Friday, March 28, 2014

Online Language Learning Resources: BBC Languages

As part of a new series here on The Lingua File, we'll be looking at the some of the language learning resources available on the web with a view to providing you with an unbiased and fair opinion of the best websites and places to learn a new language. To start things off we'll take a look at the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and their language learning resource

On a personal note, we've used the BBC's languages service to learn languages before, German and Italian in particular. While the beginner classes may be too simple for a seasoned language learner, if you are trying to learn a language for fun with no strict goal in mind, BBC languages may be best suited to you.

A large number of languages are offered, however the amount of resources for each language can vary wildly. Whilst the most common languages have a wealth of resources, a large number of the 40-odd languages offered by the "Beeb" have nothing more than a few words and phrases to get you by if you're going on a trip to somewhere that speaks the language.

The BBC Languages homepage,
complete with disappointing message.
Another disappointing fact about BBC Languages is that it hasn't been updated for a while. One of the first things you'll meet when visiting the site is a huge off-putting message stipulating that the site hasn't been updated in a while but it has been left by the BBC for reference. If you want to start learning one of the languages with a multitude of resources, then you should be fine, but don't start on one of the languages with fewer resources unless you've already got another preferred resource to swap over to once you're finished with BBC Languages.

One of the main advantages of BBC Languages over other language learning resources is that it's free. On top of being free, it is also ad free, which while not an indicator of whether a language resource is good or not, it is something we don't like popping up all over the place, though we do understand that a lot of other language websites aren't funded by UK residents paying their TV license.

Despite its flaws, for the languages with a large number of courses, BBC Languages is certainly a good resource for learning a language casually, perhaps during a lunch or coffee break. We'd give it a 7/10. Good, but not great.

Do you know of any better language learning resources? Tell us about them in the comments below!

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Brief History of the French Language

As yesterday was International Francophonie Day and UN French Language Day, we thought we'd take a look at the history of the French speaking world. While we covered the French language in its own language profile way back in 2012, we barely touched upon the history of a language that is often considered to be the most beautiful in the world and the "language of love".

Prior to the arrival of the Romans in what we know now as France, a Celtic language known as Gaulish was spoken by the Gauls, Celtic ancestors of the French. The Gauls are popular in France as a symbol of French national identity, especially in the popular comic Asterix, known in full in France as Astérix le Gaulois, referring directly to his Gaulish heritage.

Despite the plucky nature of the Gauls as shown in Asterix, they were indeed conquered by the Romans, along with the Belgae, the Iberians, and the Ligures. As they did everywhere they conquered, the Romans brought the Latin language with them. The arrival of Latin in Gaul marked a massive linguistic change in what we now know as France.

Like the other Romance languages, French is derived from Vulgar Latin, as opposed to Classical Latin. Vulgar Latin is a generic term for the sociolect of Latin that was spoken across the length and breadth of the Roman Empire.

France, the home of Modern French, as seen from space.
The arrival of the Franks, a Germanic tribe, in the 3rd century had a profound effect on what would later become Modern French. Add to that the Alemanni, Burgundians, and Visigoths, who arrived alongside the Franks drastically changing the vowel system and syntax of the language as it was spoken then.

Another important point of the history of the French language was the unification of Normandy and the Kingdom of France in the 13th century. This led to the addition of many words of Scandinavian origin to the lexicon of Old French via the Norman language.

Middle French was adopted by the Kingdom of France as the official language, replacing Latin and other regional languages including the Occitan and Oïl languages. By the 17th century, French literature was paving the way for French prescriptivism, establishing what is now known as Classical French and evolving into Modern French.

It was Modern French that would become a lasting legacy of French colonialism. While we won't go into the vast and complicated history of French colonialism, it's safe to say that it is the reason why French is spoken in so many countries around the world, particularly across Africa.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Hepburn Romanization: Transcribing Japanese for the West

As tomorrow is the birthday of James Curtis Hepburn, we thought we'd take a look at perhaps his biggest contribution to languages, Hepburn Romanization. However, first we'll tell you about the man himself.

Born in 1815 in Milton, Pennsylvania, Hepburn studied at Princeton, then earned his M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to Princeton to earn his Master's degree. He initially went to China as a medical missionary in 1840 and from 1843 to 1845 he worked on Amoy Island, again as a medical missionary until his wife's poor health forced his return to the US.

It wasn't until 1859 that Hepburn and his wife went to Kanagawa, Japan, where he would start studying the Japanese language. His research led to his focus on creating a Japanese-English dictionary, which he would complete in 1887.

The Japanese language is written using a variety of writing systems. Kanji is a system of logographic characters borrowed from the Chinese writing system, while the Hiragana and Katakana writing systems are syllabic.

Hepburn's most widely recognised work is his system for representing the Japanese language using the Latin alphabet. As you may know, despite many languages using the Latin alphabet, not every character in every language is pronounced the same. In fact, in many languages, not every character in the Latin alphabet has a single used phoneme. As Hepburn was American, it is understandable that Hepburn Romanization is based on English phonology.

While Hepburn Romanization helps English speakers pronounce words in the Japanese language, a competing system, Nihon-Shiki Romanization, was devised by Japanese physicist Aikitu Tanakadate. It was created with the goal of completely replacing the traditional Japanese writing systems and allowing Japan to compete with the West. If you have learned any Japanese recently, you will be aware that this did not happen.

Nihon-Shiki Romanization would be developed into Kunrei-Shiki Romanization and adopted by the Japanese government in 1937. However, Hepburn's original system is still commonly used today for a variety of applications and its use is permitted alongside Kunrei-Shiki Romanization by several Japanese governmental bodies. Many students learning Japanese as a foreign language still learn a modern variant of Hepburn's original system.

Are you learning Japanese? Have you used Hepburn Romanization in your studies or elsewhere? If so, tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ukraine Crisis: Is Russia Right to Defend Russian Speakers in Crimea?

The Russian military occupation of Crimea has sparked an
international crisis. US president Obama reportedly spent
90 minutes speaking with Putin.
Following the Russian military "manoeuvres" in Ukraine, many questions were asked of Russia's president, Vladamir Putin. Putin has given several answers but the one that struck us as perhaps the oddest justification for the Russian military's presence in Ukraine was that Russia had an obligation to defend Russian speakers.

Can a country, a political entity, stake claim to a language? Whilst we are trying to be diplomatic and fair, it certainly doesn't appear to be something that a country can claim to defend. We don't feel that every Russian speaker is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation.

Though somewhat of a weak argument, the recent actions of the Russian government, who permitted Putin to occupy Crimea, could have been said to have been in the best interests of the Crimean people. The Russian Federation could be acting in the interest of the Russian ethnic majority, but not in the interest of the speakers of language. A similar reason was given when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, which also was diplomatically avoided by the West.

The majority of people in Ukraine are ethnic Russians and
speakers of the Russian language.
If defending speakers of the Russian language is within the remit of the Russian Federation, then the task of defending speakers of the English language would fall to the US. France would have every right to re-occupy large areas of northern Africa and Québec and Mexico would have a clear claim to political dominance over Spanish speakers, at least when it comes to a "might makes right" mentality.

Though none of the aforementioned countries (or any country in the world) has a spotless record when it comes to foreign policy and military action, we can't remember any time in recent history when they've claimed to defend their mother tongues.

How do you feel about the recent events in Ukraine? Does Russia have the right to defend Russian speakers and ethnic Russians? Tell us in the comments below. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Languages in the News: February 2014

As we enter March we're looking back at some of the language news stories that were hitting the headlines in February, and the very end of January. While most headlines were dominated by news of the Sochi Winter Olympics, the month ended with the Washington Post covering an interesting story from the US claiming that a legislator in New Mexico wanted to count programming as a foreign language skill.

The Week ended the month with the story of how Netflix managed to alienate its deaf customers, through a variety of bad subtitling practice.

Is French important? The countries that make up this flag
would say so.
One of the most controversial series of language stories stemmed from a piece in The New York Times stating that the French government is a big advocate of French language programmes in New York. This led to an article in New Republic telling us to stop pretending that French is an important language, claiming that Spanish and Chinese are more important languages for New Yorkers to learn. While this may be true, it divided opinions due to its dismissive nature of French as an important language, rather than simply stating that the other two languages are more important.

Business Insider provided a rebuttal by giving us 7 reasons you should teach your children French, showing us that French isn't as unimportant as the New Republic article would have us believe.

The Guardian gave us an interesting article on untranslatable words, and though none of the words were technically untranslatable, the article was more focused on difficult to translate words. Elsewhere in The Guardian there were concerns at the drop in language students in UK universities, an ongoing problem that doesn't seem to show any signs of being rectified under the current government, but we'll leave politics for a politics blog.

The BBC asked the question whether English still borrows words at the start of the month and in mid-February was decoding the signs left my construction workers on pavements.

The Register explained an interesting issue surrounding Google Translate. It just so happens Google Translate is terrible because Google Translate is terrible. This is due to people using the machine translation for websites and other documents then publishing them online. This leads to Google using these translated documents as sources to train the programme, meaning that Google accepts these poor translations as real translations and effectively makes itself dumber.

The island of Ireland, the home of Irish.

The Economist explained the difference between a dialect and a language, after Hong Kong claimed Cantonese was not an official language but rather a dialect of Mandarin.

The Oxford Dictionaries Blog gave us the lexicon to understand freestyle skiing at the Sochi games and Buzzfeed, in a surprise turn, gave us a list, albeit a list of 21 Victorian slang words that we should be using.

The Smithsonian showed us that "huh?" is an almost universal utterance and a fascinating piece by Ben Faccini in Aeon explained why he wanted his children to be bilingual.

The Guardian was back at the end of the month and asked whether musicians are better language learners.

Aside from these news stories, we also discovered James Chapman's Tumblr, which includes many lovely drawing of onomatopoeia in various languages.

That's all the news we had for February, but if there are any we missed that you feel deserve a mention, tell us about them in the comments below.