Friday, October 30, 2015

English Pronunciation: Beware of Greek Bearing Words

The English language's weak relationship between spelling and pronunciation is fairly well known. In fact, English is highly non-phonemic, which means that graphemes (letters) don't tend to have a direct link to pronunciation (phonemes).

There are multitude of reasons why this relationship is so poor. English vocabulary comes from a multitude of sources. While over half of the language's vocabulary is from Latin and French and around a quarter is from Germanic languages, there's a part of the English lexicon that can cause plenty of problems (especially for non-native speakers) when it comes to pronunciation: the words from Greek.

While Greek words account for only 6% of English vocabulary, the Greek language is the 4th largest contributor to the English language. While there aren't enough Greek terms to make speaking English seem impossible, there are enough to ensure that you can trip up over their pronunciation from time to time.

Unsurprisingly, Greek words, much like the Greek language, are written using the Greek alphabet. When these words made their way into English, the Greek letters had to go and the Latin alphabet ended up being used. When this happened, the Latin letters used didn't always line up directly with the pronunciation you would expect.

A fine example is the Greek letter Χ (chi). This letter tends to make a sound we often associate with the Latin letters C and K. However, in many words of Greek origin, this is written as ch. Words like this include architecture, chaos, chemistry, character, mechanic, and monarch.

The letter Φ (phi) gave us plenty of words that use ph when you would think that the letter F would suffice. This led to words like alphabet, blaspheme, dolphin, emphasis, orphan, philosophy, photo, and physics.

Then there's Ψ (psi), which gives us those words that use ps with a silent P and sound just like S. Examples include the Greek word for spirit and soul (ψυχή - psych), which is found in psychedelic, psychology, and plenty of other psycho words.

Of course, we love the interesting diversity the Greek language brought to English. You just have to be careful about their seemingly weird spelling, at least in comparison to words with more common roots. Just make sure to be careful when you pronounce them!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Why Restaurants Should Never Trust Machine Translation

A few days ago, my family was planning to go out for dinner in celebration of a special occasion. By the end of the day, we were all so exhausted that it sounded like a much nicer idea to just order some Chinese food and relax at home instead. We pulled out our stack of carryout menus and found the one for what is widely considered to be the best Chinese restaurant in town. The restaurant is actually owned and operated by a Chinese family, and the food is great - none of those tasteless, oily noodles you might find elsewhere. However, there was just one problem: the menu.

If you're at least somewhat adventurous when it comes to cuisine, then you've probably encountered a poorly translated menu before, be it at home or in a foreign country while you're on vacation. Sometimes there's just an item or two on the menu that sounds a bit off, like the time I discovered "sawdust" listed as a dessert on a menu in Portugal. Other times, however, the whole menu has clearly been thrown into Google Translate, with a horrible end result.

I'm pretty sure this was one of those times.

I can honestly say that I've never seen such a horribly translated menu before in my life. The issues were seemingly endless, which resulted in lots of confusion as to what we should order, as well as plenty of laughs. Here are some highlights:

A section of the menu in question.
"Ricer & Noodle" and "Beef Lamb": These section headings could easily have been corrected if the menu had been proofread before printing.

"Three Ingredient Potstickers" vs. "Potstickers": I love potstickers. They're one of my favorite items, and I was intrigued by the promise of "three ingredients". However, this translation didn't do the restaurant any favors. It was so ambiguous that I decided not to take the risk, since I didn't want to order potstickers that might be filled with something I don't like, which lost them an additional $4.

"Pine Nuts w. Wheat Gluten & Peppers": I imagine this item doesn't sell very well, given the current popularity of gluten-free diets. Based on its name, I envision chopped pine nuts and bell peppers in some sort of mushy paste, perhaps. Even stranger is the fact that this item is listed in the "Seafood" section...

"Fine Shred Potato w. Spicy Capsicum": If you know a bit of Latin, you can figure out that this vegetarian dish has some kind of hot peppers in it, since Capsicum is the plant genus that contains pepper species, but it still doesn't sound very appetizing.

"Crab Yolk & Bean Curd": Since when do crabs have yolks? Or does this contain crab, egg yolk, and bean curd?

On second thought, I suppose this adorable lamb wouldn't need
a thin wrap to keep warm since it has its own fleece!
"Lamb in Thin Wrap": This item was my personal favorite. It's probably some sort of thin rice wrap with lamb in it, but I imagined an adorable lamb with a thin shawl draped over its back to keep it warm.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. The menu was a bit of a disaster. After spending ages looking it over, laughing, and trying to decide if we were feeling adventurous enough to order various poorly worded items, we finally made our relatively safe selections.

The food was indeed delicious as usual (including the potstickers), but I still felt let down by the menu. I love trying new things, but I also like to know what I'm eating, which is why I ended up ordering beef lo mein as my main dish instead of something new and exciting.

I can't help but think that this restaurant and the thousands of others like it who use Google Translate to translate their menus are missing out on great opportunities, both to earn more money and to expand their customers' culinary horizons. The worst translations on these machine-translated menus generally correspond to the most expensive items, since more complex dishes are harder to translate. It's not hard to find translators nowadays (especially with the help of the internet), and the cost of hiring a professional to translate a menu would be relatively small compared to the profits it could lead to in the future!

So if there are any restaurant owners out there, I beg you, please hire a professional to translate your menu instead of using a machine translation. The next time an adventurous diner visits your restaurant, they'll be much more likely to try your finest items if you're marketing them with well-worded translations.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Tajikistan

In last week's country profile we explored the linguistic diversity of the Alps with our look at Switzerland. Today we're moving on to the languages spoken in and around the Pamir Mountains, which cover much of Tajikistan.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Tajikistan is Tajik, a variety of the Persian language. Also known as Tajiki, this member of the Indo-Iranian language family is spoken by over 6 million Tajikistanis. Tajik primarily differs from the varieties of Persian spoken in Iran and Afghanistan because of its inclusion of loanwords from Russian, Uzbek and Arabic.

Karakul, a lake in the Pamir Mountains.
Other Languages

According to the Ethnologue, Tajikistan is also home to 12 other languages. The most prominent of these languages is Russian, since Tajikistan was formerly part of the Soviet Union. Russian continues to be used in business and government, and was even mentioned in Tajikistan's constitution as an important lingua franca until its removal in 2009. While a significant percentage of Tajikistan's population used to be native Russian speakers, in recent decades many ethnic Russians have left the country, leaving the country with just 40,000 native Russian speakers.

Five of the country's remaining minority languages have names you may recognize: Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Persian, Pashto, and Arabic. Both Uzbek and Kyrgyz are members of the Turkic language family. There are about 900,000 native speakers of Uzbek in Tajikistan, as well as nearly 60,000 Kyrgyz speakers. The country is also home to approximately 50,000 native speakers of the variety of Persian used in Iran, as well as very small numbers of speakers of both Tajiki Arabic and Pashto.

Finally, there are six other languages with less familiar names: Shughni, Wakhi, Yazgulyam, Ishkashimi, Yaghnobi, and Parya. All of these languages belong to the Indo-Iranian language family, and the first four also belong to the closely related group of Pamir languages, which are spoken in the Pamir Mountains. The most spoken of these languages is Shughni, which is the native language of about 40,000 Tajikistanis. Yaghnobi is also used by about 12,000 Tajikistanis in the Yaghnob valley, while Parya is spoken by a few thousand people living along the border between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Celebrating 3 Years and 700 Posts

Since we're celebrating The Lingua File's 700th blog post today, we thought it might be nice to take a look at how far we've come over the past three years.

Our very first post goes all the way back to September 4, 2012. At the time, we were both doing something quite common for university graduates with language degrees... working full-time at jobs in completely unrelated fields which seldom required the use of our foreign language skills. Creating The Lingua File gave us the chance to regularly dedicate some of our time to our love of languages.

We wrote about anything and everything we could think of related to languages, from language profiles to posts on common English grammar mistakes. At the same time, we knew that we didn't want to spend our lives working in industries we weren't passionate about, so we were busy applying to graduate schools in hopes of being able to work on an MA in Translation the following year.

As luck would have it, we were both accepted into the MA in Translation Studies program at Durham University in the United Kingdom, so our linguistic journey continued! While we no longer had the time to write posts every single day, our degree studies did allow us to come up with all kinds of new ideas for posts, including our Intro to Translation Studies series, which many readers seemed to enjoy. We also started working on country profiles in order to learn more about the linguistic diversity of places around the world.

Since graduating earlier this year, we've been hard at work starting what we hope will be successful freelance translation careers, which is why you've been seeing lots more posts focusing on everyday life as a translator. While we're keeping The Lingua File blog the same as ever, we've also launched our own translation website in hopes of finding future clients.

That brings us back to today and our 700th post! Now that you know a bit more of our history, we thought we'd share a few of our most popular posts over the years.

We've always been fascinated by the fact that "Intro to Translation Studies: Vinay and Darbelnet's Translation Procedures" has been our most popular post for quite some time. We're not sure why it's so popular, but we do love that others seem to appreciate Vinay and Darbelnet's translation procedures just as much as we do.

Our posts on linguistics have also been quite popular over the years, especially "Intro to Linguistics: Morphological Typology". "Speech Tempo: What is the World's Fastest Language?", which features a handy infographic, has also been in the top ten for several months.

However, all of our most popular posts aren't related to serious topics. The lighthearted post entitled "What Is The World's Sexiest Accent?" has been in our top five posts since 2012, though perhaps that's just because it features photos of Sean Connery and Colin Firth...

More recently, it has been exciting to see that some of our latest posts related to translation have been garnering lots of interest as we start our freelance translation careers. Most notably, the posts "Why Things Get Lost in Translation" and "Why Translation is a Fascinating Career" have both made it into our top ten most popular posts of all time, despite the fact that they were written in the last few months.

Finally, we want to take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone who has read, shared, liked, and commented on our posts over the past three years! In addition, we'd like to thank you for your support as we start our translation careers - the life of a freelance translator is not always easy, so we greatly appreciate any help you can and have provided, from liking our Facebook page to recommending us to prospective clients. Here's to 700 more posts!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Celtic Languages: From Breton to Welsh

Here at The Lingua File we're fascinated by the interconnected nature of languages, so we've dedicated a handful of posts to the Romance, Germanic, Slavic, and Uralic language families over the past several months. Today we'll be focusing on a much smaller, yet equally fascinating language family: the Celtic languages!

Unlike the much larger language families we've looked at in the past, the Celtic language family only contains six living languages. These six languages are further divided into two branches: the Brythonic languages and the Goidelic languages.

The Brythonic Languages

The three Brythonic languages (also known as the Brittonic languages) all evolved from Common Brittonic, a language spoken throughout Great Britain until the Anglo-Saxon invasion, which eventually led to the widespread use of Old English. Around the 6th century, Common Brittonic split into the dialects that would become the Welsh, Cornish, Breton, and Cumbric languages. However, Cumbric, which was spoken in what is now northern England and southern Scotland, became extinct around the 12th century.

Pointe du Raz in western Brittany, France.
Welsh is the most spoken Celtic language, with over 500,000 native speakers. While the vast majority of Welsh speakers live in Wales, there are also small populations that live in neighboring England as well as the Chubut province of Argentina. Back in 2014, we featured a guest post for St. David's Day that took an in-depth look at the Welsh language, including its fascinating history.

The second most spoken Celtic language is Breton, with just over 200,000 native speakers. Breton is primarily spoken in Brittany, a historical province in northwestern France. While the number of speakers of Breton has declined significantly in recent decades, there have been efforts to save the language from extinction, especially by focusing on teaching it in schools and encouraging people to use it in everyday life. These efforts even led to it being added as a language option on Facebook in 2014.

Cornish, the third Brythonic language, has few, if any, native speakers. After being used for centuries in Cornwall, the southwestern peninsula of Great Britain, it is thought to have become extinct sometime in the late 1800s. Around this time, some linguists became particularly interested finding the last native speaker of Cornish, while others focused on reviving the language. Since the early 1900s, revival efforts have led to the creation of Cornish textbooks, Cornish music, and Cornish films. The language has also been taught in local schools, which is why there are now several hundred people who speak Cornish as a second language.

The Goidelic Languages

Throughout history, the Goidelic languages (also known as the Gaelic languages) have been used in Ireland, western Scotland, and the Isle of Man. The three living members of this branch of the Celtic language family are Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx.

The Calf of Man, a small island off the coast of the Isle of Man.
Irish is the third most spoken Celtic language, with over 250,000 native speakers living in Ireland and Northern Ireland. While Irish was the primary language used throughout the island of Ireland for most of its modern history, its use has steadily declined since the 17th century, when English was introduced. Today it is relatively uncommon as a native language, but has seen increased popularity in recent decades due to revival efforts and increasing public interest.

The second most popular Goidelic language is Scottish Gaelic, which is the native language of over 50,000 people in Scotland. As with Irish, it is relatively uncommon as a native language, but it is occasionally taught in schools. There are also Scottish Gaelic programs on radio and television stations.

Finally, there's Manx, a language spoken on the Isle of Man, which is located between Ireland and Great Britain. Manx was considered extinct with the death of its last native speaker in the 1970s, but there has been a recent revival movement that has led to the existence of a few hundred non-native speakers. It is taught at all of the schools on the island due to its cultural importance.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Switzerland

Over the last few weeks, we've looked into the linguistic diversity of countries like Israel, Honduras, and Azerbaijan, which each have either one or two official languages. However, this week we're taking a look at a little country nestled in the Alps that has an impressive four official languages: Switzerland!

The Official Languages

The four official languages of Switzerland are German, French, Italian, and Romansch. However, they do not all enjoy exactly the same degree of "officialness", since laws and other government documents do not have to be created in Romansch, unlike the other three languages.

Val Trupchun in the Swiss National Park
The most spoken of these four languages is German, which is the native language of over 60% of the Swiss population. Most of these people speak Swiss German, which is not a standard variety of the language but instead a group of dialects used in Switzerland. These dialects often contain loanwords from French and Italian, and occasionally even English. Swiss German also has differences in phonology and grammar that make it so difficult for Standard German speakers to understand that Swiss German speakers are often subtitled on German television.

French is the second most spoken language in Switzerland, and is the native language of about 20% of the Swiss population. It is primarily used in Romandy, a large swath of western Switzerland. Many of these speakers use Swiss French, which is a group of dialects used in Switzerland, just like Swiss German. However, Swiss French is not nearly as different from Standard French as Swiss German is from Standard German. Swiss French only has a few minor lexical differences from Standard French, and French speakers from France and Switzerland can easily understand each other.

Third place goes to Italian, which is used by over 6% of Swiss people. If you've noticed the pattern forming, then you might have guessed that most Italian speakers in Switzerland speak Swiss Italian. It also consists of a group of dialects used in Switzerland, but once again, the differences from Standard Italian are relatively small and come from the use of French and German loanwords. Italian is primarily spoken in southeastern Switzerland.

Last but not least, there's Romansch, also spelled Romansh, which is used by about .5% of the Swiss population. This Romance language is primarily used in bilingual areas of southeastern Switzerland. It has been a national language since 1938 and an official language since 1996. Romansch is used in schools in Romansch-speaking areas, but there are few monolingual speakers of the language today since most people in these areas also learn German.

Other Languages

With all of those official languages vying for attention in Switzerland, there isn't much room for other languages to take hold. However, there are four mentioned by the Ethnologue that we felt were worth mentioning: Lombard, Sinte Romani, Walser, and Arpitan.

Lötschental Valley in Switzerland, where Walser is spoken.
Lombard is a Romance language that is closely related to Italian. However, both Italy and Switzerland consider it to simply be a dialect of Italian. There are about 300,000 native speakers of Lombard in southern Switzerland, as, well as over 3 million in northern Italy.

Sinte Romani, on the other hand, is a variety of the Romani language spoken by about 21,000 people in Switzerland. Due to the linguistic influence of German, it is not mutually intelligible with other Romani languages used around the world.

Switzerland is also home to about 10,000 speakers of Walser, a Germanic language spoken in the Swiss canton of Wallis, which is known as Valais in French. Since it is primarily spoken in isolated areas and has retained many features that are no longer used in Swiss German, it is quite difficult for Swiss German speakers to understand.

Finally, there are about 7,000 native speakers of Arpitan, also known as Franco-Provençal or Romand. This Romance language is used in French-speaking areas of Switzerland, as well as small parts of France and Italy.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Pitfalls of Using Translation Apps When Learning a Language

When you're learning a foreign language, it can be frustrating when you want to say something but lack the skills to do so. This is especially true at the very beginning when your language skills are rudimentary.

When you first start learning a foreign language, you're effectively a baby with a limited vocabulary and a limited number of verb tenses at your disposal. You're probably going to want to cry in the same way babies cry when they want food but can't ask for it! However, one of the worst things I think you can do is turn to machine translation to solve your problem...


...just like these irritating adverts for the Apple Watch, where two tourists visit Berlin and use their watch to ask a local for advice on where to eat. I don't mind that they used their app for this, but I don't like the way they just thrust their watch in some guy's face. Therein lies the problem. That's all the app's good for. You can thrust it in somebody's face and get an answer, but you won't understand their reply.

Machine translating what you want to say because you haven't learnt a particular tense yet is asking for trouble. You'll never understand the response, and because you don't understand the construction used, you'll learn little more than how to say that phrase again. That's if the app got it right in the first place.

You don't have to embark on your language journey alone, just
don't take a "translation" app along as a travelling buddy.
Then you have the problem of translating word for word. Word-for-word translation is rarely, if ever, useful. That's because languages have their own ways of saying things, their own syntax, and their own grammar. It's very likely that any machine translation of a sentence more complicated than an everyday expression will be nothing but complete and utter rubbish.

What you should be doing is learning to walk before you can run. You have to just deal with the fact that you can't say everything and rejoice in the fact that you can say something. Learn to rephrase things! More often than not, there are plenty of ways to express an idea, and getting your message across and being understood is one of the joys of speaking languages. It may not be the exact way you wanted to say it, but at least you said it yourself.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Thoughts on Tangs: Why Word Choice Matters

Lately, I've been thinking about word choice a lot. It's only natural that I would think about word choice while I'm working, since one of the hardest parts of translation is deciding which words in your native language best express the ideas in the original text. However, this tendency to focus on individual words has also crept into my enjoyment of books in recent days.

A couple of days ago, I started reading a new novel that I'd heard about on the radio. After reading only a few pages of the prologue, I reached the words "the curved tangs of the scissors" and stopped. The tangs of the scissors? It was obvious from context what the writer was referring to, but the use of the word tangs distracted me. Despite the fact that I knew what the writer meant, I still stopped to look the word up in the dictionary since language fascinates me.

Clearly this little guy finds the use of tangs surpising too!
While I had guessed the definition of tangs correctly, I did find it curious that the writer had chosen such a word, and even went so far as to wonder whether the editor, or anyone else in the publishing process, might have ever stopped to consider that the use of the word could be distracting. However, I did also realize that I spend all day analyzing words, so perhaps it was just my mind focusing more on the words than on the story itself.

When I did eventually get back to reading, I got a few more pages into the book before reaching the point where a character "laved every inch of her skin". Again, the definition of laved was obvious from the context, but after the whole tangs conundrum, my mind wandered again. Why wouldn't they just say that the character "washed" or even "lathered" their skin? It certainly does sound more literary to say laved, perhaps due to the Latin roots it shares with the Spanish verb lavar and the French verb laver, both meaning "to wash", but it also pulled me out of the story.

I imagine that most other readers of this book probably won't stop to ponder the use of words like tangs, lave, and dehisces, the third unfamiliar word I came across while reading that night. However, my experience with this book does show that word choice is very important, and can influence how a reader understands, enjoys, and even feels about a story.

I'm still reading the book, and the story itself is fascinating, but sometimes I do still stop to wonder why the writer chose certain words. Did they choose these words to "elevate" their writing, or to show off their huge vocabulary, or do they simply love to use unusual words in their writing? I'm certainly not annoyed about their use of uncommon words; in fact, I find it quite fascinating. However, my experience reading this novel has been irreversibly changed, for better or worse, by the fact that I have been repeatedly distracted by word choice.

Have you recently read something that made you wonder about the writer's reasoning for their word choice? Let us know about it in the comments below.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Israel

Over the past few weeks we've looked at the linguistic diversity of countries such as Honduras, Azerbaijan, and Sweden. Today we're shifting our focus to Israel, which features an impressive number of languages due to the fact that it is home to thousands of immigrants from all over the world.

The Official Languages

An impressive 6th century mosaic depicting
zodiac signs at the Beth Alpha synagogue in Israel.
Israel is home to not one, but two official languages: Hebrew and Arabic. Both languages belong to the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Hebrew is the primary language used by the Israeli government and throughout society as a whole. It is the main language of instruction in most schools and universities, and is also a required subject in schools where Arabic is the main language.

While it used to be rare to see the Arabic language used in various aspects of daily life Israel, it has been used more frequently in recent years, especially with the required translation of things such as government documents and road signs. Unsurprisingly, the political and cultural turmoil within Israel makes linguistic issues particularly complicated, which is why the use of Arabic is sometimes a touchy subject.

English is also an important language in Israeli society since the area was under British rule until its independence in 1948. For some time afterwards it remained a de facto official language, which helps explain why it is so often used in the country today. Most Israelis speak at least some English, and it is often learned in schools as a second language. It is also frequently seen on road signs and in television programs.

Minority Languages

Since Israel is home to so many immigrants from all over the world, it should come as no surprise that it is home to numerous minority languages. However, you might be surprised to learn that the most widely spoken non-official language in the country is Russian, which is spoken by about 750,000 people. Most of these Russian speakers are Jews who have immigrated to the country from various parts of the former USSR since the 1970s.

Two other prominent minority languages are Ladino and Yiddish. Ladino is a Romance language derived from Old Spanish that has historically been used by Sephardic Jews. Yiddish, on the other hand, is the historical language of Ashkenazi Jews, and is a Germanic language. There are over 200,000 Yiddish speakers in Israel, as well as about 100,000 native speakers of Ladino.

An illustration of a hoopoe, the national bird of Israel.
Other significant minority languages include Romanian, Polish, Hungarian, and Amharic. There are about 250,000 Romanian speakers, 100,000 Polish speakers, and 70,000 Hungarian speakers in Israel. Amharic, primarily used by Ethiopian Jews, is also spoken by around 40,000 Israelis.

There are three other minority languages in Israel with over 50,000 native speakers: Judeo-Tat, Judeo-Georgian, and Bukharic. You might recognize Judeo-Tat, the language of the Caucasus Jews, from our post on the languages of Azerbaijan a few weeks ago. It is spoken by about 70,000 Israelis, while Judeo-Georgian, a variety of the Georgian language used by Georgian Jews, has around 60,000 native speakers. Then there's Bukharic, a variety of Persian used by Bukharan Jews from Central Asia, which has approximately 50,000 native speakers.

According to the Ethnologue, there are 35 languages used in Israel, so we don't have time to mention them all. However, we didn't want to leave out the interestingly named Hulaulá language. Hulaulá is spoken by about 10,000 Israelis, and is an Aramaic language that was originally used in Iran.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Why English Can Feel Like a Lawless Language

While we love all languages, English tends to get more of the spotlight at The Lingua File than other languages since it's our mother tongue. As our mother tongue, we didn't learn it in the same way as we did our second languages, so we have a vastly different understanding of it.

The first major difference we tend to find between English and our other languages is that, despite using English more fluently and with greater ease, we tend to understand significantly less about why we say certain things the way we do, having never studied them in the same depth as the rules we had to learn during foreign language tuition.

An American cowboy in Dakota Territory in the 1880s.
This means that when we speak English with non-native speakers, we are often asked questions about the language that we have never really considered or thought about. Proper grammar is drilled into us at a young age, so the weird nuances of English just become second nature to us.

Take time prepositions for example. We say in the morning, in the afternoon, and in the evening. However, we say at night. Sure, in the night exists, but we would rarely say it. We just know that "night" is used differently. I'm sure these exceptions are incredibly frustrating for those who are learning the language.

When you consider prepositions in general, the same type of exceptions that irk learners concerning time prepositions also occur with other prepositions, and can result in a lot of frustration when learners have to tackle them.

And what about pronunciation? For users of languages with a phonemic orthography (a language whose written symbols correspond directly to a given sound), English must be incredibly annoying. Why does the "u" sound different in unite and untie? They look almost identical to one another...

Don't forget phrasal verbs, too! They are so annoying for those learning English as a second language that we even dedicated an entire post to it!

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.