that is spoken by approximately 98,0000 Hondurans. Its lexicon is composed of loanwords from several languages, including Arawak, Carib, French, English, and Spanish.

Guanaja, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, as seen from space.
Interestingly, the second most spoken minority language in Honduras is a dialect of English known as Bay Islands English. There are over 30,000 speakers of this dialect in Honduras, primarily living on the Bay Islands, a group of small islands off the northern coast of the country. English settlers first arrived on the islands in the 1700s, eventually leading to disputes with both Spain and the United States.

Two other prominent minority languages are Miskito and Mayangna, which are members of the Misumalpan langauge family. Miskito, spoken by about 29,000 Hondurans, is the largest language in this family, with over 150,000 additional native speakers in Nicaragua. Mayangna, also known as Sumu, is spoken by approximately 700 Hondurans.

Finally, there are the Pech, Tol, and Ch'orti' languages, which all have under 1,000 native speakers. Pech is a member of the Chibchan language family that is spoken by about 900 people in a few towns in Honduras, while Tol, also known as Jicaque, only has a few hundred speakers.

Ch'orti' is particularly interesting, since it is considered to be a direct descendant of the Maya language that was used to make most of the civilization's famous inscriptions. Due to its close connection to Classic Maya, it is often used to help decipher hieroglyphic writings left by the Maya. Sadly, it is nearly extinct in Honduras since the government has discouraged the use of native languages. However, there are over 30,000 native speakers of Ch'orti' in Guatemala, which has a much more inclusive linguistic policy.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Uralic Languages: From Enets to Võro

This summer, we dedicated a few posts to learning a bit more about a few of the world's language families. In May we explored the Romance and Germanic languages, and in June we looked at the Slavic languages. Today we'll be focusing on the Uralic languages, which are not nearly as well known, but are just as fascinating.

The Uralic language family gets its name from the Ural Mountains, a mountain range in western Russia that is considered one of the natural markers that divides Europe from Asia. According to the Ethnologue, there are 38 languages within the Uralic language family, which primarily evolved in the region surrounding the Ural Mountains. The easiest way to learn about these languages is by learning more about their linguistic subgroups, so let's get started!

The Ural Mountains in Yugyd Va National Park, Russia.
The Strictly Uralic Languages

While most of the Uralic languages fit into subgroups with a few of their fellow languages, there are three that each comprise their very own subgroup! These three lonely languages are Hungarian, Khanty, and Mansi.

Hungarian is the most spoken Uralic language in the world, with about 13 million native speakers. It is also the official language of Hungary, and is widely spoken in nearby countries such as Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Khanty and Mansi, however, are both spoken in Russia. There are around 10,000 native speakers of the Khanty language in Russia, as well as under 1,000 native speakers of Mansi.

The Finnic Languages

The Finnic languages are the largest subgroup within the Uralic language family. This group includes Finnish and Estonian, which are the second and third most spoken Uralic languages, as well as Ingrian, Karelian, Ludic, Veps, Vod, and Võro.

Finland is home to over 5 million native speakers of Finnish, the country's official language. Moving south into Estonia, you can find speakers of Estonian, the official language, as well as Võro, which boasts nearly 90,000 native speakers in the southeastern part of the country.

The other six Finnic languages we've mentioned are all used in Russia. There are just over 100 native speakers of Ingrian, which is nearly extinct, while there are thought to be over 20,000 native speakers of the Karelian language in Russia. There are also about 3,000 speakers of Ludic, 1,500 speakers of Veps, and under 100 speakers of Vod in Russia, which is also nearly extinct.

The Mari Languages

The Mari languages are two languages used by the Mari ethnic group in Russia. Hill Mari is spoken by approximately 30,000 people on the right bank of the Volga River, while Meadow Mari has over 470,000 native speakers. It is primarily used on the other bank of the river, as well as the nearby plain.

The Mordvin Languages

Russia is also home to the two Mordvin languages, Erzya and Moksha. Erzya is the native language of over 30,000 people in Russia, while Moksha has around 2,000 native speakers according to the Ethnologue.

The Permian Languages

Also known as the Permic languages, these three languages of Russia include Udmurt and the closely related Komi-Permyak and Komi-Zyrian. Udmurt is spoken by over 300,000 members of the Udmurt people. Komi-Permyak and Komi-Zyrian are sometimes considered to be two varieties of the Komi language, which is used by around 200,000 members of the Komi ethnic group.

An adorably fluffy Samoyed.
The Sami Languages

If you read our recent profile of Sweden, you might recall that we mentioned that there are several Sami languages spoken by the Sami people throughout Scandinavia. According to the Ethnologue, there are ten of these languages, which are spoken in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia. However, most have very few speakers and are not often used by younger generations.

The Samoyed Languages

Finally, we've reached the last subgroup, the Samoyed languages! You may have noticed that this group shares its name with an adorably fluffy breed of dog, which was actually named after the people who bred it. However, the name "Samoyed" is no longer applied to the ethnic groups that speak these languages since some linguists have claimed that the term might have been derived from the Russian for "cannibal", which is problematic for obvious reasons.

The Samoyed languages include Nenets, Nganasan, Enets, and Selkup, which are all spoken in Russia. There are about 20,000 native speakers of Nenets, about 100 speakers of Nganasan, and less than 100 speakers of the two Enets languages. Last but not least, there are about 1,000 native speakers of Selkup living in Siberia.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Pleonasms: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Before reading this brief NPR article last week, we'd never heard of pleonasms before. Since we were curious about this linguistic term, we're dedicating today's post to exploring its meaning as well as its use in language.

The word pleonasm comes from the Greek term pleonasmos, which means "more" or "too much". In English, it refers to the use of more words than necessary to convey meaning. While you might think that using redundant speech would always be incorrect or unnecessary, pleonasms can also be used to help make language easier to understand.

These tigers have nothing to do with pleonasms...
we just really love cats of all shapes and sizes!
There are dozens of pleonasms that are so commonly used in the English-speaking world that you've probably never stopped to think about them. Two prime examples are "terms and conditions" and "null and void", which are often used in legal texts. Perhaps we don't often complain about this redundancy since we rarely take the time to actually read the terms and conditions...

If you want to focus on pleonasms from a linguistic standpoint, they generally fall into two categories: syntactic and semantic. Syntactic pleonasms are words that are not required for grammatical reasons. For example, in the phrase "I know that you love me", the word "that" is a pleonasm because it is unnecessary.

Other examples of syntactic pleonasms include multiple negation and multiple affirmation. While most people don't shudder to hear multiple affirmations such as "I do love you" (in which "do" is unnecessary, but can be used to add emphasis), many do have very strong feelings about multiple negation. Some people often use double negatives like "there ain't no other way", while others cringe to hear them.

However, the most interesting pleonasms are often semantic pleonasms, which are created by using redundant terms. If you're a native English speaker, you've undoubtedly used some semantic pleonasms before, while others may be at the top of your language pet peeves. Some of the most common semantic pleonasms in English include: "free gift", "tuna fish", and "different species".

Other common semantic pleonasms involve foreign terms and acronyms. For instance, several French terms have led to frequently used pleonasms, including "déjà vu all over again" and "please RSVP". However, the most famous pleonasms that drive people crazy are undoubtedly those that involve acronyms, such as "ATM machine", "PIN number", and "HIV virus". If you want to avoid the admonitions of friends who act like the grammar police, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by saying "ATM", "PIN", and "HIV" instead.

Did we leave out a pleonasm that you find helpful, or one that simply drives you crazy? Let us know about it in the comments below!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Azerbaijan

Last week we focused on the linguistic diversity of Sweden, one of the northernmost countries in Europe. Today we're moving across the continent to the Caucasus region in order to explore the languages of Azerbaijan, one of the very few transcontinental countries that are located in both Europe and Asia.

The Official Languages

An Azerbaijani carpet, recognized by UNESCO
as a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The sole official language of Azerbaijan is Azerbaijani, which is also known by the name Azeri. It is a member of the Turkic language family that is closely related to Turkish. In fact, it shares a high enough degree of mutual intelligibility with Turkish for some linguists to consider it to be a variety of Turkish instead of a distinct language. In any case, Azerbaijani is spoken by over 90% of the country's population.

There are two other languages that are widely used throughout Azerbaijan, though they do not have official status: Russian and English. There are nearly 500,000 native speakers of Russian in Azerbaijan, as well as many others who use it or English as a second language in education, business, and other areas of society.

Minority Languages

Azerbaijan is also home to several interesting minority languages, though many of them are vulnerable due to declining use in their already small communities. They include Talysh, Lezgi, Avar, Tat, Judeo-Tat, and Tsakhur. The most spoken of these languages is Talysh, a member of the Indo-Iranian language family that boasts approximately 800,000 native speakers in Azerbaijan.

The second most spoken minority language is Lezgi, also known as Lezgian. It is a member of the Northeast Caucasian language family, and is spoken by over 350,000 Azerbaijanis. Other Northeast Caucasian languages used in the country include Avar, which is spoken by about 40,000 people in northwestern Azerbaijan, and Tsakhur, which is used by about 13,000 Azerbaijanis.

There are also the related Tat and Judeo-Tat languages, which both belong to the Indo-Iranian language family. Tat is spoken by around 18,000 members of the Tat ethnic group, while Judeo-Tat, also known as Juhuri, is spoken by about 24,000 Azerbaijanis. Judeo-Tat is the language of the ethnic group known as the Mountain Jews or Caucasus Jews.

Finally, there are about 150,000 native speakers of the Armenian language in Azerbaijan. Most of them live in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous area in southeastern Azerbaijan. However, while the area is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, it has its own government and is considered a de facto country since it declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Speaking to Non-Native Speakers

When you have an accent like mine (Geordie, from Newcastle), you have to accept that sometimes you won't be understood. When you speak to non-native speakers, you also have to understand that they may not understand everything. While I agree that there's no true correct way to speak any language, since accents and dialects are a large part of what I believe makes languages so interesting, you do sometimes have to make concessions and change how you speak in your own tongue to help them out.

Just as it's often not acceptable to speak very colloquially or swear in an interview in the UK, I do believe there are good ways and bad ways to speak to non-native speakers. I've seen people do it perfectly and, ashamedly, also terribly.

Firstly, just because somebody does not speak your language natively, does not mean in any way, shape, or form, that they are an idiot. In fact, learning a foreign language is mentally taxing, and it certainly takes a lot of smarts.

Be Calm

There are plenty of tourists and non-native speakers in London.
I've seen people get frustrated with non-native speakers for not immediately understanding what's being said. This is when people tend to be really rude to non-native speakers, speaking to them as if they're hard of hearing, incredibly slowly, with a tone of voice that screams "what the hell is wrong with you!?". It's not fair on them.

Strangely, in my experience I've most often seen this to be the case in parts of the world that heavily rely on international tourism, such as massive cities whose economy is booming thanks to the non-native speakers who just want to share in the culture, enjoy the sights and sounds of the place, and have a good time. I know living in big cities can be stressful, but it's no excuse to ruin somebody's holiday, especially when all they want to do is put their hard-earned pennies into your wallet.

They're learning a foreign language. They're not stupid. They're just another person and they deserve the same kind of respect you'd expect if you were trying to speak their language.

Give Them A Break

There are also those that prefer to give the non-native speaker absolutely no concession for their limited knowledge of their mother tongue. They will speak just as quickly and naturally as they would do with their friends.

Even if the non-native speaker is very good at the language, there's still a chance they'll make mistakes (which can be great if you read Wednesday's post). There's a huge difference between being accommodating by speaking more slowly, using simpler vocabulary, more common structures, and fewer idioms, and being a condescending dick, like in the previous example.

They're Human After All

I think the main point I'm making is that non-native speakers are just other people with hopes, dreams, and feelings. It may be easier to distance yourself from them because they don't speak your language, but don't! They deserve respect and all they want to do is talk to you because they love your language.

How have your experiences been as a non-native speaker speaking with natives? Good or bad? Or do you find yourself inexplicably condescending to non-native speakers in your mother tongue? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Why You Should Make Mistakes in a Foreign Language

Learning a foreign language is rarely a simple thing. You have to learn tonnes of new vocabulary and words that may hardly resemble anything you've ever seen before. Then there are false friends, the words that look or sound exactly like words in your own language, but have a completely different meaning.

Even then, when you learn a few words, the syntax may be completely different to the syntax in your own language. In this case, you have to train your brain to recognise this in order to make yourself understood and to understand what you read and hear.

Then there's the grammar. Some people can learn grammar with little effort. Then there are people like me, who even struggle with grammar of their mother tongue.

In addition to almost completely changing the way you think, you also have to learn how to pronounce all the phonemes in a language. Learning to use an authentic accent in a foreign language can be difficult if your mother tongue doesn't share many of its phonemes with those of your new language.

It's unlikely that you will gain all this knowledge and all of these skills overnight. Just like learning a musical instrument, there are going to be a few wrong notes here and there. That's not a problem.

Making mistakes and learning from them can be one of the most useful tools in your language learning arsenal. The worst thing you can do is not talk or practice your new language just because you're scared of making a mistake.

Sometimes mistakes can be embarrassing, but in my experience, most people that I've met have always been very understanding to those learning a language. In fact, some of the errors I've made in the past have been amusing, such as telling an older lady that I was horny when I meant to say that I was warm, and telling a friend that I had diarrhoea when I wanted to say a cold. I've never made either of these mistakes since.

So if you're learning a language, don't worry! Make mistakes and learn from them. The improvements you'll make will far outweigh any embarrassment you may suffer from making mistakes.

What's the worst mistake you've made in a foreign language? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.