Friday, July 31, 2015

A Subjective Look at the Subjunctive

Don't get me wrong, I love languages: learning them, talking about them, and hearing them. However, there is one thing I just can't stand and it's the subjunctive. It's my pet peeve, my bugbear, and the proverbial thorn in my side. I avoid it like the plague even though I shouldn't.

Like most language fanatics, I do my fair share when learning and practising a language. I try to expand my vocabulary, learn the conjugations and even idioms, and use it regularly. That said, when it comes to the subjunctive, which is used in my two dominant foreign languages (French and Spanish), I awkwardly rephrase my sentences in order to avoid it. I just hate it!

Why do I hate it? Because it's not very common in English, and in the UK we barely learn anything about the structure of our mother tongue. I think it's just assumed that because we can talk and make ourselves understood that we should move straight on to Shakespeare and war poetry. In fact, I only started to learn about the structure of languages from studying foreign languages.

Welcome to Subjunctive Land. Just kidding, this is Venezuela.
So what is the subjunctive? When I was learning French it was simply called a "tense". While tenses refer to time, such as past, present, and future, and awkward combinations of those (the future perfect, for example), the subjunctive exists outside of time, in a place teachers like to call subjunctive land. It is technically a grammatical mood or mode, depending on where you learnt about it.

While subjunctive land isn't a real place, the name does somewhat help you to understand what the subjunctive is all about: things that aren't real. When you're using language to refer to factual things that have happened using simpler tenses such as the past, present, and future, you are using what is known as a realis mood. This can easily be remembered because it has the word real in it. The subjunctive takes place in the land of dreams and wishes, which is why it is an irrealis mood.

The reason I find the subjunctive awkward and confusing is because it's not as obvious in English, my mother tongue. While it definitely exists, English can be quite wonderful in its flagrant disregard for its own rules. Most people I know wouldn't even correct me, let alone realise, if I hadn't correctly used the subjunctive. However, in the other languages I've learnt, people will notice if you don't use it correctly.

The subjunctive occurs when you express a desire or a wish. Other times you'll need it when you start a sentence and find yourself creating a separate clause that couldn't exist without the first part of your sentence. This is known as a dependent or subordinate clause.

Not the kind of car you'd get an automatic gearbox in.
In English most conjugations are identical, with the third person singular being the obvious exception. In the English subjunctive mood, that third person singular either becomes the same as the present tense or the imperative tense (which are also often identical to one another). This minor change is so unnoticeable that you're barely aware of the subjunctive's existence and like conjugating, you rarely realise you've even done it.

For English speakers, I think it's a lot like learning to drive an automatic car and then having to drive a manual. In English it's all pretty much done for you and you never realise it's actually happening. Once you move to a manual car, you start to realise the changes you have to make when you try to do something different, like going faster. Sadly, I grew up learning a language where the subjunctive is almost automatic, and now I struggle to change the grammatical mood manually.

Are you a native English speaker who finds the subjunctive mood difficult? Or does your mother tongue have an obvious and complicated subjunctive mood? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Get It Right: Irony and Coincidence

It has been quite a while, but we're finally back with another installment of our grammar-centric "Get It Right" series. In the past we've looked at all kinds of grammatical errors in English, particularly words with similar spellings that have vastly different definitions, such as cents, scents, and sense. Today however, we're going to be looking at two words that sound nothing alike and yet are still frequently confused: irony and coincidence.


It's probably easiest to define coincidence, a term which came to English via the French language. A coincidence is generally defined as "a remarkable concurrence of unconnected events or circumstances". For example, on a recent trip to Paris we stepped out of a metro car to discover that we had been seated next to a friend from England for several minutes - given that the friend neither lives in nor frequents Paris, it certainly was remarkable that we happened to see him at all, let alone in the same car, on the same metro, on the same line, at the same time, on the same day...


This rock formation is also irony, but in a completely different way.
Then there's irony, which made its way into English from the Greek term εἰρωνεία. If you've been using the famous song "Ironic" by Alanis Morrissette in order to help you remember what irony is, you should definitely stop doing so. While many people often confuse irony with coincidence, it actually refers to saying the opposite of what you mean, generally to emphasize it or make it more humorous. One example of irony would be someone telling their dinner host that they didn't enjoy their meal despite having asked for seconds and clearing every last speck of food from their plate.

As you can see, both the definitions and spellings of these two words are very dissimilar, so hopefully you will be able to get them right in the future!

Do you have a linguistic pet peeve that we haven't covered before? Let us know in the comments below, and we might look at it in the future.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Zambia

One month ago we took a look at the languages of Malawi, a tiny country located in southern Africa. Today we're turning our linguistic microscope to Zambia, a landlocked country which it borders to the east.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Zambia is English, which is due to its British colonial history. During its time under British rule starting in the late 1800s, the area now known as Zambia was called Northern Rhodesia, while neighboring Zimbabwe was called Southern Rhodesia. In 1964, Northern Rhodesia gained its independence and was renamed the Republic of Zambia, which pays tribute to the Zambezi River that flows through the country.

While English is the primary language used in business and education, it is not the native language of most Zambians. In fact, only about 100,000 Zambians speak English as a native language. However, the language retains its prestige and importance since nearly 2 million Zambians speaks it as a second language.

Victoria Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in the world,
located on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Indigenous Languages

Zambia is also home to over 40 indigenous languages. All of the country's most important indigenous languages are Bantu languages, including Bemba, Chichewa, Tonga, Lozi, Lunda, Kaonde, and Luvale, which all boast large numbers of speakers and are used by local media.

The two most spoken indigenous languages in Zambia are Bemba and Chichewa. Bemba is an important lingua franca with nearly 4 million native speakers which is often used in education and for other official purposes. Chichewa, also known as Chewa or Nyanja, has over 2 million native speakers in Zambia. It is also used in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi, where it is one of two official languages.

Another notable Bantu language is Tonga, which has over 1.3 million native speakers and is also spoken in neighboring Zimbabwe. The Lozi language is spoken by approximately 600,000 members of the Lozi ethnic group in southwestern Zambia, while Lunda is used by around 225,000 Zambians and is also spoken in Angola. Finally, there's Kaonde, which is also spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has around 200,000 native speakers, and Luvale, which boasts 170,000 speakers. There are dozens of other fascinating Zambian languages with smaller numbers of speakers, but unfortunately we just don't have time for them all.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Language Learning: Cognates and False Friends

If you've ever taken foreign language classes before, you've probably learned about cognates, every language learner's best friend. Cognates are words in two different languages that share an etymological origin, and therefore usually contain some of the same sounds, which make them much easier to learn than other new vocabulary.

Most language teachers teach their students that cognates are terms that are identical or nearly identical, such as the English word "air" and the Spanish term aire. However, most linguists would point out that many cognates aren't identical, such as "star" and its Spanish equivalent estrella.

Regardless of how you choose to define the word cognate, knowing which terms in your language are nearly identical to those of the foreign language you're learning can be incredibly useful. If you've always wanted to learn a language but are afraid it will be too difficult, a great place to start is by learning a language that has a large amount of vocabulary in common with your own. For example, many English speakers find learning Romance languages such as Spanish and French easier than learning Chinese or Arabic because so much of the English lexicon is of Latin origin.

That said, one of the most important things a language learner can do is memorize the false cognates and false friends that pertain to the language they're learning. These linguistic tricksters are pairs of words that are identical or nearly identical, which lead people to believe that they have shared origins (in the case of false cognates) or shared meanings (in the case of false friends).

Learn your false cognates and false friends...
or risk the wrath of this lion.
When native English speakers learn a language like Spanish that has so many cognates with their own language, it's only natural that they would occasionally guess a term they don't know by modifying an English word to sound more like a Spanish term. However, this can be a very risky endeavor due to the existence of false friends.

In a best-case scenario, you might get lucky when guessing that atractivo is the Spanish word for "attractive". On the other hand, you could also try to tell a friend that you're "embarrassed" by using the word embarazada in Spanish. Once your friends have stopped laughing or congratulating you depending on your age and gender, you'll have even more reason to be embarrassed, since you've just used a false friend which actually means "pregnant".

If there are any native English speakers out there learning Spanish right now, we have a few more false cognates and false friends you might want to learn. The Spanish term éxito means "success", while a fábrica is a "factory" and sopa is "soup". You also probably shouldn't say you want to eat a pie since that means "foot". Finally, if you need to say the word "preservative" for some reason, don't use preservativo, as it means "condom".

Have you had any embarrassing situations with false cognates and false friends in the past? Let us know in the comments below.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Marvelling at the Minnesotan Accent

I'm not a huge film fan; an hour and a half is usually too long to keep my attention. However, a few months ago I started watching Fargo, the 1996 Coen brothers film. Unfortunately, I had only watched 30 minutes before I had to do something else and forgot to go back to it.

On Monday, I finally returned to the film, re-watching the first 30 minutes and inevitably watching the rest. Before I knew it, Netflix was suggesting that I watch the TV series of the same name that aired last year. I had already received tonnes of recommendations from friends, so after enjoying the film, I was straight onto the series and binge-watched four episodes. While both feature black comedy, which I love, they also sparked my interest in Minnesotan English, which I'll just fondly call Minnesotan from now on.

A beautiful view of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
My interest in Minnesotan was actually piqued during a visit to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and Saint Paul) in the spring of 2012, when I fell in love with the accent. This led me to find out more about this unique and fascinating accent and where it came from.

While native Minnesotans may tell me that different accents and dialects can be found across the state, today I'd like to just discuss the accent in a general sense, without over-complicating things but still trying to gain sufficient insights into what it's all about.

Many of the accent's qualities are similar to those of most other English-language accents found throughout North America, but it's the accent's differences that I find so interesting. These differences include monophthongization, a process whereby phonemes that are regularly pronounced as diphthongs become a singular and "pure" vowel.

It's widely believed that many of the accent's traits originate from the area's historic immigration patterns, which have had a lasting influence on many accents in North American English. Many of the people currently living in Minnesota are descendants of Scandinavian and Germanic peoples, notably speakers of Norwegian and German. While this is certainly plausible, it has also been suggested that British accents might be responsible for some traits, as similar effects have been noted in Canadian English.

A postcard picture of the Second Fort Snelling Bridge, Minnesota.
There have also been suggestions that there are traces of a pitch accent in Minnesotan. A pitch accent uses different pitches for certain syllables in order to distinguish words. This is a trait that is also shared with a number of Scandinavian languages, particularly Norwegian and Swedish.

The main issue with pinpointing the origins behind the accent is a lack of information. Early settlers didn't spend a whole lot of time making records for the purpose of linguistic analysis since they were probably too preoccupied with surviving the area's trying winters and making sure that their crops didn't die.

While I've heard accounts that the accents in Fargo (both the film and series) are heavily exaggerated, I could still happily listen to them all day. I've also heard that the intense friendliness is exaggerated, though my experiences in Minnesota and the Midwest certainly don't support this.

How do you feel about the Minnesotan accent? Do you love it or hate it? Is there another US accent that you prefer? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Cambodia

This spring, we took a look at the many fascinating languages spoken in Nepal and Malaysia. This week we're returning our focus to Southeast Asia with a discussion of the linguistic diversity of Cambodia, which is home to nearly two dozen languages.

The Official Language

Cambodia's sole official language is Khmer, which is also known as Cambodian. Khmer holds the title of second most spoken Austro-Asiatic language in the world after Vietnamese. There are nearly 13 million native speakers of Khmer in Cambodia, as well as another million non-native speakers, which comprise the vast majority of the country's population when combined.

The Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh,
which is the royal residence of the King of Cambodia.
Other Languages

While Khmer is undoubtedly the most dominant language in Cambodia, there are still several other languages with large numbers of speakers. The second most spoken language in Cambodia is Cham, an Austronesian language with approximately 200,000 native speakers. It is spoken by members of the Cham ethnic group that live throughout Southeast Asia, primarily in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and China.

Cham is followed in number of speakers by several Austro-Asiatic languages, namely Vietnamese, Mnong, Tampuan, and Brao. Vietnamese, the official language of neighboring Vietnam, is spoken by approximately 70,000 Cambodians, while Mnong and Tampuan both have between 30,000 and 40,000 native speakers. Brao, on the other hand, has only 9,000 native speakers, but this number doesn't include speakers of closely related language varieties such as Kru'ng and Kavet that are also used in Cambodia.

The Jarai, Lao, and Thai languages are also used by small numbers of Cambodians. Jarai is an Austronesian language spoken by the Jarai people in Cambodia and Vietnam, while Lao and Thai are the official languages of Laos and Thailand respectively.

Finally, there are the educational languages of French and English. French is often used in Cambodian schools and universities, and is also occasionally used by the government due to Cambodia's history of French colonial rule until 1953. However, English has been gaining popularity as an educational language in recent years due to increased tourism in the country.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Using the Bible to Learn about Translation

While I'm not particularly religious, I do acknowledge the hugely important role religion has played in language. In fact, one of our earliest posts looked at the lasting impression of religion on language.

Some of the most impressive curse words in many languages come from the dominating religion in the country's native language. For example, it seems most, if not all, of the curse words in Spanish are blasphemes, and I'm very fond of how some of the worst words you can say in Québécois French refer to items located in a church.

However, cursing aside, religion has informed language and linguistics to a great degree. While I could go on and on about every religion in the world, today I'll be focusing on Christianity, its prayers, and its holy text, the Bible, and what it has offered to the academic discipline of academia.

The patron saint of translation, St. Jerome, was a famous translator. His work in translation focused almost entirely on translation of scripture. Of course, St. Jerome wasn't the only person translating the Bible, which was originally in Hebrew and Aramaic. It is now fully available in over 500 languages, with parts of it available in thousands of languages.

Thanks to the entire Bible being translated into hundreds of languages, it works as an instructive parallel text that allows us to better understand the differences between languages, their various families, and even the translation methods used.

When there are several different translations of the Bible in the same language, we can compare them in order to ascertain which translation method was used. In fact, the concept of equivalence in translation was devised by Eugene Nida, who had used the Bible as the object of his studies.

He used the adjectives dynamic and formal to describe different types of equivalence. In the case of formal equivalence, he described a process whereby the translator strictly follows the structure of the source text rather than rendering the text in the most natural way.

The other end of the spectrum is dynamic equivalence, whereby the translator employs more creative freedom in order to render the translation as a more authentic-sounding text in the target language. Of course, when the text is translated in this way, it runs the risk of losing some of the nuances and details that were in the source text.

You can consider these methods in the same way as recording a cover version of a song. You can either record the song exactly like the original, or you can perform it in your own style. If you imagine your own style is the target language and the original style is the source language, then you're starting to understand dynamic and formal equivalence.

A handwritten version of the Bible in Latin.
In English alone there have been plenty of different translations of the Bible. Some have used formal equivalence and others have used dynamic equivalence. Of course, no translation is fully dynamic or formal. In fact, certain parts can adhere to one strategy while other parts adhere to another. The important thing is what you are trying to communicate.

For example, if you were translating the Bible in order to ensure that all of its teachings will be followed to the letter, you would prefer a formal approach. This would mean that not a single detail would be lost. However, you could argue that speakers of the target language might find the reading unnatural, jarring, and not particularly accessible.

If your job as a translator was to ensure that the maximum number of people were exposed to Christianity and an accessible version of the Bible was available, you would look for a dynamic approach. This would mean that you probably wouldn't be able to directly quote scripture, and its teachings would be vaguer and display a degree of the translator's own interpretation.

You can hardly say which approach is correct as it all really depends on what the goal of the translation is. Nevertheless, scripture can provide a fantastic resource for understanding how you can approach translation. It's certainly more than just knowing two languages!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Googlewhacking and Collocations on the Web

While the internet is definitely commonplace nowadays for the majority of the developed world, it's often amusing to think back to the earlier days of the internet. When I was in primary school we had to take a school trip to the local library to see the internet. This endeavour involved walking with your "buddy" and holding hands.

The technology in this data suite is far more advanced than
the clunky beige PC that first showed me the internet.
When we arrived, a solitary PC with a dial-up connection was used to showcase a number of the amazing features of the world wide web.

We were shown a very early example of (from 1997, to be precise) and the local weather forecast, which disappointingly but expectedly told us that north-eastern England would be rainy throughout the upcoming week.

Needless to say, we were not very impressed with two features that we could easily get from our TVs instead. The search engine, however, really sparked our imaginations.

We were told that if we typed something, the computer would show us what we were looking for. Fast forward a few years and IT lessons in secondary school were an interesting affair.

The school had just had broadband installed and every single student in the class had their own terminal with a "high-speed" internet connection, which helped us to spend the whole lesson doing anything but the work we were supposed to be doing.

One unproductive time-wasting technique we enjoyed was Googlewhacking. For those too young to remember a time before "Google" was a verb, it was possible in the last decade to search using only two English words and receive the message "no results found" from Google's search engine. Finding no results with a two-word search query was the goal of Googlewhacking.

This phenomenon (which seems impossible today) was probably due to there being fewer webpages and the fact that Google was yet to have crawled and indexed the web to the extent it has today. With that said, I do believe that it can tell us about how we use language, which I personally find very interesting.

If you are familiar with collocations, certain words naturally go together more frequently than they do with others. I often use Google as a quick and easy way to check how frequently certain words are used together (there are also more advanced search tools to do this as well). You can gauge one expression over another simply in terms of results by using quotation marks when you search.

Googlewhacking (though we didn't know at the time) gave us the opposite of collocations, words that seemingly never go together. As you were not permitted to use quotation marks, Google's results indicated that those particular combinations of words could not be found alongside one another, or even in the same sentence, paragraph, or webpage. Saying the results aloud would quickly tell your brain how rare these combinations were.

The latest examples of Googlewhacks (from 2008) on the now defunct included "ambidextrous scallywags", "illuminatus ombudsman", "squirreling dervishes", and "assonant octosyllable". Any native speaker will note that these are rarely used words and even rarer combinations of them.

Nowadays Googlewhacking is pretty impossible as Google tries to suggest what you were trying to say and you rarely get a page saying there are no results (especially with a two-word phrase). However, as has a similar concept which they labelled a "statistically improbable phrase" by using data from indexed books in order to find out which words are rarely put together in the books they sell, you could always try Googlewhacking on Amazon and hope that your results only yield one result. Though I doubt it'd ever be as fun as Googlewhacking.

Did you ever Googlewhack in the past? What are some of the weirdest examples you can remember? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Mali

A few weeks ago we checked out the languages spoken in Malawi, but this week we're moving on to the similar-sounding country named Mali. Both countries are located in Africa, but on opposite sides of the continent: Malawi is in southeastern Africa, while Mali is much farther north in West Africa.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Mali, the eighth largest country in Africa, is French. Despite being the country's official language, it is the native language of only about 9,000 Malians. However, it is widely used as a second language throughout the country, which has over 1 million non-native French speakers.

Two pages from the historical Timbuktu Manuscripts
that have been preserved in Timbuktu, Mali for centuries.
National Languages

Mali also has an impressive thirteen national languages, all of which are indigenous to the country. The most important of these languages is undoubtedly Bamanankan, also known as Bamabara, which is thought to be used by approximately 80% of Malians. There are around 4 million native speakers of the Bamanankan language in Mali, and it is also often learned as a second language due to its use as a lingua franca.

Bamanankan is a member of the Niger-Congo language family, as are most of the other national languages. This includes Maasina Fulfulde, the language of the Fula people, which has approximately 1 million native speakers, as well as Mamara Sénoufo and Soninke, which both have around 700,000 native speakers.

The rest of the country's national languages that belong to the Niger-Congo language family are Kita Maninkakan, Koyraboro Senni Songhay, Syenara Sénoufo, Xaasongaxango, Tieyaxo Bozo, Bomu, and Toro So Dogon. Most of these languages have names that we can't even begin to guess how to pronounce, while all of them have under 500,000 native speakers.

The last two national languages of Mali are Tamasheq and Hasanya Arabic. Tamasheq is a Berber language with approximately 250,000 native speakers in Mali that is also spoken in Burkina Faso. Hasanya Arabic, on the other hand, is a member of the Semitic language family, and is a variety of Arabic that was originally spoken by Bedouin tribes.

Other Languages

In addition to the the 14 aforementioned languages, Mali is home to another 52 languages, which makes a grand total of 66 living languages! We certainly don't have time to look at them all, but one of the most prominent languages is Jula, which is the native language of 50,000 Malians and is used as a second language by nearly 300,000 more. It is an important trade and business language, and is also spoken in nearby Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Problematic Nature of the Word "American"

During last week's Fourth of July celebrations in the United States, I saw something very interesting on the internet: someone wishing their "fellow USians" a happy Independence Day. The use of this incredibly awkward-sounding term led me to start thinking about why they used it, which I can only imagine is due to the problematic nature of using the word "American" to refer to people from the United States.

While many people in the United States have never stopped to think about it, our use of the term "American" as our traditional demonym was probably not the most culturally sensitive choice. Why, you ask? Well, that would be because the "America" in "United States of America" refers to the Western Hemisphere where our country is located, which is also known as America or the Americas since it includes the continents of North America and South America.

Columbia, the personification of the U.S.,
in a patriotic poster from the early 1900s.
This means that technically, every single person from the northernmost point in Canada to the southernmost point in Chile is an American. While our friendly English-speaking neighbors to the north don't seem to mind our appropriation of the term for our own personal use, Spanish speakers throughout the many countries to the south are not always of the same opinion.

In fact, if you've ever studied Spanish or visited a Spanish-speaking country, you might have been surprised to learn that the Spanish demonym for someone from the United States is estadounidense, which rolls off of the tongue so much more nicely than "United Statesan" ever could. In Spain, for example, if you say that you're americano or americana, you might be asked what country you're from, since those terms are generally applied to anyone from the Americas. The Real Academia Española, the official language institution of Spain, even suggests that use of the term americano to refer to people from the United States should be avoided. (If you know Spanish, you might enjoy reading their entire opinion on the topic.)

Throughout most of the rest of the world however, the terms used to refer to people from the United States are often cognates of the word "American", such as américain in French and Amerikaner in German. They may have chosen these terms because it was easier than trying to create a nice-sounding demonym from their translation of "United States", but they also probably didn't care much about using it to refer only to people from the U.S. since most of their speakers don't live in the Americas, and therefore couldn't be upset by it.

With that said, while I do think it is incredibly unfortunate that the United States has been using a culturally insensitive term to refer to its people since the late 1700s, I don't think there's much we can do to change it now. People have tried to popularize alternative terms for centuries, but they've never caught on. They include Usonian, the aforementioned USian, Washingtonian, and worst of all Columbian, based on the poetic name for the United States, because what the world really needed was confusion as to whether they're referring to people from the United States or Colombia.

In the end, I think that all we can do is accept the mistake that was made centuries ago and try our best not to offend the millions of other Americans throughout our hemisphere. When visiting other countries in the Americas, it shouldn't be too hard to use estadounidense instead of americano or to simply say that we're "from the United States" instead of using the word "American".

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Is It Worthwhile To Study Languages At University?

Just over a month ago, I discussed the dilemma of encouraging language learning while protecting my own livelihood as a translator. In the post, I mentioned that the average translator in the UK earns what I consider to be a disappointing amount considering that they master at least two languages, have a technical or business specialisation, and possess in-depth knowledge of the cultures of at least two countries.

This is the kind of statement that should hold a lot of weight for someone getting ready to go to university in a couple of months. Today, I'd like to revisit that particular point, extend it to all language-related jobs, and finally see whether studying languages is worthwhile. To do so, I'd like to draw on my own experiences as well as some information and statistics. Of course, this is a language blog and I'm a language fanatic so there will be some bias. In an attempt to provide a fair and balanced argument, I'm going to start with the negatives.

On a personal and negative note, I do genuinely believe that there are jobs out there that require language skills and do not adequately remunerate those with said skills. I can provide one such example from my own life experience.

A few years ago I spent a summer working in a data-entry centre that required knowledge of Spanish and several other languages at which I was paid the UK minimum wage for my troubles. By paying me minimum wage, my employer was effectively saying that my language skills were valueless or should be expected from any employee, which I hope you will agree is nonsense.

This is even more ridiculous given that the UK is famously the worst country in Europe terms of speaking foreign languages. Surely this should make my foreign language skills even more desirable in a country lacking the workforce to meet the demand for multilingualism.

Despite my personal anecdote, the demand for language jobs is definitely still there. You'll see facts floating around stating that the translation is one of the only recession-proof industries across the world. However, I've also definitely heard a fair few horror stories of translators being expected to work to impeccable standards, at incredible speeds, and for below a living wage. It wouldn't surprise me if this kind of behaviour was partly responsible for the decreasing numbers of students taking language degrees at universities in the UK.

On the one hand, UK language graduates had the third lowest employment rate of any discipline, according to a study published in 2013. However, the employment rate for all subjects only ranged from 84% to 95%, meaning there isn't a huge difference between the best and worst. On the other hand, UK language graduates were ranked sixth in terms of average salary earned. We live in a world where money talks, and this is the kind statement that's difficult to ignore.

Language learning can take you to plenty of places on this
beautiful blue marble we call home.
So far I've only been talking about studying languages from a financial viewpoint and in terms of employability and expected salary. However, languages have a value well beyond money. Learning languages opens doors and takes you places where you'll meet wonderful people that you wouldn't have otherwise met if you'd remained in a monolingual bubble. For me, you can't put a price on that!

The experiences I've enjoyed because of studying languages have been priceless and I have no doubt that there are plenty ahead of me. I'm so incredibly glad that I did study languages throughout school and at university.

In fact, even though I was terrible at languages at school, I still decided to study them at university because I loved them. When I started studying languages at university (Northumbria University, to be precise) I wasn't a model student and I wasn't particularly gifted at languages. It was only thanks to the wonderful lecturers whose love for languages far surpassed my own that I was given the opportunity to improve and develop my own language skills.

Finally, I feel the need to mention that the language department at Northumbria University (my alma mater) is under threat of closure. I feel anybody who had the support of lecturers anywhere near as wonderful as those at Northumbria would appreciate that this cannot be allowed to happen. I would be eternally grateful to each and every one of you if you could take the time to sign the following petition on to ensure that the UK doesn't lose a wonderful language department. You can also show your support on this Facebook page.

Do you think it's worthwhile to study languages at university? Have your studies brought you financial success or something even better? Tell us all about them in the comments below.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Ecuador

Last week we looked at the linguistic diversity of Guatemala, and today we're back in the Americas with a look at the many languages spoken in Ecuador, which gets its name from the equator which runs through it.

The Official Languages

It should come as no surprise that the official and national language of Ecuador is Spanish, which was introduced throughout the Americas due to colonization by Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries. Today almost everyone in Ecuador speaks Spanish, including around 13.5 million native speakers and over 700,000 non-native speakers.

Chimborazo volcano, the highest mountain in Ecuador.
However, there are two other languages that have been recognized by Ecuador's constitution as official for intercultural relations: Quichua and Shuar. Nine distinct varieties of Quichua, also spelled Kichwa, are spoken in Ecuador. In Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru combined, there are a total of over 1 million native speakers of Quichua varieties, which all belong to the Quechuan language family.

Shuar, on the other hand, is spoken primarily in southeastern Ecuador. There are approximately 35,000 native speakers of the language, which is also used in radio and taught in primary schools.

Other Languages

Several other indigenous language are used in Ecuador, though all have fewer than 10,000 speakers. The most prominent of these languages is Chachi, also known as Cha'palaa, which is spoken by approximately 9,000 members of the Chachi ethnic group. It is followed by Anchuar-Shiwiar, which has about 4,000 native speakers, and the Colorado and Waorani languages, which are both threatened. Waorani is a language isolate spoken in the Amazon rainforest by around 2,000 people, while Colorado is a member of the Barbacoan language family, which includes the aforementioned Chachi language.

Finally, there are several languages with under 1,000 speakers: Cofán, Media Lengua, Awa-Cuaiquer, Epena, Secoya, Siona, and Záparo. The most interesting of these languages is probably Media Lengua, a mixed language that combines Spanish vocabulary with Quichua grammar. Its exact origins are unknown, but clearly its existence is related to linguistic contact between these two important Ecuadorian languages.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Breakfast, Brunch, and Brinner: A Guide to English Meals

Every culture has its own distinct customs, and if you've ever traveled to a foreign country, their meal customs are probably one of the first things you noticed. Before you set foot in a new place, it's generally a good idea to learn the local meal customs. If you think it's enough to know the translations of your typical meals, you will likely be mistaken in many places. For example, you're not likely to be served dîner (French for "dinner") at a nice restaurant in Paris at 5 p.m., or if you are, it will probably come with a side order of derision.

Things get even more complicated in Spain when you try to eat lunch. Your dictionary will probably tell you to use the word almuerzo, but this term is also often used to refer to a light mid-morning snack. If you're wanting your typical noon meal, it's la comida you're looking for... except you'll have to eat it closer to 2 p.m. and it will probably involve multiple courses, which makes it more like the typical evening meal of most English speakers.

Who could say no to such a decadent breakfast?
Since we know just how complicated understanding meal customs in a new place can be, today we're going to provide a quick guide to the many names for meals that are used in the English language, as well as a look into their origins.

Breakfast - As far as we're aware, this is the standard first meal of the day in every English-speaking culture. Its name comes from a combination of the words "break" and "fast". That said, the term is a bit misleading since "fasting" is generally considered to be the act of deliberately refraining from eating. I'm pretty sure if people could figure out a way to eat in their sleep, they would.

Brunch - Linguistically speaking, this is a portmanteau or blend of the terms "breakfast" and "lunch". While the exact characteristics of brunch vary, it generally takes place mid-morning and often features large servings of foods typically associated with breakfast. It's also fun to say.

Lunch - This one is a shortened form of the English word "luncheon", which dates back to the 17th century, if not earlier. In most English-speaking cultures, lunch is a mid-sized meal that takes place around noon.

Dinner - Now things start to get complicated... in general, this term applies to the largest meal of the day, which is usually eaten in the evening. However, dinner originally referred to the mid-day meal, which was the main meal of the day at the time. Over the years, its meaning has largely shifted to refer to the evening meal, but not always. For example, "Sunday dinner", "Christmas dinner" and "Thanksgiving dinner" all refer to large meals that are traditionally eaten in the afternoon in English-speaking countries.

Pizza: the perfect dish for any meal.
Supper - While "supper" and "dinner" are often interchangeable, when someone uses the term "supper", they are definitely referring to an evening meal. It also seems that many Americans have a very strong opinion as to whether you should use "supper" or "dinner" for the evening meal. (My verdict: dinner.)

Tea - Unless you're from the United Kingdom, you might be surprised to learn that "tea" can also be used to refer to the evening meal. This can cause quite a bit of confusion, including for other English speakers. As an American living in northern England, it took me quite a while to figure out whether people were asking me if I wanted a "cup of tea" or a meal!

Finally, if you love slang terms and breakfast foods, then you'll want to know the word brinner, which refers to the act of eating traditional breakfast items like pancakes or waffles for dinner. The term originated in the United States, but it is quickly gaining a following across the globe. I've also recently heard the term dessertitizer (dessert eaten as an appetizer) in an advertisement for an American restaurant chain, but since it seems to have been created as a marketing ploy and is quite a mouthful to say, it seems unlikely to catch on.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Annoying Internet Terms That Shouldn't Be in Spoken Language

I love internet culture and arguably spend most of my time on the internet. It is a truly wonderful thing: at times it's a vibrant, beautiful ecosystem of ideas being exchanged, while at others it's like a dank puddle of murky water. Either way, I love it.

What I don't love about the internet is how some of its language encroaches into spoken language. I'm happy for the language to exist online and consider it almost as its own register. However, when the internet's weird lingo starts entering my ears and not my eyes, that's when I get annoyed. Here are a few of my biggest bugbears (or pet peeves to Americans) when it comes to online language that make me come close to losing my cool.

NASA astronaut Michael Gernhardt embodying "YOLO" in 1995
when dot-coms were just becoming household names.

The term "because" is a bit of a funny one since I have no objection to the common usage of "because". However, the internet has given rise to the construction of "because" plus a noun. For example, "I can talk this way because language". I reckon it's a quick way to make most language purists' blood boil!


Saying something is is just downright stupid. My fury over this stems fully from the fact that saying "dot com" at the end of a word is not only already horrendously dated by about 20 years, it's also the kind of thing that uncool dads say when trying to be cool.


I wish people would stop using the verb "fail" when they are actually referring to a "failure", which is a noun. I also get fairly annoyed at the overuse of "epic" to describe said "fails". It's now used so often it's been demoted to the status of "moderate". This term is also often combined with the next one.


I like Twitter and understand why we have hashtags. In fact, I'm very happy to use them. Placing the "number sign" (#) before a word can help other users find content related to the word they've marked or to indicate the content is part of a particular conversation.

Using the term as a prefix irritates me beyond belief. Unless you're explaining a particular hashtag, saying hashtag is completely redundant.


LOL (an acronym for "laugh out loud") has been making the rounds online since people became too lazy to type out the onomatopaeia for laughter or explain that they found something humorous. As funny as it is when parents think "LOL" stands for "lots of love", there's nothing I find funny about using LOL in speech.

I find it annoying enough when people say "that's so funny" without actually laughing. Imagine how enraged I get when someone says "lol" in speech despite it being abundantly clear that they're not laughing out loud!


I definitely agree that people should live life to the fullest. However, as a lover of Romance languages and Latin, I wish carpe diem was used instead of this acronym for "you only live once".

You can live your life with "YOLO" as a motto. Just please don't say it to me. Leave it on the internet, where it belongs. Thanks!

What internet terms do you wish people wouldn't vocalise? Tell us in the comments below.