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 language using 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 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!

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.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Who's In Charge of a Language?

The recent story of Wikipedia editor Bryan Henderson who corrected 47,000 instances of a grammatical error got our attention this week. While it's great that there are people out there willing to improve Wikipedia in their free time, deciding what constitutes a grammatical error, especially in English, is sometimes hard to do.

Henderson corrected instances of the phrase "comprised of", instead preferring "consist of", "comprise", or a rewording of the sentence. If you take a prescriptive approach to the English language, you will certainly agree that "comprised of" is incorrect and should have been changed. If you take a more liberal stance on language usage, you will probably accept that languages evolve over time and certain "errors" become so commonplace that they then become the norm. Who has the final say in what is correct and what isn't?

The Real Academia Española in 1872.
Many languages have a regulatory body that standardises aspects of the language, whether the users of that language agree with them or not. Spanish answers to the Real Academia Española (RAE) in Spain. Along with 21 other Spanish language academies, the RAE is a member of the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española (ASALE), a regulatory body that supposedly governs the usage and conventions of the Spanish language as a whole.

The Central Hindi Directorate, केन्द्रीय हिन्दी निदेशालय, or Kendriya Hindi Nideshalaya, primarily deals with the use of Devanagari script and the spelling of Hindi words in India. Arabic, whether you consider it to be a language, a macrolanguage, or a dialect continuum, also has a multitude of organisations that consider themselves to be the authority on its correct usage. The majority refer to themselves as the Academy of the Arabic Language or مجمع اللغة العربية.

Users of the French language can refer to the Académie française in France and the Office québécois de la langue française in Quebec, Canada. Meanwhile, the Academia das Ciências de Lisboa, Classe de Letras in Portugal or the Academia Brasileira de Letras in Brazil should have answers to most of your questions about Portuguese.

These few examples are just a small selection of the many regulatory bodies that consider themselves to be the highest authorities on their particular language or regional variety. The odd thing is that whether or not they prescribe certain rules or attempt to coin and standardise certain terms (take the seldom-used mot-dièse in French, for example), languages seem to evolve and change regardless of what they do.

The English language has no such regulatory bodies other than grammar sticklers and those who go out of their way to correct you mid-sentence. There isn't really anybody to give a final decision on whether Bryan Henderson's actions were valid or not. You could argue that if all those Wikipedia articles were understood despite the use of "comprised of", does it really matter that much? Couldn't we just accept that it is now an accepted way to write and speak?

Is Bryan Henderson a modern-day knight, protecting the sacred grammatical structure? Or is he just a pedant with far too much time on his hands? Can a single entity really control a language? Tell us what you think the comments below.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How French Gave English Its Sophisticated Words

If you're familiar with the history of the British Isles, you'll be aware that before taking the English language on tour and invading 90% of the world (with varying degrees of success), the British were the whipping boys of Europe and every empire across Europe had a go of taking over Great Britain. This helps explain why the English language is widespread and has a diverse lexicon with roots in many different languages.

What I find most interesting is the relationship between the origin of a word in English and its register. Words from Anglo-Saxon have taken their place in the lower registers of the English language, while "classier" high-register words come from both Latin and French. This all comes down to how the words were being used when they first made their way into the language.

Hastings, the site of the famous battle, in the 19th century.
By the time the Normans invaded in 1066, Anglo-Saxon words were already commonly used. The Normans brought their own language with them, and since they had just taken over the country, they decided that they would be part of the aristocracy instead of falling in line alongside the peasants, serfs, and labourers up and down the country.

Because of this, farmers and the lower classes kept their Anglo-Saxon words whilst the aristocracy and ruling classes consisted of William the Conqueror and his Norman-speaking mates. The Norman language became Anglo-Norman (also known as Anglo-French), which was only spoken by the upper echelons of medieval society while, in a humorous turn of events, the posh people in France at the time were actually speaking Latin.

The most obvious impact of these sociolects is prevalent in food, especially in terms of meat. As a lasting testimony to this, most English words for animals that are eaten come from Anglo-Saxon, while the terms for their meat come from French and Latin roots. For example, if you want some "beef" (from the Norman beof) you'll have to find a "cow" ( in Old English, which has roots in Anglo-Saxon). "Sheep" is from the Old English scēap, while you eat "mutton", which is from the Old French term moton. Dēor in Old English became "deer" in Modern English, but "venison" came from venesoun in Old French.

This garden in Tokyo would definitely
raise the value of your property.
There are also plenty of non-culinary words that show how lower register words from Anglo-Saxon have higher-register equivalents of Latin and French origin. For example, you could ask your friend to buy ;you a drink (all Anglo-Saxon roots) or you could enquire of your colleague about purchasing a beverage (all French or Latin roots). In the UK, it's usually cheaper to buy a house with a yard (Anglo-Saxon) than one with a garden (French).

While French and Latin words are commonly thought to be of a higher register, there are a few examples of seemingly-sophisticated words that are of Anglo-Saxon origins with the lower-register equivalent being French. Take hue instead of colour and uncouth instead of rude, for example. However, these examples are much fewer than to the contrary.